On my recent trip to Europe, I visited some cities I hadn’t been to in a long time, places like Amsterdam and London. And since the Travelling Boomer of today is considerably older than the one who travelled there many years ago, I noticed some differences. I enjoyed these places just as much as I did years ago, but this time, European travel presented a few more challenges.
The most interesting parts of European cities are the historic centres, built hundreds of years ago. And they’re wonderful places to explore. Problem is, they weren’t made for the comfort of 21st-century visitors. People were used to a more strenuous life back in the day, so climbing a tortuous staircase to get to the loo wasn’t a problem. For today’s travelling boomers, however, it’s a different story.
With that in mind, and drawing from my experiences in a half-dozen medieval cities over the past month, I offer my baby boomer’s guide to European travel.
Beware the stairs
Hotels are expensive in most European cities, but you can still stay in the historic part of town affordably by choosing small, two- or three-star hotels. They can be quite comfortable, but beware: these old buildings often have steep, narrow stairs that can be a real challenge, even for those of us who are reasonably fit. And in many cases, there’s no elevator, so you’ll be dragging your suitcase up and down those stairs. If you’re booking a small hotel, check if there’s an elevator; if not, there might be better choices.
Stairs can be a challenge in other places, too. I often use the subway to get around town, sometimes including the trip to and from the airport. But some European subway systems don’t have escalators in every station, so you can find yourself carrying your heavy bags up and down long flights of steps. As well, changing subway lines can sometimes involve a long walk. It’s worth checking on this if you’re not up to physical challenges; in some cases, transit staff can tell you which stations are best equipped for people with luggage.
Watch your step
Europe’s medieval cities have another potential stumbling block, and it’s right under your feet: their streets. They often wind around hills, canals and other obstacles, which makes it easy to get lost. As well, a lot of cities were built on uneven terrain, so you may find yourself hiking up and down steep hills that somehow didn’t appear on your map — not what you want at the end of a long day. If that’s a problem for you, ask locals if there’s an easy walking route to where you want to go; if not, take the transit. Finally, if those cobblestone streets aren’t in great repair, watch where you step: they can be a real obstacle course.
Get a transit pass
Most European cities are wonderfully walkable. But if you’re going to be running around to attractions in different parts of town, consider getting a transit pass. You can buy them at train and bus stations, or sometimes just from ticket machines. They make a lot of sense if you’re going to be taking more than a couple of rides a day. Single rides are pricey in some cities: I paid almost $9 Canadian for one fairly short ride on the London underground. The passes are even better value if they include rides to and from the airport.
While you’re thinking of a transit pass, consider taking the next step and getting a city card. Most European cities sell these cards, which give you free access to public transit, as well as free or discounted admission to major attractions around town. I used one in Copenhagen and considered it good value. However, they’re not cheap, so whether they’re worth the money depends on how many attractions you’re intending to visit. If you’re a museum hound, they’re often a good buy; if you just like wandering the city streets, not so much.
Check your converter
Most travellers know that Europe uses a different electrical system than North America, so they arrive armed with an electrical converter. I’ve got a trusty one that has served me for years – but that changed on this trip. I found myself stymied by British outlets that wouldn’t accept my converter because it had two prongs instead of three; without the third prong, the other two wouldn’t open. So it’s worth checking whether you have a converter that works with the outlets in every country you’re visiting. Failing that, hope that your hotel has a few to lend its clients.
Don’t stress about currencies
In my recent post about travelling to different countries on one trip, I agonized about how and where to convert my Canadian cash into three different currencies. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried: everywhere I went, virtually everyone accepted credit and debit cards. Even carts selling pretzels on the street cheerfully produced a card reader, and many of them even worked with “tap” technology.
Looking at my credit card statement, the exchange rate I got on my purchases was at least as good as the money changers were offering, so I didn’t lose money on the transactions. While I did get a little of all three currencies, just to have some in my pocket, I could have simply got it from ATMs after arriving. (Note: this applies to touristed places in affluent Western European countries; if you’re travelling to Eastern Europe, or to rural areas, it might be a good idea to bring some cash.)
Don’t carry a lot of cash
This is the corollary of the last point: since credit cards are so widely accepted, don’t carry any more cash than you need. Tourist areas are rife with pickpockets wherever you go, and a fat wallet stuffed with bills just gives them a target. So carry as little as possible. My old technique is to take out only as much as I need for the day, and carry it in two different pockets; that way, the most any thief can grab is half of one day’s cash. I often don’t carry a wallet at all when I travel. But if you do, carry it in a secure place, not sticking out of your back pocket.
Look for daily specials
Eating in major European cities can be a test for the pocketbook. I’ve seen some outlandish prices, especially in Switzerland, as I found on my visit to Basel. But even in expensive places, some restaurants offer daily specials that can be comparable to the prices back home. In Amsterdam, I had a large (and tasty) rack of ribs, a beer and a coffee for about $30 Cdn — just about what I’d pay in Toronto. And if I’d come by after 10, the deal would have included unlimited ribs. That’s a true bargain, though frankly, I could barely get through one serving. However, the waiter told me he’d watched one glutton down 13 plates at one sitting. I wonder how he felt the next morning …
Go to the market
It’s an old saw, but this advice is still good as gold: buying food from local markets is a great way to eat well for a lot less than you’d pay in a restaurant. And don’t just think about buying bread and cheese at the farmer’s market; European supermarkets are a treasure trove of ready-to-eat food. Like their North American counterparts, many of them sell sandwiches, meat pies and even hot entrées for takeout. And the food is often surprisingly affordable; it can be eye-opening to see what the locals really pay for food.
Look before you tip
North Americans are used to tossing in an extra 15 or 20 percent as a tip when they eat out. But in some European countries, it’s not expected: I got odd looks on this trip when I gave the bartender a tip in an English pub. So take the time to find out the tipping protocol in the countries you’re visiting. Ask the locals, or watch what other patrons do. And make sure the “service” isn’t already included in the bill, as it is sometimes in France. Personally, I don’t tip much in Europe unless someone gives me exceptional service – and that makes a real difference to the cost of my travels.
Visit some smaller places
Major European cities like London and Paris are expensive — especially if you’re spending Canadian dollars. So if you’re tired of the high prices, take a side trip to some smaller places. You’ll find the costs are much more reasonable. In fact, just going from downtown to the suburbs can save you money, even if you have to take the train into town. As a rule, the farther you go from the major tourist destinations, the more affordable things tend to be. And it’s nice to see the “other” side of the countries you’re visiting; they often have a whole different feeling.
That’s my baby boomer’s guide to European travel. I hope it helps you navigate the obstacles as you make your way around the continent this summer. Europe is a wonderful place, especially for older travellers who truly appreciate its beauty and culture. But it does have its own way of doing things, so it’s best to arrive prepared. Happy travels.