Essential Europe Travel Tips For The Rookie American Traveler
Updated: May 12
Living part-time in Europe I’ve found that common things in America just don’t work the same way overseas. From tipping culture to meal times and more, here's some Europe travel tips to help your next journey abroad.
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At a restaurant
Is it not common to tip in restaurants
Since a lot of meals are paid for in cash, it's common to round up with any pocket change you may have, or you can drop a couple of large coins on the table for a job well done.
Europe abides by different opening hours
In Spain, meal time is 1-4pm and 8pm-12am! If you go to a restaurant outside those hours, you will either find that they are open but the kitchen is closed, or they will just be closed until the next meal time.
Google may even suggest that a restaurant or store is open, but again, the kitchen may stop serving 2 hours before closing time. It's a little overwhelming to keep up with, but just ask when you get somewhere and always have a backup plan.
Also consider that Sunday and Mondays are weird days in Europe for grocery stores, malls and restaurants. There is no guarantee on these days that things will be open. Play it safe and get groceries when you need them, before you need them, and be aware of public holidays.
Doggy Bags and Leftovers Do Not Exist
Don't ask to take your leftovers home with you. Faux pas!
These days, if you do get a to go box it is typically very fancy. I'm saying, no styrofoam - this will be something you're going to want to reuse like Tupperware. And if you're lucky, you get to take it home in a fabric tote bag too!
In Spain, ask for it "to go" or "para llevar".
Generally it is more common to only order what you can eat, and if you can't eat it just politely indicate it was delicious but that you are full and want to take it home.
You must ask for the check
...otherwise, it will never come. They let you do this so that you can linger.
The credit card machine comes to you
Don't hand anyone your card or wave it in the air. When you ask for the check, tell them you are paying with a credit card and they will bring you the machine. Otherwise, they may assume cash and you'll be waiting a bit.
People don’t split meals
Oftentimes you will dine at a restaurant with a set menu of the day. Each person gets to choose from three courses (typically) and those courses all belong to you.
You can trade dishes around and stick your fork in other plates, but you should always order something for yourself, even if it is just a starter.
If ordering liquor, the bottle comes to you at the table
Order a Gin & Tonic and you'll get a goblet of ice. The server will bring a bottle of gin and a bottle of tonic on the tray as well. White glove service right here - as they pour the gin, you wait for them to stop or they wait for you to say "when", whichever comes first!
Pre-fixe menus or menus of the day are standard and include alcohol
Again, three courses - a starter, a main, and a dessert. Bread service is sometimes an added charge of a euro or two per person. A bottle of wine for two people is standard, so if you have four people at the table you are entitled to two bottles of wine. Opa!
Food and drinks are inexpensive
Food and alcohol fuel the entire European culture. Imbibe all you want, because it's super cheap.
They go to dine, not to get fed
This is a concept America hasn't quite grasped yet. Europeans dine. They linger. They chat. This isn't fast food and it isn't quick service. If you want to get fed, find a fast food joint. If you want to dine, sit down at a restaurant.
They never laugh or raise their voices too loudly
Don't cut your fun short by getting kicked out. Be respectful of the establishment and see how others are behaving.
In your hotel
AC isn’t common or guaranteed
When booking a hotel, select this as a filter for searching.
You don't necessarily need AC, but I'd rather have it and not need it then need it and not have it.
Prepare to take the stairs
Europe is full of old buildings. Don't expect there to be an elevator. Make sure you can carry your bags up several flights of stairs.
When you leave a hotel, you typically leave your key and passport at the front desk
The keys can be giant heavy brass things, mainly to encourage you not to take it with you to dinner, or make yourself a set at the hardware store around the corner. It's probably safer for you anyway, you won't lose them!
Ice is not a common commodity
If you ask for the ice machine, prepare for some funny looks.
Post pandemic produce shopping 101: grab a plastic glove before touching
Otherwise, store workers will yell at you in a foreign tongue and you will cry.
Bring your own bag or pay for one
This is common at places like Aldi. Or Oregon. In Europe it's everywhere. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Bring your own tote.
Pay a coin for a cart
Not sure why this is. Maybe they want to ward off bums or reward you for being Johnny good boy and returning your cart.
Either way, if you don't want to carry everything around the store, you need to have a euro coin on hand for shopping carts.
Weigh your own produce
I've seen this in a few places - weigh your produce and tag it right there in the vegetable aisle. If you don't do it, they might send you back at the cash register.
Learn the metric system
Seriously, you don't want to be that guy that orders 4 kilos of meat for a family of 4. Learn your stuff. You need this for bag sizes at the airport, for measuring out food weights in a market, etc.
Here's the ones you really need to know:
1 kilo = 2.2 lbs
1 inch = 2.54 cm
1km = 0.6 miles
While we're at it, brush up on your Celsius to Fahrenheit conversions too. I still don't really have this one down, but generally just remember "22 is 72" and that will get you in the ballpark, at least for setting your non-existent AC unit.
Rolling shopping bags are common everywhere
Not just for your grandma, everyone uses the rolling shopping bag. It is a convenient way to carry your stuff up and down your apartment stairs and around town, since most of Europe is walkable.
Be sure to leave your shopping bag at the front of a store or lock it up by the lockers - they frown on you bringing it with you around the store.
Out and About
There isn't always TP in bathrooms
Is anyone listening yet? Always pack tissues. Check the wall outside the stalls for a universal roll for everyone. Also look to see if there is a bathroom attendant handing out paper.
Trains are king
They Don’t smile at strangers/passersby
Apparently we Americans are a bunch of freaks for flashing friendly smiles to strangers as we pass them on a sidewalk. I say, keep doing it. Spread the love.