First time travelers to European countries often experience a bit of culture shock. I don’t know why you would assume that things will be the same in a foreign country halfway around the world, but people do. Doing a little research ahead of time will help you be prepared and hopefully enjoy all the ways we’re different from our neighbors across the Atlantic.
The point of traveling is to experience new cultures, foods, languages….to broaden our perspectives beyond what is normal in our everyday lives. Being flexible and accepting of the culture you are visiting will only enrich your experience.
Coffee is King and Soda is not. For the most part, Europeans don’t drink soda, pop, or whatever you call it in your area. If you order a Coca Lite (Diet Coke), be ready to wear that “tourist” label loud and proud. There’s also no such thing as free refills on soda. The locals will have coffee for breakfast and wine with lunch and dinner, sometimes followed by an after dinner coffee. One French waiter actually gave me the stink eye (in a joking manner) for ordering Coca Lite at breakfast in a Parisian café. But I don’t like coffee, so what’s a girl to do?
Free water is almost non-existent. Tap water in most European countries is safe to drink, but that hasn’t always been the case. Typically, you’ll order water by the liter for the table, either still or sparkling. Some waiters will phrase this as “gas or no gas”.
Mealtime is an occasion, and a late one. In America, we’re all about rushing through our meal and getting frustrated if the server hasn’t returned with our check in 5 minutes. You’ll enjoy your European experience more if you just leave those expectations at home. A meal in Europe is meant to be savored and enjoyed. There’s no rush and you’ll most likely need to ask for the check or ticket when you’re ready to leave.
Europeans also eat much later than we do. 8:30 or 9 pm is a typical dinner time. We tried to eat an early dinner one night in Rome since we had to leave for the airport at 4am the next morning. We walked forever trying to find a place that was open. We finally found a place at 7:30, it had just opened for the evening meal and we were the only ones in the whole restaurant.
No Ranch dressing. Salad dressings are not a thing in Europe, at least not in the parts I’ve visited. One of the things I love about European food, is it’s usually made with fresh, local ingredients. For salads, this means topping them with olive oil and vinegar in most cases.
Public bathrooms aren’t free. Keep some change handy for those moments when you need a public restroom. Most are 1 Euro or less. I usually seize the opportunity to use restrooms in museums and restaurants, just like I used to tell my kids, whether I need to go or not. Most restrooms in the train stations are also paid. If you find yourself in a bind, you can usually pop into a café and buy a bottle of water and gain access to their restroom.
Americans, in general, have become accustomed to bigger is better with our McMansions and spa bathrooms. Unless you’re staying in a luxury hotel suite, expect the rooms to be small and the bathrooms to be smaller. We’ve had a few rooms where getting into and out of the shower was a bit of a challenge, even for me at 5’4” and not a lot of pounds. (You didn’t really think I was going to tell you how much I weigh, did you?)
Room options are a little different and it helps to know what you’re actually reserving. A single is one twin bed. A double is two twins pushed together, so king size. You can also request that the beds be separated. A triple is 3 twins that can be configured as a king and a twin, if needed. The hotel will usually contact you directly after you make your reservation to find out your preference.
You’ll need a converter for your electronic devices. You can find these easily on Amazon or in the luggage aisle at Walmart. If you have a phone and a camera or tablet you’ll want to charge in the evenings, it will probably be worth it to buy several converters.
Pay close attention to what amenities are available in your hotel room. Not all have hair dryers and I’ve never seen an iron and ironing board in a European hotel room. Most will not offer washcloths either. I do not understand this. Seriously, what do they wash their faces with? I pack several in my suitcase and take a Ziploc bag to put the used ones in.
Also be sure to check that the hotel has private in-room bathrooms and a lift (elevator) if this is important to you. Don’t assume as it’s not always the case.
Larger cities that are popular tourist destinations will commonly have English menus and signage. In smaller towns and villages, you’ll find less, if any, English speaking locals. Learning greetings, numbers, basic directions and food words can be extremely helpful and is appreciated by your host country. With that bit of language and a good game of charades, you can communicate pretty well with just about anyone.
European city names may not be the same as we are familiar with in America. When planning my first trip to Italy, I searched on the map forever for Naples before realizing that it is really Napoli. Be familiar with the local name for the cities you’re visiting. This will be helpful in reading maps and in train stations, especially.
Notify your banks of your travel plans. I prefer to take a small amount of local currency with me (You can order this from your local bank. Order at least 2 weeks before your trip.) I use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees for most of my purchases. You can always use an ATM to get more cash if needed. Avoid using a currency exchange service.
Local hotel tax. The local hotel tax is most often not included in your room rate. Be prepared to pay this in cash at checkout.
Taxis. If you are planning to use a taxi to get to the airport or train station, have your hotel arrange this for you. Confirm with the driver the rate and if he/she accepts credit cards before getting in. I got in a bit of a bind in Rome because the driver didn’t want to take my credit card and only wanted cash, even though he had a credit card machine in the front seat. He tried to tell me it didn’t work but when I had no other method to pay him, it magically started working again.
Leave a comment if you have questions about your trip not answered here.