By: Erin Snell
Aside from the typical advice not to drape yourself in an American flag (or the equivalent Team America uniform of stonewashed jeans, North Face fleece, running shoes, and a baseball cap), here are a few real-life tips to help you avoid making regrettable mistakes while traveling through Europe.
Expecting to travel on plastic
The monarchies may largely be disbanded but cash is still king in Europe. Expect to pay "bar oder bargeld," "efectivo," or "espèces" (they all mean "cash"!) at most cafes, restaurants, bars, shops, smaller museums, and for taxis and public transportation. Withdraw amounts large enough to avoid racking up fees but small enough to feel safe. (Also, here are some tips to avoid getting your pockets picked.) Most "bankomat" (ATM) machines allow you to select bill denominations.
Using just any old credit card
If you do throw down the plastic, make sure it's not a card with exorbitant international exchange fees -- that's not a fun bill to come home to. Look into the best travel credit cards before you leave. And while you're researching, don't forget to check the chip! The US security chip system that's built into many newer debit/credit cards ISN'T fully coordinated with the European version, so it's very likely that you won't be able to use your card at many ATMs. Ask your bank ahead of time if the chip works in Europe and seek out large international banks for the greatest chance of ATM cash-withdrawal success.
Not claiming your VAT tax refund
Especially if you're planning to make some large purchases, save your receipt and be sure to ask the cashier for a VAT tax-refund form. They will stamp your completed form, and you'll bring it to the tax refund desk at the airport before you leave Europe. You are eligible to receive a 19-25% cash refund on all purchases with minimums that range from zero (Germany, Ireland & the UK) to 175 euros in France (check this website). Then go spend that fun money at the duty-free shop, and you're totally winning the international tax game.
Wearing flip-flops, tennis shoes, shorts, or baggy pants... everywhere
Dressing like a tourist is the easiest way to put a barrier between you and your surroundings. True, you have to be comfortable, but a little extra effort goes a long way. So no, you don't have to rock a set of tails to the Duomo, but dress like you're going to a nicer restaurant and you should be good to go.
Stocking your suitcase with sausage and cheese
Hate to shatter your sausage-filled dreams, but the US Customs and Border Patrol strictly regulates what kind of meats, cheeses, produce, and other foods can be brought into the U.S. Sausage: no. Bacon: no. I cried when I learned that, too. And I may have eaten my body's weight in pork products the day before I flew back to the US. (Seriously, write your congressperson!)
Eating the bread basket and ordering tap water, expecting both to be free
Sometimes the water is, but don't be surprised if it's not. The extra couple of euros won't break the bank, but it could be an unexpected expense if you're near the end of your cash stash.
Picking the first organized tour that you stumble upon
Scour the Internet, invest in an guidebook, or download a Rick Steves audio tour before you spend all day on a boring, uninspired tourist bus. Europe's thriving tourism industry offers plenty of fun ways to experience the cities: try a Beer Bike in Munich or Amsterdam, kayak through the canals in Venice, or see Paris from a funky vintage 2CV. Or, you could just shamelessly tag along the next tour group that passes, like this woman does.
Skipping Eastern Europe
Slovenia's stunning waterfalls, gorges, and lakes; the summertime mecca of Croatia's rocky cliffs and turquoise Adriatic waters; Budapest, Hungary's historic architecture; crazy festivals and affordable luxury on the Black Sea's "Bulgarian Riviera;" the pulsing nightlife in Prague... there are so many rewards for traveling just a bit off the path well worn by most Western tourists, often at a fraction of the cost. For some ideas of insane places to hit, here is the most underrated tourist attraction in every EU country.
Not learning basic words in the language of the country you're visiting
Yes, almost everyone in big European cities speaks English, but it's not the same outside of town. At worst, it can be a necessity; at best, you'll save yourself time and embarrassment by learning a few key words and sentences. The effort is almost always appreciated and it can open the door to more authentic experiences. Here's a language app to get you started.
Bringing a suitcase that you can't carry
Cobblestones and giant suitcases don't get along. Just because you can check it on the plane, does not mean that it will comfortably roll down the aisle of a train or that you will want to carry it up the uneven, steep hill to your hotel. Leave the refrigerator-sized behemoth at home and stick to smaller rolling carry-on cases.
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