A cruise is a great way to experience Europe, and one of the most enjoyable vacations you can have. However, if you have never been to Europe, there are a few things that you might want to know before you go.
1. Carry some local currency
When you visit European cities, it is always a good idea to have some local currency. On the European continent, many countries now accept the Euro which makes traveling between the countries much easier than it was in the past. In Great Britain, they still use the British Pound, so Euros will be of little use. Unlike cruising in the Caribbean, where the US Dollar is widely accepted regardless of the local currency, European businesses often only accept their local currency.
When we travel to Europe, I always like to have between 50 and 100 Euro on me when we are out and walking around. That way, we have enough for lunch or souvenirs. Large purchases can be made with a major credit card.
Euro denominations are similar to what we have in the USA with the dollar. Paper bills are 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 Euro. There is no 1 Euro note. There are 1 and 2 Euro coins, identified by a copper center with a silver outer ring. The 2 Euro coin, about the size of a US quarter, is larger than the 1 Euro coin, which is about the same size as a US nickel. There are also smaller coins (2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents and 50 cents). Intelligently, the paper money is sized differently for each denomination (a 100 Euro note is larger than a 5 Euro note) and they are different colors. As you make purchases, you will most likely end up with many coins.
We like to use up the coins when we buy postcards at local souvenir shops. Postcards can usually be purchased for 50 cents to 1 Euro each.
2. Use an ATM for cash
We never use the money exchange services when traveling. You will see these in every airport and throughout the streets of European cities. These companies will change your US Dollars for the local currency, but they charge a hefty commission fee for doing so. Plus, you don't get as good of an exchange rate as you will from your bank (credit card). Don't get suckered in by signs that claim "no commission" or "no charges", they will make up the difference by giving you a lousy exchange rate.
We always use a bank-sponsored ATM to get local cash using our credit card (or debit card). The fee for using an ATM is much less than the commission at an exchange shop and you will get a better rate of exchange. ATMs are readily available throughout European cities and they function just as they do in the USA.
3. Inform Your Credit Card Company Of Your Travels
It is always a good idea to let your credit card company know that you will be traveling outside the USA. If they suddenly see charges coming through from another country, they may not authorize the charges, which could put a crimp in your travel plans. Capital One allows you to use their website to inform them of your travel dates and countries you will be visiting. Check your credit card issuer's website for more information.
4. Reading prices In Europe
When you are shopping in Europe, you will notice that prices are formatted differently than in the US. A comma is used instead of a decimal to separate whole Euros from cents. For example, in the USA we would show an item that costs one dollar and fifty cents as $1.50 whereas in Europe, it would be displayed as €1,50 (meaning 1 Euro and 50 cents).
Also, a number "7" in Europe may have a horizontal slash through it (see example below), whereas a number "1" may be written to look like a 7.
5. Converting Euro or Pounds to Dollars?
When shopping overseas it is always a challenge to try to mentally convert the local currency into dollars so you know what something actually costs. Exchange rates change on a daily basis. At the time of this article, the Euro to Dollar rate is 1.12. That means, every time you spend a Euro it will actually cost you $1.12. A few years ago, the exchange rate was about 1.37, so every Euro spent was costing $1.37! So, right now, Europe is a bargain compared to a few years ago because the US Dollar is stronger against the Euro.
If you have a smart phone or iPad, there are several free apps that will do currency conversion.
Waiters and waitresses are paid more in Europe than in the USA, therefore, tipping is usually included in the price of the meal and is not expected. You will notice that the cost of eating out in Europe is much more expensive than back home as a result. After all, the consumer always ends up paying for the higher wages in the end. Also, be sure to look at your restaurant or cafe bill carefully. Sometimes, a "service fee" is automatically added which is really the tip.
For taxi drivers, I will usually round up to the nearest Euro. If the fare is 9 Euro, I will give the driver a 10 Euro note.
7. Using your credit card
Your credit card (Amex, Visa, Mastercard) should work fine in Europe, with a few exceptions. In Europe, credit cards have a security chip instead of a magnetic strip. I am not sure why American credit card issuers are slow to provide these chips in their cards, but for whatever reason, they are. Eventually, all credit cards will have these new chips. In spite of this, your magnetic strip card will still work in Europe at most shops and restaurants. You may need to tell the clerk "swipe" when you hand them your card so they know the card does not have a chip. The credit card machines they use will have a slot for the cards with chips and a groove on the side to process the "old-style" magnetic strip cards.
At most restaurants in Europe, your waiter or waitress will usually bring the credit card machine to the table so your card never leaves your sight. I wish restaurants in the US did this!
It is a good idea to inform your credit card company of your travel plans before you leave the USA. Many credit card issuers have a web page where you can let them know which countries you will be visiting and on what dates. If you do not notify them, they may refuse a charge coming from a foreign country.
8. Choose Credit Card To Be Charged In Local Currency
When making purchases in Europe you may be asked by the merchant if you wish to have your credit card charged in your home currency (US Dollar, for example), or in the local currency (eg. Euros). By choosing the local currency you will avoid paying a processing fee in addition to taking a hit on the exchange rate. If your credit card is charged in the local currency, you will benefit from the exchange rate offered by your credit card issuer, which is typically much better.
9. Eating Out In Europe
We have never had any problems eating in Europe. Even the water is drinkable in just about every country you visit. For convenience, we usually drink bottled water, but tap water in restaurants should be safe. You will notice that the custom in Europe is to have drinks served with only one or two cubes of ice, or no ice at all. You can always request more ice from your waiter/waitress.
Service in Europe may seem slower than in the USA, but, that is not a sign of poor service, just indicative of a more relaxed dining culture. Europeans routinely take longer to dine. When you go to dinner in Europe, the restaurant expects you to occupy the table for the entire evening.
I recommend avoiding the touristy cafes and restaurants. Not only are they more expensive, the food is usually uninspired. Check your guide books or online websites for recommended cafes and restaurants in the cities you will be visiting. These sources can prove to be invaluable for providing local information. On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I researched online and found an Indonesian restaurant with rave reviews. We took the local tram to the restaurant and had one of the best meals we have ever had!
Even the "street food" in Europe can be quite good and very reasonably priced. I never visit Europe without making at least one stop at a local kebab/shwarma joint. For less than $10 you can get a huge sandwich with lamb, beef or chicken, fries and a drink. Delicious!
It should be illegal for Americans visiting Europe to eat at a McDonalds, Burger King or KFC. You will find these in most European cities. But, if you are going to eat there, why leave home?
10. Avoid trains if you are traveling with large luggage
If you are on a cruise, you are most likely only going to be in a city for one or two days at most. However, if you plan on touring Europe as part of a pre-/post-cruise vacation, you may be tempted to use Europe's excellent train system. Traveling through Europe by train is affordable and fun. However, it is not advisable if you are traveling with a lot of luggage. Train connections can be short and running through a train terminal with large luggage to catch your next train is no fun. My suggestion? Ship your luggage to the cruise ship, and do your pre-cruise European touring with a large backpack than can hold enough for a few days. Rick Steves has some good information on packing in his guidebooks and videos.
11. Need a Restroom? Look for WC
The European sign for a restroom is WC (water closet). You can always ask locals for "toilet" and they will point you in the right direction. Most restaurants will have a WC, but only for patrons who are dining there. There are public WCs in many cities and there may be a 1€ charge to use these facilities.
12. Tourist Information Centers
No matter where you go in Europe, you will find tourist information centers. These are typically identified by an "i" sign out front. You will usually find these within walking distance of a cruise ship port or tour bus drop-off point. It should be noted that while many of these places are run by the local government tourism office, some might be privately operated. The privately-run facilities are more interested in selling you tickets to tours and events than answering questions. But, they are still a valuable source for local maps and other information. Many of these information centers will also offer free Wi-Fi. Some sell postcards and stamps, or can tell you where you can buy them.
13. Overcoming jet lag (don't take a nap!)
Most flights from the USA to European cities are overnight flights. Typically, your flight will arrive early in the morning. If you have difficulty sleeping on airplanes, then you will most likely experience the joy of jet lag. Not only have you been up for most, if not all, of the night, but you are now also 5 to 8 hours ahead of your time back home. If your flight lands at 9:00am, your body still thinks it is 2:00am (assuming you came from the Central Time Zone). It may take a day or two for your internal "clock" to adjust to the new time.
Even though the tendency is to go to your hotel and crash, the best course is to avoid taking a nap and thereby force your body to adjust to the new time by staying awake until time to go to bed the first night. If you are staying in a hotel, the odds are your room will not be ready until 3pm anyway, so use this opportunity to take a local tour of the city before you check-in. You should be able to drop your luggage at the hotel's concierge until check-in time. Start adapting your schedule to local time as far as dining and taking medications.
14. Beware of bicycles
Many European cities are more bicycle-friendly than what you may be used to in the US. Most notably, Amsterdam comes to mind. In many cities, bicycles, not pedestrians, have the right-of-way. Before stepping out into the street to cross, look both ways to make sure no bikes are headed your way. Also, make sure that you are not walking in a bicycle-only lane. These lanes are usually marked with a picture of a bicycle painted on the path.
15. Mailing postcards
If you are like us, you like to send postcards to people back home when you travel. Postcards are available at souvenir shops everywhere and at some information centers. You may also be able to purchase postage at souvenir shops and information centers. Just make sure to ask for postage to the USA so they give you the proper international stamp. A stamp to the USA will cost anywhere from 1 to 2 Euro.
Most European cities will have POST drop boxes conveniently located throughout tourist areas. These are usually bright yellow or red, depending on the country. When you purchase your postcards and stamps, ask the clerk where the nearest POST box is and they will direct you. Some information centers will have a POST box outside. We have had very good luck mailing postcards from Europe. In fact, in 14 years, I cannot think of one instance where the postcard did not eventually make it to its destination. It can take a week to 10 days for the postcard to reach a US address.
16. Power outlets
When visiting Europe, you will most likely be traveling with several electronic gadgets. Devices such as cell phones, computers, cameras, etc., all have chargers and power plugs. Whether in an airport, hotel or local cafe, you will be able to locate power outlets for your gadgets. However, you will need plug adapters to fit the European outlets which are 220-240 volts, not 110 like the US. Nevertheless, most of your electronic gadgets will have universal power chargers that will work on anything from 110-240 volts with no problem. You will just need to have the correct plug adapter.
You should carry 2 or 3 US-to-Euro-style, 2-prong adapters (see photo below). These are very inexpensive and can be purchased at most electronic stores and airports. You do NOT need to travel with a power converter (220 to 110). However, some electronic devices such as curling irons and hair dryers may be 110-volt only. Basically, any device that heats up may not be compatible with 220-240 volts.
If you find yourself in need of a pharmacy when traveling, look for a green PLUS sign. Pharmacies may be called Farmacia in Italy, or Apotheke in German. Regardless of the name, the green PLUS sign is pretty universal throughout Europe. Unlike the USA, pain medication, such as Advil, may not be displayed on a shelf so you may have to ask one of the clerks for it. You should also ask by the generic drug name as opposed to the brand name. For example, if you need Tylenol, you would ask for Acetaminophen. Advil would be Ibuprofen, and so on. They may not have the same brands in Europe that you are accustomed to in the US, but the drug itself will be the same.
You can also purchase some pain meds in Europe in much higher doses than what are available in the USA. Every time we travel to Europe we look for 400mg Advil, double the dose of what is available here.
We are huge fans of using the Hop-On/Hop-Off tour buses when visiting European cities. You can purchase tickets at most hotels, or from the drivers themselves. The HoHo is a great way to see a new city for the first time, and not a bad way to get from one interesting area to another very affordably. HoHo buses usually stop every 15 to 20 minutes, so you never have to wait long to get back on another bus. These buses operate in virtually every city in Europe and are a great value.
Some Hop On/Hop Off buses are even equipped with free Wi-Fi!
19. Security and Safety
While violent crime is relatively low in Europe, pickpockets can be lurking in popular tourist destinations, but you can take measures to protect yourself. Here are a few simple suggestions:
Carry your wallet in a front pocket, or
Carry cash and credit cards in a money belt worn under your shirt/pants and out of sight
Carry a photocopy of your passport and leave your original passport locked in the safe on the ship or in your hotel room
Only carry one credit card when you are walking around town and leave others at your hotel or on the ship
Don't wear expensive, or expensive-looking (flashy) jewelry or (including earrings) when walking around
Leave your purse on the ship or at the hotel as an over-shoulder strap can easily be cut or ripped away
You should know that pickpockets are hard to spot. They may work in groups and while one person tries to distract you, another will come up behind and pick your pocket or take your purse.
Generally, it is best to try to NOT look like an American tourist. Americans are targets for pickpockets because they know we have all the goodies. After you travel to Europe a few times, you will learn how easy it is to spot an American in the crowd. Shorts, t-shirt, ball cap, sneakers and a camera hanging around the neck is the standard issue uniform of the American tourist. Admittedly, I do walk around Europe with my camera around my neck, but I ALWAYS keep one hand on the camera at all times.
Europe is an amazing destination filled with history, culture and friendly people. With a little planning and preparation, there is no reason why you should not feel comfortable exploring Europe, whether on a cruise or on your own.
Originally posted on: 6/1/2015