Europe Details--General Information (water, room pricing, toilets, TV's, telephones, etc.)
Bathtubs & Hot Water
I've learned it the hard way: just because your room has a bathtub doesn't mean that there is sufficient hot water to fill it. Develop a nervous twitch of testing the running water as the tub fills to avoid a cold bath especially if language barriers prevent you from discussing the hot water situation with your host. In Greece your hot water may be dictated by the sun as rooms in smaller establishments often rely exclusively on solar heated water. In Croatia during the off season heat and hot water may only be available a few hours a day and perhaps for an extra charge.
Before you settle-in for your soak, locate the almost always present floor drain, which might be hidden by a bath mat or garbage pail. When you begin draining the tub, keep an eye fixed on the floor drain to assess if the exiting tub water is bubbling up out of the floor drain, bringing the drain grudge with it. If it is, use the plug or your heel to slow the rate of flow out of the tub so as to stay within the capacity of the drainage system. Usually after the tub is about half empty it can be drained normally.
If you enjoy a soak in a tub, pack a couple of different sizes of drain plugs as they are often missing from bathrooms.
Occasionally in the more eastern reaches of Europe we encountered the very energy efficient point-of-use water heaters, which can be a bit baffling to novices. A switch on the unit will turn it on but the temperature regulation can be imperfect. Fiddle with the water volume if it isn't going well as either too much or too little water flow can be a problem.
"Naturist" beaches or campgrounds aren't for naturalists but nudists. In Croatia they are also identified as "FKK".
Beds and Prices
When pricing accommodations in Europe, keep clarifying if the prices are per person or per room; if breakfast is included; and if all of the taxes are included. Some countries are pretty standardized and others are not. And beware that both the number of people and number of beds can affect the price. In general, 1 large bed in a room is cheaper than 2 twin beds, but in Serbia it was reversed and at some places it makes no difference. Sometimes we got a larger room for 3 people at the same price for 2.
A booking website we started using in 2009 is www.booking.com. When we are in cities where there are choices to be made, as opposed to mountain villages, this website has been invaluable. There are no booking fees but there are customer reviews, which I find to be a huge help in making a selection. I could care about the quality of the breakfast or the friendliness of the staff—I want to know about the beds, the mold in the bathroom, and the noise. We usually don’t book through the site as we need to confirm that the hotel will stash our bikes in a safe place. Instead we make our selection and then do a search for the hotel’s phone number which isn’t included on the booking.com site. Once the matter of the bikes is settled we either reserve while on the phone or go back to the site if it is offering a better price.
Electrical Adapters & Voltage
A minimum of 3 adapters are needed to travel throughout Europe and still plug-in your electrical items. Using electricity at the wall plug in the UK requires a very bulky 3 pin adapter and northern Italy also has a specially configured plug. For the rest of Europe we have managed with a sleek little adapter we bought in Greece that accepts US blade-like prongs or the fatter European 2 pin plugs and it will fit into both the fat and thin 2-pin outlets. Yes, a well kept secret is that there are 2 different diameters of pins on plugs used in Europe. An item we purchased in France won't fit into an outlet in Switzerland without using our 2-pin adapter.
220 volts is the standard in Europe, unlike the 110 volts used in the US. We don't carry a converter but instead buy electrical products with a currency converter built-in. Our laptop, camera, and Bill's electric razor all automatically switch between 110 and 220 volts. We recharge our PDA's through our laptop.
Fire Safety in Accommodations
England is very strict about fire safety in abodes for more than 6 people, but elsewhere we've been unimpressed with their regard for our wellbeing in the event of a fire. When we are staying in anything other than a 'normal' hotel, which is most nights, we include 'firetrap rating' in our evaluation of a room. I usually take a couple of minutes to scout the fire exit situation in our building after we check-in. Often there is only 1 exit and no apparent fire extinguishers. At a nice guesthouse in Switzerland an exterior door was marked as an exit with the symbol of a running man above the door but it only exited onto a tiny balcony like off our room with no access down to the street level.
We decline to stay in rooms with barred windows and try hard to avoid rooms in which the only windows open onto a small ventilation court. When we stay in rooms with only 1 stairwell, especially if it is wooden in an establishment with a restaurant kitchen, I look hard for an alternate route out. Before turning in for the night, I assess what would be required to exit our window and what we would do from there. I have even lined up furniture so we could get out of a high mansard roof window in a hurry. We also review any unusual obstacles for exiting the room or building, like front doors that must be unlocked with a key from the inside. If we were given multiple keys, I will put a rubber band around the keys not required for exiting in an emergency so we can find the critical key in the dark.
We make it a habit to go to bed with a shirt, a pair of pants and a pair of shoes by our bedside in case of an emergency. We also put our fanny packs within easy reach of our heads at night. Those fanny packs have our passports, cash, credit cards, PDA's and mini-flashlights so if need be, we can grab those and go and have the essentials with us and without delay, even in the dark.
Holidays are the bane of the "self-catering" traveler who relies on grocery stores for food. We make it a habit to ask repeatedly after entering a new country about upcoming holidays and always review the holiday section in our guide book. There is nothing worse than unexpectedly running onto a 3-day holiday that shuts down the food stores. We ask and ask again.
In countries like Spain and France, there is a list of federal holidays and then each region can set a few of their own. So you can cross an invisible 'county' line and have all the markets closed where a few miles ago they were all open. In Spain, some of the grocery stores have an info board inside displaying the upcoming deviations in their opening hours. Of course, these are usually closures but in December, some stores add Sunday hours. In many countries the grocery stores don't put signs on their windows that they will be closed for a holiday as you are expected to know. Often the food market hours are set by law so if one store is closed, they all will be closed.
Be especially vigilant about tracking holidays in Catholic countries from December through April or May. The Christmas and Easter season generates a seemingly endless string of unexpected holidays. In Spain the Easter celebration of Semana Santa is 9 days long. And single holidays can prompt 3-day weekends that affect the merchants too. Here's a website that has the dozen or so Easter related holidays for each year for both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions: www.startinbusiness.co.uk/hols/easter.htm.
Two websites that I discovered in 2006 may make all of these holidays knowable, though I am just starting to see how complete they are by tracking the holidays they mention as we travel: www.bank-holidays.com and www.qppstudio.net.
ATM's are everywhere in Europe. Only once in a remote town in Turkey did we get caught without one. The town had a bank in which we cashed a stashed traveler's check, but no ATM. You will get the best rate at ATM's so don't bother exchanging cash or using traveler's checks. We do carry both in reserve but use them less than once a year. Bring a credit or debit card with a 4 digit PIN requiring no alphabetic characters as the European ATM's are numeric only. Bring more than one card too just incase one isn't compatible with the systems available to you.
If you are using a debit or credit card for payments, decline or insist that the merchant does NOT convert the charges to your home currency (like dollars). This is not a courtesy to you but a fee-generating gimmick made available to the merchant. The merchants get a cut of the 2 to 5% fee that will be embedded in your charges. The merchant is suppose to ask you if you want the "dynamic currency-conversion service" and give you the option of declining. Their conversion service may or may not eliminate an international conversion fee by your card provider.
It is frustratingly difficult to know if you are being charged a premium by your card company when making cash withdrawals or credit card charges overseas. Before we started traveling in 2001 we became customers of Merrill Lynch to enjoy using their credit card internationally with no fee. They subsequently tacked on a 2% fee to each charge. In 2005 we learned that on a special account with Wells Fargo we could use their debit card for cash advances with no extra charge but not their credit card. The rules are constantly changing and aren't sufficiently disclosed for the bankers to even know what is going on. In 2005 we did back-to-back withdraws at the same ATM with 2 different cards and then checked our accounts online to see how the charges compared. That is a lot of folderol for a short vacation but was worth it for our extended travels.
Don't be traumatized when using an ATM machine if you provoke an alarming message like "Card not valid internationally." I received that message when using a debit card at an ATM in Austria after 4 months of exclusive use of the card. It was hard not to be shocked, but I walked across the street to another bank and obtained my cash without any difficulty. Whatever the negative message on the screen, we just interpret it as "No money here today" and go on to another machine as it is always them and not us that is the problem.
Do check the ATM for devices that criminals may have attached and conceal your pin code with a hand when using the keypad for extra security. If possible, use the ATM during banking hours for a hope of some assistance if you do have a serious problem with the machine. We never have had any problems but are always aware that it is a risk.
Pharmacies in Europe are widespread, appear in the smallest of towns and are easy to spot with their signage: often a red or green cross. The name is recognizable in many languages if you look for variations on the word "pharmacy" and "apothecary." The pharmacies in a given town usually rotate the responsibility for providing emergency service all night and any given pharmacy will have the name and telephone number of the available pharmacy. After hours service doesn't leave you free to roam the shop but usually means the urgently needed supplies will be sold through a special window.
Pharmacist's can dispense more free advice in Europe than in the US and often speak English. We've used their help to select from their range of products for various kinds of infections. Topical and tablet antibiotics tend to be much cheaper in Europe than in the US and can usually be purchased without a prescription (like sometimes 5 or 10% of the cost in the US) And Bill picked up some new favorite's in the allergy control department in Europe with the help of the pharmacists.
Often your hotel room phone line is blocked at the front desk and the staff may or may not know how to open the line. The phrase to learn in the local language is "external line." Watch for that phrase in hotels that have info sheets or your phrase book so you can have the right word at the next hotel in that country. Generally the cheaper hotels have the lowest rates for using their phone and the nicer hotels hit you with a higher per minute rate.
We always buy telephone cards with PIN numbers (rather than electronic chips) so we can use the hotel telephones at a lower rate. In many countries the price per minute charged on a given telephone card is lower from a hotel (or residential) telephone than a pay phone on the street. Phone cars are usually purchased from curbside kiosks selling cigarettes and the price you pay per minute varies wildly. If the card has a number of access codes, dial your call using each one and listen for the number of minutes available with your new card and then hang up, if they give that information in a language you can understand. Usually the one with the most minutes will incur some charges on the hotel or pay phone, but not always. Occasionally we needed a chip card to cover the minimum fee for the pay phone and used a PIN card for the international dialing.
Dialing domestically and internationally can be a nightmare. Some countries are in the process of changing their phone systems and numbers adding to the confusion. Some countries have a couple of style of phones using different insertable cards. Often if dialing domestically the phone number will include a "0" with what looks like an area code to us--a "0" that is often dropped if the same number is dialed for an international call. When making your first call from a country, check your guide book for tips and ask at a hotel or tourist info and then experiment.
And due remember the time zone differences if you are calling back home so as not to wake friends and family in the middle of the night.
We stopped counting the number of ways to flush a toilet after we hit 20. We have both stared and contemplated the situation too long before sorting out some of the more unusual strategies. Start by looking up for things to pull down, like a cord on an elevated tank. Look on the tank top for knobs to lift or twist and levers to push. Check out the floor for foot operated levers or buttons. Rarely there are toilets that flush on timers, motion detectors or the light switches.
If heading south or east in Europe, consider practicing deep knee bends in preparation for the squat toilets. It's good to be able to lift yourself up with leg strength alone as you often will not want to putting your hands on the floors or walls for a boost. I usually open the stall door and stand as far away as possible before flushing a squat toilet as they can have a foot-soaking spray pattern.
Best to always carry your own toilet paper and watch for cues as to whether the used paper goes in the toilet or a nearby basket. Some plumbing systems aren't up to handling even the instantly dissolving pink paper, hence the usually overflowing basket. In some countries like Turkey the tradition has not been to use toilet paper but your hand and water to clean up. Some squat toilet areas are plumbed with a faucet near the floor and a plastic pitcher will usually be positioned under it for the paperless approach. In regions that prefer water to TP, even the toilets will be specially plumbed to do the job. Usually a narrow spout is visible at the back of the toilet bowl and a faucet that controls the water flow will be within arms reach a foot or two above the floor.
The website www.fco.gov.uk for the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office has much more detailed and specific safety related information than the US State Department's site. For Serbia and Macedonia it listed specific towns and roads of concern and why (like random shootings). For Turkey it listed the recent bombings and attempted bombings in reverse chronological order, the location (even the district in Istanbul) and the number of casualties--all the info obsessive planners like us would want. This site's recommendations were dated and frequently revised.
In addition to providing a good history of terrorism activity in a specific country, this British website also has other timely information for travelers about planned nuisances, like announced labor strikes, tunnel closures, and airport closures. It's worth a quick look at this site before traveling to any country in the world for up to date information.
Another site, www.tripprep.com, also has good summaries by country. It's a public version of a professional site and you do have to register and get an activation code, so it's easier to get set up at home rather than on the road (which is what we did). It has a good array of general advise and cultural-differences information, though it is biased more towards the diseases and health care issues.
European TVs have electricity conserving features on them so they often have to be turned on twice. Once you've confirmed that it is plugged in and you have pushed a button on the TV or remote to turn the power on, press a station or program button to further activate it. Rarely rooms will have a wall switch near the bed that controls the power to the TV outlet.
Voting: Americans in Europe, 2008
For some helpful information: www.overseasvotefoundation.org/overseas/express
Fed Ex offered discounted ($23.50) 2 day service of ballots to the US from Europe for the presidential election. In 2008 there was a limit of 1 ballot per envelope and an October 28 cut-off. Get started early to print-out your online airway bill.
The tap water in all Western & Central European countries is generally safe to drink but..... we didn't always drink it. Turkey is an exception and we never drink their tap water. In the former Eastern Block countries we minimize our tap water consumption because of the generally higher level of industrial and agricultural pollutants in the ground water. Elsewhere we vacillate. In countries where the bottled water is cheap and delicious, we always drink bottled water. Where it is expensive, we tend to drink tap water.
I do however carefully watch what the locals are doing. If there are huge piles of bottled water in the stores and people haul it out by the gallons, we drink bottled water. If bottled water turn over in the stores is low, like in Austria, we don't bother. In a small town in Spain I discovered a note in the hotel room desk drawer stating in Spanish that the drinking water was safe but they recommended drinking bottled water and we rushed out to buy it.
We suffer less than one significant GI illness a year when traveling in Europe, though we prepare almost all of our own food. One year when bottled water was expensive we happened across inexpensive chlorine tablets and we drank only water we re-chlorinated for months. We both noticed a subtle but distinct increase in our overall GI comfort with that consistency.
Do read the labels on your bottled water. Much to our surprise, in some countries the bottled water is loaded with sodium, sometimes more than 1g of sodium per liter (about a quart). Drinking the recommended 2 liters of water a day of this stuff would supply you with more than the recommended amount of sodium for all of your food and beverages. I found it down right unpalatable. The amount of sodium in bottled water varies wildly. In some countries none of the bottled water has sodium or a negligible amount of sodium (under 10 mg). In other countries is it only the carbonated or fizzy bottled water that racks up the sodium and it others both the still and fizzy waters can be loaded with sodium. We generally try to buy water with less than 100 mg of sodium per liter.
Get in the habit of checking the top on your plastic bottles of water to make sure it is the first time it has been used. We've never had a problem with this but take the advise of a travel medicine expert and give a second look at all of our bottles. I suspect this is only an issue outside the developed countries but its a good habit to have in place.
Very rarely there is a switch for your hot water tank on the room wall--something we have learned the hard way.
Based on our experiences living in the Pacific Northwest of the US, we always thought September was the most reliable weather month for travel in the Northern Hemisphere. But that belief reveals the limits of our US west coast experience as the west coast of Europe is subject to Atlantic hurricanes. Though hurricane season is July to September, our causal observations suggest that late August and much of September is potentially the wettest interval.
We formed this opinion the hard way by going to Scotland in September 2004 when we assumed it would be the driest--wrong! We were battered by storm after storm and rode many days in heavy weather, both drenching downpours and flattening winds--all due to hurricanes. We were later told that May was a better time to be there.
In 2008 we were tucked away in the eastern Italian Alps for all of September and watched the news reports of the US east coast again being battered by hurricanes Gustav, Ivan, and others. (Katrina was at the end of August 2005). Just as startling to us was watching the nasty weather produced by these same hurricanes along Europe's western coast from Iceland south into France. Even our weather far away in the Alps was literally dampened by the residual moisture in these storms.
So if you are planning a special trip to Europe, scrutinize the weather averages on your route to select your best time keeping hurricane season in mind if you'll be on the west coast of Europe. To that assessment you'll have to factor in that high season and high prices in Europe tends to run from mid-July through the end of August with the peak of the peak in some areas being mid-August.
Packing some rain gear and warm clothes even if you are expecting hot weather should be a consideration in northern Europe. The temperatures can plummet 20°F in a day and stay there even in the middle of summer.