Wednesday, February 04, 2009

More Sage Advice on Going to Europe

My Navy buddy Scott, who has been to nearly every cool place on Earth touched by water, provided a great wealth of advice on my trip to Europe. I offer it here, sufficiently edited for organization and other nits, for your contemplation.

"The thing to remember is that you’re visiting developed countries, so you need more of a 'survival kit' than a survival kit. To ensure the authenticity and correctness of this list I’ve run it by Ruth (his wife).

  • Aspirin. Both aspirin and Tylenol can relieve pain and lower your temperature if you’re fever-ish, but aspirin can also stop swelling. Ruth likes chewable aspirin.
  • Band-aids, various sizes.
  • Alka-seltzer.
  • Diarrhea medicine. Use only loperamide. Anything else is just candy. Imodium contains loperamide but the Wal-Mart generic brand has exactly the same dose for
  • My doc buddy says Maalox or Pepto-Bismol will calm an upset tummy if you eat unfamiliar food.
  • A small sewing kit; the kind you get from a (US) hotel.
  • At least one extra memory chip for your camera, and an extra battery. The last thing you want is for your battery to die at the beginning of an all-day tour. OEM batteries can be expensive, so look for a generic; but be sure you have a spare one. Make sure you’ve got the appropriate plug adapters for the camera’s battery charger. Let me know what countries you’re visiting and I’ll tell you what you need. There’s a place in the US that sells them for $2-$4 apiece. There are also places that sell them for $15 apiece, so talk to me first.
  • I would use internet cafes to check your e-mail and your bank balances, but if you’re bringing a laptop to record your thoughts as they happen make sure you bring a couple of extra thumb drives.
  • At least one spare bath towel. Look at places like for the microfiber ones, as they dry quickly. The “bath towels” provided by French hotels, and some of the Italian ones, are little more than table napkins about two feet square. Terry-cloth is not common in those countries.
  • Wash cloths. Hotels don’t always provide them.
  • Sanitary hand wipes; both the stuff in the little bottles and in the little tear-open envelopes.
  • Deodorant soap. Ruth says take bars of it in the little plastic soap-boxes. I say take it in squeeze-bottles.
  • The sort of shampoo that comes with conditioner already in it. Note that most European hotels will not provide little soaps and shampoo bottles. Lately there’s been a move towards providing a squeeze bottle full of some whitish glop that’s allegedly usable as both a shampoo and a body soap.
  • Thoughts on money:
    o Travelers’ checks are so-o-o-o 20th-century. Don’t bother. You’ll get nicked on commissions coming and going. And in the middle if you buy them denominated in €.
    o Your ATM card will work in 99.9% of ATMs in Europe. Once you clear immigration and customs look for an ATM in the airport terminal and get some cash.
    o Your credit card will be honored at just about any place you’ll want to do business, and you’re 100% protected from fraudulent transactions. Ruth and I have only had one occasion to invoke Visa Worldwide’s emergency service when her wallet was stolen on a trip to Spain. We got the new credit card the next day delivered by DHL.
    o Using a credit card is also handy if you find yourself in a fee dispute with the hotel or with a tour operator. You can always question the charge via your bank. They’ll hold back the merchant’s money until he provides a satisfactory answer. In most cases the merchant won’t fight, he’ll just roll over and play dead, and you get the charge reversed.
    o That said, check with your bank and credit card issuer to see if there are any per-transaction surcharges on top of the foreign-currency fees when the card is used overseas. There’s almost a 0% chance, but check anyway. My Navy Federal Credit Union Visa charges me an additional 1% on non-US transactions, but they have an awards program that gives me back 2.5%, so I don’t care. On the other side of the coin, though, I’ve seen banks charge a 2.5% currency-conversion surcharge on top of a $7.50 flat fee for the transaction.
    o My American bank is USAA Bank, with membership restricted to certain military people. You might consider NASA’s credit union; I’m sure you’re eligible. I say that because my bank has only one branch; it has no fleet of ATMs that it has to maintain. In return, they eat the first $15/mo of ATM surcharges, and it allows me to use my ATM card at any bank. I’ll bet NASA’s credit union has the same arrangement. There are certain states where banks are not allowed to charge you any monthly fees if you have your paycheck direct-deposited. You may find you can get an account there for free.
    o As you near your last day in Europe, manage your supply of Euros. What I usually do is hold some cash back for the airport taxi, for departure fees if any, and for a snack at the airport (you’ll have the business-class lounge, however). Any extra cash I use as partial payment of my hotel bill, putting the remainder on the credit card. I spend the absolute last cent at the duty-free, with the remainder of the transaction on the credit card.

Other thoughts

  • Make sure you have two sets of comfortable shoes:
    o One lace-up sneaker or cross-trainer. You’ll wear these on your day jaunts. Bring a spare set of laces, even if the shoes are new.
    o One slip-on pair for going out to dinner. Also, wear these on the plane because you’ll be pulling shoes on and off at security.
    o If either set of the shoes are new, break them in well before you leave. In case they’re uncomfortable you’ll need to buy another pair and break them in, so allow enough time.
    o Get socks made of a material that dries quickly. Look at Travelsmith and see what they’ve got.
  • Have you got a comfortably-sized airplane carry-on bag with wheels? If not, get one. You’re close enough to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro. Look for TravelPro; it’s absolutely the best, the only brand airline crews will buy. It’s also expensive, even with the 50-60% discount my brother can get me. That’s why I recommend the Unclaimed Baggage Center. You’ll probably want to have a bag that doesn’t look new, anyway. My TravelPro carry-on has >600 flights; it looks worn but is nowhere near the end of its life. Our big TravelPro suitcase has ~50 flights, and looks new. Make sure your suitcase has wheels, too. Really good wheels, not the little caster jobbies that will snap off the first time you run over a crack in the pavement.
  • String. Strong nylon or other synthetic, about shoelace diameter, 30 feet or thereabouts.
  • The littlest of those springy paper binder clips. I don’t know their real name but look at Office Depot Part Number 573195. Use these with your clothesline and for 1001 other uses. If you get the plastic-coated ones you won’t get rusty marks on your laundry.
  • A small cigarette lighter to sear the string (q.v.) when you have to cut it, and for 1002 other uses.
  • A Leatherman tool; or at the very least a Swiss Army knife.
  • Carry-on: You can’t carry much in the way of personal grooming stuff anymore what with the 100-ml rule, so I don’t bother. I pack my shaving kit in my checked luggage; in my carry-on is only toothbrush, toothpaste, and my extensive collection of pharmaceuticals. Also in your carry-on you’ll want spare underwear, socks, and a clean shirt, and reading matter to get you through any delays.
  • Shoulder bag: You’ll have this on your tours, and any around-the-city walks. Spare socks, underwear, and shirt in this bag as well. At the very least they’ll cushion anything fragile you might buy. It’s also handy to include a moist washcloth in a plastic zip bag. Ruth and I have a teardrop-shaped shoulder bag; the shape matches the curve of your back and shoulder. It can hold an amazing amount of stuff, both bulk-wise and volume-wise. They’re hard to find, but maybe you’ll see one at the Unclaimed Baggage Center.
  • Thoughts on security:
    o Have your neighbor pick up your mail, don’t turn off delivery. You don’t know how honest the people at your mail distribution center are.
    o In Maryland we had an arrangement with our neighbors. When we went away they cut off delivery for their newspaper and read the one that was thrown into our driveway; we did the reverse when they went away. Any bad guys tipped off by the newspaper circulation desk would find the house occupied and walk away scratching their heads.
    o Use only minimum identifying info on your luggage. To help me identify the bags on the luggage belt, I got some bright green and orange Radian bag tags when the old Radian logo stuff was being given away. If you can’t find any flashy bag tags tie a garish bit of rag to the bag handles. On the card inside I only write my last name, my mobile and home phone numbers, and the number of the place where I’m going. On a trip with multiple stops I just put multiple phone numbers. I cross out the phone numbers as we move to the next city. So, the card on our luggage tags for our last trip read:
    – Smith
    – +60 X XXXX XXXX
    – +60 X XXX XXXX
    – +65 XXXX XXXX
    – +64 X XXX XXXX
    – +64 XX XXX XXX
    o At one time people were advised to put full identifying info inside the bag. With the TSA opening bags, I don’t recommend that any more. Just put the same info as above on a sheet of paper inside the bag, crossing off numbers as needed. With an overseas itinerary, you can be sure TSA will open your bags.
    o While walking around, whether on tours or on solo jaunts, put your wallet into one of your front pockets. You’ll also want to empty as much as you can from the wallet before leaving the US. Your Huntsville Library card, your blood donor card, membership cards from various organizations; all that stuff can stay home.
    o Take color photocopies of your passport main page, and put one in an inconspicuous place in each piece of your luggage. Also put a scanned copy on your thumb drive(s), protecting that particular file with a password.
  • Trip insurance. Find out if your medical coverage applies if you’re overseas. There’s a chance it may not. If you don’t get travel insurance through your credit card (mine provides it for free for trips of <30 href="" target="_blank"> I can’t see it costing more than $250 for you if you insure everything (trip cancellation, lost deposits, missed flights, baggage delay, travel delay, rental car CDW, bail bondsmen, attorneys, etc.) and <$100 for just the medical. Remember, you’re insuring against having to buy a full-price business-class ticket and maybe a few nights in a good capital-city hotel if something goes badly wrong. As for legal protection, you don’t necessarily have to commit any crimes yourself; it could be that some old lady points you out as the guy who tried to swipe her purse. Trouble, lost hotel and tour deposits, bad stuff made worse if you have to navigate a foreign justice system on your own time and money.
  • Hypermarkets: Ya gotta see at least one hypermarket in each country while you’re there. See for a listing, then go to each company’s web site to find the ones closest to where you’ll be. Look especially for Auchan and Carrefour; they have hot-panted, leggy, 18-to-21-year-old, quintilingual babes on roller skates who’ll wheel off and bring you a selection of what you’re looking for rather than send you off looking for Aisle 137 when you’re in Aisle 2.
  • Obviously, you’re American, but you don’t have to blatantly advertise it. Wear shorts when you’re going out for a run, or sitting by the pool; that’s all. Wear long pants on your tours, and of course in the evenings. Don’t wear your sneakers to dinner. No t-shirts; wear either polo shirts or regular-style buttons-down-the-front shirts during the day, and buttons-down-the-front shirts in the evenings.
  • You’ve heard my advice on restaurants. Look for the smaller ones. When asking for a recommendation from the hotel, tell them you want local food, that you can eat McDonald’s at home. If you find even a half-decent one, go back for the next night’s dinner. Take an interest in what’s being served, ask for the recipe or better yet if you can go into the kitchen and watch it being prepared. They’ll probably say yes, and will certainly appreciate the gesture. Most likely, you’ll find yourself in the free after-dinner-drink and free-dessert club.
  • At the hotel, ask for directions to the church; especially if there’s an older person behind the counter. Just like American churches, there’ll be an Ordinary-of-the-Mass on a table where you walk in; you’ll soon find your place as the Mass progresses. Well worth it."

No comments: