My work is all about Europe. But more fundamentally, it’s about living with abandon through travel. I love to take life by the horns and make it an adventure. By being open to differences and staying flexible, I have a better time in Europe — and so can you. It’s not what you spend or pack that makes your trip memorable; it’s the state of mind you bring.
When I’m in Europe, I’m immersed in a place where people do and see things differently. That’s what distinguishes cultures, and it’s what makes travel exhilarating. Europeans drink mud for coffee, slurp mussels in Brussels and snails in Paris, and sit down to dinner at 10 p.m. in Spain. Germans wait patiently for the traffic light before they cross an empty street, while Roman cars stay in their lanes like rocks in an avalanche. Savor the differences.
Accept that today’s Europe is changing. Be mentally braced for some surprises, good and bad. Among the imposing palaces, soaring cathedrals, and dusty museums, you’ll find a living civilization grasping for its future while we romantic tourists grope for its past. Contemporary Europe is alive and in motion. Keep up!
Be ready to ad-lib, to be imaginative while conquering surprise challenges. Make an art out of taking the unexpected in stride. If your must-see cathedral is covered with scaffolding, look the other way: climb its bell tower for an unforgettable view over the town. If your favorite artist’s masterpiece is out on loan, take a tour of his runner-up works. Good travelers, like skiers bending their knees to make moguls more fun, enjoy the bumps in the road.
Some travelers actively cultivate pre-trip anxiety, coming up with all kinds of reasons to be stressed. Don’t be a creative worrier. Many of my richest travel experiences have been the result of seemingly terrible mishaps: a lost passport in Slovenia, having to find a doctor in Ireland, a blowout in Portugal, a moped accident on Corfu. In each instance, not only did things turn out all right, but I made new friends and added to my stack of fond memories. For me, this is the essence of travel.
Don’t complicate your trip: simplify! Travelers can get stressed or waste time over the silliest things, which, in their niggling ways, can suffocate a happy holiday. Why stand in a long line at the post office when it’s a gloriously sunny day in the Alps, or why spoil a picnic by worrying the whole time about grass stains? Concerns like these are outlawed in my travels.
Avoid unnecessary burdens. Leave behind the clunky camera gear, inflatable hangers, fanny packs, immersion heaters, and rolls of duct tape. You don’t need a calculator to convert currencies to the third digit, or admission vouchers for sights you’ll never visit. Travel more like Gandhi — with simple clothes and open eyes.
Ask questions all along the way. Make yourself an extrovert, even if you’re not. Many tourists are too afraid or timid to ask for help. The meek may inherit the earth, but they make lousy travelers. Local sources are a wealth of information. People are happy to help a tourist.
If you’re worried about hurdling the language barrier, use a paper and pencil, charades, or whatever it takes to be understood. Don’t be afraid to butcher the language. If you’re lost, or just lonely and in need of human contact, take out a map and look lost. You’ll get help. Perceive friendliness and you’ll find it.
A fundamental aim in my travels is to have meaningful contact with local people. When an opportunity presents itself, I jump on it. Driving by a random cheese festival in Sicily? Stop the car, get out, and eat cheese. Hiking through England’s Lakes District and popping into a pub for a drink? Don’t sit alone at a table — take a spot at the bar, where locals hang out to talk. Dinnertime in Mostar, Bosnia? Turn away from the cutesy Old Town and be the first American tourist to eat in a new local eatery.
Too many people play it safe with their travels: They follow the conventions, and end up with precious little to write home about. Be a catalyst for adventure and excitement. Feel privileged to walk the vibrant streets of Europe as a student — not as a judge. Be open-minded. Absorb, accept, and learn.
Much of the success of your trip will depend on the attitude you pack. If you can think positively, travel smartly, adapt well, and connect with the culture, you’ll have a truly rich European trip. So raise your travel dreams to their upright and locked positions, and let yourself fly away.
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.