Having been to Europe nearly a dozen times now on vacation, Kathy and I feel pretty comfortable packing for such trips and dealing with situations that may come up. Here are some key points that you may wish to consider when making your trip overseas, whether to Europe or elsewhere.
Guide books are fond of saying, "If you stick to the main roads in developed countries, you shouldn't have much trouble with language." Right! It would be a great mistake to assume that someone in every establishment you patronize will speak English in an non-English speaking country. This is not something to deter you from traveling or fear, however -- just deal with it! We've come to the point of taking it on as a fun challenge.
While your waiter in a restaurant may not speak English (or very little), it is not uncommon to be handed a menu in English. However, I recommend that you prepare yourself by taking the following four actions.
Most of the European nations (but not the UK!) now use common currency, the Euro, which is very helpful to travelers. Your US dollars are generally useless except for possibly tipping tour guides. NEVER offer US coins, as they cannot be exchanged for local currency. Carrying Traveler's Checks is pretty passé these days: everyone uses ATMs. Be aware of two potential problems in using ATMs, however:
Obviously, you need to make sure you know your ATM card's personal code. If by any chance you have a code with a letter in it or one that uses an asterisk or pound sign, consult your bank for an alternate code which will work in Europe.
It is very desirable to have coins (1€ and 2€) for tips, as the smallest Euro bill is 5€; so deliberately "break" a bill to get change as early as possible in your trip, and be conscious of the need for coins throughout your trip. Please note that many countries charge a fee (or request a tip) to use a rest room (typically 50 cents -- another coin you need to have!).
I suppose there is no greater danger of a personal attack in Europe than in the USA, but there is certainly a greater danger of being the victim of a pickpocket, with more dire consequences (like losing your passport). You must be vigilant in your actions to avoid becoming a victim. Recommendations:
Most good hotels have a safe in the room. USE IT! Put your passport there and any excess funds. If traveling as a couple, don't both carry the same credit or ATM card, but do carry at least one different card. This way, if one person is robbed, the other will still have a useful card. Before you leave, be sure to make a copy of your passports. Leave one copy at home, and bring the second, leaving it somewhere other than with your passports. If you are traveling with another couple, exchange paperwork, to facilitate reissue of your passport if it is stolen. Also, be sure to record your credit card numbers along with the phone numbers to call to cancel them, in case your cards are stolen. And, of course, don't leave that information in your wallet!
Leave at home: Anything from your wallet you won't need, such as store credit cards and pictures; any jewelry (including your engagement ring) that you would really be pained to lose; expensive watches (use a cheap Timex with two time zones); etc.
Finally, don't forget about airline travel security regulations. Review the guidelines at http://www.tsa.dhs.gov/ before each tip. There are strong regulations regarding carrying liquids in your carry-on luggage. Keep in mind that if you purchase liquor in the duty free shop when you leave Europe, if you have to switch planes in the USA, you may need to pass through security again and comply with rules regarding liquids, so you will have to transfer any liquor to your checked luggage (which you will have in hand briefly) at that point.
Coach class weight limits per bag can vary, but are generally 50 pounds in the USA and 44 pounds in Europe (intercity flights, not a direct flight home). Travel groups generally restrict patrons to one suitcase under 50 pounds and one carry-on. Inner packs (like those sold by eBags) are wonderful for organizing your suitcase and compressing clothes into the smallest amount of space. Try not to jam your suitcase full, as you will inevitably make purchases that will require room on the way back! I strongly recommend that well in advance of your trip you make a written checklist of items you want to bring that you can add to over time (and use on your next trip). Some of the less obvious items you may wish to consider are:
We always travel with backpacks. To help alleviate potential problems of lost luggage, we carry some cosmetic items going over, along with a change of clothes and an all-weather jacket, in addition to items we want access to on the plane (such as MP3 players and reading materials). And you may want to give some consideration to purchasing a noise-canceling set of earphones for this long trip: they do a great job of drowning out a lot of the airplane noise, which helps you enjoy music and/or sleep. Airlines often require you to purchase earphones, so you may want to bring your own. You can purchase a converter for the two-prong airline jacks, but they are rarely necessary anymore.
If you need to call home, it used to be that the cheapest way was to buy an international calling card when you get to your destination. You can purchase them for as little as 5€. Your biggest problem, though, will be finding a pay phone, as they are becoming scarcer the world over. If you use a hotel phone, there may be a surcharge. The worst thing you can do, however, is direct-dial from your hotel, as the fee will be outrageous. And calling cards purchased in the USA will not be anywhere near as economical as using one purchased overseas.
Most modern cellphones (especially "SmartPhones" like iPhones) work overseas. Typically SENT text messages are 50 cents each, RECEIVED ones are 5 cents each, but VOICE communications in and out are $1.79 a minute. Just make sure you have international calling activated before you leave home and understand the "rules" with your provider. You can also buy an "international" phone here in the USA to take with you. Those with universal SIMs are probably best, as they work in most countries, though you have to take care to "recharge" them ($) or reactivate them periodically, otherwise they become worthless. See www.telestial.com and other sites for more information.
That said, the best way to communicate home is via the SmartPhone app called WHATSAPP (and there are others). No charge to send or receive messages, including photos, as long as you have a WiFi connection. You can also use Apple's Facetime or the Skype app for free calling. It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT that you put your phone in Airplane mode overseas when not immediately in use, otherwise it will always be communicating with local cell towers which will run up a DATA bill fast. If you can't rely on WiFi, then purchase an overseas calling plan from your provider. For instance, Verizon offers 100 MB of data for $25/month, and for $15 more, you get 100 calling minutes. Check the plans for free text message limits, and be sure that you understand exactly how the plan works. For instance, you only get the 100 MB if you keep it active for a full month (as opposed to starting it partway into your monthly billing cycle or ending it early). In other words, you will probably want it active before you leave to begin accumulating credits, and you'll probably want to keep it active after you return for a while. You will need to be out of Airplane mode and have International Roaming turned on to use your phone, but flip Airplane mode on as soon as you are done using it, to avoid those background data uses.
ENJOY YOUR TRIP!