Eurailing: A Great American Tradition

First Time to Europe?

The art of ripping off travelers and tourists is as old as travel and tourism. Few travelers to any foreign land have not suffered at the hands of the deceitful. And Europe is as replete with the guileful as anywhere else. Many first-time travelers to Europe, whether or not they are armed with a Eurailpass, have been ripped off by the most able and spirited of con men. Americans young and old who don't know their rights fall victim every day to routine and age-old scams such as those involving fourth-rate hotels and promises of services.

Just as bad as those who could know better are those who should know better — the oblivious travelers who do not understand that visiting a new country means facing new and different cultural dos and don'ts. Inflexibility in the face of variety can be as damaging to one's own visitor's enjoyment as it can to relations with the people who are unwittingly playing host.

For example, with regard to trains, there are many Eurailers who never understand the limitations of their passes and the particularities of train travel in Europe. Sometimes there are mandatory reservations and additional fares that must be paid, and intra-country schedules don't always mesh. Understanding the ins and outs of European train travel is important!

Similarly, many travelers choose to ignore (or at least conveniently forget) that local customs in other parts of the world are not always like those in New York City; commercial establishments have unusual hours, table etiquette is different, and cultural mores vary. Americans of all ages don't understand how to approach locals, thereby alienating themselves as well as those they are looking to interact with.

So, in the interest of preemptive diplomacy, here is a short list of easy considerations to ponder when traveling abroad. A lot of this is common sense and follows the"Do unto others . . ." model, wherein a little forethought, respect, patience, and tolerance go a long way anywhere you go. Think about how you would react to a European traveler in the United States. How would you respond to people if they always addressed you in a foreign language and asked you questions assuming that you spoke their tongue? How would you feel about a group of travelers behaving as they might at home (with different moral practices and values)? Turn these situations around and carry yourself accordingly.

Before You Leave

Try to find personal contacts in the places you are going. Family and friends might know people. Check chat rooms or Web sites. See if you can identify people willing to be contacted once you get where you want to go.

Take the time to learn the rudiments of the languages spoken where you will be going. Basic words and phrases like"Hello," "How are you?" "Thank you," "Good bye," and "How much is that?" will be endlessly useful and ingratiate you to people frustrated by others who never take the time to try a new language.

Read about the unique qualities of the cultures you will be visiting. Salutations, eating habits, and basic etiquette can vary from one country to the next. Some places are more religiously or socially conservative or expect more restrained behavior. You should know this ahead of time rather than discover it the hard way.

Learn some of the fundamentals about international travel. Know about train travel (ticket purchasing), have the right travel documents(passport, visas, etc.), know what to do in an emergency (are you covered?) and how to call home.

During Your Trip

Use the personal contacts you were given, as well as any you make while on the road. A phone call never hurts anyone (but your own sense of self-importance) and could result in a terrific adventure.

Don't be shy, but don't be brash. The"ugly American" reputation is based on the reality of ignorant American travelers who go abroad and behave as if they are at home and being serviced by paid attendants. Think of yourself as an ambassador and behave with poise, attention, and a sense of purpose. Take advantage of opportunities. Be open to new people and new experiences as if it were your duty to do so. But also trust your instinct. If something smells fishy, if something seems wrong, politely refuse. Even when you are in a foreign country, you are under no obligation to do anything that you do not want to do with people that you just met.

Use what language you know and can learn. Little helps more in a foreign country than showing your willingness to learn local lingo. You will probably end up speaking English anyway, or playing charades, but your first effort at meeting local people more than halfway will always be rewarded.

Know the local laws and rules, and respect them. Do not think that since you are in a foreign country you are immune to responsibility or that the system has no authority over you. At home, we know how and when to bend the rules. Not so when we are overseas.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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