Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 30, 2014 3:04 p.m.
With the arrival of summer and school vacations, many people dream of overseas travel but never actually do so out of concern about practical matters. World travel is an exciting and rewarding experience for those willing to leave the comfort of their living rooms to seek out the sights and adventures touted by TV personalities like Rick Steves and Anthony Bourdain. Sadly, many people who would like to trace their families’ journeys from the Old Country or visit places where their grandfathers performed their military service during World War II and the Cold War fail to do so, not because of health or cost reasons, but because they experience anxiety over money matters, language differences, and independent travel issues like finding lodgings, food and local transportation. There are many helpful guidebooks and websites to help you map out a trip that meets requirements of your bucket list without breaking your budget. But I’ve compiled a few tips of a more mundane nature, to prepare you for life on the road as you travel through Europe.
If you want to freewheel it and drive or train through Europe, staying where the mood takes you, you might just be out of luck when you show up at that cute little country inn or tucked-away small hotel in a big city. Unless you have made reservations six months in advance, that is. Between local festivals, conventions and normal tourism, many of the small properties are fully occupied most of the year. During off-season, some may even close.
Not all places off the beaten track take credit cards. For Americans, the situation can be especially frustrating because even though credit cards are accepted, the European versions of Master Card and Visa contain microchips. While theoretically, a Visa is a Visa is a Visa, credit card machines in Europe are not always capable of reading the magnetic strip that we have on our cards. Always be prepared with a reasonable amount of cash so as not to be caught in an awkward situation at a gas station or a restaurant. It is a good idea to ask before you purchase if your particular card is accepted.
It can be oh-so-tempting to start thinking of Euros as U. S. Dollars. And that temptation can add up to a big surprise when you start looking at the overall cost of your vacation. Today (June 17, 2014) the exchange rate stands at $1.357 for one Euro. If you charge your purchases, be prepared to see most credit cards add on a 3% or so cost for conversion. Also, don’t forget ATM fees for withdrawals in local currency. I find it helpful to work through my local bank to arrive with local currency in hand, just in case I need to make an emergency purchase at the airport or grab a cab soon after arrival.
Bathrooms and toilets
Unless you are staying in a deluxe hotel, you may well find that your hotel bathroom does not come stocked with washcloths. Or sometimes sink stoppers. It doesn’t hurt to pack a couple of cheap washcloths and a baggie, just in case. You can get creative with a sink stopper or just bring along one of those one-size-fits-all rubber stoppers to be sure. The size of the bar of soap in some of the hotels is smaller than pieces I throw away at home. If you really like to lather up in the shower, you might want to bring a decent sized bar of soap that you can leave at your last stop. I will add, however, that even 3-star hotels tend to provide small shampoos, conditioners and either shower gels or lotions, along with blow dryers.
Public toilets, unlike those at home, are generally not free. On a recent trip through Northern Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, we found that the “going” price was half a Euro, or about 68 cents. If you don’t have change, there is an attendant who will make change for you. But you will pay “Madame Pipi.” A way to avoid paying is to visit a café or restaurant. As a paying customer, you are allowed to use the toilets without charge.
We encountered a curious situation at rest stops on the Autobahns, the highways that cross Europe. There the cost rose to 70 cents Euro, or about a dollar US. But you may use your “ticket” for a 50-cent Euro discount in the rest stop café. So use the toilet before you grab a snack or coffee. Another interesting thing about the Autobahn toilets is that with each flush, the toilet seat is steam cleaned—quite a shock when you see it for the first time.
Car travel allows you to get off the main roads and see the real country, beyond what the Tourist Bureaus promote. It can also become a survival test. Renting a GPS with your car is a really good investment, because it is sometimes hard to read maps and signs in foreign languages. In some countries—like Germany—GPS works really well. In others—like Poland—it is a bit more problematic. “Gertie Garmon” once got us from point A to point B in Poland, but it was via a dirt road through a chicken farm. And listening to Gertie pronounce those Polish street names was a hoot!
Before you make final arrangements to rent a car in Europe, make sure you have all the details. For example, you cannot drive a rental car from Germany to Poland. Also, while on our first trip to Poland we were told that a US driver’s license was sufficient, on a return trip we were told that we needed an International Drivers License, which we did not have. That did not prevent us from renting a car, but the rental agency warned us that if we were to be stopped by the police for any reason, there would be a big fine for not having the international license. Insurance coverage is a must, and be sure to check for age requirements for the driver. In this case, not being too young, but too old to drive a rental car.
Before you drive off in your rental car, make sure you know how everything works and get any questions answered. We experienced a minor problem with a VW van we rented in Amsterdam as we drove along the German autobahn. To our surprise, the manual was written in Dutch, which none of us could read.
Finally, while we all know that car rental is expensive and gas even more so, remember that European cars are smaller than American cars in general. If more than two people will be traveling with suitcases in a car, make sure that the car you rent can hold everything without requiring the back seat passengers to hold the luggage. When you rent a larger vehicle to accommodate luggage and passengers in comfort, remember that parking garages and parking spaces may present challenges. On one occasion we rented a Kia van and found that in order to park in the hotel garage we had to retract the mirrors to travel the ramp. Even so, we had about 2 inches to spare on each side of the van.
Language and local customs
Generally, as an English speaker, you will not have difficulties getting around Europe today, provided that you stick to major cities or prominent tourist attractions. If you get too far off the beaten track, you may experience some difficulties. But there is almost always someone who can jump in and help you out. American television programs are widely viewed in English, helping the locals learn the language without formal study. Also, former East Bloc countries, where Russian was once the second language, are sprouting English schools to help their business people and general population become more familiar with ways of the West. Of course, signs will be in the local language. Also, if you visit major tourist attractions and want to take advantage of a tour, make sure that you sign up for the English language tour. Or you might be stuck going with a crowd speaking German, Polish or Italian. In visiting museums and art galleries it is also important to pick up an English language brochure or guidebook, since exhibit captions may only be in the native language.
Customs may be a bit trickier to handle. The best advice is to watch the locals and see what they do. Churches can present a particular challenge to those more interested in viewing the church as a piece of history or an art repository instead of a place of worship. Tourists and/or cameras may be banned during worship service. Especially in Italy, inappropriate dress, as defined by locals, may bar your entrance to a Catholic Church period. While it might seem obvious that shorts are not acceptable, it might not occur to you that bare arms are also not acceptable. Having a scarf or shawl will do the trick, but this doesn’t work as well for the guys. In visiting churches in Rome to see famous artworks, don’t be surprised to find that they are virtually invisible unless someone puts the required coins into a kiosk that will provide a period of illumination.
Check local holiday observances before you go. Unlike home, many foreign countries treat secular and religious holidays more solemnly, meaning that not only do the stores close, but also restaurants and tourist attractions. If your itinerary includes a “must see” museum, check your itinerary against the museum’s schedule. Many museums close Mondays. Some of the most popular museums and sites admit visitors on a timed ticket system, where tickets are purchased in advance for a particular day. If you want to make sure you can get into a particular attraction during the time you visit, check the Internet from home to develop the best strategy. Otherwise, you might find that you will stand in line for hours for a chance to get in.
Taking photos of children is as unacceptable in Europe as it is back home without permission of the parents.
In this era of the Internet, you can shop the world from your desktop at home. If you are looking for something in particular, be sure to price it from home before you go abroad. You may find that you can buy it as cheaply on the Internet and save yourself the problems of carting it around with you on your trip and risking breakage. You may also ask most reputable shops to ship things for you. In addition to saving you having to carry your purchase, it can also save you having to pay the Value Added Tax (VAT). Of course, with the proper paperwork, you can also apply for VAT refunds at the airport or other locations. But that is not always convenient and is not worth the trouble (in my opinion) for smaller purchases.
You’d be surprised at the great shopping you can do at local grocery and drugstores. All sorts of snacks, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and candies can be found there, at often a fraction of the price you would pay elsewhere. You can pick up pastries or bread and cheese for a picnic lunch, too. And don’t forget department stores. They are a great place to pick up unique kitchen items, perfumes or table linens – for yourself or as gifts for house sitters.
If we were living in the era of Downton Abbey, we would be able to travel with ladies maids and valets, who would tend to our wardrobes with exquisite care. Today’s traveler generally has to lug that suitcase without help. And as we all know, taking more than one bag on international travel adds more fees to the bill. Instead of trying to cram as much as possible into the checked bag and carry-on, take the other approach: what is the least clothing I need to spend (a few days, a week, or more) traveling (by ship, bus, train, or car) in comfort more than fashion?
Assuming that most travelers will make purchases that add to the weight of the luggage, it is even more important to pack lightly. If you can divest yourself of things that you packed as you travel, that’s a good thing, too. I always save ratty underwear and nightgowns for a trip, figuring that I will discard them along the way. Unless you are staying in one location for several days, washing underwear may leave you with damp drawers as you pack up to move on. Laundry services are available in hotels and ships, but the cost of the service I have found is often higher than the cost of the garment to be laundered. Better to visit a big box store at home and buy a package of cheap socks or underwear that you can discard as you travel.
When you travel, remember that you are going to see, not to be seen. It doesn’t matter that you repeat outfits and wear the same jacket for a week. If your spouse is like mine, he probably won’t even notice. And odds are, you will never meet the other people you encounter again. Stick to a basic color, like black or tan, so that you have the widest opportunity to mix and match. You can always add a splash of color with scarf, if you are troubled with a monochrome look. The more you travel, the more you will appreciate the virtue in traveling light, as opposed to traveling in style. And remember that unlike the United States, handicapped accessibility is not a guarantee. Comfortable, non-slip shoes are the best investment for your travel wardrobe. You need to be prepared for cobblestone streets, narrow step and stair treads, lots of walking and climbing. Don’t expect elevators in those old castles and cathedrals.
If you follow these few basic tips, you will find yourself enjoying your visit more and worrying less. Enjoy your travels!
If you have additional practical tips for travelers, please send them as comments to add to my list!
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.