Our Travel Philosophy and Some Tips - Some Good Tips and Some So-So.

Independent travel to Europe has gotten so easy that anyone can do it, even us. Read about our trips, where we stay and how we find places to stay. How we travel by car, by train and by foot. Most of the travelogues cover Italy (Tuscany, the Lakes and the Cinque Terre), Greece, the Czech Republic, Ireland France, Spain, Belgium and England.

I've been a little lax for the past 10 years in keeping up the travelogues on this website. In my defense, I retired from my job and I really enjoy retirement. We had a major move to another state and became grandparents. We have traveled more and took a 10 week trip to Europe when I retired in 2005. Then, many trips to Mallorca, Spain, Italy and other European countries. We have started renting apartments more. Staying local and having the advantage of waking up without worrying about scheduled breakfast times. Another reason for not writing travelogues is Christine got tired of meeting people who had come to some remote town after reading our website. We starting getting worried that we would try and rent the same place only to find out a reader had already reserved it. Finding your own place is not hard.

Last updated on 24 April 2017 , remember the European way of writing the date (DD/MM/YY); and they also use the 24 hour clock, 0 and 24 are Midnight, 12 is Noon and 1300 is 1 PM.

Read my comments about travel (trip) insurance on the Main Page. It not as good investment as I used to think.!!!

Cinque Terre, Italy - We have been going to the Cinque Terre on Italy's west coast for about 25 years and we have stopped there every year for a couple of days. Rick Steves has been pushing this destination for a lot longer than we have been going there and if he was trying to make it into a Disneyland full of Americans then he has finally succeeded. Years ago there were many other nationalities visiting the Cinque Terre. Germans came in large groups with their walking sticks and lederhosen. There were people from Switzerland and France who shared the hotels with a few Americans. We met people from Israel who came for the shellfish. It was a good place to stay for a week, walk the trails (we last walked all 5 towns on 9 June 2010 and it took us 4 hours and 15 minutes, 40 minutes longer than my best time..... when I was younger). Don't believe the people who say you can't walk the five towns in one day. You don't want to try and walk the five towns in one day if you plan on lingering in the towns. You should walk the towns one day and then take the train to several towns on another day.

You will not see as many people from other European countries anymore. About 20 years ago the trails were closed a good part of the year because of landslides. When I say closed I mean closed, there were large barricades across the trail and it was next to impossible to climb around or over them. We did climb over the barricades one year and look back on it as a foolish time in our lives. Now, you have to pay to walk the trails but they are always open and you can buy water and drinks along the trails.

Anyway, our last couple of visits convinced me that the Cinque Terre has changed, it's now really really full of Americans. Everyone speaks English and all the menus and many signs are in English. Fifteen years ago there were about 200 families earning a living by fishing, today there are only about 10. What do they do now? They work in the tourist industry and make more money. There are t-shirt stores and more restaurants. There are more places to stay and you will pay 130-200 (Euro) in most hotels. Even my favorite hotel (La Spiaggia Hotel) has air conditioning and an elevator (lift). All you hear is English being spoken. I'm not trying to talk you out of going there, you just have to know what to expect. It's no longer the "back door" Rick Steves says it is. There used to be a lot of cats around because the fisherman would give them the scraps. You won't see any cats anymore. Many of the hotels have stopped serving evening meals because it's hard to get employees, they can make more money working in a restaurant. You will even see American entrepreneurs running boating trips and as sightseeing guides, just like Disneyland! There is even an American called "Skull" on a bicycle who meets the trains and he will direct you to a room to rent.

An update for the Cinque Terre. A massive rainfall in 24 hours created several rivers down the main streets of both Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare on October 26, 2011. These streets at one time were small streams but over the years the towns lowered the streams into concrete channels and built over them to form streets over the rivers. The rain was so much (22 inches in 24 hours) that the concrete channels began to fill up with rocks and mud and then the water flowed on the street leaving about 3 meters of rock and mud down many of the town streets leading toward the sea. A large cleanup has been in process and the residents have repaired much of the damage.

If you want to find a "back door" you have to find it on your own. There are plenty of places which are not full of Americans and the obnoxious American "backpackers". Not all American backpackers are obnoxious but there are a lot.

No travel agents - We now book all of our trips on our own either directly with the airline on their toll free number or, more often, on the Internet. We have used a travel agent a few times with limited success. All travel agents can't possibly be familar with every place you want to go. Most times they just open a large travel agent book on hotels and book you at one that pays a good commission or they search the Internet. It's amazing how many places around the world now have an email address, a website, a fax number, or belong to a group that has a website. I try and book directly with a hotel as that eliminates any commission that they have to pay if I go through the local tourist bureau website or a group of hotels. But, if you enter a town in Europe and you don't have a room, the best place is the Tourist Office. If you are going with a small group and you all want to be on the same flights and you want to charge all the airfares on different credit cards, then it is easier to book through a travel agent. Actually, I have no idea where to find a travel agent, they seem to have all disappeared and there used to be one on almost every corner.

I have had a few problems using the Internet to book. One problem has been with Expedia. They book you and then abandon you. If you need help and want them to go to bat for you, good luck. They want you to telephone with a problem and then say they will call you back. They don't. If you email them they say you must telephone. This way there is no real trail of your complaint. I still use Expedia but not as much as a few years ago. If you book your flight directly with an airline they seem to be more willing to help you out if you need them.

Airfares - If you book far enough ahead you get a better fare, most of the time. Sometimes you book ahead and later the airfare drops but most of the time it does not. If it does, I call the airline and complain, several times they gave me a refund but not always. Airfares change daily. In June 2002 I saw that the round trip airfare to Italy during the Christmas season was around $1100 US. Then in July it dropped one day to $705 and we booked. A few days later it was back up to $1100 and never dropped again. Additionally, the actual flight I wanted home was now sold out and no longer available. Ten years ago you had to book 90 days ahead to get a real low airfare. This is no longer true and if you are flexible, you can book a few days ahead and get a good airfare even though the airlines try to make you believe that you need to book at least 7 days ahead. What is a good airfare? If you are happy with it, it's good.

We've booked on the no frills airlines in Europe with no problems but they have started to add on extras. My favorite with Air Berlin is the extra charge for Kerosene and the extra charge to use a debit card or credit card. But, they are cheaper, especially with one way fares.

For the first 10 years we traveled mostly in the "off season" and it was much cheaper than the more desireable months of May-September. Now we go whenever we get the chance and have the money. No one, on their deathbed ever said, "I wish I had done and seen less."

We traveled using frequent flyer miles in September 2003 and we booked a British Airways Business Class (Club) seat. Without going into the details of the flight, the seat reclined so I could lay flat. The service was great too. We've been upgraded to Club several times so we knew what to expect but this was the first time we knew we would be in Club and had access to the Executive Club Lounge at Heathrow Airport. There is a whole different world behind those Club doors. They have nice chairs, snacks, drinks, food, free Internet, showers and even free massages. The problem is the tickets cost 9-10 times what we normally pay. You can suffer in Economy for 8 hours to save $3500.

Cheap airlines - We have not always used the cheaper European airlines because we have tried to get all our flights in advance and on one itinerary. That's the best way to go because you are ticketed by one airline and they are sort of responsible for you, but it's not the cheapest. This point is very important especially if your flight is delayed. If you buy two tickets and your first flight arrives late the second flight will be rescheduled but you may have to spend the night in a hotel at your expense. If you have both flights on one ticket and your first flight is delayed and your rescheduled flight is the next day the airline will put you in a hotel room and buy your meals. This happened to us in September 2006 on our way from Chicago-London-Mallorca and British Airways put us up in a nice room at Heathrow with meals and transportation. We spent the day in London via the Underground, visited Buckingham Palace and ate dinner at our favorite London restaurant. We arrived in Palma, Mallorca, very refreshed. It's not as good as it once was when airlines would put you up in a hotel without thinking about it but you do have some protection against cancelled and missed flights. If you miss a flight for any reason, be contrite and very nice, tears are a plus. The airlines can be very forgiving and helpful if you are nice. You always start out by saying: "Hello, can you help me?" Smile. If you talk to a supervisor shake the person's hand. It's harder for someone to ignore you when they have said they can help you and it's harder after you've had personal contact like a handshake.

Our flight on British Airways (London to Stuttgart) was cancelled on May 27, 2010, due to the Cabin Crew Strike. British Airways emailed me and I called them to find out what to do. The customer service representative said they had put us on an 8:00 AM flight out of Heathrow. No way was I going to get from Central London to Heathrow at that hour so I said that it was impossible. I asked if there was any other option and she quickly put us on a 1415 hour (2:15 PM) Lufthansa flight. Lesson learned, don't take the first option offered.

We have friends who have used RyanAir, EasyJet, etc. and the main disadvantage is the location of the airports usually involve significant additional cost. As an example, changing from Heathrow to Gatwick costs about $25US per person and several hours travel. It's cheaper if you are over 60. Traveling to Luton and Stanstead will cost a little more. You have to balance the convenience and the cost. If you are already in London or in a car in the English countryside, the trip to the airport is about the same as going to Heathrow.

Speaking of Gatwick, it's a zoo. If you have never been there, immediately ask someone in an airport uniform what to do. By the way, the "Fast Bag Drop" is not always fast.

We sometimes fly into one city and out another and book a flight on a cheap airline to travel between the two European cities. This used to be called "open jaws". Just remember, if you fly into and out of the same city you have to get back to the arrival city. Sometimes it's easier to arrive in, say Paris, travel around around for awhile and then fly out of Nice or Milan or Rome rather than paying to get back to Paris. Additionally, you lose the travel time back to Paris. >P>Hotels - We stay at slightly better hotels than we did 25 years ago but, then, we are 25 years older. We like it clean, safe and comfortable, a good shower, a friendly place. Quiet, if possible, is very important. But it's hard to stay in a small hotel in a touristy area and have it real quiet. I always carry earplugs. They are great if you need them and take up very little room. We do not like to take "half board" with our room but many places in France and Italy almost require it. Small country hotels are best with half board. It saves the time of driving and looking for a place to eat and they are generally good bargains. We like the flexibility of looking for a place to eat in a city but on several occasions have not found any restaurants on the first day. Each time we went to the Tourist Office the next day and got a list of local restaurants. We like a lite breakfast with the room or a cafe for breakfast available nearby. During our Fall 2002 trip we stayed at a few Chambre d'hort bed and breakfast places. They were all over, easy to find and cost around 46 Euro per night for two. The same is true for Ireland (very easy to find) and England.

Security - Use common sense when traveling in Europe, just as you would in your own city. Most Europeans will immediately recognize you as American, get used to it. I don't really believe you can blend in. Let's face it, few Americans speak anything but English. I always remember what I read about the criminal mind. Sometimes a criminal is able to keep one step ahead of the law by just following their instincts. Once, in France, we stopped in the downtown area of a small city near Paris on the Seine. It was a Saturday afternoon and the town was busy, lots of people sitting in cafes and shopping. We found a cafe that rented rooms and were shown a nice big room in a building in the back for about $40 US. I was traveling with my wife and our 15 year old daughter. We walked around and stopped at a cafe for coffee. When we returned to the place we were staying, around 1800 hours (6PM), the owner of the cafe was closing up, we had already paid him and he said he wouldn't be back until Monday morning. We went to our room and cleaned up and when we came outside everything was closed and shuttered around the downtown area. I noticed that the outside door of our building did not lock. There were a few people outside but they were not shoppers. I didn't feel good about it, I don't know why. We got in the car and drove around and I saw one of those small French motels, I enquired about a room and paid another $50 US. The motel had a 24 hour deskclerk and locked doors. We went back to our first room and got our stuff. My wife and daughter felt guilty and made the room look like we had slept there. I slept well that night, who knows.

My advice, follow your instincts, even if it cost you money. We paid for two rooms that one night but I slept well and ......who knows.

Once, we arrived in Meaux, France late at night and could not find a room anywhere. Christine suggested we stop at an expensive hotel just outside of town and they were full. They called around for us and found us a room in a Relais in town and we went there. The town was closed up and looked deserted, it was kind of dark and scary. Christine said this expensive hotel would not have sent us to a bad place so we knocked on the door. A few doors down the street a door opened and a man looked out, he spoke no English. He motioned us to come in and he locked the door. There was another man in the darkened room and all the chairs were on top of the tables. I was just about ready to grab a chair (for protection) when he grabbed our suitcases and indicated we should follow him. The room was nice and clean. He suggested a place to eat and we went out. When we returned he was asleep at the desk and was waiting for us. He went to bed as we did. The next morning we looked out the window of our room and it was in the center of town, people were everywhere, we were across from the church and many stores. A circus was in town and an elephant was standing in front of our Relais under our window.

A safety tip that worked for us during our 2005 ten week trip to Europe (September-November) involved carrying credit cards. We met an English couple at a Chambres d'hotes in St. Jeannet, France (overlooking Nice). They told us that they each carried a credit card from a different bank in case one of them lost a wallet or purse or had it stolen. Since Christine and I had always carried two credit cards each (from the same two banks) that made a lot of sense to us. I gave Christine my credit card from Bank A and she gave me her credit card from Bank B. We also exchanged ATM cards so we each carried credit cards and bank ATM cards from different banks for the rest of the trip until.... Several weeks later in Barcelona we were victims of a purse snatch and because I still had two credit cards and two ATM cards from Bank A we only had to cancel the credit cards from Bank B. On our following trip to the Christmas Markets in France and Germany (December 2005) we each only carried one credit card and one ATM but they were not the same. So, if you are traveling with a partner you should carry different credit cards.

Pickpockets and crime - We have met several people who have been victims of crimes and became victims ourselves while in Barcelona in October 2005. We were actually victims three times in the first three hours we were in Barcelona. We were driving a French car (a leased Renault) with French license plates and we were driving around the Barri Gotic/La Ribera area looking for the apartment we had rented on-line when we were victims of someone slashing one of the tires with the hope that they could make off with some of our possessions as we unloaded the car to remove the jack and spare tire. We were "alerted" to the flat tire by a lone motorcyclist who, I suspect, may have known who had punctured the tire. We carefully put the luggage into the car and kept it locked while we changed the tire. A few minutes later, while I was carrying luggage up to the apartment we had rented, some motorcyclists caused a commotion around the car and made off with Christine's purse in the confusion. We found some police and followed them to the station where we learned that this is very common in Barcelona. They even had a streamlined police report with check boxes in English. They also gave us the phone number of Visa in the USA and free use of a telephone to call and cancel the credit cards. They were very nice. We had dropped off our luggage at the rented apartment and intended to proceed to the airport and drop off the Renault Leased car. On the way from the police station to the airport we were again "alerted" by a passing motorcyclist that another tire was flat. We no longer had a spare tire (or luggage to steal) and I decided not to stop so I made a U-turn on this four lane street and then another turn on to a one-way street where I drove (driving the wrong way on the one-way street) down the center lane with traffic coming at us on either side honking their horns and yelling something at us in Spanish (or Catalan). It was like a movie. We pulled into a Petrol Station and called the Renault Assistance Line. I have to say, they were great and they sent a flat bed truck out to retrieve the leased Renault within an hour. We were on our way to return it anyway. We didn't have to worry about the car again. To complete the story, we took a taxi to the nearby Hilton Hotel, got a room, got another taxi to go back to the Barri Gotic area to retrieve our belongings and settled in to the rather expensive Hilton Hotel. After a few drinks and a good night's sleep we had a great time in Barcelona and we can recommend it....but not with a car with French License Plates.

We had another "experience" in June 2010 while boarding a train in Pisa. A young woman reached into Christine's purse and started to remove her wallet. Christine could feel her hand and turned around quickly with some "stuff" dropping from her purse. The young woman (Asian) just looked at her. Now Christine has finally agreed not to carry a purse. I have long argued that a purse attracts pickpockets. The weird thing is Christine had a hard time unzipping the purse herself but the pickpocket was able to do it easily. Even if you notice the pickpocket what are you going to do? You can't prove it, they look at you as if you are crazy. So, the lesson is don't let them target you. Even if the police came what are you going to do, fly back for a trial?

We were probably targeted early on in Barcelona as tourists because we were driving around the same area in a French car with French license plates looking for a parking spot. We didn't expect the organization we encountered in the area of petty crime. We rationized this later by saying this was an organized group and this was their job and they were very good at it. If they decide to go public I plan on investing in their company. We've made over 50 trips to Europe and have not had that much trouble.

We didn't lose the passports because earlier that morning I took them from Christine's purse and put them in my money belt. How's that for luck? I now carry the passports in my money belt and I have two money belts. One, with loops that hook on to your regular belt and one that is a traditional money belt that hangs in the front under your pants. If I don't wear a belt with my pants I use the traditional money belt but I prefer the one that loops over my belt and fits inside my pants, it's like another secret pocket. I had always thought that we might someday have a petty crime incident on one of our trips and prepared myself mentally for it. I believe that you need to act fast to change what might be a trip ending incident into just another day. We changed where we were going to stay even though it cost considerably more and we had already paid for the apartment up front. Walk-in rates at the Hilton-Barcelona are not cheap but it was a nice and safe place to stay. We tried our best to mentally distance ourselves from the incident and make the best of our stay in Barcelona. We had a great time after the first 3-4 hours.

One thing I learned, even after we cancelled the credit card and were told no one had used that card yet, we got some charges several weeks later (the charges were removed). It seems that you can use a cancelled credit card at toll booths in Spain because they just accept them since it would take too much time to verify each card.

Several people we've met have been the victim of pickpockets in subways so we try and stay alert when traveling by public transportation. I notice people in train stations that I suspect are watching me and other people a little too much. Maybe they look at me the same way. I carry a digital camera and, if I'm suspicious in a public place, I take some panoramic photos. I just twirl around and take a few shots in a 360 degree arc. I also just hold the camera and take a shot without looking through the viewfinder. I can delete it later but no one wants to take your bag if you have just taken their photo. Does this work, I have no idea. Maybe we've just been lucky.

We were walking in Milan one day when two gypsy girls tried the newspaper ploy on two Japanese men who were walking in front of us. They just pushed up to them and shoved a newspaper into their face as they touched the men with their hands. I have to admit, Christine saw it coming long before I did. I jumped back and afterwards I remembered that the person behind me had bumped into me but nothing was missing. So much for my being alert.

Money - You don't need a lot of money to travel, but it helps. We save a certain amount and that money only goes towards travel. I do carry some US money for an emergency. Our daily expenses go on a credit card and we use a ATM card for cash. Cash points are all over the world. I do not use a Debit card because of the exposure. Yes, you can buy things with a debit card and get cash from your bank account. Someone who finds your card (or takes it) can also buy things with it. The bank says they will give your money back if someone uses your debit card to buy things but in the meantime, your account is wiped out. Your other checks and payments bounce, you incur charges and the bank is not responsible for these. The bank has your money and it will be awhile before they credit your account. With a real credit card, I still have the money and with a cash card, it can only be used for a cash withdrawal and only I know the PIN. With a debit card, you do not need a PIN to buy something, only for a cash withdrawal. With a debit card my bank tells me they will not get involved in any dispute between me and a vendor. The new chip cards are no better that the swipe cards. In Europe people use chip cards with a PIN. American credit cards are accepted in Europe without a PIN. Think about it....having the chip without requiring a PIN is useless. I had a merchant in France tell me that not requiring a PIN was no better than the old swipe system and I agree.

Know your PIN for your credit card. - It cost me $10US for each cash advance plus a high interest rate of about 2% per month but if your cash card doesn't work you may need to use your credit card for cash. I've had to use it twice over the years in an emergency. The first time a hurricane had wiped out my bank's ATM network and they later reimbursed me for my credit card advance fees and other expenses. The second time, I have no idea why it didn't work, the cash card and the Visa cash advance would not work in Italy and the next morning I stopped at a bank to inquire about a Visa cash advance. The bank employee told me they no longer did a Visa cash advance through the tellers but I should use the ATM outside. I told him it didn't work the previous night and he suggested I try again, this time the Visa card worked. I then tried the cash card and it worked. I should have tried the cash card first. So, if your card doesn't work, try a different bank or try again later. I have noted that sometimes an ATM in Europe will not work very early in the European morning when US banks are "asleep". Later, in the afternoon, the same ATM will work.   The main point is that you are far away from home and you need to have several sources of money. I recommend a cash card, a credit card and some other emergency cash source such as cash or a few traveler's checks. Also, carry a blank check with you. I've met many Europeans who are far more trusting than Americans as far as taking a check in a foreign currency (In this case US dollars). Please don't stiff them.

We now have a credit card with a chip. These credit cards are used all over the world except the USA. When you make a purchase you put your card into the credit card reader instead of swiping the magnetic strip. Then you enter your PIN. At restaurants in Europe they bring a credit card reader to your table, they don't walk away with your card. These Chip and PIN cards are available from several banks and credit unions in the USA. They also have a magnetic strip so you can use it in the swipe machine. Next time you use your card look at the front of the credit card reader and you will see a small opening when a Chip and PIN card can be inserted. You may wonder why you need a chip and PIN card in Europe but automatic vending machines used at train stations, parking garages, some gas stations and othe non-attendant payment stations will only use the chip and PIN cards not the magnetic swipes. As I said earlier, a chip is no better than a swipe strip without requiring the person to enter a PIN.

It used to be that everyone carried traveler's checks but no more. Think about it, ATMs are everywhere and if you only need a few Euro for a meal or taxi to the airport you go to an ATM and withdraw 20. If you have $100 traveler's checks you have to cash the whole thing.

A few years ago we learned to be careful when you withdraw money from a cash machine. We had selected the same PIN for our cash card and our credit card and twice in the 8 weeks we were gone I inserted the credit card into the cash machine instead of the cash card and withdrew money. Then we realized what we had done and the machine would not take the money back. We're not as smart as our photos make us look.

Update on the use of certain credit cards and cash cards in Europe - September 2009 Several years ago, while in Europe, I noticed on my VISA charge receipt (at an Italian hotel) that the charge was not in Euro but also in USA Dollars. The receipt showed both the Euro amount and a Dollar amount. I questioned it but was told by the hotel manager that the Dollar amount was just for my information. Since many countries in Europe still show the old local currency in addition to the Euro on the receipt, I signed it. Later I learned that this is a way to charge you in your own currency and add an additional fee of 3 to 4%. The processing company gets some of the fee and the merchant gets some of it. It's called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) and for want of a better word, it's a scam. According to VISA, you are supposed to be given a choice of what currency you want to be billed in; but in reality, you may not be given a choice and when the bill comes, your salesperson or clerk, will not know how to change the billing method....or they may not want to change it. What makes this even more costly is that many VISA issuers now charge you an extra 3% for all foreign transactions whether you pay in the foreign currency or your own currency. If you pay in your own currency whether by choice or because the system "sees" your USA address you will be charged a 3-4% fee (in the exchange rate they use) and then when the monthly credit card statement arrives you may be charged another 3% fee by your credit card issuing bank. That could add up to a 6-7% additional cost.

Read our trip to Mallorca in September 2011 for a detailed view of the Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) scam. I took photos of some of the ATM Screens and compared the rates for Dollars with what I actualy got from my bank. I saved a lot by choosing to be billed in Euro.

As mentioned above --- Credit Cards with chips. European credit cards have built in chips and instead of swiping the card and reading the magnetic strip on the back, instead they insert the card in the front of the machine and enter a PIN to verify the card. You can still use your American card that only has a magnetic strip (no chip) most of the time, at restaurants and most shops. You probably won't be able to buy petrol at night or use the card in some of the automated self service machines like ticket machines at parking garages, train stations, etc. Several banks and credit unions have started issuing credit cards with chips in the USA. Eventually, most cards in the USA will have these chips. At a restaurant they won't take your credit card from you and disappear to the back, they bring the machine to you and your cards stays at the table.

I found a credit card issuer in the USA that issued me a VISA card and said they would not charge me the 3% foreign transaction fee so now I just make sure that I ask each time I use my VISA if I could be billed in Euro. I only had one "bad experience" and that was at a Parador in Spain. I asked if I could charge in Euro and they said "of course" but the receipt had the charge in Dollars. It appears that the charge defaults to your home currency and the desk clerks said they did not know how to change it. They were very nice, even allowing me to write on the receipt that I had not been given a choice and they made a photocopy of the merchant's copy of the receipt for me. They said they had tried to call and change it before with no luck and suggested I complain to VISA. On our September 2007 trip to Spain I had no problems but I asked each time to be charged in Euro.

You can tell that the processing company is aware of the scam because the receipt has printed, "No Refund" or that by signing the receipt you agree to a 3-4% commission. It also states that this is your choice. Now you may ask why didn't I just tell them to Void the transaction and pay in cash. Well, I didn't think of it.

VISA is going to lose out because I started paying in cash if I wasn't positive how I would be billed. I met several Americans who said they used their American Express Card because they were only billed in the local currency, not dollars. I read on the Internet that American Express controls the processing so there is no way for a third party to add a commission. Years ago I always used my VISA card to make purchases in Europe because I knew I would get a good exchange rate but now I am not so sure. It now appears that the old recommendation of charging whatever you can while traveling in Europe is no longer true. It used to be that you got a better exchange rate but the companies seem to be getting greedy.

On our September 2007 trip I always presented my credit card with the phase, "Can I pay in Euro?" They always said yes and I did not have a problem. Maybe Visa is starting to enforce their rule about giving customers a choice. I was able, at a small hotel in Spain, to see what appears on the screen when you pay and there was a definite choice, "Does the Customer wish to pay in (1) Dollars or (2) Euro? Press 1 or 2 or Enter." It appeared that the default was Dollars if the clerk pressed Enter. I believe many clerks just press Enter.

Very Important on making a cash withdrawal from an ATM, Cash Point, Hole in the Wall, etc. Some machines in Europe now give you a choice of being billed in Dollars or Euro when you make a withdrawal in Euro. My personal opinion is you should always ask to be billed in EURO. The ATM will tell you "No Commission" and will even quote you the exchange rate but my experience is that you will pay 3-4% more if you let them charge you in Dollars. They even try to confuse you by quoting the rate in Euro/Dollar instead of Dollars/Euro, a rate you may be somewhat familar with. They also tell you to "Press Y for Dollar" or "Press N for Euro" and then put the "Y" buttoe on the right and the "N" button on the left. Write down the exchange rate quoted and then compare it to what your bank charges you. I did find several bank cash points did not ask this question and billed me in Euro but most cash points gave you a choice hoping you would choose Dollars. June 2010 update: I have noticed fewer cash points asking if you want to be billed in Dollars, that's good.

Notify your credit card company that you will be in Europe - They will put a note on your file and there is less chance they will question sudden charges from that cute little souvenir shop in a hill town in Italy. We had a slight problem once when we returned from Europe. Seems we had arranged to have some terrecotta pots shipped home and the company had to pack the pots before they could tell us the total cost. When they notified us and we approved the purchase (we were already home) Visa denied the charge and "froze" our account. Later they told us they did it because we had a charge in Chicago, New York (Sears via the Internet) and Italy on the same day so they just froze our account. I found this out when I tried to make a purchase the next day. I thought everything was ironed out until Christine tried to make a purchase the following day. This time the Italian charge went through but again Visa was worried so they froze our account. We were not happy. I had called Visa before we left to inform them we would be out of the country but didn't think about delayed charges. Think about notifying your bank too so they don't question your ATM withdrawals.

We also used the Internet more on our September-October 2002 trip because we were gone for 8 weeks. Spain, Greece and Italy had plenty of Internet cafes and we had little trouble sending emails using Yahoo Mail. France was more of a problem and we ended up using IMacs at post offices (La Poste). French keyboards have a different layout and are hard to master, especially if you don't speak French. The menus were in French too! We also accessed our bank account and credit card charges. This turned out to be most convenient when we made the credit card withdrawals as we could go online and pay the credit card bill immediately and only incurred the $10 cash advance fee. We used the Internet again in 2003 and the charges varied from 1 Euro for 10 minutes at a Parador in Spain to 3 Euro per hour in Camucia, Italy (near Cortona). We have also used Library Internet computers for free in many places. If you see a library, ask about Internet access. Most all libraries in the UK have several terminals and you can use it for one hour for free and longer if no one else is waiting. Some libraies ask you to fill out a form for access but no library has asked for money. I now use an iPod and look for free Wi-Fi Hotspots. I've been using the iPod Touch for several years now and I have never paid for Wi-Fi access. Bars, coffee shops, cafes everywhere seem to offer it for free. Now I carry an iPad.

Telephone Calls while traveling - We used to have an AT&T Direct Calling Card but it is quite expensive. The inital charge on each AT&T Direct call is around $5.00US plus a lot per minute. There are several ways to use telephones in Europe, some easy, some not so easy. The easiest is to go to any small tobacco or candy shop and ask them for a local calling card that will allow you to call internationally. It Italy they sell a card named "Happiness" (yes, you can buy Happiness) It cost 5 Euro and you get about 50 minutes to the USA. Italia Telcom also sells cards for local calling that can be used for International calling but the rates are very expensive. Shops may have several different cards and they should have a chart where you can see what the per minute charges are. There are also local only calling cards for 3, 4, 5, 10 Euro, etc. You may have to buy one of these anyway as many European phones no longer use coins, only calling cards. These calling cards are the size of a credit card and you may even need them to call a toll-free number. I bought one in Italy in September 2002 and didn't try and use it until December 2002 and it would not work. I asked someone for help and they broke off the corner and it worked fine. Find out how to activate the card when you buy it. I paid 3 Euro for my card. I tried in September 2003 to use it to call internationally but it did not work until I found out what the International Access code was in Italy. In the USA you must dial 011 before the country code to make an international call, in Italy you must dial "00", that's zero-zero so to call the USA you must dial "001", the area code and number. To call France you dial "0033" and then the area code and number. Most countries in Europe use "00" for international access. You can also use a plus sign "+" in Europe to make a call to another country.

Cell Phones in Europe - This is the future for all regular travelers to Europe. A few years ago I decided to get a cell phone that would work in Europe. I don't even use one at home but a friend had rented one with his rental car while in Europe and paid quite a bit. I decided to see if I could do it cheaper.

First you have to get a GSM tri-band (or quad-band) phone that is "unlocked". Unlocked means that it is not limited to one particular carrier. If you get a real good deal on a cell phone and have a monthly plan the phone is usually locked and "tied" to that carrier and cannot be used with another carrier without being unlocked. Tri-band means it works with the frequencies 800/900/1800 MHz which include the frequencies used in Europe's pay as you go, no contract, cell plans. GSM is the cellular system.

You can find companies on the Internet that will sell you a GSM, tri-band, unlocked phone and a SIM phone card. They are expensive. Wait until you get to Europe and go into any MovieStar, Vodaphone, Orange, etc. store and buy a cheap phone and SIM card. Even the Tesco Supermarket in England sells cheap SIM cards.

I went on Ebay and bought a GSM, unlocked, tri-band, Motorola Cell Phone, Model V66, for $51 US. I charged the battery but it would not work without a SIM card. A SIM card is a small postage stamp sized chip that makes the phone work and has a phone number imbedded in it. It's now much easier to wait until you get to Europe to buy a cheap phone. After a few years I wanted a new phone and purchased one in Spain for 15 Euro a a large store. I removed the SIM card from my Motorola and inserted it in the new Nokia, no problem. I have a Vodfone IM card and it seems to work all over Europe..I don't know why.

Getting service in Europe was easier than I thought. When I arrived in Italy I found a cell phone store with the TIM logo. I'm sure there are others. I asked the salesgirl if she could help me, she spoke no English and I spoke no Italian. She sold me a SIM card for 5 Euro and a "top up" or re-charge card for 10 Euro resulting in a credit for my pre-pay phone number of 13 Euro. She even inserted the SIM card for me and programmed the system to give me English language help from the TIM company.

Since this was a Pre-pay, you can only talk as long as you have a balance and if you talk alot, then you have to top up or re-charge your phone. A couple of nice features is that all incoming calls in Europe (in the country where you bought the SIM card) are free, even calls from the USA. Another bonus is that once a phone has a SIM card installed, even an expired or no balance phone, you can always call the Emergency number "999". The cost of phoning the USA from Italy was 50 Euro-cents per minute and you could send a text message to the USA for 20 Euro-cents. Incoming calls, from anywhere, and incoming text messages were free. I had an Italian phone number. The cell phone charger was an international voltage sensing charger that worked anywhere. Another benefit was that the cell phone worked in other countries too. The per minute charges were more but I didn't plan on spending a lot of time on the phone.

The phone came in very handy for calling a restaurant or hotel to make a reservation. It also helped one night when we were locked out of our B&B (the owner had left a key in the door on the inside which prevented our key from working on the outside). No one heard us knocking so we rang them up.

I also purchased a SIM card in France through a carrier called SFR but this SIM was the most expensive, 30 Euro for the SIM card and a 15 Euro Top up for 45 Euro resulted in a new French phone number a 21 Euro credit. Everytime you buy a new SIM card you get some credit and a new phone number. When you top up or re-charge a SIM you keep the same phone number. Topping up or re-charging is as easy as going into a tobacco shop, paying 10 Euro and then getting a receipt with a 15 digit number on it. You dial a number from your phone and enter the 15 digit number from your receipt and presto, you have recharged your phone. Sometimes just the purchase results in "top up" to your balance and the company sends you a text message, you don't have to do anything.

Another nice thing is you can take an Italian SIM card out of your phone and buy a French SIM card. Then go back to Italy and put the Italian SIM card back in and it still works. The "brains" are in the SIM card. Usually, your phone number will expire if you don't add money to it for 9-12 months. I have been able to keep my last Spanish number because I have asked a friend in Mallorca to add 10 Euro to my account when he went to the grocery store.

When we got to England we got the best deal. I was in a Tesco Supermarket and they had a SIM card for sale for 4.47 British Pounds ($7.70US) and I got a top up for 10 pounds giving me an 11 pound credit. Tesco only charged 20 pence (35 cents US) per minute to call the USA. You can re-charge at any Tesco or with a credit card on the phone. Tesco also sold cell phones, unlocked and tri-band GSM for less than 30 pounds ($52US).

The benefit in buying a phone is that I can now use it anytime I travel to Europe by just buying a SIM card. I had some credit on my Tesco Sim card when I returned home and set the frequency to the USA 800 MHz only to find out AT&T allowed me to call out. The European GSM frequency is 900/1800 and that is the only setting you have to make on your cell phone when you go to Europe. We had a rental car problem in Scotland and called Hertz. The man said since I was on cell phone, he would call me right back, incoming calls are free. Yes, all incoming calls are free in Europe. What happened in the USA?

If I hadn't bought the French SIM card the whole thing would have cost me less than $100US and now I have a cell phone that I can use in an emergency in Europe even if I don't bring it up to date. Yes, an expired SIM card will always work in a emergency. Just dial 999.

The photo below shows the old Motorola cell phone on the right with a French SFR SIM Card installed and on the left is the card that the SIM card came in, you just "punch" it out. There is also the Italian TIM SIM card and the UK Tesco SIM card next to a US dime (ten cent piece) for size comparison. I now have a newer Nokia phone I purchased for 25 Euro.

Motorola V66 Cellphone and SIM Cards from Tesco, SFR and TIM

Update September 2007 I bought a MovieStar SIM card in Mallorca for 17 Euro at a large store, Al Campo. It came with a credit balance of 19 Euro and I added another 15 Euro during my trip. It was really worth it. In Fornalutx, Mallorca, you needed to telephone for a taxi even if you were at the taxi stand. In Spain we had trouble finding a place to stay when Christine suggested we call a Parador and we got a room. It was well worth having. Of course we could send text messages and telephone the USA too. It was very easy to add funds to our account, the MovieStar logo was everywhere and you just gave them 5 or 10 Euro and your phone number and your account was credited immediately. You were then sent a text message with the new balance. Make sure you understand how to check your balance. On MovieStar you enter *133# and press the Send key and the balance just appeared. You were charged 15 cents for this. There is a way to check for free but I forget how. Sorry.

Update September 2012 I purchased a new Nokia European Cell Phone for 25 Euro. I just took the SIM card out of the Motorola and put it in the new Nokia. It worked fine and the newer phone seems to be much better than the Motorala V66 but then the Motorola was about 15+ years old. Newer technology.

Cameras - We've switched to digital ten years ago and we love it. We no longer carry any film. I carry a smaller Canon camera and it fits in my pocket. I invested in many gigabytes of memory for the camera and that translates into many many photos. Don't forget plug adapters for the USA plug. The adapters don't change the voltage they just adapt the USA plug to the European plug, the United Kingdom "big 3 prong plug" and the type of plug they use in New Zealand. We also use the adapters for our multi-voltage hair dryer and/or iron but we do not always carry the iron and/or hair dryer with us.

I now carry an ipad with me and I also purchased a small attachment that copies the photos from the memory card to the ipad. I have never paid to use WiFi, they are all over the place and free. Most places don't even require a password anymore. Be careful with financial transactions over public WiFi. A couple of times I used my ipod (it also has WiFi) for email by writing a few emails and then walking by a major hotel. The WiFi connection was made and the emails were sent and received as I walked by.

I do not use Internet cafes to upload any photos as that would take too long, that's why I bought more memory and the ipad attachment.

Last year i went swimming with my new camera in Aruba and it was not waterproof...no more information is needed. American Express replaced the camera because it was covered by their policy. I copied the photos to the ipad and then the memory card failed, salt water is not good for memory cards.

I use the digital many times instead of taking notes. If I want to remember a sign telling the taxi fares from the airport to the city, I take a photo. I will even take a photo of something I want to read like a description or story at a museum. I can read it later and delete it. Most digital cameras allow you to zoom in on the LCD display. I also take photos of travel books before I leave and refer to the photo in the camera. Now, you wouldn't want to read a book this way but you can save a map, etc. That way you don't have to carry a couple of books just to read a couple of pages and you're carrying the camera anyway. Yes, we also take some photocopies with us.

Emergency Information - make photocopies of passports and tickets and phone numbers you may need. We also put some scanned copies of important information (like Passports, tickets, traveler's check receipts) and some text files of important information on an Internet Site where only we know the URLs. This way we could go to an Internet Cafe and print out anything we needed in case of a problem like a lost passport, etc. Get a Yahoo, Hotmail or other email account you can access through a webpage. Email your important information to yourself at this address. Save it at that email site. Use the web based email account to keep your email address book and enter the email addresses of people you want to keep in contact with before you leave home.

Where to go - Rick Steves said it best: "That quaint little cafe isn't very quaint when the tour bus pulls in." If you're die hard tour people, just think how neat some of the places could have been if you had not walked in with 30 other people. Think how nice it would have been to stop at that little cafe your group walked by on the way back to the bus. Think about having dinner there instead of with the same 30 people in the hotel dining room several miles from the main town square. Think about strolling along by yourself or with one person instead of all 32 of the people on the tour. Everyone cannot travel independently but if you can, it is a real rewarding experience.

You do see more sights on a tour and probably learn more. My travel philosophy is that I learn a little about a place before I go, learn more when I'm there, and then read up on it when I get home if I'm interested....then go back. I never go to place thinking this is the only time I will ever be there, I know I can go back. The title of my travelogue for September 2003 will probably be "When tours collide!" as it was quite funny being in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome watching the tour groups colliding. We had a scary situation in St. Peter's when an oriental tour guide walking by himself stopped next to us and raised his red umbrella. Within seconds we were surrounded by a mass of humanity tring to get in closer to the tour guide.

I don't understand the term "Vacation of a lifetime".

Once, in Rethymnon, Crete, we just sat around the harbor area most of the afternoon at a cafe. We watched people, had coffee, some water, then a glass of wine. Christine brought our diary up to date, we read some brochures we got from the tourist office, and watched people. We recharged our mental batteries. We also watched several tour groups march through the area, not one of them stopped. Tours don't stop, they have this momentum; they have to keep moving; up and on the bus by 7 and back in time for dinner. A friend of ours takes slides and on one trip she was in most all her slides, it was her reflection in the bus window! You see people on these tours, completely overloaded with facts. When I've had enough "ruins", as we call them, I find a cafe.

During our December 2002 Christmas/New Year's trip to Tuscany we stayed on a Vineyard in a "housesitting" and "dogsitting" situation. Most mornings I got up around 0800 and drove into San Gimignano to the bakery to buy bread (Italian bread has a short "half-life"). I would see the tour buses from Florence already unloading in San Gimignano. What time did they have to get up to make it to breakfast and then get to San Gimignano by 8:15?

Going in the off season, when you are not just one of many, is the best. But, we have started to like warm weather and the beach since I discovered sunscreen.

We especially liked Spain and Mallorca in September 2007, we never saw any Americans. Maybe it's because the Dollar is so weak.

Walking Tours - We have started taking more walking tours in areas where they are offered. We learn more about the area and they are usually conducted by people who enjoy what they do. They are always a bargain. Sort of the 2-3 hour tour but then we are free for the day. They have free tours in St. Peter's in Rome that are very interesting and really free. At the end of the tour they encourage you to buy one of the paid tours but there was no pressure.

Walking in Europe - Walking in Europe means walking with one eye on the ground so you don't step in dog poop. It's as simple as that. France is terrible but watch out in Italy and Spain too. You also have to wacth the pavement. The pavement in Europe is not as smooth as in the USA. We learned that lesson in September 2010.

Smoking in Europe - Believe it or not, Europeans are starting to realize that cigarette and cigar smoke is worse than clean air. As of April 2003, you can no longer smoke on most Italian Trains. The IC trains also have fewer smoking places. Vietato Fumare means no smoking and quite a few people follow the new rules. The penalty is only 7 Euro so not everyone believes the new rules apply to them. It is now No Smoking in all Italian restaurants, yes Vietato Fumare in the Italian restaurants but not in the outside seating. The Rome airport is no smoking! Even the Madrid airport had limited smoking areas and constant verbal reminders that smoking was only allowed in certain areas. You could tell the difference in air quality between the Madrid and Malaga airports. In Malaga smoking was allowed everywhere. Smoking is almost everywhere in France but it was banned at the Nice Airport after you went through security. It was sort of funny watching people go through security, stop and then look around for a smoking section. Then the panic and the trip to the toilet. The toilet stalls were always busy and smokey. I saw several men smoking while filling their car with gas in France. I guess they don't know that it's the gasoline vapors that explode not the liguid. France went no smoking in January 2008. This I have to see to believe. The beaches in Spain are covered with cigarette filters. I did see a man roll his used cigarette butt through his fingers, dropping the ashes and tobacco to the ground, step on the ashes and then put the used filter in his pocket. They teach you this in the military and it should be written on the back of every pack of cigarettes. These cigarette filters will be around for a long time.

We were Belgium in December 2003 and I could not believe the smoke. Bruges is a really beautiful city but it is virtually impossible to find a nice restaurant that does not allow smoking, even cigars. We were at a very nice restaurant for breakfast and there was a man nearby smoking a cigar, the whole place smelled. Even if a place lets you smoke, get real, a cigar can spoil it for the whole room. I was quite surprised by the number of cigars. On the train cars they have one or two rows in each car where you can smoke with a small plexiglass divide across the back of the seats. Like that helps. Anyway, stay outside if you can and just accept it.

Most countries in Europe are banning smoking indoors but that means more people are sitting outside smoking.

Internet I now carry an IPod Touch which has WiFi Internet and email access. It's great and I always seem to find free WiFi Hotspots. I have never had to pay. Many cafes, coffee shops and hotels have free WiFi. Now, you wouldn't want to spend the day surfing on the small IPod screen but it's great for changing a flight, sending emails, and advance flight check-in. With my IPod and cell phone, I'm in the 21st century, almost.

Mobile Phone Use in Europe - Everyone has a mobile phone! Most people don't realize that you do not have to shout into a mobile phone. Text messaging is very big in Europe and you will hear phones ringing and no one is talking except with their thumbs. I saw one woman on a train looking out the window and "typing" with both thumbs, sort of touch typing with your thumbs. Once, in restaurant in Italy, 2 couples walked in, sat down and three people immediately took out their phones and started typing with their thumbs. The fourth person sort of looked lost so he went to the toilet. They never did talk.

Packing - Some new updates based on the War on Terrorism: It's getting harder and harder to go someplace and just take a carryon piece of luggage, there are so many Banned items you cannot carry on to a plane. I carry a cardboard nail file because you can't carry any metal nail files or nail clippers. Try traveling for a few weeks without breaking a fingernail or needing a knife. I used to carry a Swiss Army Knife but not when I'm going with just a Carryon bag. I know the US announced recently that you could carry on more items like small sizzors and fingernail cutters but it doesn't do you any good to carry it on in Chicago if you get to Heathrow and go through the many chcekpoints they have only to be told you have to "give it up". There still is a lot of inconsistent treatment across the world. Shoes, if you are traveling in the USA you will probably be asked to remove your shoes when you go through security. It appears that the terriorists have won the war because the goals of a terrorist are to make us utilize money and resources to protect against an enemy that is not really there. We've created entire government agencies and spent billions of dollars and all this to protect ourselves from an unseen enemy.

You can no longer lock your luggage because the security checkers will cut the locks off. There are supposed to be "approved" locks but I haven't seen them. I use those plastic locking wire ties that you can buy. They can be cut off but they make it harder for someone to quickly go through your checked bags. The drawback is that you need a knife to cut them off and you can't carry one on the plane. If you put it in your checked bag, how will you open the checked bag?

Traveling Independently means you have to travel lite as you are the one carring the bag. Select a bag with big wheels and a retractible handle, about 10x13x21 inches. Never pack the bag directly, you are not trying to fill it. Lay all the clothes out that you plan on taking and match them up so that you can wear several items with several other items. For any independent trip of almost any length you can get by with two pairs of shoes or sandals, 3 socks, 4-5 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, 2 shorts (if it will be hot), a sweater or sweatshirt, a lightweight jacket, 5-6 pairs of underwear, 5-6 handkerchiefs, a bathing suit, a clothesline, and a hat for the sun. They have laundermats in Europe and you can rinse out your underwear and socks at night. Lay this all out before you open the suitcase, talk yourself out of something. If you really really need it, you can buy it there. We sometimes buy one beach towel and share it. Sometimes I buy a local t-shirt. Sometimes I throw an old shirt away that has become really soiled. Sometimes we go shopping locally for clothes. Women can bring a skirt and several scarves to dress up. Scarves are on sale everywhere in Europe and they are cheap. Women's shoes are lighter than a man's so women can bring a extra pair.

Then, pack the suitcase and do not be tempted to put something more in just because there is room.

We also pack a small nylon suitcase that opens up just in case we buy something... but think about shipping it home. Many stores will ship for you and most all post offices in Europe sell cardboard boxes. In Spain we walked into a Post Office in Nerija with a 17 inch computer monitor box unsealed and they wrapped the box in tape, addressed it and sent it on it's way. They were really nice. FedEx and UPS also have offices all over the world, they may cost more than the local post office. We've bought boxes at several post offices and sent items home. It was expensive but I was glad we didn't have to carry the items around so it was worth it. As Christine says, "Buy it and ship it."

Try carrying the packed bag around outside, up and down steps. Use a small backpack for the personal items you have to carry with you.   Remember, no one has ever come back from Europe and said they wished they had taken more stuff!   It's amazing but Europeans seem to get by traveling with very little. I will also tell you a secret, there is no one in Europe following you around writing down what you wear every day. You can wear the same thing for four days in a row and no one cares, except maybe your traveling companion. You will however look like all your photos were taken on the same day.

Driving in Europe - Driving in Europe is a little different than in the United States. In Italy, everyone is trying to pass the car in front. Driving with an Italian in his car is a real experience, they pass on hills, turns, intersections, and, of course, on the Autostrada where you had better not be in front of them in the left lane. If you plan on renting or leasing a car, you should learn some of the signs. Here are a list of the road signs, with photos, that I think are important. Drunk driving laws in Europe are quite strict. Speeding is becoming a real problem and the police are clamping down with big fines. The police no longer "go easy" on the tourist and speed fines in France must be paid "on the spot" before you can proceed, no credit cards either. Parking is also a real problem and you risk being towed if you illegally park. Speed cameras are all over in England and you may get a bill from the rental company several months after your holiday. Automatics are becoming more popular and are easier, but more expensive, to rent. Even air conditioning is included on most rental cars now.

The question I get most often is should you get and International Driving Permit (IDP). It's up to you, I have never carried one and neither has Christine. If you want to make the AAA rich, go for it.

In September 2007 in Spain we were stopped at a roadblock and they looked "at our papers" and looked in the trunk and.......let us go.

Transportation - Train and bus travel is the cheapest and best for long distances. Car rentals are expensive and so is gas, petrol and diesel fuel. Italy has many tolls. Without a car you will find it hard to get to that little village on the hill but it can be done. Once in Siena, Italy, without a car, we went to the Wednesday market, bought some cheese, salami, bread and wine. Borrowed (without telling) a blanket from the good sisters at the Alma Domus Hotel and and took a bus to Monteriggioni and had a picnic just outside the walls. We had seen Monteriggioni from the train. We fell in love with Tuscany there. A young girl waiting for the bus adopted us and made us confident we were headed in the right direction. She got off before us but made sure someone else knew where we had to get off. Carry a map, ask questions, smile, act pleasant and people will help you.

We rented a diesel in Spain in September 2007 and averaged around 45 miles per gallon (I had to compute this out) and Diesel was much cheaper at the pump than gasoline. In May-June 2010 in Italy we rented a Fiat 500. A very small care but it had A/C and got almost 40 miles to a gallon.

Some of the fun in traveling is finding out how to get around; how do the locals do it? Everyone in Europe does not have a car, there are ways to get around without one, it just takes longer but you end up with more local contact. If you are not into local contact, take the tour. On our 2005 Winter trip to visit Christmas Markets we took a bus from the Strasbourg Airport to the Tram stop and then the Tram to our hotel, 5 each. We used the Tram a lot in Strasbourg buying a cheap all day card and jumping on and off the Tram. It was good for 24 hours so we used it again the next day to go to the train station. We also traveled by train from Strasbourg to Germany, a nice 2.5 hour ride.

Most local train systems have a cheap card good for all day but the card validity might not start until 9-10 in the morning. We bought one in Glasgow, Scotland, for the Underground and one in Edinburgh for the bus.

It's usually much cheaper to book a car before you leave home. I usually use the CDW provided by my Visa gold card. As for the CDW offered by most major rental agencies, it is not usually zero deductible, that means you pay $10-15 per day for the CDW and you still pay for the first $300-400 damage. Doesn't seem like a bargain to me when you can just use the CDW coverage on a Gold card and pay nothing if there is damage. Make sure you know what your Gold card expects you to do in the event of damage. Take photos, get a police report, etc. Make sure you are covered in the countries you intend to drive in. Some CDW on some Gold cards does not cover you in Ireland. We used Carjet located in the UK to book for 2014 and they said Free Cancellation but they charge a fee for using a credit card and when we cancelled we didn't get the fee back for they probably made a profit on us.I may not use them again. Consider Renault USA for long term leases over 17 days, much cheaper the longer you lease them and they also have zero deductible CDW. I've leased cars from Renault three times now and it is great. I would highly recommend it. In Rome, I went to a desk and they called someone and the car was delivered to the airport. I signed the papers in the snack bar and they walked me to the car and explained the controls. The car had 23 kilometers on it and was brand new with A/C, all power and automatic. We had zero deductible CDW on the insurance, it was registered in my name, we had trip interuption insurance, roadside assistance, and we could change the drop off city and length of the lease easily. On one trip we dropped the car off at the Brussels airport 5 weeks later and we just parked the car in the parking garage, noted where we parked it and turned our keys and documents in at an office across from the rental car desks at the airport. They quickly gave me a receipt and we were off. It was very easy and cheap and it is cheaper the longer you lease the car up to a maximum lease of about 6 months. 17 days is the minimum lease and you must not be a EU resident. There are also very few restrictions on what countries you can drive in. Picking the car up or dropping the car off outside of France costs extra but it was not bad when you compare the total cost to renting. It cost $175US more to pick up the car in Rome and $50 more to drop off the car in Brussels. I will do this again.

Update - January 2003 We just returned from 3 weeks in Tuscany over the Christmas/New Year Holidays. We leased a new Renault Clio, 4 door automatic from RenaultUSA for $1200. A lot of money but it was an automatic and automatics are expensive in Europe. A man met us at the Rome Airport (first time someone has met me with a sign with my name on it, I felt important) but I missed him and walked to the desk in the Arrivals Hall where the agent telephoned him on his cell phone. We went into the snack bar and within a couple of minutes we were on our way in a new Renault Clio. 48 hours before we were scheduled to return the car we called to confirm and when we arrived at the terminal a man was waiting in the front of the Departures Terminal. He flagged me down, based on my license plate number, collected the keys, registration and manual and gave me a receipt and we were on our way within 3 minutes. Much easier than renting a car. The $1200 included a $175 pickup fee at the Rome Airport and a $175 dropoff fee. We plan on eliminating this fee next time by picking up and dropping off in Nice, France, and then driving the 5-6 hours to Tuscany. (We dropped off the car in Nice, France in September 2003 and it was also very easy) The lease is good but if you must pickup and/or drop-off outside of France you pay a fee. One nice thing about the lease is there are no countries you can't visit (at least to my knowledge). Some rental contracts limit you to Western Europe.

Language - Learn how to say "Hello", "Thank You", "Room", "Please", and "More Wine", in several languages. Write it down phonetically. It goes a long way to making friends and suddenly, someone can speak a little English. Once in Italy, at a small family trattoria, we got by with our Italian: "buongiorno, vino, grazie" and "no more" while the owner and his family got by with their English: "meat or fish". Once in Athens I stopped in a small shop and asked if they spoke English, the woman said, "a little". I wanted some toast which is like a toasted cheese sandwich with more stuff on it, a friend had told me to just point to what I wanted them to put on it, I did and the woman proceeded to put some cheese, ham, onions, etc. on the bread and she turned to put the sandwich between two hot plates. I said to her: "F Harry Stowe" which is phonetically Greek for "thank you." She smiled, said, "pair ra ka low", which is Greek for "you're welcome" and then proceeded to put some more of the ingredients on my sandwich. It doesn't hurt.