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  • Writer's pictureDiann Schindler, Ph.D.

Water: To Drink or Not to Drink*

When booking a week in the sun or even a weekend city break, one of the most commonly asked questions is, “Is the tap water safe?” I’m sure you have heard the same horror stories I have heard about spending a vacation a bathroom!

One of the most common causes of sickness when travelling is drinking contaminated water, resulting in diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid and even cholera.

Here is a handy guide to where you can and where you can’t drink tap water in Europe. Those countries where it is advised that travelers do not drink the tap water is largely because visitors may not be used to the different mineral content. The guidelines do not suggest that the water in such countries is unsafe for locals to drink tap water. Rather, it’s different for non-locals and can disrupt visitors’ systems.

Sit down at a restaurant in Europe, and you'll most likely first be asked about water preferences before anything else: still or gas…. or sin gas or gas.

I’ve never experienced a waiter asking if I wanted tap water.

Note however, I haven’t been everywhere…but it’s on my list!

And while this may seem a strange question to U.S. travelers used to glasses of ice-cold water filled (and refilled) without question, it's actually an issue in Europe…both eastern and western Europe. Given that one of the most common causes of sickness while traveling is drinking contaminated water, knowing where you can—and probably shouldn't—drink water across the continent is important.

Most places in Europe do have potable tap water, which means you'll save money by bringing a water bottle and filling up before heading out in the morning. (Some countries, like Italy, Germany, and Belgium, have public taps where you can refill for free, though look out for signs that indicate when the water is not safe for drinking, like at decorative fountains.)

Countries and states where water is safe to drink? Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

It's important to note that even if tap water is deemed "unsafe," that is most likely not because the water is dirty or polluted—merely that it could affect your system immunity that locals often have developed over the years.

And though larger cities have higher water quality than elsewhere, places where you should exercise caution and probably start by buying a bottle (or two) are Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

Most everything you read reports to be aware of ingesting water in any way. That is to say, brushing your teeth with water from the faucet, washing fruits and vegetables you may buy, adding ice to your drink, and even opening your mouth and gurgling when showering are other ways to ingest unsafe tap water. Some caution against showering and/or bathing because water can enter your pours!

Welp! I brush my teeth with tap water…I just don’t swallow.

I shower and bathe freely.

When planning to eat cooked fruits and vegetables in my apartment or hotel, I clean thoroughly with tap water. When eating raw fruits and vegetables, I wash with soap and water, often with a brush to get into all the nooks and crannies, and rise with tap water, followed by a thorough rinsing with bottled water.

Also note, if I’m wary, I do not buy certain fruits and vegetables. For example, I’ll skip strawberries because of the indentations which can be difficult to clean thoroughly. I also don’t buy lettuce or spinach for home cooking. Furthermore, when eating out, I’ll skip salads and ice.

STILL, if you are not comfortable with my approach or you have a delicate stomach, choose bottled water.

I NEVER drink tap water on trains or planes, anywhere, anytime.

If necessary, water can be sanitized by boiling it for ten minutes, or even by using a filter or purifying tablets.

If you aren’t sure, buy bottled water. It’s available everywhere and it’s relatively inexpensive…certainly less expensive than a hospital visit.

Finally, if you travel for long periods of time, like I do, and you purchase bottled water, you also need to consider the health of your teeth and bones. I get my teeth cleaned about every six months and get a fluoride treatment if recommended by the dentist.

Understand safe water issues and how to address them and you are free to explore all of Europe without worry!

*Gleaned from a variety of sources, including Travel Magazine, Trip Savvy, and more.

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