Glancing at the large clock in the rafters of Zurich's main train station, I
notice there is less than a minute until my train is scheduled to depart. I
punch my day pass in the validation machine on the track platform quickly; after
15 years of train travel in Switzerland I know my train will leave on the exact
minute with or without me.
Stepping into the second-class car, I survey the cabin and soon find an open seat. I've learned to identify where tourists are from, and it's obvious the couple across from me are American.
They share with me their vacation plans: cramming seven European countries into two
weeks. That entails 11/2 days in each country and nearly a full day of train
travel between destinations."We left Paris earlier this morning and are now
heading to Milan," the man tells me. "We've been riding the rails for over five
hours today, and still have another four to go."
When I question their motives for such a vacation, the couple respond with the overused answer: "This
will probably be our only chance to vacation in Europe, so we need to see it
But by attempting to see it all, they will miss experiencing the
real Europe. Much of their vacation will be spent on a train.
If you share the view of these tourists, consider a couple of options that will
make your trip more enjoyable. First, change your mindset about seeing all of
Europe in two weeks. Narrow your list of countries to two or three, based on
your "must-see" list. That allows you more time in each country, and less time
on the trains.
Then, if the countries you have chosen are a great distance from one another, look into flights. Take the example of traveling from Paris to Rome. By train it takes roughly 15 hours and costs over $245, but by
air it takes only two hours and can cost as little as $60, leaving you more time
and money. Making a few simple changes can transform what would have been an
exhausting vacation into a memorable one.
We are planning a two-week vacation in Europe and are wondering how much money we should take to exchange? Should we worry about pickpockets?
-- Della, Newport
Every time someone books one of my tours, this is one of the first questions they ask. What type of vacation you are planning can make a slight difference, but overall there is a general rule -- not too much and not too little. What exactly does that mean? I tell those traveling to Europe to exchange anywhere from $100-$200. There is no need to carry any more cash than that -- both for safety and the convenience of using your debit and credit cards.
Use cash for small purchases like street vendor foods, open-air markets, and small items -- use your debit and credit cards for everything else. You can easily withdraw more cash from an ATM while in Europe -- they are everywhere just like here. Just make sure to notify your bank and credit card company about your travel plans.
There are pickpockets in Europe -- the same as anywhere else. I recommend keeping the same habits and routines you use to avoid theft at home. I have watched too many people lose their wallet or purse because they have changed their routine.
This may come as a shock, but I dislike money belts. I have stood in countless lines while in Europe and watched as grown men and women pull up their shirts and unbutton their pants just to pull out a credit card or a few euros.
This distraction is a pickpocket's dream, because while you're busy fiddling with your money belt he is stealing your camera or other items. By sticking with your normal routine you can devote more time to being vigilant. If you are traveling as a pair you can also split the cash and cards, so in the unlikely event one of you falls victim to a theft the other will still have means to purchase goods.
Try not to stress out too much -- remember, you are on vacation.
I am a bit of a foodie and will be traveling in Europe for two weeks for the first time -- can you suggest any foods or restaurants in Europe? Are there any restaurant etiquette tips you can offer?
-- Brent, Portland
Unfortunately there's not enough room to list every restaurant I would recommend. I can, however, give you a little insight into European dining that might make your culinary experience that much richer.
There is definitely a distinguishable difference between dining experiences here and those in Europe. One of the most common complaints I hear from U.S. tourists about dining in Europe is how slow the service can be. U.S. waiters are paid on an hourly wage including tips, which gives them the incentive to turn a table in hopes of making more tips during a given shift. European waiters are on a fixed salary, which reduces the pressure of subsidizing their pay with added tips.
That's not the only reason the service is slower. Dining in Europe is a social event, and it is not uncommon to see people sitting for hours at a table enjoying not only the food but also the company. We tend to rush our experience at restaurants because we are a nation that seems to be perpetually on the go. Don't become upset if they are not serving you fast enough: trust me, this will only make things worse. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the experience.
I am often asked about tipping. You will want to do some research on the countries you will be visiting because they are not all the same. Most Western European countries do not require a tip because it is already built into the meal's cost. But even in those countries it is common practice if you were satisfied with the meal and service to leave a little something extra, although it is not expected. Most people will round up to the nearest euro and leave that as a tip.
Another common dining complaint is about water -- yes, water. In most U.S. restaurants a waiter will quickly fill up a glass of ice water before you even order your food. This is not the case in Europe. In fact, if your waiter asks "what you would like to drink?" and you reply "water," be prepared to pay for a very expensive bottle of water. You have to specifically ask for tap water, but be forewarned: not all restaurants will bring you tap water.
Restaurants are not the only place to find Europe's culinary delights -- some of my best meals have been on the street. Not only can you find some of the tastiest foods there, but also some of the cheapest. A similar scene can be found here in Portland with its vast number of food carts.
Lastly, savor every bite. Who knows the next time you will be in Paris eating a crepe in front of the Eiffel Tower, a bratwurst in the Swiss village of Zermatt, or a gelato on Rome's Spanish Steps?
Q: My wife and I are planning a vacation to Europe but are struggling with accommodations. We have found most hotels to be fairly expensive, and my wife does not want to stay in a hostel. Can you suggest any other European budget accommodations?
A: Most people who have vacationed in Europe have asked this very question after seeing the cost of hotels or the conditions in the hostels.
After almost two decades of living and traveling in Europe, I have stayed in every type of lodging imaginable. Some have been great, others an absolute nightmare. Some of my favorite lodging types have been both affordable and enjoyable. Each category can easily be found online.
Often overlooked by American tourists are vacation apartments. Found throughout Europe and the United Kingdom, they are family-owned and operated. Vacation apartments offer all the amenities of home without the high cost of a hotel. I highly recommend this form of lodging: It takes you away from the tourist traps and places you among the locals. I prefer to deal directly with the owners instead of a second party when renting a vacation apartment.
Other unique lodging options are more country-specific. In Britain, I recommend staying in a bed-and-breakfast, where you'll find much more charm and enchantment than any hotel there.
Family-run guest homes called pensions are found throughout Western Europe, especially in Portugal, France, Spain and Italy. Although they may not offer a large hotel's amenities, they will more than compensate in hospitality. You'll get a good night's sleep and a home-cooked meal. Their presence on the Web is not as strong, but online listings are growing.
One of the newest lodging crazes in Europe is staying in a convent. They offer clean accommodations along with a quiet atmosphere away from tourist crowds. Most convents offer both room and board, with meals cooked by the nuns. The one drawback to most convents is a mandatory curfew, which if missed will lock you out for the night.
A last suggestion: Use the tourism Web pages created by the city you are visiting. Most will provide a list of lodging options to fit every budget.
Finding affordable and unique lodging in Europe requires time and energy, but the payoff is worth it.