Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 3, 2011

Easier than you might think

Vacation travel is all about doing some things that are different from the activities that fill our everyday lives. Still, many of the same basic concerns must be addressed wherever we are, and worries over satisfying these common needs keep some from venturing very far from home. Many people have told me they hesitate to travel because they are uneasy with what they may face when trying to locate a place to stay, getting around and eating. These concerns are largely unfounded when Europe is the destination being considered.

In the United States, most would choose to stay at a motel or hotel. The adventurous might choose the comparatively rare bed and breakfast.

In Europe, motels are quite rare and hotels quite pricy. Bed and breakfast establishments are the least expensive and also the most abundant. In fact, in some areas it seems as if every other home doubles as a bed and breakfast. Some are quite humble affairs and consist of little more than a bed, a chair or two, a place to hang clothing and a toilet and shower which are sometimes shared, although this is now rare. Others are very much like hotel rooms, except for being in a private home. A common variation is the self-catering apartment, which has cooking facilities and is frequently designed like a small suite with separate sleeping areas.

Locating such a place before arriving used to be difficult, but with the Internet, it is easy. And if only one or two are traveling together, except during busy holidays and peak summer periods, arranging a place beforehand is virtually unneeded as accommodations are available almost everywhere.

One big difference is payment. Except for expensive hotels, credit cards are not accepted. Cash is king. In addition, very few require anything to hold a room other than your word that you'll arrive on a certain date and will stay for a stated period of time. Payment for the room and breakfast are made when departing, not upon arrival. The hosts will not meddle in your affairs any more than you desire.

Some first-time travelers worry about communicating, but many Europeans speak enough English that arranging for a place to stay is rarely a problem.

All transportation options available in the United States are available in Europe, but the emphasis is different. In the United States, public transportation is often poor to nonexistent. In Europe, train travel is easy and almost always available between cities of any size. All other areas are covered by clean buses. Because people in Europe are much more into walking and bicycle-riding than we are, the traveler is as likely to find a bus stop in the middle of a nature preserve as in the center of a large city.

That said, husband Art loves to drive and so we always rent a car. The downside is that gasoline is currently running about $8 a gallon. However, countries in Europe are not much bigger than a couple of our average states, so the ordinary automobile trip is far shorter than at home.

Finding a parking places is a pain in the larger cities, but that is the same as at home.

I admit that driving in Europe makes me nervous. Mountain roads are narrow and curving, and you sometimes encounter trucks struggling to make the hairpin turns and motorcycles zipping around cars when there's barely enough room to get by. And vehicles on the Autobahn occasionally make it seem as though we're standing still.

But Art disagrees with my assessment, correctly pointing out that I am also nervous in Chicago or Minneapolis. He is not nervous at all.

Another main concern people have about traveling is food, but this is really no problem at all. We've encountered a few unfamiliar items on menus, but they're also filled with familiar dishes. The only hitch may be in understanding the menu, but most waiters and waitresses are young, so they have studied English in school and have encountered enough English-speaking customers that they can translate food items effectively.

Almost all European restaurants post the menu at the entrance so customers can see what is being offered. This allows as much time as may be needed to "decode" what is available and if a person is unsure, there is always another restaurant next door. Some even list menu items in English or have pictures. And, in larger cities, you can find a Burger King, a McDonald's or a Pizza Hut if the urge for something like home strikes. However, they may not look like our cookie-cutter establishments. The Pizza Hut in Garmisch-Partenkirchen is inside a "chalet." And the Salzburg McDonald's - just down the street from Mozart's birthplace - has an elaborate signpost that includes a lion.

One of my favorite aspects of Europe is eating at the ubiquitous sidewalk cafes. It has been a big hit with daughter Mariya's partner Lacey as well. Several mornings we have awakened to find her sitting on our balcony sipping a drink. When asked what she was doing, she'd grin and respond, "Being Euro."

Since Art, the girls and I stay primarily in self-catering apartments, we alternate between eating out and cooking our own meals. Shopping at the local grocery stores - Aldi, Lidl, Spar, Pennymarkt or Rewe - is one of Art's favorite adventures. Most items are recognizable on sight, but with dictionaries in hand, the others are readily identified.

So for those who hesitate to take a trip to Europe because of concerns over basic needs, let me assure you that these concerns are really small ones and are easily overcome. It's really easier than you might think.

Left, Pension Auer, our "home" in Lofer, Austria, had rooms - zimmer - and
self-catering apartments - ferienwohnungen. Our three gals are on the balcony;
right, Art studies the hard roll options at a bakery in Oberammergau, Germany.

Left, Lacey and daughters Mariya and Katie are eager to try their grilled trout while Art is pleased
with his smoked trout at an outdoor restaurant near St. Bartholoma chapel on the Koenigsee;
right, the McDonald's restaurant in Salzburg, Austria blends into its surroundings.

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