Rising U.S. Dollar Turns Your Euro Trip Into Reality

sign of Europa cafe
Nice signs
Which way should I go?

Plan ahead and spend your spring and summer vacations in Europe as the strong dollar veers tourists away from the United States, giving them more incentive to travel to culturally rich destinations such as France, Spain and Greece. The value of the dollar hasn’t been this high since 2003 ($1.10 for one euro as of today). It’s no secret that the euro value is diminishing, among other currencies, which makes 2015 the perfect time to visit the notoriously expensive continent.

Europe has transformed into a buyer’s market especially for American travelers. Research shows that the number of bookings to Europe was high even before the dollar’s value spike. The strengthening dollar with the increased rate of advanced ticket bookings is indicative of “an explosive year for Europe.” Some speculate that European tourism won’t bloom until 2016 since the dramatic value rises in currencies tend to have a delayed effect on the travel industry.

Vienna scene
To Vienna we ride!

A report from Expedia reveals that it’s best to book international flight 171 days, or just under six months, prior to the date of travel. Typically, Americans book their tickets around 31 to 90 days before they travel to Europe. With dwindling prices of oil, and competition between budget and larger airlines in terms of “unbundling” amenities, flights to Europe are going to be more economical than ever. Thus, planning for summer, and even winter getaways, are crucial at this point of time.

In comparison to the euro, the dollar isn’t as strong against the pound. However, exchange rates are more favorable than they have been for quite some time, so traveling to the UK could still fit right within your budget. London has two of the busiest airports in Europe, Heathrow being the top and Gatwick listed as the tenth according to Parking4Less, and with dream vacations in Europe looking more affordable, passenger traffic at these airports is likely to increase.

Athena temple
The ruins of the Temple of Athena, Lindos, Greece.

Although exchange rates will work in your favor, the travel industry is always going to look for ways so that tourists don’t have access to too many cheap deals. One of the worst places, if not the worst, to exchange currencies is at an airport, yet because of its convenient location, tourists continue to lose valuable bucks instead of making the most out of their budget. Some suggestions from travel guidebook writer Pauline Frommer include using your credit card to get to your accommodations from the airport, or only exchanging a small amount before traveling. The rest can be exchanged at a local bank.

If you’ve been wanting to go to Europe for awhile, now is the time to go. Be prepared, however, to see many American tourists there with you…

sign of Europa cafe
To Europe and beyond

The Grand Tour of Europe

The Grand Tour of Europe

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, many upper class British young men traveled a traditional path through Europe called the Grand Tour.  The Grand Tour served as an educational rite of passage whereby the traveler learned about culture, history, architecture, and the arts. The traveler became knowledgeable about classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and was usually accompanied by a learned guide.

The Grand Tour of Europe
The Traditional Grand Tour of Europe

The itinerary for the British traveler started in Dover, England, crossed the English Channel to France or Belgium, and then continued down through the middle of Europe to Italy. Finishing in either Rome or Naples, the traveler might take a ship back to England.  Grand Tours lasted from several months to several years.

Grand Tours are a thing of the past.  The days of the landed gentry wandering the capitals of Europe seeking knowledge and life experiences are long gone. Instead, today we have gap years, study abroad programs, hippie trails, and sabbaticals.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that offers an eight week sabbatical after every seven years of service.  Add in three weeks of vacation and I don’t have to sit in a little grey cube staring at a computer screen for almost three months.  My sabbatical is fast approaching.  I have looked forward to it for at least a couple of years now.  I’m going to make the most of it.

I can’t do the Grand Tour.  There is not enough time and money.  But I can try to do some portions of it.  In reverse.  I’m starting in Rome, Italy.  My plan is to detour first to Greece, Turkey, and Israel.  After returning to Rome, my Grand Tour will take me to Milan, Lake Como, the Berner Oberland, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, London, Bath, and the Cotswolds.

I invite you to follow along.

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Tips for Looking Un-American in Europe

Blending in in Rome

Some Americans get a little nervous about their citizenship when traveling overseas. When Bush was president and the Iraq war was started, there was some ill will towards Americans in some countries. Some travelers didn’t want to obviously stand out as Americans. Of course, if you are wandering around Paris or Berlin with a backpack on your back and your head down in a tour map mumbling in American English about how to find the nearest McDonalds, it’s pretty easy to tell that you’re not a local.

I’m not suggesting that you should try to hide or even that you would be successful at that endeavor, but there are a few things you can do to make it not so obvious that you’re an American tourist.

Blending in in Rome
Blending in in Rome

First, check your socks and shoes. If you’re a man, wearing white athletic socks and white Nike cross-trainer athletic shoes is a dead giveaway. Better to have some black Pumas with dark socks, or nice leather loafers. If you’re a woman, wearing comfortable, practical walking shoes sounds like a good idea and you’re thinking that your feet will thank you after a long day touring every last exhibit at the Louvre. However, the local women most likely will still be wearing uncomfortable, impractical high heels. Because looking good is more important than sore feet.

Next, don’t wear shorts. Even if it is very hot, wearing cargo shorts (with the aforementioned white socks and athletic shoes) is a no-no. For one thing, nobody wants to see your spindly white legs and knobby knees. Instead, get a lightweight pair of pants. But not those travel pants with the zip-off shorts. Those just look dorky, and who would wear those around your own city anyway?

If you have one of those fancy travel vests with the 39 pockets, leave it at home. Those should only be used if you’re fly fishing in Montana.

Americans love their baseball-style caps. They might look great for cheering on the Yankees, advertising your farm’s seed choices, or making political statements, but in Europe and other places you might as well replace the logo on the front with a sign that says “I am an American! Be rude to me in Parisian cafes.”

A good general rule is to dress up a little more than you would do at home. Americans have a tendency to look, well, sloppy. Blue jeans, a baggy t-shirt, and a bulky hooded sweatshirt advertising the college you wanted to attend or dropped out of is the uniform of the American traveler. You don’t have to dress up to look like an insurance salesman. But you also don’t need to look like you just finished cleaning the garage.

Leaving some of the bright colors at home is good, too. The lime green shirt, orange socks, and purple pants might be fine for your golf course, but will look strange in many places in Europe. I was in Copenhagen, Denmark in the winter and I am sure that 99% of the people on the Strøget wore black. Black pants, black boots, black leather jackets, black scarves, and black hats. I thought I was at an undertakers convention. I had a bright blue ski jacket on and felt very conspicuous.

I don’t always follow these tips, but sometimes I do have minor successes. I was waiting for the elevator to go up one of the towers of the Frauenkirche in Munich, Germany when a woman asked me for the time. In German. I gave her a slight smile and answered her in English. She looked puzzled and walked away to ask someone else.

Curacao is an island in the Netherlands Antilles where they speak Dutch, Papiamentu, Spanish, and English. They also get a lot of Dutch and German tourists in the winter. My family was greeted by the owner of a restaurant in Willemstad first in Dutch, then in German, and then in Spanish. We didn’t say a word. Finally, he spoke in English and we all smiled.

You don’t have to shop at H&M or Zara before leaving the US, but a few minor tweaks to the wardrobe may help you blend in. At least until you open your mouth…

Wearing the wrong touring clothes
Breaking all the rules

Claustrophobic in Vienna

After breakfast we attempted to navigate the public transport system of Vienna.  Since we were staying on the outskirts of the city, we had to make our way to the city center.  We rode a bus, then a tram (streetcar), and finally another tram that went around the “inner ring” of the old town.  Our first stop was the Hofburg, the winter residence of the Emperor of Austria.  We bought tickets for the Imperial Apartments, which was a combined ticket with the Sisi Museum and the Silver Treasury.  The layout of the tour caused us to visit the Silver Treasury first.  This consisted of hundreds of silver and gold plates, candlesticks, and other assorted royal stuff.  Not very interesting.  Next was a sequence of rooms with displays telling about the life of Empress Elizabeth (“Sisi”).  She was the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph in the mid to late 1800s.  She died tragically in 1898, assassinated by an anarchist.  Her claim to fame seems to be her beauty and her 21 inch waist, which she kept into her 50s.

Unfortunately, this part of the tour was very crowded.  We got stuck behind a large tour group from Poland.  They would stop in a room and the tour guide starting explaining things.  Meanwhile, all of the tourists behind this group kept filling in the space behind them.  It was a classic traffic situation.  I started to understand the feeling of claustrophobia.  It was very hot and stuffy in these small, maze-like museum rooms, with so many people that you couldn’t move.

I was glad to get out of there and into the Imperial Apartments.  The crowd was more dispersed there.  We saw the desk where the Emperor worked on bureaucratic paperwork for 14 hours a day.  He was a dull workaholic.  Overall, I would have rather seen the Treasury, where the crowns and jewels were displayed, but after this tour we had seen enough of palaces.

Next, we walked through the park to the Vienna Opera House.  We waited for an English language tour starting at 2pm.  This was an excellent and informative tour.  The guide told us all about how productions are staged.  We sat in the best seats of the house, the ones used by the Prime Minister of Austria for special performances.  Since it was August, there were no performances scheduled (the season of 300 performances runs from September to June), so we got to go backstage.  The stage was enormous.  In fact, there are three stages:  1) the main stage, which usually hosts the first act; 2) a side stage for the second act; and 3) a back stage, for the third act.  The stages were on hydraulics, so they could be switched in as little as 40 seconds.

The good seats at the Vienna Opera House

There are up to 55 different operas being performed, with some having as little as three or four performances.    All of the sets are stored offsite at a nearby warehouse, and trucked in each day by the crew.  Sometimes they would have a rehearsal for one opera with one set in the afternoon, and a performance for another opera with a different set in the evening.  The schedule and all logistics are set up more than one year in advance.  The star performers are paid as much as 20,000 euros per performance!

After the tour we wandered down the Karnterstrasse, the main pedestrian shopping street.  It was a Sunday, so all the shops were closed.  There was a large crowd of people at the main square, near the St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  A group of street performers were doing a hip hop dance routine for tips.  One guy did a hand stand on one hand and was hopping around.

Vienna architecture

We walked next to the Rathaus (town hall) park, where there was a large video screen and hundreds of chairs set up.  During each night of the summer concert films are played on the big screen.  Nearby was about 20 food stalls.  We weren’t hungry yet, but Allison wanted to find an Internet café.  We asked one guy for directions.  He told us to walk to the corner, take a left, and then walk “about three minutes/blocks/hundreds of meters.”  We weren’t sure.

After walking for blocks and not finding it, we stopped and asked a group of guys playing a game on the sidewalk.  They told us it was the other direction, back the way we had come. So we walked back.  And couldn’t find it.  Next, we went into the McDonalds we found there and asked.  This time, a guy gave us directions and a specific address.  It was the way we walked at first, but we hadn’t walked far enough.  So back we went.

We walked and walked and walked.  We were tired.  We found the address.  It was not an Internet café.  A few doors down was a computer store, but since it was Sunday, it was closed.  We gave up, but luckily we were able to ride the tram back to the Rathaus Park.

One of the food stalls featured Mexican food, which struck me as something I would not have expected to find in Vienna.  We took a chance on that, and it wasn’t very good, but it filled us up for the ride back to the hotel.

And now, time for another brief aside about beds here…

Why is it that there is a thick quilt on each bed, but no sheet or blanket?  With a thick quilt you have a choice: either use it and get too hot, or not use it and have nothing and get cold.

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