“Route 66 as Seen Through Europeans”


Tourism directors and businesses on Route 66 want to draw more European travelers but aren’t sure how to do so. So who better to give advice than a European who’s a longtime Route 66 fan?

Swa Frantzen of Belgium fit the bill during his presentation at the Miles of Possibility conference in Edwardsville, Illinois, on Oct. 30. He launched the first Route 66 website in 1994 (and plans an upgrade of the site soon), travels Route 66 regularly and also goes to the East Coast for his work in computer security.

Frantzen began the presentation with these questions: What got me interested? When did he first learn of Route 66? Like many other Europeans, he wasn’t sure.

“Route 66 has been there, always,” he explained.

He said Europeans primarily learn of Route 66 through films such as “Easy Rider” and “Thelma and Louise.” Frantzen said the “Route 66” television show from the 1960s isn’t a factor because it’s not broadcast in Europe. He said the “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” song has some influence, but far less than movies.

He said Europeans primarily associate Route 66 with rock music, being on the road, freedom and Harley Davidson motorcycles. The association with Harleys is so strong, Frantzen said, even people who hold no interest in motorcycles want to drive Route 66 in a Harley.

He said the image of a Route 66 shield painted on a desert road is common in the European imagination.

But Frantzen said Europeans’ knowledge of Route 66 is rudimentary — most hold little information about practical matters, which is one of the obstacles to them traveling it. Many also incorrectly think it’s a coast-to-coast highway, the longest highway, or the oldest highway.

“People know of Route 66, but we are surprised it was a real road,” he said. “They’re surprised it can be driven.

Another hesitation for traveling the Mother Road is what Frantzen and many other Europeans call “American conditions.” They are:

  • Los Angeles traffic (which Frantzen said isn’t bad relative to many big European cities)
  • Air pollution
  • Lack of gun control
  • Violence, riots and police brutality
  • High health-care costs
  • High court costs

Frantzen said the European press is “very left-wing” compared to what is in the United States. And he said U.S. politics is “far more right” than any European politician. When American critics call President Barack Obama a socialist, he and other Europeans tend to dismiss it.

“You haven’t met a socialist,” he said.


Frantzen said correct and more-balanced information on “controversial topics” is needed for prospective European travelers — something he tries to offer with the forum page of his Route 66 website.

Other differences between American and European culture:

  • Talking to strangers is a common American trait, but it’s unusual in Europe. A suddenly spontaneous chat from an American often puts Europeans on the defensive.
  • Politics is much more private in Europe — namely because many countries have 15 political parties or more.
  • Religion is less important in Europe. “The churches there are mostly empty,” he said. “You (Americans) wear your religion on your sleeve or on a sticker of your car.”
  • Gun ownership in Europe is much less, Frantzen said, and noted even British police officers are unarmed. “Guns in a heavily populated area is very difficult to explain to Europeans.” He said one way European visitors can comprehend it better is to give an example of a Western rancher who needs firearms to protect himself and his livestock from predatory animals and criminals on his isolated land.

Another obstacle to Europeans traveling Route 66 is the high cost. He said renting a Harley or convertible, plus the drop-off fees, plus overseas flights, plus lodging wind up making it an expensive trip. An exotic beach vacation, he said, is cheaper than doing Route 66. Interestingly, he said fuel costs on Route 66 aren’t much of a hurdle, namely because gasoline in the U.S. is half the cost compared to Europe.

Europeans have much more vacation time, Franzen said — up to 35 paid holidays. Taxes in Europe are high, however.

Regarding historic preservation, Franzen said Europe’s heritage properties are heavily protected. If such a property is torn down without permission, the owner is subject to criminal prosecution and must rebuild it. Properties from more-recent eras, such as art nouveau, however, are neglected. And historic industrial buildings are not protected.

Authenticity is valued by Europeans, and that includes so-called eyesore properties, Frantzen said. Historic sites shouldn’t be “overly restored,” and streetscaping and beautification efforts aren’t deemed authentic by Europeans.

“It doesn’t have to be pretty, clean, cheerful, slick and freshly painted,” he said. “Don’t be so quick to repaint it.”

Originality also is valued by European travelers. Frantzen says efforts by towns to set up a Route 66 museum, a welcome gateway, murals on every wall and painted water towers are too common.

With historic preservation, Frantzen says a mantra of “preserve if you can, restore if you have to” should be adopted. Restoration, he said, should be done carefully, or else you irreversibly lose the property’s originality.

(More stories from the Miles of Possibility Conference will be posted in the coming days.)

5 thoughts on ““Route 66 as Seen Through Europeans”

  1. Very enlightening article from the eyes of a visitor from overseas. Always wondered what others saw about the Route 66 experience. I live off it and drive it every day. Yes, it is alive.

  2. Sage advice when dealing with international guests. Germans, in particular, can be reserved when dealing with strangers. I take minor issue with a couple of points. Not all Americans wear their politics or religion on their sleeves. When traveling on Route 66, or anywhere else for that matter, when I perceive someone approaching me with possible religious or political intent, I start looking for the exits. My religious views are none of your business, just as yours are none of mine. Let’s keep it that way. (I don’t want to turn this into a political rant but it’s no surprise to me that Europeans (and others) have observed and remarked just how narrow & confining is the range of acceptable political discourse in the USA.) We in the states have much to learn about historic preservation and restoration. We often have a gung-ho impulse to make something look like new when that might not be the best solution. It’s a sadly familiar refrain that many restoration projects have done even more damage to historic sites, in some cases even ruining or destroying forever the historic documentary record of a place. The good news is that we are learning and will continue to learn, and I think Route 66 has a bright future.

  3. Thank you for the interesting article “Route 66 as Seen Through Europeans”.
    Nevertheless, I think Mr. Frantzen isn’t right. In my opinion there are differences according to the countries the tourists come from and of course according to their age.
    First: Almost everybody in Europe knows that there is a Route 66 in the United States. And everybody knows that you can travel on Route 66. But why should they?
    I think the main reason why only so few people from Europe travel on Route 66 is that the Route isn’t properly promoted in Europe. A lot of people knows that the Route 66 exists – but they don’t know what they can see while driving on Route 66 – towns, places, points of interest. My wife and I had been researching for weeks to find a travel guide about Route 66 before we finally found one on Amazon.
    The image of the European tourist as depicted by Mr. Frantzen describes a tourist who is about 50 years old or older, who has seen old movies, heard old tunes and who wants to break free from his daily routine. He might be in his midlife crisis, and for him, driving on Route 66 on a Harley is a big adventure. But this kind of tourist represents only a small group, and only one reason for travelling the Route 66. What’s about the rest, like families or young people?
    Most European young people between ages 20 and 45 know about Route 66 from the animation movie “Cars”. And there is no motorcycle in this film… When we were driving on Route 66, we were surprised to see that all these places really do exist – and that there is a real “Hook”, too! Therefore, you should try to attract more young families. For them there is a lot fun stuff to see like Galena, the Blue Whale in Catoosa, Shamrock, Holbrook … And the others? I’m glad that I have seen Santa Fé, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Cadillac Ranch … I’m glad that I’ve seen the countryside, the hills, the changing landscapes. It was a great way to discover the country! Thanks to all the friends that we made on the Route!
    If you watch the extra on the DVD titled “Inspiration of Cars”, you’ll know why a lot of people travel on Route 66! But you’ve got to help them. Because only few parts of the Route 66 have proper signs, and not all of them give you exact directions. Sometimes we got lost or didn’t find the way to some famous spots.
    Frantzen says there are some hesitations. One of his examples is that Europeans are afraid of American traffic. Well, I’ve never travelled as relaxed as in the States! Air pollution? You’re kidding! High health-care costs? Our German health insurance is valid in the United States, too… High court costs? There’s an insurance for this, too (which costs less than 100 bucks a year).
    Nobody in Europe would think twice about travelling to the US for political reasons. Otherwise they wouldn’t be travelling to Egypt, Croatia, Turkey, Korea, China, …
    In one point Gantzen is right, though – it is very expensive to travel on Route 66. Not because of accommodations or restaurants – because of the rental car. It cost me 1200 bucks to get a rental car for two weeks to travel from St. Louis to Los Angeles – the plane ticket from Germany to St. Louis and back from LA to Germany costs only 900 bucks. That’s one point!
    But we made it. We drove the old Mother Road, we discovered beautiful landscapes, met lots of interesting people – and we had a great time. We loved it and we will be back soon.

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