(Tales Told From The Road just completed a virtual month-long trip across Europe visiting France’s Alsace and Austria’s Tirol regions, and the cities of Berlin, Dresden and Munich in Germany, Prague in the Czech Republic, plus Amsterdam and London. Here are some tips for planning your next European journey.)
Here are some things to know before you go if you are an American tourist planning a trip to Europe this year:
Passports: Check the expiration date on your passport. Some European countries will deny you entry unless your passport will be valid for 3-6 months after your scheduled date of return to the U.S. Others (like Turkey and Russia) require you to have a visa as well as a U.S. passport.
Renewing your passport is cheaper than getting a new one issued. (More information).
Rail passes: Rail Europe is one of the largest sellers of European train rail passes and point-to-point train tickets. You need to have your Rail Europe pass in hand before leaving home; you can’t buy one in Europe. (More information).
Cell phones and computers: Check with your U.S. carrier to see if your cell phone will work in Europe. But even if you can use your phone, your calling plan probably only covers the U.S. and you’ll have to sign up for an international voice plan before leaving home.
If you have a smartphone, you’ll probably need a separate international data plan, too. If you don’t sign up for these international plans the cost of using your phone in Europe will be much higher.
If your cellphone is “unlocked” you may be able to buy a SIM card to insert in it and pay less to make phone calls.
If you are carting along a tablet computer, you may have to pay for Wi-Fi connections in some locations, or sign up for a separate international data plan from that for your smartphone in order to use the tablet over cellular telephone networks in Europe.
If you don’t wish to take your cell phone, or only wish to use it in dire emergencies, consider buying a European cell phone or using phone cards, public and hotel phones. (Click here for tips from European travel Rick Steves on staying connected in Europe with your own mobile devices and for his suggestions for making phone calls if you don’t have your own cell phone.)
You can carry a laptop or netbook computer with you, but some lodgings have a computer guests can share. You can sometimes rent computers for short-term use at private or public locations.
Credit and debit cards: Take one or two debit cards and at least two credit cards so if one is lost or stolen you’ll have a second one to use. Call your card issuers before you leave home to see if they want you to give them your travel dates and itinerary to prevent your cards from being canceled because your bank thinks a thief has stolen them to pay for a Grand Tour of Europe. Request a PIN for your credit cards in case you need them obtain cash from ATMS.
In many places in Europe, such as ticket kiosks in train stations, you’ll need a “Chip and PIN” credit card in order to make a purchase. Standard magnetic stripe and “Chip and Signature” cards won’t work at those locations. Some U.S. banks are now issuing “Chip and PIN” cards; check with your bank to see if you can obtain one.
Money belt: Petty thieves welcome tourists with open arms, so plan on stowing cash, credit and debit cards, passport and rail passes in a money belt. Think of it as a the ultimate “out of sight” European fashion accessory.
Driving: In theory, you only need a valid driver’s license issued by any U.S. state to rent a car in Europe. But sometimes car rental companies will ask for your International Driving Permit when you pick up your car. You can obtain these passport-like documents from American Automobile Association or National Auto Club offices in the U.S.
Museums: To avoid long lines and ensure admission to museums you are intent on visiting, find out if you can book entry for a specific date and time in advance. Some museums require such reservations. I’ve saved myself a lot of time and disappointment by making reservations on-line for museums in Florence and Dresden.
Time zones: London time is 5 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast, 8 ahead of the West Coast. Add another hour for most cities on the Continent, another hour yet for Greece, Turkey, and parts of Eastern Europe, and yet another hour for Russia.
Flying to Europe: Non-stop flights to London from the U.S. take about 7-plus hours (East Coast) to 10-plus hours (West Coast), and about an hour longer to cities on the Continent. Add another 2 hours-plus for layovers, and 1-2 hours flying time, if you have to change planes to get to your destination.
Because of the time difference between the U.S. and Europe, you will either arrive in Europe very late in the evening or (most often) sometime the next day. But you should be able to fly back to the U.S. and arrive the same day you left Europe. Deduct three (two if you’re lucky) days from your overall vacation time to account for air travel.
Jet lag: Odds are that you will have been up for 24-hours or more from the time you fell out of bed at home until you finally hit the sack in your European hotel. During the trip the sun will set, and then rise again, sooner than your brain expects, upsetting your sleep cycle. It will take you a day or two before you get over the fatigue of travel and jet lag.
To reduce fatigue and get over jet lag quicker, consider making your first stop at a “gateway” city where you can fly to non-stop, spend a couple of nights “resetting your internal clock,” and then travel on to the place where you really want to commence your European tour. London is a great choice because from there you can fly non-stop to many European cities in one to two hours or flying time, or you can opt to take a two-hour ride the speedy Eurostar train under the English Channel to either Paris or France and resume your journey there.
Guidebooks: Easy to use guidebooks from Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) provide detailed information for each country or city covered. His Europe Through The Backdoor is a compendium of information for planning a European trip.
Books from Frommers’, Lonely Planet, and other publishers may include places not mentioned in Rick Steves’ guidebooks.
Some guidebooks are now available in electronic form for iPad, iPhone, Kindle or other devices.
You don’t need a Kindle e-reader or tablet to use Kindle electronic guidebooks. The free Kindle reading apps let you read Kindle e-books on virtual every type of computer and mobile device that you own, and if you highlight or make annotations to a Kindle e-book, you can sync them to Amazon’s “Cloud” servers and have them available on all of your devices no matter which one you used to create them.
Just remember that if you are using an e-guidebook on a mobile device you may have to connect to the Internet via a cellular network or Wi-Fi to make use of all of the guidebook’s functions, like clicking on a hypertext link to a museum Website.
I always visit local bookstores, peruse all of the guidebooks they have in stock, and buy one or more from different publishers for each stop on my itinerary.
Maps: In addition to using the map-based applications on my iPhone (which usually require an Internet connection), I also take along paper or “plasticized” folding maps from the American Automobile Association, Michelin, Rick Steves, and Streetwise Maps.
Packing light: Plan on lugging your own bags on and off planes, trains (I’ve never ridden on one with a baggage car) and boats, and up and down stairs in hotels that don’t have elevators. Rental cars often have small trunks with limited room to stow luggage.
Smart travelers to Europe take at most only one airline carry-on sized bag (I use either a roll-aboard bag (here’s the latest version of my Rick Steves bag) or an older version of the Classic Back Door Bag, both from Rick Steves) even if I plan to check luggage and a smaller personal bag.
These days I slip an empty Civita Day Pack into the outside pocket of my roll-aboard bag and carry it when I’m roaming about European cities during the day, but a Rick Steves Veloce Shoulder Bag is the “personal bag” that I carry onto the plane filled with my toiletry kit, digital point-and-shoot camera and accessories, iPad, books, maps, rail pass, and other miscellaneous items.
Check with your airline on size and weight limitations for both checked and carry-on bags, as well as baggage fees.
One last, but very important thing to remember: Have fun!