Europe Trip Part 1

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Part of taking time off this year was largely motivated by the desire to travel more extensively without the restraints of time or job restrictions.

I am a big believer that travel is a necessity of life and growth if we hope to understand the world, different cultures and the similarities that connect us. Every time we travel, we are forced to get a little uncomfortable and make ourselves vulnerable as we bumble through a completely foreign menu, mispronounce a word or get on the wrong train. As a result of all this stumbling, we discover new places, new people, new foods and a different way of living. Hopefully, when all is said and done, we realize the beauty of this diversity and the richness it creates for the world we live in.

Below is a random summary of "travel tips" I thought might be useful to anyone planning a trip to Europe in the near future--things I had either forgotten about (even after growing up there for more than 13 years) or things I learned along this recent trip in October as a novice navigating the Eurail system!

Thoughts and suggestions pertaining to the cities we explored will follow this week in separate posts.

General (Random) Tips

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Fee 2 Pee—Always Carry Spare Change 

  • I purposefully place this piece of advice first so that if you read nothing else, you will have learned the most important point.
  •  Assume every venue, even the ones you are supporting with your hard-earned cash, will expect payment to pee.
  • Toilets are sacred--protected with everything from a proctor, guard, and turnstiles fortified with full-body plexiglass (so you cannot jump over). In the above photo, there was an additional observer not only for directing toilet traffic (since men and women entered at the same spot), but also to ensure that no one held the doors open for nonpaying customers.
  • Not even the streetcars are watched with the vigilance surrounding the toilet bowl.
  • Europe has a pathologic hang-up with "potty access" as far back as I can remember (like Republicans and the GOP who are equally hell-bent in making access to healthcare impossible for its citizens). 
  • God forbid you have an acute bout of explosive diarrhea while in Europe without change…or, as a United States citizen without healthcare, for that matter!

Money

  • Make sure you know the PIN numbers to credit cards or debit cards you are using.
  • Credit card companies will only issue a new PIN via mail which takes 7-10 days. You are out of luck if it dawns on you the day before your departure.
  • Banks and Currency Exchanges are not always available on weekends; so, an ATM Cash Withdrawal is an option you want available.
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Hotels

  • Traditional ‘gift shops’ for last minute needs or forgotten necessities are not typical. Perhaps the traditional or luxury hotels in major cities, i.e. Hyatt or Hilton have this option, but most of our independently run accomodations did not.
  • Few had laundry in which case AirBnB may have been a better option for long-term travel.
  • Few had in-room coffee / tea, but those that offered this service also had wine and beer glasses in case you wanted to use the vending machine for a night cap...priorities matter.
  • All hotels offered a breakfast buffet, but few had 'after-hours' options for snacks, food, or drinks.
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Airlines

  • If you book with a preferred airline, check the details on the flight schedule--there is nothing worse than thinking you are flying with LUFTHANSA or SWISS AIR only to wind up on its partner airline called UNITED.
  • Leg room and seat width are narrow on UNITED ECONOMY so make sure you pay for ECONOMY PLUS solely for the extra leg room (and yes, I am short and a size 10)--there is no benefit whatsoever to paying for any other upgrade on UNITED.
  • Plan for glop as your meal—Subway will be better than anything UNITED offers. This is even more apparent after dining in Europe for 3 weeks. 
  • Upon returning from Europe, stuff your carry-on with pretzels, rolls, chocolate and sandwiches instead...and skip United's “offered meal”. Believe me, I get it...airline food is nothing to talk about, but some airlines just do it better.  
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  • How you do anything, in particular, the little things, like ECONOMY Plus, is a reflection of how you will do the bigger things, like POLARIS--save your money for cartons of super-sized and gigantor-sized Kinderschokolade Eggs, currently banned in the United States due to risk of harm and danger. 

Tip on Kinder Schokolade: Check the country of fabrication. Anything other than Germany or Switzerland will have a bizarre flavor, and you will know immediately by how quickly the chocolate melts in your hands whether you have the real deal. Anything headed to the US of A is typically outsourced and manufactured in other countries.

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  • That said, however...there is one big benefit to flying UNITED that I have observed during my last overseas flights: the return flights are never packed and lots of open seating, even rows, are available to stretch out. 
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WiFi

  • All hotels had free Wi-Fi.
  • Most cafes, restaurants, and museums had Wi-Fi. And, a Starbucks or McDonalds is just around the corner in all major cities.
  • All trains and lounges we utilized had free Wi-Fi which was likely a perk of traveling first class with Eurail Global Pass.

Phone

  • ATT Global Plan was disappointing and simply not worth it.
  • “unlimited” Texting was delayed and unclear if messages were being received or sent.
  • Communication basically only worked in Wi-Fi (which was free), i.e. not sure I really needed a plan other than for making one phone call.

Note: Any suggestions from other travelers would be welcomed here for future travels on how you maintained communication with the US while abroad without losing an arm and leg in fees.

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Eurail Pass

  • AAA offers substantial benefits, including Global Pass with automatic First Class and discounted rates.
  • First Class gets you access to Train Station Lounges in select cities, the benefits of which include free toilet access, free WiFi, space to relax and read, and a fair amount of snacks, beverages, and hot drinks--available in Amsterdam and all Austrian train stations, but not in Germany.
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  • Disadvantage of ordering thru AAA rather than EuroRail.com is that you cannot make reservations using the EURAIL app “Rail Planner”. You can check the train schedules thru the app, but that's it. Instead, you will need to go thru the Deutsche Bahn or Austrian Train websites…which are straight-forward enough and easy to navigate.
  • That said...always make reservations, for your longer trips with luggage between major cities, i.e. Amsterdam to Munich…all of our trains were packed…in November--lesson learned.
  • Intercity trains, ie Amsterdam to Rotterdam, run frequently enough where standing an hour or having to sit in Second Class is not a problem.
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  • Access to the train platforms in the Netherlands frequently requires scanning of your ticket, except with Eurail Pass you don't have a ticket. No worries...on the back of your Eurail Pass is a barcode.
  • Be at the platform early with your luggage.
  • Utilize the train diagram of how the train cars will line up, i.e. first class, restaurant and second class wagons, because there is nothing worse than getting on 3 cars from your assigned seats and slugging your way thru herds of travelers with a backpack and carry-on.
  • Pack as lightly as possible.
  • Trains leave on time and don’t care if your luggage rolled down the stairs...or, if you were just 1 minute late.  
  • We literally watched the conductor shrug his shoulders as he closed the door on a woman rushing to catch the train…interestingly, she didn’t throw a fit, but accepted her poor planning and sat down.    
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Courtesy

  • Tips are more common nowadays compared to when I was growing up in Europe.
  • Max 10% tip...for restaurants, taxis, cafes, etc.

Note: Often the tip has to be added prior to swiping your credit card in the Netherlands. Check with the waiter if you plan on tipping via credit card.

Communication

Learn a few words with Duolingo or Memrise. But, Europeans for the most part can speak more English than most Americans can speak German or Dutch.

  •     Amsterdam: English is everywhere, including on signs, directions, and menus.  
  •     Munich: Depends, but overall less eager to help you than the Netherlands. 
  •     Vienna: Depends on how helpful someone is feeling that day. 
  •     Salzburg: Friendly, helpful with the ability to multi-task and smile as well.
  •     Zurich: Consistently all shops, hotels, and services had English speakers who were more than happy to help you spend money.

 

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Other Forms of Transportation

  • Amsterdam's City Pass was awesome because we were able to take full advantage of the 96-hour pass that included all tram, buses, metro fees as well as the biggest selection of free museum passes and discounts allowing us to take advantage of museums we might have otherwise missed, i.e. the Dutch Resistance Museum. 
  • This option is only available for the 72 or 96 hr passes.
  • Easily bought at the Schiphol airport or right in front of Amsterdam Centraal Station.
  • Other cities offered variations of this concept, but without the generous benefits in Amsterdam.
  • Hop On Hop Off Bus had value on the days that we were sick, poor weather or if certain attractions were otherwise too difficult to access without direct transport options. Seems to be most useful in the larger cities. 

Phone Apps

  • Research your maps and apps before leaving. Download them at home.
  • The ULMON City Apps are quite decent and can be pre-populated with attractions, restaurants and other locations you might want to visit. Thus, if you are out of WiFi-luck, you will still have a map on hand.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

-Mark Twain-