The Duomo in Milan. At first site, the size alone overwhelms the senses. As you draw closer, colossal figures fill all space and block the sky. Magnificent doors draw you with anticipation into cool darkness, and suddenly everything wonderful surrounds you. Stained glass and flying buttresses, stone and jewels, incense and candles, angels and saints, opulence and simplicity, history and lives gone by. Hundreds of years in the making, and you are there... this is what fills the pages of travel books, and we who are hooked know that this is what keeps us coming back for more.
But if you've traveled much at all, you also know that travel is stressful and demanding, and requires some knowledge and endurance before you can call yourself a veteran.
As a tour operator and planner, I get lots of questions from clients who are weary about just how everything works, what to expect, if they can actually get around with some level of comfort, and how to make it all better. These concerns are valid, but with a little effort on your part and help from the professionals, travel to foreign lands can be the most fantastic experience of your life.
Well, you say, I'll just take a tour and let them do all the work... It's true, a tour guide's job is to make your travel experience better, easier, more fun, and more productive. A good guide makes all of that happen without your realizing the effort. So how do they do it? How can you make your trip better even if you are on a tour? And how can you do it when you're on your own? After all, even traveling with a group, there will be many times when you are on your own to fend for yourself.
Here are three basic concepts to help relieve some of the most frequent difficulties travelers encounter (these are the things you don't talk about when you're giving that slide presentation on your summer vacation).
1. WITHOUT FAIL, DO YOUR HOMEWORK
I know...you thought that was over when you graduated. And you just don't have time before you go, and you don't know what to study...Consider this: Either your trip "across the pond" is a once in a lifetime experience, or at least you don't do it very often. But here's where it gets really important: you shell out lots of hard earned cash for the privilege, AND you only get a few precious weeks of "freedom" each year. Give your trip the respect it deserves.
*If you're reading this, you've begun already. You're on the web, which offers a wealth of really good information. Spend a few evenings surfing. Browse travel sites and wherever they may lead you. Most European tourist bureaus have great sites. Visit the news groups and ask questions about the areas you're visiting.
*Spend a Saturday at the library. Go to the travel section and begin by reading about the places you know you "must see". Use the maps provided in the books to look for towns close by that may also have interesting things to see and do. Each author has their own style; try a few to see which ones are best for you. For me, Fodor's has good hotel and restaurant recommendations. The green Michelin's are really great for a comprehensive look at the sites and maps. I've always found their star rating system to be very agreeable. The library magazine section usually has good travel periodicals. Look for articles on the areas you want to visit. Besides just plain info, you can use these resources to help you plan routes that make your time most productive.
*If you're interested in history, art, architecture, or sports, Europe abounds. Read about it, because it's all around you when you're there, and it will mean a hec of a lot more when you know what you're looking at.
*People love to talk about their summer vacation. Ask friends, family, acquaintances if they've been, what they liked and didn't like, and to make recommendations.
*Many libraries, book stores, and travel agencies have free or inexpensive travel presentations. Look for one in your area to attend.
*Write to tourist offices for information. Be specific in your request. Ask for city maps, hotels lists (for the kind of places you want to stay in), special events, information about whatever your interests are (hiking, sports, museums). You'll find their addresses in the travel books.
*Visit a travel agency that is familiar with the areas you will travel to. Let them help with recommendations and the messy details. Their commission does not change your cost, and they should know the best deals and have the resources to help with your planning.
2. STUDY THE LANGUAGE
"Yeah right...I have no time, no interest, no aptitude..." I cannot stress how much better your trip will be, simply by knowing how to say "hello" and "thank you". Traveling without some knowledge of the language makes you virtually illiterate. Figuring out where breakfast, the bathroom and the bank are, getting directions, eating, exchanging money, finding tourist information...all involve communicating. Lots of people in foreign countries speak English, lots more don't.
*The library or bookstore has lots of great pocket language books for travelers. Most libraries allow 3 weeks check-out time, enough to check it out and take it along. Berlitz is famous and good. Look for a style of book that you like and will actually use.
*Travel and discount stores sell pocket calculator size translators for about $35. These are not only great companions, but people in Europe are intrigued with them and love using them to help get a point across. A good one has 5 languages, money and metric converter, and a calculator. If they are hard to find, try a store that carries Seiko or Casio.
*Again, ye ole' library will have beginner language tapes. If nothing else, put them in the cassette deck while you're waiting in traffic or on the way to the grocery store.
If you have the time and desire, take a beginners class. It's fun and you'll feel like a pro.
*If nothing else, look up and write down words that you will definitely use. Take them along to show to clerks and waiters. Numbers, the word for train track, off ramp, exit, enter, open, closed, breakfast, dinner, how much, where is, north, south, etc.
*And yes, you'll ask "where's the bathroom" in German, and they'll answer with a stream of Greek that confuses and embarrasses you. Not to worry. Simply say, I'm sorry I don't speak.... Repeat the question slowly, they'll slow down and gesture in the right direction. Keep it simple, they will follow suit. Use words rather than sentences, like "bathroom?", "dinner?", "quanto?" (this seems to be a universal word). You'll use numbers all the time; if you don't understand the number they're saying, use gestures to ask them to write it down. Gestures and childish games of charades may seem foolish, but they'll get you what you want, or at least close to it.
3. RELAX AND ENJOY
This is your vacation, you've spent lots of time, energy, and money getting here. Expect nothing, embrace everything. You are in a foreign country and things are different. You will be in areas where there are hoards of others also wanting to be first in line and see it all. Clerks, waiters, and ticket takers have long hard days, dealing with the same questions over and over; give them a break.
*Be considerate. ALWAYS ask first, "Do you speak English?" If someone stepped up to you, asking questions very quickly in German, what would you do? Do not assume everyone should or does speak English.
*Be patient. There will be lines and delays, and there are inconsiderate people everywhere in the world. Approach with kindness. You will find people are more accommodating when they are not attacked upon approach. If the wait is long consider returning later, or simply relax and enjoy the world around you. Start a conversation, enjoy the scenery, people watch, read about where you are, take pictures, enjoy. Being stressed about a long line does not change how fast it moves.
*Be an interested visitor. Ask questions, start conversations with a local, ask proprietors about their business. Not everyone is willing to share, but try it when the time and situation allows. You will be amazed how much you can communicate even with the language barrier. Once you've done it that first time, you'll be encouraged to try again.
*Avoid harried times. Between 8-10AM, hotel check out lines will be long. If possible, pay your bill the night before, before the morning rush or just before check out time. Plan your day to visit the most popular sites either before or after peak tourist times (10AM-3PM). Think ahead and adjust accordingly. You don't have to do everything at the same time as everyone else.
*Be flexible. If lines are long, stop by the gift shop, have a coffee or a snack, or try another church or museum and come back later. Sometimes just a few minutes makes all the difference. Tour buses are usually in and out quickly, wait for them to leave. The famous mountain lifts often have sunrise or sunset rides at discounted rates, with very few riders. Many churches have evening concerts, and all have real services. Visit then, instead of joining the crowds during the day.
*Waiters and clerks may seem to understand everything because they speak English. But remember that we normally speak quickly and use a lot of slang. Speak slowly and clearly. Also, it's confusing for the waiter if you interrupt their task .Wait until you have their full attention to voice your concerns. If you want to get in and out of a restaurant quickly, pay the bill when they bring the food (this is not unusual), or call the waiter as soon as you are finished. In Europe, they do not continually stop by (always when your mouth is full ;-) to ask if everything is OK. They let you linger and enjoy. You must ask for their attention.
*Wander at will. This does not mean go without a map, or travel down dark alleys. This means wander off the beaten path. Explore. Try a cafe, shop, or museum that is not close to, or is not one of the major attractions. Stroll through a park, shop at a grocery store, plan a picnic, or join the locals in a game of chess. Sometimes these simple activities end up to be your most memorable experiences.
*When in Rome... For the most part, even the most timid American is still more aggressive and forward than most people in Europe. We approach without trepidation, expect no delays, and demand fast service and immediate response. Leave that behavior behind. Slow down and enjoy what you came for. Allow at least an hour for lunch and two for dinner. Stop and smell the roses. Instead of worrying about the next place you want to be, enjoy exactly where you are.
*Visit the tourist office. Always make this your first stop when you get into a city. Ask for details about the sites, and make sure you understand them before you leave. They are busy people, but it's OK to ask lots of questions. Pick up lots of brochures, especially a city map. Take your brochures and sit by a lake or in a cafe, and look them over. Decide what you really want to see, besides what you planned on before you came. Plan a route that gives you the most bang for your buck, and allow time for rest, meals, and fun. You may want to stop back at the tourist office to make arrangements for concert tickets or special events that require reservations, and for any questions you have after reading the brochures.
*Take a city tour. Most cities are big and confusing. One good thing to know, is that many European cities are built within a ring road. Most of the things you will want to see will be in that ring, which will encompass the old part of the city. Taking a walking or bus tour teaches you the lay of the land, you will learn interesting facts, and you can pump the guide for info on restaurants and good shopping. You will realize you've seen all there is to see at some sites, and know where the sites are that you really want to go back to explore.
I have yet to encounter a client who after a tour did not say, "I'll never come again without learning some of the language, I'm going to read all about....when I get home, I'll learn more about the culture...art...history...before I come next time, I wish I had planned a little better before I came....I wish I had known...
I hope these tips help you. Gute Reise! Bon Voyage! Buon Viaggio!