Headed to Europe this summer? It could be a riot

If you’re looking for a little adventure this summer — a strike, a riot or maybe even a revolution — skip the Middle East and visit Europe.

Traditionally quiet and predictable Western Europe, a magnet for many American tourists, hasn’t seen this much political and economic uncertainty in a while. As reports of economic bailouts, work stoppages, unrest in the streets and fluctuating currencies find their way back to the States, travelers wonder whether it’s safe.

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I do. I’m headed to Europe twice with my family: on a Mediterranean cruise in July and a tour of Italy in early September. While none of the experts I spoke with advised me to cancel, they did caution me to monitor the situation carefully.

“This is very different from years past,” says Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a security consulting company. “The nexus of governing and financial issues will create a much more dynamic and tense environment throughout Europe over years past, where it has been much more localized.” Indeed, Greece was the scene last week of violent clashes between police and protesters, as well as a disruptive nationwide strike.

American visitors are worried about two key issues: safety and money.

“The issue here is currency volatility,” said F. John Mathis, a professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz. “When a country is going through a debt restructuring, as Greece is, the euro will depreciate, making it less expensive for U.S. tourists to visit Europe.”

But that could change quickly once the situation stabilizes. Then the euro would probably strengthen against the dollar, making travel more expensive. The euro has risen against the dollar since the beginning of the year but has leveled off after the unrest in Greece began.

By the way, another European currency worth paying attention to is the Swiss franc. It’s trading at an all-time high against the dollar because investors see it as an alternative to the euro, according to John Doyle, a senior currency strategist at Tempus Consulting in Washington. But apart from Switzerland, which has never had a reputation as a bargain destination, it should be relatively smooth sailing for the dollar.

“While the U.S. dollar is subject to possible devaluation over the coming months, visitors should feel secure in the purchasing power of the greenback in Europe this summer and in the coming years,” Doyle told me.

What about security? Europe-watchers say that if you’re headed to Portugal, Ireland, Greece or Spain, pay special attention to safety. High unemployment and economic weakness make these countries potential hot spots this summer.

Michael Kelly, the president of On Call International, a provider of medical evacuation services, says that visitors should check the State Department website for any warnings just in case something flares up. “Be aware of new security guidelines, political and security warnings and major weather conditions, and stay connected with your smartphone by checking Twitter and news outlets for breaking news updates,” he says.

As always, the silver lining is the bargains that await contrarian travelers. James Stathis, who publishes the Web site CelebrateGreece.com, says that news of riots in Athens has created opportunities for bargain hunters.

“This is a great time to visit because smart travelers know that crowds will be down,” he adds. “Prices are also down. The islands, villages and everywhere outside of Constitution Square in Athens are safe and fun to visit.”

What if violence erupts? William Burns, a retired New York police detective and a consultant for Cassford Management, a hospitality advisory service, says that he’d play it safe and stay home. “Any country that is dominated by tensions should be completely avoided,” he says. “With the present political climate, an American tourist vacationing or conducting business in a country with ongoing protests and heightened tensions is a serious potential target.”

I spoke with several travelers who are planning to visit Europe this summer, and for the most part they seem unfazed. John Rybczyk and his wife, Barbara, who are on their way to Hungary in early July, aren’t worried about the exchange rate. Hungary, which doesn’t use the euro as its currency, is still a deal compared with other European countries. Plus, it’s politically stable. “I’m not concerned,” he told me.

But Jim Daniel, a salesman from Modesto, Calif., says that he’s staying stateside this summer. “There are far too many things to see and experience here,” he says. “Why should I ever spend all the time and money traveling to some other country where they don’t necessarily understand English and where they don’t particularly want me, only my money?”

He makes a valid point. Assuming that everyone goes to Europe is incredibly elitist of me. Most of the folks who read this column will drive to their summer vacation destinations right here in the United States. Fewer than one in 10 will fly. Thanks, Jim.

So will I cancel my trips? Not yet. But I’m keeping a watchful eye on Europe. The riskiest part of our itinerary is one night in Spain, which, according to security expert Philip Farina, could experience civil unrest this summer.

I checked with a friend who visits Spain every summer about the potential for disturbances, and he said that I’m likelier to get run over by a bull than hurt in a riot.

I hope he’s right.

(Photo: Tita nas/Flickr Creative Commons)

39 thoughts on “Headed to Europe this summer? It could be a riot

  1. The State Department gives warnings about every burp and fart around the world.  Typical fear-mongering.  It’s ridiculous.

    And this guy:   “Any country that is dominated by tensions should be completely avoided,” he says. “With the present political climate, an American tourist vacationing or conducting business in a country with ongoing protests and heightened tensions is a serious potential target.”

    What a joke.  You have more of a chance of being shot in this country, where every goober with a grudge can get a gun.  There are 30,000 gun-related deaths here every year.  And far more robberies, muggings, and stabbings than anywhere in Europe.

    This guy also probably thinks the strip-search scanners and gropefests are necessary.

    1. Maybe so, but I have lived in this country for all of my 59 years and have never been a victim of a crime, but on my first (and only) trip to Europe recently, I was robbed while staying at a friends house in Greece. (and I wasn’t in Athens, I was on one of the islands.)  

      1. Leonard, I’m sorry to hear that.  Being victimized by a crime is always upsetting, no matter where it happens.

        I’ve been mugged (so have most of my friends around the country, frankly, but none of us was ever hurt).  Then again, I live in Baltimore.

        :>)

        Not trying to diss it!  I love Charm City.  But I’m always aware of my surroundings in any American city, especially as a woman.  I’ve had several frightening experiences in this country but never abroad.  In fact, I’ll never forget one night walking with a girlfriend in Venice, one of my favorite places on earth, and coming around a dark, lonely corner, and running smack into a group of about 10 young men.  My heart leapt into my throat.  Then I remembered, wait, I’m in Venice.  If that had happened in Baltimore or DC or dozens of other places in the U.S., I would’ve had good reason to be scared.  But they all just said, “Buona sera,” and “ciao” and went on their way.

  2. Chris: Europe with all its problems is a lot less gangsta than Florida where you and your kids live. I’m sure you’ve figured out how to keep your kids safe in Florida so it should be easy to do the same in Europe. In Greece, the rioting has been focused on the government, not tourists. Egypt, however, some of the violence has been focused on tourists. However, in both places the “background” level of crime is a lot lower than in Florida. There’s a big difference between students protesting rising tuition and crackheads robbing to get high.

  3. Keeping a watchful eye on Europe, where vigilante citizens don’t carry guns, foreign tourists are a valued source of income and the TSA and its evil ways would never be allowed??  Honestly, Chris, maybe you should stay home.

  4. As an American who has worked extensively though out the Middle East and Africa, since the 1970s, and who has also lived in Europe for the past forty years, I couldn’t agree more with Lisa Simeone’s characterization of the State Department warnings.

    That’s not to say that some places aren’t dangerous today. I would not go wondering around alone in some places on the Ivory Coast or Mali, places where I used to go. There are also others places.

    I was recently in both Jordan, where I drove a car, and in Egypt where I didn’t; I consider both countries to be quite safe. Obviously there are places in Egypt where I wouldn’t go such as Tahir Square on a Friday afternoon.

    Greece is quite safe, read the local newspapers (yes there is one in English) and stay out of Syntagma & Omonia Square and the main street between them when demonstrations are announced.

  5. The comment from Jim Daniels above regarding “people in Europe don’t necessarily speak English” Why should they, we are in their country and if anything we should speak their langauage. I have two huge trips planned for Europe this year, one in August and one in Dec/Jan. I wish all Americans would stay home and not go to Europe, better for me, at least I would not have to be embarrased by their actions, the “ugly” American lives on.

  6. I was just in Barcelona for a W. Med Cruise.  There were protests there and there is a tent city set up in Plaza Catalonia.  But, I never felt unsafe.  The protesters are not violent.  Of course with any situation like that you do need to be careful, weeks of quiet protest can turn violent.  But that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.  It just means you need to pay a little more attention to what’s going on around you.  But you need to do that any time you’re in an unfamiliar environment anyway.  

    Chris, enjoy your trips to europe.

  7. Chris – We were in Athens last year during the riots.  There were thousands of citizens in the streets protesting.  And, yes, some were throwing molotov cocktails.  But, one mile away the vast majority of people were sitting in outside cafes drinking coffee and chatting with their friends.  One has to have enough sense to stay away from the protest areas.  I worry more about the people who are out of work and have no way to make a living.

  8. It’s still safer than Mexico and parts of the southern US where the cartels run drugs. You couldn’t PAY me to go to Brownsville or El Paso right now.

  9. I always check the State Department’s travel site for warnings before traveling.  iJet is also a great resource, if your company pays for access.

  10. “So will I cancel my trips? Not yet. But I’m keeping a watchful eye on Europe.”
     As a EU citizen I have to ask: … Chris, you’ve got to be kidding, right ?

  11. I was in Spain for 2 weeks in June this year. I witnessed demonstrations and processions in Barcelona and Seville, but never felt that anyone (Spaniard or tourist) was in danger from either protesters or police.

    1. Only caveat: the police always send in provocateurs.  This is SOP in all countries, including our own.  And the police in Barcelona did beat protesters and even a poor homeless man asleep on a bench.  Video links:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BgNIHVJymI

      http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=spain+beating+protesters&aq=f

      Regardless, you’re still safer in all western European countries, and plenty of other places around in the world, than in the USA.

  12. As an American living in Rome for the past three years, I have inadvertently come close to walking into a violent protest situation twice–once in 2008, when students were protesting cuts in education-funding and decided to beat up anyone who got in their way, as they tried to storm the Education Ministry; and a few months ago, when an anti-Berlusconi march degenerated into setting parked cars on fire and fighting with police.  The operative words here are “come close”; the fact is, you see a bad situation developing and simply GET AWAY FROM IT.  The fight, if there is one, is between protestors and police–American tourists don’t fit into the equation at all, unless they consciously place themselves there!
     
    It’s not like true terrorism as we’ve experienced it in the US, when you’re minding your own business and suddenly a plane crashes into your office in the WTC, giving you zero time to react and avoid it…

    It’s also not like dealing with the TSA, which sees fit to sexually molest anybody it pleases–the more law-abiding and innocent, the better!  (If they’re travelling within the US, that is.)

    This is why I am vacationing within Europe this summer, rather than going home for a visit to the United States–I love my country, but it’s safer over here!

  13. “While the U.S. dollar is subject to possible devaluation over the coming months…”

    Boy, talking about the US hitting the debt ceiling in a month, then potentially defaulting on some of that debt and possibly causing worldwide economic panic, and putting it as politely as possible.

    Yes, those handful of countries have some severe economic problems. But in the end, they’re still stable, like pretty much all of the rest of Europe. They’re not the Middle East or North Africa, which saw real revolutions and governments overthrown.

  14. Decades ago I would spend summer months in Greece and the Islands and there were bombs going off in Constitution Square fairly regularly.  I would go back to Greece— or most places in Europe—right now,  but do what I do state side and limit my time in big cities staying away from hot spots like Constitution Square entirely. 

    1. Sylvia, if bombs ever start going off in this country fairly regularly, we’ll have to be stripped and groped at every street corner.  And half the population would be just fine with that.

      Different mentalities — adult and rational as opposed to childish and paranoid.

  15. Just back from three weeks in northern Italy.

    Aside from the inevitable general strike (closed govt. buildings including the museum we wanted to visit) and a skinhead anti-immigrant demonstration (very organized procession) things were as usual. The dollar was slightly more robust at the time.

    Actually lots of people in Western Europe speak English; it’s the de-facto common language of international commerce. That’s no excuse for not doing our best to learn their languages but it does make travel easier.

    1. Granted, it was only a day in each of half a dozen cities, but when I took a Baltic Sea cruise last summer I got the impression that the locals would rather you not try and speak the local language unless you can actually speak it, and not just mumble your way through it.

      In Oslo, we ran into an American working as a bartender there. He said that it was common for the Norwegians to come in, have drink and practice their English with him. Since the Scandinavian countries have small populations, most of them end up learning English.

      Germany, on the other hand, with it’s much larger population…

      1. The Scandinavians learn English from first grade.  So do the Dutch — well, because who’s going to speak Dutch, right?!   :>)  

        So do lots of people who don’t have the arrogance of so many Americans, who think they shouldn’t have to bother their pretty little heads with learning a –gasp! — foreign language.

        Since I love languages and have a facility for them, I always pick up a few phrases before I go to a foreign country and while I’m there.  Even Swahili, even Turkish.  Actually, Turkish was the most vexing.  Though I speak French and Italian and can get by with a few phrases of German, Czech, Spanish, etc., I found Turkish mind-boggling.  I used to listen to tapes and despair.  Then I got there, and it all clicked.  I started using it more and more.  The Turks were so shocked, and delighted, that they gave us all kinds of extra goodies, from food to wine to ceramic tiles.  (The Welsh will also be shocked if you speak a few words to them in their native tongue.)

        1. Well, without getting into the hows and whys and politics of it, most people here in the States are only learning Spanish these days, and we all know why that is the case.

          And I just flat out didn’t even had the opportunity to study a foreign language until I got to high school. And when I got to high school, there was Spanish and Russian, with the German teacher having just retired with nobody to replace him. After 2 years of Russian, that teacher left for another job. That left Spanish, and that’s a language I’ve never had any interest in.

          Since the cruise stopped in St. Petersburg, Russia, I tried to brush up on my Russian with the 1st level of Rosetta Stone, but I don’t think it helped very much. Either Rosetta Stone isn’t for me, or I just don’t have a knack for foreign languages.

          But even that brushing up was a waste of time: Since they are so restrictive on tourism, the tour guides and shops that the tours stopped at had Russians who could speak English (although some certainly spoke it better than others). Hard to use the language if you try and ask them something in/about Russian, and they simply respond in English. 🙂

        2. Not defending the Ugly American who thinks anyone should understand English IF YOU JUST SPEAK IT SLOWLY AND LOUDLY ENOUGH. I agree that if you’re going to live in another country, you should learn the language – that goes for those living here in the U.S., too, by the way. And, it’s probably smart to learn a few phrases in the language where you’ll be visiting, but which foreign language would you suggest an American learn? Europeans learn so many different languages because their countries are so close, and they will likely have to converses with “foreigners” as part of their everyday interaction. And the key is, they learn it at a very early age. Americans, by and large, do not have the need to learn a foreign language;statistically, they’ll never visit a foreign country, and the vast majority of business and science is done using English.

          1. Markie, I guess it depends on your desires, your aims, your purpose in learning the language.  For normal tourist travel, I would suggest just the usual phrases for courtesy.  For more in-depth study, formal classes, depending, again, on which languages you like and how much time you want to put into it.  And whether you’re interested in conversation or reading or both.

            Spanish is becoming the lingua franca around the world in addition to English, and it’s an easy language to learn.  But if you’re not inclined to the Romance languages, maybe you’d like Chinese, another important language (though the prospect of learning Chinese, as an adult, would scare the cr*p out of me!).

            I think it also depends, frankly, on age.  We all know it gets harder to learn new languages as you get older, and the heretofore abysmal opportunities for such in this country, as cjr already mentioned, mean that those of us of a certain age didn’t even get a chance to start until we were in 9th grade.

  16. I live in Madrid and have participated vigorously in the protests, which have been very peaceful and positive (using the word riot to describe them is absurd). Strange to see this overdue burst of people exercising their democratic rights construed in such a fearful way. I’d recommend that Americans travel here and learn a bit about what is going on and why (especially given that there hasn’t been a single decent article about it in the US press).

    1. Mariposita,

      Glad to see you commenting.  Some of us over here read the alternative press to find out about what’s going on in Spain, because you’re right about the mainstream press.  And we’re taking inspiration from you.  We received a message of support from one of your compatriots recently:

      http://october2011.org/

  17. I have been in Paris since May and, sadly, must leave at the end of July.
    But, will be back next year for 4 months.  The city has so much music and art and culture.  I go back to Arizona.  What does it have?

  18. Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon North Rim (less tourists), Seguaro National Monument, Canyon de Chelly, TOMBSTONE, etc…

    Richard from Paris

    1. Richard these are all gorgeous and interesting sites, but if any one is looking for museums, there are, I believe near 20 in Phoenix alone and dozens of others in many cities and towns through out AZ.  I, personally,  would not give up traveling to Europe, but there are beautiful, educational and some amazing places in the USA, including Arizona.

      1. I agree. I lived in Paris for 40 years, but I’ve seen all the places I’ve mentioned and many others in the US, including Ebbits field in Brooklyn in front of which I’ve sold newspapers.

        Interests and beauty are all over, it’s just a matter of seeing it. I’m even sure that the TSA has cute female inspectors and handsome male ones that love “junk” food.

  19. The Middle East is not for the faint hearted and it seems Southern Europe now. Having said that, most places are safe provided one uses common sense. Avoid demonstrations after Friday prayers and for that matter avoid any demonstration, and you will be safe.
    As for the US Dollar the problem is not necessarily the Euro, it mainly lies in the weakness of the greenback.

  20. I am a fan of Europe and go there every year at least once.
    Of course, we don’t need to avoid totally Europe, but you must exercise some watching about unrest situation which can cost very expensive because of the Fine-Print of your travel insurance which don’t cover some situation cause by Riot, Social Unrest, etc…
    Last year, in Oct 2010, I experienced a lot of inconveniences because of the strike in France, some of my SNCF Train tickets are non-refundable and I had a lost about 300$USD. I decide not to go to France for a while and heading more to Asia. And I don’t want any more inconvenience, any more lost of my time and hard earned money.
    Let the Europeans sorting out their problems and I want good service and for my money.
    I go on vacation, I am not go on a solidarity expenditure or mission.

  21. Europeans – especially the French – go on strike just because a butterfly in the Amazon flapped its wings. And as for the protests (riots if you will) you’ll see far worse at a football (er, soccer) game.

    If there were something I’d worry about what with an upcoming Italy trip, it would be the any Icelandic volcano. I just so happened to be visiting Italy during the most recent eruption in May. While it didn’t impact my travel, it was the thing most likely to do so.

  22. This is but too exaggerate!
    I’m Italian, from Milan, I regularly go to Greece (which I love!!) and I’ve never experienced any kind of problem.
    Of course if you go to Athens during a protest it COULD be dangerous – but it depends on you: if you are willing to be involved you will be, other way nobody will care about you.
    The fight is just between protestors and police.
    Then again, Greek Islands are safe! Stunning beaches, blue sea, excellent food… It’s like being in Paradise!
    I suggest anyone who is considering to cancel his trip to Europe because of “psychological terrorism” to think twice before doing anything like that!!
    The last Spring I was in Rhodes (Greece again!) and it was simply amazing – no problems of any kind.
    The next August I’ll travel to Kos (Greece) and Bodrum (Turkey).The only thing I might be “scared” of are airport staff’s potential strikes, but those are not dangerous at all!

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