A little less than a month after my eighteenth birthday, I went to Europe for the first time. I went because I thought it would make me more “worldly” and somehow cooler. I went because I was bored. I don't know if it really ever changed me into a “worldly” guy, and I for sure didn't become any cooler, but I did have one hell of an adventure.
I've since returned to Europe a dozen times, mostly to just snowboard and skate–there are no mountains like the Alps in the continental U.S. and the skateparks (like in Marseilles, France) are unbelievable. I still get a kick out of all the other shit. There's always something new to see, things to learn about, and adventures to have.
It doesn't take a ton of money to go to Europe; depending on were you live, it's probably cheaper than a trip to Colorado. Things got heavy for me on my first trip for two reasons, one was because I went by myself, and the other was because I had no idea what I was doing. If you decide to go to Europe, consider going with a friend. Here're some tips (many I learned the hard way) that might make your trip easier …
The Euro is the name given to the single European currency. If you go to Europe before June 30, 2002 don't worry about it. You'll still get to enjoy exchanging currency in every new country you visit. To make exchanging money easier and to help prevent from getting all your money stolen, I suggest you take an ATM card. When you make a withdraw in a country, the money is dished out in their currency and you don't have to take out too much at a time. (Your bank however might charge you a few bucks for each transaction.) Your ATM card must be connected to a checking account or it won't work. If you can get one, a Check Card with the Visa or Mastercard logo is a plus. People say not to put all your eggs in one basket, so maybe take some money in the form of traveler's checks as a backup.
You can't even get on the plane to Europe without one. There are several ways to apply: on the Web, travel.state.gov/passport-services.html, or look in the front of the White Pages of your local phone book for more info. If you're like me, you can also go to the Passport Agency for a rushed one. You can only do this if your plane is going to depart in 48 hour and there's no guarantee you'll get the passport in time.
Book your flight at least 21 days in advance and shop around a little bit. I suggest flying into Geneva or Paris; both cities are pretty centralized and it's easy to catch trains in and out of them. If you stay longer or want to leave earlier don't worry too much about the return portion, airlines usually fall for the phony excuses and tears.
The rail systems in Europe are the best means of travel in the world. They go everywhere, are a great way to meet people, and can be a good substitute for a hotel when money's low. Depending on how much you plan to travel around, you can buy a Eurail Pass (www.raileurope.com) in the U.S., which will allow you to go all over, or you can just by a few tickets to and from the town you stay in when you get to Europe. Try not to over travel, you'll end up missing everything while rushing to the next spot.
Now's a good time to tell you about the info centers. Go to them first. They have all the information on local hotels (rates, availability, and discounts) and on local ski areas (tickets, conditions, and discounts). Use the info centers, they're there to help. I'm not a big fan of hostels–you share showers, have to rent sheets, and they have curfews (even if you already paid, if you're not in by 11:00 p.m., you're not sleeping there.) If you're traveling by yourself a hostel can save you money, don't forget to get a HI card or they won't let you in at all (Hostetelling International/American Youth Hotels–(202)783-6161). If there're a couple of you traveling together, get a hotel.
Pack light, it sucks dragging stuff you don't even need all over the place. Bring a sleeping bag, comfortable shoes, outerwear, an avalanche beacon, your snowboarding boots, and minimal clothes. Don't be scared to wear something twice or do a load of wash over there. If you don't want to bring your board and bindings, you can always rent there for a reasonable price. A board bag with wheels is your best friend, especially when everything you take fits inside.
Two of my favorite places to stay and snowboard are in France. There are many different resorts surrounding the towns that cater to all levels of riding. You should research where you want to go a little before you leave and make a plan. I'm not saying to plan out your whole trip, but it helps get you on your way when you first arrive and will help cut down on mistakes.
Chamonix–It's the most user-friendly. English is spoken everywhere and the busses get you to the lifts in no time.
Borg Saint Maurice–A little cheaper and less over-run than Chamonix. Eat some tartefelette.
Use common sense and no matter where you go, remember to be friendly.
Try to learn some phrases in the local language, it's your fault if you don't understand them or if they don't understand you.
If you luck out, you'll meet people who'll show you around and maybe even put you up, saving you a considerable amount of money.
Euros have a different style than Americans, they barge and/or crowd you. It's not their fault, they just don't understand the concept of personal space, so don't freak out.
There's no ski patrol and things are rarely marked. Be careful, don't go blindly riding off-piste and remember crevasses are easily hidden by a meter of snow.
The same scams that work in the resort parking lots in the States usually work at European resorts, too.
Buy a book or two on the countries you want to visit–Europe on a Shoestring is a good one.
There is no drinking age in Europe, don't abuse it. If you do, it may open up a whole world pain.
This little article is geared toward people from the States who have never been to Europe. I know our magazine is named “TransWorld” and should be geared toward people all across the world, but God bless my fellow Americans, they need the help more than you.