By Michelle Doucette
A trip to Europe this summer promises many rewards: glimpses of Olympic gold, bargains from a weakened Euro, and all the perennial pleasures of European culture (art, ruins, food, wine, the list goes on). So here are some strategies for making sure those perfect moments don't hit any snags.
Bring Extra Cash
Minimize money stress by padding your pockets with extra cash—especially if you're headed to Greece, which could be on the brink of leaving the euro zone. (Spain and Portugal also apply, though less urgently.) Plan to bring extra euros as a precaution; should Greece return to the drachma currency during your trip, you won't have to rely on potentially frozen electronic banking. (And euros would still be accepted during the changeover.)
Elsewhere, much of Europe has fully transitioned to "chip-and PIN" credit cards, meaning your U.S. card may not work at automated kiosks that require a credit-card PIN. Arriving with plenty of local currency can save you from getting stranded at an unmanned train station or tollbooth where your plastic won't work.
Outsmart Inevitable Crowds
London isn't the only destination filling up with Olympics visitors; nearby cities like Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam are also seeing an influx of arrivals this summer. (These cities have increased rail service to London from late July through August.) Leading up to the Olympics, the European Football Championship—also held every four years—is bringing fans to Poland and Ukraine. But don't let a few (million) extra people deter you from enjoying Europe's capitals—reserve advance tickets to attractions when possible and allot extra time for getting around.
Arrive (Very) Early for Flights
More than ever, navigating check-in and security at Europe's airports can take longer than you think, thanks to both summer crowds and new U.S. security measures involving multiple levels of screening. Some European airlines recommend arriving up to three-and-a-half hours before your international flight—and some check-in counters close 90 minutes prior to departure. Check your airline's website for specific guidelines.
Insider Tip: Be extra sure to watch the clock in Berlin; the opening of the new Brandenburg Airport was delayed from this summer to 2013, forcing its flights to be re-routed back to the city's two existing (and already overburdened) airports.
Ride the Private Rails
Since 2010, the deregulation of Europe's railways has introduced a number of private train companies that are often more luxurious than their state-run competitors. This summer, the Italian operator NTV—headed by the chairman of Ferrari—introduced Europe's first high-speed private rail service. (Its trains are very fast and very red.) Also try Thello, which runs in France and Italy, and Thalys, which has destinations in five countries and brand-new service to Brussels Airport. A bonus of riding the private rails is enjoying access to their upscale lounges at most stations.
Make your Smartphone Euro-Friendly
There's a wealth of worthy travel apps to supplement your guidebooks—check out Fodor's mobile apps, plus Hotel Tonight (for last-minute hotel stays, just launched in London), XE Currency (for quick conversions), and Spotted by Locals (for locals' recommendations)—but first prep your phone to avoid roaming charges on data or calls. Your best option for a longer trip: call your wireless carrier and ask about temporarily changing to a global plan or unlocking your phone so you can purchase a local SIM card at your destination (which will provide pre-paid calls, texts, and data, but from a local number). For a shorter trip, simply disable data roaming in your phone's settings and access apps, Skype calls, and emails from free Wi-Fi zones only.
Pack for a Heat Wave
On the heels of March's record high temperatures in Northern Europe, meteorologists are predicting above-average summer temperatures across Southern and Eastern Europe. The good news: barometers aren't likely to reach the record highs of 2003 or 2010. Still, less is more if you're packing for anywhere from Athens to Moscow—but before you even think about a Speedo, let us point you to what (not) to wear in Europe for women and men.
Watch for Strike Notifications
Between political unrest in the euro zone and a pre-existing penchant for protests, Europe has seen a steady pattern of labor strikes disrupt air and ground transportation this year across Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and France. It's a good idea to monitor local news for word of any pre-planned strikes, allow yourself some itinerary flexibility, and factor in extra travel days for wiggle room if possible. If you purchase travel insurance, make sure it covers labor strikes; if it doesn't, consider purchasing a "cancel at any time" add-on this year.
Photo credits: Passport with money via Shutterstock; Crowded Paris street via Shutterstock; Crowded airport via Shutterstock; Europe train travel via Shutterstock; Person with smartphone via Shutterstock; Woman in pool via Shutterstock; Crowded train station via Shutterstock