Some notes for ‘muricans traveling to Yurrup

I have now traveled to Europe all of three times, which naturally makes me an expert.

It does no such thing, of course. However, it’s possible that with my relative newness to European travel, some of the small but surprising differences are still fresh in my mind in a way that isn’t the case for more seasoned travelers. As I get ready for my fourth trip across the pond, I thought I’d jot down some notes for the sake of anyone getting ready for their first Euro-trip.

Don’t expect washcloths in the hotel bathroom. You might get one, you might not. Some hotels provide a rather abrasive little disposable(?) sponge instead.

There’s a slot next to the door of your hotel room just big enough for your keycard. Plug your card in (or any card, really) to activate the power in your room. This saves power when you’re not in the room, and it also makes it hard to forget where you put the keycard. But don’t expect your devices to charge if there isn’t a card in the slot.

Depending on where you are, the toilets may have two buttons. Little button for little flush. Big button for big flush. Press both buttons at once to reboot your toilet.

In some countries there will be no coffee pot in your hotel room. You may be forced to purchase your coffee from a human being.

There is a common piece of advice: “you don’t have to learn the language, but people will appreciate your making an effort to say a few words”. I’ve found this to be a somewhat problematic strategy. If you manage to get a few words down with moderately decent pronunciation and blurt them out to one of the (invariably multilingual) locals, they will proceed to assume you know more than a few words and launch into conversation. At which point you will have to stop them to renegotiate protocols and start all over again, this time in English. I found it more efficient to just kick things off with English (and perhaps a preemptive apology) and thus manage expectations.

Most of your electronics are already designed to handle 240V AC (but check the adapter just to be sure!). All you need is the appropriate local-to-US plug adapter, not a voltage step-down box. Most hotels will lend you one if you forgot to pick one up. I like this one; it’s compact and sturdy. Your handy dandy travel surge protector, however, was made to protect from surges on 120V AC. From its perspective, all of Europe is one big never-ending electrical storm. It will make a very exciting “bang” noise and blinding flash when you plug it in, and you will have to sheepishly explain to the front desk why all the lights are out on your floor. Or at least in your room. It is possible to find travel surge protectors which can deal with up to 240V AC; just read the description carefully.

The worst part of Euro hotels is the wifi. In the States I generally don’t even think about hotel wifi. For most budget and mid-range hotels unlimited internet use is assumed to be part of the deal. Usually the most you have to do is enter a one-time login. It may not be fast, but it’s ubiquitous. (There’s this bizarre phenomenon where higher-end hotels charge you extra for it, but that’s a whole other story…). In Europe this is not a given. Expect it to be extra, and expect byzantine login procedures. In one hotel I was handed a stack of sheets with randomly generated login/password combos: one per day per connected device. These entitled me to a ridiculously small data cap, after which I had to pay more. Not every hotel was quite this bad, but most were close.

Your cell phone company hates you, unless they are T-Mobile. Disable your smartphone’s mobile data usage unless you want to come home to a very unwelcome surprise in your next bill. If you have a GSM phone you may be able to get it unlocked for international use and buy a local prepaid SIM card for it. Depending on the country you are in, this ranges from “exactly as much hassle as it sounds like” to “more hassle than you can possibly imagine”. In Belgium my hosts got started arranging a SIM card for me weeks before my arrival and it still was only activated halfway through my visit. And then I couldn’t use it for data because my supposedly “international” phone from Sprint, for which I had jumped through their hoops to unlock, had a disabled APN configuration and so still couldn’t use local data service. Guess who isn’t a Sprint customer any more? Anyway, if you want to pursue this option, your best bet is probably buying an unlocked GSM phone, NOT from your carrier, just for travel.

Europe long ago moved to a “Chip and PIN” system for credit cards, away from the US “swipe and scribble” system. Depending on who you ask, this system is either “the future” or “heinously vulnerable“. Whichever, store clerks will ask you for your PIN when you present your credit card. And they will look positively startled when their point of sale machines tell them to ask you for a signature instead. Consider carrying your own pen.

Do not be surprised if an ATM machine horks up your card and doesn’t spit it out again until you are done with your transaction. And then make sure you take the card quickly; apparently if you don’t, after a while some machines will suck the card back in again on the assumption that you have carelessly walked off without it.

Tipping varies by country, but generally speaking it is not as big a deal in Europe, especially not at restaurants. Google for info on the country you are in, and don’t be shocked if it says not to tip. They have crazy ideas in Europe like “paying servers a living wage”.

Ordering “water” at a restaurant is insufficiently specific. You’ll be asked to clarify if you meant “still” or carbonated/sparkling water.

For every surprising oddity that you comment on, there will be someone in another part of Europe who pipes up and says they’ve never heard of such a thing. It’s almost like they are from different countries or something.

That’s all I can think of for now…


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  1. It always made me smile when specifying the type of water you want, servers tend to ask “with gas? or no?”. Also invariably when I purchased a bottle of water at a convenience store I would purchase the gassy water accidentally because I cannot read the language.

  2. this makes an amusing companion piece to the recent article on shocking/incomprehensible aspects of ‘murica for europeans, asians, etc. visiting or transplanted here. for example, they are often flummoxed by tipping. just the other day i was explaining to an aussie friend that many americans get paid so little that they depend on tips to survive, but that practice is under some fire lately. could it be our country might be starting to catch up to the rest of the developed world? on the other hand, as you pointed out, we take technology for granted that is often erratic, unpredictable, or nonexistent in other countries. we’re the land of mctech.

    1. I will say that servers are probably a little nicer and more attentive here as a result, but it’s not a huge difference.

  3. Nice blog post. One thing to keep in mind is that Europe is a lot of countries and most places in Europe are about a two hour drive away from a place where they speak a different language and have a somewhat different culture.

    This especially affects things like tipping, but also speaking the local language. For instance, as a rule of thumb, if you use some French phrases in France, people are very likely to not speak English with you at all. Germans on the other hand always want to demonstrate their English skills, no matter how much effort you put into speaking German, even if those English skills are close to non-existent.

    I have found buying SIM cards or renting is pretty cheap and easy in all countries except the US, however, due to tight roaming regulations, I don’t buy SIM cards for EU countries (EU != Europe). If you travel a lot, a mifi might be a smart investment.

    1. According to my hosts it is simply impossible now to just walk into a shop in Belgium and walk out with a SIM card, they way you can here or just about anywhere else. Like you said, it varies…

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