From all indications I see, this summer and early fall could be a tough season in Europe. The problem isn't an ash cloud or lousy weather, it's a political cloud. Countries throughout the region are struggling, as we are, with excessive budget deficits; governments are responding with austerity measures; and the citizens are responding to austerity measures with demonstrations and strikes. I'm not suggesting that as an American tourist you'll be in any personal danger, but I am suggesting that you may face occasional disruptions and delays.
* You've all seen the TV shots from Greece, where citizens are already demonstrating and rioting against announced austerity moves.
* Some 750,000 British public-sector employees went on a one-day strike recently, with more strikes and stoppages threatened for later this year.
* Other European countries face similar financial and labor pressures -- Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and even financial bulwark Germany.
As in the United States, Europe's economic woes are not going to go away any time soon. The "demographic bomb" we face here is even worse in Europe: aging populations, lower retirement ages, increasing medical costs, low birthrates, and aversion to immigration from culturally diverse areas. In Greece, workers are demanding to retain the financially unsustainable combination of retirement at age 53 with 80 percent pay pension and full medical care. To governments, the only possible solutions are in some combination of raising the retirement age, cutting back on pension and medical benefits, and increasing taxes. Not a happy expectation for the average worker, and European workers are more likely than their U.S. counterparts to take to the streets rather than the voting booth.
This is not to say that strikes and demonstrations will break out and go on throughout the summer. Realistically, your chances of avoiding any problems are reasonably good. And even if you run into a strike or demonstration, it's likely to last only a day or two. But you can improve even your already good odds by taking a few precautions:
* Spend time outside the biggest cities. You're much less likely to face a problem staying at a country hotel in Midsomer Parva than at a big hotel in London (don't worry about Midsomer Parva's exceptionally high murder rate; it's fictional).
* Be able to do what you want to do even if transit or rail workers strike. Transport workers have been notoriously strike-prone, especially in Britain and France, so make plans that won't fall apart if work stoppages prevent you from hopping a train, metro, or tube for a day or two.
* Give yourself lots of slack for the days you arrive and leave your European gateway. Realize that going through the system on arrival might take hours instead of minutes, and keep a close eye on local news about possible stoppages or slowdowns on the day you're scheduled to depart.
* If you have some big upfront payment and deposits, and haven't yet bought travel insurance, buy it as soon as you make your first payment -- and buy a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. The typical trip-cancellation policy will not cover you if you're apprehensive about a strike that has been announced or expected. The only way to back out and conserve your payments is to buy a policy that allows you to cancel without having to worry about what is or is not a "covered reason" in a more conventional policy.
* "Stay flexible" is always a good mantra, even in the best of times, and "stay flexible" and "have a plan B" are essential any time you foresee possible disruptions.
And, last but not least, be realistic about yourself. If you're able to "go with the flow" and adjust to minor difficulties, by all means take the trip and enjoy. But if you're the sort to worry about potential problems the entire time you're away, avoid the anxiety and stay home.