English is the lingua franca across every European country, so a language barrier is not a reason to avoid foreign travel. Even in countries that are highly patriotic when it comes to native language such as France, English is always an option. The key is to first greet someone in their native language (Hola, Bonjour, Bon Giorno, …) to be courteous.
In just a few minutes you can learn how to ask someone if they speak English in the local language. That simple politeness will get you far and show others that you don’t take English for granted.
Even when the person you are trying to communicate with says they do not speak English, they’ll probably know a few words and will try to be helpful. Remember that in most European countries today, everyone learns English from a young age in school. Just avoid slang, shorten your sentences, seek out a younger person, and speak a bit slower than normal.
There is no reason to feel guilty speaking English most of the time on vacation as no one expects you to know Dutch, Norwegian, or Portuguese for example. You aren’t alone as a traveler reverting to English. While on vacation around Europe, you’ll hear English being spoken by tourists from other countries such as Germany, China, Brazil, Russia, or Poland. It is their go-to language when on vacation too!
When people talk about crime in the major European cities such as Barcelona, Paris, and Rome, they are mostly talking about pick pocketing. The truth is you can walk around every historic European city without much worry.
Of course it is no fun having your wallet stolen while on vacation (not to mention other scams committed upon unsuspecting tourists). The Savvy Backpacker offers an enormous number of tips on How to Avoid Pickpockets in Europe — Tips for Outsmarting the Thieves.
I always wear a money belt for the bulk of my cash and credit/ATM cards and passport when it is not locked up in a hotel’s in-room safe. General advice is to carry a wallet in your front pocket or hidden in a zipped compartment inside your purse. To limit your losses, only keep a small amount of money in your main wallet plus an expired credit card or two as a decoy.
Unlike in many parts of the U.S., in Europe there are fewer guns, fewer carjackings, and fewer violent assaults. Just be careful when you are at an ATM. Don’t let strangers get between you and your money and don’t pull out your fancy new iPhone in the middle of a crowded place. When you stay aware of your surroundings and take a few minor precautions, the reality is that you are more likely to be overcharged at a mediocre restaurant in a touristy area then be the victim of any sort of crime.
Since you need Euros and British Pounds (plus several other currencies in countries that haven’t adopted the Euro) to visit Europe, you may be concerned about the cost of exchanging money. The good news is that the U.S. dollar is strong as of 2014 and 2015. Many of the European currencies are still struggling to make it out of the economic doldrums. As the U.S. economy improves faster, your dollar will go farther.
Of course currency rates will vary all the time, but at least you can avoid conversion fees if you plan ahead. Capital One bank (also called Capital One 360 – Checking account, formerly INGDirect bank) is one of the few U.S. bank and credit card companies that offers a zero percent (that’s 0%) foreign currency conversion fee. Most bank ATM and credit cards tack on 2 or 3 percent (sometimes more!) every time you use your card overseas.
So open up a Capital One account now and wait until you are in Europe to hit the ATM to withdraw whatever currency required. It almost never makes sense to go to your local bank to buy foreign currency in advance or carry travelers checks. One more tip: always ask to pay in the local currency when using your U.S. credit card and given the option. The so-called “guaranteed” conversion rate offered “for your convenience” is always higher than what you get from your own bank.
The days of crossing country borders and having to wait in line to show and stamp your passport are mostly long gone. Maybe you think it would be fun to get lots of stamps in your passport, but be happy that you can treat the Euro-zone like one big country (shall we call it the United States of Europe?). Besides a handful of eastern and southeastern countries that have recently joined the EU economic area, the only countries with border checks are the UK and Ireland. That’s mostly due to the fact that they are both islands and you’ll likely be flying into or out of them.
Within most of the continent of Europe (in the European Commission Schengen Area), you can drive, take the train, and sometimes even walk across country borders without stopping. Want to drive from Germany into Austria, take the train from France to Belgium, or go on a bus tour between Spain and Portugal? There are no border crossings anymore, just like crossing state lines in the United States. So don’t be afraid to visit several countries in one trip to Europe.
Refer to the U.S. State Department List of Countries for the lowdown on visa requirements plus health and safety warnings for Americans. Of course you’ll need a U.S. Passport to travel to Europe, so make sure it is ready to go and has at least 6 months until the expiration date along with a few empty pages.
Do you prefer to take vacations where someone else does all the work or do you like to plan out every detail for you and your family? Either way is easy when traveling to and within the countries of Europe. There are endless varieties of tour operators offering bus, train, and river cruise trips across every country. Many tours are themed to specific interests like history, art, food and wine, country best-of’s, ancient ruins, and famous treks. Ask yourself if you are OK with being on a tightly scheduled tour with people you don’t know.
Consider going independent by planning the entire trip yourself online. It is not more difficult than traveling within the U.S. with the help of sites such as TripAdvisor, Booking.com, travel guidebooks on Amazon and for Kindle, and the unbelievable range of advice posted online. Travel blogs are great inspiration too! Just book your flights and hotels in advance, plan out which tourist activities you want to do each day, and throw in a few day trips (organized or independent) in the mix.
Not sure which is right for you? Consider taking a tour for your first trip to Europe and then decide if your next trip will be more rewarding by guided tour or done independently. Another trick is to search for packaged tours to the destinations you want to visit to borrow their ideas. View example itineraries to see if you prefer them to lead the way or if you wish to save money and gain freedom by booking each trip component yourself.
There are no kings and queens in the U.S.A. (one important outcome of the American Revolution), but it is fun to enter a world of royalty. Quite a few European countries still have a royal family and while they have limited power, they make for fantastical travels. I’m sure at least some of you keep up with the UK royal family by reading the tabloids. You might even start wondering if you have royalty way back in your family tree.
Even for countries that have long ago done away with their royal rulers, you can visit their former palaces to visualize this opulent and leisurely way of life. Famous royal palaces such as in England, Denmark, Austria, France, Spain, Monaco, and Sweden give visitors the chance to take an inside tour. Live like a king or queen for the morning or afternoon as you imagine what it would be like to be born of royal birth.
If you’ve visited or considered visiting Europe before, you’ve probably heard of the ever-popular travel TV and guidebook writer Rick Steves. His Europe Through the Back Door show (YouTube) aired on PBS and is also available online. However it is his guidebooks that are your key to maximizing your European holiday enjoyment. He offers the most practical advice geared towards Americans who want to appreciate all the Europe has to offer.
Rick Steves personally researches and updates his brand of travel guidebooks each year. My favorite thing is that he is one of the few travel personalities to offer honest advice. He’ll tell you what is worth visiting and what is worth skipping. That advice is gold when you are the typical American with limited vacation days each year.
That plus the handy museum and cathedral guides, hand-drawn tourism maps, transport connections advice, and itinerary suggestions makes his guidebooks a must have for Europe. You’ll most definitely run into other American travelers with the familiar blue and yellow books in their hands.
European budget airlines have revolutionized travel around Europe and you can benefit as well. Ryanair and Easyjet are the biggest, but there are numerous regional budget airlines such as Norwegian and Air Berlin that will connect almost any two cities in Europe. The easiest way to discover cheap flights in Europe is to search Skyscanner for one-way or return flights. Set your country to see prices in your own currency though you’ll have to pay in the currency of your starting airport or airline home country.
Many one-way flights can be had for under 50 euros tax included, especially when you book weeks or even many months in advance. Plus there is no dreaded penalty for not booking a round-trip flight like with the major carriers. Click to view their interactive route maps. You’ll be sure to discover destinations that you’ve never heard, but make sure you know which airport is which. Some low-cost airports are located far from the city center though always well-connected by scheduled shuttle bus.
One bargain European flight trick is to fly from the U.S. or Canada to a major starting airport like London, Paris, or Brussels. Plan for a few days of exploring that destination then leverage cheap direct flights from those airports to build your dream European itinerary. One popular itinerary is to fly to Dublin (the shortest route across the Atlantic) for a few days in Ireland before jet-setting off to one of dozens of choices such as Amsterdam, Madrid, Munich, Venice, or Krakow. The only downside is the extra cost of checking a bag, so pack light to save even more.
Farmer’s markets happen everywhere today, but the European tradition of buying your groceries at the neighborhood open-air or covered market is still alive and well. Many of the historic and centrally located markets have become popular tourist attractions, especially for foodies. Don’t worry, they are still an authentic way to interact with the local community and stock up on fresh foods for dinner at your Airbnb apartment rental.
While many food markets are set up outdoors, many are located in a permanent covered market which retains the old-time architectural features. As you could guess, Paris has numerous fresh markets that happen on different days throughout the city as this TimeOut Paris Guide lists. Search Google for a city name plus the term “farmers market” to discover where to get the best street food. Then click on the “Images” tab to see photos of food, drink, flowers, crafts, and flea market stuff too.
Even if you are staying at a hotel you can plan a spontaneous picnic. Look up which days are “market days” to shop for fruits, breads, cheeses, and of course pastries to pack up and head to the park with. I suggest you bring your own plastic reusable sporks and bowls to make it easier to serve and share with your travel partners.
The final reason for planning a vacation to Europe sooner rather than later is that life is short. Do you really want to wait until retirement to enjoy the pleasures of traveling to the great cities of the world such as Paris, London, Rome, Stockholm, Barcelona, Lisbon, Vienna, Amsterdam, Prague, etc, etc, etc…? Why delay until you are older and maybe not as healthy to visit must-see (before you die) sites such as the Roman Colosseum, the canals of Venice, Edinburgh Castle, the Eiffel Tower, the Alhambra, the Swiss Alps, the medieval towns in Germany, the Parthenon, The Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland, … do I need to go on?
Be inspired to plan your next vacation to Europe after viewing the Pinterest Board of the Best Places to Visit Europe (Europe A La Carte blog). Travel photos do speak a thousand words.
Take the opportunity for all the top 10 reasons listed above to take a European vacation AND simply because you are able to right now. Waiting until after retirement is not how you take more time off from work to enjoy life to the fullest. Don’t you agree?
Hezekiah said “I think a lot of Americans are scared of not being able to communicate in the new country. America is so vast and so many place to go in their own country, Europe is a massive step.”
My response was “Yes worrying about communicating in a foreign country is common concern, but Americans (and Canadians, Australians, and Kiwis too) should feel lucky that English is their native language. English is spoken throughout Europe so we have an advantage over other travelers who must be fluent enough in English to travel with ease around Europe.”
Travel Shepherd commented “Having relocated from Oregon to Europe about 18 years ago I am more internationally oriented than most Americans. I often preach that for the USA to continue to do well in the increasing globalization of the economy more Americans must become less provincial. Thanks for helping further that with this article.”
My response was “Good points Travel Shepherd. I wish the news media in the U.S. covered European events more often as we are all in this together. When you finally visit Europe and see it in person, you realize it is much more than just what was taught in history class. Today there are many cities in Europe that are ranked among the best places to live in the world, not to mention the greater work-life balance they enjoy.”
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