Visiting Europe – 100 Things Every American Should Know

If you’re one of the 12 million Americans heading to Europe this year, this detailed list will help you plan and enjoy your experience to its fullest.

I am an American who was lucky enough to spend about half of my formative childhood years living in Europe and traveling extensively throughout the gorgeous continent. I’ve been able to return to Europe regularly since then, both for work and for pleasure.

If you’re one of the 12 million Americans who is headed to Europe this year, this comprehensive list of things every American should know before visiting Europe will help you plan ahead and enjoy your experience to its fullest.

Walking along the Maas River in Maastricht
The Maas River in Maastricht, The Netherlands (or Meuse River as it’s known in the neighboring French-speaking part of Belgium) is the earth’s second oldest river.

Planning Your Trip

1. Focus

Yes, Europe is the second smallest continent on Earth, but that does not mean it’s small!  If you plan to hike in Iceland, visit the fjords of Norway, cross the English channel by ferry, take a selfie at Neuschwanstein Castle, and climb the Parthenon in Athens all in one week, you are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, pick a place or two, depending upon the time and budget you have to explore Europe, and really experience it.

2. Appreciate that Europe is made up of many different countries

While the United States is one country made up of 50 states, Europe is a continent of similar size made up of 50 different countries.  Each country has its own history, culture, foods, and language. Don’t let the Euro as a common currency in about 20 of those countries trick you into thinking France and Germany are alike. They are actually quite different.

British Pounds -- GBP 5 note and an assortment of coins
The United Kingdom of Great Britain is one of ten countries that is part of the European Union (EU) but that does not use the Euro as its currency.

3. Do your homework

Americans are notoriously ignorant about the world outside of our borders.  Rise above the reputation and take the time to educate yourself in advance about the places you’re visiting.  At a minimum, you should know historical highlights, key cities, the currency, and the languages spoken.

4. Learn a few words and phrases in the local language

Sadly, only one in five Americans believes learning another language is important. In contrast, about half the people in the European Union speak at least two languages, and about 40% speak English. While it’s generally very easy for Americans to get around Europe, I still recommend learning a bit of the local language. Knowing a few expressions in the local language has helped me order breakfast in Berlin, ask for directions to a cash machine in Italy, and get a colleague’s suitcase out of a locked room after hours in Sweden (accompanied by world-champion level charades).  Learning a second language is hard, especially if you’re trying it for the first time as an adult.  Make it easier by carrying a phrase book with you, or keeping a cheat sheet of important words either printed out or on your phone.  If you have easy access to Google Translate, it can help you through most language barriers.  Duolingo is also a fun, free way to build local language knowledge in advance of your trip.

Luxembourg Gardens in Paris
Statue in front of the Luxembourg Palace in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris, France.

5. Research local holidays

Public holidays vary by country.  Most European countries recognize Christmas Day and New Year’s Day as public holidays as we do in America, but they also recognize additional religious and country-specific holidays that may be foreign to most Americans. For example, many sites and shops will be closed around Easter.  In some countries, the subsequent holidays of Ascension Day and Pentecost are also observed.  No one in Europe celebrates America’s Independence Day on July 4th, but Sweden celebrates the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day near the end of June, France celebrates Bastille Day on July 14th, and Belgium celebrates Armistice Day on November 11th.

6. Consider the time of year

My favorite time to visit Europe is between late May and early June.  The weather is nice, the days are long, but most Europeans are still in school and not competing with you for rooms and restaurants while on their own vacations. Note that air conditioning isn’t very widespread in Europe.  If you’re like my Montana born and bred Better Half who is absolutely uncomfortable at any temperature above 70F, you’ll want to avoid visiting much of Europe in July and August.

7. Check the expiration date

Be sure your passport will be valid for the entire duration of your trip, and then some.  You never know when volcanic activity in Iceland or some other unexpected event may keep you in Europe longer than planned.

8. Flying times

My preference is to fly to Europe in the evening.  I have found that I do best when I get on my Transatlantic flight, eat dinner, and try to get some sleep before landing the next day. When I arrive in Europe, I have a little energy to do and see a few things before going to bed at a reasonable time.  Returning to the US, I prefer an early morning flight home so that I arrive in time to say hello to my loved ones, eat dinner, and go straight to bed.  

Leaving American Sector in Berlin
The sign immortalized in John Le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, Germany.

Getting Ready to Go

9.  Make copies

Be sure you have multiple copies of your important documents including your passport, detailed itinerary, credit and debit cards, and medical insurance card.  Keep one set of copies with you at all times, ideally in both a printed and digital format.  I like to keep a scanned copy of my documents both on a flash drive that travels with me and posted to Evernote or Google Drive.  I also recommend keeping a second set of documents in another location, like with a traveling companion or hidden in your suitcase.  Be sure to leave a full set with a loved one back in the United States, too.  

10.  Take US embassy and consulate information with you

As part of your important document packet, take the address and phone number of the nearest US embassy or consulate with you, especially the emergency after-hours phone number.  Visit the State Department’s web site to find this information.

Window Box in Paris
Geraniums are in bloom in nearly every apartment building and office window in Paris, from April until October.

11.  Take your extra passport photo with you

You know how you’re always given two passport photos but only need one to get your passport?  Pack that extra photo!  If your passport is lost or stolen while you’re abroad, you’ll be glad you have your extra photo with you and don’t have to also mess with getting a new passport picture taken.

12.  Jot down the conversion rate 

If you are only visiting countries that use the Euro, this isn’t such a big deal.  If you will be using multiple currencies during your trip, this will help you a ton.  Last fall, I visited Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Czech Republic, and Hungary.  Two weeks, five countries, and five different currencies.  In Hungary, when I went to tip the cab driver, I had a different exchange rate in my head and ended up tipping about 10x more than I intended. My mistake was realized only when I looked back to see the cab driver counting his tip and acting as if he’d won a small lottery.

13.  Consider trip insurance

I don’t think I ever purchased trip insurance until it was mandatory for my daughter’s choir trip. I still don’t usually buy it for myself or my trips, especially since business trips are largely already covered, but I did purchase trip insurance for my younger daughter’s upcoming solo trip to Europe this summer.  From a medical coverage perspective alone, I’ll probably never travel internationally again without it.

14.  Contact your bank

Not only will you want to fully understand the costs associated with using your cards abroad, including withdrawing cash from an ATM, you’ll also want to notify your bank that you’ll be traveling abroad so that they don’t turn off your cards when the foreign transactions start coming in.  If the conversion fees are reasonable, consider converting some cash into the currency of your destination before you go. Because I bank with USAA that has no brick and mortar presence in my area, I never bother to convert currency before my trip and it’s never been a problem.  However, I do have friends whose banks will allow them to easily and inexpensively convert US Dollars into Euros. In that case, and especially for Euros which are widely accepted even in the countries not officially using the Euro, it’s not a bad thing to consider doing.

Mona Lisa
Bonus Tip: Don’t be disappointed by the Mona Lisa. The world’s most photographed smile is only 2 1/2 feet by 1 1/2 feet in size and is kept roped off and behind bullet-proof glass. Meanwhile, there are nearly 70,000 other works of art on display in the Louvre. Don’t miss out on other famous works like Venus de Milo and Winged Victory.

15.  Fill ‘er up

Ensure you have an adequate supply of any prescription medication before your trip.  Trying to get a refill in Europe will be difficult, if not impossible.  Do the same with any over-the-counter medicine you take regularly or anticipate you might need including vitamins, herbal supplements, essential oils, cold medicine, cough drops, and allergy tablets.  

16.  Can you hear me now?    

While Wi-Fi access is fairly prevalent throughout Europe, international phone and data charges can quickly add up.  Contact your cell phone provider to be sure you understand your coverage options, plan costs, and other charges.  Take step-by-step directions for any phone settings that need to be changed when you arrive in Europe and how to make a local call from each country.  

17.  Contact your health care provider  

While the local US embassy or consulate can help you obtain medical care abroad, you still need to know what coverage you have abroad and what to expect in case of a medical emergency.  Depending upon your medical plan, trip insurance may be a worthwhile expense to help provide you with adequate coverage in case of emergency.

18.  Book some sightseeing tickets in advance 

Once you have finalized your dates and destinations, start purchasing some of the hotter sightseeing tickets in advance.  When I was in Milan, I waited too long to look into tickets for Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and they were all sold out.   If ascending the Eiffel Tower is on your sightseeing list, purchasing those tickets in advance can save you hours of time wasted waiting in line.  That said, don’t pre-book every single activity leaving you no room for flexibility or adjustments based upon the weather.

19.  It is okay to skip the things that aren’t of interest to you!

Growing up, my artist mother dragged me to every art museum in Western Europe.  While I love Impressionist artists like Claude Monet, I have absolutely no appreciation for the dark, gory, religious paintings of the Baroque period. I don’t think twice about skipping the sections of the Louvre that don’t appeal to me or skipping the Louvre completely in lieu of the Musee d’Orsay.  Disneyland Paris may have rave reviews online, but it’s about the last place on earth I’d spend time if I were in France.

A young Danish boy fishes in the waters surrounding the Kastellet in Copenhagen, Denmark.
A young Danish boy fishes in the waters surrounding the Kastellet in Copenhagen, Denmark.

20.  Pack snacks  

I recommend high protein, low sugar snacks like nuts, protein bars, granola bars, beef jerky, and trail mix.  Plus also, emergency chocolate.  You never know when you’ll be stuck at an airport and the shops are closed or when you’ll wake up in the middle of the night from jet lag and be hungry.  

21.  Square peg in a round hole 

American electronics will not plug into European outlets without an outlet converter.  Note that the United Kingdom has different outlets than continental Europe.  Therefore, I recommend an all-in-one converter like this one that’s available at Target or this one or even this one from Amazon.  Yes, they are a little bit more pricey, but you’re pretty much set for any outlet in the world with one of these bad boys!  I usually take three converters with me so that I can use or charge multiple items at once.  I also recommend carrying at least one converter with you on the plane so you can immediately recharge your phone, laptop, or any other device on the ground in Europe, as needed.  If you don’t want to spend $6 to $20 for one of these all-in-one converters, you can also get more simple adapters for a bit less.  

22.  Plan to be without your suitcase for 24 hours

While my luggage has never been lost on an international flight, planning to be without it for up to 24 hours helps prepare you for that possibility.  I always carry at least one clean t-shirt, a fresh pair of undies, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a day’s worth of snacks with me. If you wear contacts or take medication, be sure you have contact solution, your glasses, and your medication with you, as well.

23.  Block it

Any US passport issued since 2006 includes an RFID chip that allows your passport to be read with ease.  While I’ve read mixed things about RFID blocking holders — some say you absolutely need one, others say they are unnecessary — I’ve chosen to take no chances.  I use this passport wallet (yes, you can buy them in other colors besides my beloved pink), keeping my passport and cards in it at all times.

In Flight Meal
My in flight meal on an Air France flight from Amsterdam to Paris.

Getting There

24.  Drink lots of water on the plane  

Airplane cabin humidity levels are generally lower than the Sahara Desert, and dehydration amplifies jetlag, so be sure to drink plenty of water on your flight.  

 

25.  Keeping germs at bay 

The good news is that your Transatlantic flight will be filled with people from many countries around the world. The bad news is that you never know what germs you might be exposed to in the hours you spend with them in the relatively close quarters of the airplane.  Known as Thieves by Young Living customers, On Guard by dōTERRA fans, and Immune Strength by Rocky Mountain Oil lovers like me, I swear by one of these essential oil blends to help protect me from the germs on board the plane, from the common cold in the seat next to me to the potential flu bug a few rows back.  I like to apply the oil at least 30 minutes before boarding the plane and then another time or two while on board.  With clove, cinnamon, and orange oils as key ingredients in this blend, I find the scent of these blends to be quite pleasing and reminiscent of Christmas.  One of my co-workers refers to my oils as Hot Damn! because it reminds her of cinnamon schnapps.  

Enjoying a glass of wine at a cafe in the Montmartre district of Paris.
Enjoying a glass of wine at a cafe in the Montmartre district of Paris.

26.  Try to sleep

As someone who has a hard time sleeping in the comfort of my own bedroom most nights, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite giving this advice, but resting as much as you can will help you enjoy your time on the ground in Europe.  You’ll be excited for your trip and distracted by the in flight movies and entertainment.  Pack a neck pillow (inflatable is best so it doesn’t take up much room), face mask, and earplugs to help you get comfortable and get some rest.  I also pack lavender essential oil to help me calm down and relax.  You do not need to pack a full-sized pillow or bring a quilt with you; the airline will have a small, sanitized pillow and blanket for each passenger.  

27.  Minimize alcohol intake

Most international flights will include beer and wine at no additional charge.  Enjoy a cocktail before dinner or a glass of wine with your meal, but try to limit your alcohol to one glass so you can stay hydrated and sleep on the flight.   

28.  Brushing your teeth

If you want to brush your teeth on the plane before you land, do not brush your teeth with the water from the tap in the bathroom. Take a cup of bottled water in with you instead.

29.  Don’t pass up a chance to pee

When you land in Europe, don’t pass up the first chance you get to use a real restroom on the ground. Once you get in line to enter the country and have your passport stamped, you might not see a restroom for a while and sometimes the lines can be quite long.

Bicycles and cobblestones are both prevalent across Europe
Bicycles and cobblestones are both prevalent across Europe

Getting Around and Experiencing Europe

30.  If at all possible, do not drive your first time in Europe

The cars, roads, and parking spots are much smaller than in the US. The signs vary by country and are all quite different than back home.  In many cases, signs may only be in the local language.  It’s another whole ballgame if you’re visiting Great Britain where they drive on the left side of the road.  If you must drive in Europe, be sure to research license requirements in advance.  In many countries, your American license alone is not enough.  You may be required to supplement it with an International Driving Permit.  Because manual transmission vehicles are the norm in Europe, be sure you reserve a car with automatic transmission well in advance to help ensure one is available when you arrive, unless you look forward to driving a stick shift.

31.  Bring good walking shoes

Whether you’re in a big city like Amsterdam or a smaller town like Maastricht, walking is one of the fastest, scenic, most efficient ways to get around the historic, densely populated continent of Europe. Cobblestones are prevalent in towns and cities of all sizes, so flat, comfortable, practical shoes are a definite must.

32.  Bicycles

Bicycles are very common throughout Europe, perhaps nowhere as much as in The Netherlands where they outnumber people. It’s relatively easy to rent a bike throughout much of Europe, especially now that kiosk options like Vélib exist.

A traveler checks his itinerary while waiting for a train in Liege, Belgium.
A traveler checks his itinerary while waiting for a train in Liege, Belgium.

33.  Mass transit  

If you don’t use public transportation frequently in the US, European mass transit can sometimes be a bit confusing or even overwhelming.  Within cities, subways like the Paris Métro and city buses can quickly and affordably get you to the places that are beyond walking or biking distance.  Between cities, consider buses or trains for affordable travel. In many stations, tickets can be purchased directly from a kiosk.  This is a fast, convenient way to purchase tickets if know what you’re doing, but a confusing option if you don’t.  While the lines are often long, especially during peak travel, don’t be afraid to stand in line at the ticket counter to work with someone face-to-face. Once your ticket is purchased, it often still needs to be stamped at the machine on the platform before you board.

34.  Security in public places 

Don’t be alarmed if you see police officers decked out in what looks like combat gear carrying heavy-duty machine guns in airports, train and bus stations, and even at popular tourist locations.  

35.  Transportation strikes

These can be a relatively common occurrence, especially in France and Italy. While they sound scary and are absolutely a nuisance, they are usually announced in advance.  Watch for any signs announcing an upcoming strike, and ask your hotel front desk for more information and assistance.  A transportation strike hit France a few years ago on the day I was scheduled to fly home.  The hotel staff knew how to contact an independent, Vietnamese cab driver who wasn’t striking, and I was able to get to the airport without any trouble!

Tower Bridge reflected in a window in England.
Tower Bridge reflected in a window in England.

36.  All aboard!

Once you’re on board a train, be mindful of local customs.  While Americans will happily chat up a stranger on a flight, this is less common in Europe.  Even within your travel party, be mindful of the volume and nature of your conversation.  One American colleague and I took the train from Amsterdam to Paris and sat in business class seats across the aisle from one another.  On board we carried out a work conversation at our normal speaking voices for about 30 minutes before another passenger very politely told us that we shouldn’t be talking in this train car because everyone else was there to work during the trip.

37.  Air travel within Europe

If you travel by plane within Europe, be mindful that the airline travel rules vary.  For example, most European airports I’ve been in recently do not require you to remove your shoes.  Watch for signs, nearly all of which are in English, and look ahead of you in line to see what others are doing.  

38.  Hidden fees 

Like many domestic carriers do, several continental airlines will charge you for each checked bag.  You may also be asked to pay extra fees if your bag weighs more than the domestic carrier’s limit.   

39.  Be mindful of pickpockets

Just like you would in any large city in the world, be especially mindful of pickpockets, especially in heavy tourist areas, when stopping to observe a street performer, and when using mass transit. I recommend a small, cross-body bag for women. Men, put your wallets in your front pocket.  Split your cash and bank cards up and keep them in a few different places.  Keep them zipped into an interior pocket of your purse or backpack. Do not walk around with your phone in your hand unless you’re using it at that moment to snap a photo or look something up. I wish I didn’t have as many firsthand stories from American colleagues who have had their cell phones, passports, or purses stolen in Paris as I do!  From the seasoned American traveler whose instincts told her to wrap her arms around her cross-body purse when a small group of gypsies approached her by the Notre Dame only to realize after they left without her purse that they had slipped her cell phone from her hand to a Dutch colleague whose phone was lifted from a table at a sidewalk cafe while she was telling the others in her travel group about the importance of not leaving your phone on the table.

A young guard at Amalienborg, the Danish Royal Family's winter palace in Copenhagen, Denmark.
A young guard at Amalienborg, the Danish Royal Family’s winter palace in Copenhagen, Denmark.

40.  If you have a hard time communicating, don’t get frustrated and absolutely do not raise your voice

While Americans are fortunate that most Europeans speak English, chances are you’ll likely have at least one encounter with someone who do not.  After all, there are 84 languages spoken in Europe, plus more localized dialects.  When you play charades and your team doesn’t understand what you’re trying to convey, you have to take a different approach.  That will serve you well in this case, too.  Use simple English words free of idiomatic expressions or slang.  Speak slowly.  Try gestures, but be mindful that the gestures we use in the US don’t always translate the same way across the Atlantic Ocean.  For example, a thumbs up sign signaling that something is okay is akin to ordering one of something in Europe.  

41.  We’ll never be royal 

Most Europeans will have learned Queen’s English and will use British, not American, words like lorry (truck), trolley (cart), lift (elevator), bin (trash can), courgette (zucchini), crisps (potato chips), chips (French fries), and rocket (arugula).  So you might even need to learn a few new words in your mother tongue before traveling!

42.  Watch what you say

While you may not be able to understand the conversations around you, nearly everyone you pass can understand you. Be thoughtful about what you say in front of others!

43.  Personal space is very different than in the US

In a continent three times more densely populated than ours, Europeans from all countries tend to have a different sense of personal space than Americans.  As someone who lives in the Midwest, where things are even more wide open and spacious than the big cities on either coast, I have to be especially conscious about not taking a step back to add space to my interactions with European colleagues. Don’t feel threatened or like someone is “all up in your space” if they are closer than is typical back in the US.

A couple takes wedding photos on the Charles Bridge in Prague at sunrise.
A couple takes wedding photos on the Charles Bridge in Prague at sunrise.

44.  Handshakes and social kissing

While American handshakes are all about a strong grip and length (at least two or three “pumps”), European handshakes are typically soft and short in comparison. After an initial introduction, I’ve found it common for personal and professional acquaintances from all European countries to move from handshake greetings to social kissing. While Americans are more likely to hug, reserving kisses for extremely close friends and families, the opposite is typically the case throughout Europe.  When it comes to social kissing, here are a few guidelines.  Limit your smooch to the cheek, and always start with the right. Know how many kisses are typical in each country, like usually two kisses in France and three in The Netherlands, but don’t worry about it too much as it’s usually pretty easy to follow the lead of your European counterpart.

45.  Typically not a 24/7 kinda world

While Americans from cities and towns of all sizes are fairly accustomed to extended hours at grocery stores, transportation counters, and pharmacies, this isn’t as common throughout Europe.  Many businesses may be closed on Sundays, for local holidays, and many stores will close by 6pm most days of the week.  Do your best to plan ahead, and always double-check the posted hours.

46.  What’s in a name?  

Many cities are known by different names based upon the language.  What is Prague to Americans is Praha to the Czech.  The German town of Aachen is listed as Aix-la-Chappelle in the neighboring, French-speaking part of Belgium.  Knowing each city on your itinerary by its various names is especially important when driving or taking mass transit.  

47.  Always be aware of your surroundings

In the four decades I’ve lived in or traveled within Europe, I’ve experienced anti-American protests in London, Occupy Wall Street protests, violent brawls between Algerian and French World Cup soccer fans in Paris, and pro-Democracy riots in Istanbul. As you admire the architecture, savor the new foods, and drink in the experiences that surround you, watch for warning signs.  Some of the most obvious are crowds of people chanting, streets lined with police vans, and people carrying gas masks. Look at the locals — shopkeepers, people carrying grocery bags, front desk personnel at your hotel — and watch for any signs of hesitation or concern. Know the areas of town you should avoid after dark by doing your homework and checking with the hotel staff.

A bedroom in the Chateau de Villandry in the Loire Valley of France.
A bedroom in the Chateau de Villandry in the Loire Valley of France.

A Good Night’s Sleep

48.  Room for one  

While Americans are used to hotel rooms that usually contain either one king or two queen-sized beds and enough bath towels for four people, European accommodations are usually quite different.  There is such a thing as a single room, and it is what it sounds like:  a room with a single bed and one bath towel. A room with a double bed is not uncommonly two single beds pushed together.

49.  Washcloths

There are usually no washcloths in Europe, so if you regularly use one, be sure to pack one plus a plastic bag to keep it in if it’s not fully dried when you check out.

50.  Double duty

The face mask you used to block out light on your flight across the ocean will also come in handy in your hotel room.  If you visit Europe in the summer, you’ll likely experience much earlier sunrises and much later sunsets than back home, unless you’re visiting from Alaska.

51.  Double duty, part deux

While grocery stores and pharmacies might close by 6pm most days, the bars and nightclubs throughout Europe are often open until nearly dawn. The earplugs you used on your flight to Europe will also minimize the sounds of the locals stumbling home in the wee hours.

52.  The key to keeping electricity costs low  

To help manage electricity costs, many hotels require you to place your room card in a special slot near the door before any lights or electrical outlets will work.  Keep in mind that when you leave your room and take your key, the power outlets often cease to work.  I learned this the hard way when I left my laptop charging while I went to grab breakfast only to learn that it wasn’t charging at all! Most hotels are willing to give you a second room key, so grab a second key if you need to charge your electronics while you’re out.

One of 75 staircases at the Chateau Royal de Blois in the Loire Valley of France.
One of 75 staircases at the Chateau Royal de Blois in the Loire Valley of France.

53.  Stairway to heaven  

Especially in older, more historic hotels, elevators are small.  And by small, I mean that you and your bag may be the only items that will fit in some of the elevators!  Unless you are on a high floor, are lugging heavy suitcases, or have a physical condition that makes it difficult, the stairs are usually used to leave the elevators open for other guests.

54.  Ground zero  

While Americans consider the ground floor to be the first floor, Europeans consider the first floor above the ground floor to be the first floor. This tidbit will help you find your hotel room.  And it will help you count how many more flights of stairs you have to lug your suitcase in a building without an elevator.  

Food and Drink

55.  Amazing food  

While it is possible to find a bad meal in Europe, it’s usually pretty hard. After hundreds and hundreds of meals in Europe, only two have been less than stellar.  Most restaurants prepare foods from scratch with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Along the coasts, fish and seafood is often caught and served the same day.  Desserts are incredibly flavorful and not as sickly sweet as they often taste in the US.  Enjoy the food to the fullest, and know that you’re likely walking enough to compensate for any incremental calories!

56.  Eat away from tourist attractions  

To increase your chances of an amazing meal, eat at places away from the main attractions.  Research your options online, read reviews, or ask a local contact for recommendations.

Shawarma, a type of lamb, chicken, or beef dish served in Turkey.
A shawarma stand in Istanbul, Turkey. Lamb, chicken, beef, or a combination of meats are placed on a vertical spit and slowly roasted for a long time. To serve the shawarma, long, thin slices of the meat are carved from the spit. It is then served in salads, in sandwiches, or simply on a plate with condiments like tahini or hummus.

57.  Stretch your food budget  

To experience as much as possible while getting the most bang for your buck, eat at least one nice, big meal a day.  For the other meals, try grabbing coffee and a baked good from a local bakery, a sandwich from a street stand, or items from a grocery store. Sample the local beers, wines, and spirits by purchasing them at a store rather than a bar.

58.  Request an English menu  

If one is not automatically offered to you, ask your server if they have an English menu.  Most restaurants have a few available, and they are a helpful way to help you select your meal.  

59.  With gas or without?  

This is often one of the first questions you’re asked in a restaurant.  The term “with gas” translates to “carbonated water” to us Americans, and is a common option throughout Europe.  

60.  Chill out

From water to beer, drinks throughout Europe are typically served without ice and at warmer temperature than Americans tend to prefer.

61.  No “free” refills  

The concept of unlimited drinks is very American and not common elsewhere.  I’ve read several theories about why there aren’t unlimited refills in Europe saying it’s because drinks are served from glass bottles rather than the huge fountain dispensers common in the US or because the cost of using real sugar in soft drinks is more expensive than the high-fructose corn syrup used in America.  Either way, expect to be charged several Euros for a small bottle of soda in most of Europe and enjoy the quality — real sugar — over quantity — no 48 ounce glasses.

A seafood salad with shrimp, tuna, and octopus atop fresh greens in Milan, Italy.
A seafood salad with shrimp, tuna, and octopus atop fresh greens in Milan, Italy.

62.  In most countries, beer and wine can be consumed starting at age 16  

I share this in case you are an American under the age of 21 headed to Europe, or the parent of a child who of European drinking age.  

63.  My food is looking at me  

Seafood dishes will often be served with the heads still on the fish and full shrimp that need to be pulled apart.

64.  100% Angus  

Unless you’re interested in trying horsemeat, don’t eat any steak, chopped meat, or “beef” that isn’t defined as 100% Angus.  While it is usually listed as horsemeat on the local language menu, I’ve experienced at least one restaurant in France that only translated it as “chopped steak” on the English menu. Yes, my American colleague was grateful that I studied French and had a French menu in front of me.

65.  Dinner is an experience

Set aside plenty of time for dinner in Europe.  It is an experience that should be savored and not rushed. Additionally, as you travel south in Europe, expect dinner to be later and later in the evening. Scandinavians typically eat around 6pm, like the average American.  Central Europeans eat around 7pm, and Southern Europeans eat at 8pm or later.

Frites! Dutch French fries are commonly sold in cones topped with spicy ketchup and mayonnaise.
French fries were invented in Belgium where they are called frites. They are sold in paper cones, topped with spicy ketchup and mayonnaise.

66.  Seat yourself  

For drinks, refreshments, or meals at cafes or bistros, you can generally seat yourself and wait for someone to take your order.  Avoid any table with a reserved sign, and only sit at an open table set with silverware if you plan on eating.  If you’re just grabbing a drink, opt for a table without silverware instead.  

67.  Sharing tables  

In some countries, especially in Germany, it’s not uncommon to be seated at a table already partially occupied by other diners.  

68.  Limit special requests  

Unless you truly have a critical, life-threatening dietary restriction, avoid making changes to the dishes as listed on the menu.  

69.  Different meaning of the same word  

The word entree in European dining usually refers to a first course, like an appetizer in America.  Main dish is the term Europeans use for what Americans call an entree.

70.  Holler if you need anything  

Because dining with friends is a social occasion, servers will not interrupt you every five minutes to ask if everything is okay.  If you need something, simply make eye contact with your server or raise your right hand to signal that you need something.

Stroopwafels are a Dutch treat made by infusing two, thin, crispy waffles together with caramel syrup.
Stroopwafels are a Dutch treat made by infusing two, thin, crispy waffles together with caramel syrup. They are delicious, or lekker, as the Dutch would say!

71. Request the check when ready  

Because enjoying a delicious meal with friends is a social occasion, most European waiters will wait until you ask to bring you the check. Overall, the best way to ask is to either make eye contact or raise your right hand and make a signing motion.  In some countries, it’s rude to wave your hand, and in just about all countries, it’s rude to snap your fingers.  Earn bonus points by learning how to say, “Sir/Madam, the check please” in the local language!

72.  A tip about tipping

While we usually tip around 15% in the US, in part to fully compensate wait staff who receive lower hourly wages, tipping is much less expected throughout Europe.  Only tip when you are served by a waiter or waitress.  If you order your food at a counter, you do not need to tip at all.  In most countries, the wait staff is fully compensated for their work and the service is included in the prices listed on your bill.  However, if you want to add five to ten percent for excellent service, it is appreciated by your server.  A 10% tip is considered quite generous throughout Europe.  Whether paying in cash or by card, your server will typically want to know what you’d like the total charge to be at the time of payment.  If your bill is €22 and you want to add a €3 tip, simply tell the waiter €25 when you hand him your card or cash.  Because European wait staff know that Americans tend to be generous tippers, it’s not uncommon for them to stamp “Service Not Included” on the receipt in English to try to increase the amount you’ll tip them.  When in doubt, research the tipping customs for each country you plan to visit in advance.

A ferocious watch dog stands guard at a boutique in Paris.
A ferocious watch dog stands guard at a boutique in Paris.

73.  Hot dog!  

In most European countries, it’s not uncommon to see dogs in restaurants.  They are usually very well behaved, resting patiently under the table for hours while their owners enjoy their meal.

Paying for Things

74.  Always pay in local currency  

When swiping your debit or credit card, you might be asked if you’d like to pay in US dollars or the local currency.  Always pick the local currency or you may unknowingly be charged an additional 3-5% for the “convenience” of having your purchase converted from the local currency to dollars.

75.  Cards with chips  

While American banks and credit card companies began issuing cards with embedded chips in 2015, cards with chips have been prevalent across Europe for years.  If you have both an embedded chip and a four digit PIN for your card, you should be able to use your card in about every instance.  Without a chip and PIN, you may experience issues at kiosks, like train station ticket machines, and with some point of sale machines.  

Smørrebrød with shrimp and egg at Cafe Oscar in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Smørrebrød with shrimp and egg in Copenhagen, Denmark.

76.  Don’t let your credit card out of your sight  

While Americans routinely sip their cards in bill portfolios that waiters whisk away to run at a register elsewhere in the restaurant, that doesn’t happen in Europe.  The wait staff will always bring a portable reader to your table to settle up with you.

77.  Carry enough cash

While just about every business in America, including some vending machines, accept debit and credit cards, many small businesses and eateries only accept cash.

78.  Keep the change

The first Euro bill is a €5.  Everything else is in coin form, so you may want to take coin purse along, even the men.

79.  Keep each currency in its own coin purse  

The last place we lived in Europe was in Maastricht, in the very southern tip of the Netherlands.  In less than 30 minutes, we could be in either Belgium or Germany.  Because this was before the Euro, my Mom usually had Belgian Francs, German Marks, and Dutch Guilders in her purse.  She kept each in its own coin purse to keep things straight, a concept I still use on my trips today.  I have a small coin purse for Euros and another for British Pounds.  Any other currencies go into their own, super classy, snack-sized Ziploc bag marked with the currency and current exchange rate.

A walkway in Lisbon, Portugal.
A walkway in Lisbon, Portugal.

80.  No hidden charges  

Taxes, while usually quite high, are included in the price as marked.  There is nothing more to pay at the register, as is the case in most States.

Odds and Ends

81.  Not free to pee  

You may need to pay a small fee, either via a coin-operated entry door or to a restroom hostess, to use the restroom in Europe.  This is yet another reason to be sure you have cash on you at all times, especially smaller coins.

Europeans typically call the restroom the “water closet” or WC.  However, Joy from FatMoments.com joked that she believes that means “with coins.”

82.  It’s a small world after all 

As mentioned above in the “personal space” section, the European continent is about three times more densely populated than the United States.  Expect things to be much smaller than you’re used to back home, from hotels to cars, from bathrooms to parking spaces.    

83.  Twenty-four hours in a day 

Europeans use 24-hour time, rather than AM and PM.  Additionally, it’s typically written with the hour, the local language abbreviation for hour, and the minutes.  So what would be 4:24pm in Chicago would be written as 16h24 in France.  While it does take some getting used to, it’s simple to convert any afternoon time to PM by simply subtracting 12.

84.  It’s a date!  

In addition to using 24-hour time, Europeans usually write dates following a Day/Month/Year format rather than the Month/Day/Year format used most commonly in America.

A fresh fruit market in France
Be prepared to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in kilograms (kg) and not pounds when visiting a grocery store or market in Europe.

85.  Eight days a week 

Unlike American calendars that start on Sunday and end on Saturday, European calendars typically start on Monday and end on Sunday.  

86.  A logical measurement system  

Farewell confusing, archaic imperial measurement system; hello brilliantly logical metric system!  Prepare to hear the day’s temperature in Celsius, not Fahrenheit.  The distances between cities will be provided in kilometers, not miles, and the gas you fill into a rental car will be measured in liters, not gallons.  The fresh cherries you purchase at the market will be weighed in kilos, not pounds.  

87.  Breathe happy  

If you are a non-smoker, be sure to pack a travel-sized bottle of Febreeze.  Not only do the residents of many European countries consume more cigarettes per person than in the US, but also they are allowed to smoke in places not commonly allowed anymore in the US.  Febreeze does a good job of reducing the lingering, second-hand smoke smell from the items you plan on wearing more than once — like jeans and jackets.

Inside the Sultan Ahmed (or Blue) Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.
Inside the Sultan Ahmed (or Blue) Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. All who enter are expected to remove their shoes.

88.  Naked truth  

Across the continent, Europeans have a much different philosophy about nudity and sex.  Shower gel commercials will feature women’s breasts, younger children will often be completely naked at the pool, and public service announcements promoting condoms to practice safe sex will be rather graphic.

89.  Pardon my French  

American swear words aren’t really swear words to Europeans who speak English as a second language and hear them regularly in  American movies and song lyrics.  Years ago, when my children were young and impressionable, my German friend regularly used the word ass around them when referring to her rear end because she’d never learned any different word for this part of one’s anatomy.  I’ve heard elementary school children in Europe use the “f-word” without any context to how offensive and inappropriate a word that is in our country.

90.  When in Rome  

Do your best to blend in rather than shining a bright spotlight on your nationality. Don’t wear clothing with the American flag on it, or use a suitcase, backpack, or purse with one, either.  Don’t dress too casually by donning sweats, athletic shorts, beat-up tennis shoes, or yoga bottoms.  Be mindful that some brands just scream American, like Uggs and North Face. So does sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with your favorite American sports team or alma mater.  

91.  Sunday best  

Be mindful and respectful of local customs when visiting religious sites.  Most cathedrals, churches, synagogues, and mosques expect visitors to have their shoulders and knees covered. Women visiting mosques will be expected to cover their hair, and both men and women are expected to cover their heads when visiting a synagogue.  Head coverings are often available for tourists.  If you are visiting a warmer climate during the hotter months, stay cool and be appropriately covered by selecting a long skirt over short shorts.  Carry a lightweight sweater with you to put on when entering sacred places to cover up any bare shoulders.  Know which days of the week are worship days for each religion — Friday at mosques, Saturday for those of Jewish faith, and Sunday for Christians — and be mindful of religious holidays.  Some site may be closed for religious holidays, as the Dohány Street Synagogue was for Rosh Hashana when I visited Budapest.  

The Meridian Line, or Rose Line, running through St. Sulpice Church in Paris.
A meridian line, like this one in St. Sulpice Church in Paris, is an 18th century astronomical instrument used to determine the date of Easter using the sun’s rays.

92.  All smiles  

Most Europeans think Americans are super friendly, maybe too friendly. If the situation feels right, don’t be shy about speaking to others.  I made a new friend on the train between Paris and Normandy by striking up a conversation with the woman sitting across from me when she asked about my Dentyne gum.  Nearly five years later, we still exchange Christmas cards.  However, don’t be like my middle-aged, first time abroad co-worker who aggressively approached everyone he could — cab drivers, restaurant hostesses, train ticket agents — with a recurring soliloquy about where he was from, how wonderful America was, and how his great, great grandparents immigrated to the US from Croatia.  

Coming Home

93.  Perishable items  

Be sure that any perishable items you purchase for your flight home are fully consumed before you deplane.  This includes fresh fruit, sandwiches, or that one last amazing croissant.

94.  Liquid refreshment 

Wine, beer, spirits, perfume, or other liquids purchased in the duty free shop at the airport or on the plane may cause problems if they’re in your carry-on baggage and not in your checked luggage.  Be thoughtful about making these purchases once your luggage has been checked for the United States.

95.  Anything to declare?  

Shortly before your Transatlantic flight lands back in America, flight attendants will distribute declaration forms.  Read the form carefully and thoroughly before you start to complete it.  There’s a very good chance that you won’t have anything to declare if the items you purchased abroad are for your personal use or gifts.

96.  You smell suspicious  

As you wait in line to officially re-enter the US, don’t be surprised if officers with drug and bomb sniffing dogs are hard at work.  

A fountain between Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest, Hungary.
A fountain between Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest, Hungary.

97.  No photos, please  

You are prohibited to have a cell phone or recording device out while you wait in line.  Watch for signs telling you to put your phone away, and know that they are serious about enforcing the rule.  

98.  Meeting the man  

When it’s your turn to submit your papers and passport for inspection, answer any questions in a simple, straight-forward manner.  The officer does not want to hear long-winded stories.  Customs and Border Protection officers can search you or your belongings without a warrant to enforce US laws. Don’t give them a reason to do so.

99.  Connecting flights 

If you’re not lucky enough to live in a city that has direct flights from Europe, you’ll have to gather your luggage, carry it to the designated area, and go back through a dedicated airport security check.  If you have any liquid items in your carry-on baggage, this is the time to move them to your checked luggage.  It was heartbreaking to watch a group of first-time travelers throw away the snow globes they purchased as gifts and had carefully hand-carried on the plane in London because they violated the domestic air travel laws in the US.

100.  Embrace your experiences  

Whether you spend one week in one city or all summer exploring many countries, once you’ve expanded your horizons by experiencing another country and culture, your life will forever be changed. Incorporate this new knowledge and perspective into your life going forward, and do your part to foster peace and understanding in our world.  

Brezhnev and Honecker kissing on a section of the old Berlin Wall that is now the East Side Gallery
One of the most famous works of art at the East Side Gallery in Berlin.  This piece of the former Berlin Wall features Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, and Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany from 1971 until the fall of the Berlin Wall, kissing.

Bonus Tips!

The additional tips below have been submitted by blog visitors.  Have a tip to share?  Leave it in the comments section below!

101.  At some point the trip you’ve planned becomes the trip you’re on

Heather from Heather Blog advises that no matter how meticulously you plan, something might go wrong.  For example, Tip #35 Transportation Strikes.  If you experience a road block, don’t let it ruin your trip, put that American creativity and ingenuity to work and find a work-around!

102.  Slow down and savor every moment

In the spirit of Tip #1 Focus and Tip #65 Dinner is An Experience, Englishman David Oakes suggests that Americans just slow down.  There is no gold medal for rushing through your European adventures, so just slow down and take it all in!

103. Train schedules at your fingertips

Building on the “Getting Around” section above, Jenn from The Solivagant Soul recommends using the German rail website for up-to-date train schedules across Europe.  It’s available in eight languages, including English.

25 thoughts on “Visiting Europe – 100 Things Every American Should Know

  1. As someone who has spent the better part of 3 years in Europe I think that you nailed it with this list! Amazing, You actually covered every point very well! This is all stuff that I have tried to tell me friends and family back home about, but I always miss points, I will be sharing this with them because they will finally understand everything!! Hahaha. I think a big point that you made, that I loved is when you said that you don’t have to see everything. The first time I went to Europe I felt so much presssure to see it ALL. But you don’t have to! Europe has so much to offer. I love that! Thanks for putting this list together.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment! With three recent years in Europe under your belt, if you can think of anything I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll add it to the bonus tips section with credit. Happy wandering!

  2. Led me add another tip: for any of your train trips, check the schedules using the German rail website (bahn.de), they are updated for all Europe at all times =). Lovely post btw!

  3. Wow! What an impressive list! All 100 of them! I frequent Europe quite often as I have family in England, Holland, Germany and Austria, and it’s really important to be open-minded, as many of your tips have pointed out!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! If you can think of anything I’ve missed, especially since you’re a frequent traveler to Europe, let me know and I’ll add it to the bonus section and give you credit. Happy wandering!

  4. Great list – I love the way you wrote it. Very well explained and with a touch of humour. And number 2 needs to be stressed, you can’t just say you went to Europe ahah.

  5. Very practical and helpful tips. I think most of these also applies to other travelers (not just Americans). It’s good to familiarize ourselves of the countries we’re visiting. it becomes easier when we get there. 🙂

  6. I so agree with these list even if I’m not American. WC for me in Europe is no longer Water Closet but With Coins. Thanks for sharing! It’s fun to read. 🙂

    1. WC = with coins. I love it! 🙂 I added an update to #81 that gives you credit for that clever takeaway! Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!

    1. Thanks so much! I’m *REALLY* proud of it. 🙂 If you can think of anything I’ve missed, let me know and I’ll add it to the bonus section at the end!

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