These tourist mistakes can lead to a frown, fine or jail in Europe

These tourist mistakes can lead to a frown, fine or jail in Europe

When visiting Europe, you should bear in mind that it is a melting pot of cultures, cuisines, and people. Although Europeans may be accepting, it's not difficult to do or say something that the locals might find offensive or even illegal. As a result of making these mistakes, you could be slapped with a hefty fine or given a jail sentence. After reading this primer though, you should be able to better understand some of the different attitudes and sensitivities around various behaviours.

[1] Kissing on a train platform in France

In France, it has been illegal to kiss on a train platform since 1910. This piece of legislation has survived two World Wars and a Covid epidemic, so it's likely not going anywhere anytime soon. What's the point? People who kiss are holding up other passengers and causing train delays.

[2] Stealing sand in Sardinia

As many travellers have discovered to their dismay, in France places like Sardinia feel very strongly about keeping their sand where it belongs: on the beach. France passed a law in 2017 that makes it a criminal offense to remove shells, pebbles, or sand from a public beach. The maximum fine is 3,000 EUR. Not so long ago a British tourist was fined 1,000 EUR for doing the unthinkable: stealing sand from a beach in Sardinia.

[3] Starting to speak English with locals without asking if they speak it

During the Second World War, Europe was divided into Western Europe and Eastern Europe. This was done partly because of existing ethnic and cultural differences. This further exacerbated these differences. Language is a good example. While English is spoken by many Europeans, it is by no means spoken by everyone.

You might find many attendants, waiters or other service providers who can speak English but there will also be those who do not know the language. If you want to try to be considerate, you could learn how to ask if they speak English in their own language. For example:

  • Spanish: ¿Hablas inglés?
  • French: Parles-tu anglais?
  • Italian: Lei parla inglese?
  • German: Sprechen Sie Englisch?
  • Dutch: Spreekt u Engels?
  • Portuguese: Você fala inglês?

[4] Walking in the bicycle lane

Countries throughout Europe have bicycle lanes to make transportation easier and more efficient. Cycling is an environmentally-friendly and cheap way of getting from point A to point B, which is why many young professionals prefer to cycle to work. Walking in a bicycle lane is not only dangerous (both for yourself and the cyclist) but you run the risk of irate cyclists shouting at you.

[5] Not singing the German National Anthem

The German national anthem, or "Deutschlandlied" was composed in 1841 by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben. When visiting Germany, you will be doing yourself a favour if you learn at least the first verse of the German national anthem. If you attend an event where they sing the national anthem, for example, a major sports game, stand up with the crowd and join in the singing.

[6] Littering

Quite a few European nations have introduced bottle recycling systems. In Germany, for example, it is called the Pfandsystem. The system involves the cashier adding 0.25 EUR to your bill when you purchase plastic or glass bottles of non-alcoholic or alcoholic drinks. You get this money back when you return the bottle to any shop, not just the one that sold it.

[7] Waving at waiters to get their attention

In most European nations, for example, France, there are certain unspoken rules that one is expected to follow when sipping a drink in a bar or eating in a restaurant. You will typically be shown to your table by a waiter or sometimes you can choose any empty table. When the place is particularly crowded, waiters might take longer than expected to come and take your order. Since waiting tables is more of an established profession in Europe with hundreds of years of tradition and history, the workers take their jobs seriously.

As is typically the case anywhere you dine, refrain from waiving at the waiter or waitress. It's fine to try and make eye contact or to lift your hand ever so slightly to draw their attention. In Europe, waving is viewed as extremely disrespectful and impolite.

[8] Making unnecessary noises

Overseas visitors often make a nuisance of themselves, particularly in rural parts of Europe, by being unnecessarily loud and boisterous. It's fine to go to a nightclub or bar, have a couple of drinks, and start singing loudly. It's something else altogether to stumble around in the streets of a small European town at 3AM loudly singing your favourite songs.

[9] Not taking your shoes off when inside a residence in Poland

Similar to most other Eastern European nations, Polish people traditionally either walk barefoot or wear slippers inside their own homes. If you are ever invited to a local person's home, make a point of removing your shoes after entering. Not doing so will be regarded as insensitive. After all, your shoes could be carrying a lot of dirt into the home and even spoil the hosts floor or carpet.

[10] Drinking in a public place

Although drinking in a public place such as a park or a street is perfectly legal in a country like Germany. In others, for example, such as Poland, it is not only frowned upon but it could get you a fine or in severe cases even a jail sentence.

[11] Travelling with counterfeit goods

If you plan to travel to Europe, rather leave your imitation Rolex or any other fake products you might own at home. For example, in France, you could get a fine of as much as 300,000 EUR for bringing cheap knock-offs into the country. The legalities are similar in countries such as Croatia, Ireland, and Austria.

[12] Wearing nothing but a bikini or swimming shorts in a public street

In more than one European country, including the towns of Hvar and Split in Croatia and the Croatian island of Mallorca, it's illegal to wear only swimming shorts or a bikini in a public street. In Mallorca, the ban is even wider and includes the beachfront promenade.

[13] Wearing baggy trunks

If you plan to go to a French public pool, you should leave those baggy trunks at the hotel and get yourself a tight-fitting Speedo-type pair of trunks. Not doing so won't get you in jail, but may give locals a reason to stare at you.

[14] Urinating in the sea

In Portugal, there is a law that allows the cops to write you a ticket if you pee in the ocean. The legislation is not quite clear on how they will find out though if doing so while under the water...

[15] Driving while wearing sandals

More than one European country views driving with sandals as a dangerous practice. If you make yourself guilty of this in Spain, for example, you are committing a crime and you could get a fine of up to 200 EUR.

[16] Wearing heels at certain historic tourist sites

If you're in Greece, going to an archaeological site like the Acropolis while wearing high heels is strictly forbidden. The reason is that they might cause damage to the structure. Thus, when taking a tour of a historic site, mind your choices of footwear.

[17] Running out of fuel while driving in Germany

Driving on Germany's Autobahns is normally a fast-paced and exciting experience. Just make sure you don't run out of petrol as getting stranded on the road-side may be an offense that could land you a fine.

[18] Hiking naked in Switzerland

In 2011, a court in Switzerland decided that it was against the law to hike in the nude. The case was related to a German man who strutted totally naked past a family that was enjoying a picnic near the Alps. While on a hike, should the beauty of the alps inspire you to shed layers of clothing, keep in mind the possible legal complications of your actions.

[19] Driving while not having a breathalyzer in the car

In many European countries, there was a period where it was against the law to drive a car without having a breathalyzer in the vehicle. Many governments are no longer actively enforcing this piece of legislation. However, it is recommended that you rather stay on the safe side of the law and carry one in your car. The legal limits for blood alcohol concentration (BAC) varies across countries around the world.

[20] Jaywalking in Germany

To the country that is home to the Autobahn, road safety is taken seriously in Germany. It's socially unacceptable to start crossing the street at a pedestrian crossing before the light has turned green. Not only is this frowned upon, you could also get yourself a fine as a result.

[21] Not getting an approved Schengen Visa or an ETIAS

At the moment citizens from close to 60 countries don't require a Schengen Visa if they want to visit Europe. The biggest majority of the rest have to apply for a Schengen Visa before being allowed to visit the region.

From 2025, however, visitors from countries that right now do not require a Schengen Visa will have to apply for what is called ETIAS or the European Travel Information and Authorisation System. This includes those who are from the United States.

Not getting an approved ETIAS before you travel to a participating European country could result in a denial of boarding your flight. Or worse yet, could get you turned away at the border once you arrive in Europe. In either situation, the outcome is a rescheduled or ruined trip, and frown from airport staff or border guards.


Although many of the list above hold true wherever you visit or live, it's good to be aware of these faux pas to not stand out as a tourist. If you are a guest in Europe, keep your host country's culture and sensitivities in mind and you'll more likely enjoy a better experience.