So, Schengen restrictions are finally going to be lifted for Colombians. Great news, even if the wheels of EU bureaucracy do turn far too slowly. It will make life a lot easier for those lucky enough to travel to Europe, but there are a few things you need to be aware of before you jump on a plane to explore the Old Continent.
Europe is a lot more expensive in general than Colombia and sometimes to a ridiculous degree, especially for accommodation and food. Although a lot of the Zona Rosa is actually up at EU prices, there aren’t a great deal of cheap options over in Europe. However, there are some common sense measures you can take. For one, in Europe you don’t have the bizarre idea that supermarkets should be more expensive than other shops, so you can prepare your own food with reasonably quality ingredients fairly easily. Look out for Albert Hejn in the Netherlands, for example.
Plus, it is almost universally true that a coffee will be significantly cheaper if you are not paying for the privilege of looking at a big sight.
Also, if it’s a long trip, think about combining cheap and expensive countries, for example the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia along with eye-wateringly expensive Sweden/Finland, or Poland along with Germany. Or simply plan to go to cheaper countries – I think Prague is twice as good as Bruges for half the cost.
Finally, try and avoid constantly thinking about the price of things, especially in relation to Colombia. It’ll only get you depressed and ruin the holiday.
Remember that even though Schengen covers most of Europe, there are some exceptions, most notably Great Britain. However, there’s still 26 countries in the zone which makes it worth doing some travelling. Europe is relatively small by Latin American standards and has such good infrastructure, getting around is easy and sometimes surprisingly affordable. Plane tickets can often be astonishingly cheap if booked well ahead of time – as low as 1 Euro is possible! Keep an eye on the budget airlines (EasyJet, Ryanair, Vueling, Germanwings, Air Europa, Air Berlin, Transavia) to make the most of their special offers. Trains are efficient and hassle-free, but they can be expensive, so book in advance or investigate the Eurail train passes. The German company Deutsche Bahn (www.bahn.com) has an excellent website covering all rail travel in Europe. If you’re looking to save money, buses still exist and are usually much cheaper than trains, though less convenient, but they’re still much faster than the equivalent services in Colombia.
Europe may be small but there is a massive amount to do. If you’re not careful, this can lead to analysis paralysis, where you try to do everything in one go. Think hard about what you really want from Europe and plan how to see what you most want to see, not how much you can do. It’s worth prioritising hidden gems – like medieval Estonia or Slovenia for nature and Alpine landscapes.
Although some sights are very specific, a lot of Europe is repetitive and you’ll likely get sick of old markets after a while. For example, you don’t need to go to Bavaria just to see a fairytale castle – Europe is filled with fairytale castles! Try and think of Europe by region and identify exactly what you want from your European experience, as this will avoid wasted time.
I’ve been to a lot of countries, and the most common comment I hear about all of them is this: “The people are so friendly”. Well, of course. People don’t tend to be idiots, so you’ll usually find a friendly welcome. However, in Spain, you may find that some people react badly to Latin American Spanish. This even happened to me, and I’m as far from looking South American as you can imagine! Ignorant fools might well ask you if you have any cocaine for sale. If you treat this as a joke, but firmly make the point that Colombia is not a giant drug war country, it’ll go down better than simply getting angry. Remember that you’re an ambassador for your country and the world’s opinion of Colombia is changing. Be part of that process.
What to pack
All of Europe uses the same plug, which is easy to find in Colombia, so buy a couple before you go – they’re much cheaper here than there! Do be aware that Europe uses a 220 volt system rather than the 100 volts here in Colombia, so make sure any electrical items you take can handle that power, otherwise they might explode into flames! Make photocopies of both your visa and your passport, or store copies online in your email. Little gifts from Colombia, for example small change for bar displays or little flags can be a nice touch for places you particularly like, and should be pretty easy to find before you go.