It was a once in a lifetime opportunity – traveling to Europe and exploring four different countries along the Rhine River. From The Netherlands to Germany, France, and Switzerland, ten days of learning about life on the other side of the ocean was full of surprises.
For anyone that’s already taken the plunge (and survived the ridiculously long flight) this post probably isn’t for you. But, if you’ve been thinking about a trip to Europe, or you’re scouring the internet looking for what you need to know for an upcoming European vacation – you might find some of my observations useful.
Just to be up front – I was invited to travel with a group of about 70 radio listeners on a Rhine River cruise for ten days and all of my expenses were paid. (Pretty amazing, right?!) It was a great trip, and the best part was the company! It was a lot of fun to spend time with folks that listen to you every day.
As someone that covers travel across the United States, I took a particular interest in things that most people might not pay attention to. But, I also noticed things that might take you by surprise and things that you should know before you leave for your first European trip.
Finding A Rental Car
If you’re not on an organized tour or a river cruise, you’ll probably want to consider a rental car. The website discovercars.com can help you find the lowest prices on rental cars throughout Europe. Whether you’ll be in Italy, Germany, France, or even Switzerland – this site can help you grab a good deal for your overseas trip.
Prior to the trip, everyone in our group was freaking out about having Euros. You can get them at certain banks in your area for a fee (one bank in my neighborhood wanted $10.00). In case you didn’t know, you can’t use American currency (Dollars) in Europe. The good news – depending on where you’re going and what you’re doing – you should be able to use a credit or debit card for just about everything. Because I was in mostly big cities – I could have gone the entire trip using just plastic. However, if you’re backpacking or hitting some smaller, less populated areas – you’ll definitely want Euros.
Just make sure you check in with your bank or credit union ahead of your trip. Be sure to let them know you’ll be out of the country a few days before you leave so they don’t shut your card off when you go to use it. Once you’re in Europe, find an ATM (not one at the airport, by the way) to get Euros if you feel like you need actual currency. There really is no reason to get them here in the U.S. and pay the high fees. My credit union charged a simple $1.00 ATM fee and Visa charged a 1% fee for each credit transaction overseas. If you plan far enough in advance you can find a credit card with no fees at all.
Nobody Really Cares That You’re An American
This was another thing I heard from people before the trip. “Don’t let anyone over in Europe know you’re an American!” Give me a break. While I certainly had no plans to wander around waving a U.S. flag, I wasn’t sure about drawing attention to myself with anything that pointed out I had ties to America. Fact is – nobody cared. Just like when someone from another country is here in the U.S. and they pass you in Target, or sit near you at a restaurant – you go about your business and live your life. Same in Europe. In ten days, not one person ever looked over and asked if I was an American, or pointed and stared, etc. I feel like some people use this as a political thing and that’s unfortunate. No. All Europeans do not despise America or Americans. In fact, I met quite a few people that said how much they loved Americans.
One thing a few locals did point out is that pick-pocketing is a real thing in many places throughout Europe. And yes, a tourist is a prime target. The good thing is it’s pretty easy to avoid being a victim. Gentleman – put your wallet in your front pockets and if possible, don’t wear a backpack or anything someone can get into without you knowing it. Just like here at home – know your surroundings and don’t give a bad guy an opportunity to steal from you.
Lots Of People Speak English!
I was really surprised at how prominent the English language is in at least western Europe. In France, I had full conversations with locals at shops that spoke English fluently. Even those that didn’t speak it well knew key phrases and weren’t annoyed that you didn’t know German, French, Dutch, etc. Depending on where you’re going – it’s a good idea to practice some words that come in handy. Knowing the native way to say “thank you”, for example, is a nice way to connect with store owners, servers, bus drivers, and so on. While shopping, store owners seemed happy that you at least attempted to connect using their native language – even if it was just to say thanks.
Bring Your Own Power.
Okay, not really your own electricity but definitely bring a converter. I only saw one power outlet that fit our standard plugs during ten days in Europe. You can get a cheap power converter at Kohls for about ten bucks. Just look in the luggage section and they’re on one of those circular display racks by the luggage tags. If you really think you’ll need to power a bunch of stuff at once – check out Amazon for deals on multi-packs. I was most concerned about my phone charging at night and one adapter worked perfect. If you need to use a hair dryer, you might want to bring along two.
The Airports Aren’t All That Complicated Either
There are a few key things you need to know at any airport – where your gate is, where to get your bags, and how to find the bathroom! I was in three different European airports and they were all no-brainers. Even the sprawling Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris was easy to navigate. All three terminals I spent time in had English translations on most things and the other stuff was pretty easy to figure out.
Oh And The Plane Ride Sucks.
I know why I’m “Bill On The Road” and not “Bill In The Air” – because flying sucks. While the folks that worked for Delta seemed really nice from the check-in desk to the people on board the plane, the size of the seats should be criminal. Being a vertically challenged guy, I fit just fine but had no extra room to stretch or move around. Air France coming back was a bit better, but not by much. The movies and entertainment offered on the backs of seats was cool. Bring your own headphones. It’s worth it. If you can sleep on the plane – consider me quite jealous.
You’re Not In Kansas Anymore
Once you’re out exploring, you’ll be reminded quite frequently that you are nowhere near Kansas. (Or your favorite American state.) For example, while walking around Cochem, Germany there was a massive protest against the government of Iran. Our protests here in the states look pretty calm and boring by comparison. It was a bit frightening but also incredibly interesting.
There are other subtle reminders that you’re not at home. For example, if you want to buy a soft pretzel (they were on sale everywhere) – they are served cold! On my last day of the trip, in Switzerland, I finally asked our server why pretzels are always cold instead of served warm like they are here in America. She responded, with no facial expression: “because they’re cold.” Good news is she must have felt guilty because she brought out a soft pretzel and had the kitchen put it in the oven for me.
Also, when dining out, be sure to tell your server you want to pay right away or you may never see them again. (Apparently lounging around all day at a restaurant before paying your bill is a thing in some places.)
Other weird things – you pay to use the restroom in many places. It’s called a “water closet” or “WC”. The only American soft drink that’s widely available is Coca-Cola. It’s EVERYWHERE! I tried one called Mezzo Mix – which translates into “Cola kisses orange”. Not too shabby. Speaking of drinks – if you want water, be sure to ask for tap water. In a lot of places, we found that “water” translates into carbonated water and they’ll charge you for it.
Everything Is Old
Okay, that’s not entirely accurate – I saw some really awesome, modern, well designed new buildings while traveling through Amsterdam and Germany. But, get ready for your concept of “old” to change dramatically. Whether it’s from looking at castles, old churches, or just walking down cobblestone streets that have been in place for thousands of years – you will never think of anything in America as “old” ever again!
If you’re lucky enough to cruise down the Rhine River – I will add that Europe knows how to build bridges! They had some of the neatest, most beautiful bridges I’ve ever seen.
I Went To The Red Light District
For years I’ve heard about Amsterdam’s infamous “red light district” where prostitution is legal and naked women are in windows. In my opinion, it didn’t quite live up to the hype and frankly, wasn’t all that interesting to me. Yes, there are women (not naked but basically in small swimsuits) standing in windows around the area. If you’re looking to see something that you can’t see on the cover of most U.S. swimsuit magazines – you’re out of luck. I’m not a pot smoker, so I didn’t take much interest in the “coffee shops” where you can smoke it either. It was interesting to a degree, but if I had it to do over again – I would have spent the time catching up on sleep instead.
Speaking of pot – there’s a false impression that just because it’s available everywhere, the entire country is stoned 24/7. I’m not sure I saw a single person appearing to be stoned or even smelled it while in Amsterdam. One local noted “It’s the visitors that are stoned – not us.”
Watch Out For Bikes!
Governments in Europe have made owning a car very expensive. High gas taxes, registration fees, parking costs, and so on have made having a car a true luxury. In Amsterdam alone – there are over 880,000 bicycles registered and you will see them EVERYWHERE! In fact, the massive stretches of bike parking is the first thing that took me by surprise when I arrived in Europe. Mark my word – you have never seen so many bikes, all placed next to one another, in one place. Because bike riding is a daily part of life, people are quite comfortable on them and to be blunt – they will mow your ass down if you’re not paying attention.
For Fun – Walk Into Local Grocery Stores
Another quick way to remind yourself that you’re not in America – go into a local grocery store. For starters – unlike here, you won’t find 400 varieties of things like salad dressing. They keep choices pretty simple. But the most entertaining part is seeing how the packaging for certain American made products changes when shipped to their stores. “Cool American Flavour” Doritos, anyone?
Not Everyone Drives On The Left Side Of The Road
I had always assumed that everyone in Europe drives on the opposite side of the road. Nope! Just in England. However, the roads in many European towns are mostly narrow and confusing so if you’re going to have a car – brace yourself. Also, parking fees are going to kill your wallet if you can find a space at all.
Some Stuff Is Crazy Expensive. Especially In Switzerland.
Just for fun, I popped into a McDonalds in Switzerland. Everything on the menu was more than double what it costs here in the U.S. One good thing in Europe is that prices for things are clearly marked and you don’t have to wonder about taxes because it’s already marked into the asking price. Speaking of taxes – check out the bottom of your receipts when you purchase things and you’ll never whine about taxes here in America again.
Overall – It Was A Great Experience!
Overall, I’m really glad that I went to Europe and was able to learn as much as I did during my ten days over there. Would I go back? I’m not sure. There are other places I’d still like to explore but I really enjoyed the opportunity and experiences.