Friday, December 31, 2004

HANDY TIPS for Traveling to Europe from a veteran road warrior!

1. WASHCLOTH - I always take a washcloth in a ziplock bag since they seem to be impossible to find at hotels over there. Most Euro hotels don't seem to know about this nifty little advancement in personal hygiene. Keeping the washcloth in the ziplock bag keeps everything else in my bag nice and dry.

2. DETERGENT - Another handy thing to have on the trip is a little bit of powder laundry detergent also in a ziplock bag. You can use it to wash socks, underwear or other emergency stains overnight in the hotel sink. If the garment is not dry by the AM, you can keep it in the ziplock bag.

3. SOAP - Bring your own bar of soap - most Euro hotels give you a small sliver of soap - I prefer to use a full size bar of soap - again stored in a ziplock bag.

Note to Self: Buy stock in SC Johnson! (maker of Ziplock bags...)

4. TOILET PAPER - If you're fond of your double-ply Charmin, you better bring a roll along. Most Euro TP is of the recycled variety and has the consistency of 75 grit sandpaper...

5. CASH - It's always best to use your ATM card to get the best exchange rate w/ no exchange fees. I have been using my credit union ATM card all over Europe for 15+ years w/o any problems. Most major US ATM networks are recognized there (Star, Cirrus, etc.) I usually bring $100 US Cash for emergencies.

6. CREDIT CARDS - Common sense would be to use credit cards again to get the most favorable rate - but BEWARE. Many banks and card issuers are starting to add an exchange fee of 1 to 2% for foreign currency transactions. Amex gets 3% - these fees are not broken out, they are just rolled into the conversion. For major banks, I've heard that Citibank has one of the lowest fees in the industry. Call your Visa or Mastercard issuers and ask what they add for foreign exchange. FYI: My credit union issued Visa card does not add any fee for foreign exchange.

7. PHONE - The best and cheapest way to call from Europe back to the US is to get a pre-paid MCI card from Costco for $20. The rates are very competitive and much cheaper than using a cell phone, credit card, hotel phone, or public phone. MCI has an 800 # in Germany that you can call from any pay phone: 0800-888-8000. Calls to the US cost $0.21 per minute. (From Holland dial 0800-023-5103 and the cost is $0.19 per min.) You can always use the balance of the card back in the US where it's only $0.03 per minute for domestic calls and very competitive for international calls.

8. CELL PHONES - Most newer tri-band and quad-band GSM phones from the US now work in Europe (800 & 1900 Mhz). The Major US GSM Carriers are AT&T, Cingular, T-Mobile. However, your carrier's roaming charges may kill you - typical rates are $2.00/min for inbound and outbound calls. A good alternative if you plan on making a lot of local calls or expect a lot of inbound calls, is to get a prepaid SIM card from a local mobile phone network. This will require that your US GSM phone be "unlocked". If you're not familar with phone unlocking, search google with the term "unlock" and your phone's make and model # for more info. My Nokia 6820 phone from AT&T Wireless (now Cingular) was very easy to unlock using this free site: I understand that Motorola phones are a little trickier to unlock. Warning: Unlock phone at your own risk! When you get a prepaid SIM card from a German carrier, you automatically get a German phone # and ALL inbound calls are free to you (in Europe, caller pays for all calls including cellular.) The prepaid SIM cards are typically valid for one year. The 4 networks to choose from in Germany are: T-Mobil (D1), Vodafone (D2), E-PLus, and O2. I've had good luck w/ T-Mobil. A prepaid T-Mobil SIM card costs €20 ($26) is valid for one year and includes €10 of calling credit. Calls cost between €0.29 to €0.69 per minute depending on type of phone # called. No cost to receive calls.

9. Motorola Radios - These FRS walkie talkies are a great way to keep in touch with others in your party. We often use them to communicate between cars.

If you forget any items, no worries as you can hit the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Munich. We usually stock up on drinks, snacks and even some gifts to bring back to loved ones! These Wal-Mart Supercenters are all over Germany. You can search for one using a German postal code here. If you go into France, make sure to check their many "hypermarket" chains - Most of these magnificent stores dwarf even a Wal-Mart Supercenter! The French chains include: Carrefour, Auchan, Groupe Casino, Leclerc, Promodès, etc.

I will add more tips to this as I remember them ;-)

Enjoy and Happy Travels!