TRAVEL TIPS TOP EIGHT
European Focus, Inc.
European Focus Private Tours
Established in 1989
Please make a copy of your passport and keep it in a safe place. This is very important in case you should lose your passport or leave it behind in a hotel. It also works to take a close up shot of your passport with your smart phone. Also, many hotels like to keep your passport for a while during the check-in process, in some countries it’s the law (for example, Italy). If you are uncomfortable with this idea, then bring along a B&W copy of your passport for check-in purposes. A few copies should suffice; the hotel will give it back to you. (Only applies to Italy)
VERY IMPORTANT: Be certain your passport is valid for at least 6 months past the date of your return to your home country from Europe. If you need to update or renew your passport this is the official government site:
Money, credit cards, ATM cards
Please inform your bank that you will be traveling to avoid unnecessary blockage of your card due to spending out-of-pattern. Do not bring cash to Europe with the intent to exchange to Euros. Most banks no longer provide this service. If they do, you get ripped off in a very major way on the exchange rate. Your ATM card (you can get one from your bank if you do not currently have one) will work all over Europe if you have a four-digit PIN. Some people are convinced that they save money by exchanging currency because of “out of area ATM fees.” This is not true.
Medications and other supplements
Be sure to keep in their original prescription container otherwise customs may confiscate. Bring pain reliever with you, as your favorite may not be available in Europe. Things we take for granted as over the counter (Tylenol, Advil, etc) are not available over the counter in Europe or are more expensive. Also – NEW – if you use CBD oils or other products of marijuana for a medicinal purpose, be sure to have your original doctor’s prescription with you, along with the original container from the pharmacy, and most importantly – check the rules for the country where you land and depart from regarding that nation’s laws.
Luggage and packing smart
Be careful about how much you bring with you please. James has witnessed countless times people who have brought far too much luggage. And HEAVY. Depending on the level of hotels you have chosen, you may have to carry your luggage upstairs. (And more than one flight) We can schedule a laundry stop if you want to travel super light, but I must know about this in advance.
If your tour includes the use of the European Focus company van, (most tours on the European continent do) then you will be spoiled with three charging ports but you will need your own DC adapter plug. James supplies a couple of adapter plugs for Europe, and most devices can be charged on European current. Leave converters behind, they never work in Europe. Leave hair dryers and curling irons wired for 110v current at home. (Please, this is also advice that many ignore) Hotels provide hair dryers.
Hot Button Topics
We live in a highly-divisive time in America. Tribalism is at an all-time high, unfortunately. We will be traveling and experiencing things as a small group in very close quarters. Therefore, to maintain the peace, European Focus has had to make the following very strict rule after some guests who could not keep their opinions to themselves ruined the experience for others.
No matter what your political stance or feelings about the current social or political situation in the United States may be, European Focus as a company rule has a ZERO TOLERANCE for discussion during your tour while your guide is present of politics, race, sexual orientation (gay marriage or rights) or religion (who is right and who is wrong and any disparaging remarks about any religious group or belief, likewise disparaging remarks about people who choose not to follow any particular religion). James refuses to be drawn into these discussions and requires that his guests not discuss these topics when he is present, with no exceptions. Jokes at another’s expense, bigotry, etc. are also not acceptable at any time. James takes this very seriously and has witnessed trips and the relationship between your travel companions and between himself and guests ruined or at best case severely strained and compromised because someone could not abstain from expressing their feelings about one or more of these hot buttons. James welcomes people of all faiths (or the faithless) orientations, political ideals and lifestyles. James just figures that you didn’t spend all of this money to come to Europe and get engaged in an argument. You can stay home and do that!
Now of course James is also very opinionated and he oftentimes shares those opinions on his personal Facebook page. But out of mutual respect he never discusses those topics while on duty or in the company of clients in Europe. This is the main reason why clients of European Focus are very rarely accepted as “Friends” on his personal Facebook page.
Something to help you sleep. The Number 1 piece of advice that (unfortunately) guests ignore. You will toss and turn the first night or two (or more) in Europe, guaranteed. Bring an effective sleep aid. You will be very happy to have this.
Travel Tips, Lessons Learned, & Rules of the Road to Help You Enjoy and Get the Most from Your European Focus Private Tour
Last Updated: September 19, 2023
With thanks to all the people who have traveled with James and who have lent their tips to this expanding “Travel Tips.”
James has written these to enhance your experience and keep you safe and comfortable. He adds to this trip file after every tour, based on feedback from guests. (Many of them James can tell didn’t read the trip recommendations! Therefore, they had some bumps in the road adjusting to life in Europe)
European Focus organizes and between 10 and 15 tours per season. The regular season is from April through October. Since the pandemic, James is now operating on a 12-month calendar. Your tour might be structured differently. These Travel Tips and Rules of the Road are written to fit most situations encountered on a tour with European Focus. If you have questions about any of the advice here, please let James know before the start of your trip.
The short amount of time you spend now reading over these tips and anecdotes may save you headaches and inconveniences later.
Contact number (within Europe) Please add to your phone now
James: 941-666-0668 (This is a US-based number)
Download and add James as a contact to “WhatsApp,” its a wonderful way to be connected in Europe.
CHECKLIST of things to remember
___ phone number of next of kin, please provide to us before you depart from the United States. This should be a person that James can use as a go-between, such as a relative or close friend. This way, if you’re not at the airport he has someone to call.
___Ibuprofen, Tylenol or other pain reliever if you use it. It’s quite expensive in Europe and can only be obtained at a pharmacy. Any other medication that you normally take or think you might need, including for motion sickness.
___ credit cards- VISA is the most accepted card, followed by MasterCard. AMEX is not accepted in Europe, nor is Discover. Leave these at home.
___Call your credit card & ATM card provider(s) and let them know you’re going to be traveling in Europe. This will prevent any blockage of your card due to spending “out of normal pattern.”
___ phone numbers to call if you lose your credit card(s). Check with your credit card provider or look on the back of your card.
___ sunblock or suntan creme, don’t forget this! It’s important because if you wait to get it in Europe you will definitely be paying a lot more
___something to help you sleep. The first two or three nights in Europe might be full of tossing and turning, as your body clock adjusts to the time change. You will be very happy you have this at 3 a.m. on your first night in Europe. A common complaint during travel is “I couldn’t sleep because of….” Bring along a mild sedative and enjoy your day to the fullest after a full night’s sleep. Very few people bring something to help them sleep and it’s really a problem.
___If you’d like to use your cell phone while in Europe, be certain that you have global capabilities enabled on your cell phone through your provider. Also inquire as to whether they can enroll you in a more cost-effective global data roaming plan while you’re away. We need to warn you in advance that you will rarely find that internet works perfectly in Europe for you. Consider taking a vacation from being “plugged in” at all times. You will enjoy your experience more. Not knowing how to use one’s cell phone abroad is the #1 mistake that people make in these techno-driven times.
___A protective case for your valuable cell phone. It’s amazing how many people don’t take this simple precaution. And, it’s heartbreaking to witness someone dropping their $1,000 phone and busting it on Day 1 of a 14-day trip. I recommend the excellent “Otter Box.”
___comfortable ear plugs and consider a white noise or sound maker to help overcome exterior sounds in the night
___ a raincoat or jacket that sheds water and/or a small umbrella
___rubber flip flops or what are sometimes referred to as shower shoes. Many hotels in Europe have a combination tub and shower. Some people find these difficult to get in and out of as there are rarely hand rails. A pair of flip flops that can be used as shower shoes can be a lifesaver, literally.
___ Light jacket, sweater even for a summer time tour. An insulated jacket in fall, depending on where you’re traveling. To blend in with the locals and for all of our safety, do not bring or wear jackets, shirts or sweaters emblazoned with American connections, like colleges, towns, etc.
___If you are going to be touring in Italy, a light shawl or even just a big, light scarf for the ladies to throw over bare shoulders in order to be allowed into churches. This is a strict rule in Italy. No exposed knees for women or teenagers in churches in Italy, either.
___comfortable shoes. James recommends brown or black comfortable walking shoes with a special emphasis on shoes with thick soles. If it’s time to buy new shoes for your journey, tell the salesperson that you need a shoe that can provide comfort over rugged surfaces and that you may be on your feet for several hours per day. Europe is the land of cobblestones and uneven street and sidewalk surfaces and woe be to those who wear flat-soled shoes or sandals!
___ large zip lock bags. These come in handy for putting personal care items into, or for your spare change, or for other small items that would otherwise be lost in your baggage.
___swimming suit. They take up so little room, and can add a lot to the enjoyment of your trip.
____ washcloth, if you like to use them. Many of even the finest hotels in mainland Europe do not always provide washcloths because it is not the custom in Europe to use them. Little bars of hand or bath soap along with little bottles of shampoo are usually (but not always) provided in your hotel room bathroom. A tip for the ladies – pre-moistened facial cleansers are great for removing makeup.
____bar of soap. Most hotels have switched to liquid soap and some guests have commented that had they known this in advance, they would have brought their favorite bath soap.
____Two (at least) N95 or FFP2 masks. Cloth masks are oftentimes rejected at museums.
____ A good book(s) or e-Book. Our hotels will usually have a television in the room; however, most channels will be in the local language. (Sometimes we might get lucky and get a hotel with CNN International or BBC but these are repetitive) If you like to relax in the evening, a book might be the best way. Bring a clip-on book light if you like to read in bed because bedside lamps are usually woefully inadequate for reading. (We know folks did not read these tips when they come down to breakfast and complain about the weak bedside light)
____Insect repellent if traveling during warm summer months. Yellow jackets, also known as European wasps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellowjacket) can be prevalent in the summer months throughout Europe. They’re attracted to food and drink and can be a nuisance while dining outside. In addition, if traveling in Provence during summer months mosquitoes can be vicious after the sun goes down. The only thing that will repel these “Les Moustiques” is repellents with DEET. Repellents with DEET are not available in most of Europe, so bring yours from home.
____ prepared adhesive address labels for the people that you want to send postcards to. Make sure the label includes “USA” after the zip code to speed the postcard along.
____Your Netflix Password. Many hotels and inns feature this service but you need to sign in with your own log-in and password.
____Plug adapters appropriate for the country/countries that you are visiting for electronics or other items that don’t need to be converted from 110 volts to 220 volts (e.g. computers, cell phones, e-books). This does not include items like hair dryers, curling irons, flat irons (more on that later) James does have a limited supply of plug adapters on hand which he will be happy to loan to you if available. However, he cannot guarantee that he will have enough for every member of your group or all of your devices.
About your guide and driver
James holds a German driver’s license, one of the world’s most difficult to obtain. The basic test contains more than 1,187 potential scenerios and questions. James has completed the German Red Cross First Aid course. He has more than 1 million miles of accident and incident-free driving behind him in every imaginable situation across Europe.
What to pack? – the weather
Depending on your trip, we might have a laundry stop scheduled midway through. If this is the case, it will be noted on your itinerary. Many guests ask, “What should we bring? What will the weather be like?”
The best way to be prepared is to use that wonderful tool – the Internet, to see what the trends in weather are in the parts of Europe where you’ll be going.
So much of life in Europe is determined by one factor – the extremely high cost of energy as compared to the U.S. and Canada. Electricity is three to four times the cost, fuel is three to four times the cost. This has a trickle-down effect on nearly every facet of European day to day life. And so….
Regarding air conditioning. Oh, the conveniences that we take for granted in North America. Don’t expect it in Northern Europe, not even in higher end hotels or restaurants or other public places. The Europeans have grown up without it, and they figure “why install an expensive system when it’s only hot for a few weeks in the summer?” Europeans also believe that sleeping or even just sitting in an air-conditioned room is bad for their health. Most Europeans have been thinking and living ‘green’ long before it became fashionable in the USA. Air-conditioning is not part of the cultural makeup of the Europeans.
Guests need to know that even five star hotels with air conditioning will not be able to freeze your room to the level that you are probably used to in America. Most Europeans, consider any temperature below 68 (20 degrees celsius) to be unhealthy and their systems will not go below that. Yes, even in the very expensive and deluxe five star category hotels. And even if you beg, bribe or holler – your room will not get as freezing as a freezer and that’s because the Europeans just don’t believe in it.
Bottom line is, and I have tried to help many, many Americans understand this, air-conditioning in Northern Europe (especially the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, parts of Northern France, England, Ireland) is woefully insufficient and just not what Americans are used to. Those who are super-sensitive and who MUST have ice-cold rooms should seriously reconsider travel in the months of May, June, July and August to avoid dissatisfaction.
Hotels in Italy, Spain, Southern France and Portugal usually have pretty decent A/C.
Also, regarding fans. Most hotels in the smaller towns and villages do not provide them. If you must have air circulation beyond that which is coming through an open or ajar window, please inform James in advance so that he may attempt to get the hotels to provide a fan (usually not possible) or depending on where your trip takes place, James can bring a member of his “Fan Club” to share with you. (Does not apply to tours in the United Kingdom or Ireland because of logistics)
You will find, however, that many hotels in Southern Europe do have something close to air conditioning. All over Europe you will see office workers all of the time, sitting in their darkened offices, quietly sweating. They don’t even have a fan to circulate the air! Same thinking applies to ice cubes. Europeans for the most part believe that drinking liquids that are super-chilled is bad for the stomach. They’ve grown up like that and they’re not changing anytime soon.
If you are sensitive to extremes in temperature, carefully consider the timing of your trip or ask us about staying in all five star hotels, which will dramatically change the nature (and price) of your trip, but at least you can be relatively sure of having some kind of climate control in your room. As you can tell, James has gone around and around on this subject with our guests over the many years. Bottom line is: If you must have a climate-controlled (freezing) atmosphere at all times, reconsider your desire to travel in “Old Europe.”
Your final itinerary will let you know if your room will feature A/C.
Avoid horrible layovers, weird routing and overall hassles by allowing our partners at NonStop Travel in Torrance, CA arrange your flights. They charge a pittance for the service and they are experts in European itineraries with more than 30 years experience. James will be happy to put you in touch with his personal agent there.
Lost or delayed luggage
It’s a great idea to pack needed toiletry items (3 oz. and under, of course) and a fresh pair of undies and a fresh shirt in your hand baggage. Several guests have been inconvenienced in the past by airlines not delivering luggage at the same time as our guests arrive in Europe. In one case, luggage did not catch up to us until the third morning of their tour. If you have purchased Travel Guard trip cancellation and interruption insurance, your policy will provide up to $200 per person for purchase of clothes and other items in case your bags do not come on the same plane you did.
Along these lines, hotels which provide dry cleaning services are mostly limited to five star or luxury four star only. Please let James know in advance if you require these services so that he can tailor the selection of our hotels accordingly.
If you lead a sedentary lifestyle and are used to driving everywhere you go (and more than half of Americans do) then at least eight weeks before you come to Europe, start walking a little more than normal every day. Even a walk around the block in the morning, then again in the afternoon or early evening will help. There’s nothing like the trip of a lifetime to motivate you to get in better shape. You’re never too old to start a program of physical fitness. And, practice walking up and down stairs. You will encounter them everywhere in Europe.
If you’re able to enjoy walking more than just a few blocks, you’ll enjoy your entire tour more. As you’ll discover, walking is part of everyday European life. Many towns and villages have pedestrian zones in their centers with no cars allowed. This makes for very enjoyable sightseeing, but it also means that you have to be able to get there on your own two feet.
You must be able to walk at least three blocks distance unassisted (without a walker) and you must be able to climb at least 12 stairs unassisted at a time. You must be able to get in and out of a vehicle. If we are using our company van, the distance from ground to inside the van is about 12 inches. You need to be able to lift your leg at least this high. If these basic physical requirements are too much for you, you may not be qualified for a trip with European Focus.
Jet Lag (Or, why are my eyelids so heavy?)
(Applicable if we are meeting immediately after your flight from America)
Try to get some quality sleep before your flight and try to sleep a little longer than usual. Stay away from alcohol for the entire period, including before and during your flight.
Eat a well-balanced meal before you fly — a good, healthy brunch with plenty of carbohydrates. Drink LOTS of water before, during and after your flight. Try to stay away from drinking a lot of caffeinated coffee during your flight. Relax with a good book or do something to make you sleepy in a natural way early in the evening of your flight. Sleep as much as you can on the flight over, even though this is very difficult to do.
If you’re bothered by noise, you may want earplugs to drown out engine noise and the sound of people, screaming babies, etc. Also, earplugs will come in handy during your trip to drown out those European sounds that we Americans are not used to, like church bells, cars driving on cobblestones and perhaps a local festival that runs past 10 p.m.
How to get your ZZZZZs and bounce back faster
Even if you’re normally against taking medication to help you sleep at night, please, for the sake of everyone on your trip (including your spouse and your guide), bring some along. Talk to you doctor if you think you might need something stronger than an over-the-counter sleep aid.
Avoid Health Problems with advice taken from experts
During your flight, get up and walk around at least once every couple of hours, which I know can be a challenge, given the food carts and maybe a grumpy neighbor. That’s why James recommends that you make sure you are seated in an aisle seat, or at least if you are traveling with a companion that you and your companion occupy a window and an aisle seat together so that you can spell each other. Check with your travel agent on this and make sure when you check in for your flight that you have the seats you desire. Sometimes airlines change the type of aircraft used on your Atlantic flight, so it’s important to make sure you have the seats you ordered.
· While seated, flex your ankles and move your feet around to stimulate blood circulation. Removing shoes helps with circulation.
· Remain hydrated. There’s no way that you can drink too much water while flying. Drink water! Alcohol dehydrates the body. If you have wine with your meal, make sure you follow that with plenty of water. The flight attendants will keep bringing it if you ask.
· Consider wearing support stockings or elastic wraps to keep blood from settling in the veins in your legs. We’ve all heard the stories of the people who get off a long flight and keel over with a heart attack. Remaining sedentary for a long period can create blood clots, so keep fidgeting and you should be able to avoid any discomfort.
· Before you leave the aircraft, consider doing some moderate stretching to help get the blood flowing.
Once on the ground, James will help you get some light exercise when we’ve escaped the airport area. We’ll all get plenty of fresh air, which is vital to getting over jet lag.
Some people have been convinced that staying up all day on the day of your arrival, then going to bed at your usual time is the way to get adjusted to the time difference. James says: “That’s Torture!” This old theory is really baloney, and you just have to trust him on this. After more than three decades of helping people over this hump, the magic formula is a short nap from about noon to about 4:00 or 4:30, then a well-balanced dinner at a normal hour, followed by a little light exercise (a short walk around the town will do) and then bed by about 9:30 or 10. You’ll bounce back nicely on Day 2 if you follow this advice.
Your tour has been designed to allow for a nap on your first afternoon.
After escorting many people on tours James knows that to avoid a nap on the first afternoon is to invite days of grogginess into your trip and a near total memory loss of what you did and saw on your first day. And you will be absolutely miserable at dinner.
You’ll toss and turn a little on that first night due to the excitement of being in Europe and your mixed up body clock, and will probably be up with the birds on your first full day, but by following the advice given beforehand, will start your first day refreshed and ready to go. H2O to the rescue! (From your hotel sink is perfectly safe, wherever we go)
NEW for all tours in the 2025 Season and Beyond
For all new tours booked after October 4, 2022 for the 2025 season and beyond, guests of European Focus will be advised that no touring services will be offered by James on the day of arrival in Europe from the US, Canada or other areas which result in significant jet lag. More and more clients are listening to sage advice and are booking a hotel near or at the airport for the arrival day and night so that they can decompress and relax before the official tour begins with James the following day. For those who wish to be picked up immediately after their flight arrives, James will do still do this but there will be no touring on Day 1, just delivery to the hotel and then “see you tomorrow at breakfast.”
If you have a knee, hip or shoulder (or other) replacement, it will speed and smooth your passage through security if you have documentation to support these spare parts. This can be as simple as a scan or copy of your paperwork received by your doctor saved as a file on your smart phone.
(If we’re meeting immediately after your flight)
Your guide will know ahead of time all the details of your flight, and he/she will time his/her arrival at the airport to coincide with your own flight arrival time, since he/she knows that the passport/baggage process usually takes from 30-50 minutes or more.
Therefore: If your flight is scheduled to arrive at 9:00 a.m. then your guide/driver will be arriving at the airport at about 9:40. If your flight arrives early, then you will have to wait until 40 – 45 minutes past your originally scheduled arrival time for your guide. Why? Because your guide/driver might have to drive a distance to get to the airport. Or, perhaps your guide/driver is at a hotel, the hotel doesn’t serve breakfast prior to a certain time, etc.
If we have never met in person, it is helpful that one of your party carries their “European Focus” travel bag (which you’ll receive at least two weeks before your departure) on their baggage cart in a visible way. This is, after all, the only way to spot you. If we have met in person, then no problem. Your guide(s) will spot you.
Don’t panic if you come out of the baggage retrieval area and don’t see your guide waiting there. Likewise, James knows from experience not to panic if you don’t exit the baggage area within an hour of your flight arrival time. Sometimes the airport is exceptionally busy or something could have gone wrong with the baggage unloading process. James takes all of this into account and will wait patiently.
If by some reason we don’t connect immediately outside the exit from baggage retrieval, stay calm, have a seat and do not leave the immediate area unless for a quick trip to the restroom. After all, the reason your guide is not there could have something to do with the call of nature! The first place he or she will look for you will be the area outside the baggage retrieval area. Each flight is assigned their own exit door, and your guide will be able to determine this from message boards throughout the terminal.
If after you’ve been in the arrivals area for 15 minutes or so and you start to feel uneasy, just call your guide or driver on his or her cell phone. From Europe, to reach James call 001-941-666-0668.
Your Boarding Pass
Don’t just throw it away or leave it on the plane. If you really care about your personal details (home address, phone number, even credit card info) destroy this (James rips up his and flushes it down the toilet when he has reached the final destination) or keep it in a safe place.
Rules of the Road
Seatbelt usage is mandatory in Europe. Unlike in America, they will pull you over if you don’t have your belt on, with no other infraction required. The person not buckled up would receive a hefty fine, payable on the spot, if someone weren’t buckled up. Whenever we travel, each person must be buckled up.
Safety matters! The driving conditions in Europe are much more intense than in America. There are so many things that your driver has to look out for. Not just other cars, but also bikes and motor scooters and pedestrians and all manner of signs and lane changes and so on. When James is negotiating traffic, he cannot converse with you. When we are on the open road, cruising, then no problem, he can converse or answer questions depending on the situation. Naturally our passengers are free to chat at any time amongst themselves. (Except about the Un-Holy Trinity of subjects mentioned in the first section)
Help maintain the tour vehicle
Guests can snack or drink sodas or coffee to go on the road but no chocolate, greasy foods such as chips or ice cream or so-called “messy” coffee drinks (frappes, Starbucks creations with lots of cream and so on) will be consumed in the vehicles. Wait for your driver before pulling luggage from the rear compartment. Only James operates the rear hatch of the tour van. And, valets at hotels are prohibited from removing luggage unsupervised because valets are not always careful.
Getting in and out of the European Focus tour vehicle
The official tour vehicle is a late model Volkswagen turbo diesel van seating up to six passengers plus driver. You must be able to step “up” into the van, and then “down” when exiting. The height of our van is about 12 inches. If you are not able to do this, please inform James well in advance. James does have a step that he can provide, or, he may be able to arrange a sedan at an additional cost.
Some guests love to follow along on a map as we travel. That’s fine, and James knows it can be fun and interesting for you. But, please leave the navigation and right turn, left turn, U-turn to your driver. He or she will know where they are going. Please do not be offended, but it’s dangerously distracting to have a backseat (or front seat) ‘Assistant Navigator’ questioning every turn, road, byway and highway choice. And, please, in order for your driver not be distracted, it is greatly appreciated if you leave the road signs and their meanings to your driver. James has more than 30 years of experience driving in Europe. Unless you’re planning to take the wheel, please refrain from asking him to translate a sign as we travel. It takes his eyes and attention off the road for a split second and that is all it takes to end with an accident – and a ruined trip. James is always happy to explain things we see along the way when we’re at a stop – like lunch or dinner or a rest stop.
James is proud to have more than a million kilometers and three decades of accident-free driving experience in Europe.
If you like to listen to music as we travel our luxury touring van (used for most tours on the European continent) is equipped with Bluetooth so that you can pair your phone. James reserves the right to hit “pause” if he feels that he needs to have extra concentration while driving (in heavy traffic or in a large city for example). But on the open road, James enjoys music (within reason, he will reserve his opinion on country and Big Band or freestyle jazz!) so if you want to listen to your favorite tunes as we travel be my guest.
James never drinks and drives. Not even one small beer.
Vrrrrooooom! The Autobahn, l’Autoroute, Autovia and Autostrada!
The expressways in the countries we’re visiting are for the most part, smooth, very well marked and extremely safe. Yes, Europeans drive fast. Europeans are also much better drivers than the vast majority of Americans. Unlike in America, getting a license in Europe is an expensive and time-consuming affair done through a private company. (Not at high school).
“Autobahn,” “l’Autoroute,” “Autovia,” and “Autostrada” translated into English means “Interstate highway.” Once you know this, then traveling on it seems a little less exciting. For those taking a trip in Germany: Some people have the impression that there is one huge race strip down the center of Germany, and that’s the free-for-all “Autobahn.” The truth is a little more mundane. There are more than 100 branches of the Autobahn, just like we have many interstates and expressways and toll roads in America. Your guide usually drives on the open road and “interstate” between 120 and 140 kilometers per hour, (75 to 85 mph) depending on road conditions. We will be passed on the left by cars traveling like the wind.
There are service plazas at regular intervals on European interstate freeways. Restrooms in the German-speaking countries are usually spic and span. It is normal to have to pay to use restrooms on the freeway in Germany. In other countries, the restrooms are usually free. Many have vast stores where you can pick up a snack or even a regional souvenir. Restrooms located at gas stations on the smaller side roads and highways are free. If there is a tip plate the normal tip is 50 Euro cents after use of the facilities. For the most part, we usually try to travel on the smaller secondary roads when possible. These roads are more scenic and interesting than the faster-paced freeways – unless we have long travel days.
Each traveler who books a tour with EFPT should make sure that their major medical insurance company covers them while traveling in Europe. Ninety-nine percent of policies cover you while you are on vacation abroad. Check though, just to make sure. Oftentimes a temporary addition to an existing policy can be purchased at a very small cost. This should include air ambulatory service, in case you need or desire to be transported back home for treatment or recovery. Don’t forget this — it can be extremely important to you in the event that you twist your ankle or suffer medical problems while in Europe. Bring a copy of your insurance card with you.
Even though James has been living and working all over Europe since 1989 he’s by no means an expert on every single church, every single castle, every single town and city and so on in Europe. There are multitudes of city guides who specialize in one town or one particular castle, and they know these places inside and out. James can’t possibly duplicate this knowledge, because he works in 18 different countries. That is both a benefit to you and also, a deficit on the part of European Focus. Perhaps you prefer not to be peppered with facts and factoids and anecdotes and legends as you tour. Instead, James talks “with” you instead of “at” you. He answers your questions to the best of his knowledge, gives you a brief background of what we are going to see that day, and then leaves the rest up to you. This may be one of the reasons why European Focus has so many repeat clients. (Easy-going travel, not a run-run-run experience)
For all of our security, we need to blend in, so please don’t bring one of those pouches that hang around your middle. Likewise with money belts, what a pain! Thieves can spot money belts easily and while you struggle to get into your money belt, you’re a sitting duck for a crafty thief. You’re also automatically marked as a tourist. Those pouches practically shout out to potential thieves, “We’re tourists and probably have lots of cash and important documents!” The areas we’ll be traveling to are very safe, but as in all large cities, you need to be more street-wise.. Your guide will let you know if and where you might need to be extra wary.
Changing U.S. Dollars (Or Canadian or Australian or whatever) to Euros, Sterling Pounds or other local currencies, whether it is before you arrive or after, is a terrible idea. First of all, you get a lower exchange rate stateside, so you lose about 3 or 4 cents per dollar right away. Then, the bank charges you a fee on top of that.
If you want to buy some small items or small souvenirs, you’re going to have to have cash. Stores don’t like to take plastic for small purchases, basically, anything under 50 Euro. The best (and really only) way to get your Euros or other currency (e.g. Swiss Francs, British Sterling Pound) is from an ATM machine. It is always a good idea to have about 10 Euro or Pounds worth of change on you, for toilets, small tips etc.
An ATM card is the most convenient way to have spending money at your disposal without having to carry cash or traveler’s checks. Your bank statement will show you the amount you took in local currency, and the equivalent in dollars. Your ATM card works best if it has the “VISA” or “MasterCard” logo on the front, and the “Cirrus” or “Plus” logos, among others, on the back. If your card does not have these insignia, ask your bank. Tell them you’re going overseas and need to have access to your account. Please do not forget your ATM card because your credit cards are not going to work to draw cash out of machines. (Unless you want to pay stiff cash advance charges plus exchange fee plus service fee)
When using an ATM always select “let my bank do the conversion” and do not let the machine “help you” with their own suggested conversion. They are ripping you off.
Likewise, when using your card to make a purchase, always select the local currency and never let them charge you in US Dollars. Same reason. They are ripping you off. It doesn’t mean the restaurant or store is stealing from you, it’s the bank.
Don’t bring American currency with you (unless you plan to set some aside for your return).
You can look up current exchange by visiting http//www.x-rates.com.
Please don’t confuse concierges, waiters, taxi drivers and so on with American dollars as tips. These are practically useless unless that service provider is on their way to the United States soon. (What if you handed a waiter in America Japanese Yen as a tip?) If you don’t have Euros to tip, then please don’t tip at all. It’s also somewhat offensive to think that people around the world want your dollars – trust us – they don’t because it’s a hassle to get them exchanged.
There is no need to tip chamber maids in Europe. They are all very well compensated.
It’s very hard to recommend how much money to plan on spending because everyone has his or her own spending habits and souvenir tastes. Miscellaneous fun expenses and gifts/souvenirs can be purchased using your Visa or MasterCard or you can always draw cash from an ATM. VISA and MasterCard credit cards are widely accepted (Discover cards are not accepted and Europeans really despise Amex although will take them in some places) and oftentimes are the preferred way to pay — as you get the best and latest exchange rate and can easily keep track of how much you spent from your statement.
Friends or family traveling together should consider electing a trip “banker” who holds the cash contributed by each member of the group. Restaurants, bars and snack shacks hate splitting checks, and some even outright refuse to do it (Ireland just as one example). By creating a communal pot, you can avoid all of these hassles. After observing the eating and drinking habits of close friends and family members as guests for decades, James can testify that the differences are insignificant. Have someone who likes to drink – a lot? Fine, then that person kicks in an extra amount with each dinner.
Costs in Europe
Some facts of modern daily life in Europe. We get asked about this sometimes so we thought we would list some answers to common questions.
Special Note: While there are no real obvious anti-American feelings from the people we will come in contact with, it should come as no great surprise to you (regardless of what side of the political fence you stand on) that the vast majority of Europeans are for the most part lean to the left. You would too, if you had guaranteed healthcare for life, tax-funded education up to the bachelor’s degree and awesome public infrastructure. It’s best not to discuss politics with the people we meet. It is also best not to discuss politics in public in general. Yes, neighbors at restaurants will be able to understand English. Out of politeness, we ask that our guests in Germany and Austria do not discuss Hitler, the Third Reich, or World War II in general in mixed company. Some of these people may have lost relatives, and we need to respect their loss not just as a nation, but as fellow human beings. The Germans of today have as much to do with the horrors of the Holocaust as you do with the elimination of the Native Americans from the time of the arrival of the Europeans up until the late 19th century.
Traveling in Italy? Coffee is strong, and black, black, black. The Italians do not use cream! The Italians drink their coffee either as-is or with some sugar or with some hot milk. You will never get cream, so please, save yourself the aggravation and drink it as the Italians do. Also while on the subject of the black nectar, Italians never drink a cappuccino after noon. Why? Because it will interfere with their stomach’s ability to handle wine later!
A glass of water in a restaurant costs about $2.30 – and this is water, remember. There are no free refills in Europe. This comes as quite a surprise to coffee or soda drinkers who expect multiple free refills. James will never forget how surprised his own dad was when he discovered this back on his first trip to Germany in 1990.
Speaking of water – in Germany for example if you ask for “water” you are going to be served sparkling water, or mineral water. This is the basic “water” in Germany. You have to specify “still” when ordering. Mineral water gives many people who aren’t used to it mild diarrhea.
In Ireland and the UK free tap water is brought to the table automatically, you usually don’t even have to ask for it. In Italy, they will never bring you tap water because they consider it to be unhealthy. They will bring bottled still or mineral water and it’s cheap.
By the way, if you’re a tea drinker there is no need to order “hot tea.” There is no other kind in Europe. Iced Tea has not been “discovered” on the European continent.
Yes, there are many fast food restaurants including McDonalds. You can get a beer with your Big Mac. McDonalds and Burger King and Pizza Hut and every other fast-food junk palace is part of the global village. James has a secret policy. On the second exclamation of “There’s a McDonalds!” he’s going to assume that you want to eat your next meal there. About the only thing these ubiquitous places are good for is a clean, free restroom as we travel.
The average European pays more than 55% of his or her gross income as tax. The value added tax is currently around 19% in most of Europe. OUCH! Tax is already included into the price of merchandise, food or services, so the price you see on a tag is the price you pay. Guess what Europeans get for all of that tax money? You will see for yourself as you travel. And, no one has to worry about bankruptcy if they get sick.
Flea markets are very popular and are great places to buy souvenirs of Europe that are unique in nature. If you like flea markets then let James know and he’ll seek some out while we travel. James loves a good flea market.
European schoolchildren stay in what we would call high school through their 18th and usually into their 19th year. Most kids go to some kind of formal education. It is free in most of Europe, up to a point. If you’re not educated by the age of about 26, you’re on your own.
Many Europeans have at least a working knowledge of English. Those under the age of 35 probably learned it at school.
What do people do to make a living? People do everything we do in America, and more of course. The villages we pass through are like our bedroom communities, except a lot older and a lot more charming, as you’ll see. The people who live there are working as engineers, doctors, lawyers, salespeople, supermarket checkers, farmers, computer programmers, sanitary workers, car salespeople, attorneys, real estate agents, teachers; and the list goes on.
Luggage and packing smart
Most of our guests report toward the end of their trip that they brought too many pairs of shoes, too many clothes, etc. And, without exception, every traveler goes back to America with more in their bags than what they flew to Europe with. (Souvenirs and gifts) Think very carefully about how much stuff you want to drag along with you. After you pack, carry your bags up a couple of flights of stairs and you might just end up eliminating a few pounds or more! And, the airlines are getting tougher about overweight suitcases. You might end up paying dearly for those extra pairs of pants that you never wore on the trip anyway.
It is a very good idea to put a duffel bag in the bottom of your suitcase. Three quarters of our guests panic on the second to last day of their trip because they realize they have run out of baggage room to pack all of their purchases. And, mailing or shipping souvenirs home is not only super expensive, it is also a massive investment in time, to find a post office, to fill out the paperwork, the find a box, etc. etc.
Most of our guests pack much more than they actually need or wear. Americans especially are sort of infamous for this. This is really unfortunate, because I have to watch them struggle with their heavy, huge bags. No one cares if you wear the same pair of slacks twice, or the same sweater over a clean t-shirt over and over. The key is compactness, you’re be much, much happier not to have a huge ball and chain with you as we move from place to place.
A note about things left behind…
Hotels are also usually not very good at contacting us about things left behind. If you leave something behind in a hotel you can usually consider it “gone.” Please check your room carefully before checking out.
One Night Stays
Each adult on their first European Focus Private Tour will receive a canvas tote bag with zipper. This is your overnight bag. Please do yourself and everyone else a favor and consider keeping your basic toiletries and a change of underwear/etc. in this canvas tote bag. That way, when we pull into a hotel at the end of a long travel and adventure day, you’re not having to bring all of your luggage in for just one night. (And keep in mind that some hotels do not have elevators, and your room might be on the 3rd floor)
About your heavy luggage
When James was in his 30s he would carry his clients’ luggage in and out of the hotel for them. Ever since he suffered a herniated disc in his lower back this practice has stopped. You must be able to porter your own bags at all times. This includes carrying them up stairs, and sometimes, this might be more than one flight. (If your tour is a high-level tour, then it is quite possible that all of our hotels will have porters on duty. If your tour is a “standard” tour, then James will inform you in advance that you need to be able to carry your own bags.) Note: see above paragraph regarding a simple, light overnight bag. It will save you much grief later.
Depending on the size of your group and where we are traveling James may send you baggage size restrictions.
For the men: comfortable slacks, khakis, jeans, short-sleeved shirts and t-shirts under sweaters are a good idea for almost any time of the year. Shorts are fine although aren’t usually worn by locals in Southern European countries. Men, plan to wear a pair of pants to dinner in the Mediterranean areas. For example, Italian and Spanish men never wear shorts to dinner or just for walking around. Shorts are for the beach only. Wearing shorts – culturally that’s only for little boys. If you want to be viewed as a little boy, well, that’s up to you.
A light jacket that repels water is an excellent idea. A sports coat that is casual in nature and doubles as a jacket is also a very good idea in spring or fall when the weather is cool. Blue jeans are fine.
For the women: Layering pieces are the most practical, fashionable and comfortable solution for travel anywhere. Neutral, comfortable slacks, light and comfortable skirts, any kind of blouse and shorts are fine, as long as they are not of the cut-off variety. No formal dress is required unless we give you warning well in advance that a particular event will require it. A light jacket that can shed rainwater is a good idea, as is a hat if you are sensitive to cold or sun. Most hotels do not provide robes in the rooms so you will want loungewear if you like to wear it around your room.
For both: Please no sweatshirts, t-shirts, jackets or ball caps emblazoned with obvious USA connections (universities, towns/cities, Navy ships, political slogans, etc.) You may proudly wear these items on your own home turf but abroad it’s a bad idea. It marks you immediately as a tourist and therefore, a target to thieves or others wishing to do harm to our country. For all of our safety, blending in with the locals is the way to go.
Some of the places we stay will be located in zones where James will not be able to drive right up to the front door of our hotel. So, your luggage must roll smoothly – and be prepared to roll your bags across cobblestones. James won’t tattle if someone wears the same pair of pants two or three (or more) times on our tour. Same goes with sweaters or other clothing.
Mailing things home from European post offices is expensive. Same goes for Fed-Ex or UPS.
Europe is 220v current — so leave your curling iron and electric shaver at home unless you have a trusty converter and adapter that you’re sure works in Europe.
Blow dryers are provided in hotel rooms. James usually provides one converter plug per room for your convenience. Most devices (iPhones, laptops, notepads, etc.) will accept a 220v charge as long as you have the converter plug to go between your plug and the wall outlet. Leave your blow dryer at home, it will not work in Europe and might even catch on fire.
Speaking of electricity, it’s much more expensive in Europe than in America where we’re completely spoiled by cheap energy costs. Please do our hosts at the hotels where we stay a favor and click off the lights when you leave your room for dinner or breakfast. You’re just being a good world citizen and as it turns out (unfortunately for our worldwide reputation as energy hogs) a very unusual American by being sensitive to energy costs. And, if you leave your room lights on, and your window cracked open, you might just come home to a room full of night fliers. No fun!
Your morning meal is included with your hotel/inn — which is included in your tour price with one exception, and that is very large cities and most of France.
Note: Exception with large business and some luxury hotels. Most large business hotels such as the Hilton, Steigenberger, Marriott, etc. do not include breakfast but rather charge an exorbitant fee for the convenience. If you desire to have breakfast in these establishments please ask and you will be informed about those potential extra charges. (Your itinerary will very clearly state if breakfast is or is not included)
Most hotels serve breakfast until about 9:30 or 10. If you choose to sleep late and miss breakfast, then your morning meal will be at your own expense.
Beverages at breakfast are served at the table, and not in your room. If you need a wake-up cup of coffee or tea in your room prior to coming down to breakfast, then most hotels will deliver this service or supply a to-go cup but this is always charged as a mini-bar purchase and guests will be responsible for paying for those extra beverages on check-out.
Ask for a coke or other sugary beverage with ice at breakfast and your server will look at you as if you just landed from another planet. It’s just not done.
Pure, plain water is always available at breakfast from the buffet. If you order water while seated at the table, you are going to get a bottle of carbonated water and as this is a service item and not a free item (like the pure water on the buffet) this is not included in the breakfast, and will be billed to your room.
Breakfasts in central and northern Europe are usually very generous and really knock the American breakfast for a loop when it comes to healthy alternatives. There is fresh fruit, all manner of cheeses and sliced meats, fresh breads, jams and honey and other things to put on your bread, cereals, usually a kind of egg either soft boiled or freshly prepared as you like it (except ‘over easy,’ the Europeans have no concept of this) and of course, plenty of good coffee either regular or decaf without limit, tea or hot chocolate and (usually) fresh juices. In warmer Spain, Italy and all over France where dinners are usually served late, breakfast is an afterthought to dinner and is usually just coffee and a croissant and maybe a little fruit or cheese. Breakfasts in the southern areas are sadly lacking in protein, and so it is a good idea to pack some protein bars if you have a problem with a carb-heavy start to your day.
Here’s a test to see if you’re still reading.
When is it appropriate to ask your guide questions about the day’s plan?
A: Immediately after the guide sits down at the breakfast table
B: After the guide has had at least two cups of coffee
C: At 4 in the morning by calling his room
If you answered “B” you’re correct!
Keep reading, you’re becoming a real European travel pro!
Lunch and Dinner
We are usually touring during midday and so we might be grabbing lunch together (although lunch is rarely included in the price of your tour).
When we sit down to eat, and if the menu is in a different language, then after the menus are delivered and you have time to look them over, your guide at your table will ask that you put the menus down and pay attention as the various entrees are described. James may choose not to describe everything in detail, because this could be a very lengthy process. Instead, he will tell you that there are “fish, steak, pork, vegetable plates” and then he will describe a few of the options in each category.
Contrary to what you may have heard, service is usually excellent in Europe. However, there is a method to ensure consistent attention from our server. There is a definite order in how Europeans like to take your order. The server will want to take our drink order fairly soon after we sit down. The reason I’d like to ask for your attention without looking at your menu is because I’ve learned from experience that if everyone is holding a menu (in a foreign language) then no one is listening to their tour captain and I end up having to translate the entire menu. This gets to be very tedious after a few meals and it also bothers the diners around us. Not to mention, the impatient waiter who wants to take our order and get on with his or her job.
Americans love their burgers medium rare and their steaks medium rare or rare. Get your fill before you leave home because in Europe, they know how to cook meat one way – done. It is against European health regulations to serve meat that is medium-rare or rare. This makes having a steak on the other side of the Atlantic a sometimes depressing and unsatisfying experience. We recommend you not eat steak or burgers abroad, unless you like them cooked all the way through and bearing a slight resemblance to cardboard. THERE ARE SOME EXCEPTIONS, HOWEVER.
No tipping! Europeans just round up the bill. How nice!
For example, think about 3 to 5% on top of the bill:
A bill for 28.30 would be rounded up to 30
A bill for 9.70 – you would hand the server a 10 bill plus a 50 cent piece
Never 10 percent (except in the UK or if you are a group of 6 or more)
Yes, these are considered good tips in most of Europe. And never just leave coins on the table. Place them in the hand of your server with your thanks. Watch the genuine thankful reaction when you give a server a 5% tip. Seriously – this is a good tip in most of Europe.
Please do not over tip! This puts you squarely in the camp of the “ugly” tourist. Your server will laugh at you as they turn around. Trust us, your servers are well compensated. Follow the local rules and you will leave a warm and favorable impression.
Did you know that the average server in Europe makes about $20 per hour with full benefits like health insurance, retirement and plenty of vacation time? Therefore, there is no need to have to compute 15 to 20 percent or more onto the bill. You’ve already paid for service and taxes as part of the price of each menu item. To tip on top of this is actually sort of rude, and your server might wonder “Are all Americans so careless with money?” And in Europe this behavior is not welcomed but instead it is treated as rude or stupid.
Your guide will join you for (at most) only a couple of dinners on an average length trip of 10 or more days. Sometimes your guide will not join you for any of your dinners. It depends on his travel schedule. So, be prepared to be independent on your dinners, research local restaurants, plan ahead. James will be happy to make reservations for you.
James likes to give his guests the opportunity to have dinners as a couple, family or as a group of friends without him. He (or your guide if one of our colleagues is leading the trip) will be offering you these opportunities either as part of your itinerary, or spontaneously as we travel. In fact, it’s rare that your guide or driver eats dinner with guests. Part of this is health-related. Can you imagine eating three meals a day in restaurants for 180 – 200 days straight? Plus, the evening is when James gets his administrative chores finished, relaxes, and prepares for the next day.
Other Eating Notes
Don’t expect to find the foods and drinks that you are used to in America or at home in Europe. If there are certain foods or drinks that you cannot easily live without, please consider bringing them along. If you are vegan you will find it pretty difficult to eat in most of Europe. There are some stores offering vegan products but they are not available in every region or country. Ask us for more information if diet is a concern for you. Otherwise, we all adopt the philosophy of ‘When in Rome.’
Speed of Service is Not Always a Good Thing
Are you visiting France, Italy, Spain or Portugal? These are the capitals of the “Slow Food” movement. If your idea of dinner is to be in and out in less than an hour, James recommends that you eat in chain restaurants and not in independently-owned and operated ones.
In the slow food countries, fast service is equal to bad service. People go out to spend their evening enjoying dinner, and to be rushed through it is considered worse than rude, it is considered completely anti-social.
In Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, UK and Ireland the service and speed of service is pretty close to what you are used to in North America.
There are no “doggie bags” in Europe. Why? Because Europeans go out to dinner to enjoy dinner, they take their time and they eat what they order. Weird, huh? If you have a small appetite, you can always ask for a smaller portion. In Germany this is known as the “Senioren Portion.” You don’t have to be a senior to order this.
BOTTOM LINE: At dinner, slow down. Enjoy the experience. You’re on vacation, after all.
This happens quite frequently especially on trips of a longer duration say longer than 10 days. People just get “Fed up,” and I don’t mean with sight seeing or travel – they get stuffed from eating. It is very hard to go 10 or 12 or more days eating two or three meals outside of home. It’s nearly impossible, and believe me, your professional guide doesn’t do it! James skips many meals. So please, do not think you must have dinner or lunch every single day. No one will get offended if you skip a meal or many meals. It’s just normal behavior. Please inform James if you wish to skip this or that dinner and he will make arrangements. Also – for couples who are traveling together – feel free to request a “date night” with just your partner or spouse. This is also completely natural. Who can eat with the same people night after night after night? It can get monotonous and ultimately can damage your experience.
Shift into a Lower Gear and Enjoy Your Time More
Europe is very crowded. Germany, just for an example, has 88 million people living in close quarters in a country the size of Arizona. Now add the tourists. Berlin alone gets 66,000 of them each and every day. Paris, even more. Sure there are vast areas of open space and there are thousands of hamlets where there are more cows than people, but, you are probably like most travelers and you want to see the big popular places that you’ve heard about or seen on TV or in the movies. Those places are popular and they are crowded. Italy – insanely crowded at all times, no matter the season. The Louvre in Paris? The area around the Mona Lisa is an exercise in patience.
So please take James’ word for it, there are hardly any more undiscovered, quiet places. Almost everything has been discovered. That means people, people, everywhere people. So to enjoy your vacation, cool your jets, take a breath, learn to share and hey just possibly you will find a quiet corner for reflection along the way.
Religion – Hot Topic
Praying, spirituality and religion are extremely personal things and James will not be involved in family prayers or attending church, synagogue or other religious gatherings. If you wish to make time for this then he will assist in helping you find the nearest place of worship. Please refrain from family prayer in a public setting (such as a restaurant or someone else’s home) as it makes those who are not so inclined uncomfortable. One can never assume to know another’s beliefs. Europeans never pray together (out loud) before a meal in a public place. To blend in, we all follow European etiquette and norms.
Europe is Multi-Cultural
There are people of every ethnicity and color all over Europe. Gone are the days when Germany was full of just Germans, and likewise all across every country in Europe. If the sight of Muslims or even a woman wearing a head scarf makes you afraid, then please stay at home locked behind your door. James will not tolerate or stand for any ethnic slurs, comments about other ethnic groups or ignorant comments about how the “Muslims are out to kill all of us.” There are plenty of extremist nut cases in America who shoot up movie theaters. Therefore, please don’t assume that everyone wearing a headscarf is out to kill you. The vast majority just want to live their lives in peace, as we all do.
More about European Hotels
Unless you have chosen to have a trip featuring all luxury hotels
The places where we’ll be staying are independently owned and operated inns or small hotels. James chooses our lodgings with great care; usually, he has personally stayed in the places or has scouted the hotel out in advance and has seen the rooms. European Focus aims for authentic comfort, meaning when you wake up in the morning you’re not confused and wondering if you are in Topeka.
Whenever possible, hotels we use during your trip will usually be located in a quiet area of a town or in the countryside, depending on our needs. James also scouts for places that allow his guests independence, so that you can go out walking and exploring on your own without need for wheels to get you there and back. Some of the places we’ll be using will have been his “home away from home” for years. James has personal relationships with many of the innkeepers you will be meeting. This adds a great deal of charm to the place and enhances your own stay in immeasurable ways.
Each time we arrive at a new hotel, your guide(s) first goes in to announce our arrival and check to make sure that the rooms that have been assigned to you are the ones that were requested. Please give your guide a few minutes to perform this necessary task.
Then after a few minutes of this “scouting,” we’ll all go inside together and we’ll then escort you to your rooms, making sure that everything is in working order.
Americans are spoiled by massive beds. A King bed is the norm in many upscale roadside motels and hotels. In Europe, a King bed is practically unheard of. Instead, expect a super queen or two twin beds joined together. And unlike in America, there is hardly ever more than one bed in a room. (Unless it’s a cot for a child or multiple twin beds)
All of the hotels used by European Focus are non-smoking.
We’ll be setting meeting times for breakfast each evening, with your input. This doesn’t mean that you can’t come down early if you’re up and about and hungry.
Unlike in Kansas, there are usually no desk clerks on duty at night. A hotel “goes to sleep” at about 10:30 and doesn’t normally wake up until about 6 or 6:30 a.m.
Remember, many of these are family owned and operated places.
(This does not apply if you have chosen to stay in all five star or equivalent hotels)
Different Sleep Habits
Do you and your spouse or partner have separate bedrooms at home? That’s perfectly normal, and James understands different sleep habits or patterns (and snoring) which can cause this. Deciding to share a room while on a trip to Europe can be a mistake, and James has seen countless times droopy-eyed spouses struggling to stay awake and enjoy their day because of a night of tossing and turning while their spouse or partner read, or puttered, or snored the night away.
Consider for your own comfort, getting your own room in the hotels where we will be staying. It will make your trip oh so much more enjoyable. Just let James know in plenty of time so that he can arrange that for you.
If you have chosen a tour with all four and five star hotels then your room will probably come with a small (accent on the small) safe. This is for storage of your passport, wallet, jewelry, and other small pocket items. Room safes are not adequate for laptops or even most tablet computers. Please, if you are concerned about the safety and security of larger items leave them at home.
Pick pockets are a big problem in the major cites such as Prague, Paris, Rome, London, etc. Any place which attracts large number of tourists will unfortunately also attract professional thieves, who are very proficient at relieving you of your phone, wallet, passport and other valuables without you having a clue. James recommends carrying only the bare essentials with you and to store valuable items on your person only in inside pockets, and never in outside pockets where they can easily be stolen.
A common distraction technique for thieves is to ask you to take their photo. A cute couple and “oh just take one more please,” and meanwhile, their partner is picking your pocket. You never know what hit you until it’s too late. Say “no thanks” when someone asks you to do something – anything.
Hotel comfort and satisfaction
Hotels and their owners are suppliers of services to European Focus and James has no control over how they run their business, how they equip or outfit their rooms and how they provide you with comfort. Please, if you have an issue about a particular hotel, room or service in the hotel, bring it to the attention of the manager or owner of that hotel immediately. It’s sort of a frustration not just for our guests but for James, because he knows that a simple phone call to the front desk could have solved that issue right away. Don’t suffer in silence. A few times a guest has made a minor complaint as we’re rolling down the highway about their room the previous night. “My window shutters wouldn’t open.” “I wish I had an extra pillow.” “There was no luggage rack in my room.” Please always bring things to the hotel manager’s attention right away.
And on the subject of pillows – if you are sensitive about this, consider bringing your own from home. I hear this minor complaint a lot. Especially for tours in Germany and Austria, the pillows are very soft and some people just don’t like them. Especially back sleepers should probably bring their own pillow.
James repeats this because it is so frequently ignored by guests, and they can have a negative experience because of it. Please do yourself a huge favor and if there is something wrong with your room notify reception immediately. The exact wrong time to complain about something is at the breakfast table, when it’s too late. Noisy neighbors? Contact reception. Noise just outside the hotel from someone who has had a little too much wine? Contact reception. No luggage rack in your room? Contact reception.
Most hotels in Europe feature a bath and shower combination. There is usually a shower curtain or glass divider but not always! It is rare for a room to have a shower only. James can make special arrangements if you must have a walk-in shower, but this is something that is not always available even in 5-star properties. Europeans love their bathtubs.
Wireless Internet Access and your iDevices
Most hotels and inns where we stay are offering free internet access if not always in the room, then at least in the lobby or common area.
In major cities and in major business hotels such as Hilton or Marriott or other similar properties there is usually a big surcharge for being connected in your room. Wifi in the lobby is oftentimes free, but having the convenience of being connected in your room will cost you upwards of $30.James does not cover these charges. Ask before you travel and James will advise you of these out of pocket expenses. Funny, but the small hotels in the small towns and small cities always include internet. It is only in the large cities and in the large, corporate hotels that they ‘stick it to you.’
While on this subject, James has noticed more and more the near addictive nature of being constantly connected. It doesn’t matter the age, James sees guests so consumed by their device that they end up missing out on huge chunks of the European experience that they paid to come and experience. Sometimes it’s nice to just you’re your eyes away from a screen and wander the lanes of a medieval town, sit and listen to a glockenspiel, enjoy a sidewalk cafe and people watch in Paris or soak up the vibe of the nightlife in Berlin. James recommends putting yourself on vacation from being constantly online. Your trip will be much more memorable and fun!
After witnessing the frustration of many, James also recommends that you spend a little time before you travel and truly get to know your iPhone, iPad or other device. Many who come to Europe don’t know how to use them, and then when it comes time to connect to a hotel’s free wifi system, they’re lost. Most of the stores who sell these items will provide a limited amount of free tutoring. There are also many tutorials on the web where you can learn how to, for example, connect to an open wireless network for free internet surfing. This is a major frustration for many people!
Sounds in the Night
Frequent travelers know that there’s no place like home, when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. Perhaps that’s why we live where we do! When traveling, there are always going to be sounds that you’re not familiar with, and these sounds could disturb your rest. Be prepared and bring earplugs or something to help you fall asleep, and stay asleep when there are:
Church bells ringing
Cars driving by (and on cobblestones, the sound of tires is amplified)
People in outdoor cafes enjoying a warm evening
Clicking heels on cobblestone streets and sidewalks
James does everything he can to select hotels and rooms in those hotels that are as far from sounds that may disturb your slumber, but sometimes it’s just not possible to avoid them all. Medieval towns and villages were built tightly packed for good reasons, and progress, thank goodness, has not erased these charms. But, charm comes at a price of possible lost sleep for the unprepared. Bring earplugs or sleeping pills if you are (like James) a light sleeper.
Escort & Hours of Service
Generally, you will have your guide’s attention and escort from breakfast time or around 9:30 to 10 a.m. up to late afternoon or between 4 – 5, after which, your guide/driver is officially off the clock and on their own time. This does not mean that your guide is charging you by the hour. European Focus charges per day or per trip. I don’t break it down to an hourly fee.
So, if we finish our day earlier then that’s just the way it is. If we finish our day later, same thing. I’m not going to give you a bill for another hour or two of my time, nor do you get “credit” or a “refund” if we finish our day at 3 or 3:30 and just choose to relax for the rest of the day.
Also, it’s normal in any tour that is 7 days of longer duration for your guide to take some personal time just to recover and rest up. This personal time will be taken at times when you will have plenty of things to do on your own, without needing your guide’s assistance. No one can be on the go seven days a week, 52 weeks per year.
Each and every guest who came before you ‘gave up’ some of their time with James so that he could prepare for you. If your guide/driver says that he/she needs a little “Admin Time” before the day starts, that’s what he is doing.
Rest periods are built into your trip itinerary. Down time is needed, and appreciated by all, in order to take in the beauty of a place, regroup or just sleep a bit longer than normal.
For tours of 4-7 days: One half-day of down time will be built into the trip plan
For tours of 7 – 10 days: Two half-days of down time will be built into the trip plan
For tours of 11-17 days: One full day and one half-day of down time will be built into the trip plan.
For tours of 17-22 days: One full day and two half-days of down time.
Does this mean you just sit in your hotel room and twiddle your thumbs? Of course not!
What it means is that James plans down time carefully so that you always have the option to be out and about and seeing things, just without his company.
Your Friends are not the Experts
James runs into this from time to time and lately it has become almost an epidemic. You’ve told your friends and family members about your upcoming adventure with European Focus Private Tours and now come all of the recommendations from the so-called ‘experts’ who have been to Paris a grand total of once. Smile, say ‘how nice of you to offer that bit of advice’ and then forget it. You must trust James as the genuine expert, otherwise you would not have hired him and spent all of that money, right? Let your friends and family have their treasured memories, and let James do his job. Recommendations on hotels, restaurants, sights and other things from friends or family members will may not be able to be incorporated into your well-designed trip plan by European Focus. Just ask yourself, ‘which opinion carries more weight? Someone who has been there once or twice, or someone who has been there a couple of dozen times? James actually had a trip to Paris ruined because a business colleague of his client recommended a hotel that ranked 247 out of more than 2,000 possible hotels in that city on Trip Advisor versus the hotel that James had picked, rank 42. The change was made and it ended up being a disaster which cost the clients a lot of money and time in the end.
Back to Politics
Some people just cannot stop talking about politics. You’re going to be pretty bored by my response, because there won’t be one. Do I have opinions myself? Of course I do! Everyone does. But when I’m working and when we are together I have a strict “No Politics” rule.
“It is better to keep your mouth shut and be considered stupid then to open it and remove all doubt.”
– Mark Twain
Bringing up politics – and I have witnessed this – can just destroy a trip and breed animosity. You came to Europe to get away and be on vacation, right? Leave the politics and your personal opinions about them at home, please. (More than please, it’s a hard and fast rule. Breaking this rule will mean that you cannot come on another European Focus trip. It may even result in a “Time out” and temporary suspension of services depending on the severity of the verbal abuse. This has never happened in more than 330 tours but we are in uncharted territory these days)
Non-smoking accommodations and areas within restaurants
Europe is getting much better about non-smoking areas. Most restaurants and hotels are strictly non-smoking. However, terraces and open areas are not. Non-smoking rooms or areas of restaurants exist on the same scale as here in the U.S. Rooms are also non-smoking.
For restaurants, if you want to eat outside on an open terrace, you will just have to grin and bear it. Smokers still have the right to light up outside.
The Number One issue that travelers have is that they sometimes suffer an upset tummy due to the change in diet. Bring something with you both for “too much outflow” as well as “not enough outflow.” Acid reflux is also an issue for many. Bring something, because what you are familiar with may not be available in the “Old Country.”
Things to know about beds in Europe
The most common complaint we hear from our guests is “I couldn’t sleep very well because it was so hot in my room!” These complaints sometimes stem from the reluctance of most Americans to sleep with their windows open, which Europeans (and your guide) does without thinking about the few flies who might find their way into the room.
Many who travel to Germany, Austria and Switzerland are surprised by the beds. Beds in Europe are different than what we have in American hotels, there is no box spring and mattress. Beds in most of Europe are built on a sturdy wooden frame, with (in the example of a queen bed) two mattresses put onto that wooden frame. They are firm but not uncomfortably so, unless you’re used to sleeping on a very soft mattress.
Many ways of life that you will encounter in Europe are influenced by the high expense of water and electricity. This has an impact on how Europeans outfit their beds.
It varies between countries, but in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, there is no sheet between you and the comforter (in parts of France, Italy, Ireland and Great Britain the bed linens are similar to American beds). Some people find this hot at night – and that’s why the Europeans have a habit of sleeping with the windows open, even in the middle of winter.
No, you won’t have an excessive problem with flies or mosquitoes if you sleep with the window open at night. (But you must turn off your room lights when you go out to dinner, or when you come back it will be a completely different story! Bugs are attracted, after all, to light).
Pillows are very large but also very soft. If you need to have a hard pillow or one that’s
high, or if you like to sleep with your head in an elevated position then you might want to bring an extra as hotels usually don’t have extras to go around.
Please don’t wait until the last night of your trip to proclaim, “The pillows are horrible and I haven’t slept in two weeks!” (A quote from an actual guest on her last night of a two-week tour). James’ rule is that guests are responsible for their own comfort. However, if there is something that can be done to improve your comfort, say so, please.
Most of our guests find European beds extremely comfortable. Many with back problems report their finest nights of sleep are when they’re in Germany or central Europe. Here are a few tips to help you get a good night’s sleep:
· * Sleep with the windows or at least one window open.
· * If you run “hot,” leave your pajamas or heavy nightgowns at home.
Home Sweet Home
Please don’t start our day with a complaint about your room which is completely out of your guide/driver’s control. (I can’t figure out my shower, my pillows are too hard/soft, I couldn’t get the window open etc.) Please bring these complaints to the immediate attention of the hotel owner or manager, and not to your guide or driver.
James works very hard to select hotels where the complaints should be minimal. But, nothing is perfect for you except home. You’re spent years, decades, building a home that suits you. You can’t expect those easy comforts (a shower that works perfectly every time, a bed that is just right for you, a bedside lamp that is just right for reading, etc.) when you travel. (Can you tell that James has started hundreds of mornings with a complaint about a simple thing that just can’t be fixed?)
Stairs, slopes and walking in general
Note: It is important to remember that your private tour might be structured specifically around a previously stated preference to not have to walk up hills or climb stairs. If this is the case, then you will know that much of the following section does not pertain to you.
European Focus tours are not endurance tests, but to be completely honest with you. There are going to be many stairs and hills to climb during your tour. Want to visit a castle? Well, the knights had these fortresses built on high observation points, and that means stairs. The famous Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria features more than 300 interior stairs, on narrow, winding staircases. This comes as quite a shock to tourists who are used to roaming around easy-street America where practically all the sights are handicapped-accessible. (Definitely not the case in Europe)
Think about how many stairs you have to climb on an average day around home. Now, go out and try to find 150 stairs to climb in one day. That’s about average for a typical day of sightseeing in Europe. There are stairs to get up to street level from a lower parking lot, stairs into a restaurant, stairs to the restroom in a restaurant, into a hotel and yes, you might have to climb a flight or two of stairs on the way to your room. (If this is the case we will notify you in advance so that if stairs are a problem we can change hotels. Most hotels, even small ones, have elevators)
Also, in many of the places where we stay there will be limited or no parking at restaurants, hotels or places we want to visit. The ability to walk is essential.
It’s not practical to drive everywhere, as we do in the United States.
James is adaptable to any speed, but if you’re not used to walking on your own power for three or four blocks at a time without stopping to catch your breath, you may have problems enjoying Europe. European countries do not have stringent disability laws as in the United States. And, contrary to a legend spread by some anonymous source, handicapped stickers, placards or windshield cards from the USA are not acknowledged as valid in Europe.
James is a FAST walker! This does not mean you have to keep up with him. It’s just the way he’s built and it helps keep the calories burning. James will always wait for you at the next corner.
Your trip might be structured differently to allow for physical limitations.
Your trip will be more fun if you take this time between now and your arrival to learn a few phrases in the language of the countries we’ll be traveling in. Even simple sayings like “Good Afternoon”, “Good Morning” “Our name is…” and “Thank you” will really make you feel more at home. Most public libraries have books and tapes that you can check out in order to learn other languages.
And no, contrary to what you may have been told, not every adult in Europe can speak English. You should be very grateful if you are addressed in your native tongue.
James has excellent foreign language abilities for basic communication (and more than basic in several languages); however, because he is exposed to so many different languages it is impossible to give his attention to one or more in particular and their particular nuances and grammatical particularities (even though he would like to). Since James is only human, there is a limit to how many questions he can answer about the various languages he is capable in. There are colloquialisms, dialects and sayings that exist in all languages. Some phrases, poems and songs as well as food descriptions just can’t be translated.
German (high proficiency in conversational), Italian (Basic)
Tours, excursions, etc.
James will never forget the frustration of a guest who took the Hamburg harbor tour and was surprised that the narration was not conducted in English. Please take note – guided tours that are not arranged by European Focus, but which are offered to the masses are going to be conducted in the native language. We should all consider it a huge bonus if they also narrate the tour in English.
Sharing tables is common throughout Europe
We don’t have to share the conversation, just the space. In fact, to start a conversation with those who share our table if we are sharing someone else’s table, is also considered quite rude and annoying. We will wish those who share our table “Guten Appetit” or “Zum Voll” or whatever the case calls for, but James can take the lead on this and no one else is required to say anything. It’s good enough that one person at the table takes care of the formalities when sharing.
It’s customary for many Europeans to bring their dogs into restaurants. Guests must restrain themselves when it comes to meeting dogs in any social situation, whether it be in a park, on the street or in a restaurant. Please do not talk to someone’s dog in a store or restaurant or other public place. In Europe, it is a major cultural faux-pas if you decide you want to shake Fido’s paw or if you reach down to pet a friendly-looking dog before asking the owner if it’s okay. You may get yelled at, and being yelled at in German is not very nice for the ears! Europeans, and especially Germans, train their dogs to leave strangers alone because if they didn’t, then they would never be allowed to bring those dogs into a public place. Your attempt at canine ambassadorship could end up in embarrassment when a European tells you in no nonsense terms to leave their dog alone. (We’ve seen it happen, unfortunately, more than a few times)
Capturing the moment
James is a professional photographer and he is always happy to take your photo or your group’s photo. But please, one camera or device only. In a digital age, you can easily share the results. Also, in light of a recent negative experience, it’s always a good idea to ask permission before taking a photo in any place of business whether it’s under a roof or out in the open. Some businesses have strict “no photography” rules in place for their own reasons – and no, they don’t clutter up their displays with “No Photos” signs. It’s just always a better idea to ask before you raise your smart phone.
When you see something that you like, whether it’s in a shop or a store window, BUY IT! This tip comes from years of hearing people say, “I wish I would have bought that thingamabob when I saw it the first time in Zaragoza!”
James will always make time to shop, but he needs to know how much time for shopping you require. Tours that are based on genealogy research may not have much shopping time built in. Tours that are built around pleasure touring will always have plenty of shopping time built in.
If you see the perfect souvenir, chances are you won’t see it someplace else down the road. Anytime you see a shop that you want to check out, we can stop.
It will help James to know if you want any big-ticket items like cuckoo clocks, expensive jewelry, Murano glass sculptures or other large items. This way, James can plan your trip to include stops at shops that will carry these kinds of things. We can talk about this during the first couple of days that we’re together. One piece of advice for those who plan to do a lot of shopping: you’ll need an extra bag in which to carry your purchases home. You’re allowed to take US $800 worth of merchandise into the States without paying duty. That US $800 can be reached pretty fast, so be prepared to either ship your souvenirs home to yourself or if you’re in the market for some high-end items, James can arrange it so that we’re at a store that will ship your purchases home for you.
VAT and getting tax back
Tourists are allowed to file for a refund of the Value Added Tax (VAT) that is built into the price of every consumer good (that means souvenirs) in Europe. If you intend to make major purchases during your trip and you want to get your tax back (it can range from 7% to about 12% of the price of the item) please study the procedures for getting tax back in the country or countries where you are traveling. Most of this information can be found on the internet. Or, just ask your guide and he or she will be happy to go over the procedures with you. Do ask for a VAT/tax back receipt from shops on all major purchases.
Getting to the airport in plenty of time for your flight is foremost in your guide’s mind. Please trust in your guide’s judgment when it comes to departure time from your final hotel to the airport. James has personally taken hundreds of guests to the airport since 1995 and not one person has ever had to run for their plane.
If you prefer to stay at a hotel on the airport property the night before your departure just let me know and I can definitely arrange that. In this case your tour would end with delivery to that airport.
Onward Travel in Europe?
If you’re planning to continue your trip independently after your tour with us, please let James know so that he may offer you advice and help with your onward arrangements. You probably will save money.
Your Satisfaction with European Focus and My Service
We will have regular discussions during your trip, sort of like a “how am I doing?” kind of discussion. It is very important that you be open, honest and frank about your experience during your experience, so that any dissatisfaction can be ironed out and fixed. The same goes for when you get home and have time and distance to sort through your memories. If there could have been improvement, please let me know within a few weeks of your return, so that I can do better the next time.
A Final Note on Eating/Drinking While in Europe:
Soft drinks: Cola and Cola “light” are common but there is no such thing in Europe as “Diet Coke” or diet anything. The word has not entered the European vocabulary. This will come as a shock to those of you who are used to your daily can (or cans)
By the way, Europeans don’t serve fresh-brewed iced tea. People are usually pretty surprised when they can’t get this popular American drink in restaurants. You see it once in a while in the gas station convenience stores, but it’s the bottled Lipton or Nestea flavored variety and pretty sweet with no real relationship to what we consider to be fresh-brewed iced tea in America.
Welcome to Europe!
Most guests of European Focus love to stay in traditional and authentic hotels right in the heart of charming towns and villages. If you need air-con, these are not the places. Of course European Focus will be happy to arrange all upper four and five star hotels for your trip, as long as your budget can handle the added expense.