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32 Things Done Differently in Europe That Americans Find Surprising

Updated: 1 day ago

As an American traveling to Europe, it is common to be caught by surprise by encounters that are unlike what we are familiar with at home. From dining in restaurants to navigating the streets, the European way is just a little bit divergent from what some Americans may expect, so it is best to be prepared for things done differently in Europe.


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Hotels

HOTEL in caps letters on the side of a building


Leaving Your Passport At the Front Desk

A leather duffel bag sits on the floor with a blurry passport in the foreground

When checking into a hotel, you will always be asked to present your passport. Depending on how busy the front desk clerk is, you may be asked to leave it and pick it up later. The hotel needs certain information from the passport and has to write it down or copy it. This can be very unnerving since we all know never leave your passport behind. Don't worry, this is perfectly normal and just pick it up the next time you pass the front desk.



Hotel Breakfast

A woman dines at breakfast in front of sunny windows

Most hotels offer breakfast that is included in the price of the room. Its usually a very nice buffet and worth stopping in for a bite. You could find homemade delicacies including breads, cakes and pastries. Sometimes there may be a small upcharge, but avoid overpriced big hotel breakfasts which can cost a lot more money. You can usually go onto the street to a nearby café for a coffee, juice and pastry that is inexpensive and provides a very local flavor.



First Floor

A man pushes elevator buttons

The first floor in every hotel or building in Europe is called 0 and not 1. So if you have room 231, you are on the third floor but press number 2. The first floor in an elevator is labeled 0 for the street level floor, G for ground, L for Lobby or R for reception. Sometimes you'll see -1 or -2 for sublevel garage parking. Be thankful you have an elevator and get off on the correct floor.



Room Keys

A closeup of two silver keys with a wooden keychain

If you are staying at an historic or small hotel, you may get a real metal key for your door attached to a giant and heavy key fob. Insert the key into the room lock and turn away from the door jam. Sometimes you need to spin the key twice around to unlock the door.


Once inside the room, insert your key into the other side of the lock and turn toward the door jam twice to lock it. Leave the key in the door lock, in case you need to exit the room in a hurry. When leaving the hotel, place the key on the front desk and request it back when you return.



Hotel Parking

A compact car is parked backed in

Check before you book whether or not the hotel has guest parking. Pre-reserve a parking spot if they have a private parking lot or garage. Try to stay at a hotel that offers free parking. Public parking is normally available but can be expensive and the parking lots and garages are made for tiny sized cars so it can be tricky maneuvering your rental without damage.



Driving


Metric System

An odometer in kilometers

Since Europe uses the metric system, don't be surprised to see gas is sold in liters and not gallons. The price you see at a gas station is for one liter. Basically, multiply by four to get a ballpark price for a gallon.


They also use kilometers instead of miles. So, distances on road signs are in km and your speedometer in the car shows km/h and not mph. Just remember that going 100 km/h is about 60 mph. Also, learn how to convert between the two systems and save yourself a lot of confusion.



Rental Cars

Black background with stick shift

Remember that most rental cars in Europe have manual transmissions. You’ll need to specifically ask for an automatic transmission and pay extra. Always video tape or photograph the rental car condition before moving it from the garage. This may help in case of damage or an accident. Sometimes the rental car companies will try to blame you for damage that was there when you picked up the car. Give it a good look over before moving out.



Speed Cameras

Speed camera

Radar-enforced speed traps are everywhere. The police don’t pull you over anymore. You just get a traffic ticket in the mail weeks or months later and instructions on how to pay it. This can be a very complicated (and costly) process of wiring money internationally.


Small towns are notorious for speed traps. Most of the small towns are 50km/h or 30 mph and they mean it. Slow way down and obey the speed limit.



Traffic Circles

Aerial view of a traffic circle

Traffic circles are called rotaries in Europe and they are very common. Different countries have different rules as to how to enter and exit a rotary and who has priority. Sometimes the rental car agency will give you instructions especially in left side driving countries. These countries are the worst since everything is done backwards for us Americans.



International Road Signs

International road sign for children crossing

These little picture signs give a lot of information and are very common. Learn the signs for Caution, Yield, No Parking and Do Not Enter. It will save you from driving down the middle of a pedestrian walkway or having your car booted.



Bike Lanes

Bike lane aerial view

Bike lanes are taken very seriously, especially in Amsterdam.


Do you remember when Rebecca in Ted Lasso was knocked off the bridge while visiting Amsterdam? Of course she fell right into a handsome man's house boat, but the point is that she was standing in the bike lane and got knocked over. If you don't get out of the way, they will run you down!


Don’t stand or park your car in a bike lane. Bicyclists have the right of way and don’t like people or cars blocking the lane. The police will ticket you if parked blocking a bike lane.




Restaurants


Cover Charges

You will be charged a small cover charge just to enter and sit in some restaurants. This is usually accompanied by stale bread in a basket to make it appear legit. You may see this charge disguised as a service fee or water charge. Just pay it since tipping isn't common.



Dogs

You will see dogs brought into restaurants and sit under the table while their owners enjoy their meal. The dogs are never given table scraps or make any noise. Ignore them is the best advice.



Pizza

A white coated chef leaves a pizza on a table

When ordering a pizza in Europe, remember that one pizza is for one person. If there are five people at a table, they will probably order five pizzas. Sharing is tolerated but appears cheap and very American.


Be careful when ordering because the toppings are know by different names. If you want pepperoni on your pizza order spicy salami or you'll get pepperoncini which are pickled whole green peppers. Jamon york is really just boiled ham so don't be disappointed when you expect prosciutto or jamon and get Oscar Meyer style deli meat on your pizza.



Tipping

Tipping in a restaurant is not mandatory. If you are paying cash, round up to the nearest whole amount to make the change easier. If paying by credit card, there is no tip line on the receipt to add the tip. If you want to tip, leave cash on the table or hand it to your server. Ten Euros is considered a big tip so don't use 20% of the bill.


Ice

A glass of whiskey on the rocks

Although ice for drinks exists in Europe, it is never served. Europeans want the exact amount of the beverage they paid for without ice in the glass. The glass has an actual measurement etched into the side. Order the ice separately and add it to your drink after its served.


Free Refills

There is no such thing as a free refill on drinks. You pay separately for every drink you consume. This includes coffee and soft drinks.


Stay Long

Once you are seated at a table in a restaurant, it is yours for the duration of your visit. Restaurants never ask you to leave or rush you out. When you are ready for the check just signal over the server and indicated you want to pay. I usually wave my hand as if I’m writing a receipt and say check. It always works no matter what language. Expect to pay the waiter directly at your table either by credit card or cash. Avoid leaving money on the table and walking out.


Water

Water in a restaurant is not free and comes bottled either still or with gas (fizzy) and in various sizes. Some restaurants will deliver a bottle of water to your table without asking and charge you for it.


Happy Hour

Four young ladies hold red and blue martini glasses

There is really no such thing in Europe. You pay full price for drinks regardless of the time of day. Wine and beer are much less expensive than in the United States. Watchout for the mixed liquor drinks and fancy cocktails. They are usually on the expensive side.


You may find an American chain restaurant that offers a happy hour but these are not common.


Afternoon Snack

People eating and drinking outdoors

Stopping your day around 4 to 5 pm in the afternoon for a refreshing alcoholic drink and snack at a local restaurant is very common. Find a café or bar with outdoor seating and enjoy the moment with friends.


Smoking

Smoking is very common. If you are seated in an outdoor restaurant, expect someone around you to smoke. Try to sit upwind so the smoke travels in the other direction.


Napkins

Don't expect to get one and if you do they are usually tiny, thin, waxy useless pieces of paper. For some reason, Europeans don't seem to need or want good napkins in a restaurant. You may want to bring your own stash of wet wipes to clean up.



Stores


Opening Hours Vary

Some smaller retail stores close around 2 pm and reopen again at 6 pm. This gives the shopkeeper time for a long and leisurely lunch break.


There are also Bank Holidays and Sundays when most stores are closed. What exactly is a Bank Holiday and when they occur is a mystery and an art form to masterfully understand.


Telling time

A man checks the time on his watch while talking on a cell phone

Most of Europe uses the 24 hour clock so 6 p.m. is 1800. Become familiar with using the 24 hr clock, it might just save you from missing your train.


Two Fingers

Two fingers held out in a pointing manner

If you want two of anything, hold up your thumb and index finger. If you hold up your two fingers American style to order a beer, for instance, you’ll end up getting three beers because they'll count the thumb too.


And let's not forget the brutal scene in Inglorious Basterds...posing as an undercover German officer a cunning Michael Fassbender has everyone convinced of the ruse, until he orders the next round of beers by putting up two fingers like an American. Faux pas, indeed. Everyone gets slaughtered, and it's because they didn't read this article.


Cashiers

Cashiers in supermarkets are normally sitting down at the registers. Unusual for us but makes sense if you are working an 8-hour shift. You might see this at Aldi here in the states, but that's about it! They're a German company anyway, so go figure.


Tobacco Shop

They are everywhere in Europe and sell mostly tobacco products. However, they also sell train and bus tickets, stamps and other convenience store items. If you can’t find where to buy your bus ticket, check the nearest tobacco shop.


Public Nudity

A beach scene with a rocky cliff beside it

Americans are very conservative when it comes to public nudity. If you go to a beach in Europe, expect nudity.


Also, you’ll find nudity in public swimming pools, on a sunny day in a park or even inside a nice hotel pool and sauna. Its not a big deal but the kids will get an eyeful.



Sex Shops

Danish looking row homes

Shops that sell adult items or sex shops as we call them seem to pop up in the most inappropriate places. I've seen them at airports, pedestrian malls and just along a neighborhood shopping street. They always show some of their merchandise in the window display that garners a second look. If you are with your family just keep on walking and pretend you didn't see anything.


Toilets

Sign for WC and toilets

Sooner or later we all have to use a public toilet. They are usually marked with a WC or the international man and women symbols. Never ask anyone for the bathroom or restroom. In most countries, use the word toilet because they all know what that means. If you happen to see the local translation such as aseo in Spain, then use it.


Don't be surprised when you are asked to pay a small fee for toilet entry or tip a service person on the way out. If you can't find a public toilet, go into a café, order a drink or espresso and use their toilet. Don't be alarmed if there is a shared sink area for washing up. Most toilets have toilet paper but check first.



WhatsApp

A woman wearing yellow looks and laughs at her cell phone

WhatsApp is the preferred method of communication when abroad. If you are not familiar with WhatsApp, search your Apple Store or Google Play Store then download the app. You can use WhatsApp free for phone calls, video, text and messages as long as you have a cellular data or WIFI connection.


Most businesses have a WhatsApp number as do hotels, taxis and restaurants. You'll have to ask for it sometimes but most people have the app on their phone and don't mind using their personal phones for business. We use it all the time overseas and it works great.



Editor's Last Word on Things Done Differently In Europe

It's fun to read about and understand the differences you may expect abroad, especially in Europe, because the beauty is - we travel to see something different. To experience something a little shocking like public nudity on the beach, or perhaps suffer the confusion at a gas pump - will the attendant help me? Do I help myself?...all these experiences lend to a very rich trip full of discovering the world around us.


Although this list only scrapes the surface of the oddities or differences you may encounter, it's always good to read up and be prepared. Travel more, discover more, and don't forget to always pack tissues!

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