What’s the Difference?

Some things are different in Europe – does it matter? I find most of the differences interesting and not a problem to deal with. A few of the differences require an advanced notice and a little planning, but nothing is difficult.  Some differences are even enjoyable – I’d like to see them in the States.

Hostel Bathroom

Despite what you might imagine, Europe does not have squat toilets. Around 90% of the toilets I’ve used in Europe are just like the ones I am familiar with at home. Rarely, I’ve found some without a seat – just the ceramic bowl. Although a little uncomfortable, they are still usable. In the States, we are starting to catch up with Europe in environmental concerns – they have used low-flow or dual-flush toilets for years.

Another difference in Europe is that some restroom facilities are unisex – sometimes used by both sexes at the same time. Europeans are more open about bodily functions and don’t see the need for privacy. You can read more about bathroom practices here.

Electrical Outlets and Current

European electrical outlets and the plugs that fit in them are different than those in the States. The plugs on appliances have two small round posts rather than two flat ones (or two flat ones plus a round one for a grounded plug). When you travel to Europe with any electrical appliances, computers, or phones, you will need a plug adapter.  The American two-pronged plug is inserted into the adapter which has two round posts to insert into the outlet. The adapter is usually a one-inch square about 3/8 inch thick.

Converter and Adapters

In addition to the different plug configuration, European buildings use a different voltage of current. In the US, our appliances use 110 volts, while European appliances use 220 volts. New appliances, such as hair driers, curling irons, and electric shavers, sold in the States are dual voltage, meaning they will work on both continents. Older appliances may have a switch to change the voltage – even older appliances just use 110 volts.

Years ago, I traveled with a curling iron that did not have dual voltage capabilities. When I used it in Europe, it heated up way beyond what was needed to curl my hair.  If I used it as it was, I would have singed my hair.

In order to make an old appliance work in Europe, a converter is needed.  The converter is a larger box (about two inches square by three inches long). The converter changes the voltage to the correct level so old appliances can be used.

Laptops, tablets, and mobile phones have converters built into their cords – remember that large box that is part of the cord or plug? Just be sure to use the cords and plugs that came with your electronic devices so you have the correct conversion.

Driving on the
Familiar Side of the Road

Often when I talk about renting a car and driving in Europe, I get asked how I like driving on the other side of the road. In continental Europe, cars are driven on the right side of the road – the same as at home. In England and Ireland, cars are driven on the left.  I haven’t yet rented a car in either of these countries, but I’ve read that it isn’t difficult to switch.

Most Europeans drive cars with manual transmissions, though, which is something I have had to watch out for.  When renting a car, prices are usually given for a manual transmission; automatics cost more – sometimes much more. When I was in high school, I tried driving my uncle’s manual farm truck – it didn’t go well.  If you are comfortable driving a manual, that’s fine, but don’t plan to learn while on your European vacation. You can read more about renting a car here and here.

Building Structures
Steep Stairs

I have encountered some interesting differences in some of the building structures. For years, buildings in the Netherlands were taxed according to the footprint of the foundation. Homeowners and builders became wise and began constructing tall, but narrow buildings.

In order to access the upper levels of the structures, tall narrow staircases were installed.  Climbing the stairs in my relatives’ home felt like climbing a step ladder. We found the same steep stairs in the B&Bs we rented.  I guess I would get used to it if I lived there.

Side Opening

In Germany, many homes and buildings have convertible windows.  I love them and wish they were available in the States. With this style of window, if you turn the latch one direction, the window opens to the side – similar to the crank out windows I have at home, although coming in.

Door-Window Opening on the Top

If you turn the latch in the other direction, though, the window tilts in at the top allowing air flow, but with less breeze. I like having the option of how much air and the direction of the air flow.

Household Appliances
Large Refrigerator in the Apartment in Barcelona

If you are a fan of House Hunters International, you might notice how many times the home buyers or renters are concerned about the size of the refrigerators in the homes they are considering. Many homes in all parts of Europe have smaller refrigerators than we would expect. There is a reason for this – families shop at markets more frequently so produce is not expected to take up much room in the fridge.

I’ve written about how much I love the European markets, but I do think it would be an adjustment to buy less while shopping more frequently. I already struggle with buying too much food – although maybe I’d be forced to cut back if I had a smaller fridge.

Typical European
Washing Machine

Another difference comes in taking care of clothes. Many places I have stayed had washing machines, which were very helpful for packing light. What the apartments didn’t have though, were clothes dyers. Clothes would have to be hung over clothes drying racks, or on indoor or outdoor clotheslines. My friends in the Netherlands have an indoor clothesline at the top if their staircase.  “Heat rises,” they told me, “so the clothes dry fastest up here.”


If you buy a complete set of new bedding in the States, one of the available options might be “Euro shams.” Euro shams fit on European-sized pillows – about 16 to 18 inches square.  In the states we are used to sleeping on rectangular shaped pillows, but in Europe, many of the beds have square ones. I was surprised the first time I encountered them, but square pillows are actually very comfortable to sleep on.


The differences between Europe and the United States are what make traveling overseas so interesting. I’d be less inclined to travel if everything was like what I have at home.

What differences have you noticed when you traveled? What adjustments did you make to overcome them?  Leave a comment below – share your experiences with other readers.


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