Tourist etiquette and information

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This section was created in May 2010, following suggestions from Zerbitini and the J-man. Much of the material has been taken from posts to this thread on the same topic. Feel free to add to or comment on this advice. It would be particularly useful to have information on more countries and regions.

The November 2010 issue of Executive Road Warrior has a very useful article on business and travel etiquette covering several countries that 'Festers are likely to visit.

Banking and Finances

Cash and Euros

Euros, the currency used in much of the European Union (England is a significant exception, and Switzerland is not part of the EU and uses Swiss Francs[1]), are widely available. Generally, the best exchange rates are obtained through ATMs, which may be found in the Munich Airport arrivals area and throughout Munich.

Most European ATMs do not charge a fee for use, although your bank may add a fee and/or a charge for using a foreign ATM to convert money (check with your bank for fee information). Some major banks have agreements for fee-free ATM use. Bank of America allows for fee-free use of Deutsche Bank ATMs in Germany (but not other countries), BNP Paribas in France, Barclay's in the United Kingdom, and Santander in Spain. There are Deutsche ATMs at Munich and Frankfurt airports.

Credit Cards

Credit cards are widely accepted in urban areas, and less so in more rural areas, in Germany. As a general matter, credit cards offer good exchange rates that may be better than cash rates once one takes into account conversion charges/fees. Mastercard and Visa are most broadly accepted, and American Express is widely accepted as well. Discover is less frequently accepted.

Most major US credit cards charge a currency conversion fee, which is typically charged as a markup to the exchange rate. Visa and Mastercard both add 1% to the currency rate, and most issuing banks (e.g., Bank of America, Citi, Wells Fargo) add an additional 2% for a total of 3%. American Express generally adds 2.7% for some of its cards. Two exceptions are Capital One and PenFed Credit Union, both of which have cards with no foreign transaction fee and rebate the 1% charged by Visa/Mastercard; net cost is close to zero. In early 2011 the dropping of currency conversion fees became a promotional consideration for some cards. For example, Amex eliminated the conversion fees for its Platinum Card, and Chase has 0% fee on its Marriott, Hyatt and British Airways cards . Some credit unions also do not charge a fee. Check with your card issuer for exact fees.

Introduction to Dining and Tipping

It is very important to determine if "service" is included in the price. Otherwise, you can wind up either tipping 30% if you are a tipper, or next to nothing if you thought service was included. Learn to spot indicators such as "s.n.c." or "service non compris" (service not included) on bills in French-speaking countries. Do not confuse the value-added tax (VAT; "inklusive Mehrwertsteuer" or "MwSt" in German) with a service charge.


Getting a table and paying the bill at a restaurant in Germany

Except in the fanciest restaurants or the fanciest hotels, the normal behavior is not to wait to be seated. Instead, take any available clean table that does not have a "reserviert" or "stammtisch" sign. If this seems like strange behavior, just remember how b-y learned to appreciate this practice--he kept saying to himself: "When entering a restaurant, take any open table and the Sudentenland, too."

When approached by a member of the restaurant staff, you will usually be greeted with "Guten Tag" or a greeting appropriate to the time of day. You are expected to respond verbally. (A smile is not sufficient.) It is always nice to know a few words of German to respond, but it is not necessary. A pleasant "hello" or "good day" will work quite well. The staff will most likely know you are an American (or whatever) from your dress, the way you walk, and especially from your shoes. Jonathan can pass himself off as a native, but it is basically hopeless for the rest of us.

At the end of the meal, ask for the check either by saying "die Rechnung, bitte", "zahlen, bitte" or making a writing movement in the air. If you don't explicitly ask for the check, you may be sitting for a long time. If you are paying cash, expect to pay at the table as the server will probably have a special wallet for this purpose. If you saw a credit card sign on the door, you can just give the server your card. He or she may bring a portable terminal to the table.

Many of the portable credit card terminals will only accept "chipped" credit cards. You should always cary enough cash to cover the bill even if you intend to pay by credit card.

If you pay by credit card, and you intend to pay the tip with the credit card, you need to negotiate the tip before they process the charge. There is usually no way to add a tip to the credit card slip after the charge is processed.

If all of the tables in the restaurant or beergarten are occupied you can ask the people already sitting at a table if it is OK for you to sit there. You will meet some very interesting people this way.

If you see a "stammtisch" sign on or above the table, don't sit there unless you ask first. The table is reserved for regulars or a club. You may be able to join the groups at these tables; often you will meet interesting people and have a great time.

Tipping in Germany

A basic warning: several of us believe the "rules are changing". In the old days, a reasonable service charge was added to most restaurant bills, often in the 7-12% range. You would then pay the billed amount including service plus a small amount extra ("das Trinkgeld"), usually via rounding up to the nearest 1 or 5 or 10 DM, depending on the size of the bill.

Well, there are no more DMs, and this practice hasn't converted well to the Euro. The more common tip is 10% of the bill, more in better places. Hand the tip directly to the server, the same person to whom you pay the bill. Do not leave the tip on the table. It is acceptable to put the tip on the credit card that you are using to pay the bill (but read the section above about the process).

When handing cash over, it's customary to tell the waiter how much you're paying in total. For example, if your meal and beverage cost 9,50 EURO, you'd say 11 (for a 1,50 EURO tip) if you handed over a 20 EURO note. You'd get 9 EURO back.


Tipping and meals in Italy

Ask for the check by saying "Il conto, per favore" (ill CON-toe pair fa-VOR-ay). The tipping rules are basically the same as in Germany, except that many places in tourist areas (the Lakes, the fancier restaurants in Milan, Venice, etc.) seem to expect 10% or more from Americans. (This last sentence has probably generated more controversy and discussion than any other part of this section. See the detailed discussion at the original thread for a variety of opinions. Also note that the percentage has been dropped from 15 to 10% by "popular demand".)

There is a heirarchy of eating places: ristoranti are more formal, white table cloth types of places; trattoria and osteria are less formal, often more akin to wine bars with food. In all places you should greet the staff ("buon giorno" or "buona sera") on entering. Meals and mealtimes vary from north to south. In the Sudtirol/Alto Adige you will get a full "German" breakfast at most hotels and guesthouses. In the wine country there is usually a large breakfast, but often with nothing cooked to order or any eggs other than possibly hard-boiled.. (Sliced hams, salamis, and cheeses are common.) Breakfasts in and around Rome have even less protein and often only fruit juice and a roll rather than fresh fruit and cheese..

Lunches in Rome can be significantly later than in France, often starting at 1:30 or so. (*) Dinners throughout Italy are typically three courses--antipasto, pasta, meat or fish--and it is common to share dishes. A typical dinner starts at 8:00 pm or later and can last 2+ hours. The many pizzarias provide a more casual option, but the quality varies widely.

* All of this leads to the obvious questions: With so little protein for breakfast, how do Romans make it until the late lunch? And with a glass of orange juice spiking their blood sugar, how do they handle the mid-morning drop in blood glucose levels?


Standard restaurant etiquette in France

Even the French have become very tourist friendly, especially if you do a few simple things- speak some French- even if it is only Good Day (Bonjour), please (s'il vous plaît) and thank you (merci). Always say hello and goodbye when you enter and leave a shop, even if you don't buy anything. Saying "Bonjour, madame/monsieur" as you enter shows you are civilized (bien elevé) and you will be treated better. Remember you're in France- it will be different than home- no one will hover around your table at the restaurant asking "are you still working on that" (UGH!), and people don't do the phony perma-smile. That doesn't mean they aren't friendly. And yes, the bathrooms can be "interesting"!

For cafés, you can just take any open table. A server will come by and greet you with "Bonjour". It's expected and polite that you reply in kind. Then you will probably be asked "Avez-vous choisi?" (Have you chosen?- meaning "what would you like?") When your drinks are brought to the table, you will be expected to pay. The server can make change if you are paying with cash. If you present a credit card, they will probably go and get their hand scanner. For a tip, you can leave small change in the little dish that usually is placed on the table with your receipt. You can sit as long as you like.

For restaurants, reservations are always preferred if you know where you want to eat and when. It's sometimes tough to get a table at lunch in smaller places if you are not there around 12:30-1:00. Remember, no one is pushing people out for a second seating; lunch can be a two-hour affair.

Be sure to check the chalkboard menu for specials. There will usually be two or three "menu" choices- typically a cheaper two course offering (a starter and a main course) and a three course starter-main-dessert offering. These are usually a better value and often more interesting specials than what you would find if you order separately- "a la carte". If you want what is typically called a menu in the US- a list of all the food, ask for "le carte s'il vous plaît". Don't be afraid to order a pitcher "un pichet de vin" instead of a bottle of wine. It won't be grand cru stuff but if you are just looking for a glass with lunch, the local wines can be surprisingly agreeable!

For dinner, you can't go wrong with a reservation, but you can still try walking up to places. In France, dinner can be as late as 9pm. Again, it's not a slam-bam in and out affair, time between courses will be paced to allow you to fully enjoy your meal. Coffe and tea come after the dessert, not with it so if you must have it together, you'll need to ask. To let the server know you are ready to leave and would like to settle up, you can say "Madame/Monsieur, l'addition, s'il vous plaît" (the bill, please). Say "bonsoir" (good evening) as you leave the restaurant, to the owner if present, to the room in general if not.

Tipping in France

Tipping used to just be rounding up, but now more and more places seem to expect the 15% tip. If service charge is not included the new standard is probably at least 10%, but never more than 15%.

Biased observations about France and the French

This section is written by b-y and uses the first-person to make clear it is even more opinion than much of the rest of the Wiki contents.

I have been traveling to France since I was a student in the mid-1960s. My college roommate was the son of a French chef in NYC, and we visited his family and drove Citroens and Peugeots all over. Despite being accompanied by a native Francophone, I still found many of the French, especially those in Paris, to be unpleasant and standoffish. Later, traveling with my family in the 1990s I found the people had changed. In part, the French like families, but being a social scientist I needed a more complete theory to explain the new conditions. I jokingly called my former roommate and said something like "I think the entire population of France has been transported to another planet and replaced by humans." J-P had a different, and possibly better, explanation: First, there has been a change in generations and those who lived through WWII and grew up with deGaulle were gone. Second, the current generation uderstood that tourism was the largest business worldwide, and even the French had to compete for visitors. Better roads, better telecommunications, more tourist-friendly services, etc.

But there is still an odd mix of the old and the new. On one side, there was the guard at the entrance at the Conciergerie at Sante-Chapelle who went out of his way to be kind to Betsy's mother when we said in pidgen-French that she had a metal pin in her hip and would likely set off the metal detector. On the other was the immigration official who looked through my passport as I changed terminals at CDG and asked (not pleasantly) "Why do you travel to Israel so often? Are you Jewish?" Finally, be prepared for a cultural shock if you drive from, say, Karlsruhe to Strasbourg. I swear I know a family in Karlsruhe that keeps a VW just for trips of this sort to avoid taking their BMWs or Benzes to the narrow streets and parking garages on the "other side".

Traveling with Children

With the growth of the ED program there are those who travel alone, couples of various types, "nuclear" families (is that phrase still in use?), and extended families. There are several threads with suggestions of where to go and how to entertain young children. With reasonable planning an ED trip can be quite kid-friendly. In fact, this starts with the "Junior Program" at the BMW Welt. These programs are designed for children between 7 and 18. The "Junior Campus" has three "adventure spaces" that focus on mobility and sustainability.

For those taking young children on their ED trip, chrischeung put together this list of travel hints:

  • If your youngest is still in diapers, then have a small bag with a handle that can hold diapers, changing pad, cream etc to take with you to the lav on the plane (use the handle to hang the bag on a jacket hook), in restaurants etc. for changes.
  • When you are on vacation, you need days off as well to rejuvenate.
  • Try and bunch destinations together, limiting driving to about 3 hours max per day.
  • Bring an umbrella stroller (or 2).
  • Backpacks are a good idea.
  • Don't try and do too much on 1 trip. You can always go to Europe again later.
  • Extra set of clothing (Mason)
  • Try to change diapers every 2 to 3 hours even though the babies seem to be ok because when the time babies really need to change, you may be in an inconvenient position to chanage like: lining up for immigration, planes landing or taking off... etc. (Mason)
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