RICK STEVES' TRAVEL SKILLS
Travel skills -- Three Episodes
Hi I'm Rick Steves back in Europe...this time with a focus on practical travel tips! In this three-part special edition, we travel my favorite 2,000-mile loop through Europe, splicing in all the essential skills to help you travel on your own — smooth and smart.
The point of this special: If you can learn from my mistakes rather than your own, you'll have a better trip. How well you're able to enjoy the delights of Europe depends upon how well you plan and how skillfully you travel.
And there's a lot to enjoy. From the monuments of Paris to folk dancing in Portugal, from the markets of Sicily to new friends in Bulgaria, and from the scalps of the Alps to the wonders of Rome, you'll want to get the most out of every mile, minute and dollar you spend in Europe.
In this three-part travels-skills special we start in the Netherlands, venture through Germany, dip into Italy, sweep through Switzerland and France before finishing in England. In this first episode we start in Amsterdam, cruise the Rhine, visit Rothenburg and end in Munich.
The main tips this time: transportation — exploring Europe by train and car, changing money and arriving.
We landed at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. To get to Europe, Americans need only a passport, plane ticket and money — every airport has ATMs.
Notice how easy it is for English-speakers to step over the language barrier. Here in Amsterdam, everything's in two languages: Dutch for the locals and English for everyone else.
Hi. I'm Rick Steves — cruising the Grand Canal in Venice — and back for part two of our three part travel skills series. This time, we're going beyond the sights, bringing you more practical tips to help make enjoying Europe fun and hassle-free.
The skills we'll cover in this episode: planning, packing, safety and — perhaps the most rewarding skill of all — connecting with the locals.
Today more people than ever are enjoying Europe. And it's great fun snapping photos of the predictable biggies and enjoying those cultural icons.
But you can go deeper than traditions put on display for tourists. A more intimate Europe survives. You find it best by becoming a temporary locl. Make new friends where there are no postcards. Try the barnacles. Join the village parade...and do the Slovenian polka.
In this three-part travel skills special, we start in the Netherlands, venture through Germany, dip into Italy, sweep through Switzerland and France before finishing in England. In this second episode we travel through the highlights of Northern Italy: Venice, Siena, and my favorite part of the Italian Rivera.
For most people Venice is a must-see destination on their European trip, that's why it is so crowded. St. Marks Square: In the middle of the day it can seem like a zoo. It'll take an hour for these folks to get into the church. With so many people traveling these days, if you're not on the ball, you'll spend half your day in lines like this. Here's a tip: Arrive late and you can walk right in.
Europe's great cities are clever at keeping you in the touristy shopping zones. But even in Venice you can break free and enjoy a slice of work-a-day life. Get a haircut. That can be a cultural experience as memorable as visiting a museum...but with no crowds, and you'll meet someone who deals only with locals for his work. Even shy travelers can make friends with the barber.
Hi I'm Rick Steves back for the last episode of our three part travel skills special. We're in a village, high in the Swiss Alps. In this finale, we'll show that in so many ways, you can actually experience more by spending less.
Our tips this time: finding the best accommodations, getting around in big cities, and enjoying Europe's cuisine. This information can help you make the most of your travel time and, if you're on a budget, it can cut the cost of your travels in half.
Whether you discover Croatia's watery wonderlands, explore ancient Greek temples in Sicily, climb a mountain to be with the Gods in Eastern Turkey, or enjoy a private concert curbside in Bulgaria, you'll find that the character of any trip is determined by where you choose to travel.
In this three-part travels-skills special we start in the Netherlands, venture through Germany, dip into Italy, sweep through Switzerland and France before finishing in England. In this final episode we start in the Swiss Alps, take a high-speed train to Paris and finish our loop in London.
Many tourists only visit famous and well-promoted resorts, like Grindelwald — "the" famous Alpine resort in the shadow of the Jungfrau.
Europe energetically markets its top tourist attractions. Here in Switzerland, it's the Alps. Resorts like this seem geared to helping tour groups have fun...spending their money.
But here, high in the next valley, sleepy, un-promoted Gimmelwald is all yours. In 20 years of researching guidebooks, I've found hidden gems like this in every country. And each is less touristed for quirky but logical reasons. Here in Gimmelwald the village schoolteacher, now a folk hero, prevented the coming 'resort-ification' of their village.
Ollie who lives in the village is happy to retell the story.
Finding places like Gimmelwald, where you become part of the party rather than just part of the economy, is a realistic goal for any good traveler.
While connecting with the locals is free, your big expense each day is renting a bed. You have lots of options. We'll review them from cheapest to most expensive. In rural settings — like Gimmelwald — I like simple, less expensive accommodations. Gimmelwald has a pension, Bed and Breakfast, a hostel...and a barn.
This is called Sleep in the Straw. Switzerland has a network of barns which house cows in the winter and in the summer — when the cows are in the high meadows — farmers clean it, toss in some new hay, and let travelers call it home.
You'll find similarly cheap beds on hotel rooftops in Greece, in convents in Spain, campground bungalows, and hostels.
Europe has over 2000 hostels — like Gimmelwald's Mountain Hostel — offering piles of cheap dorm beds. In a hostel, rather than privacy and lots of plumbing, you'll find a helpful reception desk, a welcoming common room with lots of information and hiking partners, and the kitchen where hostellers cook for the price of groceries. It's breakfast time. On a sunny morning like today, travelers are preparing for their hikes.
They come with separate dorms for the guys and for the women. While still pretty spartan, more and more hostels are offering smaller rooms — family rooms and even doubles for couples.
The great thing about hostelling is meeting other travelers. Single travelers — of any age — will find an instant circle of friends.
For me, B&Bs offer an ideal combination of comfort and economy, privacy and cultural experience. Every country here has private rooms for rent. You've just got to know the local word...Husroom is Norwegian for Chambre d'Hote which is French for Zimmer which is German for Bed and Breakfast.
They're not hard to find...in fact, often times, they'll find you. In Portugal, wives of fishermen camp out curbside advertising their rooms and then march you to their place. In Britain, rooms come with a hearty welcome and a huge breakfast. In countries like Croatia, staying in a local home gives you a great insight into that culture while boosting a struggling family's income. And countless once palatial old buildings, like this former monastery high in the mountains of Sicily, now rent rooms to travelers.
Tonight, we're sleeping in the home of Ollie — who we met earlier — and his wife Maria. They share Gimmelwald's only teaching position and supplement their income by renting out three rooms in their house.
As is generally the case with B&Bs, the rooms are as comfortable as a hotel but homier. You can be as private as you like — just take the key and do their own thing. Or you can go downstairs and get to know the family.
Ollie knows the backside of the Jungfrau intimately.
Small hotels and pensions are also a good value. A pension is a place without many of the services you'd expect in a hotel.
This one is inexpensive...with the toilet and shower down the hall. The beds and bedding are traditional. And the place creaks just the way you want it to. For decades Walter's been taking good care of travelers.
Continuing our swing through the best of Europe, we're heading for Paris. After a full day in the Alps, this train gets us there in time for a late bed time.
A big city like Paris is bursting with world-class sights: magnificent boulevards, towering monuments, and glorious history. Amidst all this grandeur, I find a cozy neighborhood to call home. As you may remember from our Paris episode, I choose a hotel on Rue Cler...it's a traffic-free bit of village Paris, a ten minute walk from the Eiffel Tower.
I think big expensive hotels have one thing in common: They build a wall between you and the people and culture you traveled so far to experience.
My choice; a small hotel in a neighborhood like Rue Cler.
Accommodations are a classic example of how, spending less may actually give you a richer experience. Europe's big cities still have well-located, characteristic and comfortable hotels at an affordable price.
Many countries have helpful rating systems. In France, plaques with stars are posted by the door. In a well-chosen one star place budget travelers can sleep well and safely. Rooms are pretty basic...but inexpensive.
European cities have lots of night noise, and cheap hotels usually come with single pane windows. Rather than a room with a view, I'll take a quiet room in the back.
In France, I usually look for two-star hotels — still basic but more comfortable-with good beds, private bathrooms and beam-me-up Scotty elevators.
Remember, the more people who share a room, the less expensive it gets. A double costs just a little more than a single. And many hotels are happy to squeeze in a cheap third bed.
Three-star hotels are more expensive but can be a good value. Here, you're paying for extras like a lounge, room service, and rooms with all the comforts.
Know your priorities. This hotel is great. But those on a budget may need to choose between all those extras — at $50 a night — and a nice dinner, concert or city tour.
Throughout Europe, small family run hotels offer good values. This London hotel is plush, beautifully located and surprisingly inexpensive because it has no elevator. This friendly hotel is one of the least expensive in the German resort of Baden-Baden because its small — without TVs, mini-bars, and a night clerk. That didn't seem to keep our children from settling right in.
And my favorite hotel in Rome — small enough where the owner can go over your sightseeing plans — provides fine rooms but at half the cost of the bigger hotels. Forget the old shower down the hall. These days in Europe, most hotels have remodeled, shoehorning small bathrooms into every room.
Many love the freedom of just finding hotels as they go. But, to get the best rooms in the popular places, book in advance. Travel agents and local tourist boards work with the big hotels. But they don't list or know about many of the less expensive places and their advice is colored by who pays commissions. Smart travelers use the web and guidebooks. These days — with email, credit cards, and English-speaking receptionists — it's easier than ever to book your rooms directly.
If you'd like them to hold a place for you without a deposit, promise you'll arrive by mid-day. Small and friendly places are often happy to trust you this way.
When it's time to wash clothes you've got several options: wash small items in the sink, pay to have the hotel clean your cloths, or go to the neighborhood laundromat.
Self-service places come with detergent dispensers and English instructions. And many of these places offer a drop off and pick up later service. So, rather than knitting…you can see the great museums.
Health concerns while traveling through Western Europe are about the same as traveling through the U.S.A. While I take extra precautions when traveling beyond Europe, in Europe I drink the water and eat everything in sight.
If you do get sick, get help right away. Over here, a good first stop for medical advice is the neighborhood pharmacy. Also, hotels can refer you to a nearby clinic or phone a doctor who makes "house calls" — for far less money than you might expect.
Then, prescription in hand, you can head for the 24-hour pharmacy. While Europe generally has whatever medicine you need, if you anticipate needing to refil anything, bring a prescription from home with the generic name typed or printed legibly.
My health tips promote wellness. Being on vacation, can be exhausting. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, drink lots of water and juice, and pace yourself. Know your limits.
Rather than a marathon of museum-going, I punctuate my sightseeing with cafe stops. Here's a tip. In much of Europe cafes have a two-tiered price system. Drinks are cheaper at the bar...more expensive at a table. If you're concerned, both prices are posted — discretely — inside.
There are three basic kinds of insurance for travelers: cancellation, baggage, and health: Find out if and how your health insurance covers you abroad. If it does cover you in Europe you'll probably pay for any expenses, collect the receipts, and get reimbursed later. If it doesn't, consider buying travelers' health insurance.
Baggage insurance is statistically the worst value. Leave your valuables at home — and skip it.
Trip interruption and cancellation insurance is designed to reimburse you if you have to cancel non-refundable, pre-paid travel expenses like flights, tours, and car rentals. Coverage costs about 5 cents on the dollar. So, it's a good value only if you figure there's a greater than 1-in-20 chance you'll need to cancel or interrupt your trip.
When in Europe, celebrating cultural differences brings a special bonus — you'll eat better. Order with a spirit of adventure. Seek out — not the biggest neon sign saying we speak English — but places filled with locals.
Here in Portugal, the tourists are eating with a sea view and we're eating with the locals on a back street — the specialty is seafood; [soundbite]; Bouzio is a seasnail and this is vinho verdi...green wine. In Rome, we're eating our way through the anti pasti courses and sticking with what's seasonal…roasted peppers...fried zucchini flowers and grilled eggplant. Going local can mean eating ethnic. Here in London, we're going trendy with the young crowd, grabbing tasty bites off the world's longest sushi conveyor belt. And wherever you travel, eat better by understanding the basic menu terms. In Italy, meals come in waves...anti pasti, primi piatti and secondi.
Especially in France, consider the cuisine sightseeing for your palate. And when you know the budget options, eating at the corner cafe or bistro costs only a little more than lunch at a fast food joint.
Most countries have a plate of the day — that's a plat du jour here. A hand-written menu — in the local language only, with a small selection indicates a good value. And the house salad makes a quick and healthy meal. In France, remember bread is free. Just hold up your basket to ask [svp]. Don't snap your finger and say garcon. That's rude.
In France, a free carafe of tap water is either on the table or will be quickly if you ask. I drink the local favorites. Here, a glass of house wine is cheaper than a soft drink.
Over here, slow service is often good service. In a nice restaurant the table is yours for the entire evening. To get the bill you need to ask for it — sometimes persistently. Tipping is often unnecessary. This varies from country to country. Get advice from locals.
Picnics are the fast and fun choice for lunch. When picnicking, you can buy whatever looks good regardless of price. Great outdoor markets are a European specialty.
Choose an atmospheric place to give your picnic some class. We've put together a cheap and healthy meal for two; delightful cheese — 100 grams of morbier, strawberries, wine, a tiny quiche...a little something for dessert...and…a reasonable view.
We're speeding to London, the final leg of our best of Europe loop and this is my kind of fast food; breakfast at just under 200miles per hour.
Traditionally, on the Continent, breakfast is small. In France, locals just grab a pastry and coffee on the way to work and hotels serve a croissant with marmalade and coffee or tea.
But encroaching American ways and tourist expectations are helping make hearty breakfasts — with cheese, meat, yogurt, and juice — more popular.
Europe is uniting both politically and physically. Wealthier countries are helping their poorer neighbors catch up. And with huge investments in its transportation infrastructure, European commerce and trade are zipping around faster than ever. And that includes us travelers.
The Eurostar train, which speeds under the English Channel in 17 minutes, is just one example of exciting projects lacing Europe closer together. From Portugal to Norway, great bridges, tunnels, and bullet trains are making this small continent even smaller. The fastest way now from the Eiffel Tower to Big Ben is by train, not plane. We're arriving in London in time for lunch.
London's giant wheel is an example of how the nations of the European Union are working together. How do you make a giant Ferris wheel? - Swiss motor, Italian steel, German design, and a capital English view.
As Europe continues to unite, nations are less threatened by regions. Madrid lets Barcelona wave its Catalonian flags, the Irish gift of gab comes in Gaelic, and, for the first time in centuries, Scotland has its own parliament. For those of us who love the cultural variety of Europe this is great news.
So unification does not mean the end of diversity. Europe may end up with one passport and one currency, but in less than three hours you'll still go from fine red wine to great dark ales.
By the way, Europe is still pretty smoky for many Americans. While Britain has more smoke-free places to eat and sleep than the Continent, it's still hard to find a good pub, without lots of smoke.
The big cities are becoming increasingly well organized. Tame them by mastering transportation options: buses, the underground, and taxis.
Even budget travelers need to remember that vacation time is valuable. Spend money to save time. Groups of three or four usually travel cheaper and faster by taxi rather than by riding buses and subways. Throughout Western Europe these days, cabbies are regulated, honest, and simply charge the meter. I round the bill up 5 or 10%. The extras are clearly explained — and legitimate.
London, like most big European cities has a fine underground system — letting you zip anywhere in town, regardless of rush hour traffic, fast.
Big cities become surprisingly manageable when you get comfortable with their underground systems. To avoid ticket window lines, buy tickets from coin-operated machines. Follow the signs to the right platform. You'll find helpful maps everywhere. In what Londoners call "the tube" everything is labeled NSEW.
Each line has two directions and therefore two platforms. Signs list the line, direction and stops served by each platform. Lost? locals are happy to help. Because some tracks are shared by several lines, signboards announce which train's next and how many minutes till it arrives. Final destinations are displayed above the windshield. And always...mind the gap.
Track your progress with the chart on board. Here's our stop. Signs show the best exit, saving you lots of walking. If you want the British Library, it's right this way.
City bus systems are worth figuring out. Buses are frequent, user friendly and come with a view.
Here in London, as in most cities, a 24-hour pass pays for itself in about 3 rides. It let's you just hop on and off both the buses and the tube when you like.
Even if you never use public transportation at home, try it over here. After a few rides, you'll be getting around like a local.
Then, to get the most out of your visit, consider catching some kind of guided tour. Almost any city has big bus orientation tours. While the multi-lingual guide or tape-recording is often uninspiring, these can provide a worthwhile overview.
In many European cities there's a more innovative kind of tour. "Hop-on hop-off" buses — make a circular route stopping at a city's top dozen or so attractions with departures about every ten minutes and a continuous narration of the sights. A single ticket gives you 24 hours of hop on and off privileges as you sightsee your way efficiently through town.
Another great way to get to know a city- even in the rain- is a walking tour. Especially in Britain, you'll find hard working local historians taking visitors on fascinating two hour walks through a particular slice of their town's past. We're checking out the fine Churches of Sir Christopher Wren.
Walking tours are advertised at tourist information offices and in the local entertainment magazines. For me they're always time and money well spent.
The telephone is a powerful tool for smart travel. Don't look for coin-operated booths. Get a phone card.
There are two kinds — both sold at newstands. For local calls use a local phone card. And to keep in touch with home, an international phone card lets you call anywhere in the world for literally pennies a minute.
After every trip to Europe I'm reminded you can never exhaust this place of what it has to offer. The Continent shares its many wonders masterfully. The fine points of European culture survive...and inspire. The art packed museums make it clear; the passions of the past are still with us.
But, most of all, it's the people who keep me coming back. Whether playing cricket on the village green, learning how old time aristocrats exercised, stumbling onto a remote laundry, trying a new sport, or drinking to the good life, Europe is both a playground and a classroom.
This concludes our three part travel skills special. Remember, anyone who's equipped with good information and wants to travel smart...can. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves...keep on travelin'. Cheerio.
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