Having spent large chunks of time living and traveling in Europe over the last few years, I’ve learned a whole lot of lessons. The US is so different from Europe, and there’s lots of basic information Americans should know before traveling to make their experience less stressful. Some of these may be natural for Europeans, but for Americans they couldn’t be more different. Here are 12 things every American needs to know about Europe!
1. Water isn’t free…
Nope, you don’t start your experience at a restaurant with a glass of ice water for each person at the table. You’ll only get water if you ask for it, and 90% of the time you’ll be brought bottled water. You need to ask for “tap water” specifically, otherwise it’ll cost you!
2. …And neither are bathrooms
Free public bathrooms are rare in Europe. Most public bathrooms will charge a small fee (typically between 20 cents and 1 euro/pound/etc.) to use the restroom. So unless you want to pay to pee, think ahead—always use a bathroom when it’s there and free to access (at a café, restaurant, museum, etc.), since you never know when and where the next free one will be! And while we’re on the topic, bathrooms are generally called toilets. A bathroom in Europe usually means a room with a toilet and a shower/bathtub.
3. Europe is incredibly diverse
Europe is roughly the same size as the United States, but is so varied: the continent is made up of many different and unique countries. Countries will have different languages, currencies, food, traditions, climate—you name it. You can drive for 8 hours in the US and not even leave one state—in Europe, you could drive through several countries! There is a whole lot to see in Europe.
4. Towns in Europe weren’t built for cars
Europe’s cities and towns typically have very narrow streets, winding alleys, and sometimes cobbled roads. This is because, unlike most of America, Europe’s towns were designed and built prior to the invention of the car. It’s for this same reason that most cities in Europe are in concentric circles, instead of using the grid system that most of the US does. Street names also change frequently (even if you don’t turn off the street), which can be very confusing. And unlike in most state capitals in the US, you won’t need a car to get around big cities in Europe—public transportation is generally quite good and reliable!
5. Hostels are a thing
Want to travel but don’t want to shell out the money for hotels every night? Enter hostels. A lot of Americans probably don’t even know what hostels are, which is sad because they’re one of the best inventions ever. Hostels are shared accommodation (dorm rooms) that cost a fraction of the price of hotels, and are loads of fun for (generally) young people traveling abroad. There’s a whole social part of traveling that hotels just don’t have—meeting people and making friends is a big part of hostels, and there are lots of common areas (kitchens, bars, common rooms, etc.) for socializing. Hostels are consistently one of my top ways to cut down costs when you travel! And if sleeping in a room with other people weirds you out, a lot of hostels have private rooms—so you can get a good night’s sleep, but still get in on the social atmosphere.
6. The drinking age is 18…
Yep, America is one of the only countries where the drinking age is 21. The drinking age is 18 pretty much everywhere in Europe (besides Iceland where it’s 20—wtf?!). In some countries (like Germany), you can get beer or wine at 16, and then hard liquor once you turn 18. Countries may have official drinking ages, but depending on where you are some won’t really care. If you’re ready to party, Europe here you come! Just remember that if you’re drinking for the first time, you need to take it easy and be safe with alcohol, since you don’t know how it’ll affect you.
7. …And bars stay open later
And on that note, bar close is much MUCH later in Europe than it is in the US. A lot of places will stay open until 3:00am or 4:00am. And in some places like Spain, people won’t leave the club until 8:00 in the morning! (I was lame for leaving the party in Spain at 4:00am.) Pace yourself—it’s a marathon, not a sprint!
8. Tipping is not mandatory
For Americans who have only experienced the American tip system (ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS TIP!!!), it will be a huge shock when you visit Europe. Tipping isn’t mandatory anywhere in Europe. The tipping custom: if your service is good, round up the bill, tipping generally about 10% in restaurants if you enjoyed your meal. You don’t need to tip—people in Europe will be making minimum wage (whereas in the US, because of the tipping system in place, businesses can pay far less than minimum wage—they can even have $0 paychecks!—since it’s expected that workers will make their money from tips). Tipping is appreciated, but not mandatory.
9. You’ll need a plug adapter for Europe
If you’re bringing any electronics (and chargers) with you, you’ll need to get a plug adapter in order to use them in Europe. There are two main plug types, the two-pronged round European plug, and the three-pronged awkward and square-ish plug used in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Make sure you get the right kind!
Unfortunately, pickpocketing is commonplace just about everywhere in Europe. Pickpocketing is not that big of a thing in the US, and I can’t tell you how many Americans I met who have been pickpocketed in Europe.
I found this blog post about pickpocketing prevention, and when someone in the comments said it wasn’t more prevalent in America, someone responded with “you’ll get shot in the US.” Which is sad but not really untrue—it’s just not big in the US, since you never really know who is armed and who isn’t. To stay safe from pickpockets, pretty much just use common sense: keep your zippers zipped on bags, wallets in front pockets, use cross-body purses that are more difficult to grab off you, never flash your cash or valuables in public, and carry a small amount of cash on you per day (and spread out your credit/debit cards among your bags).
11. Budget airlines can be very cheap
Americans are consistently shocked at how cheap flights can be in Europe. Cheap flights and budget airlines just don’t really exist in the US (I know Spirit is trying, but they kind of suck at it since their flights are ALWAYS delayed). But they sure do in Europe, and let me tell you, it’s a good way to get around! I’ve flown from Croatia to the United Kingdom for 20€, from the UK to Ireland for £13, and my cheapest flight of all time: from Stockholm, Sweden, to Warsaw, Poland, for $9.23. I’m not kidding. Ryanair, EasyJet, WizzAir, FlyBe, Jet2, etc. offer really basic flights for low prices. Just read all the fine print about carry-on baggage and checked bags twice before you go, always check in and print your boarding pass online, bring your own water and snacks for the flight, and you’ll be fine.
12. A word on the Schengen zone
The Schengen zone is made up of 26 countries in Europe that don’t have passport/border control. No stress, no stamps, and it’s basically like you’re going to one giant country! Both the United Kingdom and Ireland are not part of the Schengen area, which means they have their own border and passport control, as well as individual visa regulations. Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania currently are not part of the Schengen zone, but as members of the EU (European Union) are legally obliged to join the area soon. For American citizens, you can spend up to 90 days out of every 180 days in the Schengen zone without a visa—happy travels!
Have you ever been to Europe? What differences did you notice?