Between growing up in abroad and having been living in, traveling, and running tours in Europe for the past 7 years, I thought I would do every tour guide (and traveler) the giant favor of reminding travelers how it works... This is especially geared to the American audience, but it can apply to anyone... (We do commit one or two sins more than everyone else, save the Chinese).
1) Pack Smart...
Simply put, don't pack more than you can handily manage. Between train stations, moving in and out of your hotel (some great, historic hotels in Europe DON'T have elevators, gang!), and traversing airports, keep it simple. Pack a medium sized bag, and have a good carry-on to keep your camera, laptop, and other essentials handy. You may even want to put your toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant in your carry on bag, but separate what is vital and what you'll need later. If you really want to go far, keep a pair of socks and underwear in your carry on bag... luggage has been lost or sent to the wrong airport before.
And when it comes to clothing, remember this: it's not a fashion show. No one in Prague is going to know that you wore the same top in Berlin. You should be fine traveling with two or three pairs of pants/shorts (at least one of each, depending on the season), five or six shirts, and underwear and socks for every day you're traveling. Some travelers even resort to the hotel sink, which is not uncommon among locals as well. Many bathrooms have a wire line you can employ to hang up laundry to dry. The point is this: unless you've carved out time for a laundromat break, recycle your clothes often, and keep the socks and underwear changed and fresh. Besides, you may end up buying a shirt or two along the way...
And most important of all: GET A PAIR OF EXCELLENT WALKING SHOES.
Most Americans have no concept of true walking. It's to the car, to the mailbox, into the store, or inside an office building. In Europe, it is very much more a way of life. On a recent tour I did, one of my clients had a FitBit. We averaged six miles a day, and this wasn't a hiking tour of the Alps.
On tour, expect that you will be walking a good bit more than you've walked in a very long time. You may be sore at first, but everyone I've traveled with becomes more limber and quickly adjusted after a very short time... and you'll never see a city or a castle in its proper way by car.
2) Travel smart...
Don't be the loudest person in the room, on the train, at the bar, or in the restaurant. Many Americans are hyper paranoid about security, but then they travel abroad and become completely oblivious to their self-advertising. It doesn't mean that you should hunker down in your train seat and look at everyone suspiciously, but when people can hear your conversation from six rows away (American female university students are the biggest culprits), you're not being terribly respectful of others. Maybe it has something to do with country size... for the Chinese and Russians are notoriously loud as well.
Don't take this personally. Just know that this is the public opinion of most every European and tour guide, and it's not remotely unfounded or held out of ugliness.
Be aware of your surroundings at all times... This is no different in the USA, is it? If you're near a main square, the opera house, or a grand hotel, then chances are that you're in a great location. If you venture further out in a city, pay attention to the quality of automobiles parked on the street, the buildings surrounding you, and the people you are encountering. It's great to get off the grid and explore - something I recommend wholeheartedly, but know where you are... When in doubt, become friends with a local bartender at a respectable establishment and get some local advice on the area you're interested in visiting. Or hire someone like myself to guide you or put your itinerary together... We guides have some great value, you know?
3) The World is Not Just Like Home
This is apparently shocking to many people. Customs, comforts, and cuisine can be vastly different. Pay attention to it and enjoy it! Don't sit and pick at everything that displeases you. Hotel rooms are smaller... bathrooms are more compact... Many bathrooms have tubs with a little shower nozzle to use. It is NOT standard European practice to have giant walk-in showers.
Same goes for air conditioning... Because it is often so cold in Europe - and warmer weather is relatively new to the Continent, air conditioning is not standard in Europe. If you are staying in the middle of a city, you can expect that it won't be until after 2am before the it begins to cool off. I was in Paris two summers ago, and the weather was in the 90's. This, again, is where an expert guide/planner can help you by applying first-hand knowledge of which locations and hotels to stay in and which times of the year are best to travel.
And know your way around some basic functions and practices while you are abroad. If you're planning to use your cell phone, know that you have to dial +1 to reach any number in your American cell phone. If you're calling a hotel or a restaurant to make reservations, then you need to dial + (country code) to reach them. Many websites will publish their phone numbers for local calls... They won't show the country code, and they'll start the number with a zero, instead. To call it from your American cell phone, you'll need to drop the very first digit (the zero), and dial the + and country code.
4) Money, Money, Money, Money...
As for tipping at the end of a meal, it's pretty simple. MANY restaurant credit card systems do not add a tip line. Whether paying cash or by card, when you go to pay, do the following steps:
a) Figure out your amount owed (for the purposes of this example, let's say it's 50 Euros).
b) If your service has been great, then add 10% to the bill (5 Euros).
c) When the waiter comes to take your payment, whether cash or credit card, simply state the total, with the tip included (55 Euros).
They will thank you and proceed... And Europe is actually more precautious with credit cards. The waiter will go and get a machine, when you present your credit card, and they will conduct the transaction in front of you. They don't take credit cards off to a back room... This is quite nice.
(And speaking of credit cards, get one with a chip on it... There are still places which only have the European manner for making payment, which is chip only - not with a swipe).
And one giant point, kids... DON'T BRING AMERICAN MONEY!!! NO WAY, NO HOW!!!
It is utterly unnecessary, and you'll find yourself losing a ton of money when you try to exchange it. Let your bank know that you are traveling abroad and to which countries on what dates, so that they don't block your card, and take out money at a local ATM (preferably not at an airport or a high end location that will charge you a bit more).
If you're traveling around well-visited locations, you can be sure that ATMs and credit card machines will be readily available, so you don't have to carry around a chunk of cash - and be a target.
And that goes back to point #2: don't be flashy or lax with your money. Keep it smart and tucked away. Pull out money with your wallet in your lap... Don't sift through your many hundreds to find a 10 Euro bill. And just because you carry around a giant neck wallet that is packed with your passport, credit cards, and cash doesn't make you safe either. Those things look like a giant target. Keep your wallet in your front pocket - to avoid pick-pockets or it falling out when you're sitting down, and take out everything in it that isn't essential to your trip.
DON'T leave stuff lying around in your rental car. If you're going to a highly trafficked destination, then be sure to remember that it is an ideal spot for a quick break-in. That most certainly includes highway rest stops and restaurants... Your illustrious author and guide was traveling in France with six Marines, two members of the FBI, and one CIA agent... I got lax at a rest stop, and I had my camera and laptop stolen while we went in to eat. Yes, rest stops are for sure the most dangerous, because there may be a motivated little criminal simply sitting in his/her car, watching you all pull up, get out of the car laughing and sounding all too American, and they know they've got a good 30 minutes to rob a bunch of wealthy people's belongings from their automobile.
And that goes back to the carry on bag. If you've got some really vital stuff, then keep it on your person. Take a light backpack or computer bag for your essentials, and keep it on you. Two very dear friends of mine run a highly successful tour company. They were leading a bus tour in Ireland and stopped somewhere for dinner. The entire bus got looted... medications, laptops, cameras, wallets were all taken. It is NO fun, trust me.
6) Be Nice
Don't just be nice to people who you think are being nice to you - in the precise manner you expect. Know that customs and traditions might be different than your own. When in doubt, give others the benefit of it.
I was traveling in Paris with clients, and we went to a fantastic local bistro that came with the highest of recommendations. We sat to eat, and when the owner came over to take our order, one person in our group declined to order. She was going to share food with her boyfriend, as they both ate lighter meals. The owner insisted that she had to order, and my client became angry. I was trying to figure out an answer, when it dawned on me.
We were in France. When people eat in France, it's not a one-hour turnaround. It's an event. That seat in her little restaurant would not be occupied by anyone else that evening. The owner had a tiny restaurant, and that chair needed to bring in some revenue... I immediately stood up and put the cost of a meal in the owner's hand.
"It's not a problem," I said to her in French. "She's not very hungry, but I understand your position."
I sat back down and explained the situation to my client, and she immediately understood. All was well, and we had a fantastic dining experience.
Point being, don't be quick to judge or assume that comments or actions mean the same thing as they do back home. Give people the benefit of the doubt and be gracious. My experience is that people will bend over backwards to accommodate a respectful visitor.
7) Your Views
Two words: tread lightly.
Europeans do care about American politics, because when America sneezes, the world holds its breath. American policies often shape events in Europe, whether that be with trade or another war, which creates a flood of immigrants for them to deal with later.
But before you open your mouth about your political or religious views, remember this: other people are traveling with you and others have to listen to you. Unless you are in a wholesome two-way dialogue, religion and politics are best left alone. One only need take a gander at Facebook to see how acrimonious this has become among us. Don't let it ruin a tour for yourself or for others traveling with you.
I have had clients corner me and demand to know if I believed in God. Now how that has anything to do with a tour is beyond me. More often than anything else in the world, people who hold rigid beliefs find themselves needing to know such answers when they are in the middle of becoming attached to another person.
My wholehearted recommendation is to sit back and learn from other people. And let them ask questions of you as well. It is then that you can share away... but don't bring your soap-box. It divides people, creates anger where there was none before, and erodes the calm, happy, learning environment of travel.
I was traveling with a group, and we happened to be in the Netherlands. The news that day had been how the Dutch had just decriminalized another drug. A Dutch friend of mine was walking with our group (I'm all about adding in as much local interaction as possible). This lady proceeded to berate my friend for the "recklessness" of his country's decision.
What a wasted opportunity to perhaps learn a different approach to a problem or understand another cultural perspective.
It only made her look bad, and it was nothing of the trademark American cheer that is our saving grace when abroad.
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
– Gustave Flaubert
8) Respect the Culture
I often use this example to people...
Imagine a group of French people walking into a boot store in Dallas and immediately bombarding the sales clerk with questions in French!
That is what Americans are notorious for doing all of the time!
Know where you are and where you are traveling. In many of the major cities, people most certainly do speak English, but take the time to learn a few phrases... "sorry," "excuse me," "thank you," and "hello" go a very long way.
And don't begrudge Parisians for turning their nose up at you when you speak English to them. French was once the most important language in all of Europe. They are fiercely proud of their mother tongue, and you can expect them to feel insulted when you start firing away in English. Learn a phrase or two if you plan on shopping, such as "Combien?" - "How much?"
If you're in a quiet restaurant, follow what others are doing... keep your volume down. If you go inside a cathedral, take off your hat. It's simple stuff that you can instinctively understand and learn by paying attention to your host culture.
And for the love of God, DON'T MAKE A MILLION SUBSTITUTIONS WITH YOUR FOOD ORDER!!! This is a giant American faux pas... If you have an allergy, you can expect that they will have options, but don't go out to eat and try to be the chef for the night. Their dishes are prepared in a way that has endured for often much longer than our own country's existence. Just go with the flow...
9) Have FUN!
Don't be the one barking all of the time or demanding all of the attention when on tour. If you're in a group, be fair and play nice with the others. Don't keep gunning for the front seat in the van, rather share it with others. Don't complain about a tour until you've talked with the tour guide about whatever issue is jerking your chain, too. Remember that others may be enjoying that which you do not. And you just might be mistaken about things, so voice your concerns in private and give your guide a chance to address your concerns. I haven't met a good one yet who derives any shred of pleasure from having unhappy clients...
That being said, there are indeed bad tours and guides. But that is often because it's a discount tour. Expect that you'll get the discount experience. If you paid less than a lot of more specialized tours (go online and compare), then don't moan if your hotel doesn't have air conditioning or your food is off of a boring set menu. Don't complain if your guide isn't as proficient or professional, either. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for...
Travel is a wonderful thing, and there is still nothing out there which you can buy, which will give you any greater reward. To me, it is the ultimate addiction... I LOVE being taken out of my comfort zone, for I usually find even better ones. Do as the Romans do, as they say... swim downstream with the current, soak up your surroundings and the habits and customs of the locals, and make the most of your time abroad. You'll have plenty of time back home to tip as you wish, sleep as you wish, bathe in a big tub or stand in a giant shower, and eat the food your are familiar with...
We guides and tour operators would be broke and miserable if you all didn't travel, and it is our job to make things fit to your expectations and interests, too. We would also be in the wrong profession if we didn't take immense pleasure in making you feel at home and happy. It's a rather symbiotic relationship between the guide and the client, and these suggestions aren't meant to be ugly or offend. This is meant to inform and entertain - and prepare you for a much more enjoyable trip!
Safe travels to you, wherever you go!
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”
– James Michener