What’s new in Europe for 2009

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 71 of the April 2009 issue.

Every year when I update my guidebook series, I find out what’s new in Europe. Here’s a review of what Americans can expect the next time they cross the Atlantic.

• In 2009, it’s not the “old Europe” anymore as countries continue to open up their borders. Several Eastern European countries, including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic States, have recently done away with border controls for travel within Europe. This means you can now go from country to country without stopping to show your passport. Switzerland planned to join in as early as March.

• Clean air has come to once-smoky Europe. Trains used to have both smoking and nonsmoking compartments, but now entirely smoke-free cars are standard in much of Europe. Smoking is not allowed anywhere on trains in Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Norway, Sweden or Poland. Smoking areas (clearly marked) are still offered on some trains in Spain, Denmark, Finland and most of Eastern Europe.

• Because of the high cost of hotels and the sinking economy, short-term apartment rentals are becoming more popular. Budget travelers can stay in spacious accommodations with a kitchen (generally stocked for a self-service breakfast) for the price of a moderate hotel room.

I used an apartment as my base several times last year. It gave me a good excuse to shop in the local markets, enjoy the economy of eating in, and bask in the feeling of being a “temporary local.”

• Cell phones are becoming a necessity; I’ll never travel again without one.

While many American cell phones work overseas, the per-minute cost can add up. Save money by purchasing a phone abroad (you’ll also gain a local phone number so your new European friends can call you without paying to call the United States). You can buy a basic cell phone in most countries for $40 to $50, which typically includes some call time.

The EU is looking into standardizing roaming fees across Europe, but, for now, when you cross a border you’ll need to buy a SIM card, a small chip with a country-specific phone number that costs $10 to $20. In 2008 I routinely purchased SIM cards from dispensing machines at train stations after arriving in a new country.

Users of some handheld wireless devices (most notably the iPhone) have been surprised with astronomical bills for unintentional roaming, such as when the phone constantly checks for new e-mails. This default feature can be turned off to avoid per-kilobyte charges. If you are going to use your smart phone, be sure to call your provider to activate international service before you leave — and ask about extra charges for international roaming and data transfer.

The cheapest way to call between Europe and the United States is using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), such as Skype (www.skype.com) and Google Talk (www.google.com/talk). If you make a lot of calls to someone in Europe, and both of you have good Internet connections and yet you don’t use this, then you’re throwing away money.

• And no one wants to throw away alcohol. Given the stringent US rules on limiting liquids on flights, many travelers have purchased duty-free alcohol only to be forced to dump it out, even if it’s sealed in a special security-friendly bag. It usually happens to those with a layover (in Europe or the US) who have to go through a new round of security checkpoints.

If you want to purchase duty-free liquor, buy it at your final stop in Europe or from the flight attendants on the plane during the last leg of your journey, and don’t open the specially sealed bag. If you have a layover in the United States before your final destination, put your liquid duty-free purchases into your checked bags as soon as you clear Customs.

• Each year a few tried-and-true travel tips become worthless as technology changes the way we live. I finally deleted all discussion of travelers’ checks and film cameras in my guidebooks, relegating that information to the trash heap of tourism history. I will never sign a travelers’ check again, as ATMs are now the only way for travelers to change money smartly.

Anyone with a camera in Europe should bring an extra digital memory card or stick.

• The biggest change for 2009 is the European interest in our recent presidential election. When you travel, expect friendly smiles and lots of questions about our new president.