European travel tips
Even the most seasoned adventurers are ongoing learners when it comes to trotting the globe. Whether consciously or not, every time you embark on an excursion, nuggets of knowledge are processed and filed away. Things you wish you knew, places to avoid and items you should have packed. Opinions, thoughts and ideas are generated. You realize what works for you and what should be avoided. Sometimes you need to learn on your own and other times a forewarning salvages a potentially disastrous vacation.
Of course, you can try to read every guidebook, peruse online forums, and query friends and family. However, the best advice comes from personal experience. To share what you discover helps inspire others to meet their travel goals and contributes to your own improved worldview. This list is a work in progress, similar to your bucket list of places to see.
BEFORE YOU GO:
- Get plenty of rest and eat a healthy meal before jetting.
- Prepay as much as you can. It saves time and money.
- Make sure you have a valid travel passport and ID. Some hotels and most hostels will ask for your passport number upon check-in.
- Research the destination’s electrical power voltage.
- Make two copies of your important documents, such as: passports, credit card numbers and licenses. Keep one copy at home and pack the other. If any documents are lost or stolen, it will be much easier to replace if you have a copy.
- Keep to a set color scheme and learn to roll clothes to avoid hard creases and save space.
- For seaside resorts, a hat for a child is essential. For men, swimming trunks with built-in pouch can double up as shorts. A one-piece suit for ladies can also be worn under a loose blouse, cardigan or jacket. And a sarong or headscarf can be adapted to many uses; dressing gown, nightshirt, beachwear or to keep off heat or wind.
- If you are a student, carry your student ID with you for loads of savings and reduced rates to get into museums and popular attractions.
- Don’t expect everyone to speak English. However, many Europeans are required to take English in school. You’ll find their “poor English” is good enough to communicate with you.
- Learn a few phrases of the host country language. Bare minimum: yes, no, please, thank you, hello, goodbye, and “Do you speak English.”
- Research national holidays; most stores, attractions and even restaurants might shut down.
- Look up the operating hours for museums and attractions you plan to visit. Many museums are closed on Mondays. Speaking of museums, on the first Sunday of every month certain museums in Paris have free admission.
- Planning ahead can save you money.
- Be a repeat guest -- loyalty has it’s rewards.
- If you have flexibility, last-minute deals and bargains can be found online or at a travel agency. Look at airports and train stations where travel companies post fliers detailing last-minute trips and all-inclusive packages.
- The German Rail, Deutsche Bahn, has great savings on train travel if you book at least 4-6 weeks ahead. Purchasing train tickets a few weeks in advance can save you up to 50 percent. Ask about the Spar-Preis. You must book a certain train and can only use that train.
- It is usually cheaper to eat breakfast out instead of at the hotel, if breakfast isn’t already included in the cost.
- Look into renting an apartment, especially if you are traveling with a large group or for extended stays.
- Compare prices with hostels, pensions or bed & breakfasts for lodging.
- Pick-up sandwiches and snacks at the local grocery store. Have a picnic or make your own meals, and don’t forget to read Cheap Eats in this issue of Welcome to Europe.
- Take advantage of special offers by signing up for travel and airline newsletters. You’ll be the first to know, for example, when the rates drop on Ryan Air or Lufthansa.
- Travel during off-season for the best rates and less crowds. Hotel rates drop considerably. Off-season comes with some pretty significant concerns, so be aware.
- It’s cheaper to eat or drink coffee standing up at a bar/café in France and Italy than sitting down. If you sit down there is an additional charge added to the bill.
- Check out travel books, language CD’s, maps, DVD’s and videos for free at your local library for long journeys.
- Load your iPod with free podcasts and audio guides and skip the guided tours.
- Pack enough snacks and beverages for a road trip.
- Package deals enable you to save money; compare costs of an all-inclusive vacation and/or cruises.
- When it comes to cruising you can see many destinations in a short amount of time, but keep in mind you have to pay an additional amount for beverages, excursions and tips. This can add up to a monstrous tally at the end of your voyage.
- You can lock up your luggage in lockers at main train stations for only a few Euros, or Pounds, a day.
- Ask the hotel if they will hold onto your luggage if you have a late flight after check out.
- Bus shuttle services are relatively inexpensive and offer door to door service.
- In England, there are airport-to-base shuttle buses between Lakenheath/Mildenhall and both Heathrow and Gatwick.
- Parking for a week at the Frankfurt International Airport (FRA) can cost between €39-€64. The Holiday parking is located on the airport premise with a shuttle that runs every ten minutes to the terminals. Book online up to 9 months in advance to save up to 53% off the regular price.
- There are also offers for Park, Sleep and Fly at FRA. Prices start at €89 for one overnight stay, including one week of parking and shuttle bus. For more information, go to: www.frankfurtairport.com, click on vacationers and then holiday parking.
- Zweibrucken (ZQW) airport in Germany has a car park with around 500 free parking spaces for short and long-term parking.
- If flying to or from Naples, prices might be a lot cheaper out of either of Rome’s airports, which are less than three hours away.
- Tourism offices and information centers usually have free maps and brochures; some even have downloadable maps and brochures. Staff usually speak some English and can share a wealth of information about the area, museums and activities. They can assist you in finding a hotel room, restaurant or public transportation.
- Don’t be afraid to ask people for directions.
- Need to make a reservation on an Italian train, Trenitalia? You will need an Italian credit card. Don’t have one? Call the RTT travel office in Italy and they will help make the reservation.
- If you’re going to be in a major city for several days, get the multi-day all-transit passes. Don’t worry about getting at least 100% of your money back—usually about two-three trips a day—because you won’t have the hassle of queuing up for tickets every time you get on. Also, if you get off at the wrong stop, so what?
- Most major cities have tourist cards that provide great discounts. For example The Budapest Card is worth the money. You'll receive unlimited travel on public transport, more than 100 services, free or discounted entry to 60 museums, sightseeing tours with extra reductions, reduced price tickets for and discounts in restaurants and spas and travel accident insurance.
- When using public transportation, be extra cautious of your personal belongings.
- Know what time the tube, metro or shuttle shuts down for the night.
- Hop on a bike. A great way of exploring cities and beyond is to rent a bicycle. Many major cities, such as Paris and Seville, have city bikes for rent on various street corners. You need to use a credit card to pay for a refundable deposit. You can also find bike rental places or join a bike tour. Look for Mike’s Bike Tours in Munich and Amsterdam: www.mikesbiketours.com or Fat Tire Bike Tours in Barcelona, Berlin, London & Paris: fattirebiketours.com.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes. Many streets, especially in old towns are cobblestone. This makes it difficult to walk in heels. Yes, the Italians seem to pull it off with ease, but stilettos tend to get stuck in the gaps of uneven stones. To avoid a twisted or broken ankle, wear comfortable shoes. Plus, be sure to break in new shoes before wearing them on a trip.
- If a city has trams, buses and/or S Bahn, some routes will circle around the city. For the cost of bus fare, you can tour a city.
- Travel by train is scenic and sometimes more affordable. Also, they never get lost or have to stop for directions. Check out www.bahn.de for times, schedules and prices. The German Rail System’s website has an English link and you can look up train times for different countries.
- Attempt to blend in with the locals and environment.
- A siesta in Spain or riposo in Italy usually last anywhere from 1-4pm. Most places shut down. Expect to eat meals later in the day. Many restaurants open for dinner after 7:30pm.
- Try to dress a little more formally for churches and shrines. Cover your shoulders and skip the shorts, it’s a sign of respect. The Vatican will deny entrance to anyone in shorts or with exposed shoulders.
- In Germany, an invitation at 3 or 4 p.m. on Sunday means coffee and cake. If you are invited, take a small gift like flowers or a bottle of wine. If someone comes to your house, have a cake and coffee ready.
- In Germany, punctuality is extremely important. If you are going to arrive more than 15 minutes past the appointed time, let your host know.
- In Germany, you don’t have to wait for others to start eating. People enjoy their food while it is hot. However, when alcohol is served do not drink before everyone has received a drink. Very often, a toast is offered before the first drink.
- Make sure you have money on your gas card, if applicable.
- Even if you travel with a GPS, bring a good road map for back-up. Also know how to reset your GPS in case it fails to turn on.
- You need a vignette or sticker to drive on the express highways in Austria, Switzerland and Czech Republic. You will be fined if caught without one properly placed on the vehicle’s windshield. A separate vignette is needed for a trailer or caravan. Purchase them at the gas station or rest area at or before you cross the border; also found at Tourism Offices, Post Offices and online. In Switzerland, the vignette is valid until the end of the January of the year after you buy it and is non-transferable. Make sure not to slap in the window of a rental vehicle.'
- Unlike in the U.S., roads in Europe do not use directional indicators (north, south, east, or west) on road signs. Instead, key cities are listed. You have to know whether Cologne is north or south of Frankfurt, or else you might go in the wrong direction when you come to an intersection.
- While most of northern Europe has free superhighways, tolls in France can be expensive.
- When you take your car through the Chunnel and head north on the M25 Orbital, make sure you already have British pounds, as there is one tollbooth.
- Driving more than 6-8 hours per day is risky, take turns driving or make a pitstop whenyou get tired.
- Since gas is expensive for locals, carpooling is popular. If you ride with someone else, offer to pay for your share of the gas. If there is more than one passenger, they usually all chip in to cover fuel.
- Don’t leave anything of value within sight in your parked car.
- Headlights are mandatory in tunnels.
- U.S. Embassies and Consulates are located in major European cities. They are there to assist American citizens in trouble, for example: replace lost or stolen passports, arrange for emergency funds to be sent from home, find medical assistance in case of injury or illness, etc.
- Currency conversion: Do not change money at the airport currency exchange booth. You will get a better rate of exchange at banks and ATMs.
- European keyboards: If you stop in an internet café, you will notice that the keyboard has a slightly different layout. Most notably, Y and Z have switched positions, so watch what you type.
- Do not ignore the glossy magazines on the table in your room or suggestions for excursions in the guest information folder.
- Get used to carrying cash. Some restaurants, stores and even hotels don’t accept credit cards unless it is the EC card (European credit card).
- Bring a small point and shoot camera for those instances the big fancy one may be unwarranted.
- You will need change to gain access to public toilets. Unlike in the US, most public toilets are clean. In Germany, the money you pay to use the toilets at a rest stop can be used towards a purchase you can redeem at the register.
- Take a boat cruise. You can pass through three capitals on the banks of the Danube: Budapest, Bratislava & Vienna.
- Many towns and cities in Germany are located along the Mosel and Rhine River, so taking a cruise along the river can be a great way of getting a guided scenic tour of the country.
- Be sure to bring toys, games and a light jacket to keep the kids occupied and warm.
TIPPING BY COUNTRY
When it comes to tipping, most European countries include it on the bill, but it is still customary to leave a few extra Euros or round up for good service. Everyone has a theory as to how much to give. Here are some basic guidelines from www.worldtraveltips.net
Germany: A service charge is included in all restaurant and hotel bills. However, it’s polite to tip 10% and customary to round that up to the nearest 50 cents or one Euro. Personally hand it to the server. Add about 10% to taxi fares.
England: The standard of 15% for good service.
France: Tips are usually included in restaurant and hotel bills, but it is customary to leave staff a couple of Euro extra.
Ireland: Check your bill, as service charges are not always included. A standard tip of 10-12% is fine for waiters, taxi drivers and barbers.
Spain: Hotels include a service charge in the bill, but maids and bellhops generally expect small tips. Although you do not have to tip, you can leave small change at bars, pubs and restaurants, and more than small change at more refined restaurants. Cab drivers expect less than a Euro.
Italy: Tips are normally included in restaurant and hotel bills, but leave waiters and hotel staff a couple of Euro.
Belgium: Normally included, but most leave a tip by rounding up to the next Euro or two if the service was good.
Czech Republic: Although not required, a tip of 5-10 percent is acceptable for good service, but is not required as service charges are included in the bill.
Poland: Service charges are included in most bills, but leaving change is welcomed.
Netherlands: A service charge is included in hotels and restaurants, and people normally leave their small change. A Euro is an acceptable tip for doormen and cab drivers.
Greece: For the most part, the service charge is included in the bill from taxis, restaurants and hotels, but round up the bill and/or leave the change.
Luxembourg: Restaurants and hotels generally include a service charge in the bill. It is customary to tip taxi drivers 15%.
Denmark: Rounding up the bill at bars and restaurants can be done for good service, and bathroom attendants and porters may expect loose change, otherwise, everyday tipping is not standard practice.
Sweden: A service charge is included in almost all bills. You should tip taxi drivers 10 percent of your fare.
Norway: Tipping waiters is not necessary, but small tips of change or about 5 percent are common. Taxi drivers do not expect to be tipped and bellhops expect 5-10 Krone.
Croatia: Standard tipping of 10% is acceptable for restaurants, bars and taxis.
Austria: A service charge is included in hotel and restaurant bills. However, serving staff typically expect 5% on top. Taxi drivers generally expect a tip of 10% of the fare.
Turkey: Service charges are included in hotel and restaurant bills. It is not necessary to tip cab drivers.
Thanks to the following people in the military community for sharing tips and suggestions: Ed K, Gaby P, Claudia S, Michael C, Sue S, Richard G.