Ten Tips for First Time U.S. Travelers to Europe

You’re excited about your trip abroad but are a little daunted by the myriad of things to consider. Here are ten easy tips for getting the most out of your European holiday.

Luggage
Despite the desire to do so, traveling with a suitcase the size of a small postal truck is not going to work well in Europe. In many cases, European hotels and hostels are not typical of American motels and hotels. Many are multi-storied buildings that may not have an elevator, so prepare yourself for having to cart your luggage up several flights of stairs. Thus, the lighter you pack, the easier time you will have. But what about all the souvenirs I want to bring back? Good point. The best solution is a carry-on-sized collapsible bag – a shoulder bag, perhaps – that you can pack in the bottom of your suitcase and use once you have made a few purchases. Since most airlines have a bag weight limit per person, this allows you to check a second bag or use this as a carry-on.

For women, typical purses are not the best choice. A small, thin purse, preferably lightweight and made of cloth or nylon, would be a suitable idea. Remember, this item is going to hold a wallet, passport and similar documents along with a couple of personal items and possibly a small digital or disposable camera. Thus, if you hit the airport with two carry-on items (such as the second bag mentioned above) where most airlines allow only one, you can stick the small purse inside one of the bags and claim the bag as a purse – it’s a little sneaky, but allowed and will save you a great headache at the airport.

Water & Drinking
You are going to need water. Staying hydrated abroad is increasingly important and will definitely help you in getting through both the nasal dry-out that comes from cross-Atlantic plane rides and it will also cut down on jet lag. Water, however, is not the same substance we take for granted here in America. Europeans don’t generally serve water with meals. In some countries, a single small bottle of water can cost more than beer or wine. Further, water comes in two varieties – gas and no-gas or, in our terms, carbonated and non-carbonated. Unless you are a fan of water products like Perrier, you will probably want to always ask for “no-gas” water. It would be wise, as well, to consider buying water at local grocery stores, as it will usually cost about half as much. Further, it’s a good idea to bring a six-pack of bottled water with you in your carry-on.

In the states, we drink a lot of soda. We are spoiled by the fact that we are given free refills in almost every restaurant. This is not true in Europe. Each glass of Coca-cola, for example, will be charged separately to the meal ticket. I’ve seen folks down 3-4 soft drinks at a meal in Europe and then go into fits when they realize that each drink was âÂ?¬2 and they’ve just spent nearly $10 on soft drinks.

Passports and Documentation
In most countries, it’s a good idea to have your passport on you at all times. A good backup is to make a couple of photocopies of your passport and secure them in your luggage and if you have a trip leader, give one to him or her. It’s much easier to verify your identity if you have copies of the passport.

Tipping
In many cases, you will be part of a tour group at some point during your trip. Whether this is through an organized overseas tour group or just a group you joined during a visit to a local museum, guides for these tours expect tips. The current standard is �1 per person in the group. Some tour groups will include this in your fees.

Also, pay close attention to your restaurant bills. Many restaurants include a gratuity of between 10 and 17 percent, so judge your tip accordingly.

Language
If you are not familiar with the language of the country you are visiting, it is highly recommended that you purchase a small language guide to the area. You should take time to learn key words – bathroom, restaurant, bus, embassy, phone, etc. – in order to ensure that if the need arises, you can work through a conversation with a native to get where you are going.

Taxis
Taxi transportation is common in Europe, though it’s not quite the same as the U.S. First, you should become aware of the routes that head to your destination so that you can keep from being taken advantage of. Many cab companies in Europe are not regulated the way they are in America. Further, gas is far more expensive in Europe. In some of the places we went recently, gas was around âÂ?¬2.50 per liter. Taking into consideration the conversion from Euro to Dollar and liters to gallons, you are looking at about $5 per gallon of gas. Thus, many cab drivers will not turn on the air conditioning in the summer. Be aware of this if you are traveling in summer months. Bus travel may be a better alternative.

Telephone Services
Most people want to bring along some sort of wireless phone for emergencies or for communicating with friends and family back in the states. Beware, however, for two reasons. First, coverage may be sparse if the vendor does not have towers throughout Europe (T-mobile, for example, has many towers in Europe, especially in the Netherlands and Germany). Second, calls to the U.S. from Europe will not carry the same cost – in many cases, the cost could be as high as $2 per minute and carry a roaming charge of nearly $5. You’ll want to call your provider and activate an international plan. In doing so, your provider will let you know how much each minute will cost and where you might run into areas with light or no connections.

A good alternative is to use the archaic but reliable standard phone system. Getting some international calling cards is a good idea, but make sure you check with the company who issued the card to get a series of rates for the different countries to which you will be traveling. I would highly recommend that you buy phone cards AFTER getting to Europe as the phone system there is far different than in the U.S. AT&T may claim to be universal, but their phone services are not. Also, almost all cards bought in the U.S. carry an area equivalency, meaning that while the card may be worth 20 minutes in the United Kingdom, it may only be worth 12 minutes in Germany.

Also, consider taking calls from friends and family at hotels or hostels. When my wife traveled abroad, our wireless provider told us that each minute on the phone would cost us $0.99. However, my regular phone provider for the standard land line we have at our home had an international calling plan that allowed me to pay a monthly fee of about $2.75 and would charge me only $.07 per minute to call Germany. So, I would arrange for my wife to call me via the cell, using only a couple of minutes, to tell me that she was back in the hotel room. I would then hang up with her and call back from the house, saving us tons of money.

Currency
While many destinations in Europe honor Visa and Mastercards, you have little control over the exchange rate. Usually, since the transaction moves through the banking industry, the exchange rate is fair. However, you don’t want to be using a credit card for charges less than $10. Thus, it’s a good idea to bring along $100-$200 in the currency of the countries you are going to be visiting. Many countries have traded their national currency for that of the Euro (âÂ?¬), the official minting of the European Union. When you visit your bank, and you should do so about two weeks prior to your trip, ask about the countries you will be traveling in and find out which currencies you will need. If you are traveling to three different countries, such as Germany, Italy and France, you may only need one currency, but plan according to the amount of time you will spend in each country.

Women might want to consider a small change purse, though men might consider doing the same (of course, in a slightly more manly style). Since Euros break down into multiple denominations of coin, from �2 down to �0.01, having a fair amount of change is inevitable. Some way to store it properly is a good idea.

If you have Euros left over, don’t despair. Most major airlines now have global charities that accept donations from the airlines via passengers. You can obtain an envelope from your flight attendant.

Clothing
Pack light, pack light, pack light. Not only will you appreciate this advice going to and from the airport, you will appreciate it when you get to Europe and have to lug your 40 pounds of clothing up three flights of stairs. It’s advisable to put together a number of interchangeable outfits, perhaps one for every three days of travel. That sounds vaguely unsanitary, but not only is it practical, its within the culture of the countries you are going to visit. Unlike here in the U.S., most Europeans wear different parts of the same outfit over the span of a week.

One of the bits of advice I usually give to student travelers is that it’s cheaper and more practical to use laundromats all over Europe to wash clothes. The back-up consideration is free time; most package tours generally have activities planned down to the hour with small sections of free time available. If this is the case with your trip, consider bringing a small bottle of cold-water detergent, such as Woolite, with you and doing some washing in your hotel room. In most situations, you’ll be in a hotel for a couple of nights and will have time to wash out clothes and have them dry by the time you leave.

Make sure you bring comfortable shoes. Sure, they might not make the fashion runways of Paris or Milan, but Europeans walk or bike everywhere, so almost every tour you have will be a walking tour. This could mean only a couple of hours, or it could be five or six hours and have you traverse several miles in the process. Be ready to walk and moreover, be ready with comfortable, durable footwear.

Use a Travel Agent
With the increased use of online services like Travelocity and Priceline, it has become easier to book international trips online. There’s only one drawback – you don’t know the area. This comes into play when you inadvertently end up in a situation you had not planned for, but could have been avoided if you had consulted with a travel professional.

For example, my bride and I were headed to Frankfurt this past Spring. What we didn’t know was that at that time each year in Frankfurt, an international conference comes to town, driving the price of hotel rooms sky high. Had we not used an agent who knew about the annual conference, we would have paid a fortune for our rooms. Instead, the agent diverted us to Wiesbaden, a lovely little town only 40 minutes from Frankfurt where we paid about 30 percent of what we would have in Frankfurt proper.

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