EUROPE TRAVEL TIPS – OUR CHECKLIST
It is imperative that one of the first things you do when planning your trip or event is to check historical weather patterns for the time and area you’ll be visiting. You never quite know how things are going to pan out, but at least don’t be that person desperately trying to sun themselves on the Costa Brava beaches in 65 degree weather, with locals looking on and thinking, “they must be tourists”. Europe can have rather extreme weather during summer and winter, so it’s important you do your research before you purchase your airline tickets.
Check out these websites for further assistance:
Generally, exchanging your local currency in your destination country is typically your best bet. However, timing is everything; you’ll need to take into consideration arriving into town when businesses are open, avoiding public holidays, etc., otherwise you risk remaining without money while you are abroad.
In regards to the highest exchange on conversion, the ATM machine is usually the best source. Most debit cards can be used internationally to withdrawal money in local currency from your own home bank account. The exchange rates given by banks tend to be better than those at currency exchange counters, and the fee your bank charges you for your transaction will also usually be lower than exchange counter transaction fees. Just make sure you check with your bank to see if your card will work internationally and be sure to understand their fees.
Don’t take a cash advance on your credit card at an ATM, unless it’s an emergency; the fees are usually outrageous. You should use your credit card for large purchases, not your debit card (if the cashier makes a mistake it could take days for your money to repost to your checking account). Most credit cards charge a foreign-transaction fee of 1% to 3% whenever you buy something abroad, but this is still the safest and often the cheapest way to make a large purchase; check with your provider for details.
If your credit or debit card doesn’t have a chip and PIN (hardly any U.S. credit or debit cards do), then you may not be able to purchase important items while abroad, such as train or metro tickets. Although both Visa and MasterCard promise U.S. cardholders that their cards are usable anywhere in the world where they should be accepted with just a signature, you may still have some occasional problems in Europe using your card. So if possible, bring debit cards that have Visa or MasterCard logos and/or are on the Cirrus or Plus networks.
Tell your bank/credit card providers you’re travelling and where you’re travelling! You don’t want your card blocked because you’ve never used it outside your country of origin.
Save telephone numbers related to reporting a lost or stolen debit/credit card on an agenda. Don’t just store them on your cell phone; if your debit/credit card is stolen, it’s possible your phone was also swiped.
Lastly, download a CURRENCY CONVERSION app on your cell phone to compare exchange rates.
Rentals Cars and Driving in Europe
One-way rentals are often free within the same country, but dropping off in another country will likely cost you a fee; make sure you understand these fees when renting. Read the fine print in your rental car contract, and don’t be shy about asking for it in your native language. Inspect the car before you drive off and make sure ALL scratches and dents are marked accordingly on your paperwork.
Also, before you travel contact your rental car agency and confirm that you only need a valid driver’s license from your country of origin. Though a bit outdated, some countries may still ask for an international driving permit.
Here are some driving tips
- Don’t drive in the passing lane; you will have someone who drives faster come up behind you and flash his or her lights for you to get out of the way. For passing, use the left-hand lane (right-hand lane in Britain and Ireland). In countries such as France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands it’s illegal to use the slower lane for passing (lanes to the right).
- Be very aware of signs regarding radars being in effect; you will receive a ticket to your home in your country of origin, courtesy of the local consulate or embassy. Also, watch the speed limits carefully at all times; don’t just wait until you see a sign regarding a radar being in effect. Ironically, by the time you see that sign, you won’t always see a subsequent sign indicating how fast you can drive.
- With roundabouts the general rule of thumb is that if you’re in one, entering traffic needs to yield to you; if you can’t get out, keeping going around until you can! Also, some roundabouts incorporate light signals when you least expect them, such as in Spain; be on the look out for those.
- While in Italy, for example stopping at a Stop sign might get you rear ended, you still need to follow the rules of the road; but you’ll notice that locals won’t. Often in countries such as Italy and Greece drivers don’t stop or yield when required, or even run red lights all together; this does not give you free reign; remember they are skilled at their “chaotic” driving, you probably are not and it could lead to an accident.
- It is illegal to make a right on red. I lived in California for some years and this was a hard habit to break coming back to Europe.
- Black out days. Make sure there are no restrictions with driving throughout the city in which you are traveling. For example, in Rome several times a year they’ll prohibit cars from circulating throughout the city to reduce smog. Sometimes they may restrict only older cars, so if you’re in a rental that’s not a problem. However, often they base the restriction on whether or not your license plate number starts with an odd or even number; if you’re caught in the middle of Rome with the wrong license plate they’ll issue you a hefty fine.
- Avoid city centers if you can. In Italy, watch out Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL, often shown above a red circle); if it says “Attivo”, you cannot drive down that street. If you do, the license plate will be photographed and again, you’ll receive the fine courtesy of your local consulate.
Purchase Travel Insurance – Period. Don’t skimp on this. If you’re not an E.U. citizen you don’t get free medical, it’s that simple. In addition, if you purchase your airline tickets using a credit card, check with the credit card company regarding any travel and medical insurance they offer (we had a friend rack up 200K in medical bills while travelling, only to have the credit card company foot the bill because she purchased the airline tickets through them).
Travel insurance is also an added protection if you need to cancel hotel and airline tickets, cover lost luggage, additional rental car coverage, etc.
Many citizens aren’t aware that their respective consulates and embassies in the country they are visiting post travel warnings on their websites regarding important tourist issues, such as local criminal activities, terrorist threats, local laws, child safety, and emergency aid. Before travelling we strongly urge you to browse their websites – you would be amazed at what you can learn.
Also, consulates and embassies have an emergency phone number in the event someone is hurt, or passport is lost or stolen outside of normal business hours; obtain this number for your respective consulate/embassy and keep it handy on your phone and on paper.
Being up to date with necessary vaccinations for the European countries you are visiting is not usually a problem, but especially if you are travelling with children or the elderly, it might be prudent to inquire. The following website may be of help:
Appropriate Travel Documentation
Check your passport expiration; you may be denied entry into certain European countries if your passport is due to expire within three months of your ticketed date of return. Plus you never know if you’ll need to remain longer for any unforeseen reason.
Make a photocopy of your passport, visa, etc., and keep this on you throughout your day, rather than the original. Firstly, it’s likely the hotel will keep your original, which is a common practice throughout Europe. Secondly, by keeping it at the hotel you’re less likely not to have it lost or stolen (as long as you trust the hotel staff). If you don’t want copies of your documents on you, you can always upload a copy to a sharedrive. But keep in mind you should always have some kind of identification on you while travelling.
In Advance Bookings:
If you’re not using a travel and event consultant to reserve major attractions in advance, please note that this is something to take into consideration on your part, well in advance of your trip. We suggest reserving making such reservations at least 2 months in advance in high season. For example, if you want to see La Ultima Cena (The Last Supper) in Milano (which is perhaps one of the most important reasons to visit the city), you’ll be sorely disappointed if you plan on getting in line to purchase tickets at the last minute.
Also, research free days for major events; for example most major cities have at least one day a month where museums are free, if you don’t mind the crowds.
Important Phone Numbers:
Keep a list of important numbers you might need when abroad (Family, Doctor, Emergency, Bank, Consulate, etc.). Keep these numbers on paper and in your cell phone (paper is a back up just in case your phone is lost or stolen).
Make note of any public holidays that will be taking place in the countries your visiting during your stay. Public holidays mean high prices all around for accommodations, harder to get into restaurants, closure of business and banks, and an unexpected change in your itinerary, etc.
I am sure most parents bringing their children will already be aware of the following, but just to cover the basics, make sure you have all the necessary paperwork and documentation for all children (and adopted). Make copies of these documents and follow the same procedure as mentioned in section Appropriate Travel Documentation. Also, if only one parent is travelling it’s best to have a letter on behalf of your partner, husband, or wife consenting to their travel with you; you will definitely need such documentation if you are travelling with someone else’s child, as you won’t be able to board the plane without it.
We generally suggest obtaining a European SIM card for your mobile phone when you arrive to your destination, which will cut down on costs when you need to make local calls, such as to your hotel, restaurants, museums, etc. Also, it’s typically free to receive domestic texts and calls within the European Union on these phones. If you want to use your current carrier, contact you provider to determine if your phone will work overseas and of international restrictions and fees regarding data roaming, messaging, and call charges, both to send and to receive these services.
If you have a Smartphone, install Whatsapp – it’s a great way to communicate anywhere in the world, and it’s free. Also download other apps that may be helpful throughout your stay, such as transit maps and schedules, translation tools, MapQuest, etc.
Tobacco shops are the best place to go if you need to add money to your account throughout Europe easily identified with a “T” sign outside the shop.
Perhaps one of the best ways to obtain accurate, up to date, and free information regarding a city is by going to a local Information Point. Most major cities have more than one in key areas throughout the city, and most staff speak multiple languages. It’s the best place to pick up additional information regarding major sites, and in many cases replaces a guidebook.
People with Disabilities:
One of the things that most people take for granted when travelling in Europe with disabled persons is accessibility. You need to thoroughly research this piece before finalizing your itinerary; not all sidewalks are wheelchair accessible, cobblestone streets are not comfortable, not all metros have elevators, etc. We strongly urge you to use a travel consultant if you are travelling under these conditions; an experienced and local travel consultant should take these needs into consideration and can offer the best guidance in these circumstances.
Time, Dates, Conversions and Tips:
Couple of minor things that make your trip and event slightly easier:
- Europe tends to use Military Time
- Dates start with the Day, followed by the Month, and then Year
- Europe uses kilometers, kilograms, and Celsius. We suggest downloading an app on your phone to help you with quick conversions. http://www.albireo.ch/temperatureconverter/
- Tips are not typically included in bills and services; if you want to be nice, leave a euro for every 20 euro or so; but keep in mind that at times tips may be included, such as when restaurants charge a “cover” for bread, tables clothes, sitting at a table, etc., which can be construed as a tip.
If you’re traveling with your own laptop and using free Wi-Fi, it is important to make sure your connections are secure. Some websites let you log in over open networks; always try to use HTTPS://www.website.com instead of HTTP://www.website.com (the S stands for “secure” and indicates that the data is encrypted for further protection).
Europe is generally safe, so if you’ve never visited, don’t worry too much about major crimes. However, tourists are targets for pickpockets, so there are a couple of things you should know to minimize the likeliness you’ll be targeted:
- Pickpockets appear as average as you and I in appearance and manner. Because they make a study of how to “blend” into the crowd, pickpockets usually remain undetected and can practice their activities with little hindrance. So don’t look for someone who “looks” like a thief, you’ll never see him or her coming.
- If it’s obvious you’re a tourist (such as you are speaking English with a Texan accent in Barcelona) and someone asks you, in Spanish, for information regarding things that only a local would know (street directions, major site locations, etc), be aware; they might be grabbing your attention while someone else is stealing from you.
- If someone bumps into you, resist the temptation to touch your wallet, your phone, etc, as if to make sure you still have it. One of the habits that most people don’t know they have is touching these items after someone bumps into them, even if the contact is nowhere close to their items. When you do this you alert a second thief as to where you have these items located on your person. If it’s unavoidable and you feel a bump was intentional, look around, become aware of your surroundings, and make eye contact with those around you; this could shy away a thief.
- Purses and “man” bags should be worn over your opposite shoulder.
- Wear backpacks in front of you when possible.
- Try not to wear jewelry that would constitute a year’s paycheck in Europe.
- While many pickpockets work alone, there are also teams of two or three which sometimes involves a female accomplice. The first team member removes the valuables from the unsuspecting victim’s pockets. He/she then secretly passes them on to the next member who quickly disappears. When a female member is also employed, she generally engages you in conversation to distract you. Europeans are generally helpful and kind, but if you think they’re being too helpful and kind, make yourself aware of your surroundings.
- Don’t put your purses, bags, etc over a chair while in a restaurant or at an event. Always be in possession of them.
- With rental cars, don’t drive with windows down and purses on seats; thieves drive by and grab them. Also, if someone waves you over, indicating you have a flat tire, DO NOT pull over. Go to the nearest gas station or a VERY public place, grab your purse and valuable items before exiting the car or leave someone in the car, and always lock the doors; can’t tell you how many people get out of their cars, leave the doors open, and while one thief is showing them the flat tire (which the thieves caused prior by puncturing the tire), another thief is stealing your valuables.
Please remember that in many churches you will not be allowed entry with exposed shoulders and shorts or skirts above the knee. It’s become more common that staff will give you (sometime for a fee) something to cover yourself, but if this isn’t the case, you may be denied entry.