My original plan was to work my way southwest from the Baltics through Poland and Slovakia before ending in Budapest to meet my mom for our big belated birthday river cruise on the Danube. Fortunately I realized in Lithuania that I’d never make the cruise with this plan due to visa limitations; I’d have to swap out Poland for a country outside of Schengen.
If you want to nomad around Europe, you’ll need to be intimately familiar with the Schengen area – 27 countries that share open borders. It extends well outside of western Europe to include the Baltics and Nordic countries. Non-EU citizens get 90 days out of ANY 180 days within the area. Americans don’t need to apply ahead of time for a visa, but many other countries do.
Schengen countries include: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Source for this list and the map graphic, plus additional information, can be found here on the EU Commission website.
If you’ve been curious about how I pick my destinations, this is a top consideration. If not for Schengen, I would have already spent loads of time in countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy. But this limitation has a big up-side: it nudges you out of familiar territory. It’s how I ended up spending a delightful three months in Tel Aviv. And it’s also how I landed in amazing Ukraine, taking Russian language classes in Kiev and living on a farm with a Russian family in Lviv.
Once I realized that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were all in Schengen, I hopped on this handy-dandy Schengen calculator site, where you can enter your travel plans and it will tell you exactly how much time you have remaining in the area before getting into trouble. If you’re lucky, trouble is simply a fine… but it’s possible you’ll be evicted and put on an EU black list. In my case, trouble would have been telling mom, “Sorry but I can’t meet you on the cruise because I failed to do my homework.”
Here’s an example to show how to get creative with your travel plans. Say you want to spend 4 months total in Europe, with 1 month each in Italy, Spain, Germany and Portugal. This plan will require 5 months abroad: 3 consecutive months in Germany, Italy and Spain – then a month OUTSIDE of but very close to Schengen, like Morocco – before coming back up into Portugal.
OR… let’s say you only have 4 months and you really want to stay in western Europe. Simply trade out one of the countries for the UK, which is not part of Schengen. Or spend your last month in France: France has an agreement with the US whereby American citizens can spend an additional 90 days in France after their Schengen visa time runs out. Nomadic Matt has an extensive article on creative ways to spend more than 90 days in Schengen.
Feel free to post any questions you have about Schengen and I’ll answer!