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Tips for European Travel

If you find yourself on one of those overseas band tours, or maybe your first working tour, here are some lessons that I learned from my month in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  Some lessons from an earlier trip to Ireland will also be included.

Language - I was fortunate enough to be in countries where English was widely spoken. I was also lucky enough to have my trip confined to places where German was the native tongue. Despite the number of people who speak English, it does pay to have a certain amount of German at your command. Just prior to leaving I learned my interrogatives (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, How much...), my basic numbers, and as much else as I was able to cram in. Even this tiny amount of German saved my life on a number of occasions.

Food - More pricey than in the US, but every hotel that I stayed in had a free breakfast bar, and we stuffed ourselves there in the morning. This made it easier to get by on smaller amounts of food later in the day. Note that many business shut down at 6pm, and food may be hard to get in some towns. I recommend keeping a small stash of snack food and bottled water. Also--if your hotel has a mini-bar, it will be refrigerated and can be used to store your own cold food and drinks. In a number of hotels, I removed the drinks from the minibar and replaced them with my own drinks, sandwiches, etc.. When it came time to check out, I put the hotel's drinks back in the bar where I found them. 

Laundry - During a full month in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria I located only four landromats. Two were in Augsburg, one in Hamburg (Altona) and one in Zurich. Hotels offer laundry service, and there are also full-service laundries in the towns. These are very expensive, however, and may require 24 hours to get the job done. Some tour schedules (mine included) just don't allow for this. Most grocery stores and drugstores sell detergents that are good for doing laundry by hand--perhaps in your hotel bathtub. The german word for coin laundary is munzewascheri, but not everyone will recognize the term. Their town may not even have one. The term wascheri, by itself, usually means a full-service laundry.

Transportation - Public transportation was excellent in all but the smallest towns that I visited. The German, Austrian and Swiss national railroads are very modern and are almost never more than a couple of minutes off schedule. Cities like Munich and Hamburg have several levels of rail service and they are cheap, clean and reliable. Munich, for example, has the Deutchebahn (national railroad), Schnellbahn or "S-Bahn" (commuter trains), Stadtbahn or "U-Bahn" (subways) plus an electric tram system and buses. Local maps are marked with bus and train routes, making it easy to plan almost any journey. One item that you need to research--THE RULES. For many of these systems, you purchase a ticket which allows you to board and exit all the transit that you want for a certain period of time, and over a certain geographic area. It can be very confusing, and many bus drivers and train conductors don't speak fluent English. The best thing to do is ask at your hotel how the local transportation works. Tell them where you're interested in going and have them write down the kind of ticket you should buy. If using the national railroads, visit the train station's reiseburo (travel office) before you purchase tickets. Almost every reiseburo has someone who speaks English and they can provide you with a computer printout of your itinerary. This is very handy if the ticket clerk doesn't speak good English.

Phoning home to the US - Phone calls back to the US shouldn't be that expensive, but you have to plan in advance. Hotel phone rates are brutal. Never make a long-distance call from your hotel room unless you are using a calling card with an 0800 number. Even then, make a brief call and then call the front desk to see if you ran up any charges. The national phone companies can be very expensive. You puchase phone cards (telefonkarten) which contain a certain monetary value stored in an electronic chip. The phone displays this value and you can watch it go down as you talk. I found that a German phonecard would cost me roughly $1.80 per minute to call the US. (31 pfenig every five seconds). A third-party calling card by Mundophone would let me call for $0.07 per minute from the same payphone or my hotel phone. I would simply call an 0800 number, enter my information and that was it. My Mundophone card had no connect fees.

Internet - There is no such thing as unlimited internet in Europe. People pay for their time online. Hotels are the worst. Coin-operated terminals are less costly, but still high. They also have keyboards designed for one-finger typing. The best internet service seems to be either in cybercafes or in other public internet places. Even so, make sure that you have a plan of action for your internet use. Computers can be sluggish when placed in large groups, and you might have email connections cut off or time out. Also note that German-language keyboards have a number of differences from US keyboards. Their Y and Z are transposed, the "@" symbol takes some extra thinking, and the punctuation marks are placed differently. I've paid $3 for as little as 20 minutes, or for as much as an hour. I did not try the public libraries when in Europe, because the terminals were usually loaded with schoolchildren and I didn't know enough German to clearly understand the library's rules.