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Welcome!

Louis Casabianca, author of First-Time Europe, answers your questions.

As some of you may know, not too long ago we ran a contest where you could submit your questions to Louis Casabianca, author of "First-Time Europe", for a chance to win a copy
of the book. Here are the winning questions, along with answers and personal comments from
Louis. For a more extensive looking into planning your European trip, pick up a copy of
First-Time Europe for yourself.

 

To all-

Many thanks for the questions. Iím writing the next edition of First-Time Europe, and itís good to get some questions from future travelers so I can get a better insight into the concerns of the first timer.

 

I will now pat myself on the back and plug First-Time Europe. In that book I answered questions 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 1 9 and 20, some of them at much greater length that I will be able to answer here. So, buy the book if you have more questions and good luck in Europe.

 

Winners Questions

 

1. If you were limited to a 10-15 day trip to Europe, what would you recommend as an itinerary? Christina H., Charlottesville, VA

This one is a matter of personal taste, but there are some basic choices: the classic London-Paris-Rome jaunt, if you have 15 days, or London-Paris, if you have only 10. The other option is to pick one of those three cities and spend your entire trip there, making day trips out of the city to places like Chartres, Oxford, Naples, Florence/Pisa and Cambridge. Itís really up to you, but I would find it hard to go to Europe and not go to at least one of London, Paris or Rome.

2. How do you recommend calling your home country while traveling in another country - net-to-phone, calling card, call-back etc? Ed S., Kennesaw, GA

This one is easy---buy a phone card, call home just long enough to spit out the number youíre at, and have them call back. Calling collect will cost a small fortune, using a dial-home service, such as ATT USA direct will cost a large fortune, and using a credit card phone will bankrupt you. Of course, anything using the internet will be cheaper than regular phone lines, but then youíre talking about finding a cyber-cafe with internet voice.

3. I'm planning on going to Europe for 2 months this summer. I know I'm going to take a lot of pictures while I'm there, but I don't want to risk destroying any of the exposed film. Is there I way that I can have it sent home without developing it while I'm in Europe, as well as not risk the roll getting destroyed when I send it? Kevin H., Chelsea, MI

I donít quite get this question---I would just put the rolls of film back in their little plastic cans and hang on to them. Itís not like film canisters are going to be damaged unless you are on some kind of really severe camping trip. Mailing them home is no big deal--stick Ďem in a box, pad them with newspaper and mail away. For the record, I hang on to my film and develop it at all home...the easiest way to ruin negatives is to develop the film and then carry the pictures around for a month. Pictures in an envelope are easily damaged.

4. What do you recommend in regards to camera for the first time traveler? Should we go simple, or digital? How easy is it to use a digital camera in Europe? Jeff B., Peterborough, ON

Get a small, very high quality point and shoot 35 mm, preferably with a zoom, or a similar high-quality digital, unless you are really into photography. Using a digital camera in Europe is a non-issue. Itís not like the residents of Paris are still using horses and buggies. Cell phones and digital cameras are more common in most of Europe than in the US.

5. What is the best type of suitcase or backpack would you recommend for a 3 week trip across the UK? Kathryn T., Orlando, FL

Three week trip? Get a high quality travel pack--you know, the kind that converts into a suitcase, with a zipper that allows you to open the whole thing up, rather than a load-from-the-top backpack. And if youíre only going for three weeks, pack very very light.

6. When choosing a backpack to backpack through Europe, is price a factor, the more expensive the better? Becky L., Downers Grove, IL

Well, yes, generally you get what you pay for, just donít buy a pack designed for climbing Everest. You donít need that. Get a good travel pack or internal frame backpack. (It should cost, at most, 300 American dollars.) There are a number of pages of advice on backpacks in FTE, by the way.

7. When arriving in Europe for the first time, the thought of utilizing the public transit system may seem intimidating - especially if all of the printed instructions and materials are in a language one is not familiar with. Do you have any suggestions for the first-time global traveller faced with a new transit system in a new country in a new language? Darryl W., White House, TN

Another subject that I spend pages discussing in FTE. The bottom line is this: Every year millions of foreigners come to Paris, Rome, Berlin, London etc., from places like Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Singapore. The public transit people know this. If only for their own convenience, the public transit systems in major European cities have instructions in several languages, and rely on symbols rather than words. Relax. You are not the first non-Italian speaker to take the subway in Rome. The last time I was in Paris I didnít see thousands of lost travelers wandering in the Metro. You will be an old pro in two days.

8. Are there any areas in Europe more dangerous to travel to than others? Lianne C., Waterloo, ON.

Well, every city has its bad areas, of course, just like any city anywhere in the world. Donít hang around outside train stations or in parks after dark, and take all the crime-prevention steps you would take at home if you go out at night. When I arrive in a town I always ask at the tourist office in the train station if thereís any place to avoid. As far as whole regions....I suppose thereís more crime in Eastern Europe than Western Europe, and Southern Italy is notorious for theft, but then again there are areas of Paris that are pretty bad as well. The bottom line is that you are unlikely to go into these areas unless you are looking for the things you might find there. If you get robbed or worse because you go out looking for drugs or something illegal, you will get very little sympathy, either from the local police, your embassy, or from me.

9. What are some precautions women traveling alone or in pairs should take to ensure their safety? Kara F., Sioux Falls, SD

Every year, hundreds of thousands of women take to the trains of Europe. Most are under 22. 99.9% have no problems at all. Other than the normal safety precautions everyone should take, donít worry excessively about violent crime. The men in Greece Italy, Spain and other places may be much more aggressive and suggestive than those in America, but itís almost never a matter of safety when they are. Thatís how things are done in those places, and you wonít change it by yelling at them or getting upset. 99% of the guys in those countries are harmless, and the best tactic for dealing with them is silence.

10. Since the Sept. 11th attacks, how have travel regulations changed throughout Europe, and how does this affect backpacking itineraries, safety, packing, and prices? Danielle F., Granada Hills, CA

Other than longer lines at airports, I didnít notice a thing. Remember, Paris, London, Ireland and most of Spain had ongoing terrorist problems long before September 11th. They didnít need to change much in those areas. Just expect to spend A LOT of time in airports, especially when boarding a flight.

11. I am wondering how difficult things will be considering the language barrier. Is it easiest to attempt to ask questions in the native tongue, or to ask if anyone knows English? Are people often offended if you ask if they know English? Taryn V., Muncie, IN

See the answer to Question 12

12. How much Italian should I know before trying to make reservations in Italy? Do most hotel receptionists speak at least a little English? Erin D., St. John's, NFLD

In Italy, and every country for that matter, you should always try to learn as much of the local language as possible. Nothing else you can do will make your stay in a country more enjoyable, or make it easier for you t o meet people. While almost everybody in Europe, especially those who work in hotels, speaks some English, the more effort you make, the more friendliness and cooperation you will encounter.

To answer question 11, if you can ask questions in the local language, do so. Nobody will be offended if you make a mess of the language, as long as you are trying. Very few people will be upset if you ask if they speak English- remember, if a Finn wants to speak to an Italian, or a man from Portugal wants to speak to a Greek, theyíre going to speak English. What WILL offend someone is if you just walk up to them in their home country and start speaking English to them as if you expect them to answer you. Ask if they speak English first.

13. I was wondering if there are any tips you would give first time backpackers on how to get off the beaten track and really experience the true culture of the countries you are visiting while still keeping your budget basically intact? Amanda T., Winona, MN

Oh, thatís easy. Donít use ďLetís GoĒ. All kidding aside, it is easy. Just pick a small town and go there. It will be more work than simply following the directions of a guidebook, and you may have to hunt for housing, but thatís what you have to do if you want to get off the tourist trail. (You also may want to learn how to say ĎExcuse me, sir, where might I find a room for the nightĒ in the local language.) And donít worry about your budgets--small towns are cheap--big cities are expensive.

14. If I am going to travel around Europe for the first time, is it better to go with someone or can I handle it myself? Ricardo C., Miami, FL

This is purely a matter of personal preference. Unless you are really really worried about going alone, you will be fine on your own. Women, especially in Southern Europe, might want to go with a friend, to keep the annoying Italian men at bay.

15. When you are going to Europe during a busy time of the year, is it necessary to make reservations for lodging before leaving home? Amber A., College Station, TX

Yes. Absolutely. 100% Yes. Do not leave for Europe without having a reservation, or you may spend your first day or night in Europe walking around all day, or all night, looking for a place to stay.

16. There are a couple of spots throughout Europe in which I would like to reserve a hotel room. How do I go about finding the hotel rooms that are near the things I want to do and how should I contact them? Mark R., Redmond, WA

Just pick up any good travel guide in a book store or library, find a place that sounds nice in your price range, and give them a call. Procedures for dialing internationally are in the front of every phone book. And remember--ask them if they speak English when they answer.

17. Also, is it necessary to have credit card? I've read stories on the net about hostels charging extra nights on peoples credit cards. What can I do to ensure this doesn't happen to me? Tara V., Calgary, AB

I wouldnít go to Europe without a credit card. And the only thing you can do to keep someone from overcharging your card is to get a receipt showing /how much you paid, hang on to it, and if they charge you more than what appeared on the receipt, dispute the charge.

18. What is the best time of year to go? Is it best to avoid summer to miss the big crowds, or is it better to go when lots of others are there and all attractions are open? David C., Dallas, TX

May is the best time of year to go, and August is the worst. If you have a choice, go in April, May, June or September and October. If not, expect crowds. And itís not like Europe shuts down when summer is over--very few attractions close during the fall and winter, although many hostels do.

19. I understand that some people bring sleeping bags and others bring a sleep sheet. Which is best to bring for the backpacker who is planning on staying in hostels? Dave M., Fort Pierce, FL

Some hostels donít let you use a sleeping bag instead of sheets, so always bring a sleep sack. If you expect to get cold, such as in Northern Europe or in fall winter or spring, bring a small, lightweight sleeping bag as well.

20. Which do you feel is the best way to bring your money with you while traveling-ATM card, travelers cheques, cash or credit card? Which will give you the best rates? Dave F., Victoria, BC

I recommend you bring Ďem all. You obviously need cash for some things, but you donít want to walk around with a couple of thousand dollars. I bring about five hundred dollars in cash, use a credit card or ATM card to get money from ATMs, and use credit cards for buying big things like plane tickets and long hotel or hostel stays. Travelerís checks are for emergency use only. Theyíre out of date, really--bring a hundred dollars or so, but not much more. Those commercials where they show you getting an instant refund if you lose them are a crock. Itís much harder than that.


 

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