How to say no without feeling bad about it.
After being approached by many, many, MANY street performers, vendors, and gypsies, I have learned to say no and to not feel bad about it. No, I do not want your cheap souvenir. No, I do not want your magical basil that you think I so desperately need. No, I don’t want to take a picture with fat Spiderman in Plaza Mayor. No. I can use that money from my real job to buy something more worthwhile. Sorry not sorry.
To always watch your step.
Unfortunately, some people do not always clean up after themselves…or their dogs. I have learned to walk with my head down to avoid stepping in or on anything other than the sidewalk. It is also important to look both ways when crossing the streets because you never know if somebody could come flying around the tight corner or if they will stop or even slow down for you to be able to cross the street and not end up like a flat pancake instead.
To be confident.
Being in a foreign country where you don’t fluently speak the language is scary, I won’t lie to you. But, be confident regardless. Looking insecure is an easy way for locals to spot tourists and for thieves to spot their targets. So even if you’re a little bit afraid or nervous, hold your head up high and pretend like you know what you’re doing. As one of my good friends always tells me, “fake it ’til you make it”. Be confident when ordering at a restaurant or talking to a local. Even if you mess up, it’ll show that you are trying and they will have more respect for you than if you don’t try at all.
To try new foods, even if you don’t think you will like them.
Ever since I was little I’ve been a pretty picky eater. Coming to Europe has opened my eyes and my taste buds to new and different things that I would have never considered trying before. For example: I love vegetables. But I’m used to the traditional vegetables I eat at home in Iowa (corn, beans, carrots, potatoes, etc). I told my host parents that I like vegetables, which is a change for them because my host sisters do not. My host dad often makes me zucchini, broccoli, and asparagus for lunch, since it is usually just him and I who eat lunch at home because my host sisters are at school and my host mom is at work. Before coming to Spain, I had never really eaten any of these and now I love them. So try new foods, even if you don’t think you will like them.
To ask for help when you need it.
DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP.
Asking for help is okay. 🙂 I can be as stubborn as they come when it comes to doing things on my own and not wanting to ask for help, but I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask someone for help when you’re not sure of something. Most people would love for you to ask them for help when you don’t know how to get somewhere or where the best place to eat is. Being in a foreign country can be intimidating, especially if it’s somewhere like Spain where not very many people speak English. But the good news is, as long as you try, and if you have Wi-Fi or access to a translation app or Google Translate, it isn’t too difficult and it’ll save you a lot of time and hassle to just ask someone who knows what they’re doing instead of trying to figure everything out yourself.
Be more observant and pay attention to your surroundings.
You never know who could be lurking behind you when you’re in an unfamiliar place. Europe is pretty safe for the most part, but always be observant and pay attention to your surroundings. Plus, you never know what beautiful thing you might miss out on by not paying attention. Beware of pickpockets and their tricks, but as long as you’re aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine!
Sleep is for the weak.
Seriously. As one of my old basketball coaches used to say, “you can sleep when you’re dead”. I’m not a morning person by any means. In fact, I hate mornings. Travelling can be exhausting. However, it’s important to utilize the time you have because before you know it, it’ll all be over. We got up early every weekend when we were travelling so we could beat other tourists and so we could do more with our day. By Sunday, we were usually exhausted but it was worth it. You’ll have plenty of time to sleep when you get home (because you can blame it on jetlag and then nobody can get mad at you).
Collect memories, not things.
This was a big thing for me. I spent my money making memories instead of buying a bunch of novelty souvenirs that won’t be used much after you get back to the United States. I made a point to buy a postcard in each city I visited, even the small ones that may seem insignificant to other people. Post cards are relatively cheap and usually you can find them at a souvenir shop for less than 1€. Sometimes you have to look around at a couple of different shops until you find some cheaper ones, but almost all souvenir shops have postcards. I am avid coffee drinker but there was no way I would have enough room in my suitcases when it was time to come back to the USA for a coffee mug from each city. In some places, I bought more than others. Like in Portugal, I bought a small rooster figurine because there’s an old wives tale about a rooster in Portugal that’s very popular. In Amsterdam, I bought more than in other places because that was a place I’ve been dreaming about going to my whole life because I’m from a small, Dutch town in Iowa. But, in Paris, I only bought a postcard because I didn’t need anything else from there. It all just depends on how many places you’re wanting to go but also how much money you have to spend. I’d rather spend 10€ to zipline across the longest river in Spain than to spend it on a t-shirt that I might not wear too often after I get back and have access to all of the t-shirts I’ve collected over the years.
To not use manners. No excuse me or I’m sorry or thank you or please.
So this might sound crazy, especially if you’re from the Midwest like I am. But Europeans can be rude. Or at least ruder than what we are used to. They don’t use manners like we do here. In Spain, they only say “por favor” (please) if they’re begging somebody to do something. I still said excuse me a lot just because that’s what I am accustomed to, but a lot of people won’t say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry” if they bump into you, they just keep on walking. I learned quickly when or when not to use my manners. I almost always said “thank you” because that’s just what I am used to.
Just be. Be present.
Live in the moment. It’s so easy to get caught up in our technology and social media. Try to just be. Be present in the moment. This is probably a once in a lifetime chance, do you really want to miss it by staring at your phone the whole time? Take pictures and videos! That’s fine. But try to avoid scrolling through Facebook or Instagram unless you are waiting at a restaurant or for your train to arrive. Homesickness and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) are definitely a thing, and it’s easy to feel these things if you’re constantly seeing what your friends and family back home are doing instead of living in the moment and enjoying what YOU are doing. I didn’t have data on the weekends while I was travelling to different countries and so the only time I could post/scroll/communicate to people back home was when we were somewhere that had free Wi-Fi, whether that be a local café or at the place we were staying that weekend. This helped me to live in the moment and be present with what was going on around me and what I was doing. I observed and noticed so much more than I would have if I would have had the capability of scrolling through my newsfeed or Snapchat stories. Disconnect for a little while. I promise, you won’t die. It’s worth it.
Security takes far less time in Europe (unless you’re in London or Amsterdam).
This was interesting to me because airport security takes forever in America, especially in bigger airports like Chicago O’Hare. In Europe, security is pretty easy and takes far less time. In Madrid where we flew out of almost every weekend, security would take a maximum of 20 minutes to get through the line and the sensors and be on the way to your gate. The only place it took forever was in London and Amsterdam. Just make sure to have all of your liquids in the correct travel-sized containers and in a plastic bag and take that out before sending it through the scanner and you should be good to go!
Try to learn other cultures and languages.
Try to immerse yourself in the cultures you’re visiting and try to learn some of the different language, even if you only learn a couple of key phrases. “Where is the bathroom?”, “I want one ____ please” at a restaurant, “hello”, “thank you”, simple things like that. They can go a long way and show that you are trying to learn their culture/language and you are not expecting them to know yours (which is what happens with a lot of American tourists). You will gain respect from the locals for at least trying to learn and you will be showing that you respect them and your cultural differences.
Use/learn/appreciate public transportation and make sure you do your research beforehand.
Public transportation in Europe is really good for the most part. The only place we found it to be slightly expensive was in The Netherlands where a one way train ticket was 11€. Most places have a 24-hour day pass or a 10 ride pass that you can purchase that will save you a lot of money in the long run. This would be another thing to research before going anywhere. Look into their public transportation. What kind do they have? Some places don’t have a metro (subway). We tried to plan our trips in advance. We would write down where we wanted to go in a particular city (so Paris for example: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Louvre, etc.) and then we would look at a map of the city and figure out what was near each other. Then we would look at a metro map or train map and figure out exactly which stop we needed so that way when we got there, we wouldn’t have to worry about finding some place with Wi-Fi to look that up or getting lost. It saved us a lot of time and hassle.
Wear comfortable shoes.
Please. Please, please, please. I know the idea of looking cute sounds better than ruining a good outfit and all of the cute pictures you’ll be taking, but trust me, it’s not worth it. When we went to Barcelona the first weekend, I chose to wear this pair of black booties that I had purchased at a store in Madrid. They were comfortable so I didn’t think it’d be an issue. I didn’t even pack tennis shoes because I didn’t think I would need them and the black booties were way cuter. BIGGEST MISTAKE OF MY ENTIRE TIME IN EUROPE. We walked about 10 miles our first day in Barcelona, which was a lot of me because I wasn’t used to walking that much. Long story short, the day ended with my foot bleeding and me crying on the floor of our hostel because I can’t do blood. My friends had to help me get up and get into the shower to was my foot off. They were kind and soaked THE FOUR PAIRS of socks that I bled through in the sink for me so they wouldn’t be too stained. Tennis shoes are your friend. I wore them every time I would be doing a lot of walking and I’m so thankful I did. Even if I looked kinda dorky in some of my pictures because I’m not a big fan of wearing skinny jeans with tennis shoes..but it was worth it. When we went to Rome, we walked EVERYWHERE. We walked a total of 24.6 miles and climbed 97 flights of stairs.
This is SO easy to do, especially when packing to go abroad. And it’s even easier to do when packing for a weekend trip away. But you WILL buy things while you’re away (souvenirs and whatnot) and need space to bring them back with you. Make sure you leave a little room to bring home the new or you’re going to have to do what I did and throw out some of the old, which isn’t always such a bad thing.
Airbnb and HostelWorld and CityMapper are lifesavers.
Airbnb and HostelWorld are amazing. Airbnb is where you can stay in somebody’s apartment/house/flat for a cheap rate per night. The reason we loved Airbnb was it allowed us to have the freedom of a kitchen where we could cook all of our own meals. This was exciting because we could not cook for ourselves while living in our host families’ houses. It was also a lot nicer for privacy. There weren’t shared rooms with anybody besides who we were traveling with, which meant no shared bathrooms either. Our possessions were also safer and we didn’t have to worry about locking them up or having someone come in and steal them.
HostelWorld was great too! I know, I just raved about Airbnb, but hostels are great for young travelers and they’re cheap also. Hotels were a big no for us while we were travelling because the cost to stay in one could add up quickly and depending on how many people travelled with us that weekend, the number of rooms would go up whereas at a hostel, there are multiple bed “dorms”. In Barcelona we stayed in an 8-bed mixed dorm. This allowed myself and my six friends to all stay in the same room and share the same bathroom. However, there was an empty bed that did get filled by a guy who very-loudly came in at 4 in the morning to sleep in the other bed. Hostels are great for socialization and usually have events going on for the guests so that they can meet others from around the world. It all just depends on what kind of environment you want to stay in!
CityMapper is a must-download if you plan on going to mostly touristy cities like Paris, London, Amsterdam, etc. They even have it for big cities in America like Chicago, New York, and Boston. CityMapper is a lifesaver and makes travelling less stressful. You simply choose the city and then click “Get me somewhere” and put in where you want to go and it gives you almost every possible way of transportation to get to your destination and gives you directions on exactly how to get there. It also has maps of the public transportation in each city (metro maps, train maps, etc) which are very helpful. I found this app to be way more helpful than Google Maps that got us lost more times than not.
Overnight buses are 100% worth it.
If at all possible and the ride isn’t much over 10 hours, look into taking an overnight bus to some of your destinations! You’ll pay half the price of the plane ticket you’d otherwise be purchasing and since you could go overnight, you can sleep. Then, when you wake up in the morning, you’ll be at your destination! We took a bus to Barcelona, Spain and to Lisbon, Portugal. We left Thursday night for Lisbon and slept overnight on the bus, arrived early Friday morning and had all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Portugal and then left Sunday night and arrived back in Madrid early enough Monday morning that we could still get to class on time. We paid half the price that our classmates who also went that took a plane, and we got an extra day to explore while they had to be at the airport early Sunday morning for their flight back.
Try to get out of the touristy areas every once in a while.
Some of my favorite places to go when travelling were to smaller, less touristy areas. Sometimes being around a bunch of people all the time can get exhausting and frustrating. In Amsterdam, I made it a point to go to small towns outside of the city so I could feel more at home. The smaller towns were so much more inviting and calming. It’s neat to see how the locals really live outside of the big city. We went to a couple local flea markets and I bought some tulips that I had been longing for and some traditional, homemade Dutch treats. It’s refreshing to get out of the big cities once in a while, so definitely consider looking into day trips from the cities you are visiting and see what you can stumble upon! You never know the cool things you could find that are hidden away from the rest of the tourists, and it’ll make your experience more unique than those that just go to the large cities. Sometimes, even just going and doing a couple of things within the main city that aren’t necessarily super touristy can be nice too! Like wandering into two random Cathedrals in Rome just to see what was inside, or venturing to an area in London that was outside of the city center to wander through different streets full of street art, get some coffee at a local coffee shop, and browse through little shops. Try to get away from the city center, even if it’s just for half a day. I promise, you won’t regret it.
Get out of your comfort zone.
This was another big thing I learned. I’m awkward. I always have been and I always will be. Going to Europe forced me to embrace getting out of my comfort zone in many ways. I learned so much about myself through those times and how I handled different situations. You have to be willing to put yourself out there. You have to do things that are scary in order to learn and to grow. Try to talk to casually a local or push your limits by doing something you’re terrified of. You’ll appreciate your experience that much more if you push yourself to become the best person that you can be.
Espresso is your best friend.
Remember how I said travelling is exhausting? Espresso is your best friend, especially in Europe. Even if you don’t like coffee, I recommend trying it while abroad at least once. There’s something about it that makes it taste way better than it does here. They also don’t have black, brewed coffee in most places, only espresso based drinks. And they don’t do “foo-foo coffee” there either. Some places may have a mocha if you’re lucky, but other than that, everything is straight espresso and milk, no added flavors. If you’re an coffee fanatic like me, you’ll learn to love it and the simplicity and you’ll be able to save a lot of money when you come back to the States by not wanting the extra added flavors anymore.
Tapas in Spain.
If you plan to go to Spain, tapas are something you cannot miss. A lot of places will offer a free “tapa” (appetizer) with the purchase of a beverage (usually alcoholic but soda works in most places at well). In Spain, they ate at weird times (lunch at 2 pm and dinner at 9 pm) and so my friends and I would go out for tapas around 5 or 6 pm for a small snack between meals and for socialization. The food was awesome and they give you just enough to keep you satisfied until it’s time for the next big meal, and they’re cheap.
Airport food is expensive.
Try to eat something before arriving to the airport if you can because (*spoiler alert*) EVERYTHING IS EXPENSIVE. And I mean everything. A can of Pringles at the Madrid airport? 4€. A small, snack bag of chips? 2.50€. I would give other examples but I’ve spent the most time in Madrid-Barajas and just trust me, eat before you get there. You can thank me later.
Don’t make fun of the locals.
If you want to be taken seriously and treated with respect, don’t make fun of the locals. You are in THEIR territory and you should respect that as such. Instead of making fun of them, you should be trying to learn about your cultural differences and embracing them for what they are, which is different, but different is okay.
Become one with the wall.
Spaces in Europe are TIGHT. A lot of things are very compact together and a lot of roads are one way. Also, I’m pretty sure they don’t believe in pedestrians having the right-of-way, so be careful when walking down narrow streets and what look like alley-ways because you never know when a car will turn down the narrow street and you have to “become one with the wall” to avoid getting hit.
Getting lost is okay
It is okay to get lost sometimes! In fact, sometimes that’s how the best memories happen! Getting lost can even be kind of fun sometimes. You learn a lot about yourself and the people you surround yourself with when you accidentally get lost. It’s your choice to either make the best of the situation or try to fix it. Either way, it’s up to you, but just remember that sometimes getting lost can be the best thing to happen!
Turn negatives into positives.
“It’s always an adventure” was our motto while travelling around Europe. I’m not going to lie to you and say that everything went perfectly and smoothly, because it definitely did not. Check out my post about our time in London if you want an example. But we learned how to turn negatives into positives. Stuff happens and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to change it. I learned to go with the flow and take whatever life threw at me and make the best of it! Trust me, if you can learn this skill, you will have a much better time abroad.