Saturday, August 31, 2013

European Chronicles 2013: Europe in General

The first and foremost impression is: Europe respects my maturity.

In Madurodam, there's a needle sharp spike on top of a model building, right where people can fall on it and poke their eyes out. Metal, not plastic.

In Amsterdam, people park their cars within an arms' reach from the canal - unfenced, mind you. Bicyclists dash on bike paths - again, on the edge of unfenced canals. No helmets, either.

In Germany, castles might have a knee high parapet over a hundred meter drop.

In Switzerland, roads rarely have shoulders. Moreover, the central divider is also not guaranteed.

Also in Switzerland, the highest point of respect for my maturity was an elevator... without doors. Yep. No doors. Doors are for those *not* in the elevator, for those that are - just walls.

In other words, the continent is telling me that it understands that I'm an adult and can (and will) be counted on and held responsible for the consequences of my actions. Stark contrast with US, where people need to be told that they can't iron clothes when wearing them. Seriously, no sarcasm, it felt good.

Roads are narrower. Cars are smaller, most of them are diesel. People are leaner. Imagine this, they actually *have muscles* (those things you have to use to get from your refrigerator to your car). And they do actually walk to the store to get things, and they're even capable of hauling the stuff they buy back into the house without a help of a car. Restaurants are quiet. Waiters are in-visible, not in-trusive.

And it looks like Europe is a land of immigrants much more than US today.

One thing that is sorely missing - out of HVAC, the only thing present is H. The rest is normally missing - but when it's present, it's state of art. HVAC units sold in US look like coal powered steam locomotives in comparison.

^[European Chronicles 2013]

Thursday, August 29, 2013

European Chronicles 2013: Money

Most remarkable part, people laugh at dollars :) They're no good in Europe.

It may be a good idea to exchange currency before the trip, you might get a better exchange rate.

Switzerland accepts euros and Swiss franks, but will always return the change in franks. Lots of coins, too. When you try to exchange currency, though, coins won't be accepted.

Germany and Netherlands accept only euros.

American credit cards, mostly, don't work - American Express is rarely accepted, and the only version of MasterCard that is accepted (except for very few places) is the one with the chip.

The card that does work is Maestro, however, it looks like it's not a credit card, which defeats the purpose - unless you have a dedicated spending account. Also it looks like US version won't work anyway (no chip).

Credit card companies will charge what they shamefacedly call a "currency conversion charge" (2-3%). However, it will be charged on *all* transactions, including those made in dollars, so it is rather an "overseas charge" (they will reluctantly tell you this when you ask).

And, of course, cash will always work. Moreover, there will be places that won't accept credit cards at all, citing too much overhead.

One thing that is *very* different - in Amsterdam, I've been advised more than once that it would be a dumb idea to carry your wallet in your back pocket - pickpockets are ever busy in downtowns and on crowded trains.

^[European Chronicles 2013]

Monday, August 26, 2013

European Chronicles 2013: Dashcam

For several reasons not related to this trip, we ended up using GoPro HERO 3 Black Edition as a dashcam. Turned out to be not the brightest idea, mainly because of two things.


The camera overheats all the time. The only day it didn't it was about 8°C to 20°C outside, whenever the temperature was getting more than about 22°, it lasted about 40 minutes.

One thing GoPro can do better is - they can improve sound notifications. Right now you have no idea why the camera shuts off by itself - and there's quite a few possible causes, here's what I remember off the top of my head:

  • Camera overheats;
  • SD card is out of disk space;
  • SD card can't keep up with throughput camera wants it to deliver (turning Protune off helps).

Also, it makes the same sound when you start the recording as when you stop it, and it's not really possible to easily determine whether it's currently recording or not (that bright red flashing light is actually not that bright when you're looking against the sun), and it's turned away from you.


Since the plan was to record *everything*, we ended up mounting the camera to the inside of the windshield with the suction cup. As a result, the reflection of the dashboard is on all the videos - and unfortunately, we only noticed this after returning. Hence, artistic value of the video is zero - though, it is still perfectly usable as a documentary. You can probably get rid of this if you concoct a sort of a hood for the camera, shouldn't be that difficult.


Mounting the camera on the inside of the windshield was the only option since we were driving (and recording) up to 8 hours a day. This allowed to use the car charger, but required to get the skeleton housing, for it was the only solution that exposed the USB port (frame mount doesn't expose the SD card slot, and it would've been a pain in the neck to replace the SD card on the fly (see why)).

One other thing GoPro can do better is to make the camera in such a way that it can be used with just the USB cable without the battery - which was the main source of overheating.


Some cards (surprisingly, SunDisk is one of them) are known *not* to work with this camera, or work with limitations (Protune being one of them). Search on "gopro 3 stops recording" to find out more.


Despite all the shortcomings, having the trip filmed at 1080x60FPS was cool :) If your trip is in cold weather, this might be a good solution after all.

^[European Chronicles 2013]

European Chronicles 2013: Connectivity


Long story short, we ended up buying SIM cards from Lebara for Netherlands (1GB for a €20, if I remember right) and from Sunrise for Switzerland (1CHF/day for unlimited Internet, extra for voice and SMS). Lebara gives you credit for the amount you spent on a card (or a refill), Sunrise gives half. Both cards can be refilled on the fly.


"Free WiFi everywhere" is a myth. In not so many places where there is publicly accessible WiFi, they normally require your mobile number to send a text message with access code to (in other words, forget about trying to use WiFi access to bootstrap your Internet, such as find the store to buy the card from, without spending your money at least on SMS). Even then, the "free" access is limited, normally to 30 minutes.

And it is absolutely *not* "everywhere". Especially if you go into rural areas - good chances they won't even accept your credit cards, but that's another story.

It will be a good idea to get a hold of SIM cards *before* you arrive, for the hassle and lost time of your vacation will be worth much more than time spent on investigations.

^[European Chronicles 2013]

Friday, August 16, 2013

European Chronicles 2013: Car Reservation

Since we planned to drive over 2,000 km, I wanted to rent a vehicle that would be a pleasure, not pain, to drive.

Initial idea was to rent a 5 series (all in all, I've driven one for over a decade, they all drive alike, and I could pay more attention to what would be happening outside than to getting to know the car and its quirks).

First look at a parking place shook this intent.

In US, 5 series, even the current one, not to mention other venerable lines, looks like a sparrow among turkeys.

In Europe, 5 series looks like a turkey among sparrows.

I said to myself - "No, 3 series will suffice".
The next day I said to myself - "No, 1 series will suffice".

Seriously. Those 4 inches may make a difference between being able to get into the car when someone parks next to you, or not.

Now that it was clear what to get, the task was easy - to get it. Or so I thought.

The only agency that would rent out BMW was Sixt. But that wasn't the problem. "or similar" in a very, very small print was the problem. It would look like this:

Sorry, Sixt, but Golf, V40, or even more so "other sedan" are *not* valid substitutes for the car you are trying to make me believe I'm ordering.

The only way to get through this is to order the car in person - only then you have a choice either to take what they have *right now*, or walk away and get the cheapest car, 'cause what you want is not available anyway - that's what we decided to do.

Ironically, we've been witnesses to an infuriated customer who, in disbelief, was almost shouting at the Sixt rep - "But I ordered a BMW, and I GOT A CONFIRMATION!!!" - to which the nonchalant rep was patiently responding, time after time, "Sorry, but we can't guarantee the availability of a specific car. See right there, it says "or similar"".

But even being personally present may not help. I didn't want to get the car that exact day, being quite jet lagged, and made an arrangement to reserve the car (1 series, manual, with GPS) until 1PM the next day.

Next day, I'm coming to Sixt garage and what am I finding? Correct, 1 series, with GPS, *automatic*. I'm telling the Sixt rep "Excuse me, but this is not the car I was told was reserved for me", to which he responded, you guessed correctly, "Sorry, but we can't guarantee the availability of a specific car". I knew better than to fight this battle, and said "What else can you give me?" Long story short, I ended up with diesel F30 318d, which I took as a higher deity's suggestion that I won't like 1 series anyway (I already don't; having driven a few, I'm finding them wanting, or, should I say, wannabe). No inconvenience discount, either.

It is worth noting that the car was equipped very well - US agencies normally give you the cheapest P.O.S. in the line. This one was equipped with navigation, climate control, back up camera and parking sensors, along with Efficient Dynamics upgrade. For those curious, look at the guts or type 'J622969' into the VIN decoder to get the list of packages installed.

About the diesel... It was serendipitous to get one. I expected to spend over $800 on fuel, but spent less than $200. And, it is certainly a *different* driving experience, NA doesn't get much of it (whereas it's the other way around in Europe).

Another factor - unfortunately, I was misinformed before the trip - someone told me that it will be cheaper to rent a car at the airport. In fact, it's the exact opposite. It's called a Premium Location Fee, and it is a whopping 21.5%. It is hidden deeply into Sixt's rental information page. It was too late for me to do anything about it, so I had to take it as a costly lesson - maybe you can learn from it.

Another cost related factor - "additional services". Terms are different in US and Europe, watch out - what is called "collision damage waiver" may already be provided by your credit card, if you have a decent one. Same for "theft protection" (a.k.a. "loss protection"). Same for "personal accident protection" - your health insurance, if it is a decent one, may have coverage. Don't assume they do, though, do check.

One more thing worth noticing is that European rental agencies are *very* particular when it gets to damage on the car. Where US agencies's won't even look twice, European will note the damage and make you pay through the nose for it. Combined with the fact that European roads and parking places are *much* narrower than US, I'd say - go for a smaller car than you think you'd want.

And another note - finally, I asked the rep - "What is one obvious thing that customers routinely overlook?" He said, "Take a good look at the car".

Heed the warning.

The car I rented was given to me right after it's been washed, in a dark underground garage. Even though I did my best to examine it thoroughly, I failed to find damages that have become painfully obvious in a few hours when the car dried up in a hot sun. I immediately made pictures of all the things I found (some of which were way more serious than a small scratch already on the record) and emailed them Sixt with a statement that I won't be held responsible for them. It worked, no extra damage was claimed on the way out.


  • If you want a specific car, you'll have to make the reservation in person (and be prepared to pay extra for it);
  • If you can live with a category, find out the SIPP (a.k.a. ACRISS) code for it is (complete list here);
  • Get a diesel, if you can - it'll save you *a lot*;
  • Avoid "premium locations" (getting to a cheaper place on a train *will* save you money, at cost of extra hassle - it's your call);
  • Make sure you don't take insurance you may already have;
  • Take a very good look at the car *before* you get out of the garage;
  • Be extra careful with it;
  • If there was a problem (even a small one), take pictures right away and communicate the problem to your rental agency and police - without a police report, *you* may be held responsible.
Good luck.

^[European Chronicles 2013]

European Chronicles 2013: Planning [Fail]

Just like we did before, we planned the trip on Google Maps, carefully selecting places we wanted to visit and routes we wanted to take.

View Europe 2013 Trip - Outline in a larger map

Only to find out, one day before the trip started, that Google, in its infinite wisdom, removed My Maps feature, along with usable offline map caching ("ok maps" is *not* acceptable) from Maps on Android.

To say that I was infuriated would be an understatement of a century.

Still, even in this crippled form, planning helped - for example, it would've been absolutely impossible to discover Hotel Salastrains or Gasthof Seefeld while being on foot or in the car. And, if not for it, we would certainly not discovered Lago di Livigno, the southernmost point of our trip.

^ [European Chronicles 2013]

European Chronicles 2013

Contrary to my usual attitude, I managed, with a little help from my friends, to get off my butt and see places.

This article is an anchor and table of contents. Thoughts, impressions and pictures need to settle down first, then they will appear here, as they're ready. Keep checking, for this page will keep changing.

View Europe 2013 Trip - Outline in a larger map

To be continued:
  • Netherlands
  • Germany
  • Switzerland