Tips for Travelers
This page contains a number of suggestions for those traveling to Central Europe for business or pleasure. Readers may wish to consult additional sources, be they on the Internet or in print, about the topics that appear here. To navigate this page, click on the topic desired in the “Contents” box. At the end of each segment is a “Back to Top” tile.
jacket (layer if weather is very cold, which can occur on rainy days and in evenings)
hat (for rain, cold, and sun)
very good walking shoes (no high heels) or perhaps two pairs of shoes (consider discarding one pair at the
end of the tour)
semi-formal dress--a simple dress or a nice pair of pants and a dress shirt or blouse--for a special dinner
several receptacle adapters if the electronic appliance is 110∼220V, such as:
-- bulky but standard: http://www.adaptelec.com/wa9-travel-plug-adapter-for-europe-type-f-cee-77-schuko-p-2.html?zenid=la4uubja20rgn4f38hl8pn67b6 from Adaptelec.com.
-- small but occasionally a lose fit: various manufacturers offer a small adapter specifically for allowing American plugs to work in European outlets. Simply do a search on the Internet or with a retailer, such as Ebay or Amazon, with the keywords plug, adapter, America, Europe. Receptacle or outlet may be a substitution for plug. Adaptelec.com once had such an adapter, but they no longer show it in their online catalog.
power adapter or transformer (if electronics are not 110∼220V or 220V), such as:
-- http://www.adaptelec.com/powerbright-vc300w-stepupstepdown-voltage-transformer-300-watt-capacity-p-48.html (calculate the proper wattage)
back pack (eliminates carrying items; old or inexpensive back packs do not attract attention)
powder soap for laundry, such as Forever New Fabric Care Wash, available at Dillards, outlets on line, or
pouch for concealing money and passport
ATM and credit cards (see Currency Exchange below)
bathing suit and goggles
empty plastic drink bottle (a bottle of water in a back pack can be a life saver in the middle of a hot, sunny day)
camera (see Photographic Equipment below)
tour books (some books cover more than just the center of a city, so save weight by taking only photocopies
of the pertinent pages)
pocket foreign-language dictionaries or phrase books
tweezers for tick removal if one plans to be in a forest (see the Centers for Disease Control bulletins at
bug spray with 20 percent or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide), when planning on being in wooded areas,
flip flops, unless required for hotel use (lengthy walking in flip flops is exhausting)
high-heeled shoes, which will get stuck in the cobble stone sidewalks in certain cities, such as Prague
t-shirts with American flags or anything that would call attention to American citizens (this is merely a
precaution in the post-9/11 age)
Avoiding Scams and Thefts below).
European merchants use credit cards, but the number who do is far less than in the United States or Canada. Frequently, small merchants, restaurants, pubs, and street vendors may not accept credit or debit cards. Visa is the most commonly used card; Master Card is less frequent; and American Express and Discovery acceptance is rare, aside from some large or exclusive merchants. Most credit card companies charge a fee for purchases abroad, but American Express does not. Check your credit card companies for rates and other details.
Some banks and credit card companies require that their debit and credit card customers provide them, before departure, with the dates they will be traveling and a list of countries they will visit or might visit. This merely is a precaution to reduce fraud. The procedure is fast and simple, so call each card issuer when in doubt. If not, the issuer may block the card the first time it is used abroad. In the event of loss or theft of an ATM or credit card, it is best to carry more than one. Most banks will charge fees for foreign transactions as well as for withdrawals from out-of-network banks. Using major banks can help reduce or avoid such fees, and other suggestions are here.
I do not speak insert language. Do you speak Icelandic or English?" An even more effective approach is to learn how to say such an introductory phrase (perhaps several) in each of the languages used at each destination. Write them on a piece of paper and read them. Have no fear of making mistakes. After all, most Europeans have learned at least one foreign language, and many continue to acquire bits and pieces of languages throughout their lives. They are accustomed to hearing foreigners attempt to speak their language and being foreigners and speaking others' languages when they travel. Most likely, the response will be in near-perfect English: "Yes, I speak English. May I help you?"
Purchasing a SIM card for calls within a country in Europe is relatively inexpensive, but one must install it in a phone that is unlocked.
In a casual restaurant, a waiter may place a small sheet of paper on the table with hatches for the type of beverages and food the guests order. Do not disturb the paper. Waiters frequently will not check on a table unless the guests attempt to make eye contact with the waiter (combining eye contact with a very subtle hand gesture to call a waiter is an art). At the end of the meal, the guest signals to the waiter to indicate that he or she is ready to pay. The head waiter will arrive to calculate the bill. When he states the amount, the guest must mentally add the tip to the amount, present the currency, and state aloud the total amount to be paid, that is, the cost of the food together with the tip. Generally, tips range from 10 to 15 percent and usually are rounded. For example, a bill of € 25.50 should have a tip of approximately €3.50 for a total of €29.00. Adding €1.00 more for a total of €30.00 would be appropriate for exceptional service. If an individual in a group orders extra drinks or a desert and will pay for them separately, even though the rest of the meal is covered in the price of a tour, the individual is responsible for adding the tip on to the amount they pay. Under no circumstances should the guest leave a tip on the table. It likely never will get to the wait staff. Note that waiters will not split the tab for individuals at a table. Remember the cost of the food when examining the menu and work out the financial details either before calling the waiter to pay or after paying.
Germany -- beer and Jägermeister (a herbal liqueur)
Czech Republic -- beer (Bernard, Budvar, Gambrinus, Krušovice, Pilsner Urquell, Radegast, Starobrno,
Staropramen, Svijany, and Velkopopovický Kozel), Becherovka (a herbal liqueur), Fernet Stock (another herbal liqueur that also comes in flavors, such as citrus), and turka or turecká káva (Turkish coffee--do not drink the grinds!)
Austria -- Gösser beer and Einspänner (coffee served in a glass with whipped cream)
Slovakia -- Demänovka (a herbal liqueur), borovička (similar to gin), and slivovice (plumb brandy)
Hungary -- Tokaji wine (made with grapes that have noble rot) and Unicum (a herbal liqueur)
Germany -- Bratwurst, Spätzle, and Apfelstrudel.
Czech Republic -- Vepřo-knedlo-zelo (pork, dumplings, and cabbage), svíčková na smetaně (beef with
vegetable and sour cream sauce), řízek (Wienerschnitzel), knedliky (dumplings sliced like bread--do not make a sandwich from them), palačinky (crêps), and závin (strudel)
Austria -- Wienerschnitzel, Tafelspitz (boiled beef--assumed to be Franz Joseph’s favorite), Spätzle,
Slovakia -- halušky (similar to Spätzle) with brinza (sheep cheese), pirohy (pierogi), and halupky (cabbage
Hungary -- gyümölcsleves (cold fruit soup--usually cherry), and gulyás (gulash)
Photographic Equipment below for photographing interiors. If a visit involves a tour guide who is remarkably informative and helpful, consider giving the person a small tip of €1.00-2.00. When taking a tour that takes the major part of a day and involves various locations in a city, it is customary to tip the guide. The amount depends on how long and involved the tour is, but for anything over a couple of hours, consider a tip of at least €5.00 per person. "Free" tours exist in all cities, and while the guides usually are students who claim they conduct the tours because they enjoy contact with people or because they wish to improve their English language skills, they expect a donation or tip at the end of the tour.
Those who still enjoy using 35 mm equipment will want to purchase enough film before beginning traveling. Not only is the cost of film abroad likely to be more expensive than in the United States, it is hard to find retail outlets for 35 mm film, and those who carry film may not have the ISO or the type of film required. Purchase a lead bag for the film and keep it in the carry-on luggage because the x-ray equipment for the checked luggage is quite powerful. Make sure to take some high-speed film for interiors and night photography.
Some cameras have interchangeable lenses, and it is advisable to either bring a zoom lens or several lenses. For digital cameras, a zoom of 18 to 70 mm is acceptable. For those with 35 mm equipment, consider a zoom lens from 28 mm to 135 mm or individual lenses: a wide-angle lens of 28 mm and a moderate telephoto lens of 135 mm in addition to a normal lens. For either digital or film cameras, a fish-eye lens will be useful for photographing buildings of moderate height--30-50 feet--that are on narrow streets. Strong telephoto lenses can be useful for details on taller buildings and for shots in the countryside.
If there are signs prohibiting photographs, do not attempt to take any pictures. Some interiors permit photos, but none permit flash. Other locations may charge a small fee for interior photography, and the person with the camera will have to carry a special ticket or wear a small badge to indicate that they have paid the fee.
The Canadian government has an excellent web site with an interactive map that provides travel advice and warnings located at http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories. "Current Travel Warnings" from the United States Department of State are at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html.
Nobody can plan ahead for accidents or medical emergencies, but there are a few things one can do to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse. Throughout the European Union, there is one EU emergency number: 112. Memorize it and be prepared to use it. When traveling with a companion, be sure that individual knows of any special medical concerns or needs. If traveling alone, make a list of medical issues, medications, and any other relevant information that resides in a prominent place in a suitcase or briefcase. Information cards in wallets, purses, and backpacks also are valuable tools to enable first responders to render proper and prompt assistance.
Ticks spreading Lyme disease are in Europe, just as they are in the United States. Remove ticks promptly and properly, and if symptoms of Lyme disease appear--bull's eye rash near the bite site, rashes elsewhere on the body, fever, headaches, fatigue, and joint pain--immediately seek medical attention. If one contracts the disease in Europe, it is best to have the tests done in Europe and begin treatment there. European doctors test for a wide range of Lyme disease variants, whereas the American Center for Disease Control only authorizes a limited scope of tests that fails to detect some strains that exist abroad. For more information, see the experience from one American here.
It is not necessary to carry a passport at all times, and it is not wise to do so. A stolen passport means valuable time lost. Keep in mind that hotels usually take passports to register guests and return them the next day. This is an absolutely normal procedure. Always observe local laws. Do not assume that drug laws are liberal throughout Europe. Never ride public transportation without paying, do not litter, and be careful about crossing streets. While jaywalking may be common in a place like Prague, Bratislava, or Budapest, provided that there is no policeman in sight, it never is acceptable in Berlin and other German cities. The Austrian custom is somewhere between the two extremes. When in doubt, wait for the light or follow the crowd. A valid US driver's license plus a valid US passport is enough to drive in most countries, but it is necessary to become familiar with road signs and laws before getting behind the wheel on the Continent. What will confuse most American drivers is the concept of a main road, where the drivers have the right of way, and secondary road, where the drivers have to yield. Signs indicate some of the confusing intersections, but unlike America, where the size or quality of the road is an indicator of who has the right of way, the situation in Europe is different. What many would consider an improved cow path entering into a well-paved two-lane highway may well be a main road. Frequently, where Americans would post stop signs or four-way stop signs, Europeans employ yield signs and signs indicating that the driver is on a main road.
Germany -- wood carvings, Christmas ornaments, felt hats, clocks, beer steins, Hummel figurines, Volksmarsch walking sticks, and Steiff teddy bears
Wood carvings, Christmas ornaments, felt hats, and beer steins are traditional gifts from Germany, as are the famous Hummel figurines (http://shop.mihummel.de/default.aspx?culture=en-US). A bit unusual is the Volksmarsch walking stick that any avid hiker would cherish. Many think that Berlin is named for bears, even though the original name of the city is from the West Slavic root word for swamp (berl). As a result, purchasing a bear as a souvenir of Berlin is traditional, especially as a gift for children. For the famous Steiff collection, see http://www.steiffusa.com/?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1.
Czech Republic -- cut glass, Moser glass, porcelain, garnets, vltavín (moldavite), and amber
When purchasing hand-cut glass, it must contain lead (look for the chemical symbol Pb on a small label on the item in most cases), and the edges of the cut should feel somewhat sharp. If not, the glass is mass-produced by pressing and has little value. Moser stemware and glass (http://www.moser-glass.com/) is some of the most elegant glass for the table that is available. Porcelain table ware with onions is a traditional motif in Bohemia that the Sudeten Germans popularized. There are two native semi-precious stones in Bohemia. Garnets (granáty) are set in silver, gold, and gold-plated silver, and they are available throughout the republic, especially in the larger cities. Some are imported from China, but when purchasing garnets from a Granát Turnov (www.granat.cz) outlet, one can count on Czech quality. Older garnets available in antique stores usually are darker because that type was more valued in the past. Antique settings in original Secession styles are breathtaking. Vltavín (also known as moldavite) is a green crystal that is only found in the southern part of Bohemia and is from a meteor impact. These stones usually are not polished but are set as they are found. One can purchase them in reputable shops, but craftsmen also sell them on the streets at reasonable prices. The size, appearance, and setting determine the price. Amber comes from the Baltic region, and the shops that sell amber jewelry in Prague usually are in the hands of Russians and Ukrainians (listen for the differences in the sound of the languages). Ambers with whole bugs are very expensive, and those with parts of bugs are a bit cheaper. The least expensive but just as beautiful are those with fewer inclusions. Amber can be yellowish or orange in its natural state, but firing the amber turns it green.
Austria -- felt hats and other folk items, Loden clothing, Giesswein wool clothing and other products, Mozartkugeln, Swarovski crystal, Riedl glassware, Secession reproductions.
Traditional Austrian Loden clothing is made of fine wool, and one company that manufactures it is Giesswein (http://www.giesswein.com/). Mozartkugeln are round candies with a pistachio marzipan core contained within a nougat and covered in chocolate. The Fürst candy shop (http://www.original-mozartkugel.com/) in Salzburg first made them in the late nineteenth century, but copies abound. Swarovski crystal jewelry (http://www.swarovski.com) is world famous, as is Riedl glassware for wines (http://www.riedelusa.net/). For those who are in Vienna on a Saturday and enjoy flea markets, make sure to visit the Flohmarkt at Naschmarkt near metro U4 Kettenbruckengasse (Mariahilf) between 6:30 am and 6:30 pm.
Slovakia -- cut glass, porcelain, folk items (musical instruments, wooden toys and other products, lace, table cloths)
The best place to find a variety of folk items from all over Slovakia is in the small shops in the center of Bratislava. Typical in terms of musical wind instruments are the double flutes and the fujara, which is a specifically Slovak instrument shepherds played as their flocks grazed in the hills. Unfortunately, a fujara is about four to five feet long and will present a problem on the plane, but it is possible to fly with one. A smaller fujara is available, but it is made only for tourists. Whether buying a fujara or not, consider purchasing a CD of haunting fujara music. For a discussion of cut glass, see the information about the Czech Republic.
Hungary -- cut glass, folk items (linens, wooden products), and different types of paprika
The buildings that line Váci út in downtown Budapest offer a wealth of products in small shops and well-known chains. Otherwise, there will be stands throughout Budapest with women who have spent the winter making table cloths and other items to sell in the summer. Similarly, there is an abundance of wooden items–toys, chess sets, vases, and the like. For a discussion of cut glass, see the information about the Czech Republic. In Budapest, consider a trip to the Grand Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok), also known as the Central Market (Központi Vásárcsarnok) on Vámház körút 1-3, open Monday, 6:00 am-5:00 pm, Tuesday through Friday 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, and Saturday 6:00 to 2:00 pm. This fantastic farmer's market in a marvelous neo-Romanesque building with Hungarian motifs is great for sampling local cuisine and finding some unusual gifts. Try to determine how many different types of paprika are available.
It often happens that tourists from any country encounter a bit of culture shock, and those who are observant and keep an open mind to the customs of other societies serve as ambassadors of their own country to those places they visit. A typical example is ice. Some Europeans complain bitterly about the amount of ice Americans get in their drinks--it is unhealthy to drink cold things, the restaurant is cheating on the amount of soft drink they deliver by filling the cup with ice (no matter that the syrup is more intense in the US than in countries where drinks have no ice), and nobody can negotiate the ice in order to drink properly. Meanwhile, certain Americans complain about the lack of ice in Europe and balk at drinking something warm, including times when Europeans consider a beverage to be pleasantly chilled. Even the seasoned traveler may encounter an embarrassing situation, and the faux pas of the past are the subject of many entertaining conversations over a cool (American: warm) beer in a local Gasthaus.
Frequently, published guide books and Internet guides reference some of the idiosyncrasies of various cultures. If one does not have time to do much homework in advance, just be observant of the behavior of the inhabitants of a locale and attempt to blend into the crowd. When mistakes occur, simply turn on the charm and use that international phrase for begging forgiveness: Pardon!
In his book Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), the American writer David Sedaris wrote about being on the Parisian Metro and observing four tourists from Houston, Texas. He switched trains and encountered an American couple who mistake him for being a French pickpocketer. Through the humor, Sedaris shows how some Americans stand out in Europe in negative ways. Not all Americans have the reputation about which Sedaris writes. In fact, high on the list of some Europeans as being the worst tourists are fellow Europeans, including boisterous groups English men on bachelor weekends and gaggles of loud German tourists. In the clip to the right, Sedaris reads the passage about the Metro ride on This American Life.
Exploring foreign cultures is not challenging when the tourist or the foreign business traveler keeps an open mind and is observant. In many respects, sorting out the culture of each destination is every bit as entertaining as viewing the architecture or sampling the food.