Last Revised: January 25, 2015
DEPARTURE: In an earlier, pre airline deregulation and 9/11 times, we would all fly over together. Now, it is usually better for all if you arrange your own flight, but there are exceptions. On the day of departure, arrange to be dropped off at the airport at least two hours before the flight departs. Go directly to the airline ticketing counter–you can’t check in for an international flight at curb side. When checking in, make sure the airline has your frequent flyer number. (You only need to do this once, the first time you check in.)
Prepare your bag to check in for the flight over. Tighten all the compression straps on the backpacks and then secure them so they won’t get caught on the conveyor belt. You will be checking your bag through to your final destination. Make sure that the airline has put the right destination code on your bag–LGW for London Gatwick, LHR-London Heathrow, MUC Munich, MXP-Milan, FCO-Rome, MAD-Madrid, ORY-Paris Orly, CDG-Paris Charles de Gaulle, ATH-Athens, VIE-Vienna. (Do not consider carrying on all of your luggage. There are usually too many of us and we would overwhelm the interior storage of the plane.)Please use the BET luggage tag that we sent you.
Those of you with backpacks or Cargo Switchbacks: Use your day pack as a carry on. In it, have your (re)filled water bottle (empty it before security, then refill it afterwards), a paperback book, prescription drugs that you can’t be without, and underwear and sleepwear in case yours is the one bag in 2,000 that is temporarily delayed. Be at the departure gate ready for boarding no later than a half-hour before scheduled takeoff.
THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE FLIGHT: Statistically, you are safer on the plane than when you were driving to the airport, so kick back and enjoy. Your major chore is to avoid terminal boredom. Sleep, read, watch the movie, eat, drink, and walk around. And then do it all over again. Post 9/11, air travel is certainly more difficult. Try your best to keep a pleasant demeanor in spite of the insane security procedures, the cattle car seating, plastic meals, and vacuous service. Travel is still relatively affordable and the service on the international flights is usually of a higher standard.
JET LAG: There are various theories for beating this very real malady. Most of the “cures” that I have read about seem to be more painful than jet lag itself. Previous groups have done best by avoiding coffee, Coke, and other caffeine drinks and eating and drinking alcohol moderately, if at all. Taking a Melatonin tablet after dinner on the flight has worked for others and me. You might want to check with your doctor first.
The main problems are sleep deprivation and dehydration. For the latter, drinking lots of water on the flight will help as you are in an extremely dry environment for almost 13 hours. (And then, because you are going to need to get rid of this water, you will tend to walk around more during the flights. And walking around keeps you from getting too stiff.) For the first problem, sleep (if you can) on the plane. On arrival, shower or take a bath to help rehydrate, then stretch out and take a nap. But set an alarm so you don’t sleep for more than two hours. In a day or two, your IQ and your zest for life should come back to their previous levels.
ARRIVAL: After arrival, your first chore is to clear customs. Your passport will be inspected and maybe stamped. Then pick up your luggage at the carousel and meet as a group outside if we are traveling together. However, now that it is far more cost effective for you to make your own air arrangements, you may need to arrange your own transportation to the hotel, though I will usually arrange and pay for this service. There will be specific instructions on the itinerary. If you miss a flight and are going to be late, please call me at 210 702 1884. Yes, this is my USA number, but it works internationally.
ITINERARY: It is your responsibility to follow the itinerary. Please note that the times that I put down are real times. I do not fudge in half-hour “just in case” times. If you miss the plane, you’re going to have to negotiate with the airline to see if you can be put on a later flight. If you miss a train in Europe, you had better have your itinerary along so you can catch up with us at the next stop. You will not be reimbursed for any costs incurred for missing a departure.
TRAIN TRAVEL DAYS: I usually use buses now. But if train travel is on the itinerary, please observe the following: You are “paying” me to get you on and off the right train. If I tell you to get on the train, get on the train. If I don’t tell you to get on the train, don’t. Even when you think you know which car to get on, wait! (Backpackers: Leave your pack on your back as you board the train- it’s easier to move in the aisles with it on rather than trying to carry it in your hands.) Most of the time I will make reservations for us–we will be assigned to a specific car and seats. When I know far enough in advance, I will include the numbers in the itinerary. Train seating will either be open with 2/1 seating or in compartments with 6 seats each. After the train is under way and if there is room, don’t be afraid to change seats. Too many times on past tours I’ve had tour members stay jammed in a crowded car, unwilling or unable to move to the next car which was virtually empty!
Ten to fifteen minutes before arrival time start gathering up your belongings. Go to the bathroom if necessary. We will not stop for you to go tinkle in the station. Do it on the train. It is infinitely easier to use the WC on the train rather than trying to find it in the crowded station when we arrive. As we are approaching our town, start gathering your belongings. When the train stops at the station, get off, move out of the way of other passengers and wait for me to exit. Some stops are terminal points for our train and there will be plenty of time, other stops may only be for 2-3 minutes. This doesn’t call for a Maalox moment. Just be ready to move.
I’ll often have us use public transportation. It is safe, convenient and infinitely less expensive than chartered buses. (These savings are reflected in the cost of the tour.) Remember, before you board the bus, subway or metro, you need to make sure that you are pickpocket-proof as you are easily spotted as a tourist. Again, if I tell you to get on a bus, get on. If I don’t, don’t.
WALKING AS A GROUP: Please be wary. Don’t just follow the group, lemming-like, into a busy street. The light may have changed, or a driver may be inattentive (or hostile). When we are all crossing the street together. please don’t all of a sudden pull a “deer in the headlights” number. Keep moving. I will lead and will try to set a pace that is quick but possible to follow. Be alert to where you are, follow the landmarks so you can find your way back, and keep me in sight at all times. This is not a time for involved conversations. Keep walking, no talking, no shopping, no stopping. Let’s get to where we are going and then relax.
BUS TRAVEL DAYS: Where we use chartered buses rather than trains, there are some trade-offs. We won’t have the tyranny of the train schedule and we can be a little more flexible, but we still have to leave on time! It is highly annoying to have to wait over and over for the perennial latecomer. (And trust me on this one -the first late arrival is forgiven; the second will involve a bit of a chat; a third late arrival will probably result in having to find alternative transportation – the bus will be gone.) Someone has to be last. No one has to be late.
HOTELS: I choose hotels that are clean, safe, and centrally located. I make sure that most of the people at the front desk speak a form of English. When you have questions as to how to get a ticket to a play or concert, where to change money, which bus to take where, ask the front desk or the concierge. You will find these folks always to be helpful.
Most of the hotels have mini-bars. Please do not mistakenly think that the hotel is extending a warm welcome with free drinks – you will find a price list located somewhere nearby. Use the mini-bar at your own discretion, and allow plenty of time to pay the bill before departure. (You will sometimes find the mini-bar a convenient place for you to chill your own drinks and juices, but watch out – some hotels may try to charge you if you disturb the contents.)
When leaving the hotel for an outing, leave the key at the front desk (assuming that there is a key rather than the coded card that is becoming increasingly common). This way you are not in danger of locking your roommate out of the room.
There is always a bathroom in your room. On some of my earlier tours, I did save us money on several occasions, but I found that most everyone would rather pay a little bit more for this convenience. And speaking of:
TOILETS, WC: “I’ll never pay to pee!” yelped one indignant young student at one of my pre tour meetings when I offered the sound advice to always carry some small change in local currency for the use of a restroom. I chuckled, knowing full well that within three days of landing in Europe we would all gladly pay, and pay dearly, for the privilege of getting a little relief.
Finding a toilet, free or otherwise, can be a bit of a problem. As mentioned earlier, you have one in your hotel room. And you will find toilets in restaurants, train cars, and museums. It is harder to find them in other public areas. You need to develop the technique of locating a facility before desperation hits. You might want to master at least one foreign phrase, “Where is the toilet?” before going over, though I’ve found a quizzical look coupled with a pained expression has gotten me pointed in the right direction. Note my use of the word “toilet” which is far more universal than the more euphemistic bathroom or restroom. WC is even more universal, but the “W” is pronounced differently in every language.
And then, after finding and using the equipment, you’ll discover that American Standard is not the world standard. How do you flush the darn thing? There are some ingenious systems over there, but not all of them obvious. Look around and try lifting or pulling various knobs and you’ll soon be rewarded with the flush.
Mercifully, there no longer is the prevalence of that pink crepe/toilet paper that combined the abrasiveness of sandpaper with the absorbency of waxed paper. However, many of us carry small packs of Kleenex, just in case.
RETURN FLIGHTS: Your return flight is included, of course, as part of your ticket. You may or may not be flying with the group, depending on your choice. And I may not be returning with the group, since I may want to stay over to make arrangements for another tour. If you are returning with the group, the airport transfer is included with the tour. You will need to arrange to be at the airport at least two hours before the flight. Follow the airline’s directions and you’ll be fine. Remember that jet lag also kicks in coming back, so keep draining the water bottle and again use moderation in food and drink. The flight over was overnight. The return flight will be during the day, and because you are moving with the sun, the flight will take only the one day.
You will clear customs when you first land in the USA. You will first go through passport control, then pick up your luggage, and then return it to the airline after clearing customs. Follow the airline’s directives. “Nothing to declare” is what you indicate unless you are of the obvious “shop ‘til you drop” type.
SECURITY: I need to preface this section with a couple of truisms. You are safer in the large cities of Europe than you are in the large cities of America. If you become a victim of crime, it will probably be a crime for profit and not for harm. And the European thug types are not armed to the teeth, as are their American counterparts. However, having your money, credit cards and travel documents stolen can put a damper on your trip, my trip, and everybody’s trip.
After having had countless attempts at my wallet (two successful), I can speak with some authority about pickpockets. They seldom work alone. One or two of the crew will distract you while the other relieves you of your valuables. The distraction can be an “accidental” push or shove, or solicitous “cleaning” your pants or shirt from some stain (that they have caused). Since your brain tends to focus on only one physical stimulus at a time, the push, shove or brushing gets your full attention while your wallet gets lifted from your pocket.
Personally, after countless trips and too many encounters with the pickpockets, I carry my valuables in an Eagle Creek Hidden Pocket, either in a Velcro inner pocket or secured onto my belt and stuffed inside my pants. My wallet goes in a front, Velcro pocket. If I am carrying my wallet in an unsecured pocket, I will carry very little money in it.
I am extremely leery about fanny packs and vests. These two items were very popular with Americans at one time. There is no question about their convenience, but sometimes I wondered if they are not too convenient for the pickpocket. If you use a fanny pack, secure the zipper with a twisty and don’t carry anything too valuable in it. If you use a vest make doubly sure that nobody has seen where you put your stash.
I offer the following suggestions:
- Forget the conceit that you are going to blend in with the locals. Clothing, speech, even the way you move will betray your identity. If I can spot Americans halfway down the street, know that the pickpockets are even more skilled.
- Remember that you are a target. You have your valuables in your possession. You may not think of yourself as being rich, but if you are carrying ten days worth of spending money, you could enrich a thief very nicely.
- Couples: carry your own travel documents rather than putting them all together in one place (usually the wife’s purse, which she’s leaving home anyway!) Split up the credit cards (don’t carry duplicates) and the cash so that if one of you is “hit” you don’t lose everything.
- Take along only what you need for the day and carry your travel documents on your body in a secure way. Leave everything else in the hotel safe.
- In the hotel room, make sure that your door is locked. The doors do not automatically lock in some rooms–you sometimes have to use your key. (Incidentally, in all my years of travel, I have never had anything taken out of my hotel room.)
- MEN: Don’t believe for a moment that carrying your wallet in the front pocket will thwart pickpockets. They can grab it from the front as easily as the rear.
- WOMEN: Your purse is one of the most popular targets. I will do my best to convince you not to take one on the tour. If you insist on taking a purse, please don’t carry anything valuable in it.
- Beware of the gypsies, particularly in Italy. A common sight is the young mother with her sleeping (drugged) baby, silently holding out her hand. Seemingly, there is no danger here. But if you reach in your belongings to get a donation, please know that your act has been witnessed and you will be targeted by a pickpocket, or worse, by one of the roving bands of dirty-faced gypsy kids who suddenly appear with pieces of cardboard to confuse you and to hide their talented little hands. (These little buggers are good!) As suddenly as they appear, they will disappear along with your money, credit cards and passport. If these kids confront you, scream “gypsies” and create a scene. Do not for a second reach for your wallet to reward them.
The above suggestions are aimed at avoiding thievery. Robbery is another matter. Luckily, incidence of robberyper se is low. There seems to be an unwritten rule that low-level crime can be tolerated to a point. But harming a tourist seems to be a no-no. But don’t push the envelope. Don’t walk by yourself in questionable areas at night. Take a taxi if you are unsure of where you are.
BEHAVIOR: My tours work, mainly because I have a great group of travelers! If this is your first BET trip, you will notice that everybody seems to know each other, having traveled together on past tours. Not to worry–they will invite you in and make you feel like an experienced BETVet within a couple of days. You will notice that I don’t operate on a “the customer is always right” basis. I do interact on the tour to try to keep the conflicts at a minimum. After 50+ tours I have noticed that there are three behavioral patterns that drive fellow travelers up the wall–constant tardiness, inappropriate talking, and mooching. Here are some guidelines:
- Be on time! There is nothing more annoying than waiting over and over for the same prima donna. Ill give the offender the benefit of the doubt the first time. We will have a little chat after the second time. The third time the group may be gone and the tardy one will be left behind.
- Silence is golden. It is not necessary to voice every thought. Consider your audience before launching into yet another monologue.
- Don’t be a mooch. Pay back what you borrow. Often on multi-currency tours, it is necessary to lend (or borrow). Pay back in that currency as soon as you can. (I will often serve as a “bank.” I need to carry a large amount of the local currency, so borrow from me until you can get your ATM card to work.) Also, on the tours where I am not able to pay for dinner drinks, pick up your share of the drink tab. One glass out of a bottle of wine is 1/5 of that bottle. Either pay back the host at that point or pick up the next round.
- Help each other, relate to each other, and pool information. The tour is not a competition. If you have some information that someone else may need, share it!
- Honor your commitments. If you say you are going to meet someone in the lobby at 9:00, be there (even if you got a better offer).
- Take care of yourself and don’t interfere with others’ taking care of themselves. It is more than annoying when “good time Charlie” gets sick after four straight days of overindulgence. All too often, the bug then gets passed around.
- Don’t mess with the itinerary on travel days.
- Be considerate of your roommate. And that goes particularly for married couples!
- Dress appropriately for group dinners. This doesn’t mean coat and tie or the basic black dress. Just give us all a break from the tourist tee shirt.
- And finally, have a great time!
In the very rare instances of a behavioral problem developing and an individual is compromising the experience of other tour members (constant tardiness, missing scheduled events, inappropriate behavior), I will first confront the individual as to the problem. If an agreement can’t be reached, the person may be asked to leave the tour and travel independently until the return flight. In this unlikely event, I will reimburse the person for the unused portion of the tour either in US$$ or local currencies, solely at my discretion.
SMOKING: My tours are “non-smoking.” This doesn’t mean that smokers are excluded. It does mean that the clean air folk get a chance at the air first. Let me know if you do smoke so I can book you into smoking rooms when they are available. There will be no smoking at meals, group gatherings, or on common carriers that are group exclusive.
ALCOHOL: There is no drinking age in Europe, and wine at dinner is the norm. I think that most BETVETS would agree that some of the most fun and funniest times were often somewhat alcohol induced, i. e., the night in Budapest, sunsets at the rocca in San Gimignano, dinners at Le Niaidi in Rome and the Trattoria all’Antica Mola in Venice, and the New Year’s Eve Gala in London. But there have also been some low moments -missed opportunities, snarled relationships because of misunderstandings, and some monumental hangovers. Have a good time, but take care of yourself.
HEALTH: It may seem odd to discuss health in a chapter on behavior, but the two are often related. Most of the health problems that I have witnessed (and experienced) are gastrointestinal and/or upper respiratory. Yes, there have been some heart problems, twisted ankles and knees, a broken leg, shattered shoulder, and a stroke over the past 25 years and countless tours, but most problems are far more minor—and perhaps avoidable.
Keep in mind that my doctorate is in Choral Music Education and not in medicine. However, I’ve run this section by my internist and any number of BETVET doctors and nurses. Some suggestions:
- Wash your hands regularly, particularly during and after the flight or on any other public transportation. Consider bringing along a bottle of Purell Hand Sanitizer or alocohol wipes. (Not to worry if you forget: there will always be somebody at the dinner table who will pass around a bottle.)
- Drink lots of water. The water is safe in Europe. You can drink it anywhere that you would drink it in America.
- Go easy on the alcohol, particularly early on the trip. Pace yourself. You don’t have to set a “personal best,” night after night.
- Bring Claritin or some other antihistamine in case you have an allergic reaction to smoke, feathers, or some other allergen that you didn’t even know about.
- Ask your care provider for a prescription for whatever has laid you low in the past. There is nothing worse than coming down with a bug and knowing that there is a specific drug out there that could stop it in its tracks—but you don’t have it.
- Go to bed at a reasonable hour. The “O-my-gosh-I’m-in-Europe-and-I-want-to-see-everything!!!” syndrome will do you in. If you try to go full tilt for two weeks, you are not going to make it.
- Eat healthy. It is not necessary to have the gooey dessert night after night. Choose fruit instead. Eat vegetarian for lunch every once in a while.
DINING: BETVETS know that I travel to eat. BETVETS return again and again for the food. Sampling a country’s cuisine is a wonderful way to get to know the culture. And, you have to eat anyway to survive. You are fed well on a BET tour. Bon appetite! Buon appetivo!
Our first meal of the day is breakfast at the hotel and usually consists of a buffet, though some of the hotels are still only offering a continental breakfast of bread-rolls-croissant and coffee-tea-milk. The buffets can be quite extensive–cold cuts, cheese, eggs, sausage, bacon, cold and hot cereals, yogurt, juices, and/or fresh fruit. And if only a continental breakfast is offered, usually the steamed milk and wonderful coffee will make up for the lack of choices. You may be confronted with some options that you wouldn’t usually consider for breakfast. Sample or ignore them. Even when what you consider for a “normal” breakfast is not available, you can make some substitutions from what is on the table.
For lunch, you will usually be on your own. I will feed you well at dinner – you will probably not need an extensive, expensive repast for lunch. In most of the cities we will visit, there are open-air markets where you can find lunch makings. Or you can find a charcuterie in France or a salumeria in Italy. And the ubiquitous snack bar is universal. A surprisingly good place for lunch can be found in many of the museums that we are visiting. Feed your eyes and then your tummy. A light lunch at the museum cafeteria can send you back to the galleries ready for more food for thought.
Our dinners together will vary. Some restaurants will serve a one-size-fits-all tourist menu (menu turistica, prix fixe). Most will give us a choice of entrees within the menu turistica format. Other restaurants will allow us to order straight from the menu. In this case, I’ll give you a price limit and you will stay within it or pay the difference. I will usually include wine and water in countries where they are the norm (France, Italy, Spain). In other countries, I will ask you to pay for what you consume.
And speaking of drinks: The norm is mineral water and/or wine. You can order tap water, and if you can make yourself understood, the waiter usually will bring it. Mineral water comes either still or carbonated. I prefer the carbonated; others don’t like the bubbles. As far as wine, don’t bother to order specific labels or varietals unless you really know what you are doing, as the house wine will usually be a fine local variety. Coke, Fanta and other soft drinks are available, but often at extra cost. Iced tea has now become popular in Europe, but it is treated as a soft drink, not the unlimited numbers of glasses as in Southern regions of America. Coffee (extra cost) comes at the end of the meal in Europe, with the dessert.
And yes, in spite of the prevalence of bottled waters at the restaurants, you can drink the water anywhere in Europe that you would be able to drink it in America: In your hotel room, in the restaurants, in public drinking fountains (when you can find them.) Yes, you can drink the water!
I hope that you will be adventurous in your dining! You have an opportunity to enjoy culinary experiences that are simply not possible in the USA. (It is disappointing to hear a novice diner say “yuck” to some delicacy simply because it is unrecognizable–or perhaps too recognizable. Or because the meal is not totally “PC.” Or because mamma never cooked it that way.)
Stretch a little bit. Leave your self-proclaimed food phobias at home. Try something new!
And would it be possible to declare the tour “diet free?” Deep down you know that none of the fad diets work. The only solution is to eat less and exercise more. I will definitely provide the exercise as we walk so much on tour that usually no one gains any weight in spite of forking it in night after night.
Those of you who have special food needs, please let me know well before the tour so I can order special meals for you. Diabetics will have few problems on the tour as there are fewer hidden sugars in the European cuisines as there are in America. You will, of course, have to avoid desserts and other no-no’s. And any of you with food allergies, keep me informed so I can see what the chef can do.
Vegetarians: In England there are vegetarian selections on most of the menus–even in the pubs! In Italy, it is usually possible to order a salad as your first course and pasta for the second. The going gets more difficult in France, Germany and Spain–be prepared for omelets and/or salads. Unfortunately, in some locales it is well nigh impossible to satisfy a request for vegetarian selections. Since most members of our group will not be vegetarian, when I approach a restaurant to arrange a group meal, I am looking for location, quality, price and availability. A fifth question will be whether or not vegetarian selections are available. Even if this last question is answered with a rolling of the eyes, if the answers to the first questions are satisfactory, I will probably still put the group in that restaurant. After all, I can only offer what is available locally.
In any case: Please let me know before the tour if you are vegetarian. It is much easier to make the arrangements in advance. And vegans, all of this discussion concerns lacto-ova vegetarians: a purely vegan position is impossible to accommodate in a group setting.
CULTURE: We are going to Europe to experience things that are impossible to find in the USA. Europe has some of the greatest museums-the Louvre and Museé d’Orsay in Paris, the Tate and the National Gallery in London, the entire of Florence, the Prado in Madrid. You will have an opportunity to see masterworks that you have only experienced in small reproductions. You also have an opportunity to become overwhelmed so quickly that you won’t see anything at all! When I take you into a museum, you might want to go first to the gift shop and see what the museum is most proud of. Definitely pick up the free guide that is always available. If this is not complete enough, buy a guidebook at the gift shop (this way you can “re-visit” the museum after you get home.) Locate in the guide the galleries that you want to see and then find them. It will be impossible for you to see everything. After you’ve hit the high spots, find the snack bar and have a cup of coffee. Then maybe go back for more. When you are done, leave. This may be after an hour or it may be closing time.
You would think since my field is music, I would schedule many concerts on the tours. Unfortunately, timing is difficult and finding appropriate experiences at opportune moments has been problematic. Where possible, I will schedule some concerts and operas that are of general interest, or are located in attractive settings. You may want to dress up a little bit, but you do not need to bring a special outfit along. If there is an opera scheduled, I will try to get us to the opera house in time to buy a program so we will know the story. Even if the opera is your first experience with this genre, know that your predecessors have raved about the operas on previous tours.
Castles are another attraction. Their time had come and gone by the time America came into being. We have copies of Gothic churches in America, but our only castles are of the Disneyland stucco variety. From an aesthetic standpoint, most of the old castles are a bust. But it is fun to wander around and try to envision how it would have been to live in one. Or defend it. Or take it in battle.
The Gothic Cathedrals are an absolute must. Even if you seldom willingly enter a church, you will be impressed with the structure, the beauty, and the outpouring of resources that the community made some 700-1000 years ago (and continues to make with the maintenance of these ancient piles of stone). When viewing these cathedrals, keep in mind that most of the people in the community at the time were illiterate, that the statuary and stained glass were ways of telling biblical stories. And you will be surprised at the number of “pagan” or non-Christian myths and stories are worked into the cathedrals. What are the signs of the Zodiac doing in that window?
I will often arrange for guided tours in most of the major centers. These range in quality from wonderful to egregious, depending on the luck of the draw of the guide we get. Most of the guides fall into the wonderful side so don’t let a false sense of sophistication cause you to pass up these experiences. You will hear what an informed local has to say about his/her town.
Try to keep your priorities straight: You can shop at the mall when you get home. You can’t pop into the Louvre, ponder a Roman ruin, or sit down in a Gothic Cathedral when you get back to the states.
Click on one of the links below to continue.
Barker’s European Tours – 10914 Toscana Isle – San Antonio TX 78249 – (210) 702 1884