For many Americans, Europe is a bit of a mystery. It's the origin of pizza, classical music and of course, freedom fries.
Then there's all those family trees tracing to way back when, with roots in places like Germany, England, France, Ireland and Italy. For many, a journey to Europe is about understanding where they and their country came from.
Back in the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller, hanging out in Europe for the summer was considered pretty chic but these days it's also become something of an industry. Travel agencies take Americans on 12-countries-in-10-days tours, whirling their clients through countries in Europe like stores in a mall.
It becomes hard to know where you are on such trips, though, as illustrated by a friend of mine working in a hotel in Dublin; she was asked if she had any maps of Wales, as the tour group was heading there the next day.
"I'm sorry," She said, "We only have maps of Ireland here."
"Never mind, honey," came the answer, "I don't think we'll make it there on this trip."
If you're going to Europe, do it on your own terms. Read up in advance about the places you want to see and organize your own itinerary. Europe is one of the safest and most organized places in the world you could travel to and, once you're there, you'll appreciate the flexibility.
Organized But Not Cheap
It's not the cheapest place in the world to travel though. The tourist season gets going in earnest in June and runs through to the end of August. During this time hotels, tours and flights tend to charge top dollar, aware that the average visitor won't have much idea of local prices.
But your trip needn't drain your bank balance. Over the last few years there's been a curious evolution in the flight business with the arrival of the so-called 'no-frills' airlines. Beginning in Britain with Easy Jet, an Irish carrier Ryan Air also got on the band wagon and began offering fares from Britain to Europe for as low as 10 pounds ($17).
The longer you book in advance, the cheaper your fare becomes and it's now often cheaper to fly from Italy to Greece via the UK and one of these low-cost airlines.
Don't expect luxurious service though, not even a snack unless you want to pay extortionte prices for a sandwich and a coffee -- one of the ways these airlines scrape a living. The flights can all be booked online though and so you can plan your travel itinerary months in advance and get the cheapest deals.
Arrive less than an hour before your flight though and you might have to cry before they'll give you your seat back -- at least that tactic worked for me in Milan recently.
If, however, one of the attractions of going to Europe is to travel by land, then you might want to consider one of the many Eurorail passes: these tickets allow you unlimited train travel in a select number of countries for varying periods of time. So if you're planning to hit lots of small towns on the way, this can be a great way to go.
Or, if you're a family and you want to explore the towns and villages of a country you can turn to renting a car to save money. Easy Jet also offers car hire at www.europcar4easyjet.com and rates can be as low as $30-50 a day. Then you have the independence to take your travels at your own pace.
Accommodation will be the greatest expense, especially in the summer when hotels are often running at full occupancy. If you're traveling alone you might want to cut costs and go the social route of staying at hostels (www.hostelworld.com supplies a good selection), or if you're a couple or family then you can reserve ahead of time with www.laterooms.com.
If you plan to spend a few days in any given hotel it's quite acceptable protocol to negotiate a little about the price of the room. Visiting Rome last year, the moment I picked up my suitcase to go, the manager hastily offered a hefty discount if I agreed to stay for at least 3 nights.
So where to go?
The only catch about traveling in Europe in the summer is that everyone else has the same idea. The weather from May to September is fair to good in most places and everywhere tourists are making the most of their summer vacation. Some of the highlights of Europe, such as London, Amsterdam, Paris and Prague, become so busy that it's hard enough just walking down the street in the center of town.
When I lived in Amsterdam I used to plan my route through the town to avoid the main streets and plazas, where you had to almost fight your way through the crowds of tour groups with cameras and maps.
All of which perhaps accounts for a slight impatience in the local attitude towards tourists in the major centers in Europe. The towns and cities do benefit from the influx of foreign money but the seasons of mass visitors feel a little like an invasion.
There's no reason why you should tread the established tourist zones though, where terrace cafes offer menus in English and food a local would never eat. Instead, why not risk heading a little away from all the famous statues into the backstreets and try local cafes, bars and restaurants where the quality is likely to be higher and the prices lower. Don't worry about the language: money talks!
In fact, if you want to get the most out of your trip to Europe without asking for a loan from the bank, you might want to consider getting off the beaten track and visiting some of the lesser-known countries like Slovenia, Croatia, Poland and Hungary.
The countries of the former communist bloc have yet to experience mass tourism and are often more welcoming to visitors. They have just as rich a history, selection of manmade and natural sights and are much cheaper into the bargain.
For example, while most tourists looking for some mountain air head towards the prohibitively expensive Alps, I found cheap and pleasant treks in the Tatra Mountains near Krakow, Poland. The trails led by stunning lakes and glaciers, over virgin passes and food, accommodation and travel was five times cheaper than a similar jaunt in Switzerland.
Likewise, while the beaches of Spain, Portugal and Greece draw the crowds, some of the clearest turqouise waters in the Mediterranean can be found along the coast of Croatia. The war there is long since over and you'll meet a population curious and welcoming to foreign tourists.
Or if beaches aren't your thing, try the gorgeous spa towns of Slovenia and spoil yourself in hot baths and pure drinking water. With a good guide book, your travels in Europe need only be limited by your imagination.
In these troubled times of political turmoil, many Americans might ask themselves what kind of reception they may face abroad. Whether because of perceived terrorist threats or political agendas, some might fear hostility or negative reactions when vacationing in Europe.
The only real answer to this is that most sane people in the world take visitors on their own terms, not as embassadors for their countries. Economies that thrive on tourism rarely bite the hand that feeds them and locals are often touched by the curiousity and enthusiasm with which American tourists arrive, eager to know more about a region's history and culture.
Of course, it's as well to have a respectful and considerate attitude towards the countries you visit, bearing in mind the sometimes quirky nature of the locals.
Working last summer in Cambridge, England, the locals tended to get upset only when American tourists were 'talking too loudly in the street!' The English are undoubtedly a little sensitive in this area (and make plenty of noise themselves when the pubs shut at night!) but you'll still get along smoother by tolerating local ideosyncrasies.
Europe remains one of the great places in the world to travel, with so many countries, cultures and traditions grouped together in such close proximity. If you can travel slightly off-season it will be cheaper and less crowded but at any rate you're bound to be blown away with the richness of the culture, the sheer age of the place and, of course, all the good food and wine.