Since I've had so many visitors lately (and my family comes tomorrow!!), I thought I would write a list of my most important travel tips. I'm no expert, but I've had my fair share of travel experiences in Europe. So without further ado, here are my 12 travel tips for Americans traveling in Europe!
1. Bathroom Lights: You may find yourself searching for the bathroom light switch for a while. The thing is, many time it's not in the bathroom. Before you call the reception desk and ask where it is, check outside the door. I'd say that light switches are located just outside of the bathroom about 75% of the time in Europe.
2. Street Signs: The street signs in Europe aren't like the ones we have in the US. If you're looking for the pole on the corner with the two perpendicular street signs, you're never going to find it. Street signs are posted to the side of one or more of the buildings at the corner of the intersection. And, because it's Europe, you might not find the easy-to-read green and white signs with bold letters. Many times European street signs are more artwork than street sign, with scripted letters over a painted background. Bottom line is, look for the sign on the side of the buildings!
3. Crossing the street: This is a tricky topic because the way people cross the street varies from country to country in Europe. For example, in Spain I "j-walk" at least three or four times on my way to school every day. It's just the way Spain works! Without j-walking, Madrid would freeze. Portugal, Italy and other Mediterranean countries are similar to Spain in this mentality. However, countries like Poland, Russia, and Netherlands have strict rules about j-walking and pedestrian traffic. My friend once recalled one night in Russia that it was 3am, there were no cars to be seen, but the Russians didn't dare cross the street until the walk sign flashed green. My advice is to pay attention to what the locals are doing. I doubt it would happen, but you wouldn't want to end up paying a j-walking fee while on vacation.
4. Promotions: Promotional offers can be the best, or the worst deal ever. A lot of touristy European cities (Madrid included) have tons of special offers whether its food, drinks or night time entertainment (clubs, flamenco shows, etc.). They probably seem to good too be true and SOME OF THEM ARE! So, my advice is to read the small print, literally sometimes there is small print on the posters you will be reading with the promotion, and don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions before you seal the deal. However, I have to say, sometimes there are amazing deals for amazing prices, and when those come along don't ask questions and enjoy it :)
5. Floor #: In the US we consider the ground floor as the 1st floor. In Europe the ground floor is 0 and the 1st floor is what the US would consider the 2nd floor. Pretty simple thing to remember.
6. Greetings: Every country has different greetings, so the bottom line here is do your research. However, just because you read that in Spain that they do "besitos" (one kiss on each cheek) when you meet, this doesn't mean you need to kiss your waiters, hotel staff, etc. Only do this if you're formally introduced to someone. However, greeting courtesy goes beyond formal greetings. In countries like France, Spain and Portugal, you are expected to make eye contact and greet shop owners as you enter their store and say goodbye or "hasta luego" on your way out. Not to do so would be very rude. Bottom line, do your research and/or ask your hotel/hostel staff for advice when you arrive.
7. Asking for the check: In Europe, restaurants and cafés will never bring you your check until you ask for it (bars not included). So, when you're ready, just ask for it! If you're in a hurry, ask for the check 10-15 minutes in advance as service is generally slower in Europe, especially western Europe.
8. Public Bathrooms: It's very hard to find a bathroom in Europe with what I consider "The Holy Trinity of Bathrooms": Toilet paper, hand soap and paper towels/working hand dryer. Many times you will get two and sometimes only one, but getting all three probably means you're at a fairly classy establishment. Anyway, my advice is to carry hand sanitizer and tissues on you at all times, especially at night time. You'll thank me later.
9. Going out at night: Nightlife in Europe is incredible. It starts later but goes longer than the US! So if you find yourself in one of those "cities that never sleep" GET OUT THERE! There are some cities in Europe that are better in the nighttime than the daytime. However, a few tips before you go. First, travel light. The smaller the purse, the better but NEVER bring a clutch because they're too easy to steal. Feel free to dress nice but avoid looking flashy; it can attract unwanted attention. Finally, only bring out your essentials: ID, paper copy of your passport (although rarely needed, always good to have), hand sanitizer and tissues, keys and a small amount of cash! If for some reason your purse does get stolen, it's better to have cash stolen than a credit card. Don't let petty theft keep you from a night out on the town! Also, ask your hotel/hostel staff if there are any neighborhoods you should avoid at night and figure out the best way home before you go :)
10. Pick pocketing prevention: I don't want to jinx myself, but I've been on three euro-trips and have lived in Europe for 2 years and have never been pick-pocketed. It could be luck, but I think it's 100% prevention. First of all, (ladies) ALWAYS wear an across-the-body purse; clutches and over-the-shoulder purses are easy to snatch. Also on the topic of purses, the more straps and zippers, the better. The purse I currently use has two zippers and then a flap that snaps over them, and it's awesome. If you choose to go the backpack route, always carry it in front of you in crowded areas. You'll look a little goofy, but hey, it's better than getting pick-pocketed. NEVER WEAR A DRAWSTRING BACKPACK IN EUROPE! If you're a dude that doesn't want to carry a backpack or a purse, just suck it up and buy one of those under-the-shirt money belts. You're asking for it if you keep your valuables in your pocket. I once saw a guy try to cut another guy's iphone out of his pocket while sitting next to him on the metro. He didn't get away with it, but it just shows you how desperate people can be.
11. Bread on the Table: Many times restaurants will put bread on the table at the beginning of the meal. Be careful, because unless it specifically says it's included with the food, it's probably not. You might think it's complimentary like the US, but then you'll be surprised to see the 2 euro charge for the bread on your receipt at the end of the meal.
12. Transportation: This is another topic that requires a little pre-trip research. Depending on which country you're going, certain forms of transportation may be better than others. For example, in most of Europe it's most convenient and cheap to travel from city to city by train. However, Spain is the exception to this rule. Usually the trains aren't much faster than the buses (with the exception of the AVE high-speed trains) and are 2 to 3 times more expensive! Also, always plan ahead to find the cheapest or most convenient way from the airport to your hotel/hostel. Sometimes, it means a taxi, but other times you can take the metro or a city bus for much cheaper! So basically, I'm saying do the research and definitely don't be afraid to use the mass transport! It can be a HUGE money saver.
Anyway, that's all I've got. I hope some people read this and find it helpful, or some of you who have spent time in Europe agree with what I have to say. I'll be taking all this tips into account of my travels the next few weeks. Until next time :)