The sharp recent decline in the value of the euro has convinced a large number of Americans that they can now consider not simply a short, inexpensive trip to a single European city, but a longer trip of three or more weeks to a number of European nations. I couldn’t be happier about that realization, since I value the benefits of widespread European travel.
But such a trip should be undertaken in the right fashion, and with an understanding of the rewards that the right kind of European travel can bring about.
The ability to take a multi-nation tour of Europe used to be confined to young aristocrats traveling with a manservant in charge of several large trunks of clothing. We now are the first generation in human history to enjoy the same experiences without the advantage of great wealth, but simply on ordinary incomes.
That gift - and it is a gift - should not be wasted on superficial travel arrangements designed by commercial hucksters; it should be accompanied by advance reading, an open mind, a sincere desire to understand the lifestyles and beliefs of other people, an urge to witness some of the greatest accomplishments of earlier generations - and also their many mistakes.
Europe provides these lessons to an extraordinary extent. It is like a vast open-air museum - a treasure house of art, music, drama, dance, literature, science, philosophy and architecture - whose many museums and theatres, historic homes, structures, schools and more are alone a reason to visit. If you should doubt the importance of those cultural treasures, you need only review in your mind the European greats who surely outnumber their past or present counterparts in other parts of the world, and have shaped our own outlooks and tastes.
Again, if you should doubt the above assertion, simply review in your mind such Europeans as Beethoven, Mozart and Verdi; Rembrandt, Rubens and Picasso, Madame Curie and Louis Pasteur, Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and Voltaire, Dante and Cervantes, Augustine and Luther, Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. We go to Europe, among other reasons, to reflect on its extraordinary history of cultural achievement, and to steep ourselves in the masterpieces Europeans have created.
We also go to Europe for a reason that many will cite as important but other die-hards will angrily reject. We go to Europe to observe, judge and learn from the many social and political policies that Europeans as a whole have almost universally adopted, and that should be considered - even by enemies of the European approach - in order to choose smart social and political policies at home.
I’m not saying that life in Europe is better than elsewhere, but there are areas in which it can be legitimately claimed or denied that the Europeans have achieved the world’s highest quality of life. Studying those claims through first-hand contact with Europe - perhaps discussing them with Europeans - is another major opportunity in a multi-nation tour of that continent.
In what areas of life would most Europeans claim they have reached a better place than the rest of us? For one, longevity in Europe is among the highest in the world, reaching an average lifespan of 82 or 83 years in at least a dozen major European nations, as compared with 79 years in the United States. (Nearly every European nation extends universal, free health care to all its citizens, perhaps the basis for its longevity record). Europe has a larger and healthier segment of small businesses than we have in the United States, a far smaller percentage of teenage pregnancies, less HIV and AIDS, far less economic inequality than in the U.S., greater social and economic mobility from one class to another, a far greater percentage of workers belonging to unions, and most Europeans - as I have endlessly pointed out at Frommers.com - enjoy one full month of paid vacation per year, in addition to many more holidays with pay.
In a recent article in the electronic magazine Salon.com, analyst Alex Henderson has pointed to numerous other areas in which Europeans enjoy a higher quality of life than in virtually every other continent, including North America, in addition to citing the advantages I have listed above. Among those benefits are lengthy and paid maternity leave, free university tuition and far too many other humane programs to list.
I’m not asserting that you should accept these opinions about the quality of life in Europe, but the citizens of every other country (including America) owe it to themselves to witness and judge the relatively uniform social and political policies in nearly every nation of Western Europe. And this you can do by undertaking a wholly independent tour of Europe in which you can interact with, and speak with, the Europeans, as only an independent tourist can do.
Arthur Frommer is the pioneering founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. He co-hosts the radio program, The Travel Show, with his travel correspondent daughter Pauline Frommer. Find more destinations online and read Arthur Frommer’s blog at frommers.com.