Almost every day I find myself traversing Wenceslas Square, one of Prague’s busiest thoroughfares. And although the Czech Republic is consistently rated one of the most peaceful nations on the planet it continuously surprises me the number of travelers who, in their foggy state of travel bliss, seem to misplace all sense of caution and awareness. In light of the upcoming holiday season where the Christmas markets here in Europe will be packed with tourists, as well as a recent and overly-general advisory from the US State Department, I’ve put together an overview of recommendations and reminders in order to help you travel discreetly and safely under the radar here in Europe. By no means is the list complete, but it contains suggestions that come to mind when reflecting on over twenty years of international travel experiences.
Always be aware of your surroundings. Recently I’ve encountered quite a few tourists yapping on their mobile phones while simultaneously and rather conspicuously withdrawing cash from an ATM. Since you likely wouldn’t do this in your home country don’t behave any differently while traveling. I also recommend limiting use of headphones, especially at nighttime and when in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
Restrict the use of maps in public and plan your route before leaving your accommodation. Take a few minutes to download and study that Google Map on your device before venturing into town. And when you find yourself needing to access a map, do so in enclosed areas like cafes and preferably on a small portable device as opposed to those classic, touristy-looking, accordion-style maps.
Stop talking so loud — and so much!!! Americans (I am one so I can call us out on this), British, Australians, Italians and Spanish tend to be some of the worst offenders — exponentially so when imbibing in the Czech Republic’s world-renowned beer and local spirits, like Absinthe. Especially in a country where folks tend to exercise a relative quietness, your voice carries a lot further than you likely realize making it one of the easiest factors identifying you as a foreigner.
Avoid large public venues like high-capacity concerts and sporting events. Perhaps a bit of my own abhorrence for large crowds seeping in here, but who wants to be doing the same, oftentimes overpriced, activity that thousands of others are doing? Splurge instead on an authentic experience like a picnic or a romantic dinner.
Visit tourist sites during off-peak hours — or better yet during off-season. Not only does this relate to safety but, unless peak season is absolutely the only time you can go, why waste your your hard-earned money paying inflated prices as well as lose your limited holiday time queueing?
Watch what your clothing says about you. I am all for comfort, but galavanting around town looking like you just rolled out of the bed after last night’s frat party definitely identifies you as, you guessed it, a foreigner. Here in central Europe one can almost never go wrong with modest-looking apparel and dark, muted colors.
Watch what your luggage say about you. Try traveling with as little luggage as possible. Is it on wheels? You’re likely not from around these parts, besides the sound of your roller bag is likely driving local residents nuts (more on that in an upcoming post). I travel almost always exclusively with hand luggage — even on lengthy transoceanic voyages. Besides making travel lighter it means far less laundry for my constantly overworked, imaginary housekeeper upon my return. You might even be able to save on checked luggage fees.
Wearing bands, ornaments or devices that easily identify you as a tourist. Most hostels in Prague provide their guests with a colored wristband identifying them as guests and entitling them to discounts at various local bars and restaurants. Similarly, mass tour companies provide headsets for tours in your language, oftentimes with a necklace or box attached, making it that much easier to identify you as a tourist.
Related to the above, a pet peeve: Neck pillows. Unless you suffer from serious narcolepsy — in which case you should probably be wearing a helmet instead — just take it off. Quit walking around town with it wrapped around your neck. We know you are a tourist and hopefully by now you know that you have already reached your destination.
Seek out local establishments and not well-known international chains for accommodation, eating, coffee, fitness and nightlife. As much as I love the comfort of a posh hotel, in some circumstances it’s just smarter to avoid big brand name hotels. And when it comes to food and local delights, you’re much more likely to remember that newly-famous trdelník se zmrzlinou (chimney cake with ice cream) you had as opposed to a chocolate sundae at the local McDonald’s. Besides, it’ll make for an even better story back home.
Take your empathy down a notch or two. Regrettably this means don’t stop to help the blind kid with no legs positioned outside the train station or allow yourself to get drawn into requests for directions or even for the time of day as oftentimes these are all well-choreographed distractions designed to disarm and take advantage of you.
Learn at least a few common words in the local language and practice them a bit before you go. Besides, it’s just polite.
Use reputable, established transportation services even if it means paying a bit more of a premium sometimes. Most popular transport companies, particularly in Prague, have an app these days. Here’s one that I frequently recommend.
Ask a local. As shocking as it may sound, “the” Google and other online travel outlets don’t always have all the latest and greatest info, so get help and advice from local authorities, like myself. ’Nuff said. Safe and happy travels!
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