We’ve all been there...you just arrived in a new place and you’re trying your best to get to where you need to go, and someone kindly lends you some directions because you clearly look lost and foreign. Before you know it, they’re yelling at you like you just cursed their favorite football team. What the HECK just happened?
Welcome to the world of making travel mistakes! When going to Europe for the first time, it’s highly likely that you’ll commit a faux pas anywhere you’re studying. It’s the unfortunate nature of the beast and all part of the learning process when studying abroad in Europe. However, many common mistakes travelers make in Europe are totally avoidable, and with a little less arrogance and a lot more awareness, most students can have an insert-foot-in-mouth-free time abroad! So, without further ado, here are some don’ts for studying abroad in Europe.
Common mistakes travelers make in Europe
To get you off on the right foot, we present: the official list of what not to do when studying abroad in Europe and general traveling to Europe tips! Let’s start with dressing appropriately...sweatpants outside of the home, sandals past August, and tank tops in churches are all huge no-nos regardless of where you study abroad in Europe. Better ditch your fraternity sweatshirts and Budweiser t-shirts while you’re at it. You’re better off without anything that makes you scream “foreigner,” like graphic shirts and sloppy ensembles. Europeans lead the fashion world, so put a little more effort into your appearance. One of the biggest mistakes travelers make in Europe is sticking out like a sore thumb!
The second biggest mistake students make when going to Europe for the first time is disrespecting the local customs. Tip the proper amount, pay to use the bathroom if there’s a basket out front, don’t do obnoxious things for the sake of a selfie, and basically just be respectful of the fact that you’re in someone else’s homeland. As a basic rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t want someone doing what you’re doing in your home city, then don’t do it in someone else’s.
The last of the big dont’s when studying abroad in Europe is going out without cash. Definitely file this one under things to know before traveling to Europe...everyone assumes the entire world runs on plastic! Even in very metropolitan areas, cash is still the way of the world, and you don’t want a situation where you’ve gone out for a nice dinner and have nothing but a card to pay with in a cash-only establishment. It’s always better to plan ahead and have back-up cash if needed.
Mistakes broken down by country
The home of sangria, flamenco, Picasso, paella, Gaudi, and churros, it’s hard to go wrong choosing Spain when studying abroad in Europe. One of the most passionate cultures in, Spain offers some of the best beaches and mountains in the world and top cities like Madrid and Barcelona, too. Hard to beat when you have a little of everything!
What not to do in Spain as a study abroad student:
- Not taking siesta seriously. To say that Spaniards love their daily relaxation is an understatement. Pretty much everything—including restaurants—close in the mid-afternoon for naptime. Embrace this, though...there aren’t many opportunities in the adult world where taking a nap is accepted!
- Misunderstanding their schedule. The Spanish routine is pretty different from other countries, so this can be a shock to visitors. Everything runs later, with stores and restaurants not opening until mid-morning and staying open until late evening. Eat a hearty lunch, as dinner is not served until at least 9-10pm (and is the lightest meal of the day) and bars/clubs don’t open until after midnight.
- Not watching where you’re walking. Spain has a dog poop problem, and even with heavy fines now in place for pet owners who don’t clean up after their dogs, most people still ignore this. Watch your step!
- Assuming everyone speaks Spanish. Did you know there are five national languages in Spain? Beyond standard Spanish, you will also encounter Catalan, Basque, Galician, and Aranese spoken in Spain. There is quite a bit of diversity here, so don’t assume anything!
- Recommended program: CIEE. Read CIEE reviews
Encompassing the lands of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, any type of student will be sure to love studying in the UK. Whether you’re a total castle buff or more of a metropolitan, classic rock-loving fiend, the UK has it all. Grab a kilt, start working on your best royal wave, and head to the UK once you’ve decided to study abroad in Europe!
What not to do in the UK as a study abroad student:
- Not accepting tea. A BIG no-no in the UK, as they take their tea very seriously. If you’re hanging out with a local or at home with your host family and you’re offered tea, always accept it even if you’re not a tea person. You will surely become a tea person soon! Or, maybe one of the things to do before traveling to Europe is get into drinking tea. Trust us.
- Disrespecting the royal family. Everyone (even Brits) recognize that the royal family really doesn’t do much anymore. UK locals do like to poke fun at them, and it’s not uncommon to hear cheeky comments. BUT, as a foreigner, you don’t have a right to tease them. It’s sort of like joking about your family...only you can do it. You won’t get very far with locals by making jokes about their Queen!
- Not adjusting to the “other side of the road” mentality. Like seriously don’t ignore this because you’ll die. So many tourists in London have been hit by cars because they looked the wrong way before crossing the street that the city has actually painted “look right” on their crosswalks. (Serious #smh moment right?) This extends to everyday activities like queuing up on the proper side and walking on the left on a sidewalk or escalator. Blend in, people!
- Recommended program: API Abroad. Read API Abroad reviews
From sipping coffee at a corner cafe to frolicking among lavender fields, it’s hard to beat la vie en rose. While Paris is one of the top study abroad destinations in the world, don’t forget about gems like Toulouse, Marseille, or Nantes when considering France. There is so much beauty in France between bustling cities, cute vineyards, and sprawling beaches that you can’t go wrong either way!
What not to do in France as a study abroad student:
- Make no effort to speak French. Even if you don’t speak much French, don’t greet a local in English. Everyone jokes that the French are a bit snobby about their language, but it’s really only true if you assume they will cater to you. It’s better to start with a simple bonjour and then ask the person if they speak English. Manners always win!
- Assuming the customer is always right. This might be common in other parts, but not so much in France. Here, most people stick with one job, making them absolute experts at what they do. If you want to change something in a dish you’re ordering and the waiter corrects you, don’t take this personally. They just know that the chef probably knows better than you. Listen to what someone recommends and trust that they know what they’re talking about!
- Leaving your phone out when meeting friends. While being on your phone constantly might be accepted in other parts of the world (ugh), leaving your phone out on a table when you’re with friends basically symbolizes that you’re waiting for a call. Don’t give your new friends the impression that they’re less important or you don’t want to be there!
- Recommended program: USAC in Paris. Read USAC reviews
Everyone knows that Italy is basically the center of the universe, and rightfully so! Home to masterpieces like pizza, pasta, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and gelato, it’s hard for anything to top it. Studying here will give you a whole new respect for the pure genius that has come out of Italy since day one, and if you choose Italy for study abroad Europe you will most likely never want to leave!
What not to do in Italy as a study abroad student:
- Assuming everything will be on time. A common phrase about Italy is “there’s time, and then there’s Italian time”. Don’t stress about a train running late or a server taking forever to come to your table. Everything will come together eventually, you’ll just have to be patient!
- Wearing a tank top when out sightseeing. There are a LOT of holy sites throughout Italy, and chances are any day spent out on the town will involve stepping on holy ground. We know it’s hot for most of the year, but always keep a scarf/cardigan on you so you can enter any site you want. It’s not just disrespectful to be dressed inappropriately in a church, you will actually be forbidden to enter.
- Thinking service workers are just being nice. Anyone offering to help you find your platform in a train station is not doing it just to be friendly and helpful, they are doing it for a tip. If you accept help from someone and don’t tip them, be prepared to be called a lot of bad words in Italian.
- Ordering fettuccine alfredo. This is not a thing in Italy. Don’t be “that student” by ordering it. The same thing applies for putting parmesan cheese on a seafood dish...just don’t.
- Recommended program: CISabroad in Florence or Rome. Read CISabroad reviews
Located smack dab in the middle of Europe, Austria is surrounded by diverse lands and huge mountain ranges. Home to some of the most powerful dynasties in the world as well as awesome things like schnitzel and strudel, students in Austria are sure to be strapping on lederhosen and singing Do Re Mi before they know it!
What not to do in Austria as a study abroad student:
- Lumping Austria and Germany together. Just because they are neighbors and speak the same language does NOT mean they are the same! Austria and Germany were ruled by entirely different empires for much of their history, making their cultures, architecture, and lifestyles very different. Austrians still regard beating Germany in the 1978 World Cup as one of the greatest days in their modern history because it demonstrates that Austria stands on its own!
- Planning anything for a Sunday or a holiday. Austria is a Christian country, meaning everyone respects Sunday as the day of rest and holidays as the time to be home with family. Don’t even think about trying to buy anything on a Sunday or find an open bakery on Christmas. If you drunkenly drop your toothbrush in the toilet on a Saturday night, get ready to not brush your teeth until Monday!
- Referencing The Sound of Music to locals. Even though the entire world loves this movie, it was a total flop in Austria. They really didn’t appreciate the historical inaccuracies, and the whole theme was too hard to swallow with it coming out so close to the war. You’re better off leaving the Do Re Mi references at home because no one will understand them!
- Recommended program: AIFS Study Abroad in Salzburg. Read AIFS reviews
Often overlooked, but finally starting to get the attention it deserves as a great place to study abroad in Europe, the Czech Republic offers a lot of diversity for a small country, a very reasonable cost of living, and most importantly, a ton of exposure to both absolute economy prosperity and hardship. Don’t let the ups and downs of the Czech Republic’s past scare you away, but rather embrace it and let the country blow you away!
What not to do in the Czech Republic as a study abroad student:
- Arguing that Czech beer isn’t the best. Don’t make the mistake of disagreeing with a local about their beer! Because of the years of political instability and outside invasions, Czechs are very proud and think their products and cities are the best and most beautiful. While we’re on it, don’t talk about how stunning Budapest is, your upcoming visit to Poland, or how the Czech language sounds so much like Russian. When in doubt, just don’t bring other countries up!
- Commenting on how Kafka was actually German. Just because he spoke German doesn’t make him German! Unless you want to hear about all the reasons why you’re wrong and what made him actually Czech, you’re better off just smiling and nodding when locals talk about “our” Kafka.
- Not understanding the current and past state. The Czech Republic has a storied past to say the least, and they have been through many types of rulers, governments, and country names. Don’t accidentally call it Czechoslovakia, and to few people’s knowledge, you technically shouldn’t even call it the Czech Republic. The country was actually renamed “Czechia” a couple years ago. Surprise! (But a lot of Czechs don’t like this… so… consider calling it that a bonus oh-no-no.)
- Recommended program: CIEE Central European Studies in Prague. Read CIEE reviews
What not to do in Iceland as a study abroad student:
- Ignoring the unpredictable weather. Iceland is spectacularly beautiful, and part of what makes its luscious landscapes is its rain. Despite its name, Iceland is actually more mild than you might think temperature-wise, but the unpredictable rain can be difficult. Always plan ahead and bring the proper clothing, even if it’s sunny out when you leave your accommodations!
- Using a lot of sarcasm. Icelanders are typically kind and peaceful down to their core, and won’t really understand a sense of humor that involves anything dark or jokingly disrespectful like sarcasm. Usually sarcasm will be interpreted as a sincere answer and locals will interpret this as just being rude. Stick to real humor and honest answers rather than cheap sarcastic shots!
- Entering a pool or sauna without showering. This is a big one! Socializing in thermal pools is huge here, and what makes these so relaxing and popular are the very strict hygiene rules. Shower first or don’t enter!
- Recommended program: API Abroad at Reykjavik University. Read API Abroad reviews
Centuries of powerful rule have made Germany into one of the most desirable places to live. Beyond the very rich culture and absolutely beautiful architecture and scenery, Germany is home to many top universities, a great quality of life, and obviously, Oktoberfest. Prost to studying abroad here!
What not to do in Germany as a study abroad student:
- Being late. Germans are punctual people and they expect the same from visitors. If you’re making plans with a local, you better show up on time, and if you’re using public transportation, you can expect the bus or train to leave exactly when the timetable says.
- Being insensitive about WWII. There may be a lot of memorials and museums about the war, but it’s still a touchy subject. They take anything related to the war very seriously, so just be sensitive when bringing it up. It’s not that Germans don’t like talking about the war, but it’s not a happy subject for them, either. This can apply to a lot of countries impacted by the war as well, so be respectful when studying abroad in Europe.
- Wearing “house shoes” outside. You are more likely to see Bach strolling through town than you are to see a German barefoot in their homes. Germans love their “house shoes” which are basically a mix between slippers and real shoes (think clogs)...and only to be worn while in the comfort of your own home. Want to turn heads? Wear a pair of Birkenstocks downtown.
- Taking long showers. Along with the whole punctuality thing, Germans don’t waste time doing things like taking long showers. This is meant to be a quick part of your daily routine, not a form of relaxation, so unless you want your host parents yelling at you, be brief!
- Recommended program: IES Abroad in Berlin. IES Abroad reviews
Between the unparalleled scenery, lively and energetic cities, and amazing food, studying abroad in the Emerald Isle is never a bad choice. Ireland is highly-regarded as one of the education capitals of Europe, so this is an excellent option for any international student!
What not to do in Ireland as a study abroad student:
- Thinking that Dublin is the end-all be-all. Ask anyone from Ireland and they will most likely tell you that they don’t really like Dublin. Sure, Dublin has a lot of history and is a beautiful city, but there are plenty of other areas in Ireland that rival it. Cork and Galway are often looked at by locals as the real centers of Irish culture, so set your sights here instead!
- Lumping it in with the UK. Learn your history and geography, peeps! Only Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and locals in the Republic of Ireland do NOT appreciate being grouped together. National pride is very strong here, so don’t make the mistake of treating anyone from England, Scotland, or Ireland the same!
- Ordering an Irish Car Bomb at a pub. Just don’t. Trust us.
- Recommended program: CISabroad in Dublin — Read CISabroad reviews
Regional don’ts for studying abroad in Europe
The best thing to do before study abroad Europe is to pick unique areas to explore! Even if you’re studying abroad in a more traditional place like Paris or London, use your weekends or school breaks to head to any of the below regions for a taste of more off-the-beaten-path Europe.
Ignoring personal space. Pretty much all cultures in northern Europe have not embraced the touchy-feely mindset. Unlike countries in central Europe like Italy, Spain, or Germany where you kiss on the cheek and take open seats at someone else’s table at a restaurant, northern Europeans respect each other’s personal bubbles much more.
Lumping all of Northern Europe together. Did you know that Scandinavia only includes the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark? Don’t get caught making comments in Finland about how wonderful it is to be in Scandinavia...they really won’t appreciate it!
Expecting ease of transportation. Largely due to the previous political instability, the majority of the Balkans are not as developed as other European countries. Getting from place to place can cost you a pretty penny and a headache. If a plane is late to take off and you miss a connecting flight, don’t expect an apology and refund. Having issues getting around is just accepted here and not something that anyone will feel badly about.
Being judgy about smoking. A lot of people in the Balkan region smoke. Avoiding tobacco products might be something that other countries really push for, but in the Balkans, smoking is incredibly ingrained in the culture. We don’t recommend taking up smoking just to fit in, but don’t be judgmental about it, either.
Expecting to get around without learning the local language. English might be a widely-spoken language in most of Europe, but not so much here. Most young people speak a decent amount of English, but it will probably take another generation or so to get to the level of other European countries.
Thinking Soviet times are dead. Travel bloggers like to promote eastern Europe as being this “paradise” of quaint old towns and unparalleled natural landscapes. While this is true for parts of eastern Europe like Riga or St. Petersburg, step outside of the charming old cities and you’ll mostly find grey, Communist-era buildings and an overall lack of infrastructure. This is not to say these areas aren’t worth traveling to, but don’t be blind about what you’re getting yourself into.
Fit in while studying in Europe!
Every country has a ton of etiquette rules, customs, and general don’ts studying abroad in Europe, so use this as a guideline and be sure to do your own research before arrival for all of the traveling to Europe tips. There are always a ton of things to know before traveling to Europe for the first time, especially if you’re going to study abroad in Europe. So, make yourself aware beforehand to avoid inevitably uncomfortable situations. Ultimately the best way to learn is through experience, so get out there and give it a go...we’re human and we all make mistakes. When in doubt, the secret to study abroad Europe is to know how to say “sorry” in the local language!
P.S. This advice ain’t seasonal! It applies to all study abroad programs in Europe. Even summer study abroad Europe—yep, rules still apply!