European Travel Skills: Part II

In this second of three shows focusing on travel skills, we'll visit Venice, Siena, and the Cinque Terre in Italy to learn about trip planning, packing, safety, and — perhaps the most rewarding skill of all — connecting with the locals. Going beyond the sights, Rick shares some practical tips to help make European travel fun and hassle-free.

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[201] Hi. I'm Rick Steves — immersed in the wonders of Venice — and back for part two of our three-part travel skills special. This time, we're going beyond the sights, bringing you more practical tips to help make your European trip fun and hassle-free. Thanks for joining us.

[202 series open]

[203] The skills we'll cover in this episode: planning, packing, safety and — perhaps the most rewarding skill of all — connecting with locals.

[204] Today more people than ever are enjoying Europe. And it's lots of fun snapping photos of the predictable biggies and checking out the cultural icons. But you can go deeper than traditions put on display for tourists. A more intimate Europe survives. You find it best by becoming a temporary local. Drop in on a dog show. Join the village parade, make new friends where there are no postcards.

[205 map] In this three-part travel skills special, we start in the Netherlands, venture through Germany, dip into Italy, sweep through Switzerland and France before finishing in England. In this second episode we travel through the highlights of Northern Italy: Venice, Siena, and the Cinque Terre — my favorite stretch of the Riviera.

[206] For most people, Venice is a must-see destination. To be here, on this unique island, amid all this culture and history is truly a wonder. But, with its popularity, St. Mark's Square — in mid-day — can come with overwhelming crowds. It'll take an hour for these folks to get into the church. With so many people traveling these days, if you're not on the ball, crowds can be a real problem.

[207] To me, there are two kinds of travelers: those who waste valuable time waiting in long lines like this and smarter travelers who don't.

[208] Most lines you see — like this one at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence — are not people waiting to get in. They're waiting to buy tickets to get in, but there are other ways to get tickets. For example, these people at the Louvre in Paris could avoid this notorious line if they simply bought the city museum pass (which lets you go directly through the turnstyle). You can also make reservations — in places like Rome's Borghese Gallery — to get directly into crowded sights by phone or on the web. Or you can arrange your schedule to avoid crowds. The ancient Pantheon is mobbed through the day...but literally all yours early or late.

[209] Travel is fraught with cultural differences. Celebrate them's fun...that's why we're here. On forms, fill in the date European style: day...month...year.

[210] And over here the ground floor is...the ground floor. So, their first floor is the American second...and their second floor is what we'd call the third. By the way...cute little European hotels...often without elevators.

[211] In order to travel well, you need to be engaged. Weights and other measurements throughout Europe use the metric system. Give it a try. Here's about half a kilo...that's roughly a pound.

[212] All over Europe produce — in this deli, cheese and meat — is sold in 100-gram increments — about a quarter pound — plenty for a hearty sandwich.

[213] And when they write numbers, Europeans use commas and periods differently than we do. For instance, one and a half kilos looks like this...and there's one thousand grams in a kilo. And you might as well make your numbers European style: cross your sevens because a one looks like this. And for temperatures they use Celsius rather than Fahrenheit — here's a memory aid: 28 C is the same as 82 F...pretty warm.

[214] During the Middle Ages, Venice was Europe's trading superpower, but today the big business is tourism. All over Europe — wherever there are tourists, you'll find tourist information offices. But be aware, while handy, their purpose is to help you spend money in their town.

[215] Many are privatized. Funded by hotels and big tour companies, they can be more interested in selling tickets and services than just giving information. Still, drop by to pick up a city map, learn about special events, and so on. When it comes to information, like anywhere, be a savvy consumer.

[216] You can explore Europe on your own or with a tour. Either way can be the right choice. Going on your own gives you flexibility, freedom, and you can connect more intimately with Europe.

[217] Many wish they could go on their own but are nervous about traveling independently. Equipped with good information and a determination to travel smart, you can be your own tour guide. Guidebooks — whether print or digital — are vital tools. There are guidebooks for everyone: shoppers, opera buffs, seniors, campers...even vegetarians. Invest in a guidebook that fits your style.

[219] But for many travelers a guided bus tour can also be a good choice.

[220] After thirty years of tour guiding experience, I've found that for the right person, choosing the right tour, can reward that traveler with some of the best travel experiences possible. Good tours come with expert, passionate teachers for guides, small groups, and take full advantage of the built economy and efficiency that can come with group travel.

[221] On a tour, you'll probably see more per day than you would on your own. Organizing the top sights into a smooth and stress free package, a tour provides good comfortable hotels, door-to-door bus service — except in Venice of course, and an efficient sightseeing schedule at a fine price.

[222] But understand how standard tours make their money. The retail price is often too good to be true — designed just to get you on board. Most of their profit actually comes in Europe. For instance, here, in Venice, your guide is sure to arrange an entertaining glass blowing demonstration.

And it's always followed by a shopping opportunity. Guides are generally paid a token wage and make most of their income through tips, selling optional sightseeing tours, and kickbacks on your shopping.

[223] Seeing the great sights of Europe from a cruise ship is more popular than ever. Cruising is a huge and growing industry. Like the big bus tours, it can be efficient and economical — and the base cost is reasonable. Again, the serious profit is made elsewhere — in your drinking, gambling, shopping, and selling you the on-shore excursions.

[224] Each ship carries thousands of tourists effortlessly from famous port to famous port. Passengers have choices. You can spend shore time sightseeing in organized tour groups. Or you can explore on your own. There are clear options. For the independent traveler who takes advantage of good guidebook, the ship can provide an efficient springboard for getting the most out of a series of quick one-day stops.

[225] Anywhere in Europe, you can stay in touch easily with the Internet. And, each year there are more good reasons to be empowered by online tools, clever apps, and communication innovations. Internet access — often for free — is everywhere — from cafés to trains to hotels. Your various mobile devices are important travel tools. Before leaving home understand their limits, costs, and abilities.

[226] It's time to say ciao to Venice and head for Tuscany. Our next stop: Siena.

[227] Siena is a stony architectural time-warp where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past. Its main square, Il Campo, is enchanting. Five hundred years ago, Italy was the center of humanism. Here, it's the city hall bell tower rather than the church spire that soars above the town. And today, the beloved square feels like a beach without sand.

[228] At the edge of Siena's medieval center, our hotel's garden is a fine place for reviewing some ideas on itinerary planning.

[229] Start your travel experience early by enjoying the planning stage. Talk to other travelers, choose books and movies with your trip in mind, nurture your travel dreams. Then develop a thoughtful itinerary in steps:

[230] Brainstorm a wish list of destinations, put them in a logical geographical order, then write down how many days you'd like to spend in each place and then tally it up. 32 days. And now you've got to fit it with your vacation time. I've got 21 days off, that means I'm going to have to do some serious cutting here...minimize redundancy...can't do both the Italian Riviera and the French Riviera. Keep a balance between big cities and small towns. This is heavy on big cities. I think I'll have to cut Rome. Greece takes too much time to get to. It'll have to be on the next trip. Rather than spending an entire day on the train I can save a day in my itinerary by flying or taking the overnight train, from Bavaria to Venice. I still have to cut one day. I'll have to tighten up on Paris, three days rather than four and I've got it — 21 days. It fits.

[231] Now fine-tune your itinerary. Anticipate any closed days. For instance, in Paris most museums are closed on Tuesday. Take your trip to the next level by researching events you'll encounter along the way: concerts, sporting events, and festivals. Also, consider building in a few slack days...two days on the beach midway through the trip; that'll be very nice. One-night stops are hectic. Try for at least two nights per stop. And jaws — that's flying into one city and out of another city — that's very efficient.

[232] Finally, be realistic about how much you can cover. You'll always find places you can't get to. I really wanted to get to Greece, but squeezing it in would rush my entire trip. Assume you will return.

[233] Travel is freedom. It's rich with choices and exciting decisions. That's part of the appeal.

[234,] Factor in your comfort level with doing things on the fly. Some people have a great trip with nothing planned at all. Others have a great trip by nailing down every detail before they leave home. I like to keep some flexibility in my itinerary — perhaps I'll fall in love with Siena and stay an extra day.

[235] Also, plan thoughtfully to get the best weather and the least crowds. The most grueling thing about travel over here is the heat and crowds of summer — especially in Italy. Check the weather charts. My rough rule of thumb: north of the Alps is like Seattle or Boston; south of the Alps is like Southern California or Florida. I prefer visiting the Mediterranean countries in spring or fall and I travel north of the Alps in summer.

[236] We happen to be here in August. And it's hot. Winter travel is a whole different scene. And it comes with pros and cons too: flights are cheaper, museums are empty, and the high culture — symphonies, opera and so on — is in full swing.

[237] But in the winter it rains more and gets dark early — especially in the north; and many activities and sights are closed, or run on shorter hours. While small towns, outdoor sights, and resorts can be sleepy; big cities are vibrant and festive throughout the year.

[238] By the way, while Europe has little violent crime; it comes with plenty of petty purse snatching and pickpocketing. European thieves target Americans — not because they're mean, but because they're smart. We're the ones with all the goodies in our day bags, wallets, and purses.

[239] There are all kinds of scams. Remember: Thieves don't dress like thieves. Thieves can be mothers with babies in their arms and fast-fingered children at their sides. Thieves work to distract you. They'll spill something on you or shove a cardboard sign in your face, and so on. You're not likely to get mugged, but if you're not careful, you could get pickpocketed or purse-snatched.

[239a] How can you foil thieves without feeling like you're constantly on guard?

[240] A great way to solve this problem: Zip up and secure your valuables. I like to wear a money belt. It's a nylon pouch you wear tight around your waist, tucked in like your shirttail. Carry just the essentials so you can wear this thing comfortably all day long: passport, drivers' license, credit cards, big money, and train tickets. As an extra precaution, before my trip, I email all my important personal information to myself.

[241] Venice and Siena are wonderful cities, but they're very popular. Throughout Europe, I make a point to venture beyond the famous stops.

[242] In Bosnia watch daredevils jump from a bridge rebuilt after the war...... In England — climb your own private the north of Spain — you can join the pilgrims on the route to Santiago.

[243] I love the charm of the Cinque Terre — five remote and traffic-free villages wedged in the most rugged bit of the Italian Riviera, trying to hide out from today's modern world as they did from pirates centuries ago. Each town is a character. This is Vernazza.

[244] While this stretch of coast was an exciting discovery for me 30 years ago, it's pretty touristy now. And that's the case with much of Europe. But Europe still has its untouristy corners. And, even in popular places like this, you can still find your own Back Doors. Venture away from the intentionally appealing commercial zones. Explore.

[245] Vernazza has no modern hotels, and that's actually good news. It keeps away the most high-maintenance travelers — those who demand all the four-star comforts.

[246] You can sleep in humble pensions, move in with families renting out spare rooms, and enjoy the classic small-town Riviera experience.

[247] Whether the place is touristy or not, you can always connect with the locals. Offer to catch a line... And leave the crowded main street. Support the local entrepreneurs.

[248] Years ago, the language barrier was a big problem. But today's Europe is increasingly bilingual — and English is its second language. These days it seems any place interested in your business speaks your language.

[249] While it's nothing to brag about, I speak only English and manage fine. Still, a few tips help. It's rude to assume everybody speaks English. To be polite, I start conversations by asking, "Do you speak English? — Parlez-vous anglais? Sprechen Sie Englisch?" Whatever. If he says no, I do my best in his language. Generally after a couple of sentences he'll say, "Actually I do speak a little English." Okay, your friend is speaking your language. Do him a favor by speaking slowly, clearly. Enunciate. No slang, no contractions, internationally understood words. Instead of asking for the restroom, ask "toilet?" Instead of asking, "Can I take your picture?" point to your camera and ask "Photo?"

[250] Make educated guesses and proceed confidently. This must be a pharmacy. And at the station, this sign shows trains arriving and trains departing.

[251] Communicate with a curiosity and an appetite for learning. In Europe, each region has its own gestures.

[251a] There's also a gesture for; I'm tired of carrying my bags. Whether you're battling crowds or exploring the back doors there's only one way to avoid this.

[252] Packing light is essential for happy travel. Think about it: Have you ever met anyone who, after five trips, brags, "Every year I pack heavier"? Learn now or you'll learn later the importance of being mobile with your luggage. Pack light.

[253] While large, unwieldy suitcases are bad for this kind of travel, smaller, carry-on sized wheelie bags are popular and can work well.

[254] If you don't mind slinging your suitcase over your shoulder, a bag like this works great. This is a convertible suitcase/backpack. It's designed to be as big as you can carry it onto most planes. I use it as a backpack but zip away these straps and it converts into a soft-sided suitcase.

[255] You'll see all kinds of travelers and bags on the road. Remember, you'll be walking a lot with your bags — especially if traveling by train. Before your trip, try this test. Load everything up, and go downtown. Window shop for an hour with all your gear. If you can't do that comfortably, go home, spread everything out on the living room floor, and reconsider.

[256] Pick up each item one at a time. Ask yourself, "Will I use this swimming mask enough to justify carrying it around?" not "Will I use it?" This would be great here on the Riviera. But will I use it enough to feel good about packing it through the Swiss Alps? Frugal as I may be, I'd buy it here before I'd carry it through Europe.

[257] Don't pack for the worst scenario. Pack for the best scenario and if you need something more, buy it over here.

[258] If you run out of toothpaste, that's not a problem. Then you've got a great excuse to shop around over here... and pick up something you think...might be toothpaste.

[259] You can get virtually everything in Europe. If you can't get one of your essentials here, perhaps you should ask yourself how 400 million Europeans can live without it.

[260] Whether traveling for two weeks or three months, I pack exactly the same. Everything I need is in this bag. For the traveler, Europe is casual. For warmth, I layer it. You've got a light sweater and light jacket in summer. Of course, in winter you'll need to look at climate charts and pack for rain and the cold. For pants I bring jeans. But in the hot, muggy Mediterranean, I like a very light pair of long pants. A pair of shorts doubles as a swimsuit. For shirts: a T-shirt, two long-sleeved, three short-sleeved works for me. And the thing that determines when I have to do laundry is when I run out of socks and underwear, so think about how many socks and how many underwear you'd like to bring. As far as shoes go, this is very important. I bring one broken-in pair of good, sturdy walking shoes. If you're bringing a second pair of shoes make it a light one.

[261] And travel information: very important, but not too much — my notebook, a basic map, couple of guidebooks, and I rip out sections of guidebooks to keep the bulk down. This is my toiletries kit — just the basics — you're on vacation, and a miscellaneous stuff bag full of odds and ends — you know...the ten essentials that you never need. I didn't pack an umbrella. But it rained and I bought one. They're cheap over here. And when I'm out and about, I have a day bag.

[262] For women, of course, there are differences and lots of clever tips. But it's just as important to be mobile, and the same basic principles of packing light apply.

[263] Now, let me talk about electronics. These days there's Wi-Fi just about everywhere. I bring a laptop — because I'm working; a little point and shoot camera works just fine for me; I buy a simple cell phone over here  — it's handy for calling within Europe; and I bring my smartphone from home — these days this is an increasingly valuable tool for those on the road. All these are dual voltage — they work just fine in Europe. You're only concern is physically plugging it into the wall. Your American plug won't work, so you need one of two European adapters: In Britain you use the adapter with the three rectangular prongs, and anywhere on the Continent, the adaptor with the two little round plugs works just great.

[264] Exploring is part of good travel. Giuliano — who dished up my pasta last night — is taking me on a short hike to the family vineyard. Besides packing light, planning right and learning your communication skills, travel in a way that broadens your perspective. And for me that means connecting with, and learning from friendly locals.

[265] Whether you're enjoying happy hour on the Oslo fjord...pulling out all the stops in a grand pipe organ loft...or, eating beyond your comfort zone enrich your experience by, what I call "traveling on purpose:" Experiencing communities in action. Connecting with people whose cultures challenge ours. Joining seekers on the pilgrimage trail. Wherever you venture, let the experience broaden your perspective.

[266] And that's my kind of souvenir. Thanks for joining us. Next time we finish our three-part travel skills special with lots more practical the Swiss Alps, Paris, and London. I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'. Ciao.