Travel Tips and Tricks for First Time Travelers

Everyone remembers the thrill and excitement of their first time travel
experiences, whether it’s traveling somewhere for the first time ever, visiting a
new destination, trying a new experience or staying in a new type of accommodation.

To get the most out of visiting a new destination, we have come up with a list of top tips for first time travelers following global research from the most creditable source, our clients who have been there, done that and have the passport stamp to prove it.

Be bold.
Don’t just book the holiday you think you should be going on. You are never too old or too young to visit a new city, go backpacking or venture out alone. It is never as challenging as you think it will be, disregard all the obstacles and do what you want to do!

Get the authentic experience.
Make sure you indulge in the local culture and try not to keep to the well-beaten tourist tracks. A great way to soak up the local atmosphere is to head to a restaurant away from the main drag, hot spots and ask the waiter to recommend their most popular dishes. Almost a third of first time travelers revealed that trying the local food was one of their favourite tips to give friends and family.

Be prepared well in advance.
Check if you require a Visa well ahead of departing from home. Some Visas require more effort and money than others, so make sure to check the relevant government website. Same applies for passports. Check your passport’s expiration date before you travel as certain countries require at least 6 months validity to enter.

Better to be safe than sorry. 
Take pictures of your passports, Visas and travel insurance and email them to yourself, just in case you lose them.

Be vigilant with your money. 
Always stash some money or a spare credit card in case you lose your wallet. Hide it away in a money belt or in a secret compartment in your travel bag. Many of our travelers agree that a secret stash of cash is one of the most important tips for those planning their first trip.

Get acquainted with the language. 
If you don’t speak the local language, a helpful trick is to download Google Translate to your mobile phone. It will take away the pain of wild gestures, furrowed brows and raised voices. You might also want to consider learning a few key phrases before you head out, especially words to help navigate travel, bookings and ordering from menus.

Pack less.
Always pack less than you think you will need. Many travelers regret packing too much when they leave the country. At least two days before you go, lay everything out on the bed that you think you will need, then put away a third and pack a travel bottle of washing detergent instead. Pack layers and put comfort first, especially when it comes to shoes!

Be mindful what you pack.
Check the luggage allowance before you fly and if necessary, pack heavier items (like chargers and cameras) in your hand luggage. If you’re heading somewhere hot, it’s worth packing a light sarong. It can be used for anything from a pillow on a long bus journey, something to cover your shoulders with when visiting a religious site, to blankets in the evening and a towel at the beach.

Sharing is caring.
When traveling with friends or family, share some of your clothes out amongst your bags. That way if a bag is lost, you’ll still have some items to wear.

Research, research, research.
Research local scams to watch out for – whether it be particular tour companies to avoid or how to get a reputable taxi from the airport. Many first time travelers feel researching local safety advice is an important part of any holiday prep.
Also, make sure to research the phone number of the Canadian consulate in the country you’re staying in, and keep it with you throughout your stay. And if worst comes to worse the international emergency number is 112, even if the phone is locked or it’s not showing any service provider.

Meet other tourists. 
If you’re traveling on your own, the best way to meet new people while traveling is by staying at social able accommodations such as hostels, B&B’s and family run hotels. There is a misconception that these accommodations are dangerous, dark places where masked killers attack innocent tourists. It might feel daunting at first, but traveling for the first time is all about exhilaration and pushing your boundaries.

No expectations.
Trust your gut, be open minded and don’t expect to experience anything in particular. If you’re heading somewhere for the first time, you’ll never really know what’s in store but go with the flow and enjoy. Remember to just relax and enjoy every single minute of this adventure.

Take a chill pill
Be flexible and don’t overdo the scheduling. Flexibility is key when traveling as you never know what kind of experiences will come your way, if the weather will take a sudden turn or who you may meet in your travels.

Take a mental picture instead
Get your eyes of your cellular device or camera and look up! Enjoy the landscape, the architecture, the sky and perhaps most importantly, read the signs in the airport. If you’re always looking through a camera lens or at your phone you’ll miss some of the most important moments of your trips. The moments that will make you feel fuzzy and excited even when you return home.

Avoid the extra charges 
Remember to let your bank and mobile provider know that you’re heading abroad too to avoid any card cancellations or surprise bills. Checking in with your bank and mobile provider is one of the most important tips to remember ahead of a trip abroad.

We hope these tips are helpful and if you have any others that we missed please share them with us so that we can in turn share with our followers.

Carnivale di Venezia 2017

Carnivale has just come to an end in one of the most beautiful cities of the world. Were you there to experience it first-hand like I was? If you weren’t, that’s OK! I’ve documented my experience and gathered together a list of useful tips that you can use for next year’s Carnivale! Or better yet, join me as I escort another small group in February 2018.

A little history, Carnivale is one of the most important festivals celebrated in Venice and its lengthy history dates back about a thousand years. During Carnival, Venetians both rich and poor could dress up with masks and become someone else for a short time, enjoying the fun of the festival in a relaxed and carefree way. Today, Carnival lasts about two weeks and always ends with “Fat Tuesday” (the day before Ash Wednesday). Years ago, however, it could start as early as December 26th, lasting for months! The typical greeting between those wearing the masks as they passed one another on the street was, “Good morning, Ms. Mask!” The most popular disguise (and that can still be seen today walking around the city during Carnival) was the Bauta, a simple white mask that completely covered one’s face, worn together with a triangular hat and a black coat. This was a mask that was also used on different occasions during Carnival: for example, the Venetian lords wore them so that they would not be recognized when out gambling (a very popular activity in the city at the time).

Carnival Today:
Today during Carnival you can see quite a variety of masks, ranging from the most traditional (such as the Bauta) to the Doctor of the Plague and Harlequin to name a few.

Modern masks are often inspired by real life current events, books or popular films of the moment.

The masks that now characterize the Venice Carnival worldwide are extremely elaborate: they completely cover the face, leaving only the eyes, and prestigious, bright colored clothing is worn.

They are also rather vain, proudly displaying themselves in Piazza San Marco, in front of the gondolas and the lagoon, or peeking out from between the columns of the Ducale Palace. Expecting to be photographed, they pose while dozens of photographers and tourists surround them, fascinated by their mystery and beauty. 

The Main Events of Carnival in Venice:
For anyone who is planning a trip to Venice, obviously the Carnival period is one of the busiest, but it is also one of the most beautiful and characteristic, enhanced by a full program of events. There are demonstrations in the streets – some of which are real pageants – to private masquerade balls that take place within luxury and antique Venetian palaces (these are, of course, are extremely exclusive affairs but tickets are available if that is something on your “Must do list”).

Here are some of the most famous and important events:
The Festival of the Marie: this festival takes place every year on the first Saturday of the carnival. It recalls the ancient tradition where, from all of the couples who were to be married in the coming year, the 12 poorest were selected to be dressed in rich clothing and paraded around the city in elegance.

Today, 12 girls, two from each district of Venice, are selected to parade the streets in beautiful period clothing and then the most beautiful “Maria” is chosen.

The Flight of the Angel or Dove: every year on the first Sunday of the Carnival, a company of Turkish tightrope walkers used to tempt their fate by walking on a rope that is strung between the bell tower of San Marco and a boat moored in the lagoon.

This tradition has since been replaced, and today a woman (usually a celebrity) descends from the bell tower of San Marco in a harness attached to a steel rope. This inaugurates the festival.

The Dance of the Doge: is one of the most exclusive events of the Venetian Carnival. This masquerade ball is held in Palazzo Pisani Moretta, one of the luxurious residences located along the Grand Canal. At the ball, it’s common to see international artists perform and there are also many VIPs who hide themselves behind masks and stunning costumes.

A Few Tips to make your Carnival more memorable:

1. Given that during Carnival, the city is crowded, my advice to you is to admire and enjoy the masks and Venice festival on the weekdays, I went on the last Monday, because on the weekends it is often difficult to make your way through the crowd. 

2. Obviously you can not visit Piazza San Marco because the heart of the festival is right there, but just wandering through the streets of the city to enjoy beautiful views and less tourist areas might allow you to stumble upon some masks that no one else has the pleasure of photographing.

3. Do not buy masks from the numerous little stands or souvenir shops: head to a store of real handmade Venetian masks. A hand crafted mask will certainly cost a little more, but this is the only way to have something that is truly “Made in Italy”.

4. Don’t forget to stop at a pastry shop and taste the sweets of the Venice Carnival: galani (sheets of fried dough that are dusted with powdered sugar) or frittelle which can contain a variety of fillings (chocolate, cream, zabaione, and the real Venetian fritelle contain raisins inside.)

Spring Break Destinations for Grownups

Congratulations you made it through the holidays. Now do something for yourself by planning an adult Spring Break that you can look forward to while it’s still chilly outside. Because really, why should kids have all the fun? Hear are a few popular beach spots and some emerging alternatives for 2017.

2016: Costa Rica
The Central America country continues to break its own world record in running purely on renewable energy, confirming even more its reputation for “pura vida”. Thanks to its cleanliness and reasonable safety, Costa Rica has long been a first time traveler, beginner-freindly destination, but its popularity means that it may be a spot that is better to visit during the rainy season that lasts until April.

2017: Nicaragua
A less developed destination is Nicaragua, with fewer zip lines and crowds, it’s worth considering. In addition to volcanos and gorgeous beaches, this country has a few undiscovered spots, lik the eco-conscious Jicaro Island Ecolodge and the more artsy Rancho Santana. You should plan a visit soon before developers start cutting the country in half with the construction of the Nicaragua Canal, that if completed , will forever destroy its fragile ecosystem.

2016: The Bahamas
Due to the easy access of flights to Nassau, the islands have long been popular with college and university students. You can still have a wonderful experience, especially at resorts like Kamalame Cay and the One & Only Ocean Club, winners of many awards.

2017: Jamaica
I’d recommend Jamaica as the place to unwind and recharge, Even if you are not the type to laze on a beach all day, the eclectic food scene is a must for adventurous foodies. This island has plenty to offer grownups looking for some R&R, from the Spice Bathing Ritual at the Rockhouse, or a seaweed wrap at Jake’s Hotel or the invigorating Blue Mountain Coffee scrub at the GoldenEye located in a sleepy lagoon on the northeast coast.

2016: Aruba

A gem in the Dutch Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles, Aruba has long been a favourite with its welcoming hotels and its temparate climate…a perfect destination for those who don’t want any surprises when traveling.

2017: Turks & Caicos

If you are looking for a place that has less crowds, the Turks and Caicos are for you. With only 8 of the 40 islands being inhabited, you’ll be sure to some quiet cove or beach.  If you leave Providenciales behind and head to Como Parrot Bay, you can explore the 1000 acre private island, or take a short 25  minute flight and check out the newly minted Sailrock Resort that opened last month. This resort will be your home base as you discover the unspoiled 8.2 square miles of South Caicos with the world’s third largest coral reef.

2016: Los Cabos, Mexico
This gem on the tip if Baja California Sur is a mecca for Spring Break. It’s been two years since Hurricane Odile created havoc in the area, all the resorts are completely restored and ready for you.

2017: Costalegre, Mexico
For a much more exclusive Mexican experience, head south of Pureto Vallarta, there you will find “Mexico’s Virgin Coast” overflowing with beaches, lagoons and untouched jungles. Preserving this region’s pristine flora and honoring some of the world’s greatest biodiversity are a couple of splendid resorts worth mentioning in the area are the Las Alamandas, with its 16 suites overlooking four private beaches and the Cuixmala, built in a Moorish inspired style and flanked by 25,000 acres of rare tropical forest

2016: St. Lucia
St. Lucia is home to the Pitons, a pair of volcanic spires, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, a collection of endemic plants and birds, and coastal rain forests and mountainous rainforests humming with wildlife and musical waterfalls.

This Spring, the light shines brightest on the other end of the Caribbean’s string of islands: Anguilla.This island has remained wonderfully underdeveloped for a very long time, this eel-shaped islet has a few 5 star hotels worth mentioning, including The Reef by Cuisin Art which grows its ingredients from the property’s own hydroponic farm

Girls Only “Canadian” getaway weekend?

I find that the winter months are a perfect time for reconnecting and spending quality time with “the girls”. Take three days (or five) and get pampered, try something new or get reacquainted with the great outdoors. Here a few unusual suggestions, both local and some a little further a field. Contact Columbus World Travel and we’ll make your winter break a reality.


Ste. Anne’s Spa, Grafton, Ontario

The quintessential girlfriends’ getaway involves spa treatments and plenty of pampering. Ste. Anne’s Spa, regularly ranked among the best spas in Canada, is the perfect place to relax with your friends. Ste. Anne’s is best known for the quality and variety of its treatments and its cozy country setting.


Elkin Creek Guest Ranch, Nemaiah Valley, B.C.: If the girls are longing to escape to the great outdoors, but still want the comforts of an all-inclusive resort, this Nemaiah Valley property is the perfect destination. Take a horse for a ride, try your hand at fly fishing or take a sailboat out on the lake. This all-inclusive stay includes accommodation, three meals a day, use of the Ranch’s sauna and fitness centre and all activities.

EAT in:

Montreal, Que.: Combine culture with food during a girlfriends getaway in one of Canada’s top foodie cities: Montreal. From Montreal smoked meat sandwiches at the famous Schwartz’s Deli to streetside poutine to Montreal-style bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese at all-day breakfast joint Beauty’s, there is so much diversity and quality on the Montreal restaurant scene. Save room for wine and cheese, chocolates and fresh baked pastries.


Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.: Hire a car or appoint a designated driver and enjoy a day touring the many wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Ontario’s wine region is home to dozens of wineries, all within driving or biking distance, that offer tours and tastings of reds, whites and signature ice wines on-site. The estates of Inniskillin, Konzelmann and Jackson-Triggs are especially worth a visit.


Sonora Resort, Sonora Island, B.C.: If you really just want to get away from absolutely everything, consider a vacation at the secluded Sonora Resort. From kayaking to bear watching to fly fishing, lovers of the outdoors will find plenty to keep them busy. Indoors, guests have access to a gym, mineral pools, wireless Internet service and the Island Currents Spa. Three meals daily are included in the price of your stay, as are snacks, appetizers, beer, wine, liquor and non-alcoholic beverages.


Green Gables House, Cavendish, P.E.I.: Bring back memories of being young and discovering the adventures of Anne Shirley for the first time with a visit to Green Gables House in P.E.I. As Lucy Maud Montgomery’s inspiration for Anne’s adoptive home with Marilla and Matthew, this house now attracts visitors from around the world.

SUN & SAND in:

Wasaga Beach, Ont.: The world’s longest freshwater beach (14 km) awaits you and your friends on long, sunny summer days. Located on Georgian Bay, Wasaga Beach is a great place to relax waterside and offers beach-side shopping, entertainment and dining options for when you need a break from the rays.

GOLF at:

Predator Ridge, Okanagan, B.C.: The 36 picturesque holes of championship golf offered by Predator Ridge are an ideal place to play, while the luxury accommodations at Predator Ridge Resort really complete the package. Both suites and cottages with access to an outdoor hot tub and swimming pool, dining area, spa and clubhouse are available to guests.

SKI at:

Mont-Tremblant, Que.: Just an hour from Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains, Mont-Tremblant is one of Canada’s premier winter destinations and a great place for girlfriends to escape to. Enjoy your apres ski with the fine dining and nightlife options offered in the village.

Europe More Relaxing by Train….

VIENNA, Austria — Remember when just getting where you wanted to go was part of the pleasure of travel? When you didn’t have to take off half your clothes, throw away your liquids, unpack your electronics, and go through multiple ID checks all just for a two-hour journey in space inadequate for a battery chicken?

Europe remembers, and if anything has in recent years made travel through its many pocket-sized member states easier rather than harder. Trains have become an ever-faster, more frequent and more comfortable alternative to flights, bringing travellers from city-centre to city-centre. There’s no need to check-in two hours early and borders between many European states are now invisible.

On board a banquet of changing scenery is brought to comfortable seats next to large windows. The last thing needed is a seat-back TV, but free wi-fi is common.

Simply wave a Eurail pass at the conductor and you have freedom of the tracks in up to 24 countries. For more than 50 years Eurail’s single and multiple-country passes have given visitors from outside the region discounted access to Europe’s rail system. But choosing the right pass takes a little thought.

Running this cooperative venture of rail services must be something like running the European Union as the 24 member railways opt into some of Eurail’s collection of passes but not to others. The Eurail Global Pass offers access to all lines and you can in theory travel from the top of Sweden to the sun-drenched tip of Mediterranean Italy, and in 2013 even to the far corners of Turkey.

But despite the excellence of French TGV and other high-speed services, it’s not the distance that counts. There’s perhaps even greater pleasure in taking it slowly, traveling on branch lines and visiting backwaters.

Railways still stitch together fragments of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a forgotten 19th-century superpower atomized by World War One. They make possible a loop of short journeys through dramatic scenery between both its former capitals and pretty, castle-topped medieval towns as yet little known to mass tourism.

For more than 50 years the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary were one man who from twin capitals with twin parliaments also ruled much territory now forming all or part of a dozen surrounding countries.

His Austrian capital of Vienna offers a gentle introduction to Europe, with its broad boulevards, art nouveau architecture and distinguished art museums. Innumerable elegant coffee houses, many little changed in a century, offer strudel and recovery time for the feet.

Salzburg — the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music — lies two hours’ west on a line that winds through green valleys, but on which trains still effortlessly reach 200 km/h. The city is drenched in charm and chocolate shops. To either side of the Salzach River ancient housing forms canyons that echo with church bells, all dominated by 12th-century Hohensalzburg Fortess, which though never successfully stormed can today be easily reached by funicular.

Back through Vienna it’s about the same distance Budapest, capital of Hungary. The conjoined cities of Buda and Pest face across the Danube, the one residential with ancient fortifications and churches, the other business-like, but also home to theatres, pubs and museums.

Even before regaining independence in 1989, Hungary was the more relaxed of the Soviet satellite regimes and now there’s little visible trace of the communist era. The National Hotel, dour but once the pride of the city, has been transformed into the stylish Hotel Nemzeti.

The ornate parliament partly apes yet surpasses London’s Palace of Westminster, its interior all stained glass, gilding and statuary. Goose-stepping guards protect the jewel-studded 800-year-old crown of St. Stephen, which even in these republican days is a symbol of Hungarian independence.

The Fisherman’s Rampart of Buda Castle gives views across the Danube to Pest’s tidy grid, with its a Victorian market, and magnificent cafes and restaurants such as Elso Pesti Reteshaz, the First Strudel House of Pest. Here you may try your hand at making Hungarian strudel.

Another comfortable train journey brings you to Kosice, once part of the Empire, but now across an invisible border and in Slovakia, which celebrates merely its 20th birthday in 2013. The town still shows hints of its Soviet-influenced past but its ancient town centre is attracting world attention as a European City of Culture 2013.

The slow line through the Tatra mountains west to Trencin is one of Europe’s prettiest, the train snaking over passes between pointed peaks and lakeside chalets. Trencin is a little jewel whose smartly modernized Elizabeth Hotel sits under a castle-topped cliff and provides views from its rear of the oldest Roman inscription still in situ north of the Danube. On the market square, baroque St. Francis Xavier church offers an astounding trompe-l’oeil ceiling, conjuring a vast dome out of an flat surface. It’s a steep climb to a castle, where stone steps spiral to the top of a tower. The reward is views across the Vah valley to three mountain ranges.

It’s a short trip southwest to the capital Bratislava, a mini-Vienna with a ancient centre, a brief curl of Danube, and copies of Hungary’s coronation jewels kept in the cathedral to remind visitors that well before the Austro-Hungarian Empire 18 Habsburg emperors were crowned here.

Bratislava and Vienna are less than 50 km apart, and Europe’s closest capitals, but between them lies forest through which many tried but failed to escape to Austria.

Now there’s a choice of two rail lines and a train at least every hour. The border is invisible, and the journey couldn’t be more convenient.

10 Things to Know When Traveling in Italy

10 Things to Know When Traveling in Italy

Traveling to another country is always exciting! Not only do you get to taste the region’s food, have fun at their festivals and meet the local people, but you also get to learn more about the culture. Cultures across Europe can differ greatly, particularly from the culture in Canada. Every country speaks its own language and fosters its own traditions that date back centuries. This is especially true of the beautiful ancient country of Italy.

One of the most impressive cultural centers of Europe, Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance and some of the world’s most loved food. Millions of people visit the country every year, exploring its wonderful cities, towns, and villages. So to prepare you, here are ten things you should know before you go:

1. Be prepared to spend time talking about and eating food

Food is in the make up of Italians. Not only do they love to cook and eat it, more than most people, they also love to talk about it. In Italy, it is certainly more about the quality of the food than it is about the quantity; they value flavour and home-cooked traditions. In Italy they make time to cook a meal and there is no excuse for not spending time enjoying it. Meals, even in the middle of the day, can last hours and include neighbours and friends for a truly special experience. Enjoy this magical foodie culture by eating with locals or in local restaurants.

2. Get ready to express your emotions

Visitors who can’t speak the language often think that Italians argue all the time. They always appear to be so expressive and loud. However, their gestures and actions are often not what you think. Most Italians love to talk about their emotions, and so the conversation is most likely a way of resolving an issue – talking it out – rather than arguing about it. Very therapeutic!

3. Food is fresh and usually local

Most large grocers and almost all of the local stores you will come across in Italy will sell mostly fresh, local produce. Not only will it be organic and high-quality, but it will also be affordable. While you can find some processed food, it is not common in the Italian diet in the way that it is in North America. Expect to find fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season alongside local meats and baked goods.

4. Expect to hear the truth

Italians prefer not to hide their feelings. In the same way that they prefer to talk about a problem they also prefer to express how they feel about people, good or bad, to their face. This is a great thing on some levels as it means they rarely talk about people behind their back, but it can also mean hearing the truth (even when you don’t want to). Most often visitors will hear that they should be eating more, especially the slim visitors!

5. Don’t rush

Italians rarely rush. They live a slow, relaxed lifestyle that really does make them happier. There is no rushing to get to work or rushing to serve people when they are at work. Expect to wait longer, but expect the people you meet to be extremely happy! What would you rather?

6. You can spot their impeccable dress sense

Italy has always exported some of the world’s greatest fashions – with a clear edge over the rest of the world. As you explore the country’s stunning cities and even smaller towns you will notice that style is a very important part of life. Most Italians will always make an impressive effort to look great. If you want a piece of the action head to the shopping capitals of Milan and Rome, where you can find all of Italy’s most famous designers on offer.

7. You will often see romance blooming

Not only is Italy a romantic country for visitors, with its ancient buildings, cobbled streets and exceptional food, Italy is also inherently romantic. Most Italians value courting and spend time and effort wining and dining “the one” for months. For ancient romance visit Verona, the setting for Shakespeare’s timeless play Romeo and Juliet.

8. You may feel a little claustrophobic

Italians are very affectionate and do not worry as much as Canadians about personal space. Not only this, but their cities are more compact, with winding alleys and petite piazze that are the places of parties and restaurants. Expect to touch a few people a day and don’t expect to hear a “sorry”; it’s not worth it as it happens all the time. Don’t even worry about it!

9. You can’t leave without an aperitivo

No other country in Europe truly celebrates the aperitivo (the afternoon drink and snack) like Italy does. Try to get into a place at around 6pm to take full advantage of the evening buffet and be ready for a late night dinner, Italian style.

10. Forget about ice

It may be common to include ice in almost every drink at home, but this is simply not the Italian way. Ice isn’t always served in cold drinks, and if you do ask for some you will probably only get one or two cubes, not a whole glassful… It’s just the way it is! Think of the positives, you are certainly getting more of the drink you ordered – the Italian way!

Enjoying Italian Culture and Traditions

Use our helpful list of 10 Things to Know When Traveling in Italy to get a better understanding of what to expect during your next vacation. Blend in, and get local insider info about the best off-the-beaten path attractions, restaurants, and hidden gems, when you show respect and understanding to Italian customs and traditions.

Road Tripping Through Europe

There’s plenty to know before you drive a car in Europe, where road signs, fuel names, and hidden traffic cameras can be intimidating to tourists. But driving in Europe is really only a problem for those who make it one.

Admittedly, some places are easier to handle than others. The British Isles have the advantage of no language barrier and fine roads. And after one near head-on collision scares the bloody heck out of you, you’ll have no trouble remembering which side of the road to drive on.

There are lots of good places for newbie drivers abroad. In Scandinavia, roads meander peacefully from village to village, hugging the lip of majestic fjords. Belgium and the Netherlands are easy on four wheels, but yield to bikes — you’re outnumbered. Wannabe race-car drivers enjoy Germany’s wonderfully engineered freeways, and driving down sunny alpine valleys in Switzerland and Austria will have you yodeling in auto ecstasy.

Some travelers obsess about the possibility of a car accident while driving in Europe, but you’re no more likely to have an accident there than you are at home. And any mishap will most likely be the result of a tight squeeze in a parking garage (ask for a small car). Whether your rental car is damaged or just gets a flat tire, it likely comes with 24-hour emergency roadside assistance.

But be prepared — there is some truth to the myth of the daredevil European driver. Italians in particular tend to make up their own rules. In Rome, red lights are considered “discretionary.” On one trip, my cab driver went through three red lights. White-knuckled, I asked, “Scusi, non hai visto il semafaro rosso?” Did you not see red lights? He said, “When I come to light, I look. If no cars come, I go through. If policeman sees no cars — no problema. He agrees — red light stupido.” The moral, especially in Europe, is: Drive defensively.

All of Europe uses the same simple set of road symbols. Learn them. It will reduce your stress level considerably if you can instantly recognize the sign for “no parking,” “danger,” or “all vehicles prohibited.” (Find the signs online by searching “European Road Signs.”) For the rules of the road in the country you’re visiting, check Take a little time before you travel to discover the different rules and enjoy a smoother and less stressful driving experience.

When you pick up your rental car, confirm the type of gas your car needs. In some countries, pumps are color-coded to help you find the right fuel. Keep the terms straight: Unleaded gas is called petrol or benzine, while diesel is known as gasoil or gasol.

In bigger towns and at major sights, you’ll probably need to pay for parking (European pay lots are typically well-patrolled). If you’re not sure how to pay, just watch and imitate the drivers around you. Parking garages usually require that you take a ticket with you and pay at a machine on the way back to the car. In smaller lots, look for a machine selling time, plug in a few euros, push the button, and get a receipt that you’ll display on your dash.

Wherever you drive, be aware that Big Brother might be watching. In many countries, traffic is monitored by automatic cameras that check car speed, click photos, and send speeders tickets by mail. In many Italian city centers, car traffic is banned altogether, and you should never drive or park anywhere you see signs reading Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL, often shown above a red circle). If you do, even briefly by accident, your license plate will be photographed and a hefty ticket will be waiting for you at home.

Even if you’re navigating with a GPS device, it’s essential to have a good reference map. My family and I once made the mistake of driving from the Bavarian Alps to Munich with only my GPS computer-voiced companion to guide me. Unfortunately, she didn’t know that the access road to the autobahn was closed. A paper map would have led me to an alternate route much more quickly than my hunt-and-peck adventure.

Driving into unfamiliar places is easier than you might think, given that most European towns have signs directing you to the “old town” or the center. The tourist office, normally right downtown, will usually be clearly signposted. The tallest spire often marks the center of the old town — just drive toward it. To find your way out of town, look for the sign for “all directions” (toutes directions, Alle Richtungen, and so on).

Most of our clients who drive overseas come back bragging about their ultimate road trip. The independence of the open road is all about adventure and possibility. Behind the wheel, you’re totally free, going where you want, when you want. Start your engine and “Buon Viaggio”!