It has been over ten years since I last traveled around Europe with my family. While much has changed since then, from smart phones and google maps to increased security, there are many things I noticed as an American that are quite different than our culture here in the US. To prepare yourself for your next trip, read on for my list of tips and “FYI’s” to ensure a safe, responsible, and most of all, relaxed vacation.
Restaurants & Bars
You seat yourself at most restaurants. At the beginning of our trip, we found ourselves waiting by the entrance without anyone coming over to us. Initially our thought was, “where’s the host/hostess?” We soon realized that if there is an open table, take it and the server will come over to you with a menu.
Ask for an English menu. Most places we went to had an English menu available, we just had to ask for it. Trust me, it makes ordering your meal so much easier.
Most places have a guest WiFi network available. Many were locked networks, so we either found the password somewhere on the menu, on a sign behind the counter, or had to ask for it.
There’s no need to tip 20%. Most often, tip is included in the bill. We either saw it noted on the menu or at the bottom of the receipt. If it’s not, you aren’t expected to tip anything, but it’s appreciated to tip 10% as a nice gesture. If you have fabulous service, feel free to go higher. Unfortunately some places take advantage of Americans tipping “too much” because it’s what we are used to. Speaking of tips…
Service doesn’t rely on your tips, and it shows. One of the things we were most excited to come back to in the U.S. was proactive, friendly service when going out. I’ve always felt that service is a big part of your overall dining experience. Bad service usually makes me walk out of a place feeling disappointed, even if the food was good. However, great service makes me walk out feeling impressed by the place. I’m willing to go back somewhere if I had great service but didn’t love my meal, because in my mind I could have ordered the wrong thing. After bad service, you’re lucky if I return.
I can honestly say there were less than a handful of places we dined at over three weeks that I would consider provided good service. The major downfall was inattentiveness. I do respect that it’s a completely different culture across the pond, but when your drinks are empty for 45 minutes and no one asks if you’d like another, or something else, it’s a bit of a bummer feeling like they don’t care when they could have been making more money. We also had to wait for what felt like forever to have someone clear our plates and ask for the bill, making every meal last longer than necessary when we had other places to visit on our itinerary. That said…
You will never ever be rushed. The European culture is known for long, drawn out meals (often with many courses) where you enjoy your company, and dinner table conversation is important to families, friends and colleagues alike. While sometimes you want the service to be faster, it is nice that no one is pressuring you to leave so they can turn your table, or trying to take your food away before you’re done eating it. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me, especially while living in NYC.
Almost always, water is not provided unless you ask for it. And when you do, it usually arrives in a small glass. It’s a relatively standard thing in the States that I never really thought about before, but it sure is nice. Also, make sure you ask for tap – it’s not the standard, and if you end up with a bottle of still or sparkling, you’ll pay as much for it as your alcoholic beverage. Double check that the tap water is safe to drink by conducting a quick Google search.
Fellow gin and tonic drinkers, there are two important things to know:
Often times their double is our norm. Ask for it otherwise you’ll get half the amount of gin (a single) you’re used to per serving. They measure everything so it’s consistent, meaning that you won’t ever get a strong drink.
They give you a whole bottle of tonic for even a single shot of gin, and you pay for it separately. Therefore, you’ll have a lot left or a drink that is 85% tonic. We eventually figured out when we both ordered a gin and tonic to specifically ask for only one bottle of tonic. For our taste, splitting one bottle of tonic between the two of us was plenty.
General Travel FYI’s
Only carry your passport with/on you on travel days. Prior to our trip I was very confused about this and received different answers from family and friends. On one hand, you always want to have some form of identification on you. On the other hand, your passport is the number one item you need to keep safe on your trip, so carrying it with you daily is a bit risky. The reason I learned you do not need to carry it daily is because your US state drivers license IS a valid form of ID, if you really need it, but you actually never will. The drinking age is 18, so I was never asked for ID.
Stairs are everywhere, so come prepared. Only pack comfortable shoes that you could walk up flights of stairs with, and keep your luggage as small and lightweight as possible. We even noticed that there were many places with an up escalator but no down escalator, only stairs. Europeans are not lazy!
Almost everyone speaks English. I was pleasantly surprised by this, but I do believe it’s because we visited popular cities. Out in the country, you might want to come studied on the local language. That said…
Still learn the basics of the local language. Although most people spoke English, a fair amount of signage was not in English. From transportation to bathrooms, it wasn’t always obvious!
Subway/metro tickets either need to be validated or swiped in AND out. It makes sense why they do it, but after living in NYC and only having to swipe in, I found it to be an extra step I had to remember each time. In some cities, we would buy our tickets, validate them, and they would never be checked. It’s frustrating feeling like you could have saved your money, but it’s not worth the risk of getting caught. We spoke to people who did get caught that ONE time they didn’t have the proper ticket and were fined. Especially in a foreign country, it’s not something you’ll want to deal with.
Public transportation is your best bet. Not everywhere had Uber or Lyft available, and many cabs are known for up-charging you or not accepting credit cards (even though they are required to). We ran into this issue the ONE time we took a cab and later learned it’s pretty common. We were in Budapest and at the end of our ride, our driver said no credit cards. We didn’t have enough cash on us for the ride, so we said either take the cash we do have OR follow the rules like the sign in your cab states that you’re required to take our card. With a fight first, he eventually pulled out the credit card machine from his glove compartment and took our payment via credit card. It was annoying and a bit scary, to be honest. Fortunately we were in a pretty busy area when it happened, and had opened our passenger doors so he couldn’t keep driving.
The toilet is almost always in a separate room than the shower. This is convenient for staying places with other people, so no one is taking up the bathroom with their long shower/getting ready routines. We were surprised how tiny many of the “toilet rooms,” or whatever you want to call it, were. I would compare it to the size of an airplane bathroom, and the sink the same tiny size. Speaking of toilets…
You have to pay in cash for the majority of public toilets, from tourist destinations to train stations. There was even a top-rated bar located within a hotel in a popular city square where I had to pay. Sometimes, you have to have exact change in the local currency. Be prepared, and keep the change!
Netflix offerings are different in each country, and they don’t have Hulu. For down time before bed or while taking trains, we soon learned the we couldn’t consistently watch our favorite shows.
They have implemented more energy-efficient utilities than we have here. From movement-detected lights to SLOW washing machines, it’s worth asking your Airbnb host about them at check-in. Nobody likes a dark stairwell, or being unaware of a 2.5-hour washing load.
I hope these tips were helpful! Is there anything that I missed that you experienced during your European travels? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to know!