5 Unexpected Differences in Europe

If you’re traveling to Europe, you probably are planning on there being some significant differences to the States. For example, you probably know that in the UK and Ireland, they drive on the opposite side of the road. You might also know that you’ll need an adapter to plug in your electronics – a plug type G in the UK, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta and a plug type C in the rest of Europe.  But there’s a lot of other surprises waiting for you across the pond. These are five unexpected differences in Europe that I wasn’t expecting.

Dom Luís in Porto
Dom Luís in Porto, where I spent 30 minutes attempting to unlock my Airbnb

Locks and Keys

I never thought of locking and unlocking doors to be a skill until I went to Europe. Doors do not lock the same way in Europe that they do in the US, and I was not prepared. Some of the more modern hotels have the key cards that we’re used to seeing in North America, but some will have physical, traditional keys. In a hotel I stayed in Belgium, they requested that you give them the key every time you leave the hotel so that you don’t lose it.

Especially with Airbnbs, prepare yourself to struggle with locks. In Porto, I once spent about thirty minutes late at night attempting to unlock the door to my Airbnb. I was traveling with a group at the time, and we all tried with no avail. Finally we were able to unlock it, but not before we had contacted our host. Pretty embarrassing, to say the least.

In order to lock the door to my apartment here in Dublin, you have to first lift the door handle. Not a big deal, and second nature now, but if I hadn’t been warned of that, I probably would never have figured it out. Others have to be twisted exactly the right away or you won’t be able to lock it.

Interior doors, as well, generally lock with a physical key, not the little button that is so common in the States. That means that if you take the key out of the lock, you must keep track of it in order to unlock (or lock) the door again. As a result, it’s common to keep the key in the lock on the inside, so you can still lock the door but don’t risk misplacing the key.

Pro Tip: Before you head out, practice locking and unlocking the door.  It might seem silly but the last thing you want to do is be struggling with the door when you come back late after a night out in the pubs. That way, when you do come back, you’re able to let yourself without struggling. Or, if you do have problems, you can contact the landlord before it’s too late.

Credit Cards

If you’re traveling abroad, you should hopefully already know that you need to notify your bank to let them know to expect charges. What you might not know is that credit cards work slightly differently in Europe. Europe uses a chip and pin system, which is a little different than the American system. Their machines are a bit different, as well, and are often transportable. That means that at restaurants, you don’t give you credit card to the waiter, the waiter hands you the machine (it seems much more secure to me!).

Although almost everywhere in America has switched to requiring you to insert your chip card instead of swiping, most cards still require signatures, not pin numbers. While touristy areas know to have pens ready so that Americans can sign receipts, if you wander outside touristy areas, some stores will not have pens ready. This can cause a bit of a delay at the register, which might make those waiting in line behind you annoyed.

Although almost everywhere will accept a credit card that needs a signature, you may occasionally run into a machine that doesn’t. When buying my SIM card here in Dublin, I found that to be the case. The same thing happened while buying metro tickets in Berlin. If this happens, you can either use a debit card or pay with cash. Be prepared for the worst by making sure both your credit card and your debit card will work in Europe.

Pro tip: Apple Pay/Google Pay is widely accepted across Europe and does not require a signature. To save time at the counter, pay with your phone. It generally works for any charges under 30 Euros. Added bonus? No fumbling to try to find your wallet in your purse or bag!


If you’re thinking that a bathroom is a bathroom and that’s it, then you’ve never been to Europe. Bathrooms can vary pretty wildly between countries. A couple of constants though: public restrooms (generally called toilets) have stalls that are much longer than in US, almost like a private room. In some instances, they may even be a small, private room. Another constant: you will almost always pay for the restroom. At train stations, malls, even in little public restrooms installed around the city, you will generally have to pay a euro or so to use the restroom.

Like most cities in the US, many businesses have restrooms, but they’re only available to customers. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and a kind shopkeeper or bartender will let me use the restroom without buying anything, but don’t count on it. If you really need to go, head to a coffee shop or McDonalds and buy a small coffee in order to gain access to the toilet.

Even if you do manage to find a free public restroom, be warned it might come without soap! In Geneva, I used several free public restrooms, but none of them provided soap. Thankfully, I had my hand sanitizer on me so I was able to wash up. I’ve also seen one or two restrooms that did not have toilet paper. That one is a bit harder, but just be sure to look around to see what’s available before you do your business!

Pro Tip: Keep some loose change available so you can use the restroom when needed! Also carry hand sanitizer in case you run into a free public toilet that doesn’t provide soap. If you Google “Toilets in (whatever city you’re visiting)” you may even be able to find a map of free public toilets.

Dinner in Rome
Dinner in Rome one evening – note the still water in the corner that I had to specifically ask for!

Drinking Water

Like most Americans, I grew up with ice water. I like ice water. Scratch that, I love ice water. Europeans do not. So when you’re heading to Europe, you can kiss your ice water goodbye.

Ordering water at restaurants in Europe can be complicated. Just ordering “water, please” like we do in the States could result in a bottled water or carbonated water, depending on the country. If you’re in a touristy area, there’s a chance your waitstaff will be used to Americans and know to clarify what type of water you want.

It varies by country, but be prepared to request “tap water” or “still water” in order to get the free water that we’re so accustomed to. In some countries, such as Germany, your request may be met with shock; they don’t generally drink tap water. It might take a short conversation, but once you clarify what you want, you should be able to get free tap water. But even when you do order it, you almost certainly won’t get it with ice.

If you’re staying at an Airbnb, don’t count on being able to get ice, there either. Most fridges in Europe are smaller than American ones, but even the large ones I’ve seen don’t generally have ice machines. You can always make ice by freezing water, but don’t count on your host to have an ice tray available.

Pro Tip: Get a water bottle, fill it up at your hotel in the beginning of the day, and carry it with you. It might be heavy, but it will save you from having to buy bottled water throughout the day. Before you go to a restaurant, look up how to order tap water in that country so you’re not caught off guard.

Grocery Stores

This might be a no brainer for some, and for others, it might not even be an issue they encounter. But if you’re staying in a place for a few days, you may want to pop into a grocery store to pick up some food – it’s a good, cheap way to get a meal or two.

Carts (often called trollies) are almost always connected together to prevent stealing. Instead, you generally have to insert 1 Euro to release a cart. When you’re finished, you simply attach the mechanism again, and you get your Euro back. If you’re familiar with Aldi in the US, it’s the same system that they use. Baskets, however, are free, and they frequently have wheels so you can wheel them instead of carrying them.

As Europe is generally most environmentally aware than the US, bags generally do not come free with your purchase. You can request a bag (or look by the check out) to buy. Plastic bags are usually much bigger than the ones we get in the US, so you will need fewer bags than you would back home.

Pro-Tip: If you have extra room in your suitcase, you may want to bring along a small, reusable bag, especially if you’ll be visiting for a week or more. Besides using it for groceries, you can use it to store souvenirs, dirty laundry, or whatever else you might need!

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