I lived in Heidelberg Germany, thanks to the US Army, from May of 1975 to November of 1976. While initially I wasn’t looking forward to being so far from home, once I arrived in Frankfurt I took advantage of every opportunity I could to see Western Europe. I learned enough German to carry on a conversation, though no more than friendly exchanges and found a use for the French I studied in High School and College. After a 24 year absence from the European continent I finally returned in October of 2010 and I’m currently preparing for a late spring trip via a Transatlantic Cruise. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things I’ve learned from living there and visiting to help you with any plans you may have to travel abroad. I’d also invite you to send me any tips you would like to share from travels around the world. I’d be happy to compile them for a future travel forum article.
I like to arrive in a foreign country with some of the local currency. You never know if you’ll need it right away for local transportation or to purchase an emergency item when you get off of the plane. US Airports with international flights usually have a convenient kiosk. I recommend exchanging between $50 and $100. Make sure you know the exchange rate before you leave home. These kiosks often charge a fee for exchanging funds in addition to the exchange rate they are offering. I found the exchange rate was approximately 20% lower than what was quoted via online sites the day before my departure. I was aware that the best exchange rates come from banks in the countries you are visiting. I opted to get $100 exchanged, but the kiosk representative tried to tell me I was getting a really good rate from them and that fees would be higher and the exchange lower than their exchange rate. I was certain I would do better waiting. I was correct! At the kiosk I was given 62 Euros and charged $5 for my exchange, so 62 Euros for $105. I went to the bank the morning after I arrived in Venice and got over 75 Euros for each $100 and no fee was charged to make the exchange. I would have lost more than 91 Euros had a listened to the kiosk sales clerk. Do check though on when banks may be open following your arrival. You wouldn’t want to be without local currency for a couple of days waiting for the bank to open. Of course credit cards are accepted and the exchange rate used for the banking day of processing. Capital One does not charge a fee when using their card abroad. They will charge your card according to the exchange rate the day your purchase is processed. Just remember that the best exchange rate will be at a bank that handles international currency.
Be sure to buy and take a kit containing power adapters so that you can use any needed electrical or charge electronic devices while you are traveling. Outlets in Europe take round prongs, not flat prongs. You will also need to make sure your devices work with the voltage supplied. European power is set at 220 volts. Most Apple electronic chargers for iPods, iPads, or iPhone devices will work with 120 volts as well as 220 volts. Read the fine print to verify before plugging them in. I can’t speak for electric razors or other convenience items you may want to take along. You can research to find out what type of power you’ll be provided during a visit abroad to make sure you aren’t carrying extra weight for no reason. Hotels abroad are very good at providing some items commonly used so you won’t need to carry them anyway.
Be a Polite Guest
I found that your visit abroad will be more enjoyable if you take a little time to learn some of the local language when visiting non-English speaking countries. At a minimum I recommend learning the local greeting, how to ask for something you want to eat or buy, where the restroom is, and “could I have the bill please”. Some tourists forget they aren’t at home and get frustrated that “no one speaks English”! It’s not hard to find folks who speak English as a second language, however if you are rude they may not offer assistance when you need help. When going into a shop or store be sure to greet the sales clerk first before asking a price or asking for a specific item you are trying to find. You can relax when stopping for a meal and rest just about as long as you like in a restaurant in Europe after dining. If you decide to wait for them to give you the bill though, you may be there awhile. Unless most of the clients are tourists, the waiters will usually wait until you ask before delivering the checks. That’s why it’s good to know how to ask for the bill. If you have an iPad they have free Aps that for learning foreign languages. If all else fails you can let your iPad speak for you if you need to find a restroom. A simple please and thank you in the local language is also a good way to get assistance from the locals.
Picking a Restaurant
I don’t pick restaurants close to my hotel, especially when I am in an area of the city that is packed with tourists. I learned this the hard way. You will likely be disappointed. Not only that, if the meal is so bad you don’t think you should have to pay or expect an adjustment to your bill, it’s not likely to happen. Ask the Concierge at your hotel or even some of the local vendors while shopping for their favorite places to eat and try those. Often travel books will make good recommendations but sometimes they are hard to find. Be sure to check their hours of operation before spending taxi fare or walking a long distance to eat. They may be closed in mid-afternoon and reopen later that evening. I’ve never been disappointed by a local recommendation. If you do find you’re disappointed by a recommendation by the Concierge, be sure to let them know.
Picking a Hotel
There are many options here. You can pay in advance and save money, especially if you believe the exchange rate is really good and you are sure you’ll save even more. Many travel sites have this option. You can trust the ratings assigned hotels by these sites, but if you are familiar with the area that is helpful. A four star hotel in a bad area of the city, or one with few restaurants and shops nearby may not be what you’re looking for. Google Earth is a good tool for finding out the location of prospective hotels and what is nearby. When I visited Venice I paid in advance for 3 nights for the hotel. I was not disappointed in the location or the quality of the lodging, but I did find that I could have just made a reservation and for a few Euros more per day it would have included breakfast. This time I have a reservation and breakfast is included. In addition to that I used my Chase rewards to get a gift card that will cover $100 US on my hotel bill.
Renting a Car
I have never driven outside the US or Canada. I had thought about renting a car to explore Tuscany but opted to wait until next time. The first order of business is to get an International Driving Permit. It is required in some countries but having it won’t lead to any unpleasant surprises. You will also want to avoid driving in big cities. If driving in New York City or Chicago intimidates you, so will driving in Paris or Rome. The best advice is to travel by train into large cities, but if you’re visiting small towns and exploring the countryside take a car.
Exchange Rates: http://www.x-rates.com/ 
Language advice: http://goeurope.about.com/cs/languages/a/europe_language.htm 
Picking Restaurants or Hotels: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ 
Trip advisor has a phone and iPad application that will detect your location let you know what is nearby and give you reviews. But, be sure you know the cost of using the data or find a free Wi-Fi spot before using the Ap.
Renting a car in Europe: http://europeforvisitors.com/europe/articles/driving_in_europe.htm 
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The information provided may not cover all aspect of unique or special circumstances. Travel policies and packages are subject to change without notice. To ensure the accuracy of this information, contact travel providers and hotels at the time of your bookings to confirm pricing, itinerary, and all costs. The comments and observations are limited to the author’s personal experience and your results may vary significantly. This article and replies to comments are not intended to substitute for professional travel services. Our reply is time sensitive. Over time, various dynamic economic factors relied upon as a basis for this article may change.
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