How to be a good traveler in Europe – 11 tips to travel better

by Nov 12, 2022Planning

Therese Iknoian Enjoys Wine And View At Harder Kulm Switzerland

The caricature of that loud, garishly dressed American traveler in a different country may be funny, but you do not want to be that traveler. Here are a few easy tips on how to be a good traveler in most European countries.

I’ve popped in, out, and around Europe for several decades – since my college days in Heidelberg, Germany, when I was often so embarrassed by that stereotypical American traveler with a camera resting on a plentiful belly, white sneakers, and invariably a spouse named Maude or Harry. If you want to be a good traveler in Europe, here are 11 tips from my personal observations on how to travel better and respectfully in Europe. You will make friends, travel easier, and come home with great memories.

Don’t assume everybody in every country speaks English. Well, obviously in the United Kingdom, people speak English. But in other countries, while many people do speak English, especially in larger cities, always to remember is that you are a guest in a non-English country throughout Europe. If you don’t speak the language, at least ask respectfully before you launch in English if the person speaks or even understands English. Just recently I was on a train in Switzerland and a woman turned to me and just launched at me in English, going on the assumption that OF COURSE the whole world speaks HER language.


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DO assume everybody understands English. In other words, avoid talking as if you are in a bubble, discussing how terrible you think that country’s food specialty tastes, how funny you think some clothing looks, or how silly that country’s language sounds. How would you like to sit next to somebody in your favorite restaurant at home with somebody at the neighboring table talking loudly about how bad they think the local country’s cuisine or customs are?

Learn a little of a local language. You don’t have to be able to discuss current political affairs but at least figure out how to say basics like, “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and a few other traveler phrases. Yes, they will hear your American accent, but your exchange will be much more pleasant because you tried – even if the person responds in English. Not long ago, I was in Madrid. Although I speak German and French, Spanish is not yet a language I have mastered. Still, I was trying to communicate in Spanish to ask how to use the local metro system. The young man in the information window listened politely to my horrible Spanish, then said in perfect English and with a smile, “Would this be easier in English?” Sigh, yes. But I tried!

German-lederhosen-bears

Oh my gosh, lower your voice!! Why do Americans speak so loudly? On a train, in a restaurant, or walking down the street, you can always pick out the Americans, talking as if they are addressing an audience in a large ballroom. Europeans value their personal sphere, so please don’t call to your travel partner down the street in a loud yodel (“Hey, Maude, look!”), or hail across a store in such a voice so loud that dust bunnies (or bears in lederhosen) bounce off a shelf.

If it’s different from what you know, it’s not weird … just different. Criticizing a custom, timing, or tradition won’t make friends when you are traveling in a European country. It is THEIR custom, THEIR timing, THEIR tradition – and they are used to it, and they like it. I giggle constantly about the German custom of having coffee and cake at 5 or 6 p.m. then going straight to dinner, or the Italian tradition of not even STARTING dinner until at least 9 p.m. But gosh darn it, it’s not weird, just different.

Appreciate those differences. To be a good traveler in Europe, learning to appreciate the differences is part of the joy of traveling. Heck, we always say, life’s short, eat dessert first – and that’s what the Germans do! When in Rome, do as the Romans do – and love it.

Tapas-in-Spain

Find a route, city or hotel recommended in every commonly read guidebook? Perhaps consider another destination. No, really. If a particular town or restaurant is in a travel guidebook for Europe, I’m not going to say it won’t be good – but it could be totally overrun and more “American” than local. Recently in Switzerland, it seemed like every American we came across was going to one small mountain town. Baffling — until we asked a local resident who said that a few years ago, one well-read European travel guidebook author (betcha can guess) recommended that town. It immediately was overrun, nearly ruining what had been local quaint culture. Consider another area in the same region. Beat your own path, not the one followed by every American reading the same guidebooks.

In a highly touristed city, take the less-commonly-traveled route. Michael and I have the most fun going left if everybody goes right, as we call it. In Mexico a few years ago, when a stream of tourists got off in a port and headed to the right into town, we took a left turn. Why? Because I had scouted a hike in that direction up to a viewpoint. Taxi drivers and others kept yelling after us, no, don’t go that way. We did, and we had the BEST day with the BEST hike. We avoided being trampled by vendors trying to hawk their tourist wares and saw something real. Similar story in Venice: There are signs telling you which route to take from arrival to St. Mark’s Square, where of course everybody wants to go. And that means that every tourist in town is walking the same path, past the same stores. Take a different turn! You’ll get there, promise, and if you get lost for a spell, you may run across a really cool little cafe.

Getting Licked By A Swiss Cow

Therese Iknoian gets a huge lick kiss from a Swiss cow in Grindelwald, Switzerland.

Observe how locals do something, then mimic it. Every country has its manner of eating, drinking, shopping or even standing. Be observant. Look at what’s happening in a store or restaurant for example before you wade in and assume it’s done like you do at home. For example, we have heard countless stories of Americans getting truly pissed off at a restaurant in Europe because the server never brought the check. In most European countries, it is considered rude to bring the check until it is requested. So don’t sit and steam, look around, note the etiquette, and mimic it!

Respect traditions of another country. You did not go to Europe to simply experience what you do at home, did you? In France and other European countries, it is not polite to simply traipse across most lawns or grassy area, unless marked as allowed. You would never go into a church wearing shorts in most countries if you are a good traveler. You don’t shovel food in your mouth on public transportation, in most European countries. There is a certain level of etiquette that goes beyond American’s mostly very casual manner.

OMG, do NOT tip like an American! In the United States, tipping is considered nearly mandatory and usually 20 percent (the reasoning behind this is a cultural and political discussion we won’t get into here). So off we all go to Europe and of course we offer 20 percent (re more) of a bill as a tip. Wait, did you know it’s considered an insult in most countries to tip a taxi driver (except a tiny rounding up?) You also don’t automatically leave a buck for one drink or coffee, maybe a quarter. And in some restaurants in some European countries a service charge is already added to the bill, e.g., “service compris” in France or “servizio” in Italy. Although not a tip per se, that means you may only round up 5-10 percent, but then only if the service was indeed good.

Do Not Tip Like An American in Europe Italian Bill In A Restaurant

Do some investigating as to what tipping protocol is in another country – and then for goodness’ sake don’t leave more because you think you are being nice, or it seems like so little (because you are translating into U.S. dollars). A friend of mine once tried to leave about 35% of a bill for a snack and a coffee in Morocco because the currency exchange meant the price was peanuts to him (OK, so Morocco isn’t Europe, but you get my point). Leaving excess amounts does not make you a good traveler; in fact, you are ruining the other countries, encouraging residents to be expectant of American tipping habits when serving Americans, and setting the stage for people who always have their hand out when they see an American.


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If you are traveling to Europe, you really don’t want to be seen as an annoying American traveler. You want to be recognized and appreciated as a good traveler who learns from, respects, and abides by different traditions. Your travels in Europe will be better for it.

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1 Comment

  1. These tips are great, I will try a some of them.

    Reply

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