Jenny and Charlie traveled to Iceland November 9-15, to see the Northern Lights. The travelogue has been moved to our regular travel site.
Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport: The train into the city essentially becomes a subway within the city; if it doesn’t stop near your hotel, you can transfer to any subway line without a new ticket.
We were warned that credit cards were not widely accepted. In 2013 we were able to use credit cards for almost all expenses.
The service (tip) is included in the restaurant prices – not a service charge added to the bill, nor are you expected to tip. The second time we raised the issue, the waiter said “If anyone says that you should add a tip, they are taking advantage of you as a tourist.” Yes, it was a waiter that said “no tip.”
If you have a drink or coffee at a bar, the price is lower than at a table (which includes the service charge for the waiter). Don’t buy something at the bar, then sit down at a table.
Ask the waiter for a “Carafe” if you would like a (free) glass of water with your meal.
In addition to 112, there are other emergency numbers in France such as 15 for medical, 17 for police, 18 for fire, and others.
By Dutch law, the service charge in a restaurant must be included in the price of the food, so no tips are necessary. At a cafe, a “different” waitress than had served us brought our check, so I asked if tips were shared. No, management just takes all the tips. At nice restaurants, a tip of 5-10% is accepted with great appreciation.
Credit cards are widely accepted, but there may be an extra service charge for using the card. The surcharge was about 50 cents for the train tickets into town, 35 cents at a cafe, but no extra charge at nice restaurants or museums.
Amsterdam Schiphol (SKIP-pull) airport is about 5 miles from downtown (and incidentally 6 meters – 20 feet – below sea level). The recommended way into town – to the central train station – is via “NS train.” Tickets available from vending machines for €5.20 each (€4.20 plus airport surcharge of €1.00), runs every few minutes and takes about 15 minutes. You can buy several tickets at once, and use a credit card (some vending machines do not accept cash) for a credit card service fee of about 50 cents for each purchase.
In town the transit tickets for tram, metro and GVB buses are purchased from a vending machine or on the tram (cash only); a one hour (one trip) ticket is €2,90 (about US$3.20), unlimited travel for 24 hours is €7.50, for 48 hours is €12.50, etc., up to 7 days for €33. The time on each ticket starts the instant it is first used.
On the airport train and on GVB public transit in town (all but a few buses), the proximity ticket is passed near a validation machine (single beep) at the entry to the tracks (in the airport) or as you enter the tram (in the city), and again as you exit (double beep).
The highly promoted I AMsterdam city card for 1-4 days (€55 to €85) includes a 1-4 day GVB public transit ticket, a “free” canal cruise (worth about €16), and a free ticket to many (not all) museums (you still have to get in line for the museum ticket). The big advantage is access to shorter lines even if the entrance is not free. We found it a convenience, but not a financial savings.
The universal emergency number is 112, answered in Dutch, German, and English, within 3 seconds.
Berlin Airport: The good way into the city is the TXL bus (TXL is also the Berlin airport code), that leaves from the front of the airport terminal every few minutes. €2,60 each, or about US$3.40. Buy your ticket from a vending machine or from the bus driver. Once you are on the bus, “time stamp” the ticket in the machine on bus aisle. For the return we left our hotel at 5am so sprang for a Taxi (under €30 with tip).Credit cards are widely accepted. I hear that sometimes a chip and PIN card is necessary for tickets and unattended gas stations. Your chip and signature card may also have a PIN that sometimes works for these situations.
In Berlin we were able to get cash, with no ATM service fee (better than in the US), at our choice of ATMs, available every block or so. Credit cards are widely accepted but not universal – for example, at one place there was no apology or regret about “our machine is broken.” We carry enough local cash to cover a meal, and if we don’t want to bring the local currency home, we use what’s left towards our hotel bill.
If you have a car in Germany, you will travel on the Autobahn (at well over 100 mph). The Autobahn is analogous to the Interstate Highway system in the United States, but far superior maintenance, allowing far higher (unlimited) speeds. I made a web page of the experience (and driving hints for the German speed and driving customs/rules).
In addition to the universal European 112 emergency number, 110 is used for police emergencies in Germany
We flew in and out of Warsaw, and used the train to get into town. Krakow was added to our trip after we had our air tickets, so we took the train from Warsaw to/from Krakow. Looking back, we could have flown into Krakow if we had planned better, but at this instant Krakow is more expensive than Warsaw (150 miles away).We were able to use credit cards for everything, so had to work to use up the balance of the $100 equivalent we withdrew in local currency. There was a modest fee for using the airport ATM, refunded by our bank.
We only go to McDonalds overseas in an emergency, such as early morning in the Warsaw airport when that is all that is open. They have a slick way of placing your order electronically in a choice of languages on a large touch-screen with pictures. When we were there in October 2015, if your credit card is mag stripe or chip and signature (rather than chip and PIN), your order is canceled and you have to speak to a cashier with very limited language skills. (This problem has been fixed in other countries, so may now be fixed in Poland.)
Tips in a restaurant (up to 10%) are always paid in cash, never added to the bill on the credit card.
In addition to the universal 112 emergency number, In Poland 999 is used for ambulance, 998 for fire, and 997 for police
Barcelona: The recommended way from the airport to center city is the Aerobus A1 to Plaza Catalunya for €5,90 each. Plaza Catalunya is a park that is a few blocks from the port and the center of everything for tourists. We were able to use credit cards for practically everything. No problem with excess currency if you travel like we do – they use Euros, and you will certainly be back to some European country!Most tourist attractions and locations in Central Barcelona are in Zone 1 for Metro, city bus, tram, and RENFE (airport train). A metro ticket is valid on everything except the airport bus. You can transfer between modes – a single trip is up to 75 minutes from when you start – you can switch metro trains, but cannot leave the metro and reenter. A single trip is €2,15
A T10 ticket is for 10 transit trips and costs €9,95, so is less than half price if you take 10 trips. Multiple people can use a single T10 ticket. First person goes through the entry puts in the ticket and takes the ticket completely out to open the gate. Leave the ticket on the machine surface for the next person to use. Purchase at a vending machine.
Every city has pickpockets, so how could Barcelona be worse? Any pick pocket under 18 years old is not prosecuted. Therefore crooks have kids working for them, who are immune from prosecution. I hear the loophole is being addressed, and we saw no problem in 2015.
A few years before Barcelona we visited Madrid. Everyone’s advice (which we agree with after the fact) is that you should spend 20% of your time in Madrid, and 80% in Barcelona and elsewhere. Madrid was the place we had the worst language problems… few people spoke usable English. Worse than any place else in Europe OR ASIA.
In addition to the European universal 112 emergency number, in Spain 091 is police, 092 is local police, 061 medical, 080 fire
Appetizers are not free! Americans visiting an Italian restaurant at home often find a bottle of water and a bottle of wine on the table, and have no problem ignoring them. The waiter often makes them disappear when they are not purchased. In Portugal you may have 5 or more appetizers on the table… bowls of olives, pate, cheese, bread, etc. If you eat (or even sample) them, you will be charged for them. If you don’t want them, just set them aside, and the waiter will make them disappear, they will not be on your bill unless you taste. Many restaurant reviews by Americans cry foul at this “scam.” It isn’t a scam, it is a different country, and that is the way they do things for the locals as well as the tourists. Even bread is not free – consider it a cover charge if you are offended by paying for the bread!
Credit cards are widely accepted. Service (tip) is not routinely included in a restaurant bill, and is not easy to add on the credit card – leave a cash tip of around 10%. Many restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7 pm or later, and don’t get busy until 8 pm – dinner is late!
Portuguese is naturally the language, but English and French are widespread. If you are not good at languages you may think Portuguese is similar to Spanish, but the locals reportedly prefer English and French to Spanish.
The local currency is the Euro.
Porto (Oporto) – the recommended travel from the international airport into town is via the metro. The fare is €1.85 plus €.60 for the rechargeable ticket. (Taxi is €20-30 and potentially slower.) There are vending machines, but you can also buy them from a person in the tourist office in the station. Escalator down and under the road, then up to the train – be sure to “validate” your ticket for the ride at the base of the escalator (touch the ticket to the machine). Everyone seemed concerned about whether they were on the right train… it is the end of the line, so any waiting train is the right one. It run every 20 minutes, and in about a half hour you will be at the Trindade station in town – a 10 minute walk from our hotel, but we switched to the yellow line and went two more stops to São Benito metro station next to the train station of the same name, and very near our hotel.
The inter-city train station (Campanhã) is about a 12-15 minute taxi ride from center city, also accessible by metro. The in-town São Benito station is for commuter (suburban) trains. We took a taxi (Uber) to Campanhã as we were leaving.
Lisbon (Lisboa) has two major train stations… Estação do Oriente is the primary station but quite a way out of town; we were able to get a train from Porto to Santa Apolónia station closer to central Lisbon.
The recommended connection to the international airport is by metro, but the metro only starts about 6 am and we had a 6:55 flight. Uber (taxi) in a Mercedes was €6.56 (USD 7.50) and took less than 15 minutes, door to door, and picked us up at our hotel in just a couple minutes.
In addition to the Universal European 112 emergency number, 115 is also available
Budapest: Do NOT take the airport shuttle bus. In 2007 it took us 2 hours and $22 and a high stress trip (including a fender bender) to get the 10 miles to our hotel. The return to the airport in a 30 minute $40 taxi ride was worth it!
Overall our visit to Budapest was great – full travelogue available. It is often compared to Prague Czechoslovakia, but having been to both, we preferred Budapest. The multilingual signs in Prague were scarce, so practically everyone joined an ad-hoc tour of 20 people who moved slowly, blocking the narrow streets – it felt like Disneyland.
In addition to the universal 112 emergency number, 104 is used for medical, 105 for fire, and 107 for police in Hungary.
London Heathrow is on the underground (subway) lines, so this is the “normal” way to get into the city.
If you are staying “at the airport” the “Hoppa bus” with several different routes replaces the traditional airport shuttle to most hotels, and runs every 20-30 minutes, for about £5 per person. Not great, but they didn’t ask my opinion.
No problem using credit cards for everything in 2015. In 2012 (before we had a chip card) chip and pin cards were virtually necessary in gas stations and grocery stores. (For example, in one 20-pump gas station, there was no magnetic stripe card reader; in a large grocery store only one of the 10 check-out lines accepted a magnetic stripe, so we had to cancel our purchase and start over to check-out on that one register.
Edinborough Scotland and Manchester in Northern England are good starting points, but we have rented cars in those cities so have less advice about getting from the airport into town.
Is the money the same in England and Scotland? Well, simple answer is yes, but only “sort of.” The Bank of England pound sterling works everywhere. In England and Southern Scotland that is all you will see. But as you go farther north in Scotland you may start to get Royal Bank of Scotland notes, or even money from other banks like Clydesdale bank. In general, they are fully interchangeable, but we did have one Englishman, far from Scotland, who was reluctant to take the Scottish note.
For my technical friends… I put the notes in the scanner, and the scan preview worked fine, but when I said “scan” it gave an error and stopped within the first inch – the scanner somehow detected that it was currency, and would not proceed. I had to take a photograph rather than a scanned image.
The new EU universal emergency number of 112 is used along side the older 999 national emergency number.