European Travel Skills: Part I

In this first of three shows covering travel skills, we'll visit the Netherlands and Germany to learn about transportation by train and car within Europe, changing money, and settling in upon arrival. How well you're able to enjoy the delights of Europe depends upon how well you plan and how skillfully you travel.

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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 is that you can learn from my 30 years of experience and 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 Rome to a Turkish bath in Istanbul, from the markets of Naples to new friends in Spain, and from the scalps of the Alps to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, 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.

Our main tips in this show: settling in upon arrival and transportation — exploring Europe by train and by car.

We landed at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. To get to Europe, Americans need only a passport, plane ticket, and money. Airports here are well-designed and user-friendly.

Notice how easy it is for English-speakers to step right over that language barrier. Here in Amsterdam — like most of Europe — everything's in two languages: Dutch for the locals and English for everyone else.

And there's an information desk ready and waiting. But even in the Netherlands where everyone seems to speak's polite to learn and use a few key local words.

To get your cash, ATMs are the way to go. They provide local currency — quick, easy, and in English — at the best bank-to-bank rates. But each ATM transaction comes with a fee. Minimize these fees by comparing card policies before you leave home and by taking fewer and bigger withdrawals in Europe.

It's just like withdrawing cash at home — all you need is your four-digit PIN. But, before you leave, let your bank know you'll be overseas so there's no hang-up in using your card over here.

 My hotel's in the city center. Getting downtown from European airports on public transportation is easy. You've got options. If you're packing heavy, really tired, or with a small group, a taxi can be the best value.

When I'm on my own and packing light, public transit — trains and buses — can be the best choice — and it's far cheaper. Buses are clearly marked.

These days, you'll buy tickets and lots of other things using machines. There's always a button for English. Get comfortable using your credit card and following the prompts. OK, I've got my train ticket to the center.

Most European airports have excellent train connections into town. From Schiphol, there's a train into Amsterdam every couple of minutes... and we're downtown in a snap.

I find Europe's big iron and glass stations evocative and impressively user-friendly. Most are designed to help visitors get oriented quickly — and are in or near the town center. Tourist information offices are usually in the station — or, just out the front door.

As is typical in Europe, many of Amsterdam's buses and trams fan out from the train station. Public transit is so convenient; many Europeans never get around to owning a car. The tram drops us just a couple bridges from our hotel.

My hotel is near the downtown action, but peacefully situated overlooking a canal — with bikes parked out front and plenty of character. I pay extra for the convenience of a central location.

After checking in, I've got my key... and I'm set.

Okay, now that we're settled in, our next challenge is overcoming jet lag. Don't take a nap. Jet lag hates bright light, fresh air, and exercise. Get out and walk. I kick off my trip with a welcome-to-Europe stroll.

Having changed money, we're ready to dive into the city. While credit cards are widely accepted, I find things just go better with hard cash and many merchants prefer cash. The euro is the currency used throughout most of the Continent. Over 300 million Europeans have the same coins jangling in their pockets.

Every corner of Europe comes with a unique flavor and cultural surprises. Small-is-beautiful Holland feels quintessentially Dutch. It's charming: with characteristic gables, delightful bridges, floating parties... and bikes everywhere. It's clever: Check out the three-story bicycle garage. And it's occasionally shocking. Prepare for some differences: curbside urinals...prostitutes who work like small-business people — unionized, taxed, and regulated. And coffeeshops that sell... marijuana.

I've enjoyed how — especially when I venture out of my comfort zone — travel has changed my outlook. When other societies tackle problems differently than we do, I try to understand their reasoning. For decades now, the Dutch have found that the most pragmatic approach to marijuana use is to take the crime out of the equation and regulate it.

With an open mind and a wide-eyed curiosity in your travels, you'll have more fun and you'll take home my favorite souvenir: a broader perspective.

We're heading off on our swing through the best of Europe. Our first stop will be the Rhine and we'll be riding the rails. We're leaving from Amsterdam's Central Station.

Be aware, many cities have more than one station — Paris and London must have five or six each. We're leaving from Amsterdam Centraal as opposed to Amsterdam Sloterdijk. Stations and tickets are clearly marked so, if you know to check, it's no big deal.

Trains work the same all over Europe. Ticket windows handle your ticket and reservation needs. Be sure — when necessary — that your ticket or your rail pass is validated before boarding. Ask for advice at the quick question info booth...or from uniformed conductors on the tracks. Many express trains require an advance reservation. It's smart to ask.

Every station has departure boards listing all the trains leaving from a station on a particular day.

The big, constantly changing "trains departing imminently board" displays precisely what's happening in the next hour or so. Whatever the language, you'll always find the same columns: departure time, stops in route, destination, which track, and if it's late. For instance the 14:20 train heading through Heidelberg to Klagenfurt is leaving from track 12, and it's is five minutes late.

Train composition charts on the platform show the order of cars starting with the engine — You'll see first class...the dining car...and second class. With this chart, you'll also know where on the platform to wait, so when the train stops you're already positioned to step right onto your car.

Be aware. Some trains pick up and drop cars as they go. Individual cars are marked: where they're going, first or second class....icons indicate this is a quiet car...smoking is never allowed.

Once inside, little signs above each seat make it clear which seats are reserved and for which stretch of the route they're occupied.

Once you're settled, you'll spend a lot of time en route. Do what you can on the train to save time off the, listen to audio files relating to your travels, write your journal or emails, eat, and sleep. Tablets are great for readers packing light. Meet people. Strike up conversations. Information boards announce the upcoming stop and key information about the ride. While cars come with a bag storage area, for peace of mind, I like to keep my bag in the rack above my seat.

You'll pay 50 percent extra per kilometer to travel first class. First class is cushier — generally three seats across, less crowded and occupied by people who figured it was worth paying the 50 percent extra for the added privacy and comfort. Second class comes with four seats across and more people. Today's trains are so comfortable in Europe, that the new second class feels as slick as the old first class. Trains have a mix of open seating and more private compartments.

Nearly every train has both first and second class cars — each going precisely the same speed. If you're on a budget, second class is just fine. But we're traveling with rail passes — and they come in first class — forced luxury.

No more windmills. I think we're in Germany now but in today's Europe, it's hard to know when you've crossed a border.

Today's goal: Visit a great German city, cruise the most scenic hour of the Rhine River, and check into a hotel in my favorite medieval Rhine village. A full itinerary like this is perfectly doable when you use schedules smartly.

Consider stop-overs along your route. While we're heading for the villages of the Rhine gorge, our fast train stops in Cologne and it's worth popping out for a quick look.

Checking the departure schedule I see there's a train every hour — we'll catch the 14:53 to Koblenz.

Remember, schedules in Europe use the 24-hour clock: anything after 12, subtract 12 and add p.m. 14:53...14 minus 12... that's 2:53 pm..., that gives us about an hour to enjoy Cologne. Let's go.

When stopping to sightsee between hotels, I lock up my bag at the train station. Many stations have the standard, safe, coin-operated lockers: Some are getting pretty high tech — here's another example of automation: with a few coins and following the prompts, your bag gets taken away and safely stored who knows where.

Literally just out the door of the station towers the majestic Cologne's an awe-inspiring 500 feet high. Just steps away, an old Roman gate still stands reminding the modern city of its ancient heritage. And its main street — now a thriving pedestrian mall — gives a sense of the dynamism of Germany today.

Back at the station, I check in with the "trains departing imminently" board. There's our train: 14:53, to Koblenz, track 7... and on time.

After a short ride to Koblenz, we change to our last train...the milk-run to our Rhine village...St. Goar.

Europe's express trains — like the ones we caught this morning — make the big city leaps quickly. The little local trains — like this one — take it from there. We've reached Germany's castle country. Hulks of ruined castles standing high above spindly towns  fill the romantic Rhine gorge with legends and history.

The old town of St. Goar sits under the river's mightiest castle — Rheinfels. The castle overlooks the town with a commanding view of the Rhine and all its traffic.

St. Goar is the departure point for our Rhine cruise. Today, we're cruising just my favorite hour of the Rhine — which is from here to the town of Bacharach. The Rhine's always been busy with trade. Back when roads were too dangerous, merchants shipped their goods to market up and down rivers. Robber baron castles like these were built to levy tolls.

Good guidebooks help make the sights meaningful — for the whole family. Researching and writing guidebooks is my main work. And to me, guidebooks are $20 tools for $3,000 experiences. I've found that if you equip yourself with good information — whether in print or digital — and expect yourself to travel will.

Guidebooks also recommend memorable places to spend the night — like Bacharach, and good places to eat, drink, and stay — like Hotel Kranenturm, which I booked by email a month ago. This hotel was the Kranenturm — that means "crane tower."

About 500 years ago riverboats, loaded down with kegs of wine, couldn't pass the rapids out here. So, with the help of cranes on this tower, they unloaded their ships, carried the kegs around, and continued their journey.

And, in the sleepy villages along the river, you'll find Rhine wine is still the life blood of these communities. Wherever grapes are grown, vintners like Frau Bastian are eager to share the fruits of their labor. Her teaching aid: the wheel of 15 family wines. And we're in for a tasty education.

Using Frau Bastian's wheel is a convivial way to share opinions and gain knowledge.

I've been tasting wine in Germany for years and there are three key words: trocken is dry, halb-trocken is half-dry, and süss is sweet. Yes, this is sweet. You can learn forever on the road.

And all over Europe wine tasting is a fun way to meet fellow travelers and make friends — one of the most important travel skills.

We're leaving the Rhineland for Bavaria. Europe is laced together by an efficient train system hard for most Americans to imagine. And with our Eurail pass, we've got free run of it.

European rail passes come in many versions. While these are expensive, for certain itineraries, they can be a great value. Passes give you unlimited train travel through anywhere from one country to most of Europe.

To cover this three-week, 2,000-mile trip economically, we chose a train pass covering just the countries we're visiting. It gives us 10 rail travel days — to be used within a two-month window.

Our destination today, Rothenburg, is pretty remote, so getting there requires two train changes. Again, if you're uncertain, ask for help. Conductors are happy to assist confused tourists. In Germany, connections are synchronized. Changing trains is often just a matter of checking the schedule, switching platforms, and hopping into an awaiting car.

Rothenburg is Germany's medieval wonder town. Even with tourist crowds turning it into a half-timbered theme park in the summer, I love this place. While it can be packed with tour groups during the day, in the evening they're back in the big city and the town's all yours.

Those who spend the night enjoy the medieval magic of this otherwise touristy place in relative peace.

To stretch your sightseeing day and mix in some information at the same time, catch an evening tour.

Rothenburg's Night Watchman's tour goes each evening at 8 o'clock and all's well.

Germany's Romantic Road, the next leg of our journey, can't be done by train. It's best explored by rental car. We'll have this car for two days and drop it in Munich.

You can arrange your car rental before leaving home. Prices vary dramatically from month to month, country to country, and from company to company. Shop around. Even if you don't plan on driving, bring your license and a credit card. Your American license generally works just fine. It's easy to rent a car on a whim.

And with your own wheels, you can get to more remote places like the monastery at Andechs. Because it's easily accessible only by car, it has fewer tourists and more locals. The stately church stands as it has for centuries. Its baroque interior both stirs the soul and stokes the appetite.

The monks here nurture a heritage of brewing a heavenly beer. And it's served by the liter. The hearty meals also come in medieval proportions. Like many beer halls, the food's perfectly Bavarian.

When I'm far from home, I become a cultural chameleon. In England I actually fancy a spot of tea. But here in Germany, it's big pretzels, beautiful radishes, kraut, knuckle of pork — check this out — and great beer. By the way, don't drink and drive. I'm done driving for today. Permissible alcohol levels are extremely low and penalties are severe.

There's nothing exotic about driving in Europe. While the British drive on the left, everyone on the Continent drives on the same side as we do in the USA.

Filling the tank here — whether diesel or gas — is like filling the tank at home — except it's euros and liters rather than dollars and gallons — figure four liters to a gallon. Don't overreact to Europe's high cost of gas. Over here cars get great mileage and distances are short.

Rental cars come with a basic insurance policy. But deductibles can be really high. You can pay extra for zero deductible for the peace of mind. But first, check with your insurance agent at home to see how well you're covered in Europe.

When driving, to cover long distances in a hurry, use the freeway. This is Germany's Autobahn. Like most of Europe, Germany's laced with these super freeways. And around here, fast driving is considered a civil liberty. On the Autobahn, you'll learn quickly...the fast lane is used only for passing. Cruise in the left lane and you'll have a Mercedes up your tail pipe.

Here and throughout northern Europe the autobahn is toll free. In France and countries south of Germany these super-freeways usually come with tolls.

Learn some navigation basics: In Germany: Zentrum means center. A giant letter "P" means parking, and this icon means autobahn, color-coding and arrows point you in the right direction. And while many travelers here go through their trips thinking all roads lead to the town of Ausfahrt...Ausfahrt is German for exit.

This sign means traffic circle or roundabout. Merge safely into the circle, take the exit for the direction you're heading. If you're not sure, relax, take an extra loop and explore your options.

Entering a new town — this is Dinklesbühl — it's safe to assume the church spire marks the center and the tourist office is nearby. Old town centers are increasingly difficult to drive in — one way streets... or closed to cars entirely. Drive as close as you can and find a place to park. Confirm you're parked legally. Your time is valuable — just pay to park and walk.

Know the key road symbols. They're the same throughout Europe: no parking anytime, no traffic allowed, wrong way...don't enter, this means no cars or bikes from 8 to midnight, no passing, and you know this one .... And make educated guesses: with this one ready for anything. I navigate by town names because road numbers on maps often don't match the signs.

Distances and speeds are in kilometers — on this road: 80 kph.

A kilometer is 6/10 of a mile. To change to miles, cut the kilometers in half and add back 10 percent of the original. 80 kph = 40 plus 8...that's 48 mph.

Beware photo speed traps can be really expensive and those with rental cars are billed by mail.

Save time and avoid wasted car rental days by picking up and dropping off your car in two different cities — like Rothenburg and Munich. When using a bigger company with many branches, you can generally do this anywhere in the same country for no extra charge. While dropping a car a different country usually comes with a high fee, it can also be a great convenience.

Without our wheels, we're back to riding the rails. We're at the Munich train station and it's about time to say "auf Wiedersehen" to Germany. Our next stop is Venice.

With Europe's many discount airlines, it's often cheaper to fly than to take the train. Before taking any long surface trip, I look into flying. Still, I enjoy the romance and adventure of a night train.

Sleeping cars require reservations. A conductor checks your ticket as you board. By taking the night train you do miss a little scenery. But you more than make up for that by gaining an entire extra day for sightseeing. I'd take an extra day exploring Venice over any train ride.

Cheap couchettes are co-ed and come with bunkbeds. For less than the cost of a simple hotel bed, you get your own bunk with clean linen, a locking door, and an attendant who monitors who comes and goes as you sleep.

In the morning we'll be cruising the Grand Canal in Venice. Thanks for traveling with us, and join us next time for part two of our three-part travel skills special. Until then, I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'...and Gute Nacht.