Before my trip to Europe, I had questions about everything. How am I going to get around? How do I pay for things? How can I call people? How do I get a SIM card? Do I need a SIM card?
I am here to provide you with the answers to those questions. My next “Everything You Need to Know” will be about different aspects of traveling Europe; stay tuned.
Communicating with back home, SIM cards, and data plans.
Communicating: The app I recommend most is WhatsApp. You can only communicate with people who also have the app, but my parents and friends downloaded it. I also used Facebook Messenger. A lot of people in Europe already had WhatsApp and used it as their primary mode of communication which made things a lot easier!
Where can I buy a SIM card?
You can buy a SIM card in any country. Now, last year (2017) they made it so you can roam freely in any country in the EU, so technically you only have to buy one SIM card if you stay in the EU. I bought my first SIM in Ireland but because of some obstacles I ended up buying new SIMs in most countries that I went to; I don’t think there was anything wrong with this method.
How does a SIM card work? Will they set it up for me?
You’re basically just buying a new data plan. You can walk into any phone/cell service store and they will set it up for you and tell you how to reload it if you desire. Generally the set up is calling a phone number and confirming a few things before it’s completely activated; you will usually leave the store with cell service. Sometimes, they make you want an hour with your phone on airplane mode before you can turn your data on. It goes month by month in terms of payment.
What happens when the data runs out?
The provider usually texts you when you’re almost out of data. You can recharge it, or if it’s easier to buy a new SIM if you’re in a different country, do that. I ended up buying new SIM cards in a lot of countries because the instructions were never in English and I couldn’t figure out how to reload it.
How much do data plans cost in Europe? What kind of plans can you get?
It really depends on the country. I didn’t need the ability to call or text, so I only bought data plans.
In Ireland, I paid 20 euro for unlimited data for a month.
In Portugal, I paid 9 euro for 500MB of data + free access to Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc.
In Spain, I paid 25 euro for 2GB of data.
In Italy, I paid 30 euro for 20GB of data. It really depends but overall you won’t be spending more than you already pay in the states for your current plan.
Oddly, Czech Republic was a bit on the pricier side at closer to $50 for 10GB. This was toward the end of my trip, so I said whatever and it lasted me until the very end. If you find a good plan and can manage to purchase a few months, do it.
Can’t I just use my data plan from the states?
Sure, but it’s going to cost you. My Verizon data plan overseas in Europe was $10 PER DAY! It’s great to have on hand for emergencies, for sure, but buying a local plan is a lot more fiscally responsible.
Other things to know:
Most phones are automatically “unlocked” nowadays. I have an iPhone 7 and anything that’s a 6 or newer is automatically unlocked. Google what kind of phone you have and if it’s locked, you have to call your provider and have them unlock it.
Transportation, Uber, and More.
How do you get from place to place? What’s the cheapest? What’s the easiest?
Everyone dreams about traveling Europe with a Eurail pass. It seems easy; while it potentially is, it’s also super expensive in a lot of countries to travel strictly by train. There are a lot of different “plans” you can buy with Eurail, but as an American, it’s a lot more expensive. I spent about $90 for one train ride in Spain; I went from Sevilla to Madrid within a few hours. I could have flown for less than $25 but I didn’t book in time.
Busses are going to be your cheapest option. To compare prices of bus, train, plane, taxi, use Rome2Rio.com
Rome2Rio is an awesome website; it shows the estimated cost for train, plane, bus, taxi, ride share, etc. This is the best way to find out the local bus companies and the possible routes you can take. I’m sure there are other similar websites, but Rome2Rio was a godsend to me while I traveled.
Trains are fast but can be expensive, and it’s important to read the fine print. Some trains require a reservation while others do not.
Planes aren’t that bad if you have to go a long distance. You can get really cheap flights all over Europe with RyanAir, EasyJet, etc. I just use skyscanner.com to find the cheapest. Just remember, you don’t get complimentary drinks or amenities on budget airlines. You might be paying more than the price of the ticket itself just to check your bag. If you only have one bag that’s carry-on size, you’re probably safe. On RyanAir, you can buy priority boarding for a few extra euro. DO IT especially if you know you’re going to be in a rush or if you want to make sure your bag gets on the plane.
Ride Shares are awesome. I downloaded “Bla Bla Car” and used it a lot more than I thought I would. Language barriers were a little challenging, but it was a really easy way to hitch a ride with someone at a low cost.
My first Bla Bla Car was Madrid to Barcelona; I was with a 17 year old girl and 4 of her friends who were going on holiday. Not the worst car ride, but only one of them spoke English.
I also used Bla Bla in France and Italy. They were much cheaper options than taking a train and I prefer riding in a car to a bus.
Car Rentals exist. You can rent a car – the younger you are, the more expensive it will be. Look into where you’re planning on traveling and see if they require an international license. I personally didn’t rent a car because it would have been pretty expensive and I hate driving! Make sure you know how to drive a manual!
Is there Uber?
Yep – not everywhere, but it does exist in some places! You can look online and see where it’s offered. Some cities can be more expensive than others, but it’s the convenience you’re paying for.
Currency, Debit Card/Credit Cards
Exchanging Currency/Local Currency
I personally never went to any currency exchange places. I usually took out what I needed and spent it all. The worst place to do currency exchange (cost wise) are in airports, train stations, bus stations, etc. I remember being warned about going to Prague and getting conned into fake foreign exchange places.
Most countries in Europe use the euro, but some do not. England, Croatia, Switzerland, Denmark, Czech, to name a few, are on their own currencies. Exchange rates are not hard to figure out. Download an exchange rate app on your phone. Croatia, Albania, and Czech will sometimes accept Euro, but it usually ends up being more expensive than if you were paying in their currency.
Should I bring my debit card/credit card?
Yes, and yes. Bring them but don’t carry them out with you when you’re just wandering around. There’s no need to bring them, especially your debit card, anywhere unless you’re traveling from place to place. Credit cards can be canceled and charges can be refunded, but debit cards are linked to your money. Just remember: your debit/credit cards will not work if they don’t have a chip!
Isn’t it expensive to use your debit/credit card overseas?
Sure, it can be. Some banks and credit unions don’t have international fees or will reimburse you – check with your bank. I opened a checking account with Charles Schwab and it was a great decision; $0 foreign transaction fees and reimbursement on any ATM fees. In other words, it didn’t cost money for me to withdraw/spend my money.
You can get travel credit cards that have no foreign transaction fees. Right now, I have an American Express Delta Sky Miles Gold credit card; it has no foreign transaction fees, but the annual fee is $95. I think it evens out because I’ve accrued a lot of miles.
Are there ATMs? Are they in English? How much should I take out?
Yes, there are ATMs. I don’t recommend using one that’s in a weird area; the ones directly connected to banks are your best bet during business hours. Honestly, I always went with one that was connected to a bank because there are some ATMs that are notorious for taking your debit card and not giving them back. I know this happened to a few people I met, but thankfully it never happened to me!
Just like the ones in the states, ATMs have an option for language preferences.
How much you take out is dependent on where you’re staying and for how long. I used cash for everything rather than carrying around my debit card. I’d take out a few hundred euro, keep some back at my hostel (locked away) and bring some with me when I went out.
Have any other questions? Leave a comment!