Before You Go 

Heading Home

 

While You're There... 
Time | Metric System | Electricity | Money | Currency Exchange | Automatic Teller Machines | Mail From Home | The Media | Tourist Information | Hotel Concierge | Dining Out | Tipping | Shopping | Vat Refunds | World Heritage Sites 
 

Time: 

The member countries of the European Travel Commission are spread across three different time zones:

  • Greenwich Mean Time: Iceland, Ireland, Britain, and Portugal are five hours ahead of New York (Eastern Standard Time). 
  • Central European Time: Norway, Sweden and the bulk of the Continent, including Poland, Hungary and Croatia to the east, are six hours ahead.
  • Eastern European Time: Finland, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey are seven hours ahead.

Most of Europe (Iceland is an exception) goes on daylight-saving time, generally from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in September. The 15 European Union nations are considering harmonization and extension of DST to the last Sunday in October. If they do so, non-EU countries may follow. 

In the U.S., DST runs from the first Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October. Use of the 24-hour clock is widespread, e.g., 1 p.m. is 13:00 and so on to midnight, 24:00.

Metric System: 

Europe generally operates on the metric system. Some equivalents: 

1 gram = 0.04 ounces
1 kilogram = 2.20 pounds
1 liter = 1.06 quarts
1 meter = 1.09 yards
1 kilometer = 0.62 miles

Electricity: 

Virtually all of Europe is served with 220-volt, 50-cycle alternating current, compared to the U.S. 110-volt, 60-cycle AC. (Exceptions are Malta and Cyprus, both on 240-volt AC.) If you take appliances that work at home, you’ll need voltage transformers in Europe. Note that plug configurations vary from country to country.

Plug configurations vary; If you don't have the right adapter, your hotel may be able to provide you with one.

Money:

It's not a bad idea to arrive with a small amount of foreign currency for the first country you visit for taxis, tips, etc.

However, with very few exceptions, you will be able, upon arrival, to exchange dollars or traveler's checks for local currency at airport exchange bureaus, which open early and stay open late.

In general, you'll find that banks offer better rates when changing currency or traveler's checks than do exchange bureaus. Hotels will also exchange currency, but usually at less favorable rates.

To get the best rates, plan your exchanges ahead. In cases of sudden need, it's often better to pay a little extra at an exchange bureau than to spend valuable time searching for a better rate at a bank..

On Currency Exchange: 

At the beginning of 1998, the U.S. dollar was close to its six-year high against most of Europe’s traditionally strong currencies, and was expected to continue to do well in the months ahead. Which means U.S. visitors are getting considerably more for their money than they did a few years ago.Dollar exchange rates have been listed in the Practical Information section for each country. These are currency-market exchange rates as of Dec. 2, 1996, and are provided only as a guide. Retail rates are somewhat lower, and a commission is also charged. It must be noted that exchange rates have fluctuated widely in recent years and are likely to continue to do so. For the latest information, CLICK HERE, or check newspaper listings or with a bank before departure. 

Travelers checks and charge cards are widely accepted. You can exchange currency and travelers checks at exchange bureaus and authorized banks. The latter usually offer better rates.

After working hours, foreign currency can be obtained at exchange windows at airports and major railway stations. Hotels will exchange currency and travelers checks, but usually at a less favorable rate.


eurosign.GIF (1384 bytes)The 15-nation European Union is well on its way toward creating a common currency: the Euro.

By May 1998, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal are expected to qualify for participation. (Britain, Denmark and Sweden are likely to opt out, while Greece does not yet meet the criteria.)

By Jan. 1, 1999, the Euro would be established, with its exchange rate locked in with the currencies of the participating countries, and their rates locked in with each other. National currencies would continue to exist as legal tender, but from that point on anyone exchanging one participating EU currency for another would find the rate fixed. At first, actual Euro transactions would be mostly limited to governments, financial institutions and electronic payments.

Only by Jan. 1, 2002 would Euro banknotes and coins be issued for general use. Only then would national currencies-- marks, francs, lira, etc.-- be withdrawn. Only at that point would American visitors find themselves changing dollars for Euros good in all the participating countries.


Automatic Teller Machines:

ATMs accepting U.S. bank and charge cards are available in many cities in most countries, usually with English-language instructions. Look for machines which display symbols matching those on your card. Withdrawals from a checking or savings account, or cash advances against a charge card are dispensed in local currency.

You can save in two ways: the wholesale exchange rate (up to 5 percent better) applies; and you avoid transaction fees charged by exchange bureaus and banks. (Your home bank's ATM fee does apply, as will charge-card cash-advance fees. A local ATM usage fee may also apply.) A four-digit numeric PIN is standard for most European ATMs. Check with your issuing institution to make sure your PIN will work in Europe. 

Mail From Home: 

You can receive mail at General Delivery (the generally used term is Poste Restante) in any European city, usually at the main post office. Mail should be addressed: Name, Poste Restante, City, Country.

The Media: 

The International Herald Tribune, the international edition of USA Today and the weekly European are widely available at newsstands and hotels. A number of capitals have weekly English-language newspapers.

Broadcasts of the U.S. Armed Forces Network from Frankfurt can be heard through most of Western Europe (873 AM and 98.7 FM). The BBC World Service is broadcast on short-wave throughout Europe.

Many major hotels offer English-language television, including CNN and Sky TV.

Tourist Information: 

When you arrive at an airport or railway station, you should seek out the 'i' sign for Information. You'll also find it in major squares. 

The 'i' sign usually indicates an office of the local tourist bureau, which generally provides excellent services. Here you will get street and transit maps, basic brochures on the city sights, an up-to-date calendar of what's happening, and advice on restaurants and hotels. Talk to the people; they'll give you good leads. 

Note: In many cities (not just the large ones), the local tourist offices can arrange accommodations for you on the spot. 


Hotel Concierge

A major benefit of hotels is the concierge, usually an expert on the city you are visiting. He or she can make recommendations and reservations, place calls in the local language, and advise on tipping and other customs.

Dining Out: 

For the best buys, and a good way to meet people, seek out typical eating establishments, such as tavernas, pubs, bistros, tascas and trattorias -- neighborhood restaurants patronized by the local citizens. Here is where you will generally find the best food of the region at the most reasonable prices. Also try the leading beverage of the region -- wine or beer, or a local specialty. 

Many countries have economical fixed-price tourist menus, offered by restaurants displaying the appropriate sign.

Tipping: 

In many countries, particularly on the Continent, hotel and restaurant bills include a service charge; any additional tipping is usually up to the visitor, generally small change but no more than 5 percent. 

When service is not included in the restaurant bill, as is usually the case in Britain, a tip of 10 to 15 percent is customary. 

Taxi drivers are usually tipped 10 to 15 percent. A tip of at least $1 is suggested per bag for porters and bellmen, for a doorman hailing a taxi, per night for the maid, for the parking attendant, for the cloakroom attendant and per day for the tour guide or the driver. 

Note: In Iceland, there is no tipping at all.

Shopping: 

Whether it's making a once-in-a-lifetime purchase at a famous store or hunting for bargains at an open-air market, shopping in Europe is not only fun but often provides insights into a city's history and culture.

You'll be a more savvy shopper abroad if you research the various specialties offered in the countries you will visit.

Stores in some Mediterranean countries close for two hours or more during midday or close in the afternoon some days of the week.

VAT Refunds: 

Most European countries levy value-added taxes (VAT), a form of sales tax that can run up to 25 percent of the total price. It is included in the purchase price of an item, not added on at the cash register, and so is virtually undetectable.

In most countries, foreign visitors may be able to receive a refund of the tax. Always ask at the store, which can also tell you what the country’s minimum-purchase requirements are for a refund.

Usually, you fill out a form at the store, showing your passport. Upon leaving the country, you submit all forms to customs for approval. (They may ask to see the goods, so have them handy.) In some instances, you can get the refund before departure; otherwise, it will come by mail.

If you are visiting two or more countries within the European Union, you submit forms only on departure from the last EU country.

VAT rates and refund procedures vary from country to country. For individuals, VAT refunds generally are available on goods only, not services.

For more, see before you go and heading home