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I wish to know as an American citizen who only knows English, what do I need to do before traveling to Europe so that I can get the maximum out of my experience. I have a month before going overseas for some sightseeing, what are some suggestions about what I should do now to prevent embarassment later?

My trip will consists of France, Germany, and Italy, but will go to Greece and Austria on the side.

I am not asking what kind of visa I should apply to, or where is my immigration office, just some life advice on a first time traveler to Europe.

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    Be sure to follow a balanced diet and include the 7 major food groups every day. – Gayot Fow May 24 '15 at 8:47
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    Add some extra money because there ain't free refills :) – Ayesh K May 24 '15 at 12:00
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    Europe is big, in some places you do get free refills, but I have to admit they are rare. – Willeke May 24 '15 at 12:02
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    leave your gun at home – Adrien Be May 24 '15 at 15:09
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    learn to behave like a person, not a tourist... And leave overt national pride at home, Europeans don't like such things (not just from Americans, from anyone). – jwenting May 24 '15 at 16:29
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The first foreign language in all of Europe is English. In all tourist destinations you will find people speaking it, often enough of them that you might think everybody in the country can communicate in English. In a few months you will not have time to learn other languages, but try to learn the local version, for each of the languages, of 'good morning/day' 'thank you' and 'goodbye' and use them with a smile.

The mistake most people make is trying to do too much in too short a time. When I see your list of 5 countries I hope you have 5 weeks at least. Typically traveling between countries costs a day when traveling by train, most of a day when flying and leaving you too tired to do sight seeing in what will be left of the day.

A day in Greece will cost you 3 days of your vacation, one to travel each way and one to sight see. Get out a good travel guide, libraries stock them and you will often find them in second hand book stores, and work out what you really want to see and whether it is worth it to miss two full days sight seeing for the time you have there.

Each of the countries you mention uses the euro. Often the cheapest way to get euros is to use the ATM wherever you are. How much you pay, and whether you need to pay at all, depends on the contract you have with your bank. Contact your bank and find out whether your bank card is ready for use abroad and tell them that you will be using it in Europe, (and tell them you arrive the day before you actually do, as some forget the time difference and have you 'arrive' half a day after you actually do,) and get them to tell you how much each use will cost. Some banks allow you to do all this online, but if in doubt, just talk with a real person of your bank. Your own bank should be able to get you euros to start you off, €200 would be a good amount, otherwise the exchange office at the airport even though it might be a bit more expensive, or the ATM in the arrival airport.

Do carry some of your own money, like $200, in case your card fails or you have other problems, cash exchanges are more expensive than getting money out of the ATM but having real money will always work better than money in a bank you can not reach.

And if you do have a credit card, bring it. The best will be if it has pin and chip, but any CC will be useful in some cases.

  • First foreign language is english??? Welcome to France ... – user30624 Jun 12 '15 at 22:15
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    I go to France about once a year and have been a regular visitor for the last 30. There is an area where German is a more likely second language but that is a small area. Even on the south coast near Spain, English was spoken as much as Spanish. In most of the country the second language of choice is English, And yes, many of the people do speak it. Other than in English speaking countries where French or Spanish are taught but hardly ever spoken. – Willeke Jun 13 '15 at 7:11
  • I like France and I'm often there, in almost all regions. I speak french at a solid base level, so I can go everywhere, and I love the language. But still, I found that people CAN speak english but they DON'T WANT. Especially in Paris. In Paris, they even will CORRECT you, even the simplest things. The first time in paris, a waiter told me "C'èst café AU lait, ne pas café DU lait..." Don't forget, france is the only country in the world with a "language police"... ;) – user30624 Jun 13 '15 at 9:39
  • When traveling in the UK, if you do not speak English, you are lost. Most people have learned some French in school but almost non speaks it. I have traveled in France many times and only have a few words of French. I have never had language problems and the only time I was told to speak French it was by Quebec tourist in the hostel, young people who almost certainly spoke English as well. People are often aware that English is not my first language either. (USA is likely worse than UK for English only, but I have not tested it myself.) – Willeke Jun 13 '15 at 17:40
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You might already know this but it seems worth saying anyway... even though there is a European Union and money (neither covering all of Europe), the different countries in Europe have wildly different cultures.

A striking example among others: there are public gardens in the middle of Berlin (Germany) where the Berliners sun-bathe topless... or nude. You may find naturist beaches or parks in France/Italy/Greece, but in specific (dedicated and generally secluded) clothing-optional areas with signs announcing them.

Another example: in Austria's public transports there are "Quiet Zones". If you are not quiet (discussing normally is not), expect to be remonstrated by the other passengers (and not necessarily in English).

In France, tipping is included in the price and the prices listed in restaurants are all inclusive (though leaving a small tip such as ~0.5€ per person is socially expected to reward normal service). In Italy, tipping is included in the price, but often as a note that the listed price will be majored by +X%; oh, and there is a fixed cost just for sitting "Pane e coverto" (often between 0.5€ and 4€) which should also be mentioned on the menu.

And finally, while in France you can pay with your bank card pretty much anywhere (more easily with Visa than Amex), Germans and Italians will much more often pay cash, so paying by card is not always as available. I would advise keeping some cash on you (and of course not flaunting it) and inquiring beforehand if your short on cash whether paying by card is an option.

Those are just few of many cultural differences in the patchwork that is Europe. I advise that you buy/borrow at least one good guide per country so you can learn of them in advance and avoid getting caught short.

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    Small addendum: Those "Quiet Zones" exist in multiple countries, at least in Austria and the Netherlands. Not sure about the others, but it's probably in multiple countries a thing. Also, always keep cash on the side. You never know in what place you can and in what place you can't find an ATM. It differs per region. – Mast May 24 '15 at 20:41
  • @Mast: I've never been in the Netherlands yet, so thanks for this addendum! – Matthieu M. May 25 '15 at 10:26
  • Even more, the true experts for "quiet zones" are the Germans!! – user30624 Jun 12 '15 at 22:17

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