Welcome to my European trip advice page that covers lots of topics regarding travel to Europe, primarily in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France. I suppose you could use most of the advice for traveling in general, but some of the information is specific to European travel.  So read on and I hope my trip advice ends up saving you time and money as well as keeping you informed on one person's opinion regarding taking trips from the U.S.A. to Europe.

Feel free to read advice tips shown below, or you can use the "Travel" link in the navigation bar above to view various trips we have taken.

This page is separated as follows:

Pre-trip Advice - my opinion on the airline you should use as well as the type of planes to look for.
Quick Links - some Internet links to a variety of sites useful for planning your trip.
Advice Quick Links - click on a subject matter (in alphabetical order) to jump to the description and advice I offer.
Example Trip List - this is the actual list of items I pack for my trips and I simply print it out and use it as a check list before I leave to ensure I have no late night "oh yeah, I need to remember xyz" that will keep me awake worrying if I will actually remember the item.  I learned that once you create a list, don't throw it away - you can use it and update it if need be for the next trip and don't have to go through the nights of restless sleep wondering if you remembered everything for the trip.  The example trip list is an Adobe PDF document showing my 2004 trip list info which I am able to use for subsequent years while modifying only the particulars.

 

Pre-trip Advice

If going to England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or France, use British Airways if you can. If you can't get BA, try another European airline - stay away from the American carriers as they are just too unreliable and will stress you needlessly due to the hubbing system they use where your flight depends on another flight's successful arrival, etc. If you can, stick to the newer 777 jets.  They have the movie screen built in to the back of the seat in front of you and there are lots of different channels for watching movies and listening to music.  One interesting item is the on-screen view of the jet in relationship to the trip.  It shows the location over the earth including air speed, headwind/tailwind, and time left before landing at the destination airport.  If you are riding in the coach section, do not take a 747 since these jets are not good when it comes to space and especially viewing a movie.  If one person in front of you turns their head to talk to the person next to them, everyone behind that person will not be able to see the movie screen.  I have flown 767s before but being tall, I find that the seats give me a major backache and I can't seem to get comfortable.  If I couldn't find a 777 though, I'd settle for the 767.

Try and book all lodging reservations for your trip via the Internet if possible!  There is nothing worse than spending your valuable travel time attempting to find lodging once you arrive in Europe. It just isn't necessary due to the presence of the Internet and the fact that most good places use the Internet for booking the reservations, answering any questions you may have via email, negotiating rates, showing maps of their location, sites to see nearby, history of the area, rates they charge, their FAX and phone numbers, owners names, guestbook entries, recommended nearby restaurants, etc.  Since I have two teenagers that travel with us, I try to stay at places that offer Internet access at the B&B or Hotel, or at least have a place nearby where the kids can check their email while my wife and I enjoy some time alone or hit the pub.  I start booking my reservations about 2 months in advance and I do everything over the Internet.  Once in a while I end up having to make a phone call to clarify things, but that is a rare occasion.  Besides, if you really want to be organized, you will need all of the details regarding your trip so that you can send the info (most likely via email) to your friends or relatives in case something happens at home and someone needs to get information to/from you.

Ask questions regarding your hotel and/or B&B accomodations! It's a little late to arrive in a foreign country and start asking questions only to find out answers that would have made you choose a different location to stay. Go here to read more about the kinds of questions you should ask.

Quick Links

  • www.bootsnall.com - This site is more for the low-budget traveler that wants to save money by traveling cheap as well as visiting interesting places without spending a lot of money.

  • www.everycastle.com  -  Be sure and check out this very nice website for information regarding castles throughout Europe.

  • Currency converter - A good site to determine money conversion rates.

  • www.FranceKeys.com/  -  This is a great site for planning your trip to France.

  • www.interknowledge.com/northern-ireland/  -  Good site for finding information about travel to Northern Ireland.

  • www.letsgo.com - Based on the "Lets Go" guidebooks for budget travelers.  You might find more info in their guidebooks, but this site is still useful.

  • http://www.secretlondonwalks.co.uk/  -  If you are interested in taking any of the more famous walks around London, this is a good site to start your journey.

  • www.ricksteves.com/   -  Many of us have watched the Rick Steves show on travel to Europe, and he also has a good site covering much of the same information.  His graffiti board lists comments by travelers regarding their experiences in miscellaneous European sites.

  • http://www.ViaMichelin.co.uk - This is a great site for creating direction instructions as well as printing maps for your travel in Europe.  Be sure and sign up for the free service so that you can store your itineraries in case you need to access them while in Europe.

  • York, England Web Site  -  Good site for finding out more info on York, England. I especially like York and would recommend it as a place to visit.

 

Advice Quick Links

Here are some quick links to the topics of interest that I describe in detail.

Air Conditioning
Airline Info
   
Airline Carrier
   
Airfare
   
Airline Seating
Airports
Auto Rental
Cafes
Chunnel
Clothes
Credit Cards
Crime
Cruises
Currency Converter
Customs
Discount Tickets
Driving
   
International Driver's License
   
Driving Directions
Electrical Requirements
Food
Hotels and B&Bs
   
Hotel Arrival
Hot Water
Internet
Itinerary
Jetlag
Laundry/Ironing Clothes
Liquor
Luggage
Maps
Money
Packing
Passport
Pick-pockets

Pubs
Purse Snatching
Questions To Ask When Booking A B&B/Hotel
Roads & Highways
Room Questions

Sound Machines
Subway Systems
Taxis
Telephone Calls
Tipping
Toilet, WC, Restrooms, Bathrooms
Train Passes
   
Train Rides
   
Train Stations
Trip List

Weather

 

  • Air Conditioning - Europeans don't seem to care much about air conditioning in many hotels and especially B&Bs and seem to view it as a luxury as opposed to American travelers that grow to expect it in their stay.  Many Hotels and B&Bs aren't great about fans either.  A problem with simply using fans is that they basically re-circulate the hot air.  One thing we noticed is that there just isn't much air circulation due to crowded buildings next to each other when staying in large cities such as London and Paris.  Even though it was in the low to mid-70s (F) in Paris, it still felt hot every night we were there.  It never felt cool in our rooms no matter what time of day or night it was - until we went to the Bersoly's hotel in Paris. The air conditioning there was just fine.  The Bonnington Hotel in London now has air conditioning and although I wish it was even cooler, it's better than what it used to be.  You should ask about air conditioning if you plan to stay during the summer months since there is nothing worse than laying in bed at night and sweating or having to open the windows only to hear every sound (remember, sound carries further at night) or worse yet, to have pigeons or doves right outside the windows making sounds.

 

  • Airline Info - I've identified some items below you will want to note since they can make one of the longest parts of journey pleasant or miserable.

    Airline Carrier
    - No doubt about it, British Airways has been the best deal for us although lately I've been ticked with them regarding the number of air miles I've received.  It turns out that if you book a cheaper fare you only get 25% of the miles rather than all of them (this is different than the American air carriers).  The service is good on the flights and most of all, the 777 jet they use for the non-stop international flights.  I have also flown before on Air France which I really enjoy as well, but if you're English speaking, the British Airways airline is probably the way to go.  If I was flying non-stop only to Paris, and British Airways didn't have something that flew non-stop, then I'd probably go with Air France.  Remember that most liquor is free on the flight when you fly International (mostly beer and wine, but includes hard liquor as well), however some American airlines actually charge you for the liquor.  Some of the American carriers also charge you for the headsets or earpieces to listen to music or movies.  In the case of the earpieces they tell you that when you buy them, you can keep them.  I think this is just a cheap way of doing business and personally I won't use them as my travel carrier.

    We flew United Airlines using their 777s one year and it was pretty much the same, but United Airlines screwed up three of the four legs of the journey for reasons unknown to me.  We were lucky we got there at all.  I won't be flying them again when I go to Europe.

    The only other thing I've caught British Airways doing is a bit of bait-and-switch regarding their flights from London to Dublin.  They showed it as a 737 on the Internet but it turned out to be a much smaller plane when we arrived at the gate.  They also make up some excuse about how the carry-on luggage is limited (hey, it still weighs the same whether you check it in or put it in the overhead) so they claim we have to check it in at the gate just before we board the plane.  They've done this both times we flew to Dublin from London even though the flights were three years apart.  Personally, I don't believe them regarding the lame excuse they make about there being no room.  Every time we got on the plane the overheads were practically empty.  The downside is that I have medicine, photography stuff, and money that I have to quickly get out of the carry-on so I can bring it with me.  Very inconvenient and a dopey excuse if you ask me.

    I'm still ticked at British Airways for not getting my trips straight.  They know I flew round trip to London but still refuse to give me the miles.  They have a reservation system that screwed things up and they refuse to give me the miles for our 2003 trip despite numerous emails and time on the phone arguing this point.  The ironic part is that their system had correctly given me the round trip miles to Dublin from London which was also one of the tickets we booked at the same time as our Denver to London round trip.  I have boarding passes and everything to prove it but they still refuse to give me or my family the miles.  Hey, maybe they aren't that great an airline after all.

    Airfare - I shop around and get our tickets for about 700 bucks unless there's an oil shortage or oil prices are high in which case the fare can be up to $900 each.  They also tack on a post-911 fee that jacks the price up around $100.  If you get a good deal, pay immediately or you may get what happened to me - the airfare was cheaper when I initially booked the seats, I didn't pay right then, and the fare went up 75 bucks by the next day.  I subscribe to various airline email listings so that I'm aware of any specials they may be offering, especially around plane plus hotel deals that end up cheaper than if booked separately.  I check the online booking prices and then call the airline anyway since the online fees may be more expensive despite all the hype about saving money via the Internet.  Booked tickets for 2004 and found the Internet was $100 more than calling the airline.  Until things mature for online booking you may want to try both the Internet and calling.

    Airline Seating
    - Stay away from bulkheads and the very tail of the airplane or near the bathrooms.  We found out the hard way that the airline will build a kind of bassinet at the bulkheads for babies and small children to sleep and the kids rarely go to sleep.  They'll just stand up in the bassinet and cry for momma just about the whole trip.  Don't buy that story about how the kids will go to sleep - they don't!

    At the very back of the plane and near bathrooms, you will find folks that want to stand up to stretch and hang around getting water, orange juice, or pretzels and shoot the breeze with each other.  This means you should stay halfway between the bulkhead and the tail of the airplane if you are in the coach section.  You could sit in an aisle seat that gives you a little more room, but it also causes you to hand interior-seated folks their food or to get up while they go to the bathroom or want to stretch.  You may want to stay more towards the center seating if you are flying at night.  If there are three or four of you traveling, try to get seats towards the window on a 777.  There are three seats on the window side of the plane and one person could sit across the aisle on the aisle seat of the center section.  That works well for us as a family of four.

    An annoying thing I've encountered lately is that airlines will only release about 30% of coach seat information for seat reservations.  This means that most likely you won't get an assigned seat until you get to the airport.  Sometimes you can use your reservation number to go online within 12 hours of the flight and see where they put you, and you may even be able to select your own seats.  The question I have is why can't they just give the information in the first place?  No one at the airline has been able to answer that question.

 

  • Airports - We like London's Heathrow and Gatwick with the preference being Gatwick due to it being less busy and crowded.  British Airways started off in Denver by having a non-stop from Denver to Gatwick but changed over to Heathrow. Not sure why they did this since when initially trying to book a flight through Heathrow to Paris CDG, they had us taking a bus from Heathrow to Gatwick in order to go to Paris.  I ended up changing plans and took the Chunnel instead since it's about the same cost for the four of us and won't blow 4 hours fooling around with multiple airports while full of jet lag.  We like to stay in Bloomsbury (London area) so flying in to Heathrow, taking the Heathrow Express to Paddington station, and then grabbing a taxi to the hotel is not a big deal for landing at that airport.  The cost for using a Taxi is around 50 GBP (as of June 2004).  Either way, it isn't really all that bad which airport you arrive at in the morning.  My preference is for Gatwick mostly because it isn't as busy as Heathrow.  The Customs line at Heathrow can be ridiculous.  We have spent over an hour in line a couple of times since it seems that all the America to London flights arrive at the same time.  That's why you should start moving quickly when it's time to leave the plane.  Either that or find yourself standing in a long line at Customs.

    Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris is another story.  I hate to say it, but what a dopey layout those folks have.  It's bad enough that the language is a problem, but the sheer stupidity in the layout of that airport astounds me.  The airport looks as though someone thought it would look "futuristic" when they designed it.  Instead, they have a layout that is very user-unfriendly.  A rather long rubber treadmill that is steeper than you would imagine  leads to Customs and heaven help you if you fall, you'll probably tumble 200 feet head over heels all the way down this steep thing.  The problem is that it ends about 50 feet from Customs and since you are on a rather big plane, there will be lots of people lined up at customs.  You may not be able to get off of the treadmill due to the long line in front of Customs if things are moving slowly.  We actually saw people walking backwards in place because there was nowhere for them to go due to the long line of people directly in front of the Customs desks.  Really dumb in my opinion.

    Then there's the exit to the outside of the airport in Paris where you catch a shuttle bus to the main train station - another questionable setup.  There are signs telling you the number of the exit (Sortie), but there's a long line of people waiting to get into one of several elevators with only about 10 peoples' worth of standing room outside the elevators as they wait their turn to go downstairs.  Each elevator could handle about 10 people at the most since most everyone had luggage with them.  The "exit" to go downstairs is rather hidden too.  We walked around trying to figure out where it was and were clued in when we saw a rather long line of people standing around.  Judging by the rest of the wacky layout of the airport, we figured this must be the exit to go outside and we were right.

 

  • Auto Rental - Don't even bother trying to avoid the insurance costs.  It simply isn't worth going through the hassle if you are in an accident.  When the price of your trip will be on the order of thousands of dollars, why worry about a hundred bucks or so?  When in London with plans to travel throughout the U.K. (every year we do this), we rent a car in London from Hertz and the only thing I can tell you is to watch out where you rent your car.  It turns out that it's a lot easier if you rent it on the outskirts of town rather than in town and trying to figure out how to get out of town - especially in London where everything seems backwards due to driving on the other side of the road and the steering wheel and controls on the opposite side of the car.  Plan on whatever company you use pulling a "bait and switch" technique.  No matter what car I've been told I will get, I always get something else and it's always smaller than expected.  Sometimes they will "upgrade" you, but then you end up driving around a gas-guzzling tank.

    One other very important item to note is where you are supposed to return the rental car.  I rented a car in Paris at Esplanade Invalides (the Air France building) and found that the car return is not where the paperwork was signed.  Since I didn't ask them where to return the car when I first rented it, I ended up parking on a sidewalk and running in to ask them where I should return it.  It turned out that the drop-off was where we picked it up (a few blocks away in an underground parking area) and I was supposed to drop the keys in a lockbox and just leave the car parked in any available space.  I would have saved a lot of time and anxiety had I known this when I picked up the car in the first place.  The only other thing I didn't know was how to actually drive to the drop-off place.  Turns out that I had to walk the few blocks to pick up the car, but when driving I encountered one-way streets and no left turns which caused me to drive a completely different way to the drop-off than I took to initially pick up the car.

    ALWAYS
    do a walk-around before you leave the rental place to ensure that all damage has been recorded.  We rented a car in Dublin one time that had all kinds of scratch marks on the left side of the car.  I can remember thinking "that's odd, why are all these scratches on the left side of the car?"  Drive in Ireland, you'll quickly come to understand why this is the case.  You are constantly swiping tree branches on the left side of the car due to the narrowness of the off-roads.  Scratches are on the left because that's the passenger side since you drive on the left rather than the right.  Ireland is one of the worst bait-and-switch places when it comes to car rentals.  We were in Ireland in 2003 and it had to be the worst rental car from Hertz yet.  The car had numerous dents, scratches, a broken rear-view mirror, a huge patch of "bondo" on the roof (the roof?), and the seats were shot.  We later found out that the uncomfortable seats were surpassed by even worse shock absorbers.  They also didn't have another car we could use.  None.

 

  • Cafes - The Cafes in France can be quite fun as a resting place to sip a wine or coffee and watch people walk by.  Our favorite is in Paris and is Les Deux Magots along the left bank.  This is probably the most infamous cafe and it can be hard to get a seat.  Note that the price of your drinks changes based on where you consume your drink.  The cheapest price is if you stand at the bar.  The next more expensive price is if you sit at a table inside the cafe.  The most expensive is if you sit outside at a table where you can watch people walking by.  You will find that drinking wine in France at a cafe is cheaper than drinking beer.  We often get olives or peanuts to munch on while we sit outside at a table and drink beer or wine.  Don't feed the pigeons since this really annoys the waiters because the pigeons are their mortal enemies.  Also watch out not to set your camera, purse, or back pack on the table where someone walking by could easily snatch it and run.

 

  • Chunnel - The Eurostar Chunnel seems to have rates that are comparable to taking a flight from London to Paris.  The actual crossing under the Channel takes about 20 minutes and you really can't see anything since it's a dark tunnel.  The whole trip takes about 3 to 4 hours from Waterloo station in London and arrives in Paris at the Gare du Nord train station.  The train is traveling quite fast on most of the trip (in excess of 100MPH) and has more plusses than minuses when compared to flying.  The main difference is that you only need to be at the train station an hour before you leave, and your luggage goes with you.  It may seem as though security isn't all that tight, but people have to walk through metal detectors and their luggage is screened, so I guess it's OK.

    When traveling as a family, try and get center seats that face each other across a small table when you make your reservations (there are two seats side by side in each row on each side of the train - two seats, then an aisle, then two seats).  You can buy food outside the train station and bring it with you since it will be somewhat cheaper than buying it on the train (their tea and coffee was never very hot).  Get near the front of the line that will get on the train and know your car number before you try to board.  Getting there earlier than others allows you to put your luggage in the same car you will be riding and you can store carry-on stuff over the top of your seats.  There is a food car in the train and the prices aren't too bad.  If you plan to eat on the train, wait until it leaves the station and then head up to the food car before the long lines start.  Either that or wait after they announce the food car information since a lot of people will head for the food car.

 

  • Clothes - The weather in the U.K. and Ireland can be strange.  It often rains if you are not there during June to September so you should plan to bring an umbrella and a waterproof raincoat of some kind.  The whole time we have been there in June the sky is clear and never really rained all that much.  Then again, we like to travel during the second week of June since the Europeans haven't started their serious vacationing yet.  The locals frequently tell us that it is the most unusual weather they have had in years (I think you hear that kind of comment no matter when or where you go).  Our trips to London, York, and Ireland have been quite hot in June on multiple occasions.  Once again, the locals said this was very unusual weather.  Our trips have been OK weather-wise in the past, although the weather has gone from cool and needing jackets to very hot depending on where we were.  The point is to bring raincoats and try to use them as a jacket in case it gets cool and you are traveling other than from July to early September.

    In Paris it rained one day for about two hours.  That was it for the whole trip. It was cool at times so although we were there from mid-June through the end of June, shorts and short-sleeve shirts would not have worked out too well.  It was a little too cool for that on a daily basis.  We just carried our raincoat (expensive lightweight ones) in our backpacks with an umbrella (had the kids pack the umbrellas in their backpacks) and had light layers of clothes.

    Black umbrella tip - Learned a valuable lesson about black umbrellas a couple of times.  Never set a black umbrella down on a dark floor, the trunk of a car, or even on a black suitcase since the color doesn't contrast enough to notice it.  Ended up leaving an umbrella behind a couple of times because we simply didn't see it.

    Although it can be cool at night in the summer, it never seems to get cool in our hotel or B&B rooms in England unless we specifically stay at a place with air conditioning (more likely at a Hotel).  It seems as though it is always hot no matter what time of day or night it is unless it's in the winter.  One thing that is kind of strange is the sunlight in the summer.  The sky is still fairly lit even at 11PM at night (due to how far North the cities are located).  It never really seems to get what I would call dark.  Wales was nice and cool, bordering on cold and we could never tell when it might sprinkle.  Not really a heavy downpour, just a light sprinkle that didn't require us to wear a raincoat or use an umbrella.  Scotland is somewhat rainy and cold on the West coast, but drier and warmer on the East coast (Edinburgh area).

    Ireland is a little different than London and Paris.  You spend most of your time driving since they don't have much of a transit system (except in Dublin).  This means your raincoat can be left in the car.

 

  • Credit Cards - We always use credit cards when we can.  We don't bother with American Express cards since it seems many businesses refuse to take them.  We also don't bother with Traveler's Cheques since people don't seem to take them either.  Credit cards and ATM cards are the main items you should bring to handle paying your bills and getting cash from the ATM machines that are most everywhere.  Be sure and notify both your Credit Card company as well as your Bank that you will be in Europe so that they don't put a hold on your account until you call them.  This can be embarrassing and disruptive.  You should also bring a photocopy of your credit card and ATM card and write the customer service phone numbers on the photocopy so you will know the number to call in case they are lost or stolen.  You should know the limit for your ATM card withdrawals since Europe can be quite expensive compared to America.  If the Bank only allows a $300 withdrawal per day and the exchange rate for Euros and Pounds is not too good, you won't be able to get out very much money at one time.  This makes a difference if you expect to pay your B&B with cash and you planned to do it by using your ATM card once you arrived.  You might be surprised when the Bank only lets you withdraw 160 Pounds because the exchange rate is around $1.85 per Pound and you have a $300 limit on withdrawals per day.

 

  • Crime - Never found this to be the case in London when giving them bills and expecting change, but found it several times in Paris.  They would take advantage of the language barrier and play dumb regarding how much change I was to receive.  I didn't care for this aspect.  Especially be careful when dealing with street vendors in Paris.  They are notorious for not giving you back the correct change when they determine you are an American.  You realize how dangerous our country in the U.S. is when you go abroad and find that people have more class than to want to hurt other people.  Most of the police don't carry guns - especially in London.  The only place we ever saw a gun in England was at the airport, and there they walked around with machine guns (yikes).  Pick-pockets are a problem in both London and Paris especially around places where large crowds congregate or people are forced together (for example, on the subway during rush-hour or in the Taxi line outside a train station).  I had an attempted pick-pocket episode in Paris that taught me some lessons (see below for my discussion on pick-pockets).  Also read below regarding purse snatching (applies to stealing cameras, tote-bags, and backpacks as well).  The biggest thing to watch out for is common rip-off techniques around taxi ride cost, people helping you with buying your tickets, etc., while in Paris, and gypsies (they get all the blame don't they?) coming up to you and grabbing you or acting like they want to sell you something.  This is a common tactic to pick your pocket or to have one of the kids pick your pocket.  If you see one of these people approaching you, know where your purse and wallet are and get the heck away from these people.  Don't talk or try to reason with them, just get out of there.

 

  • Cruises - Although we typically take planes, trains, buses, the Chunnel, etc., to do our travel, what about a cruise?  There are cruises you can take along the canals in England, the Rhine River or canals and rivers throughout France where you can relax and enjoy the scenery while someone else does the navigation.  You get to ride on a boat (well, much more than just a boat actually), check out the beautiful scenery, visit historical areas, have some great meals and form relationships that could last you a lifetime.  Sounds good to me.  Go here to learn more about booking your travel via cruises where you can save time and get some good deals along the way.  I have many friends that do it this way, especially for a romantic getaway.

 

 

  • Customs - Pretty much cut and dry.  Standing in line (known as a queue) waiting to show them your passport is about all there is to it.  Returning to the U.S. is really easy since you practically walk on through.  In Denver they usually ask me if I have anything to declare, I tell them no, and they say welcome back home, and we leave the area.  Usually have to wait over 45 minutes to get our luggage, but other than that it isn't bad.  The wait times for luggage in Paris and London have been really small and everything has arrived OK but the customs line has taken us almost an hour at Heathrow compared to 30 minutes at Gatwick. It really depends on the number of International flights that arrive at the same time as yours.

    I'd suggest rather than running up and getting in just any line, you look very carefully at the various customs agents and the lines that exist as you walk towards the customs agents.  Look for the line that's right in front of one of the customs agents.  Go to the line that's the least filled with people if you can, but watch out that it isn't a line that's behind a pole or support column and isn't directly in front of the customs agent since the agent will pull folks from the queue closest to the agent's station.  You should also be careful to avoid a queue that is somewhat hidden by a post or some other obstruction such that the Customs agent can't easily see you.  If you have small children or are handicapped, you can ask an attendant near the queue entry point if they have a line for folks with small children or handicapped people (flash a handicap placard or copy of one if you remember to bring it).  They will often move you up quickly to a line that isn't noticeable, but does exist for this purpose.  Note that if you fly, you may get through the customs line rather quickly only to find yourself standing around waiting for your luggage to show up on a carousel.  The reason I point this out is because it doesn't necessarily mean much if you get through customs quickly only to wait in another line.  If you take the Chunnel or you only have carry-on bags, getting to the front of the customs line helps out.  After you get through customs and get your luggage, get to the taxi area quickly since this line can fill up rather fast.  When arriving in Paris and clearing customs, the taxi line can have 100 people in it waiting for the next taxi.  Be very careful when standing in the taxi line because over-priced private taxi people will target you (especially Americans in Paris) and show you a rate that is quite high compared to the expected rate.  See my discussion on taxis to learn more.

 

  • Discount Tickets - You can find discounted tickets to events and local sites at many places including the Internet, but another good source is the Hotel or B&B where you stay.  When arranging my lodging I include a question asking if they have discounted tickets or if they know where I can get them nearby.  This also helps when I overlook a possibly interesting site and am reminded by the correspondence regarding discount tickets that I should also consider another interesting site.  Watch out for sightseeing while in France.  Many of the smaller tourist sights shut down for two hours at lunch time so you won't be able to do any sightseeing until they open after lunch.  This also goes for the Tourist Information station in smaller cities.
     

 

  • Driving - Now this is an interesting subject.  I've driven all over the center and western portions of France, and I have driven a lot in the U.K. and Ireland.  England is something else when it comes to the speed limit.  These folks drive very fast as you drive away from London.  I'm not exaggerating when I say that I was averaging 80 MPH when driving the M1 on my way to York from London.  People were constantly passing me too.  I think the speed limit is around 70MPH but folks think nothing of doing 100 MPH.  Never saw the police either.  Every once in a while you will see a sign that shows a camera on it. The camera is used to snap pictures of speeders but it never seemed to bother anyone that I saw.  I just keep up with the traffic to avoid being the cause of an accident but am quite surprised to find myself frequently doing over 90MPH.  If you see cars suddenly slowing down for no apparent reason, you should slow down too!  That's because someone knows about a camera taking pictures of speeders.  This is especially true when taxis are involved since they seem to know where all the working cameras are located.  If you drive by one of these cameras and see some flashing lights in your rearview mirror (and you are the only car around and you were speeding), you probably just got your picture taken.  The only thing you can hope for is that they haven't upgraded the camera to a disk drive rather than film and the film ran out so you won't get a ticket.

    Some places where you stay want your license plate number when you check in.  I met a person that told me what he did was use his cell phone to take a picture of the license plate so he could easily retrieve the number at check-in.  Not a bad idea given that most newer cell phones include a camera.

    Ireland is a whole different story.  The roads can be extremely narrow, bumpy, pot holes, etc., and the driving experience can be nerve-racking for Americans.  I'm known as someone that drives quite a bit, but nothing has compared to the Irish driving experience.  People will walk, ride bikes, park on the side of the road, etc., and it's all you can do to safely get around them.  The bike riders and joggers are absolutely crazy in my book.  I'm really surprised we haven't come across dead folks rather often due to the dangerousness of the situation.  Seems like I would always be trying to go around them just in time to nearly hit a gasoline delivery truck head on!  In Ireland you constantly find yourself looking for a way to pass several slower cars on a really narrow road that looks like it was made for only one car.  That's all you do - constantly look for the time when you can pass someone.  At least this is the case for many of the roads outside of Dublin.  The roads are twisting around all over the place too.  Constantly.  Driving in Ireland is definitely not for the faint of heart.  Once, we encountered some folks herding sheep and cows down the main road near Dingle along the west coast.  They let the animals out onto the street and then let us herd them with our car as we were on our way towards our destination.  Kind of interesting, but when you are in a hurry due to the crazy driving conditions you will surely encounter, it isn't all that much fun.  I will say that the road conditions have been getting better in parts of Ireland due to the EU.  It looks like they are dumping lots of money into road construction and it is making Ireland a better place to drive.  Of course all that construction means slow-downs, but eventually it will be better.

    International Driver's License
    - Not sure if you should get an International Driver's license if you plan to drive while in Europe.  We got ours once at the local AAA office, but since then I haven't bothered with it and no one has ever asked me for an International Driver's License.  I've never heard of anyone encountering any problems when they didn't have one either.

 

  • Driving Directions - Many people use Mapquest or ViaMichelin to get directions of how to get from one place to another in Europe.  As in the U.S., these directions are not necessarily what you would take if you knew the roads.  My opinion is that it's better than nothing so it can at least act as a driving aid with maps.  Don't do what I did when I personalized ViaMichelin on the Internet.  I mistakenly made the default distance miles instead of kilometers and when I printed the directions for France, all the info was in tenths of a mile and miles.  This did me absolutely no good when I was in France since they use kilometers.  Don't forget to change the settings for non U.K. countries to kilometers or your directions will be somewhat meaningless.  Also note that although a route looks easier on the map, it may not be the easiest way to get to your destination.  When returning from Normandy to Paris to return the rental car, I came in from the North instead of the South.  If you want a real adventure in life, drive in to Paris from the North and head towards Arc de Triomphe.  I guarantee you will wonder if you will ever make it to the other side of the Seine river.  The roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe is unbelievably dangerous since there are no road stripes and people drive in all directions with motor scooters zipping in and out of traffic as well.  We still don't know how we got through that section of Paris.
     

 

  • Electrical Requirements - You can get power plug adapters at some hardware stores or Radio Shack when you use the local 220 volt system.  London and Ireland require the rather big 3 prong plugs (not the 2 prong that is also listed for England) and Paris requires the 2 prong plugs.  They all use 220 volt power so be sure your electrical devices will run on 220 as well as 110 volts.  Most places have the 110 volt shaver outlets over a light in the bathroom or someplace that is marked rather well.  I use these for recharging my digital camera batteries or as a power source for my sound machine.  I bring a universal power converter and five spare plug adapters for the U.K., Ireland, and France.  Determine the number of converters you will need by understanding the types of power equipment that requires recharging.  Some of the items that will require a converter are: video and digital camera battery rechargers, a battery charger (for AA/AAA batteries), iPOD or other MP3 players, electric shaver, hair dryer, curling iron, video game, and if you are like me - a sound machine for sleeping.  Just about the time I think I brought enough adapters, someone will complain that they can't charge their MP3 player because I'm using two adapters for a video camera and a digital camera along with a AA battery recharger, and some other digital cameras are being recharged.  We always seem to be short on the number of plug adapters we bring, but I think five is enough for three or four people.  Maybe only three plug adapters for two people traveling.

 

  • Food - This is another tough one to describe.  Depends on what you like to eat.  We like Indian food so it's not a big deal in the U.K. or Ireland.  We eat Indian food just about every night.  Now Paris, that's another story.  These people love to smoke cigarettes as well as eat!  Everyone smokes where we have eaten. Not that you eat cigarettes, but if you don't like having the taste of your food ruined by cigarette smoke, get ready for a real smoking shocker.

    As far as eating Beef in Paris we stay away from it.  Their idea of beef and an American's are different worlds apart.  Their meat is tough such that you can barely chew it.  They cover the toughness with excellent sauces, and leave the meat almost bloody to make it more tender, but the beef isn't what most Americans would be used to.  Maybe it's all the steroids us Americans are used to having in our meat.  I'd recommend you stick with the chicken, duck, fish, and couscous dishes.  One other thing is to watch out for what you order in Paris.  Be sure that in fact, they do speak English whether they say they do or not.  We ended up getting everything we spoke about out loud while reading the menu at one cafe and got really stuffed.  At least the price was very good there and it didn't bankrupt us when the food just kept coming out one dish after another.  Turns out the guy didn't understand English as well as he or we thought.  He just wrote down everything he heard us say while we were thinking out loud and served it. 

    Expect to spend lots of money on food in the U.K., Ireland, and France with Paris being more expensive than London for similar meals.  There are ways to get simple sandwiches consisting of ham and a croissant in Paris that can fill you up, even gyros sandwiches, but it isn't much of a balanced meal that way.  You should also ask them if they accept credit cards right up front, otherwise you could find yourself visiting the ATM machine again to get money to cover your meal.  The French seem to either have their favorite eating haunts, or they spend time walking around and surveying the menus on the windows until they think the price is fair.  Unlike Americans on vacation, they have an idea of what "reasonably priced" means.

    You should also watch out for "up-selling" in restaurants.  This is where you order something and the waiter tells you that you should order a larger size or make the order an entree instead of a side order.  This is especially true at Indian restaurants in the U.K.  We know our Indian food and know how much we can eat without getting stuffed, but the waiters were always trying to up-sell us and would even go as far as telling us that we HAD to order something as an entree.  You don't have to order anything as an entree if you don't want to, so watch out for this tactic.  A real easy and somewhat cheaper item to purchase at an Indian restaurant is a vegetarian Thali.  This is a mixture of vegetables in small metal bowls (deceivingly small bowls that will get you stuffed), bread, and a dessert.

    Ireland is kind of plain when it comes to eating.  The best meals we found were at Indian restaurants.  The breakfasts in Ireland were all good.  The same thing at every place we stayed in the U.K. - a full English breakfast served at 8AM (usually - sometimes earlier) and ending by 9AM.

    While in France we stopped along the highway at rest stops to get something to eat.  We walked in and had no clue what to do next.  My advice here is to wait for someone to go in front of you and basically do what they do.  It was pretty confusing what to do when it came to ordering the meal since there seemed to be lots of options and depending on what you did, it could get pretty expensive.  The Plat du Jour is probably the cheapest way to go.  We found that French didn't always have the concept of a menu when we went to roadside places.  The waiter would walk up and ask us what we wanted.  We would ask for a menu and they would stand there looking confused.

 

  • Hotels - When I think of London I think of small.  No, I should say tiny.  Their view of roomy and mine are not the same.  You should stay at a 3 star hotel (or higher star rating) or rent an apartment if you plan to stay for a while.

    Years ago we decided to go cheap and we rented two rooms in London so all four of us would have a place to stay (since a "family room" is not all that common that will serve four people).  The beds weren't as long as me (I'm 6ft. 2") and the rooms were extremely small.  We had to turn sideways to pass each other in the entrance way and I ended up sleeping in a fetal position the whole night.  Not a good night's sleep and felt prone to sucking my thumb the next day.  The lesson for me was not to go cheap and to avoid some of the Americanized hotels that are cheap, but tiny.

    One time in Paris we decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel since it turned out to be as cheap as a hotel stay because we were staying for about a week.  The apartment was more like a Residence Inn here in the U.S.A. and cost us about $130 per night.  Not bad considering how large it was. It was called the "Citadines Voltaire Republique" apartments and was located off of Parmentier near Republique square.  There was no breakfast included in the price but there was a Patisserie about 100 feet away where we could get some breakfast pastries.  Lately we have been staying at Bersoly's due to their close proximity to the Louvre and D'Orsay and the fact that they have a great air conditioner, the rooms are clean, and it's a nice place.

    In London we have stayed at both the "Royal National" hotel and the Bonnington Hotel in Bloomsbury as well as a couple of higher end hotels.  Seems to be a lot of Americans as well as other tourists at the Royal National Hotel.  The Royal National reminded me a lot of a Holiday Inn Hotel, but more cramped.  It is located in an area known as Russell Square in Bloomsbury.  Each room at the Royal National cost us about 80 GBP per night, so we ended up spending 160 GBP per night for the two rooms. The price included a "Continental" breakfast but I'm not sure what continent they were referring to.  The breakfast consisted of a carefully monitored cup of 6 ounces of Orange Juice with a roll and butter or jelly.  That's it, just one roll and one swig of juice.  We went ahead and ate it since we paid for it, then we went downstairs to a breakfast place and got coffee and a pastry to feel like we really had some form of breakfast.  Really weak on the Continental breakfast at the Royal National Hotel.  Don't remember if it cost us extra but if it did, I would suggest you skip it if you decide to stay there.

    The Bonnington is a much better hotel and has a typical English hotel breakfast buffet.  It also has two double beds so that Chris and our daughter (smaller than me) can sleep in a bed and my son and I could sleep in the other bed.  This seems to work out pretty well wherever we go in the U.K.  Note that if you stay in the Bloomsbury area, the British Museum and the Hertz car rental place are within easy walking distance from either the Royal National or Bonnington (only a couple of blocks from the Bonnington).  Another place we stayed in 2006 and 2008 that worked out well is the Holiday Inn in Bloomsbury.  We hadn't considered this hotel in the past because they didn't have air conditioning, but they have upgraded the rooms with air conditioning and their rates are better than the Bonnington's.

    When we stayed at the Royalist Hotel in the Cotswolds it was a great deal but I've noticed lately that the prices have really gone up due to remodeling and new ownership.  The rooms (two rooms required again) cost us about $140 for both in 1999 (in 2006 the rate jumped to $325 per room) and included a "full English breakfast."  Lots of breakfast food at the Royalist and it was all good.  We've stayed in apartments, hotels, B&Bs, and Guest Houses and I'd say we like the B&Bs the most unless it's in a large city. Then we opt for a 3 star hotel since it seems to be the best value for the money.  Always check for air conditioning if traveling in the summer months. You need to ask questions of the hotel or B&B you plan to use, so go here to get an idea of the many things you need to know before finalizing your reservations.

Hotel Arrival - Very interesting regarding checking in to a hotel.  At both London and Paris we were able to "check in" fairly early.  If the room isn't available you can still store your bags in a secure place for a nominal fee or even for free.  Remember that when you travel to London or Paris you typically land between 7:30AM to noon and technically your room isn't available until later.  We only brought one suitcase with us to Paris and left the remaining two suitcases in storage at our hotel in London where we were planning to return for the remainder of our stay in London once we returned from France.  It cost us about 40 Pence (40P) per day which isn't all that much and it was in a secure area.  Save that claim check since there may be hundreds of bags if the hotel is large.  The scarf on the handle or the brightly colored strap trick works well for quickly identifying your bags in a room full of bags that will no doubt be black just like yours.
 

 

  • Hot Water - There was plenty of hot water whether in the U.K. or in France. Noticed some curious hot water systems for the showers in B&Bs in the U.K. There was either a string hanging down from the roof and you pull it down until it clicks to turn on an in-shower water heating device, or you flip a switch outside the bathroom to turn on the electric water heater for the shower. Seemed strange to see an electrical device inside of a shower but it always worked and rather quickly too. Once it begins heating, you just turn the dial to how hot you want the water and it's there rather quickly. At times it has seemed as though you could get scalded with hot water if you weren't careful.  Found that in a couple of places we stayed, someone flushed the toilet and I had to step back from the shower since the water pressure dropped, the water going through the pipe ran through slower, heated up quicker since less water flow, and I almost got scalded. The sink hot water gets very hot to the point you could probably make tea or coffee with it, so be careful if you have a child that turns on the hot water - they could get scalded.
     

 

  • Internet - I use the Internet for booking my entire trip as well as for discovering where to stay, sites to see, local areas of interest, booking rates for auto rental, trains, subways, Hotels, B&Bs, maps, local history,  museums, castles, wine tours, shopping, discounts, etc., and especially for my correspondence with the Hotels and B&Bs where I negotiate the rates for rooms as well as discussing any number of questions that I may have.  Many of the B&Bs and Hotels have rates listed on the Internet as well as automated booking services, but through correspondence with the owners via email, I have actually gotten lower rates than those listed.  This tip alone makes my trip advice worth using.  I also use the rec.travel.europe Internet News Group (also known as a Discussion Group) to post questions regarding recommendations for where to stay, driving directions to an area of interest, expected rates to pay in a given area, what others liked or disliked about my plans, a sample itinerary, etc.  Always include the number of people, how long you plan to stay and when, 2 star vs. 3 star vs. 4 star accommodations,  interests, cost limitations, handicaps, etc., when posting a message - it makes the process much simpler and you will not get "flamed" for asking what some people perceive to be a dumb question.

    You should also determine if there is Internet access that you can use either in the place you plan to stay, or at least at a nearby location.  I found that one place I planned to stay had Internet access, but they didn't tell me that they wanted a Pound for every time we planned to use it and that it was behind the desk that they use to book reservations which offered no privacy at all.  This is not the kind of Internet access I had in mind, and there was no place nearby which had anything any better.  I would probably stay in a different place if Internet access could not be found nearby, unless it's in a remote town where you wouldn't expect to find the Internet.  One of the places we stayed in France charged 10 Euros to use the computer for Internet access but they had restrictions on when it could be used.  Basically the hours of use were from 9AM to 4PM which was the times we were not at the Hotel so their hours of use were pretty useless.
     

 

  • Itinerary - I use an itinerary and a check list year after year to ensure there won't be any surprises about where I will be and what I plan to do.  It's hard to claim to be prepared, and yet, not have the time to create an itinerary.  So take my advice - create an itinerary and a checklist at least three weeks before you take your trip.  I create a simple calendar showing the dates when I will be on the trip and the places where I will be spending a night.  I color code the dates so that I can quickly see when I will be leaving/returning from Europe as well as changing locations.  I even include exactly where I plan to be each day and the sites I plan to visit so I have a good idea of where and what I will be doing.  This kind of planning feels better to me since I'm not spending valuable time making impromptu decisions about what I should be seeing or doing during an expensive European vacation.

    Since I have my own website (the one you are currently visiting), I upload my plans, maps, contact info, etc., in a password-protected PDF document that I can download from anywhere in the world.  This way if I forget one of my documents, I know that I can always download it from the Internet at an Internet Cafe.  I use Microsoft Word to create the file and then use Adobe Acrobat to create a password-protected PDF file that I upload to the website.  In 2003 I was in a hurry due to a work-related issue (a dumb boss decided he needed me to do something just before I was to leave for Europe), and I walked out of the house without my itinerary.  That was devastating since I had a rough memory of when and where I was going, but had no phone numbers and addresses for the B&Bs where we were planning on staying.  I swore I would never make that mistake again since to overcome this obstacle, I had my cousin Mikey actually fly to Colorado from Texas to get on my computer and email me the info to a B&B.  I was anxious about missing all my valuable info and it really scared me since I had no memory of all the detailed information.  Another thing you can do is send yourself email to a mail account that can be reached via the Internet.  Here is an example of my Europe 2004 Trip Itinerary that illustrates the details although I stripped out a lot of the detailed trip info regarding all the maps I used (the file size would be too large and not necessary to illustrate the point). 

    By the way, I also make a Trip Checklist before I leave home so that I don't forget anything.  Here is an example of my 2004 European Trip Checklist.  My 2006 trip checklist was nothing more than an updated 2004 version of the documents.  You can view my Europe 2006 Trip Itinerary to see how it's progressed and use it yourself if you'd like. It's a Microsoft Word document so it can be edited for your own usage.  You can right-click on this link (2006 Europe Trip Itinerary - Microsoft Word Version) and choose "Save Target As" to save it to your local hard drive.  Note that if you simply click on the link, it may not open if you don't have Microsoft Word installed on the computer you are using.  Here is a 2006 Europe Trip Itinerary - PDF Version for those that don't use Microsoft Word.  If you have Acrobat installed, you can simply click on the link to view it, or, right-click the link and save the pdf file to your local hard drive.  Note that towards the end of the document I stripped out a lot of detailed info regarding chateaux and castles I planned to visit to keep the file size down.  If you'd like to see the full size file, send me an email and I'll send you the complete file.  Once you view the documents, you'll get the idea of what I do and can create one yourself.

     

 

  • Jetlag - Colorado is 7 hours behind London and 8 hours behind Paris.  We usually feel really tired the first day in London since no one sleeps on the plane, or at least we get minimal sleep the whole way over.  That's because we typically leave the U.S. around 8PM and arrive in London or Paris around mid-morning the next day.  We have left Denver, Colorado in the past at 3:15PM on a Friday and arrived at Gatwick around 6:30AM on Saturday.  So to us, it was 11:30PM Friday night.  Unfortunately, we still had an entire Saturday ahead of us.  Personally I like the flight that leaves around 7PM or later since I may have a shot at getting some sleep, even if only a little.

    My main advice regarding jet lag is do not lay down!  Not even for a "quickie" nap.  Stay up until about 9 or 10PM and then go to bed.  You probably won't wake up the next day until 9AM so it won't feel too bad the next day, but you will still feel it.  The first day of arrival is really tough.  Once we arrive, we take walking trips which are sort of tiring but takes our minds off of how tired we feel.  Even with a few hours of sleep on the trip over, we feel somewhat OK, but come 4PM, we really start feeling kind of dead.  I've violated my own "rule" about not taking a quickie nap and can tell you that I have paid dearly for it for several days.  It throws off the whole sleep pattern.  For at least three days afterwards, I would wake up at 5AM wide awake and ready to go.  Of course, I was also ready to hit the bed at 8:30PM which was no fun for everyone else.  Resist the urge to take a nap and tough it out that first day.  You'll thank yourself later when you see how fast you recover compared to taking a nap.

    When you are in London, one thing you can do is take a "hop-on/hop-off" bus and just ride around and see the city.  We find that sitting on the top of a double-decker bus exposes us to sunlight and we typically do not feel as sleepy, although Chris did fall asleep once and banged her head on the plexiglas windshield on the upper part of a double-decker bus when she suddenly fell forward while nodding off.  Made a loud banging sound that was kind of funny more than anything.  I think the funny part was when she suddenly lurched up and looked around to see what was causing the banging noise.

    Some people take Melatonin that you can get at the local Vitamin store.  This is supposed to readjust your sleep patterns but don't wait until the trip to try it out.  Chris and I have had extremely bad reactions to Melatonin and can't take it at all.  I've found that sunlight seems to be the best thing to get us readjusted.  I make sure that I'm in the sunlight during that first day and I seem to recover quite quickly.  Try it, I think you'll agree.

    Coming back to the U.S. is another story.  I have tried walking around the block to feel better (it's usually night time or late afternoon when we get home), but nothing seems to help.  I wake up every morning at 3AM sometimes for weeks before my sleep habits gets back to normal.  The longest I have waited to get my normal sleep patterns back took me a month and a half.  For me it's never less than a few weeks to get back to normal.

 

  • Laundry/Ironing Clothes - It is possible to wash your clothes yourself at a Laundromat if in a big city such as London, but not quite so easily if staying in Paris.  There are laundry shops all around London and Dublin but I never really saw any in Paris that didn't require a rather healthy walk while dragging a suitcase full of dirty clothes.  You can wash your clothes at a Laundromat, but the soap powder and softeners are expensive if you buy them there.  We shop at a local grocery store and buy the smallest box of soap we can find and then give it away at the last clothes washing session.  I recommend that if you want to wash your clothes at a Laundromat to save money (as opposed to dropping them off at a Dry Cleaners or "Pressing" shop in France), and you plan to wash your clothes multiple times, you buy a box of soap powder at a grocery store after you arrive and then dump it in a sturdy zip-lock bag that you brought with you from the States.  Hauling the box of soap powder around in your luggage can lead to spillage during your travel when moving from one place to another. 

    Once, we were in London (the early days when we weren't as wise) and were told to bring our dirty clothes to a local dry cleaners that would wash them.  We spent $90 bringing 5 days worth of clothes to this place. We didn't realize they would dry clean everything since they said they washed clothes on the sign outside. Ouch.  Turned out there was a regular Laundromat run by a nutty old lady only a couple of blocks away.  I have noticed that the dryers seem to take forever to dry the clothes.  Perhaps that's because we try to cram as much as we can in a dryer but even still, they seem to gobble up coins rather quickly.  We kind of like the break in action since we can read books or just watch the locals and how they behave.

    Another tip is to negotiate with the owner of your B&B and see if they will include your clothes with the B&B items for washing.  Sometimes the B&B owner sends towels and bedding out to be washed and you can have yours included (just put the dirty clothes in a suitcase and give it to them).  I pay attention to the number of pairs of socks, shirts, and pants that I send out since I have had a couple of occasions where something was missing when the clothes came back.  I think that like me, they had a sock disappear so they just kept the remaining one so I wouldn't notice it.  Had a pair of pants disappear once too.  If you do get the B&B to handle the clothes washing, be sure to have them leave the cleaned clothes in your room!  We came in late one night and found out that the B&B owners had kept the newly cleaned clothes in a locked room that we didn't know about nor could we access.  When it came time to get dressed in the morning, we had to put dirty clothes back on so that we could find the owner and then change in to the clean clothes later.  This is also kind of disruptive to a B&B owner that's trying to serve breakfast and handle people checking out.

 

  • Liquor - We have had good wines in Paris and typically drink lots of good beer while in the U.K.  We have tried lots of beers in London most of which were warm and not carbonated.  That takes some getting used to for Americans that are used to carbonated beer that is cold.  The folks in London are really proud of their beer and it turns out that many of them make their own beer. Once you get used to the flatness and how cold the beer is (or isn't), it isn't a big deal.  I really enjoy the variety of beers in the U.K.  They post signs showing the alcohol content and more alcohol means more expensive (usually).

    You can't beat the beers in Ireland either.  Of course, Guinness is the big beer there since everyone seems to drink it.  It's a lot creamier in Ireland than it is here in America.  They also pour the beer over a period of several minutes and "paint" a little shamrock in the foam.  Turns out that you can tell which school the bartender attended by the style of shamrock that is "painted."

    You will find that drinking wine in France at a cafe is cheaper than drinking beer.  While in France, we visit a local recommended winery and buy bottles of wine that we will drink while in the area.  This is a lot cheaper than ordering wine with the meal and works quite well when at the end of a long day of sight-seeing where we want to kick back, drink some good wine, and reflect on our visit.

 

  • Luggage - Learned a valuable lesson by watching someone else.  They had a scarf tied around the handle of their luggage so it would be easy to spot.  Another fellow had a brightly colored strap that went all the way around his bag so that just in case the zipper failed, the bag wouldn't fall open.  The brightly colored strap was also a great indicator for his bag so he could find it quickly as it came around the baggage carousel.  I use the brightly colored strap routine (mine is purple) and it works perfectly.  Other people were checking each similar-looking piece to see if it was theirs and I just stand back waiting for the brightly colored strap to show up.  Real easy, you should try it.  Just don't pick a purple strap since that's what I use ;o)  Remember that you shouldn't lock your luggage (since 9/11) because they may cut the lock off anyway.

    Remember that you can store your luggage at the hotel you will be staying.  Also remember NOT to lose your voucher and clearly mark your luggage.  I left my luggage once in a hotel storage room that I thought was a small room with a bit of luggage in it.  Turns out that anyone could walk up and store their luggage for a small fee per day (40P per day).  Quite a shocker when the guy let me in the room to find my luggage.  All the luggage was black and looked just like mine except that there were hundreds of pieces of luggage in the room.  This is where the brightly colored strap around the luggage really pays off. You would be surprised how few people actually know this handy technique.  Another trick I use is a brightly colored name card (mine is bright pink) that I make using a hot press laminator.  I use Microsoft Word to create a name tag that includes my name, address, telephone number in the U.S. where I can be reached, and an email address.  I also type instructions for what to do if the bag is found.  In my case, the instructions read "If you found this bag and do not know how to contact me, please send me email at <email address> with your telephone number or address so that I can contact you immediately."  So far this hasn't been an issue, but a person finding a piece of my luggage with information on the name tag for the U.S. does me no good when I am in England or some other foreign country.  I can read my email from anywhere.

 

  • Packing - We divide our clothes up by what we will wear on a given day.  We place the clothes in a vinyl airtight bag that can be "rolled" to expel the air out of the bag.  Once we have this done, we split clothes up evenly among our luggage so that we could survive OK even if a suitcase got lost.  We pack the following in our carry-on bags: all our cameras, tickets, maps, umbrella, raincoats, medicine, nasal spray, aspirin, band aids, Kleenex, hair brushes, deodorant, and washcloths - yes - it's more likely than not that there won't be any washcloths where you stay.  The washcloth is kept in a baggie and we use it at the airport to freshen up, on the airplane trip, and then at the hotels.  The kids take their own backpacks and bring their books, games, raincoat, and umbrella packed in them as well.

    When packing our clothes in an airtight vinyl bag, we place all of our underwear that will be worn in one day for the whole family (there are usually four of us) in a single bag, then shirts for one day for all of us in another bag, then pants that will be worn on two days for all of us in another bag.  That makes two bags that will be opened each day (underwear in one bag, shirts in another bag), and one bag of pants that will be used every two days.  This may sound like a lot of bags, but these bags are rather cheap and when the air is squeezed out, they take up very little room and pack easily.  It also protects the clothes from anything getting on them.  During our stay, we put dirty clothes in bags as well.  We put the whites and colored clothes in one bag (as many as we can cram in a bag) and the darks in another bag.  We do this until we need to wash our clothes at a laundry and this makes things much easier to handle.  This also protects the odor contamination from occurring between clean and dirty clothes.  When we wash and dry our clothes at a local laundry, we pack the clothes as I mentioned above right there at the laundry as we take them out of the dryer.  This way we are always prepared and getting up in the morning and wondering which clothes to wear and where they are is a snap.

 

  • Maps - City maps are somewhat worthless in Dublin but are pretty good for London and Paris.  If you have to drive in London you should be sure that the map is detailed down to the city block level or you will get lost.  Remember that in England the name of the street changes almost every block.  To find out what street you are on just look up towards the second floor of any building near the corner of the street and you will see a sign that indicates the street you are on.  It isn't bad, but you'd better be good at spotting the white sign with the street name on it or you'll be getting lost rather often.  England has roads that begin with a "M" or an "A" and indicate the type of road it is.  The "M" roads are "Motorways" and people drive quite fast.  The "A" roads are often more scenic but are typically two-lane roads with passing areas although they do include 4 lane roads as well.  My favorite maps when driving outside the major cities is an "Ordinance Survey" map which is quite detailed.  The Michelin road atlas is good for France although France is not as good with street names as the U.K.

    As I mentioned above, maps of Dublin are somewhat worthless - probably because they don't seem to have any visible street signs so why make the map with street names listed?  The maps of Dublin that we brought were totally useless since there are far more streets than what was listed.  I think the maps of Ireland in general are pretty worthless except for the main "highways."  When you read the maps of Ireland you will think that the road appears to be a major highway similar to England's roads.  Wrong!  These are two-lane roads with barely enough room to have two cars pass side by side.  The maps of the larger cities really aren't very good and are somewhat of a waste of time since you won't see any street signs anyway.

 

  • Money - We take about 300 Pounds of U.K. money (you'll be going through this pretty fast) and 400 Euros if we visit France or Ireland.  We use ATM machines anywhere we go in Europe, the exchange rate is good, and it helps us to avoid the hassle of carrying cash from the beginning of the trip.  Use your Visa/Master Card when possible when buying just about anything, but always ask if they take credit cards first, especially at small eateries!  If you don't ask, the people may tell you that they don't accept credit cards after you've ordered your food when in fact they do - they would just rather have the cash.  This was especially the case in Paris, although in England we find that they often don't take credit cards at smaller places.  Most all of the pubs take credit cards and we often eat in the pubs in the U.K.  We don't bother with American Express traveler's cheques or credit cards since I've found that hardly anyone will take them.

 

  • Passport - You must have a passport or you won't get in to a foreign country (unless you make a good stow-away).  Give yourself plenty of time to get the passport since it doesn't just come in the mail in a few days.  In the U.S. they will tell you it will take 4 to 6 weeks but it will often take only 4 weeks.  They will do an "expedite" or "rush order" on passports and have them back in 2 weeks but the charge is around $60 per person.  Also remember that kids regardless of age need to have a passport.  We don't carry our passports with us when we walk around cities but we do have a photocopy of our passports that we carry with us just in case we are asked.

 

  • Pick-pockets - Well, I almost got nailed by a group of pick-pockets on the Paris metro during rush-hour when the subway cars were crammed with people during my June 2001 trip.  You always hear warnings or stories about pick-pockets, but this was the first time I actually encountered it myself.  I blew some obvious things that should have been a tip-off to me, but now I have the info in hand to tell you about it so that hopefully it won't happen to you.  By the way, while waiting for a taxi outside Victoria Station in London an American elderly lady told me that the last time she was in London the pick-pockets had stolen her wallet and all of her credit cards while riding on the Tube within 6 hours of arriving in London.  Most folks ask me if I have ever heard of a money belt, but I find them to be a pain to get to the money, hot, and basically inconvenient.  Of course I've seen folks with the money belt also carry other valuables such as a camera or a tote-bag/backpack and the pick-pockets can go after items in these as well, so the money belt works, but just for the money and credit cards.  I imagine it depends on where you plan to travel in Europe but so far I've been pretty savvy about where I stand and how I maneuver in crowded areas where pick-pockets like to operate.

    NEVER stand in the center of a subway car that is crammed with people with your wallet in your back pocket.  This gives the pick-pocket(s) the chance to jostle you about, bump you as they try to detect where your wallet is, and many angles to pick your pocket.  Get up against the side of the subway car with your back towards it if possible, or with your back and sides against objects (or friends/kids/etc.) that will prevent the pick-pocket from getting to your pocket/backpack/etc.  They need to know which pocket has the goods and the best way to get to it, so if the pocket/backpack is protected by being inaccessible, they can't get to it.  Also you shouldn't put a wallet in a zipped pocket of a backpack that is easily accessible from behind.  Take the backpack off and hold it with your arms through the straps to protect the area where your valuable is located rather than simply leaving the backpack on your back and accessible to a pick-pocket.

    Always be especially careful when approaching a Metro/Tube stop since this is the key time for them to grab and then escape.  The guys that were trying to nail me were perched to snatch my wallet just seconds before the metro door was going to open.  Due to the number of people on board, the people getting on and off at the same time, and the short timeframe for when the door is actually open (about 20 seconds during rush hour), it would have given them a chance to snatch my wallet, get out the door, disappear in to the crowd, and although I would have probably detected that they snatched my wallet, I couldn't have gotten out of the subway car fast enough nor would I have known exactly which person had my wallet if I did make it out of the subway car.  This is why they sometimes work in pairs or threes.

    In my case, I was standing behind the center pole hanging on to the pole (bad since the pole was between me and exiting the car), one guy was facing me holding on to the pole, another guy was beside me jostling me around, and the other guy was directly behind me to also distract me or perhaps push me down or in to some other people when it was time for them to make an exit.  The guy facing me threw me off because I could see his hand holding the pole just above my hand.  What I didn't see was that he was using his other hand across his body and shielded by a vest that he was wearing to ever so gently push my wallet upwards in my front pocket (I carry my wallet in my front pocket since it is harder to reach than a back pocket for the pick pocket - or so I thought).  They were timing it so that as the Metro was getting close to the next stop (a very busy one - Chatelet) the one guy would push my wallet up so that it would be reachable by the guy beside me, and the guy beside me would snatch it out with the guy behind me pushing me down or out of the way so that all three of them would get off the Metro leaving me to know that I just got my pocket picked but not knowing who had the wallet nor probably able to get out of the subway car before the door closed.

    I was lucky in the sense that my wallet was in my front pocket and I detected that something felt strange around my front pocket as I couldn't really feel the weight of my wallet in my pocket.  I'm very keen on my surroundings so I would notice such a thing but I'm not sure the average person would have really noticed this action going on.  I quickly let go of the pole and brushed my hand downwards towards my right front pocket.  I felt the wallet drop a couple of inches down in my pocket and the guy holding on to the pole (he was the guy that was lifting my wallet upwards) immediately turned and started jostling around for the door that was starting to open.  The door opened and he and his two other friends immediately got off.  One thing I noticed as they all three got off was that they were rather crummy looking people and they were all three wearing vests that were not fastened.  As they got off they turned around and looked at me once outside the subway car.  They knew that I knew what they were up to but it didn't matter since they were outside the car, the door closed and the subway moved on.  Hope this doesn't happen to you, but beware because this is how these folks make their living and they are good at it.  Crowded tourist sites (like Notre Dame for example) is also a good place to get your pocket picked.  I suppose the money belt would make this whole thing a non-issue but I think they are uncomfortable.  I put my wallet in my front pocket before getting close to a group of people and keep my hand in the pocket with my wallet.  Not wrapped around my wallet though since they could snatch my hand out which would maybe cause the wallet to come out with it and fall on the floor where they could pick it up and run away.

    These kinds of things can happen anywhere a crowd exists and jostling against other people would not be uncommon.  This is how they are successful.  They require the act of distracting you by bumping you, touching you somehow, jostling against you, accidentally falling against you, having kids walk up and tug at you, trying to get you to look at a map, etc., to accomplish their mission.  Avoid putting yourself in to this kind of position and you will probably avoid most problems associated with the "setup."   Sometimes a good tactic for men or women that use a wallet is to put it in your front pocket with a large rubber band around it.  The rubber band makes it difficult to slip out of your pocket without you noticing it.  Another trick is to put your wallet in your front pocket and then use your hand to flip the inside pocket around so that it's twisted under your pants.  It will stay flat like a normal pocket but will be twisted such that someone can't get their hand in your pocket with you giving your pants some slack to undo the twist.  Simple trick and effective too.

 

  • Pubs - I think pubs in the U.K. and Ireland have to be the best.  Parisian cafes are still fun too, but the language barrier leaves you unable to really speak with anyone unless you know their language and they seem to be a little more sterile.  We find the people in London and York very friendly and wanting to talk about what it is like in America.  In particular, they are interested in what we think about our own TV shows (since they see them over there too), the size of our house, the general cost of living, and the spaciousness of the U.S.  They really don't know how big America is (unless they've been here) and how much room there is over here.  The other interesting topic is the difference between how we use the English language here in America.  The folks I met in York and London provided me with many laughs at the things we say that have totally different meanings in the U.K. or no meaning at all.  I could write pages and pages about the differences in our English language but you should really experience it yourself.  Strike up a conversation at a pub in the U.K. and talk about the difference in the English language.  You will be entertained for as long as you are willing to talk about it (I spent 2 hours on the subject with a couple of guys in London and we all got a kick out of it).  Our language difference often comes up when speaking with locals.

    They are also interested in what we think about sports in general.  They say they don't understand American football and wonder how important soccer is over here in the U.S.  They seem to be fanatics over there when it comes to their version of football - soccer.  Some of the fans were kind of rowdy in York when we were there during the Euro 2000.  Lots of singing when they were doing well and cursing and throwing stuff in the street when they lost (I think they were rowdy drinkers).  Our overall consensus regarding soccer is that it isn't big in America due to the commercial breaks.  That's right, the commercial breaks.  Soccer doesn't stop, the game just keeps going on, so how would they show commercials here in America?  Too bad, since we really enjoy watching soccer in the U.K. and it really is a fun sport to watch.  I have a satellite dish that shows soccer from France, the U.K. and Germany and have favorite teams such as Arsenal and Manchester United that I enjoy watching.  Locals are always surprised when I seem to know the various players and can comment on various teams' strengths and weaknesses.
     

 

  • Purse Snatching - Getting your purse snatched, tote bag stolen, backpack snatched, or a camera stolen can be avoided if following simple strategies.  Never carry your purse simply draped over one shoulder.  This applies to tote bags, backpacks, and a camera too.  It is too easy for a purse snatcher to run by at nearly a trot and snatch off the item and keep on running.  It will NOT be very easy for you to catch up with the person since they are on a fast trot or running and you are at a stop or slow enough speed that you will never catch up.  Remember that this is what they do for a living so they are very quick at it and know exactly what they are doing.  Put the strap cross-wise across your body and still hang on to the item with a free hand when approaching people or standing in a spot where a passer-by could grab the item.  When walking on the sidewalk, be sure your purse or bag is on the side opposite from the street.  Purse snatchers may ride by on a motor scooter and snatch it off the side closest to them.

    Another trick that snatchers use is to find you sitting at a table within arms reach and you leave your item on the table (as in leaving a camera on a table while sitting outside a Bistro or Cafe and people-watching).  This is the easiest possible target.  When we sit outside at a Cafe to do people-watching we set our backpacks down on the ground in front of us and put one foot through the straps so the bag can't be lifted by someone feigning to pick up something off of the ground.  We also sit back a couple of rows so that we are not close to passer-bys on the sidewalk.  Never put the item across the back of your chair as it is just as easy to be snatched off of the chair.  If you walk carrying a backpack, never drape it over just one shoulder unless you are holding on to the strap with your hand.  When carrying a camera, I wear it around my neck or I put my hand through the strap and wrap it around my wrist several times.  Especially when taking pictures.  Don't just hold the camera and let the strap hang down as it is quite easy for someone to grab the strap and snatch it out of your hands.  Let me know if you have some other tips on this area too as this is one topic that can ruin your vacation!

 

  • Roads - The roads in the U.K. and France are pretty good.  You will need to drive in the U.K. if you want to see sites along the way and a train won't work for you.  You will definitely need to drive in Ireland if you plan to go outside Dublin, Galway, Belfast, or Ulster. I've driven thousands of miles in the U.K. and I feel quite used to it almost as soon as I start driving again (do it every year) so it isn't too big of a deal to do it.  Mostly it's getting used to the round-abouts, the proper lane to drive in (the right-most lane is the fast lane), the signage that is different, and ensuring you drive the same distance from the centerline over there that you do in America.  Americans often have a tendency to drive too far to the left side of the road.  Hitting the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal is also a common thing.

    Ireland's roads have got to be the worst although the EU is helping them rapidly improve.  They are not much more than 15 ft. across, are mostly two-lane (despite the color on the maps that would imply they are an Interstate type of road), and seem to be built with a power pole, stone wall, or trees and shrubs at the edge of the road.  The side of our rental car was really scraped up before we even drove it due to the bushes that seem to be constantly swiping at the car when in rural areas.  The driving there is just unbelievable when it's a rural two-lane road.  You are pretty much forced to drive a car (except in Dublin where you can take buses) and the signs simply don't exist.  The streets rarely have a sign on them and unlike London, they aren't listed on the buildings either.

    A common story in Ireland is "it's just straight up the road."  No, it isn't just straight up any road and the road invariably forks so that you have no idea which way to go.  We have been lost in every major city we entered in Ireland due to the lack of signs and maps that are available (we did a lot of driving).

    The roads in Wales are rather narrow too but nothing compared to Ireland.  One of the problems we encountered in Wales was temporary traffic lights that were set up while they were working on the road so that only one lane of traffic could go at a time.  I noticed that although the traffic light would turn red, I could sneak in behind the car in front of me (I know, I know).

    Scotland has nice roads although they are quite twisty-turny towards the Western side of the country.  Off street parking is always a hassle when staying in larger cities.

 

  • Sound Machine - I know what you're thinking - sound machine?  You bet.  Our whole family has been sleeping with these things for years now.  You can train yourself to hear anything you want to hear over the sound of white noise (or pink noise) and you should try and get used to it before you bring one with you if you don't currently have one.  But definitely bring one with you.  Sharper Image sells them for about $100 but you can sometimes get them on sale for about 50 bucks.  

    Forget the ocean sounds, cricket sounds, etc., and just use the white noise or heavy rainfall sound.  These will mask all the sounds you are not used to hearing and allow you to sleep much better.  Decent ones will also run on batteries, but if you are staying in "Americanized" hotels, they will have an outlet for you to plug in your battery eliminator.  It will say something like "for shavers only" but the current draw on the sound machines is really quite low (that's why they can run on AA batteries).  If no outlet is present, you can use the spare batteries you brought with you for your camera and just recharge the extras as they wear down.  Trust me on this sound machine thing.  Once you buy a sound machine and get used to it at night at your home, you will never go back to sleeping without one.  No dog barking, people laughing/yelling sounds, or horns blowing and car door slamming sounds will bother you again, yet you can hear anything that sounds unusual such as glass breaking.  I can even hear the kids when they get up to use the bathroom.

 

  • Subway Systems - I think that our whole family agrees that the Parisians have the subway system down pat.  Even with the language barrier it was easy to find our way around.  One thing we also agree on is that the walking in the Metro subway system is probably what keeps these people so thin!  You will walk miles over there even when using the subway system!  It seems like you can walk a mile just inside the subway area getting off of one and grabbing another one.  The Metro subway is also very clean, rather large, well lit, and the subway itself is rather open as opposed to the London Underground (also known as the "Tube").

    In London it is usually crowded and we rarely get a seat on the subway car.  On top of that, the subway shafts are shaped like a tube so the top of the subway car is rounded forcing someone tall like me to hunch over when I have to stand.  Lots more jerking around in the London Underground too.  I find the London Underground to be somewhat "sooty."  At the end of the day you can wipe your nose with a tissue and find all kinds of black stuff in your nose.  Never found this to be the case in Paris.

    You will hear a tone just before the door shuts on both subways so you'd better be out of the way when the door shuts.  The Metro has one quirk regarding the door release.  It is actually a chrome handle that you have to turn so that the door will open.  If you don't turn the handle, the door won't open.

    The many corridors you walk down in Paris have musicians playing for handouts and can be somewhat entertaining.  One thing we didn't like about the Metro is the lack of escalators.  There just wasn't any, so if you have your bags with you, plan on lugging them up stairs with you.  Actually, I'd take a taxi if I was going to the hotel from the airport or the train station.  We left most of our bags in London one time and only took what we needed to Paris.  They charged us about 40P per day in London to store the bags at the hotel so it was better than lugging bags we really didn't need to Paris.

    When you travel to England, take a taxi to and from your hotel when it involves either Gatwick or Paddington.  It's a lot easier, not that expensive, and you won't have to worry about getting the baggage in and out of the Tube.  If you are on a tight budget and there is only two of you, you can take the Heathrow Express or the Paddington Express cheaper than taking a taxi.  If there are four of you, the taxi costs about the same price.

 

  • Taxi Rides - My advice would be to take a taxi if not from the airport, then definitely to the airport.  I'd recommend that if you are in England that you should use a taxi to get to your hotel from the Express train station if you are planning to stay in London.  You probably won't feel much like doing anything due to the jet lag so why not take a taxi to the hotel (about 10 or 15 Pounds) and then get the Tube passes the next day?  You can always do a "hop-on/hop-off" bus ride the day you arrive and forget about the Tube travel on your first day.  One time we ended up paying the equivalent of about 30 bucks from the hotel to the airport when we left Paris and it was worth every penny given that our flight was to leave at 7:15AM and it was really early in the morning with no traffic.

    Negotiate the price before you ever step in to the taxi!  We negotiated our price with the concierge at the hotel when we left Paris although I did see the cabby slip the concierge 20 Euros on one of our visits a few years ago which kind of bummed me since I had already tipped the concierge.  Take cabs when going from your hotel to the airport in Paris.  It is far easier than the trains since most of the available flights are quite early in the morning and figuring out where you are in a foreign city is bad enough without doing it on the stressful day of departure.  Just remember to negotiate the price before you ever step into the cab or you will be at the mercy of the cabby.  We found that getting a taxi in Paris at the airport wasn't as quick since the taxi drivers didn't seem to want to take us as a family (seemed to prefer individuals rather than four of us).

    I never found a taxi that would take credit cards and they all wanted their own money, no U.S. money (although I did trade a ten dollar bill and ten pounds for the cab ride to the airport in London on the day we left).  Remember, for London when arriving, you should take the train from the airport to the main stations - Victoria Station when you land at Gatwick, or Paddington Station when you land at Heathrow.  Don't bother with a taxi until you arrive at the station.  We usually take a taxi from the hotel to Heathrow since it is roughly the same cost as the taxi to Paddington and then the Heathrow Express.  The only danger with that is if the traffic gets bad you could find yourself stuck in traffic whereas the trains are a safer bet.

 

  • Telephone Calls - Suppose you want to make a telephone call from the United States to England.  How do you do it?  First, you have to indicate you are attempting to reach an international telephone number, second, you have to use the country code for the country you are dialing to, and third, you need the actual telephone number you are trying to reach.  To indicate you are making an international telephone call, dial 011 from the United States, then the country code (44 for England) plus the telephone number of interest in England.  Note that some places provide a telephone number with a zero in parentheses at the beginning of their telephone number (e.g., (0) + xxxxxxx).  When you see a zero in parentheses, or maybe not in parentheses but at the beginning of the listed telephone number, the zero is used when dialing long distance, but local to the country associated with the telephone number.  You don't need to include this leading zero (in parentheses or not) when dialing the international telephone number of interest.  This leading zero is used much the same as Americans use the digit "1" to indicate dialing a long distance telephone number, but from within the United States.  When dialing from the United States to the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), you use "44" as the country code.  When dialing to France, you use "33" as the country code.  If dialing to Ireland, you use "353" as the country code.  Note that European telephone numbers are not like telephone numbers in the United States.  The U.S. uses an area code plus a seven digit telephone number.  In Europe, there is a city code that is similar to an area code, but the telephone number may be of different lengths, not necessarily seven digits.

    If dialing from the United Kingdom, Ireland, or France to the United States, you would dial "00" to indicate it is an international call, plus the number "1" which is the U.S. country code, followed by the Area Code and the seven digit telephone number of interest.

    I have had great luck buying a calling card in a foreign country and using it to dial the United States.  The calls are "metered" when dialing from Europe and the calling card may have a balance if you don't use up all the value of the calling card.  So, when I get to England, I buy a 5 Pound calling card and when dialing a relative or friend in the U.S., I dial the number listed on the calling card (much like a 1-800 number in the U.S.) where I hear the balance left on the card, and then I dial 001 + Area Code + 7 digit telephone number.  I'm always amazed at how cheap the calls are to call home when using the calling card.  Hotels can charge quite a bit of money if using them to make International telephone calls so I avoid this approach.

    A good link for determining how to dial from one country location to another can be found here.

 

  • Tipping - Watch out for a "service charge."  This means a tip is included in the price.  In Paris we found it to be included just about every time. In London sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.  Didn't really find the service charge in Ireland at all.  People don't seem to tip much in Europe, especially at the pubs.  Just be sure that if it is included, you don't tip again.  We got nailed on another scheme that was being used by a sorry Indian restaurant in London (Chambelli's Famous Indian Restaurant) near the Bonnington Hotel.  They charged us a 10% fee (called a "Cover Charge") just for eating in the restaurant and then put language in the menu that claimed that the service charge was not included in the bill.  Stupid me had already paid the bill with a tip when I happened to ask the guy why the bill seemed higher than it should and he revealed this hidden fee.  I have been back to the restaurant and when it comes time to pay the bill I determine what I would give them as a tip and subtract their cover charge.  I paid with a Visa credit card and added a tip but wrote on the receipt "cover charge + tip" to indicate that I considered the tip to be a combination of the two.  Of course I sometimes feel like I shouldn't go back there during the trip since someone might spit on my food or something.  I also found that I needed to write down the cost of each item we ordered on a napkin since they took away the menu after I ordered and I didn't remember the charge for each item.  Some Indian restaurants in London are notorious for charging a different amount than what the menu indicated.  I found that nice French restaurants had folks leave them 5 to 10% for a tip.

    While in the U.K. and Ireland, we leave about 40p per day in each of our rooms for the cleaning people.  It's a small amount of money in the scheme of things and is really for the service they provide - especially at the B&Bs which don't charge all that much in the first place.  The people that clean your rooms in the B&B are often the same people that are cooking your breakfast.  You can either leave them a small tip each day or give them a tip at the end when you leave.

 

  • Toilet, WC, Loo, Restrooms, Bathrooms - In America, we call it the Bathroom or Restroom.  In the U.K., Ireland, and France they call it the WC, or Toilet (Toilette for the French).  The U.K. and Ireland may also call it the "Loo."  To Americans it would be strange to ask someone where the toilet is.  That's because to Americans it's a little too much information when saying toilet as opposed to the restroom or bathroom.  Americans may even ask "where's the little girls room?" or "where's the little boys room?"  To Americans, people use the toilet to relieve themselves.  The bathroom or restroom could be used to put on makeup or wash hands, tuck the shirt tail in, or any number of things.  So to Americans, it's a little strange and somewhat uncomfortable when having to ask where the toilet is.  To Europeans, it's absolutely no big deal.  One time when I was in Paris I went to a public restroom and found that men and women alike went in to stalls that were about shoulder high and could easily see and hear each other.  America hasn't quite gotten ready for men and women jointly sharing the same bathroom at the same time.  Guess that's a real hang-up that has lasted for quite awhile.  Note that in France it isn't uncommon to have a woman collecting a tip at the door when you first walk in.  If you left .2 to .4 Euros on the counter it would be OK.  I have seen people tip them once, but when returning for a second trip to the restroom they just skip the tip since they already tipped once before.  While at Mont St. Michel there was a .4 Euro charge to use the restroom.  Thought it was strange that it was required before entering the restroom.
     

 

  • Train Passes - We got our train passes once through AAA via British Airways.  In particular, we got the Gatwick Express and Heathrow Express train tickets for getting to and from the airports, the unlimited "Underground" tickets for all of us to ride the subway in London, and the Metro pass for subways and trains in Paris.  We kind of screwed up on the Paris Metro pass since we didn't get a pass that included a zone that would extend all the way to Charles DeGaulle (CDG) airport (known as Roissy to the Parisians - pronounced raw-see).  That means we had to take a short shuttle bus from the airport to the train station (it was a free shuttle), and then buy train passes to get from near CDG  to the main train stations (such as Gare du Nord) that would take us in to Paris where we could use our Metro passes (experienced this for both arriving and leaving Paris).  Not that big a deal, but somewhat of a hassle considering another zone could have gotten us from the airport to the city without having to buy additional tickets. Of course you may want to consider taking a taxi from the airport to somewhere downtown as it isn't all that bad as far as cost goes and it's now what I do when I fly in to Paris (for London I take either the Gatwick Express or the Heathrow Express and then take a taxi from the train station to the Hotel where we are staying in London).

    I also ordered RER (train) passes for trips to Fontainebleau and Versailles from AAA here at home.  Basically, I ordered and received  everything we needed to travel in both London and Paris at least two weeks in advance.  I separate booklets and coupons by the sections of the trip and put the info in large plastic baggies that I mark with a permanent Sharpie pen.  I use different colored Sharpies for different cities to make everything easier to spot quickly.

    Note that the Carte Orange ticket that you can buy in Paris is a small strip of paper with a magnetic strip on one side.  Don't forget to pick it up on the other side of the turnstile as you pass through it (you put it in a machine on the turnstile entrance, walk through the turnstile, and you will find it protruding from the machine as you exit the turnstile).  The Metro ticket is somewhat narrower than the Underground ticket in London which could make it easy to lose.  That would be an expensive loss if you forget your ticket in the turnstile or lose it as you'll need to get new ones.
      Inserting the ticket, walking through the turnstile, and picking up the ticket on the other side of the turnstile should become an automatic behavior for both the Tube and the Metro.

Train Rides - Actually, pretty enjoyable in Paris and London.  Forget about it in Ireland, you'll be getting a car.  One thing to note regarding the Gatwick and Heathrow Express trains is that you don't have to buy their tickets here in the U.S. if you don't want to.  It turns out that a person walks down the aisle asking for tickets and you can just pay right on the spot.  I think the Heathrow Express has an extra charge if you didn't buy the tickets at Heathrow before boarding the train, but I've asked and they always tell me it's the same price.  You could just buy the tickets on your way to either Express train (when traveling to London from the airport) since the ATM-like machine is on the way to the Express boarding station.  You can walk up and use your Visa card or ATM card to buy the tickets.  Not the case for Paris.  You had better have a ticket before boarding their trains.

Remember that in some cases the Metro pass in Paris will actually get you a good distance away from the center of town.  Our tickets to Fontainebleau and Versailles cost us about three dollars each way so they weren't that bad.  Another lesson that I learned was that first class on the French trains didn't really mean that much.  We could have just as easily gone second class although the price difference was practically nothing.

In 2006 while waiting for the TGV train near Tours, the train was arriving later than scheduled.  However, the departure time remained about the same so they were hustling us to get on board because the train was leaving.  The first class train car we were supposed to board was too far away for us to make it in time and the conductor saw us walking quickly looking for it and told us to get on the train right then because the train was leaving.  We got on the train and ended up in a second class car but I couldn't really tell the difference between the two cars other than the second class car was further back from the front of the train than the first class cars.  This meant we had to walk further when we arrived in Paris, but other than that, there really wasn't a difference.  It didn't matter that we were in the wrong car.  The conductor just asked for the tickets and we presented them and he moved on.  The point of this discussion is twofold - first, get on the train immediately when the train is late because they are in a hurry and will leave you behind, and second, as long as the coach class is at least as high as the car you entered, it won't make any difference to the conductor.

Train Stations - Here's where it gets interesting.  If you haven't been to London before and you fly in to Gatwick, you might want to take the Gatwick Express (around 20 minutes trip to London) which will end at Victoria Station.  This is a huge station.  It also has shops, food courts, coach station, taxis, etc., so there are lots of people milling around.  Our first reaction when we got off of the Gatwick Express for the first time was OK, now what?  Since we saved some money on the Underground tickets by getting a voucher, we thought we would stand in the line for Underground tickets, show the guy our British Airways voucher, and be on our way.  Turns out that you have to go to the Tourist Information station (also called the "TI") to get your voucher turned in to a small card that has a magnetic strip on it (this is your Underground subway pass), so don't waste your time standing in the Underground ticket line like I did for 15 minutes.  Note that the Underground and Metro subway tickets can often be used for the buses as well.  Personally, I take a taxi from Victoria station to where we plan to stay in London.  It usually costs around 10 Pounds.

The station at Paddington is really train-oriented (as opposed to being taxi, coach-oriented) and less busy when it comes to eateries, or at least it seems that way.  Paddington is the station where you arrive when you fly in to Heathrow in London, Victoria Station when flying in to Gatwick.  Actually, I have to admit that I like Victoria Station a little better since it is wide open and although very busy, still kind of easy to figure out where to go.  It is also easier to grab a cup of coffee or sit down to eat something if you'd like.  Personally, I would take a taxi from either station to my hotel on the day of arrival as well as the day I depart.  Saves a lot of hassle with hauling suitcases around on the subway.  Ask the Concierge about reserving you a "limo" or "taxi" to get to the airport when you plan to leave.  They can get you reduced rates vs. flagging down a taxi outside the Hotel on the day you plan to leave.  Note that the trip to Gatwick is a bit of a drive from downtown London when compared to Heathrow so plan to spend some money as well as time.  Since there are four of us, I use a taxi from Heathrow to the hotel because the cost is about the same as the Heathrow Express plus a taxi from Paddington to the hotel.  The cost is around 50 to 60 GBP as of June 2006.

The train stations in Paris are a little more complex mostly due to the language barrier and the sheer number of train passengers.  How on earth we ended up at the right train in Paris to go to Fontainebleau is still beyond me, so there isn't much I can tell you about their train stations other than there are lots of trains, things are somewhat fast-paced, and the language barrier makes things a little rougher.  I will mention the ability to get ripped off in Paris at the train stations though.  I was basically ripped off when standing outside Gare du Nord when some taxi folks spotted us as a family of four.  They asked me where I was going, I told them the left Bank near Musee D'Orsay and they told me it would be about 90 Euros.  I didn't remember how much a taxi ride was nor the distance to the area so I didn't know that although prices had gone up due to the Euro conversion (all prices were upped in countries changing over to the Euro), the prices hadn't gone up that much.  Turns out the cost should have been around 25 Euros.  So that lesson cost me 50 Euros and I won't be forgetting it soon.  The trick here is to ask the folks at your hotel (via email) the price it should be for taking you from either the airport or the train station.  They can give you a rough idea of what you should pay.  They can also give you an idea of how long the trip should take.

My friend Bill said he got ripped off while at Gare du Nord when he was trying to buy a train ticket.  A guy came up and acted as though he was trying to help him, but ended up ripping him off.  Strange scam.  Basically, the guy saw Bill and his wife looking around somewhat bewildered on what to do to get a train ticket (typical American look).  Bill told him in English where he was trying to go and the guy punched up some info on the ticket machine that showed 17 Euros for the ticket.  Then the guy used his own credit card to buy tickets and wanted Bill to pay him.  The guy played dumb as though he didn't speak English and did a lot of fast talking in French to kind of hurry the situation along.  Bill didn't know what to do and couldn't find any police or help anywhere in sight so he ended up paying the guy.  Turns out the tickets were for far less and wouldn't get him anywhere near his destination.  It does seem as though there is never anyone around in these train stations when you need help.  Then again, the con artists probably pick that particular time since there isn't anyone around that could catch them in their act.  Watch out for this tactic when in a train station.

 

Weather - We primarily travel in early June each year for a few reasons.  One reason is that the Europeans have not begun their serious vacationing yet, another is the amount of daylight for sightseeing, and the other is the weather.  Less crowds makes sightseeing a lot more fun and wastes less time at a site of interest.  The amount of daylight at this time of year is very strange to most Americans since the U.K., Ireland, and France are quite a ways north.  It wouldn't be uncommon to see the sky somewhat blue at 11PM at night.  Seems like it never really gets completely dark.  Weather in the first few weeks of June is usually pretty good with lots of sunlight, somewhat cool temperatures, and little rain.  Having said this, it wouldn't be unusual to encounter rain on the Western coast of Ireland, Wales, and especially Scotland.  The rain can be somewhat misty and on and off, with the most annoying part being for those of us that wear glasses that constantly get wet.  If the wind is blowing, your pants can get wet since they are usually the garment that is not waterproof.  It can also be annoying for taking pictures since your camera lens will get rain spots as well.  Umbrellas can get turned inside out if it's windy so this is where a hooded raincoat comes in handy.  The temperatures in early to mid-June can range between jacket weather to hot depending on where you stay.  We have found that the Western coast area in mid-June is often cool enough to warrant a light coat or sweater.  We normally use our raincoats as the jacket in this case since it keeps rain as well as cool temperatures at bay pretty well.  I always wear long sleeve shirts at this time of year so if it gets too hot I just roll the sleeves up.

The difference between June and July is quite different.  No rain, but I think it gets pretty hot over there from July to early September and most B&Bs (our favorite form of lodging) do not have air conditioning nor enough fans to go around.  The large cities have lots of buildings near each other so you don't find much relief in wind circulation either.  Most Americans are used to having air conditioning as a normal feature in the U.S. hotels/motels, but this isn't the case in Europe.  The norm is no air conditioning but maybe some fans.  Since the European cities are old, many of the buildings are dark with a stone facade which has a tendency to hold the heat.  We try to stay in Hotels when staying in London and Paris rather than B&Bs, and we don't stay in places that don't have air conditioning.  We have found that more and more Hotels are advertising air conditioning especially since the summer of 2003 when people died from the heat wave that hit Europe.

Winter is another story.  It gets downright cold in Europe due to the lower temperatures, rain or snow, lack of sunshine, and the humidity.  I was in northern and central England in November of 2003 and it was one of the coldest times I have experienced in my life (this coming from someone that lives in Colorado and has experienced extended sub-zero weather with snow).  The temperature was around 40 degrees F. and there seemed to be a constant 25 mph wind with rain on and off (mostly on).  Weather is very unpredictable in the Winter and the sun is low in the sky in the U.K., Ireland and France.  Not many hours of daylight so be sure and plan any sightseeing with this in mind.

Trip List

You will see below the actual list that I have created and print as a check-off list to ensure I bring everything with me.  You don't have to use my list, but don't wait until two days before you leave to create a list.  Otherwise, you will wake up during the night wanting to remember to add an item to the list and will most likely forget to do it in the morning.  Either that or you will have trouble falling asleep as you keep remembering one more thing to add to the list and you will probably get panicky about not feeling like you are as prepared as you "should" be.  If you wait too late to create your list, leave a pad and paper near your bed to write down the item you remembered and then you will feel comfortable about not having to remember it in the morning.  There is nothing worse than realizing on a trip that the thing you most needed to bring with you was left at home because you forgot to add it to your list at the last minute.  No last minute lists!

Here is my Europe 2004 Checklist in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.  It's basically the same checklist I use over and over and was the same for our trip in 2006.  If nothing else, it may provide you with some ideas of what should be considered for your checklist before you leave.  You can always copy and paste it in to a Microsoft Word document and modify it for your own travel checklist.

 

 

Conclusion

Well, that's about it for my travel advice.  We learned a lot of this the hard way even though we go to Europe on a vacation each year.  Good luck and if you have other insights please let me know so that I can add them to this page so others will not make the same goofy mistakes we have made.  I'm to the point now that I actually go to this web page to be sure I have everything in order before I take a trip to Europe!  Hope you have found it helpful.

Steve

 

 

 

 

 

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