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Biggest surprises/most unexpected from first travels

I guess I'm trying to make a general thread about what people learned from their first European travels. What were your biggest lessons learned that new travels could benefit from? What wasn't an issue that you thought might be? Or vice versa? Getting cash? Weather? Something about driving/trains/taxis? Dealing with jet lag?

Personally, I'm going on the GAS tour next month, but this thread could apply to anywhere in Europe, or just in general. My only trip so far has been to London, where I was a surprised how smooth and easy tube travel is.

What did you learn?

Posted by
127 posts

My advice: Try to communicate in the native language.
Frankly, if you are an English speaker, you will have no trouble in Europe no matter where you go. Except maybe in France where they make a point of only speaking French. But that isn't the point.

Make the effort to speak German if you are in Germany. You'll never fool anybody as a native but, IMO, it is better to try than to go into a restaurant and immediately ask if they have an English language menu. The benefit for you for trying is that you feel more like a temporary resident than a tourist.

Posted by
506 posts

Pack light! Don't buy special clothes or shoes that you would never wear at home because they are "travel" clothes or "walking" shoes, you won't be happy. Also do as much research on the sights you will be seeing. Things are always bigger and a little more complicated when you actually get there and have so much to take in.

Posted by
1058 posts

When out for a walk in a city that you are not familiar with, be sure to turn around frequently and look back in the direction you came from. It will help you from being lost when you try to find your way back.

Posted by
8874 posts

You can't see everything on one trip, so don't even try it. Try to really see your destinations, rather than checking places off a list. Remember, you can always go back. Allow yourself enough time, especially in large cities. If your try to cram too much in, you won't remember what you did and saw. Remember that 2 nights in a place only gives you one full day, 3 nights = 2 full days, etc. Minimize 1 & 2 nights stays unless you're just passing through.

Pack light, even if you plan to check your bag. You won't be sorry. Trust me.

Posted by
141 posts

I was surprised at how much I missed, dare I say yearned for, my morning coffee ritual. In france, One must spend an hour in a cafe to get a bitter little expresso or resort to the instant nescafe packets in the hotels. And the french coffee beans are super bitter. I normally drink my coffee or expresso with just a dash of cream. But in france, i either had to down it like a shot of whiskey or add a lot of sugar to cut the bite.

On the flip-side, I am trying to figure out how to work daily fresh baked croissants and baguettes into my life at home. I Wish every corner in my town had a tiny bakery Instead of a 7-11! I had a nice chat with one baker in a small town who came out to talk with us when he heard my horrible accent (his mother was american & father french and he grew up in france, and i guess must not get a lot of american customers, because he thought we were Australian).

Speaking of my horrible accent, I found that the french spoke french with me until i started looking lost, or asked if they spoke english. one lady said she knew some people wanted to practice and didn't want to offend by immediately speaking english. The people i encountered were incredibly patient as i slowly spewed out what i thought of as french... I actually was a wee bit disappointed that only four people we encountered in france didnt speak english. But incredibly relieved too!

Posted by
5789 posts

Biggest surprise of first trip beyond North America was that you don't have to be American to be happy.

Meeting and interacting with local people can be more interesting than seeing museum relics.

Posted by
333 posts

Great thread topic!

Biggest lesson- pack lightly!

*If something seems weird- recognize the red flag and be alert (probably a pickpocket or scammer).
*Most people are nice and willing to help if approached with a smile and sincerity.
*Some of the funnest moments happened when we got lost or when we threw out the itinerary.
*It's near impossible to get a glass of milk anywhere. People looked at me like I had three eyes!
*Don't expect American sized portions at restaurants- and don't expect meat portions to be the biggest on the plate.
*In America people have the right of way. In Russia and England the cars have right of way. In the Netherlands bikes have the right of way. Be aware of who has the right of way- it's probably not you!
*I bought rubber "duck" shoes for my last trip to Europe- and didn't regret it! I wore them often.
*Europeans seem to like meat and cheese for breakfast.
*Take a few minutes each day to people watch. Try to observe the differences in people and culture, as well as the similarities. Appreciate and learn from them.
*Try to learn a bit about your destinations in advance, especially social customs. You don't want to learn the hard way that your friendly gesture translates to a middle finger!
*Try to (at least) learn hello, goodbye, please and thank you in the language of the place you're visiting. Those words go a long way!
Important lesson** Several times a day, force yourself to take a moment (or two) to REALLY look around and appreciate where you are. Take a mental picture, listen to the sounds, take in the smells, employ all of your senses, take a few deep breaths and tell yourself- I'm really here. This is it. I won't forget this. Sometimes we get so caught up in the frenzy of seeing and doing that we forget the joy of BEING IN THE MOMENT and appreciating the realization of a dream trip that so many others can only read about.

Have a great trip, Yanksteve!

Posted by
701 posts

Be prepared to pay for a lot of things with cash. Europeans don't use credit cards like Americans do. Luckily, there are lots of ATMs everywhere. Don't buy gas at an unattended gas station. If your credit card gets stuck and no one is around to help, u r SOL. (Unless your wife happens to be carrying tweezers.)

Posted by
1157 posts

To add to others who advise to pack light, learn to always start off any conversation in the native language. YouTube is your friend, so is Travlang, foreign languages for travelers with 105 languages pronounced for you. You will never be treated badly no matter where you travel. French especially, but also we've learned basic phrases in Turkish, Italian, Hungarian, Afrikaans, and Zulu. One more thing -- take a small compass with you and you will always know which exit to take from a subway, bus stop, or confusing museum.

Posted by
13703 posts

Restrooms have to be top of my list! The topic alone includes a general scarcity of public facilities to the amazing range of different types: some with no seats; 'squat' toilets in train stations; soap and towels not a given; water for the basins operated from pedals on the floor; flush via chains/ wall panels/levers; automated Sanisettes on the street; paid loos with an attendant …. Having to 'go' can be an adventure in-and-of itself!

I learned to always carry coins, Wet Wipes and tissue!!

Posted by
1068 posts

Great topic. My biggest lesson: Do some planning! My first trip was because someone invited me to go with them. I did a bit of reading in a guide book but not much and didn't realize the differences in culture. Not only was I pretty unprepared for moving around the country, dressing etc., but we were just 7 kilometers away from a site we both would have enjoyed seeing and we didn't know it was there. Now, I routinely read a history of the nation(s) I am visiting and 1 or 2 guidebooks. I can't see everything in one trip, but now I know what is there!

Posted by
3936 posts

Oh Kathy - that water in sink operated by a pedal on the floor got me at Ostia Antica. Used the washroom, got hands soaped up, could NOT for the life of me figure out how to get the water to come out. I can't remember how I realized it was the black rubber bump on the floor that you had to step on...maybe someone else came out of a washroom and I saw what they did...

Posted by
8889 posts
  • I have lived in this city for over 10 years, but every so often I stop, look round, and think: f--k, this is foreign, nobody could mistake this for England.
  • Every country is different from every other country. I sometimes get the impressions US visitors expect Europe to be different than the USA, but do not expect each country to be as different from the last country as either was from the USA.
  • And every country has something (cultural, or the way they do something) which is totally new and unexpected and which they do in a way you hadn't thought of before. Expect the unexpected!
  • Sometimes national stereotypes are actually correct, Disorganised in Italy, totally organised in Switzerland and to a lesser extend in Germany, French putting a high importance on food, the Dutch being the tallest race in Europe, ...

It wasn't my first trip across the channel, but my first with a car. Drove out of Calais docks (this was pre-Channel Tunnel) in my own car (steering wheel on the right), remembering to keep to the right side of the road. Then 200 yards later the first junction, a roundabout with everyone going round it anti-clockwise! Total panic. OK, back to first principles, how did they teach you how to handle junctions when you were learning to drive, and apply those rules again.

Later trip, I wasn't driving a friend was, somewhere in Austria. My driver turned left at a junction, ended up on the left side of the road and just carried on driving. In the distance was a tram coming towards us, but trams look the same at both ends. I used swear words I didn't know I knew, and grapped the steering wheel. I did all the driving for the rest of the trip.

Posted by
13703 posts

Chris, to say the Dutch are tall is an understatement! I am a little under 5'2" and felt like a pigmy the entire time we were in the Netherlands. The mirror in our hotel's bathroom was hung so high that I could only see the tiptop of my head.

I wonder how those poor people fly coach without permanent damage.

Posted by
20 posts

I will repeat some items mentioned and add others:

  • Learn basic phrases in the language of the country(ies) you are visiting. It really isn't that hard, and will greatly expand your interaction with the peoples of those countries. Basic courtesy can never be over-valued.
  • The moments you most remember will not be a site or a piece of art, but rather chance happenings, meeting someone, observing something unexpected. Make time in each day to wander a little and let the vacation come to you.
  • Pack light, pack light, pack light.
  • Start drinking your beverages without ice a month prior to leaving. That way you won't dwell on it while you are there.
  • Explore the country(ies) fully: the art, the architecture, the people, the food, etc.
  • Take a moleskin or some other type of journal. Doesn't have to be large, but take a couple of short rests during each day to relax (I suggest with a glass of wine), make summary observations/recollections in the journal. Will assist you greatly when you get back in recalling all that you experienced.
  • Don't get lost behind the camera lens. Again, give yourself an opportunity to just "be" rather than checking off a list of things to do/see.
Posted by
2329 posts

Know your personal threshold for exhaustion and take a break before it hits, preferably with a beverage and snack somewhere you can people-watch. In a museum I make good use of the benches in the galleries.

I use public transport as much as possible, but know when it's more prudent to take a taxi; in London I missed a tour pickup and had to get to the group quickly, in Tallinn I couldn't find the bus stop to go to the outdoor history museum (but found it for the return trip) and in Vienna I was anxious about getting to the train station in time to get a ticket.

I'm getting ready for my 5th solo trip--Poland and Czech Republic in mid-May--and I must say that my biggest surprise was how easy it was to plan a trip, pack myself up and explore foreign countries, a huge boost to my self-confidence and quite empowering.

Posted by
11292 posts

These are great lists. I'll add:

At least one thing you have your heart set on seeing will be closed or inaccessible during your visit. Prepare now, to avoid disappointment.

The things you are worried about will work out; it's the things you didn't even think would be problems that will be difficult.

You will find out what foods you are attached to, but take for granted, when you have trouble getting them (you'll see this is repeated in many of the threads above, whether it's coffee, breakfast, or whatever).

Posted by
279 posts

Being flexible is super important because Europe is very different than the U.S. The bathrooms are smaller, there's more stairs (not as many elevators), and sometimes the weather is bad. However, the people are friendly and the experiences are amazing. Keep an open mind and turn every negative into a positive, that way you'll ensure having a great trip! I've been on the GAS tour and it is wonderful!! I'd go again if the world wasn't so big and my dreams were smaller :)

Posted by
926 posts

The little differences always seem to be the most surprising and fun, probably because they are too small to be found in general pre-trip research. It took me awhile to remember to always bring coins for toilets. My first trip to Europe I ordered lemonade in at least three different countries, and never once got what I know as lemonade. These are small lessons, though. For me a big one was on my first trip I took an afternoon nap the day I arrived because I was so tired from not sleeping on the plane. I was miserable the rest of the day after I woke up, and didn't sleep well that night. Since then I always make myself stay awake the first day until 9pm, and I do so much better that way. But that is a lesson everyone has to learn for themselves, because not everyone reacts in the same way. Oh, and always make sure if you have a 2nd class train ticket to get on a 2nd class car in the train!

Posted by
106 posts

My husband died of a fatal disease in July of 2009. Because I did not want to be home on the first anniversary of his death, I arranged to be Istanbul on the first anniversary of his death following a Village Turkey Tour.
In the meantime I was "unfriended" by a 20 year plus friend.
WHAT I LEARNED was the quality of the people who sign up for Rick Steves Tours--kind, friendly, educated, just plain wonderful to be around. Does it surprise you this will be my sixth June with a RS Tour on tap?

Posted by
371 posts
  1. There is no 'one' European way. While there are similarities in the overall culture, the differences are often quite large. Just because the Italians eat a skimpy breakfast does not mean that the Swedes also eat that way.

  2. Pay for meals, especially at mom and pop restaurants with cash, even if they do take a credit card. If you enjoy the meal, tell them in clear terms, then go back if possible. Often, you will be treated like royalty on that second trip

  3. Do not attempt to get an American breakfast anywhere no matter how much you miss your bacon and eggs or pancakes. Don't even think about waffles.

Posted by
419 posts

I don't know about other countries, but in Germany it's easy to order fried or scrambled eggs with bacon for breakfast..

Posted by
1068 posts

Pretty easy to get an "American Breakfast" in England, Ireland etc.

Posted by
80 posts

Very little of what you do while traveling is instinctual. You have to translate signs, think about where you are and what you are doing, plan where you will eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom, think about how to interact with people who act from a different frame of reference, etc. Therefor, make sure to take some time to let your brain rest and just enjoy sipping your coffee or sitting in the park or reading a novel.

Don't turn your nose up at fast food restaurants. I know, I know, eat local, branch out, try new things, and I am a huge foodie so I love to do that...but sometimes I just want a big Coke with ice and a clean bathroom at some odd time of day, and as far as I can tell that is a universal at McDonald's.

Being homesick while traveling was totally manageable, since I expected to miss things and people from home, but I was shocked the first time at how 'homesick' I get for what ever country I had been in once I get home. After a long trip to Greece and some bad customer service in the Chicago airport on my way home, I sat down and cried and wondered if I could find a flight back to Athens :) For the few weeks following a trip I keep expecting to be able to find or do something I did in Europe and it always catches me off guard because this is home and it should feel comfortable, but it takes a while to fit back into home life.

Have fun on your tour! I will be in Italy next month so I am counting the days!

Posted by
503 posts

Lesson learned on my first trip to Europe 39 years ago this June:
1. American toilet paper was heaven and could not be found for love or money. I once wrote a letter home using the toilet paper from the pension we stayed in in Paris. Still have it.
2. The US is not THE only place where you can live and be happy. Lot's of people everywhere are and do. I was happy to be disabused of this misconception.
3. Europeans seem to live outside more than people in the US and I love this.
4. People are people everywhere, some are great, some are grumpy, some act like they are doing you a big favor by simply doing their job and some, wonderful people will go out of their way to help you.
Great thread.