As a single woman in my 60s who recently travelled through six countries, mostly on my own, I took some upfront measures that made my trip one of the best in recent years.
This is my list of 15 of the best travel tips I believe will help other women our age, based on my experience. planning a European trip, as well.
Here’s why they are important: mishaps can ruin that trip to Europe you’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Not having the right ID, phone battery dying just as you’re about to take that once-on-a-lifetime picture of the Eiffel Tower, missing your cruise because of an unexpected train stop… But all can be avoided by preparing well in advance. These tips can help ensure your trip is everything you hope it will be.
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1. Your phone can be your wallet
Many European stores don’t even accept cash these days. Set up your phone’s wallet to make payments with a major credit card that has no foreign transaction fees. Try it out before you leave. (My friend had her only card rejected since it was from a regional credit union.) At the very most, withdraw $25 from an ATM for street vendors or tips.
2. Bring your driver’s license
Even if you don’t plan to drive, you will need to show a government ID for some age-related discounts and it’s also good to have if you run into problems. A license is much more compact and easier to replace. I forgot mine and was nervous carrying my passport around all day.
3. Take the bus/train/subway
Without a doubt, public transportation is the best way to get around European cities, which can often make a New York traffic jam look like a speedway. It often takes less time, and is less expensive, to take the city’s subway equivalent than spending 30 minutes and countless euros to go three blocks by taxi or Uber. I travelled with a 35-pound rolling suitcase and had no problem bringing it on trains and buses. This is where Google Maps is handy. Just enter your location and destination and select the public transport option. You can even see what time your bus or tram will arrive and if it’s crowded. Many airports have public express buses that drop you in the center of town.
4. Set up ride-share apps when you have wi-fi
Every so often, I took a car when I arrived in a city and my hotel wasn’t easy to get to. Uber is available in much of Europe, as are many other ride-share apps that are popular in different countries and cities. FREENOW operates in eight countries and 150 cities. Bolt, another popular ride share service, operates in more than 300 cities in Europe (and a total of 500+ cities worldwide). Download the apps and have your account ready to go with a working credit card even if you don’t think you’ll use it.
Case in point. My train from London was stopped a half hour from my cruise port in Southampton because of a death on the tracks. I was able to get an Uber because I had the app on my phone. Fellow passengers on the train, an American couple, were stuck because they couldn’t get a connection to download the app in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t squeeze them in my car because most Ubers in England are Priuses with little room for luggage. I’m pretty sure they missed our cruise to Norway.
Also keep in mind that ride-shares are not as reliable in Europe. After you book your car, check to see if the driver is moving. Often, the driver wants you to cancel if it’s a short ride. Bolt has a chat function that automatically translates your text. Use it to ask the driver if he’s coming now. Cancel immediately if they don’t respond. This unreliability is why public transport is typically best. Or take an old-school taxi. The important thing is to have options.
5. Keep your phone safe and charged
As much as you rely on your mobile at home, you will use it even more in Europe and it won’t be plugged into your car’s charger all day. A few basic steps will keep your it alive when you need it:
- Use the low battery mode setting as soon as you unplug it from the charger. Even though I did that every day, I always needed to boost it with a portable charger. And of course, you’ll need a good universal travel adapter that you can plug all your devices into. Europe has many different types of outlets so don’t try to just bring just one EU adapter.
- Use Wi-Fi instead of cellular data whenever possible. Depending on your provider, cellular data can be slow or nonexistent.
- Decide how to best protect your mobile while maintaining easy access. This crossbody wallet case worked well for me. Putting your mobile in your back pocket is an invitation to pickpockets.
- Have a back-up plan if your mobile is lost or stolen. Be sure you’re saving your data to the cloud and can quickly replace your phone.
6. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Bring a water bottle and carry it with you every day. Water fountains are scarce throughout Europe, but you can refill your bottle at restroom water faucets. Restaurants in many countries won’t serve tap water for free, so plan on paying $3-$4 for a small bottled water. (Or pay an extra dollar and order a homemade lemonade, which is typically sparkling water sweetened with fresh fruit.)
7. Learn a few words of the local language.
Download a new language in Google Translate before you visit a new country. It’s invaluable not just for asking questions, but the camera function lets you read signs and grocery labels. And it’s always a good idea to learn how to say “Good day/hello, thank you, and please” in whatever country you’re visiting.
8. Download data (e.g. Google Maps) before you need it.
Cellular coverage can be spotty in many places, and you might not have Wi-Fi access when you step off a train or bus. So, it’s important to download data for Google Maps and other apps before you get to a new place.
9. Take advantage of discounts for seniors
If you’re over 60, most of Europe offers senior discounts for public transportation, museums and other sites. Prague provides free public transportation for everyone over 65—just carry your driver’s license with you. In Warsaw, transportation is free for those aged 70 and up, and if you’re over 65, $12.50 will get you a senior card good for a year of free travel (without it, you would spend more on fares in just a few days.) Scotland has a senior rail card that cuts fares by one-third. Check for senior passes and discounts by country and city and bring a few passport photos in case you need them for an identity card.
Most major cities have lots of free activities and be sure to google “free museums.” For example, every major museum in Warsaw, Poland has one free day a week. Sites will be more crowded on free days, but that’s not always a bad thing. I had a great 90-minute conversation with a Polish artist while waiting in line at a Frida Kahlo exhibit.
10. Avoid southern Europe from May through September
Yes, this is a lot to ask, but it’s probably the biggest mistake travelers made this year considering the heat wave and post-pandemic crowds. Most of northern Europe is quite comfortable throughout the summer and there’s plenty to see, with fewer tourists. Swap Krakow for Rome or Edinburgh for Athens. I didn’t make this mistake and enjoyed highs in the sixties in Scotland, Norway and the Netherlands during June. In July, temperatures in Poland and the Czech Republic rarely got above the low eighties.
11. Air conditioning is a luxury
It’s not a given in Europe, especially if you’re staying in older properties. Search on “air conditioning” under amenities. Booking.com is a helpful site because it combines hotel rooms with apartments, which may be more likely to have AC. I used it to land great air-conditioned hotels and apartments throughout Poland for less than $80 a night.
12. Don’t rely on air conditioning anywhere else either.
Don’t assume the restaurants, stores and public buildings you visit during the day will be comfortable. In many museums, I considered myself lucky to be hovering next to the occasional fan. However, movie theaters usually have AC, so look for an English-language film with subtitles. Most shops aren’t cooled unless they’re in a mall. When at all possible, look for places located on the ground floor or below ground.
Mostly though, you’re going to have to find outdoor, shady spots. When it hit 90 in Prague, I spent most of an afternoon at an outdoor pub with water misters.
13. Need sleep? Prepare for 4 a.m. sunrise
If you go to northern Europe in the summer, the sun comes up early. Bring a high-quality sleeping mask and a few clothespins to keep light from peeking through your curtains, which may not be the blackout kind. (On the plus side, you’ll have long days to enjoy.)
14. Don’t worry about your safety so much.
The whole time I was travelling, U.S. friends kept telling me to stay safe, which I found annoying. Serious crime is so much lower in Europe than the United States that statistically you are much safer as long as you take reasonable care (pickpockets target tourists everywhere). I rode subways and buses and went to events at night, surrounded by lots of other women over 60. The only thing that’s more dangerous in Europe is avoiding cyclists. Sidewalks are often split into pedestrian and bike zones, so you need to be careful you’re not in the wrong one. An nd keep an eye on your bag.
15. Embrace new experiences
Aren’t you travelling in Europe to experience things differently? For me, riding trams and buses with the locals is infinitively more interesting that sitting in the back seat of an Uber or renting a car. Getting lost can be frustrating, but it often leads to new friends and adventures. If you do a little prep ahead of time, you’ll enjoy rolling with the punches on your European holiday.
Karen Frankola is a regular contributor to Blue Hare. She’s a communications consultant who prefers to write on a train while heading somewhere she’s never been. She has traveled to more than 30 countries (so far).
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