European Travel 101

Go. Now.

Go. Now.

Always wanted to see the Eiffel Tower? Itching to find out firsthand how gritty/cool Berlin is? Dying to check out Amsterdam’s Red Light District? Fiending for a taste of true Tuscan cuisine?

Now that the dollar has a kinder, gentler Euro exchange rate, this might be the perfect time to conquer Europe. But first, here are seven golden rules of foreign travel to help make it stress-free:

1. Adjust your priorities. Repeat after me . . . Europe is not America. You’ll be much happier in your travels when you realize this. Things are different across the pond, which is exactly why you go! Yes, iced drinks are pretty much unheard of in Germany (in fact, their “iced coffee” is java with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it—nice surprise!). The AC isn’t cranked the way it is in Midwestern malls. But you aren’t in the Mall of America, are you? Open your eyes and your mind. You can’t see the wonder of the Bavarian Alps from your couch, so adjust your priorities and you’ll broaden your horizons.

2. Change money beforehand. Airport exchange rates are usually huge rip-offs, but they are convenient. Resist the urge to make the unnecessary splurge — save time and money by getting your euros before you go. Larger banks, like TD, typically have a supply on hand (and be sure not to change too much moola, because there’s a charge to change Euros back to bucks). Also, take along a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, like Capital One. It pays (literally!) to do your homework beforehand — it can save you beaucoup bucks that you can spend on a cute Parisian frock.

3. Bathroom bamba. It’s super-simple when restroom doors sport male/female icons, but often they don’t. Sometimes they’re marked WC (short for “water closet,” a Britishism that’s become international), but not always. And it’s even more confusing when they’re decked with androgynous pics — don’t laugh, it’s happened to me (several times!) when the chick on the ladies room door looks kinda butch. And if you don’t know that herren means “men’s,” you might walk in on a pee-pee party in Potsdam. Which leads us to . . .

4. Get a phrase book . . . and study it! It’s uber-handy to buy a cheap, portable phrase book before you take flight. This way, you can bone up on important words like “ladies room” (see above) and “Oú est la gare?”(“Where’s the train station?” in Versailles). Words like bitte and danke (“please” and “thank you” in Munich) move mountains. Even if your pronunciation is way off and you mangle the lingua, natives will appreciate your effort and be more apt to assist. Phrase books are also helpful for figuring out menus — although I once had a Parisian cutie translate the entire café offerings for me, prefaced by “Or you can have . . . ” before each entry. Precious!

5. Book it! You don’t have to go on an organized tour to have a blast abroad, but it’s a good idea to have a guidebook. My hands-down fave is anything by Rick Steves. His travel tomes are compact, comprehensive, smart ,and always spot-on, whether you have three days or three weeks to get lost.

6. Bring your BC. Even though there’s no shortage of pharmacies in the Netherlands, it’s easier if you have your own birth control. Even if your trip isn’t a booty call, you never know! And if desire hits, you’ll be ready with your favorite type of BC and brand. But this doesn’t mean you still can’t dip into Amsterdam’s Condomerie!

7. When in Rome . . . True, you can pretty much get chicken fingers and fries anywhere in Europe, but do yourself a favor and don’t. Ditto for not going to American chain eateries like McDonald’s and Subway. They’re all over like Dutch windmills, but resist the urge. Why bother leaving home if you’re going to eat like you’re home? Find out what the region’s specialty dish is and try it! Otherwise, you might never know the wonder that is Dutch bitterballen (yummy, savory meat snacks) or poffertjes (light, airy mini pancakes). And don’t forget the German iced coffee!

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