33 Things Americans Should Know Before They Visit Europe

Travel planning concept on map. (photo via seb_ra /iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Scott Hartbeck
by Scott Hartbeck
Last updated: 8:00 AM ET, Thu May 24, 2018

The Lowdown on Europe

Europe is definitely an "easy" place to travel, but that doesn't mean that there aren't a few surprises waiting for us there. From restaurant etiquette to debunking preconceived notions, it will come in handy to know the following 33 things before you hop across the pond.

Not Every Country in Europe Uses the Euro

While the majority of European nations are on the Euro, several use a different currency. Most notably, you'll be spending pounds in the United Kingdom, francs in Switzerland and kronor in most of Scandinavia. Luckily for travelers, Europe is chock-full of exchange points where you can switch your cash into the local currency-for a small fee, of course.

Europeans Can Hear Us Coming

AMERICANS HAVE A REPUTATION FOR TALKING LOUD IN EUROPE. Yes, if you can you believe it, some Europeans think we are a bit too boisterous-and they might just be onto something. Pay attention and you will probably notice that we do seem to talk at a higher volume than locals on trains, buses and subways. The solution? Dial your personal volume down from 11 so somebody else can get the evil stares.

There's More to the Czech Republic Than Prague

While countries like Italy, France and England get explored up-and-down, some nations have a tendency to be seen as one-hit wonders to travelers. The Czech Republic is one of these, but a visit to alluring-yet-underrated Olomouc or medieval Cesky Krumlov will prove that there's plenty more here than Prague.

And More to Hungary Than Budapest

Hungary is home to a host of fantastic travel experiences but many travelers only see the stimulating capital. That's a mistake. Spend a day sailing or swimming on gorgeous Lake Balaton (Europe's largest freshwater lake) or visit Tokaji to partake in some of the region's signature sweet wine and you'll walk away with a Hungarian experience to remember.

Don't Bring Too Much Cash with You

There's no need to rock up on the Old Continent with a cash-stuffed wallet. Just bring enough to get from the airport to your accommodation, then head to an ATM to take out local currency. Sign up for a bank account that offers good rates on international ATM withdrawals before you leave and you'll be all set. Oh, and you'll also be able to use credit cards more often than you might expect.

Or Too Much of Anything

Just remember before you pack that you are coming to Europe, not some far-flung place devoid of modern civilization. Every city you visit will be stacked with retail stores, supermarkets and pharmacies where you will be able to purchase almost anything you want. Clothes-wise, why not pack extra light and then pick up a few new outfits while you are there?

Europe Is Not Necessarily a Liberal Utopia

It seems to be a popular perception among Americans that Europe is one big liberal la-la land. Without careening too far into the political lane, the truth is much more complicated than that. Sure, there are a ton more public transport options and Europeans get more vacation time than Americans, but there's a robust spectrum of political thoughts and theories here-and many countries are currently led by a conservative party.

For Now, the UK Is Still in the EU

Speaking of right-leaning ideas, remember that whole Brexit thing? In June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union, but the terms of their departure are still being decided. That means that right now they are still full members. This won't affect your experience much, but it does mean that for now, travel between the UK and Europe is still seamless.

The President Will Probably Come Up

In a semi-related topic, like him or dislike him, the subject of Donald Trump is probably going to come up during your trip. It's your choice if you want to deflect with a laugh or get into a down-and-dirty political debate, but just be aware that at this point, Mr. Trump is about as synonymous with the USA as baseball and bald eagles.

You Simply Can't See Everything in One Trip

As tempting as it might be, you just can't see it all in one short trip. You can try and you'll still probably have a wonderful whirlwind of a time, but the best move is to choose one region and do a deep dive. Britain & Ireland, Belgium & The Netherlands, Portugal & Spain or Italy are all good ideas of regions that can be seen semi-properly over 10-14 days. Have more time than that? Then the sky's the limit.

Yes, They Tip Here

I'm not sure who started the rumor that Europeans don't tip, but it's definitely not true. Depending on the country, it's typically more like 10% or a simple "round up the bill" than the 15-20% we are used to, but something is definitely expected at restaurants across the continent. Do your research for the country you are in so you don't leave your waiter or waitress red-faced and with an axe to grind with all Americans-if service is included on the bill though, then feel free to skip the tip.

Europe is a Really Diverse Place

Expect to rub shoulders with people of all different races, religions and walks of life in Europe. The big cities are as diverse as anywhere in the world and most contain pockets of neighborhoods that might feel like they aren't in Europe at all. Embrace this and your experience will be enhanced.

No One Expects You to Speak Their Language ... But it Helps

English is the language of the international tourism industry and in places like Northern Europe, people are positively fluent. That being said, knowing a few words of a local language will help you break the ice and can often put a smile on a local's face. You don't have to go overboard, but phrases that are good to know in every country you visit are "hello", "thank you", "please" and of course "do you speak English?".

Your Hotel Might Keep Your Passport

The first time I checked into a hotel and they asked to keep my passport at the front desk I nearly flipped out. What if they steal it? What if they lose it? Well, they didn't and they won't do that to yours either, so just hand it over and go out to explore the city. You'll get it back when you check out.

One and Done Drinks

With the rare exception of a renegade restaurant trying to pull an over-the-top American-style theme (and you're not going there, anyway), there are no free refills on drinks in Europe. In all likelihood, if you order a soda you will be brought a bottle and you'll have to pay the same price for the second as you did the first. Oh, and ice is usually served only on request.

The Bread May Cost You Some Dough

Love filling up on bread before your meal at restaurants in America? Well, you might just pay for it in Europe. Obviously, you aren't going to be tacky and ask the waiter or waitress about it up front (right?), so just plan on paying a few Euros for the bread and maybe you will be pleasantly surprised when the bill comes.

Come for Croatia, Then Keep on Going

Croatia's gorgeous towns have made it one of the hottest destinations in all of Europe, but you shouldn't come to this corner of Europe without seeing one of its Balkan neighbors. Bosnia is home to both mesmerizing Mostar and surprising Sarajevo, while Montenegro might just have the most gorgeous coastline in all of Europe in the Bay of Kotor.

It's Not Just Soccer

Sure, Europeans are absolutely crazy for soccer (and increasingly, so are we), but that's not the only sport that's popular here. Rugby has a religious following and each year during the Six Nations you will find pubs all over Britain, Ireland, France and Italy full of enthusiastic fans. Cricket, Gaelic Football, and Formula 1 are other sports that are fervently followed here in addition to a collection of weird and wacky sports.

Borders Are Just Lines on a Map

One of the reasons that Europe enthralls is its long and fascinating history. Part of that history involves borders being drawn and re-drawn hundreds of times over the centuries. What that means for us is that just because you've crossed the border into one country don't be surprised if it still feels like the last country. Speaking of that …

Sometimes They Speak German in Italy

Northern Italy is home to a considerable German-speaking population. They speak Italian in certain parts of Croatia and converse in Basque in parts of Spain and France. You will find unique situations like this all over Europe and it only serves to add to the fascinating cultural stew of the continent. Research where you are and what the local language is so you don't put your foot in your mouth and offend someone.

Regional Pride Runs Deep

While many of Europe's cities and villages date back to medieval times, some of the continent's countries are pretty darn new. For example, Italy has only been unified since the late 1800s, but Venice was a republic for over a thousand years. This means that many Europeans have just as much-or more- loyalty to their region or town as their nation.

Scotland Isn't in England ... and Neither Is Wales

It can be a little confusing at times, but it's important to know that the United Kingdom consists of four separate countries: England, Wales, Scotland, & Northern Ireland. Mistakenly refer to residents of Wales and Scotland as English at your own peril, even though residents of both countries are definitely British.

You Might Have to Pay to Use the Bathroom

Don't be surprised at all if you have to pay to use a bathroom in a train station or public square in Europe. While this may be vexing, it helps to keep the riff-raff out and the restrooms clean. If you don't like it, then you're just going to have to hold it until you get back your hotel.

Holidays Are Different Here (And They Might Affect Your Schedule)

You'll find many special days on the calendar in Europe which can cause some attractions and sights to be closed- most notably around Easter and Victory in Europe Day in early May. Many countries also have their own national days (Norway on May 17th or Switzerland on August 1st are examples) which could either wreak havoc with your plans or provide you with a great excuse to party.

Strikes Aren't a Ball

Strikes or (as they prefer to be called nowadays) industrial action are relatively common in Europe. These protests can cause trains to come to a halt and bog down air travel. Typically, they will be scheduled in advance and since everyone will know about them, alternative arrangements can easily be made. They're still no fun though.

It Can Get a Little Crowded Here

Don't expect to find many empty streets in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris. Many cities in Europe are currently struggling to accommodate the crowds they attract and there's even been some backlash. How to avoid the worst of it? Avoid travelling during peak season (May to September) and stay away from the metropolises on the weekends.

You Can Reserve Ahead at A-List Attractions

Many of Europe's star attractions allow you to purchase your ticket ahead of time. Take advantage of this so you can arrive in Europe with an entrance ticket already downloaded. Less time spent in line will make your trip that much more fun and will save you the crushing feeling of missing out on seeing something you dreamed about for months.

You Don't Have to Fly in and out of the Same Place

Open jaws may sound scary, but they are your friend. Have your travel agent book you in and out of different cities so you can cover ground in Europe without having to circle back for your return flight. Common combinations would be a flight into London and out of Rome or a flight into Dublin and out of Barcelona.

You Might Not Have AC

Air conditioning isn't as ubiquitous in Europe as it is in the United States. Most big hotels will have it, but don't assume you will be basking in the cool breezes of AC if you are renting an apartment. The further north you go in Europe, the less common it becomes, so you may just be out of luck if a heat waves strikes Scotland when you visit.

Sizes Are a Little Smaller

From the cars to the homes, things are a little bit smaller in Europe. The same goes for the portions in restaurants, where you will find most dishes being served in a "just-right" size as opposed to a supersized one. So much so, that if for some reason you can't finish your dish, you'll find out that to-go boxes aren't really a thing here.

You Have to Request Tap Water

A declaration of "I'll just have a water" in most European restaurants will result in the server delivering a nice cold bottle of still water to your table. If you are looking to sip plain water, you will have to specifically say "tap water" when you place your order.

You Are Going to Be Doing Lots of Walking

Exploring European cities can be hard work and despite the myriad of public transportation options, you'll be relying on your feet to take you most places. Therefore, plan ahead by packing comfortable walking shoes so you won't feel the burn.

Europeans Are Really Just Like Us

Along the same lines of the politics, Europeans themselves are sometimes thought of as highfalutin or overly sophisticated compared to Americans. This is not really true either, as most everyday folks love the same things as Americans do (sports, trashy TV, going out for a drink at the pub), so there's no need to be intimidated.

Don't board that transatlantic flight without reading this first.

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Scott Hartbeck

Scott Hartbeck

Born in the USA but now based in England, Scott has been writing about travel for over 10 years. He specializes in Europe, rail...

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Helping leisure selling travel agents successfully manage their at-home business.

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Laurence Pinckney

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CEO of Zenbiz Travel, LLC

About Me