European Travel Skills Part I


Hi, I’m Rick Steves back in Europe…this
time with a focus on practical travel tips! In this three-part special edition, we travel
my favorite 2,000-mile loop through Europe, splicing in all the essential skills to help
you travel on your own-smooth and smart. The point of this special is that you can
learn from my 30 years of experience and have a better trip. How well you’re able to enjoy
the delights of Europe depends upon how well you plan and how skillfully you travel. And there’s a lot to enjoy. From the monuments
of Rome to a Turkish bath in Istanbul, from the markets of Naples to new friends in Spain,
and from the scalps of the Alps to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, you’ll want to get
the most out of every mile, minute and dollar you spend in Europe. In this three-part travels-skills special
we start in the Netherlands, venture through Germany, dip into Italy, sweep through Switzerland
and France before finishing in England. In this first episode we start in Amsterdam,
cruise the Rhine, visit Rothenburg and end in Munich. Our main tips in this show: settling in upon
arrival and transportation-exploring Europe by train and by car. We landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
To get to Europe, Americans need only a passport, plane ticket and money. Airports here are
well designed and user-friendly. Notice how easy it is for English-speakers
to step right over that language barrier. Here in Amsterdam-like most of Europe-everything’s
in two languages: Dutch for the locals and English for everyone else. And there’s an information desk ready
and waiting. But even in the Netherlands where
everyone seems to speak English…it’s polite to learn and use a few key local words. To get your cash, ATMs are the way to go.
They provide local currency at the best rates- quick, easy and in English. But each ATM transaction
comes with a fee. Minimize these fees by comparing card policies before you leave home and by
taking fewer and bigger withdrawals in Europe. It’s just like withdrawing cash at home-you
just need your four-digit PIN. But, before you leave, let your bank know you’ll be overseas
so there’s no hang-up in using your card over here. My hotel’s in the city center. Getting downtown
from European airports on public transportation is easy. You’ve got options. If you’re packing
heavy, really tired, or with a small group, a taxi can be the best value. When I’m on my own and packing light, public
transit-trains and buses-can be the best choice-and it’s far cheaper. Buses are clearly marked. These days, you’ll buy tickets and lots of
other things using machines. There’s always a button for English. Get comfortable using
your credit card and following the prompts. OK, I’ve got my train ticket to the center. Most European airports have excellent train
connections into town. From Schiphol, there’s a train into Amsterdam every couple of minutes…
and we’re downtown in a snap. I find Europe’s big iron and glass stations
evocative and impressively user-friendly. Most are designed to help visitors get oriented
quickly-and are in or near the town center. Tourist information offices are usually in
the station-or, just out the front door. As is typical in Europe, many of Amsterdam’s
buses and trams fan out from the train station. Public transit is so convenient; many Europeans
never get around to owning a car. The tram drops us just a couple bridges from our hotel. My hotel is near the downtown action, but
peacefully situated over-looking a canal-with bikes parked out front and plenty of character.
I pay extra for the convenience of a central location. After checking in, I’ve got my key… and
I’m set. Okay, now that we’re settled in, our next
challenge is over-coming jet-lag. Don’t take a nap. Jet lag hates bright light, fresh air,
and exercise. Get out and walk. I kick off my trips with a “welcome to Europe” stroll. Having changed money, we’re ready to dive
into the city. While credit cards are widely accepted, I find things just go better with
hard cash and many merchants prefer cash. The Euro is the currency used throughout most
of the Continent. Over 300 million Europeans have the same coins jangling in their pockets. Every corner of Europe comes with a unique
flavor and cultural surprises. Small-is-beautiful Holland feels quintessentially Dutch. It’s
charming: with characteristic gables, delightful bridges, floating parties… and bikes everywhere.
It’s clever: check out the three-story bicycle garage. And it’s occasionally shocking. Prepare
for some differences: curbside urinals… Prostitutes who work like small business people-unionized,
taxed, and regulated. And Coffeeshops that sell… marijuana. I’ve enjoyed how-especially when I venture
out of my comfort zone-travel has changed my outlook. When other societies tackle problems
differently than we do, I try to understand their reasoning. For decades now, the Dutch
have found that the most pragmatic approach to marijuana use is to take the crime out
of the equation and regulate it. With an open mind and a wide-eyed curiosity
in your travels, you’ll have more fun and you’ll take home my favorite souvenir: a broader
perspective. We’re heading off on our swing through the
best of Europe. Our first stop will be the Rhine and we’ll be riding the rails. We’re
leaving from Amsterdam’s central station. Be aware, many cities have more than one station-Paris
and London must have five or six each. We’re leaving from Amsterdam Centraal as opposed
to Amsterdam Sloterdijk. Stations and tickets are clearly marked so, if you know to check,
it’s no big deal. Trains work the same all over Europe. Ticket
windows handle your ticket and reservation needs. Be sure-when necessary-that your ticket
or your railpass is validated before boarding. Ask for advice at the quick question info
booth… or from uniformed conductors on the tracks Many express trains require an advance
reservation. It’s smart to ask. Every station has departure boards listing
all the trains leaving from a station on a particular day.
The big, constantly changing “trains departing imminently board” displays precisely what’s
happening in the next hour or so. Whatever the language, you’ll always find the same
columns: departure time, stops in route, destination, which track, and if it’s late. For instance
the 14:20 train heading through Heidelberg to Klagenfurt is leaving from track 12, and
it’s is five minutes late. Train composition charts on the platform show
the order of cars starting with the engine-You’ll see first class…the dining car…and second
class. With this chart, you’ll also know where on the platform to wait, so when the train
stops you’re already positioned to step right onto your car. Be aware. Some trains pick up and drop cars
as they go. Individual cars are marked: where they’re going, 1st or 2nd class….icons indicate
.this is a quiet car…smoking is never allowed. Once inside, little signs above each seat
make it clear which seats are reserved and for which stretch of the route they’re occupied. Once you’re settled, you’ll spend a lot of
time en route. Do what you can on the train to save time off the train…read, listen
to audiophiles relating to your travels, write your journal or emails, eat, and sleep. Tablets
are great for readers packing light. Meet people. Strike up conversations.
Information boards announce the upcoming stop and key information about the ride. While
cars come with a bag storage area, for peace of mind, I like to keep my bag in the rack
above my seat. You’ll pay 50% extra per kilometer to travel
first class. First Class is cushier-generally three seats across, less crowded and occupied
by people who figured it was worth paying the 50% extra for the added privacy and comfort.
Second class comes with four seats across and more people. Today’s trains are so comfortable
in Europe, that the new second class feels as slick as the old first class. Trains have
a mix of open seating and more private compartments. Nearly every train has both first and second
class cars-each going precisely the same speed. If you’re on a budget, second class is just
fine. But we’re traveling with railpasses-and they come in First Class-forced luxury. No more windmills. I think we’re in Germany
now but in today’s Europe, it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed a border. Today’s goal: visit a great German city, cruise
the most scenic hour of the Rhine River, and check into a hotel in my favorite medieval
Rhine village. A full itinerary like this is perfectly doable when you use schedules
smartly. Consider stop-overs along your route. While
we’re heading for the villages of the Rhine gorge, our fast train stops in Koln and it’s
worth popping out for a quick look. Checking the departure schedule I see there’s
a train every hour-we’ll catch the 14:53 to Koblenz. Remember, schedules in Europe use the 24-hour
clock: anything after 12, subtract 12 and add p.m. 14:53…14 minus 12… that’s 2:53
pm…, that gives us about an hour to enjoy Koln. Let’s go. When stopping to sightsee between hotels,
I lock up my bag at the train station. Many stations have the standard, safe, coin-operated
lockers: Some are getting pretty high tech-here’s another example of automation: with a few
coins and following the prompts, your bag gets taken away and safely stored who knows
where. Literally just out the door of the station
towers the majestic Koln cathedral…it’s an awe-inspiring 500 feet high. Just steps
away, an old Roman gate still stands reminding the modern city of its ancient heritage. And
its main street-now a thriving pedestrian mall-gives a sense of the dynamism of Germany
today. Back at the station, I check in with the “trains
departing imminently” board. There’s our train: 14:53, to Koblenz, track 7… and on time. After a short ride to Koblenz, we change to
our last train…the milk run to our Rhine village…St. Goar. Europe’s express trains-like the ones we caught
this morning-make the big city leaps quickly. The little local trains-like this one-take
it from there. We’ve reached Germany’s castle country.
Hulks of ruined castles standing high above spindly towns fill the romantic Rhine gorge
with legends and history. The old town of St. Goar sits under the river’s
mightiest castle-Reinfels. The castle overlooks the town with a commanding view of the Rhine
and all its traffic. St. Goar is the departure point for our Rhine
cruise. Today, we’re cruising just my favorite hour of the Rhine-which is from here to the
town of Bacharach. The Rhine’s always been busy with trade. Back when roads were too
dangerous, merchants shipped their goods to market up and down rivers. Robber baron castles
like these were built to levy tolls. Good guidebooks help make the sights meaningful-for
the whole family. Researching and writing guidebooks is my main work. And to me, guidebooks
are $20 tools for $3000 experiences. I’ve found that if you equip yourself with good
information-whether in print or digital-and expect yourself to travel smart…you will. Guidebooks also recommend memorable places
to spend the night-like Bacharach, and good places to eat, drink, and stay-like Hotel
Kranenturm, which I booked by email with an email a month ago. This hotel was the Kranenturm-that
means crane tower. About 500 years ago riverboats, loaded down
with kegs of wine, couldn’t pass the rapids out here. So, with the help of cranes on this
tower, they unloaded their ships, carried the kegs around, and continued their journey. And, in the sleepy villages along the river,
you’ll find Rhine wine is still the life blood of these communities. Wherever grapes are
grown, vintners like Frau Bastian are eager to share the fruits of their labor. Her teaching
aid: the wheel of fifteen family wines. And we’re in
for a tasty education. Using Frau Bastian’s wheel is a convivial
way to share opinions and gain knowledge. I’ve been tasting wine in Germany for years
and there are three key words: trocken is dry, halb-trocken is half-dry, and süss is
sweet. Yes, this is sweet. You can learn forever on the road. And all over Europe wine tasting is a fun
way to meet fellow travelers and make friends-one of the most important travel skills. We’re leaving the Rhineland for Bavaria. Europe
is laced together by an efficient train system hard for most Americans to imagine. And with
our Eurailpass, we’ve got free run of it. European railpasses come in many versions.
While these are expensive, for certain itineraries, they can be a great value. Passes give you
unlimited train travel through anywhere from one country to most of Europe. To cover this three-week, 2,000-mile trip,
economically, we chose a train pass covering just the countries we’re visiting. It gives
us 10 rail travel days-to be used within a two-month window.
Our destination today, Rothenburg, is pretty remote, so getting there requires two train
changes. Again, if you’re uncertain, ask for help.
Conductors are happy to assist confused tourists. In Germany, connections are synchronized.
Changing trains is often just a matter of checking the schedule, switching platforms,
and hopping into an awaiting car. Rothenburg is Germany’s medieval wonder town.
Even with tourist crowds turning it into a half-timbered theme park in the summer, I
love this place. While it can be packed with tour groups during the day, in the evening
they’re back in the big city and the town’s all yours. Those who spend the night enjoy the medieval
magic of this otherwise touristy place in relative peace. To stretch your sightseeing day and mix in
some information at the same time, catch an evening tour. Rothenburg’s Night Watchman’s tour goes each
evening at 8 o’clock and all’s well. Germany’s Romantic Road, the next leg of our
journey, can’t be done by train. It’s best explored by rental car. We’ll have this car
for two days and drop it in Munich. You can arrange your car rental before leaving
home. Prices vary dramatically from month to month, country to country, and from company
to company. Shop around. Even if you don’t plan on driving, bring your license and a
credit card. Your American license generally works just fine. It’s easy to rent a car on
a whim. And with your own wheels, you can get to more
remote places like the monastery at Andechs. Because it’s easily accessible only by car,
it has fewer tourists and more locals. The stately church stands as it has for centuries.
Its baroque interior both stirs the soul and stokes the appetite. The monks here nurture a heritage of brewing
a heavenly beer. And it’s served by the liter. The hearty meals also come in medieval proportions.
Like many beer halls, the food’s perfectly Bavarian. When I’m far from home, I become a cultural
chameleon. In England I actually fancy a spot of tea. But here in Germany, it’s big pretzels,
beautiful radishes, kraut, knuckle of pork-check this out-and great beer. By the way, don’t
drink and drive. I’m done driving for today. Permissible alcohol levels are extremely low
and penalties are severe. There’s nothing exotic about driving in Europe.
While the British drive on the left, everyone on the Continent drives on the same side as
we do in the USA. Filling the tank here-whether diesel or gas-is
like filling the tank at home-except it’s Euros and liters rather than dollars and gallons-figure
four liters to a gallon. Don’t overreact to Europe’s high cost of gas. Over here cars
get great mileage and distances are short. Rental cars come with a basic insurance policy.
But deductibles can be really high. You can pay extra for zero deductible for the peace
of mind. But first, check with your insurance agent at home to see how well you’re covered
in Europe. When driving, to cover long distances in a
hurry, use the freeway. This is Germany’s autobahn. Like most of Europe, Germany’s laced
with these super freeways. And around here, fast driving is considered a civil liberty.
On the autobahn, you’ll learn quickly…the fast lane is used only for passing. Cruise
in the left lane and you’ll have a Mercedes up your tail pipe. Here and throughout northern Europe the autobahn
is toll free. In France and countries south of Germany these super-freeways usually come
with tolls. Learn some navigation basics: In Germany:
Zentrum means center. A giant letter “P” means parking, and this icon means autobahn, color-coding
and arrows point you in the right direction. And while many travelers here go through their
trips thinking all roads lead to the town of Ausfahrt…ausfahrt is German for exit. This sign means traffic circle or roundabout.
Merge safely into the circle, take the exit for the direction you’re heading. If you’re
not sure, relax, take an extra loop and explore your options. Entering a new town-this is Dinkelsbuhl-it’s
safe to assume the church spire marks the center and the tourist office is nearby. Old
town centers are increasingly difficult to drive in-one way streets… or closed to cars
entirely. Drive as close as you can and find a place to park. Confirm you’re parked legally.
Your time is valuable-just pay to park and walk. Know the key road symbols. They’re the same
throughout Europe: no parking anytime, no traffic allowed, wrong way…don’t enter,
this means no cars or bikes from 8 to midnight, no passing, and you know this one …. And
make educated guesses: with this one ….be ready for anything. I navigate by town names
because road numbers on maps often don’t match the signs. Distances and speeds are in kilometers-on
this road: 80 kph. A kilometer is 6/10 of a mile. To change to
miles, cut the kilometers in half and add back 10% of the original. 80 kph=40 plus
8…that’s 48 mph. Beware photo speed traps can be really expensive
and those with rental cars are billed by mail. Save time and avoid wasted car rental days
by picking up and dropping off your car in two different cities-like Rothenburg and Munich.
When using a bigger company with many branches, you can generally do this anywhere in the
same country for no extra charge. While dropping a car a different country usually comes with
a high fee, it can also be a great convenience. Without our wheels, we’re back to riding the
rails. We’re at the Munich train station and it’s about time to say “auf Wiedersehn” to
Germany. Our next stop is Venice. With Europe’s many discount airlines, it’s
often cheaper to fly than to take the train. Before taking any long surface trip, I look
into flying. Still, I enjoy the romance and adventure of a night train. Sleeping cars require reservations. A conductor
checks your ticket as you board. By taking the night train you do miss a little scenery.
But you more than make up for that by gaining an entire extra day for sightseeing. I’d take
an extra day exploring Venice over any train ride. Cheap couchettes are co-ed and come with bunkbeds.
For less than the cost of a simple hotel bed, you get your own bunk with clean linen, a
locking door, and an attendant who monitors who comes and goes as you sleep. In the morning we’ll be cruising the Grand
Canal in Venice. Thanks for traveling with us, and join us next time for part two of
our three-part travel skills special. Until then, I’m Rick Steves. Keep on travelin’…and
gute Nacht.

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