More skill-focused than a typical guidebook, Through the Back Door comprises unusual tips to bring you closer to the locals. Here, I’ll break down the best tips from the book’s first half, which tackles Europe as a whole. The second half of the book offers country-by-country highlights. The guide is fairly comprehensive, and would be a great read as you start planning a Europe trip.
But at nearly 800 pages, this is not a great book to take with you. To that end, Steves recommends cutting interesting and useful pages out of your guidebook, then stapling them together to save on space and weight. Because Rick Steves is a 60-year-old man, he does not use the label #DIY to refer to the resulting product, so I’m forced to do it for him.
More helpful ideas to follow.
Likely your first concern after selecting your travel destination is (or should be) deciding where to sleep. There are so, so many options in major European cities – including hotels, hostels, apartment rentals, B&Bs, AirBNBs, couch surfing, work stays… A lot depends on budget and your appetite for, um, character.
Whichever accommodations you prefer, I recommend trying something new in order to get a fresh perspective. It’s also worth remembering that spending more money will just put more of a wedge between you and the locals.
Unless you’re a spy or have monsters for in-laws, you’ll want to stay with family and friends as much as possible. Do your best to bring a small gift (a bottle of wine or a collection of postcards from previous destinations should do nicely) and don’t overstay your welcome. Be sure to keep in touch throughout the remainder of your travels.
The value of your money varies greatly nation to nation – plan to splurge in cheap countries and save in expensive ones. Steves also recommends picnicking at least one meal a day to save money (try to buy from markets with posted prices).
If spending the big bucks, you can claim back the VAT (a 15-25% tax levied on European purchases). Bring your passport on your shopping trip, get the necessary documents from the retailer, then track down the relevant authorities at the airport or border crossing. Read more here.
Out and About
Before you go, you may want to calculate the cost per hour of your trip (figure it’s about $20/hour). If saving yourself an hour costs less than that amount, you should shell out for the fast-pass that allows you to skip the line or the transit option that travels faster.
Otherwise, the best time saving tip is to do your utmost to avoid queuing. Three basic strategies: arrive early/late in the day, look ahead to see if there’s a side entrance, and buy advanced tickets. Always remember to check for cancelations and unusual opening hours before visiting.
I don’t need to tell you it’s a good idea to learn a few basic phrases in the local language – mostly for when you need help and a couple to break out when you’re feeling silly. Failing that, remember to use your simple English. Steves also recommends over exaggerating the local accent, even when you’re trying to communicate in English. I dunno how I feel about this – it seems like the person you’re talking to may feel you’re making fun of them – but if it works for you (or you get into desperate straits), go for it.
When in doubt, chose the place with a hand written menu and small selection over the “international” café with glossy pictures of the food posted everywhere.
You’ll be charged more to sit at a table (and more still at an outside table), so budget travelers may aim to eat at the bar. Because of this service charge and generally higher wages, tipping is more-or-less unnecessary, though 5-10% is an adequate bonus for particularly attentive service.
According to Steves, “Every traveler has one or two great toilet stories.” Ah yes. I fondly remember the first squat toilet I encountered in Turkey. A good reminder not to skip leg day at the gym.
Traveling is all about seeing how other people live. And spoiler alert, they may not go to the bathroom the same way you do. Hopefully the lack of a familiar toilet will be the most stressful situation you encounter on your trip, but sometimes things really do go wrong. In these situations, (it’s been said a million times because it’s true) but all you can control is your attitude.My European voyage begins today! Headed to Iceland and then on to the European mainland to start a series of workstays. Don’t be shy, comment with your travel recommendations.