Americans on parade - First time in Europe
I’ve met a lot of people lately that are either going to Europe for the first time or are moving from the hostel life to the hotel life and are trying to figure out the best way to do it. So, this post is geared towards you – the American heading to Europe. What to expect and how to accept the fact that you are one of the most annoying tourists possible. Or at least, they think you are. Let’s work together change this perspective. Hopefully some of this advice can help.
Being American: I cannot stress this enough – you are significantly louder than all Europeans. Even if you think you’re being quiet, they’ll think your being loud. Especially on public transportation. My biggest pet peeve is an American in tennis shoes and cargo shorts shouting on the Tube. That guy is the reason there is a stigma around Americans. Don’t be that guy. Trust me, you’ll never be more proud than the day a local walks up to you and asks you for directions. That’s when you’ll know you’re doing Europe correctly.
Which brings me to my next point, if you act like you know what you’re doing, people will believe you. If you pull out a map that you got in your hotel lobby, they’ll know right away. Not that it’s a bad thing I suppose – depends on what vibe you’re going for.
Now, let’s talk about tennis shoes and leggings. I understand that wearing sneakers to walk around is completely normal in the states. That is not the case in Europe – sneakers are worn for sports and that’s about it. On occasion, you’ll see people wearing them during their morning commute before they change into a pair of well-kept heels or dockers. If you wear sneakers on a tour, every person you walk past will know immediately that you’re American. If you don’t, you could be Australian or British for all they know. The same goes for leggings, and to an extent, jeans. Whatever you do, don’t wear leggings walking around a major European city. They’ll think you’re just lazy or tacky. Another thing to keep in mind is that jeans are super expensive in Europe – I know so many Europeans that come to the states and go to Kohls just to buy Levis. That being said, what else are you supposed to wear? Jeans are fine just maybe wear a classier shirt and nice shoes with them.
One last piece of advice – I tend to tell people at bars that I’m Canadian. Bartenders, servers, and random people I meet. They always seem to get friendlier with that bit of information. And honestly I grew up 40 minutes from the border and I live about an hour and a half from the border now. If only I could call Justin Trudeau my leader…
Hostels: If you’re just out of college (call it university when you’re abroad), do the hostel thing. It’s cheap, most of the hostels have free tours that leave right from the lobby, and it’s an easy way to meet people from all over the world – mostly Australians.
I think there’s a lot of concerns that Americans have about hostels – mainly that someone will steal your stuff or it’ll be dirty or it’s not safe for female travelers. I’ll tell you this right now. At 20 years old I stayed in multiple hostels in multiple cities. I never once felt unsafe, you can get lockers to lock up any valuables (bring your own lock – thank you amazon), anything I didn’t lock up I left in my bag under my bed and never had anything stolen. That being said, I was with a group of people, guys and girls, and for that reason we chose to stay in a mixed dorm. Later in my 20s, when I was traveling around I agreed to do the dorm thing again, and I regretted it. At that point, I was used to hotel life thanks to my job and not hearing other people snoring…except maybe when I’m with my parents. There was nothing wrong with the hostels, I was just used to something a bit more private.
Don’t get me wrong – there are definitely people with bad experiences in hostels. That’s why I always recommend using a website like hostelworld.com and only staying in places that get rated 8.5 or higher. Read the reviews, do your due diligence, just like you would with a hotel.
European Hotels: Here’s the thing – everyone loves to say that they’re looking to get the true European experience and stay in a local boutique hotel. Or maybe they just realized how expensive American chain hotels are in Europe. Just keep a couple of things in mind.
1. There is no such thing as a Hilton Garden Inn. You’re either staying in a Hilton or you’re staying in a small local hotel.
2. If you have a group of 3 or 4, you should make sure to check the price of a 4 person hotel room vs. two 2-person hotel rooms. Sometimes it’s cheaper just to get two rooms. Also, it is super uncommon to find a hotel that has two queen beds in a room. If you have 3 people, you’ll end up probably booking a “triple” that’ll have three single beds or one double and one single. If you have four people, you’ll probably be looking at something they call a “family” room. In that case, make sure when you book that the fourth bed isn’t just for a child. Read all of the fine print.
3. If you see a good rate on Expedia or Hotels.com, I always recommend calling the hotel directly to see if they’ll match the website rate. They more than likely will and that way if you have any issues, you booked directly with them and they’re more willing to help.
4. Local hotels are generally pretty beat up. Not so much the ones in major cities, but for example if you’re traveling around Ireland or out in the countryside in Germany or Austria, do not have high expectations. You’ll probably feel like you’re staying in a dorm. This was even the case in our $250 a night hotel in the Amalfi Coast. The staff is super kind and there’s plenty of natural light, but the rooms are old and the beds are rarely comfy.
5. Bathrooms – these tend to be extremely small and are not what you’re used to from a hotel in the states. Showers are usually similar to what you’d find on a cruise ship. They have a small partition between the shower and the rest of the bathroom and no curtain. The shower head is almost always moveable and can be handheld. The biggest thing to note is that in most countries in Europe, you won’t find a plug in the bathroom. This can be a huge headache for American girls that are used to doing their hair in the bathroom. Oftentimes the plug in the bathroom only works for razors for men to shave.
Free Walking Tours: I cannot stress this enough. One of the absolute best things about European cities is the free walking tours. Whether it’s through Sandemans or another company, they’re almost always worth it. Generally they’re a few hours long, they oftentimes pick up from the bigger hostels, and they’re free except for the tip at the end. Just go onto Trip Advisor or google “free walking tour in ____.” Some of my favorite ones were in London, Barcelona, Edinburgh, and Amsterdam. They almost always leave from a major landmark in the center of the city and most companies carry around colorful umbrellas to let you know where they’re at. The tours can get super crowded in the summer and they have limits to how many people they can bring, so I recommend reserving it online if you can. Also, always do these on your first day. Oftentimes the guide will give you a brief overview and then let you know if someplace is worth going to. They’re dead honest about what’s a tourist trap and what’s worth it. They can also give you good recommendations on where to eat and where to go out.
Student ID: Always bring a Student ID with you. Even if you’re not technically in school anymore, if you have a non-expired student ID from college (university) bring it. Most historic sites/museums/tours offer discounts for students.
Flying to/from/inside Europe: One thing we’ve gotten very good at over the years is minimizing the cost of travel. We always fly a bigger airline into a major European hub. For me, it’s usually Delta to London Heathrow. The reason we do this instead of flying someone like Wow Air or Condor is because for a 10 hour flight, you want your comfort. In addition, those airlines get better times for arrival/departure at the airports. You don’t want to leave the states at noon and arrive in Europe at midnight. You’ll be wide awake and that’s a pain. The last reason is because it pays to have status at an airline like Delta, and flying internationally is the fastest way to get miles that turn into upgrades.
Then we take low cost carriers the rest of the way. Each low cost carrier has its own unique rules and requirements, so you have to make sure that you read everything and download their apps. Some of my favorites in Europe are EasyJet, Volotea, Vueling, and Norwegian. Their fares change daily, so I highly recommend creating price alerts on a flight website like Skyscanner and then keeping an eye on your flights. Keep in mind most of these airlines are way nicer than the lower-cost carriers in the States like Spirit. RyanAir is probably the lowest quality of them all, but they fly to the most places and we’ve flown with them plenty of times. Just be careful because they tend to fly into smaller airports outside of the major hubs.
Saying pants vs. trousers in England: This is a random bit of advice, but definitely a valuable one. In European English, “pants” are underwear. If you want to talk about your pants, say jeans or trousers. You don’t even want to know how I learned that one haha.
Driving in the UK/Ireland:
Don't be afraid to rent a car and drive on the wrong side of the road. It definitely takes some getting used to - especially the roundabouts, but it's so worth it. You'll see SO much more than you would on a tour bus. Even just having the ability to change your plans and take a detour off to a random peninsula and hike a hill with sheep surrounding you is something you'd never be able to do without your own rental car.
Quite a few people have asked me about needing travel or health insurance while in Europe. While I always recommend booking through the hotel or airline itself rather than something like Expedia, I've never needed insurance. That said, maybe I've been lucky. When I studied abroad in France, I ended up with an ear infection, and I was still on my parents insurance and that seemed to cover me for the check-up and the anti-biotics. It's honestly up to you and what you're comfortable with. If you don't know if your insurance covers travel abroad or you know that it doesn't, there are multiple options out there for temporary international health insurance. I think STA also has one that's specific for university students.