Before I share with you some of my traveling tips, I want you to know that most of them are consequences of my own traveling experiences and many mistakes that came along with that. Like my number one on the list:
- Always pack light!. If you can limit yourself to carry 20 pounds in a carry-onsize bag, you have mastered the art of traveling. When choosing your carry-on-size make sure that it fits your airline carry-on- size requirements (for many is 9″x 22″ x 14″). If this is too much of a challenge for you, consider packing and checking only ONE bag that will not exceed more than the 50 pounds required. Remember that you will walk with your luggage more than you think you will. So, at least you have your own personal valet to assist you through all your trip, you better re-consider this tip. I can not stress this tip enough for you. I can tell you how many times, specially in my firsts trips, how much I just wanted to leave my heavy suitcases, bags and more all behind, after carrying them all over the airport and going (should I say: running) from one gate to another one to catch my next flights. These two words you will need during your travels: “freedom and mobility”. So, now you know it can not be achieved by packing your whole closet in two suitcases!
If after all this speech you are still not convinced and you are determinate to go by your own way (bring two suitcases or more), just consider other negative factor: YOU will end up paying for each bag you check-in, as most airlines charge a fee to check a second bag or either a one bag. Pack light … and pack smart.
- Remember not to bring anything potentially dangerous — such as knives, box cutters, scissors, lighters, or large quantities of liquids or gels — in your carry-on bag. It will help you to read your airline’s website travel guidelines to make sure you will not have surprises along the way.
- When checking your bag, mark it inside and out with your name, address, and emergency phone number. If you want to lock your bags consider a TSA-approved lock, to avoid security to break your lock.
- Do not pack anything particularly valuable (such as cash or a camera) in your checked luggage.
- If you find yourself in your bedroom staring at your open suitcase and a whole closet and you ask yourself: what to bring? (like I did many times), the answer is easy: bring very little!
Spread out everything you think you might need on the floor. Pick up each item one at a time and ask yourself, “Will I really use this dress?” or “do I really need five pair of heels for this one dress?”… thinking about how and when you can wear each item helps me a lot at the time of deciding if it should it stay or should it go.
- Consider on getting a “money belt”. This is a small, zippered fabric pouch that fastens around the waist under your pants or skirt where you can keep your essential documents and or money. You wear it completely hidden from sight and even though sometimes it can be a little bit uncomfortable, it gives you a peace of mind, specially if you are find yourself in a crowded train or in a big city where pick-pockets are most at work.What you should carry with you all times, either in your money belt or in your backpack or purse (please remember to carry them close to your body and up front, not at your back, so you can keep on eye on your belongings all the time?). Here is the list:
- Passport: You’re legally supposed to have it with you at all times. For some countries is enough to carry a valid copy of your passport. Check that with your Embassy, and if so, keep your original in a safe box at your hotel room.
- Railpass: This is as valuable as cash.
- Driver’s license: This works just about anywhere in Europe and is necessary if you want to rent a car.
- Credit card: It’s required for car rental and handy to have if your cash runs low.
- Cash: remember that some places or services (like most taxis in Spain) accept only cash
- Contact list: Print small, and include every phone number or email address of importance in your life.
- when booking a hotel room, never assume that your reservation will come with a private bathroom. In some countries or type of hotels this is not a given. Make sure it is an option before confirming your reservation.
- Sometimes is not so easy to find banks or money exchange stores available. Try to get money exchanged before you leave your country or do the exchange at the stands located at the airport.
Using Mobile Phones in Europe:
- If your American mobile phone will work in Europe…take it and use it if you have a reasonable calling plan. If you will be making lots of calls, first get it “unlocked” so you can switch out the SIM card in Europe (and get better rates). If you have a smartphone, disable data roaming or invest in an international data plan.
- If your American phone won’t work in Europe… buy a new phone when you reach your destination. If you’re planning to visit multiple countries, make sure it’s an “unlocked” phone so you can change SIM cards as you cross borders. The only rental program I’d entertain is Verizon’s, which is a decent deal for its customers.
Restaurant rules in Europe:
- If you are American do not be surprise to find at most European restaurants a excruciatingly slow service, that is even worst when you are eager to get out and sightsee. Europeans spend at lea two hours enjoying a good dinner. At fine restaurants, fast service is considered rude. But if you’re rushed, say so, and you’ll get snappy service.
- Tips are considered a small bonus to reward great service. Usually you can just round up the bill a bit. In many countries, a 5 percent tip is adequate and 10 verges on excessive. Tipping 15 to 20 percent in Europe is unnecessary, if not culturally insensitive.
At what time is dinner served?:
- Each country has its own quirks when it comes to dining. Spaniards eat dinner very late (after 9 p.m.). In Italy, it’s common to be charged a “pane e coperto” (“bread and cover” charge) just to sit down. In Portugal, appetizers (olives, bread, etc.) that are automatically brought to your table are not free — you touch them, you pay for them. If you see a “Stammtisch” sign hanging over a table at a German restaurant, it means that it’s reserved for regulars. A good tip will be getting a good guidebook to fill you in on the do’s and don’ts in each country.
Renting a Car
- Renting a car in Europe tends to be more expensive and more complicated than in the US, thanks to byzantine insurance options and other additional fees.
- European cars are rented for a 24-hour period, usually with a 59-minute grace period. Cars are most economical when rented by the week with unlimited mileage (sometimes five or six days cost the same as a week). Daily rates are generally quite high; typically, the longer you rent for, the less it’ll cost per day. For the best deal on long-term rentals, book in advance from home (easy to do online, or through your travel agent). Various rail-and-drive passes, which allow you to rent a car one day at a time at one-seventh the reasonable weekly rate, can be a good option. If you decide to rent a car on the spot, try calling around to local car-rental agencies (get a list of phone numbers from the tourist information office), or book through a travel agency.
Driver’s Licenses and International Driving Permits:
- Your American or Canadian driver’s license is all you need in most European countries, but some countries also require you to have an International Driving Permit (IDP), which provides a translation of your license. You can get an IDP at your local American Automobile Association or Canadian Automobile Association office ($15 plus the cost of two passport-type photos). The AAA is authorized by the US State Department to issue the permits.
- Those driving in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain are technically required to carry a permit and could be fined if found without one.
Which countries use the euro?:
- Seventeen European Union countries officially use the euro: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Esotnia and Spain. In addition, the euro is the official currency of non-EU members Montenegro and Kosovo, and is legal tender in several of Europe’s tiny countries, like Vatican City and Monaco. These countries are known collectively as Euroland.
- There are still several European countries not using the euro: Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland, and Croatia
Even if the euro isn’t the official currency, it is still widely used in most of these places. Swiss ATMs give euros, prices are listed in both Swiss francs and euros, and travelers can get by in that country with euro cash. (But if you pay in euros, you’ll get a rotten exchange rate. Ideally, if you’re in the country for more than a few hours, stow your euros and get some local cash instead.)
An advice in numbers, time, dates and metric system in Europe:
- Numbers: A European’s handwritten numbers look different from ours. The number 1 has an upswing. The number 4 often looks like a short lightning bolt. If you don’t cross your 7, it may be mistaken as a sloppy 1, and you could miss your train (and be mad at the French for “refusing to speak English”). Avoid using “#” for “number” — it’s not common in Europe.
- Counting: When counting with your fingers, start with your thumb. If you hold up your first finger, you’ll probably get two; and making a “peace” sign to indicate the number two may get you three — or a punch in the nose in parts of Britain, where it’s an obscene gesture.
- Dates and decimals: In Europe, dates appear as day/month/year, so Christmas is 25/12/11 instead of 12/25/11, as we would write it. And on the Continent, commas are decimal points and decimals commas, so a euro and a half is €1,50 and there are 5.280 feet in a mile. (Britain and Ireland use commas and decimal points like North America.)
- Time: The 24-hour clock is used in any official timetable. This includes bus, train, and tour schedules. Learn to use it quickly and easily. Everything is the same until 12:00 noon. Then, instead of starting over again at 1:00 p.m., the Europeans keep on going — 13:00, 14:00, and so on. For any time after noon, subtract 12 and add p.m. (18:00 is 6:00 p.m.). Remember that European time is generally six/nine hours ahead of the East/West Coasts of the US. (These are the major exceptions: British, Irish, and Portuguese time is five/eight hours ahead; Greece and Turkey are seven/ten hours ahead.) Europe observes Daylight Saving Time (called “Summer Time” in the UK), but on a slightly different schedule than the US: Europe “springs forward” on the last Sunday in March (three weeks after most of North America) and “falls back” the last Sunday in October (one week before North America).
- Metric: European countries (except the UK) use kilometers instead of miles. A kilometer is six-tenths of a mile.
- Temperatures: Europeans measure temperatures in degrees Celsius. Zero degrees C = 32 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use a formula to precisely convert temperatures in Celsius to Fahrenheit (divide C by 5, multiply by 9, and add 32 to get F). If that’s too scary, it’s easier and nearly as accurate to double the Celsius temperature and add 30. So if it’s 27° C, double to 54 and add 30 to get 84° F (it’s actually 81° F, but that’s close enough for me). Chilly 10° C comes out to 50° F either way, and comfy 20° C is about 70° F (actually 68° F). To convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract 32, divide by 9, then multiply by 5; or take the easy route — just subtract 30 and divide by 2. A memory aid: 28° C = 82° F — balmy summer weather. And a rhyme: 30 is hot, 20 is nice, 10 is cold, 0 is ice.
- Addresses: House numbers often have no correlation to what’s across the street. While odd is normally on one side and even is on the other, #27 may be directly across from #2 (I personally find this annoying!)
- Floors: Floors of buildings are numbered differently. The bottom floor is called the ground floor. What we would call the second floor is a European’s first floor. So if your room is on the second floor (European), bad news — you’re on the third floor (American). On the elevator, push whatever’s below “1” to get to the ground floor.
Using your credit cards in Europe:
- If you’re bound for Europe, be warned: Your US credit card won’t always work.Much of Europe has started implementing a chip-and-PIN system, using credit cards that are embedded with a microchip and require a Personal Identification Number (PIN code) for transactions. What this means for Americans is that your magnetic-stripe credit card won’t be accepted at some automated payment points, such as ticket machines at train and subway stations, luggage lockers, toll roads, parking garages, and self-serve gas pumps.
- The chip-and-PIN system is most commonly used in the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Most of Western Europe should be converted to chip-and-PIN cards in 2012 (and Canada will complete its conversion in 2015).
- Chip-and-PIN cardholders don’t sign a receipt when making a purchase — instead they enter a PIN (similar to using a debit card for a point-of-sale purchase in the US). Europe’s automated machines will sometimes take your US credit card if you know the card’s PIN number. Every card has one; ask your bank for the number before you leave on your trip.
- Travelex is currently offering US travelers a chip-and-PIN card preloaded with euros or British pounds (www.travelex.com). While handy, this service comes with exorbitant exchange rates; it’s probably not worth it unless you are staying for several weeks in a country that’s converted to chip-and-PIN cards, and you’re willing to pay for the convenience.
- Don’t panic if your card is rejected. There’s usually a solution. Just like at home, cash works. It’s easy to withdraw cash from a nearby ATM (there’s no problem using magnetic-strip debit cards in European ATMs), or simply carry sufficient cash with you (in your money belt for safekeeping).
- It’s smart to carefully choose and limit how you use your plastic. You can safely use your debit card at ATMs to pull out cash, but using it to routinely pay for purchases at various shops increases the chance that a disgruntled employee could lift your number. Don’t shop your credit card number around too much, either.
Using the European Railroad system:
- Learn to use the 24-hour clock used in European timetables. After 12:00 noon, the Europeans keep going — 13:00, 14:00, and so on. To convert to the 12-hour clock, subtract 12 and add p.m. (16:00 is 4 p.m.).
- To get information on schedules before you go, go online.
- To get information on schedules as you travel, pick up freebie timetables at train stations as you go. The big, yellow departure schedules posted at stations often befuddle travelers who don’t realize that all over the world, the same four columns are listed: destination, type of train, track number, and departure time. Without much effort you can accurately guess which column is what.
- Confirm your plans with a clerk at the train station information window. Write out your itinerary on a piece of paper (e.g., Torino [draw an arrow] Milano 8:50–10:40) and ask, “OK?” Simple written communication eliminates the language barrier.
- Choosing between first and second class? You’ll meet more locals in second class, or find greater comfort — at a 50 percent higher price — in first class. Remember that both first- and second-class cars travel at precisely the same speed.
- Make sure you know where to catch your train and where to get off. Many cities have more than one train station. Paris has six, Brussels has three, and even Switzerland’s little Interlaken has two. A city’s stations are generally connected by train, subway, or bus.
- Never assume the whole train is going where you are. Each car is labeled separately, because cars are usually added and dropped here and there along the journey. Be sure that the city on your car’s nameplate is your destination.
- There is a thief on every train (union rules) planning to grab a bag. Clip your backpack to the overhead rack for safety.
- On an overnight ride, get a couchette — a sleeping berth in a compartment. Reserve a couchette (pronounced coo-shet) at least a day in advance from a local travel agency, the train station, or, if there are any available, from the conductor on the train. For about $32, you’ll get sheets, pillow, blankets, a fold-out bunk bed in a compartment with three to five other people, and, hopefully, a good night’s sleep.
Tips on eating in Europe
- Very often, Europeans think “vegetarian” means “no red meat” or “not much meat.” If you are a strict vegetarian, you’ll have to make things very clear. Write the appropriate phrase, keep it handy, and show it to each waiter before ordering your meal.
- For inexpensive Italian eateries, look for the term osteria, tavola calda, rosticceria, trattoria, pizzeria, or “self-service.” A meal-sized pizza (sold everywhere for less than $12) and a cold beer is my idea of a good, fast, cheap Italian dinner. For a stand-up super bargain meal, look for a pizza rustica shop, which sells pizza by weight. Just point to the best-looking pizza and tell them how much you want (200 grams is a filling meal). They weigh, you pay. They heat it, you eat it. Panini (sandwiches) — calda (toasted) if you ask — are cheap and widely available.
- The “tourist menu” (menù turistico in Italy, menu touristique in France), popular in restaurants throughout Europe’s tourist zones, offers confused visitors a no-stress, three-course meal for a painless price that usually includes service, bread, and a drink. You normally get a choice of several options for each course. Locals rarely order this, but if the options intrigue you, the tourist menu can be a convenient way to sample some regional flavors for a reasonable, predictable price.
- In European groceries and open-air markets, most food is priced by the kilo (about two pounds). Watch the scales while your food is being weighed. It’ll likely show grams and kilos. If dried apples are priced at €2 per kilo, that’s $2.80 for 2.2 pounds, or about $1.25 per pound. If the scale says 400 grams, that means 40 percent of €2 (or 80 euro cents), which is a little over $1.
- If no prices are posted, be wary. Travelers are routinely ripped off by market merchants in tourist centers. Find places that print the prices. Assume any market with no printed prices has a double price standard: one for locals and a more expensive one for tourists.
- Point, but don’t touch. At produce stands and outdoor markets, it’s considered rude for a customer to touch the goods. Tell the vendor (or point to) what you want (I sadly have bad experiences about this particular tip)
Public Internet Terminals
- Finding public Internet terminals in Europe is easy. These days, many hotels and hostels have a few computers in the lobby for their guests to use (sometimes free, sometimes for a fee). Otherwise, head for an Internet café (also called a cybercafé).
- You’ll want an email account that you can log into through a Web page. Consider one of the major Web-based email providers that offer free accounts
- European computers typically use non-American keyboards. Most letters are the same as back home, but a few are switched around, and many of the command keys are labeled in a foreign language. It takes time to find the right keys. Many European keyboards have an “Alt Gr” key (for “Alternate Graphics”) to the right of the space bar; press this to insert the extra symbol that appears on some keys. If you can’t locate a special character (such as the @ symbol), simply copy it from a Web page and paste into your email message.
- In Italy, because of an anti-terrorism law, you may be asked to show your passport (carry it in your money belt) when using a public Internet terminal. The proprietor will likely make a copy.
Getting Online with Your Wi-Fi Device
- With the abundance of cheap Internet cafés in Europe, you don’t need to bring your own computer. But thanks to a myriad of Wi-Fi devices (laptops, iPod Touch, tablets, and smartphones) and widespread Internet access, it’s easy to BYO. If you do, you have several ways to hop online:
- Wi-Fi: Wireless Internet access, sometimes called “WLAN” in Europe, is common, allowing you to get online at many hotels and cafés. Sometimes it’s free; other times, you’ll have to buy a drink or pay a fee to get the password. (Strangely, while many budget and midrange hotels offer free Wi-Fi to their guests, the pricier places usually charge a hefty fee.)
- High-Speed Cable Internet: Many hotel rooms and some Internet cafés have high-speed Internet jacks that you can plug into with an Ethernet cable (with an RJ45 plug; looks like an oversized phone cord) — no special software or password required. I travel with a small length of Ethernet cable just in case, but most hotels will loan you one if you ask. Again, while this is usually free, some hotels charge a fee for access.
- Cellular Modems: For those who want constant access in one country, cellular modems (also known as wireless modems or mobile broadband) may be the way to go. A mobile phone company routes your Internet connection over its 3G network. Usually you buy a “dongle” — it looks like a USB flash drive — that you insert into your laptop’s UBS slot. If you need more consistent Internet access than scattered Wi-Fi hotspots will provide, this could be a good option. In the UK, Vodafone, offers a variety of pay-as-you-go mobile broadband packages, some as low as $15 for a one-month contract. T-Mobile, has similar plans in the UK and Germany.