When you travel to a new place, there is always the risk that you may embarrass or humiliate yourself because you have not done your homework. Europe has a complicated and fascinating history that you have probably learned about partially before, but it is well worth doing a little bit of extra preparation beforehand.
Here are ten common mistakes that travelers make when visiting Europe.
1. They plan on doing too much
Some travelers insist on doing the whole continent in a week. That is your choice, but you will never be able to savor the sights, smells, and tastes of places if you are dashing from one capital to another. It is also exhausting, and many Europeans throw up their hands in horror at such an exhausting itinerary. It indicates superficiality and a lack of cultural awareness, which they will never understand.
Why not relax and plan to make another visit some time soon? You could do Paris in a few days instead of a few hours. Use your time to get to know the places, culture, and the people. Slowing down will make for unforgettable experiences which beat the night train to Barcelona any time.
2. They do not realize the value of small coins
Depending on your currency, you may well assume that all coins in the Euro zone are just pocket change. If you are liberally tipping and bestowing these coins, then think again.
At the present rate of exchange, a one-Euro coin is worth slightly more than an American dollar. The very small-value coins in the Euro zone are almost extinct, although they are still favored by supermarkets for psychological pricing (€9.99 always seems cheaper than €10.00). Finland and the Netherlands round cash payments to the nearest five cents. Being aware of the value of the currency can help you save on your holiday bills.
3. They tend to overtip
In most European countries, restaurants will add a service charge which should, in theory, cover the tip. However, it is still common practice to leave about 10 per cent of the total as a tip for the wait staff. Tourists are often unaware of this and tend to overtip, going beyond 20 per cent. It is just not necessary. As for taxis, it is normal to round up the figure to the nearest euro. Getting to know the tipping rules can also help you cut costs.
4. They wear socks and sandals
Many Europeans have a quiet snigger when they see tourists wearing socks and sandals (except in Germany). The normal etiquette is that you either go without socks when wearing sandals, or you put on a pair of sneakers and nobody cares whether there is some fabric next to your feet or not. They just think it is very strange and a bit ridiculous, so better to go with the trend, especially if you are invited to dinner on a summer evening.
5. They book a flight to a small airport
Many low-cost airlines operate their flights from airports which are often at a considerable distance from the actual destination city. Tourists, when booking these so-called bargains, are often unaware of this. They find that they have to wait up to an hour for an uncomfortable and expensive bus ride to the city center. It is always wise to investigate fully before booking that “bargain.”
6. They are unaware that size matters
When space is limited on metro trains, buses, airport lounges, and so on, people will frown at your oversized luggage. Traveling light is a much better idea. Everything in Europe is smaller and more compact. When I returned to Italy after a holiday in the USA, I was astounded at how small and neat everyone and everything looked on my arrival. It took me quite a while to adjust. The best thing to do is to cut back on clothes, buy a smaller suitcase, and make arrangements for washing. Here are some useful tips if you don’t know where to start.
7. They dress too casually
Europeans generally have great fashion sense, so appearing too casual may lead to embarrassment. If you are in doubt, don’t wear your college t-shirt or turn up as if you are going to a baseball game. Jammies are not recommended for shopping or doing errands. If you are not sure what to wear when you are invited out or want to eat out, always go up one notch on your formal scale. That usually does the trick.
Everyone is getting more casual these day, and even European style may change eventually. But for the moment, it is better to err on the side of caution. I have much sympathy for what Oscar Wilde said about fashion:
“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every 6 months.” — Oscar Wilde
8. They are unaware of attitudes towards drunkenness
In the UK and the USA, drunkenness is tolerated and even expected. It is merely regarded as slightly over-the-top behavior and nothing else. In Europe, however, attitudes to drinking are a little different. Alcohol is usually consumed together with food and drinking sessions are not so common. Many tourists are mistaken when they assume that the locals are drinking to get drunk.
Again, things are rapidly changing and there are now worrying trends in Italy, where young people are getting drunk and alcoholism is now a problem. Today, there are 54,000 alcoholics receiving treatment in Italy compared to 19,000 in 1996. There is an excellent breakdown of how attitudes to alcoholism are changing in Europe, but the stigma attached to getting drunk is still strong among the older generation.
9. They hire a car for too long
Lots of tourists just assume that they are going to need a hired car from the very beginning of their trip. They forget that if they are going to stay in one or two cities for any length of time, a rented car is just a nuisance and serves no useful purpose whatsoever. They pay extra money in rental and parking fees which they could use for going on organized tours and using public transport, which are often the best ways to see a city.
10. They expect too many smiles
What is wrong with smiling? Well, nothing really, except that many Europeans do not smile a lot. Try living in Siberia where, if you smile for no particular reason, people regard you as an idiot. In Russia, you only smile when really good things happen. Tourists in Europe can tend to demand smiles from everyone. They get upset when the wait staff fails to smile. They expect enthusiastic comments and excessive positivity. Europeans are just wired differently. Time to get over the cravings for positivity.
When it comes down to it, you need to know something about the countries you are visiting in order to avoid making crazy stereotypical remarks. You need to know that the Dutch do not live in Germany and that Ireland and Northern Ireland are not the same thing. Also, Michelle Obama needs to know that while cooking pasta in the pressure cooker is a great energy and water saver, we Europeans have not jumped on board just yet!
Featured photo credit: Paris, neighborhood bistro/La Citta Vita via flickr.com