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Back Door Travel with Rick Steves
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War and Peace

Never a Better Time to Visit Europe

By Rick Steves

Since the events of September 11, 2001 and the latest war with Iraq, our media has been filled with reports of Americans feeling jittery about travel.

But the travelers I talk to seemed unfazed. While mindful that war is serious business, they continue to pursue their travel plans. Maybe it’s just the kind of travelers we’re dealing with, but our guidebooks and tours have never sold better.

And these travelers are not alone. Even with war, terrorism, airport security headaches, and a bad economy, the World Tourism Organization reported a 3 percent increase in travel in 2002, with over 700 million people crossing a border on vacation. International arrivals in Europe were up 2 percent to 411 million (58 percent of the world total).

The reports about travelers’ fears center around two concerns: safety and unfriendliness toward Americans. Let me address both.

Terrorism is not a new consideration for Americans heading to Europe. In the 1970s we worried about Italy’s Red Brigades, Basque separatists, and the Irish Republican Army. In the ’90s, we feared widespread retaliation for the first round of American bombs dropped on Baghdad. Then there were threats to Americans by Muslim extremists. Now there’s potential fallout from this year’s war.

Safety Checks

Terrorism has long been a part of every traveler’s pre-trip reality check. Here are some thoughts on keeping the risk in perspective and traveling safely.

Don’t plan your trip thinking you can slip over there and back while there’s a lull in the action. It’s in your interest, psychologically, to plan your trip assuming there will be a terrorist event somewhere in the world sometime between now and your departure date. It will be all over the news, and your loved ones will leap into action trying to get you to cancel your trip.

Your loved ones’ hearts are in the right place, but your trip’s too important for sensationalism and hysteria to get in the way. The fact remains (according to the U.S. State Department) that of the 200 million overseas trips made by Americans in the last 10 years, fewer than 90 Americans were killed by terrorists while traveling abroad. In the last several years Europe has had the largest decline in international terrorist incidents of any region in the world. While the recent war likely increases the risk of terrorist attacks onAmericans, I believe that risk is no greater for an American in Milan or Barcelona than at home in Miami or San Francisco.

It’s human nature to feel anxious about some things, even when our brains tell us it's unfounded. I know that 30,000 commercial planes took off and landed safely in the U.S. every day in 2002 without a single fatality—yet I’m still edgy on takeoff. After 9/11, I was nervous in a stadium filled with 50,000 potential terrorism victims. But the twinges of anxiety haven't kept me, or most other folks, at home.

While many travelers may feel fine about their physical safety, they have other concerns, particularly the reception they’ll receive as Americans.

It’s true that Europeans are concerned about how they and Americans could have come to such different conclusions about whether Iraq presented an immediate danger to the rest of the world. Roughly 80 percent of Europeans (not just French and Germans, but Spanish, Greeks, and Norwegians as well) opposed the recent war.

Few Crowds, Warm Welcomes

But after spending the last few months researching guidebooks and shooting public-television shows in Italy, France, Spain, and Scandinavia, I have to say: there's never been a better time to visit Europe. I enjoyed few crowds and a warm welcome.

Because of the soft demand during what should be peak season (blame Iraq, SARS, and an absence of Japanese because of their economy), hotels are offering lower prices to walk-in customers. If you're a budget traveler with high comfort needs, I'd advise you to arrive without reservations and enjoy 3-star hotels for just a few dollars more than basic ones.

And Anti-Americanism? While Europe is flying rainbow peace flags as exuberantly as America flies the stars and stripes, the topic of President Bush, the Iraq war, and terrorism almost never comes up. I've actually noticed more anti-Americanism at home, with Americans angry at each other for their pro- or anti-war stances. As for the Europeans—they're doing what they do best: living well and taking good care of their visitors.

I’ve been receiving reports on our Graffiti Wall from fellow travelers sharing their own adventures abroad. Nearly everyone comments that they experienced kindness rather than anti-Americanism.

In France, two first-time travelers from Concord, CA, were concerned they would miss their stop on the metro. A friendly Parisian “spoke not a word of English and we spoke no French, but she figured out we were heading to the Bastille, and she shepherded us through several connections.”

In Turkey, two Seattleites encountered only friendliness. They urge others to “get on those planes and travel.”

From her home in Fort Lauderdale, one writer reflected on her recent trip to England and France. “I felt welcome everywhere. A waiter shook my hand and said ‘thank you for coming’—it couldn't have been better.”

The locals might be curious about our foreign policy and may ask you about it, but they don't hold you responsible. Throughout my many trips to Europe, I’ve found that Europeans judge us as individuals, not by our government. The same holds true today. "Get on those planes and travel."

Connecting with Locals

Here are a few of the come-together tips shared by our traveling readers, distilled from our Graffiti Wall (www.ricksteves.com/graffiti).

• Sincere admiration opens doors. Admiring a local’s dog/cat/ flowers/motorcycle/garden/whatever is a great way to get a conversation going.

• Everywhere I’ve traveled a polite, genuine smile is the best icebreaker.

• The easiest way to meet locals is to be where they are. Strike up conversations at the local car wash, at the public pool (visitors are always welcome for a buck or two), or just wander through the shopping area of any little town.

• Attending church services can be a great way to meet locals. Neighborhood churches (rather than famous cathedrals and huge “downtown” churches) are the best.

• Try second-class seating on trains—lively locals instead of stuffy businessmen and American tourists.

• We made personal business cards on our computer and passed these out to people we met as we traveled. Today we still receive email from folks we met.

• Try to speak their language. After a seemingly futile attempt to communicate in French, many of the locals would laugh and switch to English and we were fine.

• The best thing I did to strike up conversations was to sew my state flag’s patch to my pack. So many people of all nationalities asked me what it was.

• With four of us traveling together, we knew we were at a disadvantage when it came to “mingling with the locals.” To make sure that we did get to have stories to relate over dinner, we separated several times during the day.

• Irish nightlife centers around the pubs. To meet locals, arrive a bit early to snag a big table so that there are several extra chairs. As the night gets busier, people always ask to share the table.

• Meet friendly locals in the Czech Republic by attending a hockey game. I am a 26-year-old woman who turned loneliness into lots of fun this way.

• After a week in Rome, I hadn’t really met a soul. So I thought about it—and I realized that I hadn’t actually looked at anyone! Being a big-city dweller, I was in the habit of avoiding eye contact with people on the streets. That evening, I made plenty of eye contact—and within an hour, was having the time of my life with new friends at a trattoria!

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