HOW TO EUROPE
The Complete Travelers Handbook
Internet edition. By John Bermont.
A page from
with photographer and author
After the big shopping spree you must get your goods home from Europe.
There are several ways of getting your new purchases from over there to your terra firma.
It depends on what you bought and where. You can bring
them on the plane as checked or carry-on luggage, use air
freight, let the store ship them for you, use regular mail or parcel
post from a post office, or use an air express service. If you have a ton of
stuff contact a moving company.
items a freight forwarder is in order. Pack them yourself and
drive them to the pier. For a house full let a moving company
pack and move your goods door to door.
This chapter also includes several anecdotes of my
exasperating moments in big city post offices. You won't find Albert Einstein
working at the post office.
ON THE PLANE
If you followed the trusty rule of pack light when you went
to Europe, your luggage consists of only one carry-on bag plus a
purse, briefcase, or laptop computer. Now you can return home
with additional checked luggage. There may be an additional charge, depending
on your airline and your class of service. The poor folks in the back
will probably be dinged for an extra bag, but not likely up in the first cabin.
Nevertheless, this is
probably the easiest and cheapest way to get small things home.
The checked pieces do not have to be suitcases or steamer
trunks. Cardboard boxes, well wrapped and taped, will serve
almost as well but you'll have to sign a waiver of responsibility
for damage. That means that the airline can bust things up and not pay you
for the damage. It would be better to buy a duffle bag and a bicycle lock
that you can put through the grommets.
There are two methods in use for determining baggage
allowances on international flights. Baggage can be measured by
the number of pieces or by weight.
Note: The following is what I have experienced on many
airlines over many years. Different airlines have different
rules so verify your baggage allowance directly with your airline
before packing. Also, ground personnel sometimes get a little
testy about what you bring on board. I once had to rearrange my
carry-on items when making a connection in Barcelona to keep
the Iberia Airlines folks happy.
By Number: For flights between the United States or Canada
and Europe, baggage is controlled by the number of pieces. For
most airlines the allowance is one carry-on cabin bag which has
a Total Linear Measurement (TLM) of no more than 45 inches,
plus one checked bag. The allowance for first class and business
class is greater, depending on the airline. TLM is the sum of the height plus length
plus thickness. Get out a tape measure. You are also allowed to
bring in a purse, briefcase, or laptop computer with your cabin
The weight limit for checked bags in generally 50 pounds. Any bag
weighing more than that is charged a hefty fee. First class and business class
pasengers may get up to 70 pounds, depending on the airline. You try
to lift 70 pounds and you'll wonder why they allow that much.
By Weight: For most international travel, excepting flights to
and from North America, baggage is limited by weight. The total
weight of checked plus carry-on baggage must not exceed 20 kg
(44 lbs) for tourist class passengers and 30 kg (66 lbs) for first
and business class passengers. This is much less than you can
bring across the Atlantic Ocean. If you disembark and catch
another flight in Europe, say from Milan to Madrid, you will be controlled by this weight
rule for your intra-Europe flight leg, unless you checked your
luggage through to your final destination.
As stated, there are exceptions to these general rules so
check with your airline before heading for the airport. Some
airlines offer more generous luggage allowances, and/or slight
modifications to these rules. However, the general trend is
toward less luggage, higher fees, and much stricter enforcement than in the
good old days. I used to see people coming on board carrying
several last minute shopping bags full of souvenirs.
To find out specifically what your airline allows for baggage consult their web site.
URLs for major airlines are given in the
Airlines section of my
TRAVELERS YELLOW PAGES.
If you break the rules you pay, or maybe the airline will not
even let you break the rules. Excess baggage charges are
assessed if you want to haul more than the free baggage
allowance. However I have seen cases at airport check-in where
no excess baggage was allowed on board. There may not be
enough room. Check with your airline before packing. Do not
For the piece method on flights between North America
and Europe, excess baggage charges are levied per bag. Cost
depends on your origin and destination, the size and weight of
the item, and your airline.
On flights using the weight method, the excess baggage
charge is levied per kilogram above the allowable weight.
Special conditions exist for skis, surfboards, bicycles,
scuba gear, and other bulky sports equipment. The same goes for
musical instruments. Ask your airline
or travel agent for details long before your departure date.
What is the effect of these differing rules? It all depends on
how much stuff you have and where you are going. As an
example, a few years ago I packed my bags and flew off from
Miami to London and then caught a commuter flight to
Amsterdam. I was well within the allowances on the seven hour
flight to London. No extra charge. But for the connection within
Europe it was another story. British Airways charged me $25 for
excess weight on the one hour flight from London to
Amsterdam. Those were the days before I learned to pack light.
An hour or so before your flight
touches down on your return to the USA, the
flight attendants will pass out a "Customs Declaration" form to every family.
Fill this out on the plane and give it to the
US Customs agent as your last step when entering the country. Notice question number
11, in particular. Many food products are not allowed.
Make sure that you have read Know Before You Go, before
you went. See chapter 25,
Air freight can be used for items which are too big to mail
and need to be sent in a hurry. I've used air freight several times
over the years. Everything arrived.
Air freight offices may be in another terminal at the airport
or out on a dock someplace, maybe in another building. Ask
your airline. However, if you are departing from Amsterdam,
KLM has a convenient freight office at Schiphol Airport. I used
this and received two day service to Los Angeles. It is much
cheaper than paying the excess luggage charges if you are over
LET THE STORE DO IT
Many of the larger department stores and luxury goods
stores in Europe advertise that they will ship your purchases for
you. There will be a "Duty Free" decal on the front door along
with all the credit card decals. The store charges you for the
shipping costs, of course, but they offer to get you a tax refund
at the same time. Value added taxes in various countries have
been mentioned in previous chapters. These taxes can be over
20% and are already included in the price. In effect you are
getting a nice discount.
If you export your purchase you are eligible for a refund of
all of the value added tax. For a big ticket item this can easily
exceed the cost of air shipment. Normally you pay the full
amount of the item plus shipping, and fill out the paperwork.
The store does the rest.
Cashing the Refund Check
Some weeks or more after the item you bought arrives
home you will receive a check for the tax refund. The check will
be in foreign funds and drawn on a foreign bank. It will cost you
at least $30 to cash this check at any bank in America. I still
have one of these checks from years ago because I would have
lost money by cashing it. So duty free sounds nice but it may not
be especially worthwhile.
Self-Service Duty Free
The tax refund is also available if you carry the item with
you on the plane. It is not required that the store ship the item.
When you check in for your flight ask the attendant for
directions to the customs office. Go there and go through the
motions. They mail the customs paperwork back to the store and
several months later you receive your refund check. The net
result will be the same. You will have to cough up to cash the
check when it arrives.
For very small items put them in an envelope and mail
them. Stop in a stationary store and buy a bubble lined bag and
go to the post office. You can mail these as regular letters in
most countries. Many post offices even sell the bubble bags.
The postal services of most countries have maximum
weight limits for regular mail. This is usually one or two
kilograms. When the weight is above this, new rules take over.
It's usually possible to mail items of 20 or 30 pounds, but often
you must go to a separate office or building to do so.
Some countries make it easy, and others make it a test of
will power. Athens makes it easier than any. In my travels,
my most exasperating moments occurred
when dealing with postal clerks in Madrid, Amsterdam, Paris,
and Munich. Mailing a parcel from Europe is not always easy.
See the section "PTT Case Studies" below. Deal with suburban
or small town post offices whenever possible.
Boxes for Sale
Most post offices sell boxes and packaging material to make it easy for you to mail your
The Ellinika Taxidromia, Athens parcel post office, just off Sindagma Square, is
the best I found in Europe. If you bought so much at the "Greek Art" shops all
over the city that it won't fit in your luggage, bring it to El Ta and mail it
home. Surprisingly, one package of books I mailed took only three weeks
by boat to Los Angeles, but another took two months. I guess that the second boat
took the scenic route. You'll find paper and string in the El Ta to wrap your goods,
plus friendly English speaking service.
Customs Green Form
When mailing parcels to the United States the US Customs
green form will be given to you by the postal clerk in Europe. It
is very simple. Just declare what you are sending and its value.
If you use one of the bubble envelopes in Holland the green
form is not required.
Ask for the Boat
Postal clerks always assume that everything going to the
United States is air mail. Specify surface mail, not air mail, or it
might cost you much more. In some countries the only service available is
air mail. They don't use the boats any more. Rates typically jump at every
kilogram or half kilogram so it is best to make up your parcels to
a weight just under an even kilogram.
For faster service, pay big bucks (usually) and ship your
goods by priority mail. That should take no more than a week.
Always compare the cost of priority mail with boat mail.
Sometimes the premium for fast service is surprisingly low, and
sometimes the slow service is not so slow, especially for small
Rates and regulations regarding size, weight, and allowable
contents vary from country to country. Rules are posted in the
local language in post offices. Have a look before wrapping your
I have mailed more parcels from more countries in Europe
than anybody on my block. In various trips, the score is maybe
100 packages from about 20 countries. Why? Because most of
my souvenirs are books and travel pamphlets (the better to write
this book of course). Books are heavy. I don't like to carry
them around so I get to a post office as soon as possible.
The rate for printed matter is much cheaper than for regular
parcels. If you are mailing a lot of stuff it would pay to separate
the books and declare them at the post office for the lower rate.
These low rates for books apply only up to a certain weight.
This is usually 5 kilograms, equal to 11 pounds. And the low
rates only apply to surface mail, not to air mail. The parcel must
be wrapped in a way that it can be opened for postal inspection.
Books can normally be mailed at the window used for
mailing letters. You can have good luck or a challenging test of
will power when mailing books, as you'll see in one of the case
A nice feature of mailing books is that they are duty free at
United States Customs. But books violating United States
Copyright Law are prohibited. The Government doesn't want
you shipping any obscenity home either.
On the outside of the parcel, below your return address,
print "Contents: Books, Printed Matter" followed by the local
word for book, e.g. livre in France, Buch in Germany.
PTT CASE STUDIES
If you have a package to mail, you better have some
tolerance and patience. Postal clerks are not rocket scientists.
They are government bureaucrats. I recount a few of my
exasperating postal minutes in the following sections.
Screaming Under My Breath in France
One of my episodes at a Paris post office illustrates the
kind of problems you can have. I had mailed two parcels of
books early in the day and received excellent service from a
woman attendant who sorted out the packages for me and got
each one just under the 5 kg limit for books. After having heard
horror studies about La Poste I was pleasantly amazed.
Returning later in the day with more books and some
excess clothes, a young male attendant decided that the limit
was 2 kg for books and offered no help in sorting out the parcel.
After some ten minutes of warm argument in French, I asked the
fellow in line behind me for help. He said something quickly to
the clerk, bought some stamps, and walked out. The clerk then
tended to the next person in line. I went to the back of the line
and eventually made it back to the window, much to the surprise
of the postal clerk. I had worked the parcel of books to under 5
kg and I pointed to the regulations clearly posted on the wall. He
accepted it this time and sold me the stamps. Then he told me I
had to get out of the way and stand at the closed window
adjacent to his to finish wrapping my parcel. This time I was
shocked because he spoke in perfect English! It was about time
to wring his neck.
But I followed his directions. Just as I finished wrapping
and taping the boxes, my beau femme from the morning opened
this window. Immediately arms and hands with packages
reached over both of my shoulders as other customers tried to
get their stuff in to her before me. I shoved and won!
On Fire in Portugal
One of my favorite souvenirs is a "Monopoly" game from
each country I visit. These are bulky and not in tune with the
philosophy of pack light. Since they are not too heavy, about
two pounds each, I scoot right over to the local post office with
each new one and mail it home.
It was a bit of a nuisance mailing this in Lisbon. Portuguese
Correio regulations have it that any parcel over one kilogram
must be wrapped with string (no tape!) and then sealed with
sealing wax. Unfortunately, my souvenir Portuguese
"Monopoly" game weighed 1006 grams, a quarter ounce over the limit.
The post office clerk instructed me to have the box
prepared for shipment at the tobacco shop across the street.
After tying it with string, the tobacco shop woman sort of lost
control in putting on the sealing wax. She was melting the wax
with a candle when suddenly the wax and my package caught
fire. She got it under control without much damage. My
"Monopoly" game and books (no sealing wax on the books)
arrived home in five weeks.
An Afternoon in Madrid
Spanish post offices are a whole new world, and I'm glad
that they are unique. First, nobody speaks English. You have to
ask around among the other customers and locate a translator
who knows what is going on in there. What is obvious is that
people should bring a book for the long lines.
The first line I had to stand in was at the Preparacion de
Paquetes window. There a woman wrapped my box in string (it
was already securely taped), put a metal seal on the knot, and
collected her fee. The seal was like the seal on your house
Next I stood in line at an unmarked desk where an elderly
man was filling out two different forms, one in triplicate, for
each customer's package. After standing in that line for about
twenty minutes, he told me in sign language to fill out the forms
myself. Then I had to wait a while longer for the fellow to look
up again and sign my forms.
Next stop was the line leading up to a window labeled
Franqueo Internacional where I bought the stamps for the
package, via barco (ship). But the clerk would not accept the
He directed me over to another line, which was thankfully a
short one, at the Admision de Paquetes window, por avion (by
air) or por superfice (by surface). I gave the box and paperwork
to this clerk. He rubber stamped everything like he was driving
nails, gave me one of the duly stamped and/or nailed papers, and
waved me adios!
My Monopoly game, Spanish edition, arrived in Los
Angeles about a month later.
Now I guess that this procedure is necessary because two
packets of books and another small parcel that I mailed the same
day in the regular post office took a lot longer to get here. It was
AIR EXPRESS SERVICES
For important items you need in a hurry, contact one of the
international air express services, e.g. FedEx, DHL, or Airborne.
These services can get a package overseas in either direction in
two or three days, and charge you appropriately for the speedy
More information about these services can be found in part 2 of chapter 19,
Sending Mail to & from Europe.
For shipping furniture and other big items, you can use a
shipping company. As discussed in part 1 of chapter 22,
Moving to Europe. I shipped my car
from Long Beach to Rotterdam, and back to Long Beach again
two years later. And I shipped eight oak barrels of personal
belongings from Rotterdam to Long Beach. This do-it yourself
approach is easy, and inexpensive compared to using a moving
Contact a shipping agent a few weeks before you plan to
make your move. Look in your yellow pages or the internet
under "International Freight Forwarding" for an agent near you. Do a search
also for your destination. Find a company in both listings and make a phone call.
Describe what you want to ship. The price is based on volume, so the
agent will be more interested in the dimensions than in the
The shipping agent will book space on a ship for you. His
fee for paperwork, phone calls, and for knowing what papers to
fill out and what calls to make could be about 5%. The agent
will tell you which ship he has booked and advise you when to
take your chattels to a specific pier at the port. Marine insurance
is sold by the agent for approximately 1% of the declared value.
Make a packing list of all items in your shipment. Include
the cost and country of origin for each item. The packing list
will save time when clearing Customs and will also be
invaluable to present to the insurance company in case the ship
Pack everything securely. Wooden crates and barrels are
more resistant than cardboard boxes to forklift trucks at the port.
Pack tight. Sweaters and towels make good packing stuffers.
At the port, observe the inspection of your goods and get a
copy of the inspection report and a receipt. About a week after
the goods are put on board, the agent will mail you the original
bill of lading (B/L). The B/L is your ticket for reclaiming your
Pick Up Quick
To claim your goods, present the B/L at the agent's office at
the pier and pay whatever extra charges are demanded. There
always seems to be some additional port charge. Present the
packing list to the customs inspector. He may inspect the cartons
or simply collect duty based on the packing list or just wave you
out of there.
While your goods are in the port, they are subject to
carelessness, vandalism, and theft. After the ship arrives, it will
take several days for the agent to send notice that the goods are
ready to be picked up. Don't delay. Get them quickly before
somebody breaks or steals them. Make a thorough inspection
and if there is any damage, return to the agent's office
immediately and file a report.
The port at Long Beach made it a bit difficult to get my oak
barrels out. They had put them in the back of the warehouse and
would not allow me to drive in to get them. I had to slip $5 to a
fork lift operator to get him to move them out to the dock where
I could roll them into my van. My car had a drained battery
when I got to it and after I got it started the radio was on and
tuned to a local station. The music lover also liked my car
compass and had detached it for his own use.
A moving company would be appropriate if you are
shipping a house full of furniture. Our moves to and from
Germany were handled by moving companies. This is very
expensive. Fortunately the company I worked for was paying for
it. For more information on this option, see part 1 of chapter 22,
Moving to Europe and chapter 21,
Working in Europe.
NOTE TO READERS
I welcome questions and comments. If you have any concerns about your trip to
Europe that have not been covered well enough in this chapter do not hesitate to write and ask.
My email address is
When you write please include as much detail as possible. There are about 50 countries in Europe.
It will help me answer if you mention the countries and/or cities you plan to visit.
I will reply in a day or two.
Don't forget to scroll through the Table of Contents below. The other 29 chapters of
HOW TO EUROPE
are also available, free to read on line.
For a check-off punchlist of everything go to The Finale,
Packing List and Last Call:
For Travel In Europe.
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Note: Italicized notations by the author.
You will need one or more of these plug adapters to use your electrical devices in Europe. The first
item works just about everywhere on the Continent.
Universal to Continental Europe "Europlug."
4.0 mm prongs. Ungrounded.
This plug adapter does not fit in many outlets of Italy and Switzerland. It is the standard plug in France, Germany,
and northern Europe.
SIMRAN PLUG ADAPTER
Adapts grounded USA plugs to European grounded "Shucko" plug.
4.8 mm prongs
This is a universal plug adapter for the UK and Ireland.
AC Adapter Plug for use in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland
This series of "3-Pack" Ceptics brand grounded universal plug adapters is handy if you are carrying multiple
gizmos or if you have travel companions who also need a charge.
Britain and Ireland
This 110-250 volt power surge strip has three universal outlets and an American grounded plug
so it needs a plug adapter for the countries you are visiting.
Make sure your gizmos are rated for 110-240 volts.
SM-60 Universal 3 Outlet Power Strip Surge Protector for Worldwide Travel. 110V-250V with Overload Protection.
If your gizmos charge through a USB port this can keep you going. European cars have the same
12 volt system as American cars.
Scosche Dual USB
Make sure that your electrical appliances are 110-220 dual voltage so they will work in Europe.
These appliances require a plug adapter(s), NOT a converter, for the countries you are visiting.
Vagabond Compact Styler
Conair's Dual-Voltage Ionic Hair Dryer
Conair Flat Iron 2" Ceramic Straightener
Travel Hair Setter
SteamFast SF-717 Home-and-Away Mini Steam Iron (dual voltage)
Braun Series 1 150 Men's Shaver with Automatic Worldwide Voltage Adjustment
My book will get you started.
HOW TO EUROPE
by John Bermont
The best travel guide to all of Europe.
Europe on a Shoestring
The essential timetable and handbook for rail travelers.
European Rail Timetable
Two excellent maps to help you plan and execute your journey.
Rail Map Europe
Thomas Cook Rail Map
Rail Map of Britain & Ireland
Thomas Cook Rail Map
A comprehensive guide to 3,000 hotels and restaurants in 44 major cities throughout Europe, in English.
Separate books in the Michelin Red series cover individual countries in greater detail. This is a must have
for frequent travelers.
Main Cities of Europe 2013
This will come in very handy very often.
For reading maps and other stuff with fine print.
Bausch and Lomb 2X Folding Lighted Magnifier
A Swiss Army knife is probably the best traveling tool there is, but it must be
in your checked luggage on the plane.
Victorinox Swiss Army Fieldmaster Pocket Knife
Who wrote this?
Home and general index.