Rick Steves offers tips for traveling Europe

  • Fri Aug 31st, 2012 2:20pm
  • Life

By Rick Steves Herald Columnist

Going to Europe is exciting, but getting there and getting around once you arrive can be stressful. Here are some tips to ease the way:

Before you go

Check your passport: Is it due to expire soon? You may be denied entry into certain countries if your passport will expire within three to six months of your ticketed date of return. Get it renewed if you’d be cutting it close.

Stash photocopies of important travel documents: Make copies of your valuable documents so they will be easily replaced if lost or stolen.

In fact, make two sets of photocopies of your passport and railpass or car-rental voucher. (For debit and credit cards, just record the numbers, rather than photocopy them.)

Pack one copy and leave the other with a buddy at home, to be faxed or emailed to you in case of an emergency.

I hide my copy in a second money belt clipped into the bottom of my luggage (don’t tell anyone).

Contact your debit- and credit-card companies: Call your bank and credit card company to let them know which countries you’ll be visiting so they don’t decline foreign transactions. While you have them on the line, confirm your debit card’s daily withdrawal limit, request an increase if you want, and ask about fees for international transactions.

Arrange your transportation: Buy tickets for any flights you might need to take within Europe as early as possible, since the cheapest seats sell out fast.

Train travelers should decide whether it makes sense to buy a railpass (these cover trips in one or more countries for a set number of days); if so, you’ll need to buy it before you leave the United States.

If you’re renting a car, your driver’s license is all you need in most places, but some countries, including Austria, Greece, Italy and Spain, also require an International Driving Permit.

While that’s the letter of the law, I’ve rented cars in dozens of countries without an IDP, and have never been asked to show one. You can get an IDP at your local AAA office.

Take care of medical business: Visit your doctor to get a checkup, and deal with any dental work that needs to be done. If you use prescription drugs, bring a sufficient supply to cover your trip, along with a copy of your prescription so you can refill it at a European pharmacy if necessary.

Call your health insurance provider to see if they cover you internationally or whether you might need to buy special medical insurance.

Look into travel insurance: For me, trip cancellation and interruption insurance is the most usable and worthwhile type. If I think there’s a greater than 1-in-20 chance I’ll need it (for instance, if I have a loved one in frail health at home), this can be a very good value and provide needed assurance.

But if I’m healthy and hell-bent on making a trip, I’ll risk it and not spend the extra.

Prepare gadgets for takeoff: If you plan to use your U.S. mobile phone in Europe, consider signing up for an international calling, text and/or data plan, and confirm voice- and data-roaming fees.

If you’re bringing a mobile device, download any tools that might come in handy on the road, such as translators, maps, transit schedules, ebooks, Internet calling apps, and free audio tours.

Make sleeping, eating and sightseeing plans: For maximum choice and peace of mind, book accommodations well before your trip, especially during peak seasons, major holidays or popular festivals.

To avoid long lines at major sights, such as the Eiffel Tower and Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, make reservations online.

Getting around

Learning how to use public transportation systems while traveling is a great way to save time and money.

Instead of sitting in a taxi in Paris’ morning traffic, you can ride the Metro to the Eiffel Tower, leaving all of that chaos overhead, and be among the first in line to climb to the top.

In bigger European cities, the subway is often the quickest way to get around. Paris and London have the most extensive subway systems.

In contrast, Rome, which has ancient ruins nearly everywhere you dig, has just two subway lines, and many areas are better served by bus.

Whenever you arrive in a new city, pick up a transit map. These are often available at the tourist office, subway ticket windows, your hotel, or on the Internet.

Some transit systems (such as London’s) offer online journey planners, and many sights list the nearest bus or subway stop on their websites and brochures.

Many cities offer some sort of multiride or frequent rider ticket option. For instance, Paris’ carnet includes 10 tickets that you can use anytime and share with companions, and tickets cost about half a euro less than they would if you bought them individually.

Some cities offer passes that allow unlimited travel on all public transport for a set number of hours or days.

London’s pay-as-you-go Oyster card, which works for the Tube, bus and light rail, requires a refundable deposit for the card, but rides cost about half the price of individual tickets.

When your balance gets low, simply “top up” at a ticket window or machine.

Buy tickets from automated ticket kiosks at stations, or get used to spending a lot of time in line.

In some countries, such as Great Britain and France, American credit cards might not work at machines. But cash will, so bring along some coins and small bills.

Before getting on a subway, you’ll usually need to insert your ticket into a slot on the turnstile, then retrieve it (and keep it — you might need it to exit as well).

On buses, you may need to validate the ticket by inserting it into an automated time-stamp box; or you may just have to show it to the driver. Observe and imitate what the locals do.

Buying tickets and boarding is half the battle. Figuring out where to get off can be just as challenging. Subway trains are equipped with maps detailing their route: Track the different stops as you ride.

An automated voice usually announces the next stop, and the names are on each station platform as you roll through.

When the train stops, the doors generally open automatically, though you may have to open them yourself by pushing a button or pulling a lever.

Buses offer fewer cues for stops, so it’s important to stay alert. Have a sense of how long the trip is going to take. As you ride, follow the route on your map, looking for landmarks along the way: monuments, bridges, major cross streets and so on.

Some buses pull over at every stop, while others only stop by request. If in doubt, look for a pull cord or a button with the local word for “stop.”

When riding on any public transportation, watch out for thieves. Per capita, there are more pickpockets on Europe’s subway trains and buses than just about anywhere else.

They congregate wherever there are crowds. Wearing a money belt is the best way to avoid having your pockets picked.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

&Copy; 2012 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.