Travel take-aways

Here are some of our take-aways from our most recent trip overseas as well as some lessons learned during previous jaunts.


  • Do your homework. Get some guidebooks from the library, read articles and blog posts and make a list of the things that interest you the most. Accept that you won’t be able to do it all, and don’t over-plan; leave some time for exploration and discovery.

  • Take articles like, “Three Perfect Days in…” or “48 hours in…” with a grain of salt. Certainly, they include a lot of things to see and do but the itineraries they propose are anything but relaxed. Unless your travel style is to jump up in the morning and go-go-go all day, edit their lists to what works for you.

  • “A map is not the territory.” We were concerned about what looked like long walks from public transit to one of our hotels, and between sites we’d planned to see. Ask a local. Email your hotel for directions and estimated travel times (e.g., “a 10-minute walk”) before you leave home to set your mind at ease.

  • If you plan to take tours, make them one of the first things you do. If you book a tour for the second or third day in a given city, you may have already seen many of the things that will be included in the tour. Make your tours one of the first things you do in a city, then go back and spend more time at the attractions that caught your interest. And book them before you leave home.

  • Buy inter-city train tickets on-line, at home before you leave if at all possible. If you have a question about which train station(s) to use, email the hotels and ask. They’ll know and are usually happy to help.

    Inter-city train reservation

  • Add extra days to your plans. Consider the first day you arrive overseas as your “acclimation day” to get over the jet lag and get accustomed to the time difference. Make your plans, then add an extra day in each location because you’ll likely see lots of things you’ll wish you had more time to see (except Bratislava; one day was enough).

  • Check your cell phone plan and find out whether phone calls and your data plan will work at your destination. While Wi-Fi hot spots are pretty much everywhere, consider upgrading if you absolutely must have data available. Otherwise…

  • Download WhatsApp to stay in touch. It allows you to have telephone conversations and send text messages as long as you have Wi-Fi, which is great when your cell plan doesn’t allow overseas calls. For added security, the calls are encrypted end-to-end.

  • Google Translate can be a great help. Before you leave home, download the languages of the countries you’ll be visiting so you can use it off-line when/where you don’t have Wi-Fi. Like the pharmacy when you need a cream for that rash that just cropped up…

  • Apple AirTags are a great way to gain peace of mind. They’ll help you keep track of whatever you put them in/on (suitcase, computer bag, purse, etc.) so you’ll always know where your stuff is.
  • Consider upgrading on longer flights. Sure, Business Class is great (and expensive), but we found Premium Economy quite comfortable for our nine-hour flights to and from Munich. In addition, some airlines will offer last-minute upgrades at fairly reasonable prices, though waiting means taking the chance that nothing will be available. 

    Long-haul Premium Economy Seats (credit American Airlines)

  • Noise-cancelling headphones are worth their weight in gold, especially if you’re stuck in economy with the noise of the engines and chatter of excited people heading for their vacation or that crying child who has just hit their limit. Every traveler has seen the $350 Bose Quiet Comfort headphones but there are many more economical options, sometimes even in stores or vending machines at the airport.
  • Buy an all-inclusive day pass for the local public transit system. With your pass in hand, climb aboard a bus or trolley and take in the local scenery. When a neighborhood looks interesting, get off and explore. You have the flexibility.

  • Understand that “day passes” differ. In Munich, a day pass is good until 6 a.m. the morning after it’s purchased. In Vienna, Budapest, and Krakow, they are good for 24, 36 or 48 hours from time of purchase or first use.

  • Public toilets are usually pay toilets. Most public toilets in common areas like town squares have attendants who keep the place clean and stocked. As a result, it’s common for them to charge a small fee. In the countries we just visited, we saw the charges range from €0.50 to €1. In Poland, a common fee was 2 złoty. Therefore …

  • Carry small denominations of the local currency. In some countries (Hungary, for example) people expect small tips for a great many things so small denomination coins come in handy.

  • Paying the bill (never a “check”). In Germany and Austria, if you say “Danke schoen,” “Vielen dank,” or “Danke” when handing a vendor currency, it’s the same as saying, “Keep the change.”

  • Tipping is part of most countries’ culture, though not to the extent it is in the U.S. When dining out in most European countries, round up with a target of more or less 10 percent in mind. If you’re presented with a bill of €36 you might say, “Make it 40.” That would add €4 or a bit more than 10 percent. Also, if a restaurant menu says it adds a certain percentage “service charge,” ask whether that goes to the server. In some cases it does; in others it does not. If you choose to give a tip to your server, hand them cash directly; don’t add it to your charge slip, and do not leave it on the table.

  • Other countries do things differently. Expect that; you’re not “at home.” Two examples. One coffee shop in Budapest charged an additional 50 Forint each (about 14 cents) for to-go cups. In Poland, they charged separately for the liquor and the mixer in a mixed drink: one amount for the gin and a separate amount for the tonic. The tonic was served in a small can which had enough for two drinks so if I wanted a second, I could have ordered just a gin on the rocks and would have been charged only for the gin.

  • Tap into the expertise of your hotel’s front desk or Concierge if it has one. Be prepared to tip: small amounts for basic directions, larger amounts if the hotel is able to score a much-sought-after reservation or tickets to a sold out show or concert.

  • Beware of gypsy cabs. Even though they may look legit, they might not be. Insist on them running the meter or, at the very least, quoting a fare BEFORE you get in. If it seems too high, pick another taxi.

    Identifying gypsy cabs in Budapest

  • Your cell phone’s camera is your best friend. In addition to photos to commemorate your trip, use it to snap a picture of the name of the statue you’ve just seen or the site you’ve just visited (I know you THINK you’ll remember; you won’t!), that word you’ll want to put into Google Translate when you have time, the name and address of your hotel (to show your cab driver, especially if you’re in a country where you don’t speak the native language) or the name, license number and complaint line if you get into a cab and think you’re being “taken for a ride.”

  • VAT tax refunds may be more trouble than they’re worth. Here are the rules. Look them over and decide for yourself based on how much you plan to buy overseas. 
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Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise noted
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