10/11/2012 07:13 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Touring Europe In The Age Of Unrest

Europe is dealing with a harsh reality: They are consuming more than they are producing. The entitlements they grew up expecting were made possible by a young society with lots of workers and not too many retirees. And today, they are living in a relatively geriatric society in need of some pretty harsh adjustments. Politicians understand the new arithmetic needed, but many of the people don't. European workers are angry, afraid, and frustrated...and hitting the streets.

Demonstrating is woven into European democracies. And, while protesting is generally just too much trouble for most Americans, Europeans are quick to hit the streets when they want to raise their collective voice. I think it's healthy. It's my hunch that for many years to come, Europe will be sorting this out, and travelers will encounter parades and rallies in front of parliament buildings -- and anarchists wanting to hijack these events to make their points and get on the news. As the TV news media loves vivid footage, this is easy to do.

The challenge for American travelers in Europe is to stay safe while not overreacting. If you want to be entirely safe, just avoid demonstrations. If you run into any inconvenience, I'll bet it will be a strike. That's certainly nothing new in Europe. Remember that while the USA has its "99 percent" issues, Europe is much tougher on that top 1 percent. It's been my experience that while strikes are commonplace in Europe, most are "nuisance strikes" -- just a day here and a day there. They are unpredictable, and designed to just temporarily make everyone frustrated and miserable (like the strikers are).

Austerity measures in Europe have triggered public protests during the past couple of weeks, most notably in Greece and Spain, where the unemployment rate is around 25 percent. News reports have focused on acts of violence that have occurred at some events, which gives the impression that entire cities or countries have become dangerous for travelers. We've been keeping a close eye on things, as we've had over 400 perfectly safe and successful tours enjoy Europe this year. Rather than basing our impressions exclusively on sensationalistic news coverage (as most casual observers do), we get timely, real-world reports from our guides on the ground. If you're considering a trip and wondering about the impact of Europe's economic problems on your travel fun, these very recent guide reports may interest you:

Pat O'Connor in Greece
Greetings from Monemvasia, where the weather is fantastic and David is leading a great Athens and the Heart of Greece tour. Per your request, here's what I've encountered regarding unrest in Greece: In a word, zilch. Let me expand on that. When I was in Austria finishing leading my Germany, Austria, and Switzerland tour in mid-September, I saw on BBC News that a general strike was scheduled for September 26th in Athens. I flew from Vienna to Athens on September 24th, and our last Greece tour of the year kicked off that night. Our hotel is five blocks from the Acropolis and perhaps half a mile from Syntagma Square (where past demonstrations have focused). Our first full day in Athens (the 25th) was enjoyable, and we were able to visit the Acropolis in the morning and use the Metro to visit the Archaeological Museum in the afternoon. No problems -- just predictable large crowds at the sites and urban commuters in the subway. The following morning (the 26th), we visited the new Acropolis Museum as it opened, and then got on our coach and drove out of Athens mid-morning. David said that the museum employees had voted not to strike and don't see the point in turning away travelers that are so much a part of their economy. Our Greek driver was savvy enough to know to take a longer loop route out of the city to avoid any potential chaos near Syntagma Square. And from there, the tour has progressed beautifully.

We've encountered no animosity or general unease from the Greek people. They seem genuinely friendly and glad to have us visiting in a year that's obviously a down year for tourism (I read in The Herald Tribune that visitors flying through Athens are down 14 percent this year). I heard no sirens in Athens. I saw no banners or marchers. I suppose we could have found trouble if we'd looked for it by going to Syntagma Square on the 26th. But, honestly, it's been a complete non-event from a visitor's perspective.

David Willett in Greece
There was no sign of any disturbance whatsoever on our Athens and the Heart of Greece tour. No sights missed. Tour members will return home and hear about this, and not believe they were in same place as the news described. They will be telling their friends that the media coverage of Greece is woefully wide of the mark. In fact, outside of a few protests at Syntagma Square (where a few extremists hijacked an otherwise peaceful demonstration and grabbed headlines in the US), Greece has been noticeably quieter than usual overall. Our tour spends most of its time outside of Athens, and people outside the city generally vote against striking, which is why we're not inconvenienced at all.

The Greek (and southern European) tradition of dealing with issues is to go into the streets and protest. If it wasn't the debt crisis, it would be something else. There is a festive, highly emotional aspect to this, so sometimes tempers can show. The media is always looking for visuals to simplify things, so two people walking down the street carrying signs makes the news. There will be more "drama" as the debt crisis plays out, so people need to get used to this kind of thing making headlines. But it has little if any real effect on travelers' experiences here.

One of my goals on every tour is to put Americans in touch with typical Greeks, and see that these are still Europe's most friendly and welcoming people. Nothing has changed about that!

Nygil Murrell in Spain
From my experience of walking around Madrid over the past several weeks, the focus of the demonstrations has been almost exclusively around the Municipal Congress Center, and the closest that demonstrators are able to get to the barricades, which is Neptune Square. While there have been different groups (labor unions, independent organizations, etc.) that have marched their way through city-center areas (Puerta del Sol, for example) to reach the demonstrations, these are peaceful marches that are simply trying to rally people to join in on the way to the Congress demonstrations. The average traveler isn't affected by this in any way.

Following the first protest, which ended in police aggression, the demonstrations have been mellow affairs during the normal hours of the evening. They have only escalated when the remaining few, who are determined to stay on-site as long as possible, are forced out by police who use aggressive tactics in the wee hours of the morning. This action, which involves relatively few people, makes the headlines.

Because none of our various Spain tour groups have any reason to go near the demonstration site, I haven't seen anything more than what's been on the news. I think a sensational approach is being taken by both left and right newspapers. The left wants to show police brutality spurred on by the conservative government, while the right wants to show the "out-of-control" nature of the demonstrators with the goal of discouraging "normal" people from joining them. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And those of us who chose to stay away from this more theatrical way of exercising our freedom are simply doing our best to enjoy life in beautiful Spain.