When traveling abroad, a good traveler expects to run into cultural differences. With a little planning, we can prepare for the big ones, like the language or local customs. But it is often the little things we take for granted and couldn’t fathom doing differently, that trip us up. So, to help you prepare, here is a guide to the little quirks of dining abroad, from ordering drinks to interacting with your waiter and everything you need to know about refills, ice, water, and tipping.
Free refills on sodas, coffee, tea, or any other beverage are an American thing. In Europe, you purchase your beverages by the glass. In most places, there are no fountain drinks, so if you order a soda, you’ll get a can. And hopefully, it was refrigerated, which brings me to the next item…
Until recently, Europeans would look at you like you were crazy if you asked for ice with your drink, and then bring you one single cube. It’s not common, it’s not the custom, and it’s only for outsiders. Many restaurants don’t have ice on hand for cooling drinks. Instead, they use it to chill the fish. And you do not want that ice in your drink! The best outcome you can hope for is that the little cubes will lower the drink’s temperature by at least a few degrees before melting away.
We Americans are obsessed with having ice-cold drinks. I recently saw someone put ice in a glass of wine, and I gasped in horror. I thought to myself, “If the Europeans could see you defiling that wine, they would die!” Let’s face it, that extra-large soft drink from your local fast-food joint is just a cupful of ice with a little bit of soda. But the fact is, ninety percent of the world’s population makes do without ice every day and don’t even know what they are missing.
A few years ago, I was hiking in the Alps near Interlaken, Switzerland. I was exploring on my own and checking out some new destinations for my tours. I decided to take on a rather challenging day hike high up in the mountains. Early in the morning, I took a train up to my starting point, and off I went through green meadows that seemed to cascade endlessly down the steep hills under a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. It was a perfect day for hiking!
Three hours into the hike, my water bottle was dry, and I was looking for anything to rehydrate my aching body. I came across a little restaurant at one of the highest points on the trail and went in to buy a liter or two of water to get me through the next five hours of hiking. Well, all they had was water with gas! At the time, I hated water with gas, but weighing the possibility of no water for the next five hours or water with gas, I purchased the water. That’s the day I learned to like the stuff.
Europeans have been purchasing their water for as long as I can remember. Originally this stemmed from the idea that tap water was unsanitary or that the natural minerals which bottled “spring water” contained were good for you. Whatever the reason, whether at a grocery store or in a restaurant, it is customary to purchase “bottled mineral water” when dining out. It is even customary to purchase water at the grocery for consumption at home.
Bottled water comes in two varieties: with and without gas. The gas is simply carbonation, CO2, the same stuff that makes a cola fizzy. But drinking it and enjoying it requires an acquired taste (It’s a lot like when you get a fountain drink and the syrup is running low). In North America, two popular brands of “water with gas,” or sparkling water, are Perrier (from France) and San Pellegrino (from Italy). You can find these at most grocery stores and fine-dining establishments in the USA.
When traveling throughout most of Europe, you should plan on paying for a bottle of water with your meal. Doing so will ensure you get fresh and clean water that is reasonably chilled. It will come with glasses but no ice. Two varieties are readily available: with gas, and without gas. It’s not a problem to request either, and most often the waiter will ask which you prefer.
How to request water:
ITALIAN – acqua natuarale senza gas (no gas); acqua con gas / acqua frizzante / acqua gazzata (with gas)
GERMAN – wasser no gas (no gas); wasser mit gas (with gas)
SPANISH – agua sin gas (no gas); agua con gas (with gas)
FRENCH – de l’eau plate (no gas); de l’eau gazeuse (with gas)
Good news! In France it is customary to order a pitcher of fresh tap water at no charge. Simply ask for it! In French, it goes something like this: un carafe d’eau s’il vous plaît.
Interacting with your Waiter
Rule #1: Be kind to your waiter.
This one may seem obvious, but the pressure of interacting with a language barrier tends to make people forget their manners. No one expects tourists to be fluent in a language before they travel, but learning the basics will go a long way. I can’t tell you how many times a simple Buongiorno has prompted Italians to shower me with compliments on my “beautiful Italian.” At the very least, learn how to say hello, please, and thank you, and you will find a lot of friendly people willing to help you struggle through the rest of the conversation.
Rule #2: Be aware of local dining customs.
We Americans are always in a rush. So much so that we eat a lot of our meals on the go. In Europe, eating is a social event. And a 30-minute lunch is unheard of. Don’t expect your waiter to come by every five minutes to see if you are done. In Europe, this would be considered extremely rude. If you want something, chances are you’ll have to flag your waiter down. He isn’t being lazy or bad at his job; he’s giving you privacy to enjoy your meal in peace. This is great if you want to spend three hours catching up with your friends but can be frustrating when you are pressed for time.
If you don’t have much time to eat, consider ordering from the “take away” counter. Many restaurants and cafes near busy tourist sites offer the same menu to go. Just pick up your lunch and take it to a nearby park. This is a great option when the weather is nice. Don’t forget to grab a few napkins!
Rule #3: Reward your waiter for good service.
Tipping rules vary from country to country, so you’ll want to do some research before you travel. Unlike in the United States, in many countries, waiters must be paid at least the minimum wage. In those countries, a tip is appreciated but not expected, and an excessively large tip can even be seen as an insult.
Here are a few guidelines for tipping.
In France and Italy, a service charge is usually already included in the bill. If you stop for drinks, it is customary to leave the change, especially if the service was good. For example, if your bill is 3.50, you can leave .50 on the change tray. However, this is not required. If you are paying with a credit card, there probably won’t be a line on the receipt to leave a tip, so just leave some change on the table. For dinner, a tip of 5-10% is sufficient for all but the fanciest restaurants.
In the UK and Ireland, a service charge may be included in your bill. In the UK, the standard is 12.5%. If you can’t tell if it has been included, don’t be embarrassed to ask the waiter. In Ireland, this policy should be listed on the menu. You can still leave an additional tip for particularly good service. If there is no service charge, plan to leave between 10 and 15%. In the pub, people generally do not leave a tip. But here again, if the service was exceptional, the bartender filled several orders, or was very friendly, you can leave a small tip. Here are some more in-depth hints on tipping in Europe.
Dining abroad doesn’t have to be stressful if you’re aware of a few key differences. There are no free refills on drinks, soda usually comes in a can, no ice for drinks, and you have to purchase water. Remember to specify whether you want still or sparkling water. Being friendly to your waiter will make for an enjoyable experience. Try to learn a few words in the language, because this gesture is much appreciated in non-English-speaking countries. Understand the local customs. Your waiter isn’t ignoring you, he’s giving you privacy to enjoy your meal without interruption. And finally, know the local tipping customs so that you can reward him for good service. With this in mind, you should be all set. Bon appétit!
Since we cannot travel to Europe right now, I am bringing a bit of Europe to you. I yearn for the day when I can hop on a plane and fly to Europe, but, for now, I’ll have to settle for my memories. So, as much for me, as for you, I’ll share David’s Weekly Wanders in Europe.
This week, David’s Weekly Wanders in Europe features a video, David McGuffin Explores Rome! It is the first of several episodes chronicling the experiences and adventures on David’s Best of Italy Tour route. Along with his producer, Abby, and their travel companions, David visits the essential tourist sites in Rome, plus a few off-the-beaten-path destinations..
For some years now we have been promoting and selling our tours at travel shows. Typically, we spend our weekends in January, February, and March in our booth and in front of our display talking about our tours with thousands of people. These folks arrive at the show looking to book a vacation, get a bargain, and talk about travel. For us, we make a lot of new connections, meet new friends, and even manage to sell a few of our tours as well.
The new year began very well with us scheduled to present at seven shows around the country. The shows in Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta all went according to plan. By the time the Washington DC show rolled around, news of the Coronavirus was getting a lot of traction in the media, but nothing to worry me about these travel shows and my tours to Europe, which were slated to begin in mid-March. However, I did go out and purchase some Clorox Wipes to use on the plane as we flew to DC. I shared some with my seatmate, and we both laughed. That was March 6th.
The show kicked off at 10:00 on March 7th, and within an hour, we all knew something was different. The exhibit hall was nearly empty, except for us exhibitors! Over the next two days, we handed out about half our usual supply of brochures and promotional material. The show sponsors and I noted the poor attendance and began attributing it to the ever-increasing news of the Coronavirus. Outside, however, life was going on as usual. The restaurants were packed, people were out on the streets and in the parks, and there were crowds everywhere.
As the travel show came to a close on Sunday afternoon, we were relieved it was over, and happy that we had sold a few tours in spite of the poor attendance. We packed up our displays and filled out the forms to have them shipped to Philadelphia, or destination the next weekend. Then the three of us headed to the airport and fly back home later that night. As we wiped our seats and tray tables with Clorox wipes, we watched the flight fill up with passengers bound for Atlanta. Exhausted, I think we all slept most of the way home.
Much of Monday (March 9th) was spent following up on contacts we had made at the travel show over the weekend, repacking promotional materials for the following weekend, and preparing for two tours to Europe scheduled to depart the following week. Late that afternoon, as I sat working at my computer and looking out the window, I coughed.
The Onset of my Coronavirus
On Tuesday, March 10, I was away from home, and as the day progressed, I began to feel worn out and run down. But, I attributed it to being gone all weekend and getting in late from DC on Sunday night. I finally arrived back home at about 5:00 p.m. and told my wife, I was going to lay down and rest. That’s when the fever hit me. I had chills and sweats most of the night, but by morning I was back to my usual self.
Wednesday, March 11 was a terrible day for my Exploring Europe tours. President Trump held a nationally televised press conference that evening and announced severe travel restrictions from all European countries except the UK and Ireland. This effectively shut down two of my tours scheduled to depart within one week and brought a dark cloud of doubt on when any of my tours slated for the spring would go as well. The CDC and US Department of State bumped up travel warnings for all of Europe to Level 4 – Do Not Travel.
Still, with all this going on, I physically felt fine and did not really give any thought about my fever and the Coronavirus. Before the press conference, I was totally consumed with final details for my two tours to Germany and Spain that were coming up in just a few days. After the press conference, I was in shock! The next day, we received word that the travel show scheduled for the weekend in Philadelphia was canceled by the city. Shortly, afterward, notice was given that our Dallas travel show was canceled as well.
On Friday, March 13, President Trump held another press conference to declare a national emergency. He said he was making $50 billion in federal funds available to states and territories to combat the Coronavirus. In true Friday the 13th fashion, this was a terrible day for all of us. Schools began to announce closures for the next 15 days, restaurants and bars shut down, and life as we knew it began to change. New terms such as social distancing, slow the spread, and flatten the curve became common phrases.
After such a terrible week, we decided to get together with our family for dinner. So twelve of us gathered at my daughter’s home for dinner. We all had a good time, played a few board games, and talked about the events of the week. I recall it being the first time it dawned on me that I might really have the Coronavirus. It was a thirty-minute drive back to our home and by the time we pulled in to our driveway, my wife, Charlotte, was sick with chills and a fever. I had the sinking feeling that I must have passed on the Coronavirus to her and to my family as well.
It’s great to see the famous sights and big cities when traveling, but the real memories are made in off-the-beaten-path adventures where you get to slow down and experience the country, not just watch it fly by through a tour bus window. The best vacations include a combination of the two. Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of benefits to traveling on a tour. Tours allow you to travel care-free, with no planning. But sometimes, you have to just wing it and see where the adventure will lead. Here is a story from one of my trips to France and the surprising places you can find when things don’t go as planned.
After a flight up from Madrid, we arrived at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport by mid-afternoon. I rented a small car and soon we were out of the airport and on the highway toward Paris. It being Friday afternoon, I was prepared for some traffic jams, but so far it didn’t seem too bad. The highway leaving the airport was virtually free of cars, but by the time we reached the Périphérique, Paris’ big ring-road around the city center, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It wasn’t quite at a standstill, but we were inching along at less than 10 mph.
Knowing Paris, I figured we were in store for at least an hour of stop-and-go traffic. But surely by the time we turned off the Périphérique and headed southwest it would thin out to nothing. After two hours and less than 20 kilometers, I knew it would be hours before reaching Amboise. To make matters worse we had no hotel reservation, no real plan for the next two days, and no plans for the night’s dinner. What we did know was that reaching Amboise in the afternoon was now out of the question. Luckily I had my GPS unit with me and we got it up and running. After another hour on the highway, in the miserable traffic, we finally found a two-lane road that would take us through the countryside to the Loire Valley. Well anything would be better than sitting in traffic for hours on end…so we took the little road.
Immediately the road was clear, and it was smooth sailing. Until we came to the first town. Friday afternoon must be the time for everyone to get out and go somewhere because there was loads of traffic. Although, it was nowhere near as bad as what we had encountered on the highway. The next hour passed with us speeding along our way in the rural areas between each little town and then slowing down in the town centers. This wasn’t bad though. We got to experience several small rural towns in France.
By now it was getting late, probably close to nine o’clock. I’d planned on finding a hotel in Amboise, but that was still an hour away. It really didn’t matter what time we arrived as long as we could get rooms for the night and a good meal. We were somewhere along the Loire River near Chambord when I saw it…and drove right on by. We had a goal and destination in mind, but that place back there looked like my kind of place. So at the next round-a-bout I did a 180 and decided to go back to check it out.
La Ferme des 3 Maillets
The place was an old two-story stone building with ivy climbing up the side. There, in huge painted-on letters, was a sign advertising “Hotel** and Grill.” Even with my limited French vocabulary I could tell we could find rooms and food. As I pulled into the gravel parking lot I knew I’d made a good choice. There were several cars and the people milling around were all speaking French. I walked into the lobby and really had to dig deep into my French vocab to ask if they had two rooms and dinner. The lady at the desk said “no problem” offered a really good price and booked our dinner for us too.
We settled in and then walked back downstairs for dinner. The restaurant was just what you’d think a farmhouse grill would look like in the US. In sort of the “Cracker Barrel” style, there were ancient tools and other decor hanging from the walls and ceiling. On one wall there was a huge stone fireplace, complete with a cozy fire. Large picture windows looked out onto a little garden and the wheat fields beyond. I think we were one of the last seatings of the evening because all the other tables were either empty or filled with people involved in dessert or conversation.
The food was wonderful! Natalie and I had escargot, an assortment of duck, steak, vegetables, and dessert. All was washed down with a local Loire Valley wine. La Ferme des 3 Maillets is one of those rare finds that only happen if you let go of your inhibitions and get off the beaten path. Even though the staff spoke very little English and Natalie and I spoke very little French, we all managed to get our points across and have a great time.
Often, I have people ask about the idea of the “French being a bit arrogant.” First of all, I don’t buy into the idea and secondly, experiences like this one are proof that this is just a stereotype. The staff at the inn were wonderfully hospitable and went out of their way to make our dinner and our stay a grand experience. I’d go out of my way to eat and stay here again.
So when you’re traveling, just remember not to panic when things don’t go as expected. It is often the unplanned adventures like this one that turns out to be the most fun. And if you are ever in the Loire River Valley near the town of Avaray, find La Ferme des 3 Maillets, stay a night, have a great dining experience, and really get a chance to explore another side of France.
If you found this article informative, please share it with your friends, family, coworkers, and associates. If you have something to add, just leave a comment in the box below. Do you want to learn more about painted sheep and traveling to Europe? There is a wealth of information and special discount pricing on my tours at http://davidmcguffin.com/.
David McGuffin is Founder and CEO of David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc., based in Middleburg, Florida. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+,LinkedIn and YouTube. David spends his time in Europe organizing and leading small group and independent tours to European destinations. In business since 2001, David has provided exceptional travel opportunities to several thousand satisfied customers. You can find out more about David and his European tours at his website, http://davidmcguffin.com.
I’ve struck off on a two-week adventure in Greece and I hope you’ll share it with me. My primary purpose is to explore the country and develop an Exploring Europe tour for 2015. Along the way, I’ll visit some of the big tourist destinations such as Athens and Olympia, but I promise to get off the beaten path and poke around lesser known places as well.
Once out of Athens I’ll pick up my rental car and do all the driving. I’ve already discovered the map and the GPS don’t alway agree, so I’m sure to make a few wrong turns and may even get lost, but that will be part of the adventure!
I am traveling with Charlotte, my wife, and Janey, a long-time friend and Exploring Europe tour alumna (that’s Janey in the photo above). We have a roughly planned itinerary that includes several islands and much of the Pelopennese Peninsula, but part of the adventure will be deviations from the plan!
I’ll add a new post every few days, so please keep in touch, add your comments, and share with your friends.
My Facebook Page is growing every week and at the moment I have 889 “likes”. A sincere thanks goes out to everyone who has interacted with me on Facebook the last few months!
I’ve added a feature to my Facebook page which allows Exploring Europe Tour ALUMNI to write a REVIEW about their tour experience. If you’ve traveled with me, please consider writing a short review of your tour experience.
To help get things moving, I am running a promotion until August 1, 2014. I’ll put all the reviewers’ names in a hat and draw one. The PRIZE is a buy-one-get-one-free round trip flight on Delta Airlines to any Delta destination in the USA 48 states.
Just to be clear, I’m not choosing the best review (although I’d appreciate positive reviews). I am simply drawing one entry from all the reviews on my Facebook page. Oh, and by the way, all reviewers must have traveled with me (or one of my guides) on an Exploring Europe tour.
It will be helpful if you write a few sentences describing your experience on a McGuffin tour. Please consider these points: why a prospective traveler should tour with Exploring Europe, what you enjoyed (or not) about your tour, “wow” moments, special events, and such.