Austria Practical Travel Info and Tips
Austria is one of the safest countries in the world. According to the OECD Factbook of 2006, levels of robbery, assault, and car crime are among the lowest in the developed world, and a study by Mercer ranks Vienna as the 6th safest city in the world out of 215 cities. Violent crimes are extremely rare and should not concern the average tourist. Small towns and uninhabited areas such as forests are very safe at any time of the day.,
Beware of pickpockets in crowded places. Like everywhere in Europe they are becoming increasingly professional. Bicycle theft is rampant in bigger cities, but virtually absent in smaller towns. Always lock your bike to an immobile object.
Racism can also be a problem and make your stay an unpleasant experience. Just like anywhere else in Central Europe, there might be instances of glaring, hostile looks, even questioning by the police in big cities like Graz or Vienna is not uncommon. This might make the non-Caucasian audience unwelcome. However, Racism is almost never seen in a violent form. In more remote parts of Austria people of non-white origin are a rare sight. If you see senior locals giving you strange looks here don't feel threatened. They are probably just showing curiosity or a distrust of foreigners and have no intention of doing any physical harm. A short conversation can often be enough to break the ice.
Do not walk on the bike lanes (especially in Vienna) and cross them like you would cross any other road. Some bike lanes are hard to recognize (e.g. on the "Ring" in Vienna) and some cyclists drive rather fast. Walking on bike lines is not only considered to be impolite, but it may also happen that you are hit by a cyclist.
Public toilets must normally be paid for. Prices range between ˆ0.20 and ˆ1, which must either be handed to a toilet assistant or inserted into a slot. Public toilets can always be found in city centers (normally on the main square), in train stations, and near major tourist attractions. In Vienna it's probably a good idea to simply walk into the next McDonald's and use the washrooms there for free.
Households without washing machines are almost unheard of in Austria. As a result, laundrettes are few and far between, and may be completely absent from smaller cities. However, most hotels, youth hostels, campsites and even B&Bs normally offer laundry facilities for a small charge.
Austria has an excellent healthcare system by Western standards. Hospitals are modern, clean, and well-equipped. Healthcare in Austria is funded by the Krankenkassen (Sickness-funds), compulsory public insurance schemes that cover 99% of the population. Most hospitals are owned and operated by government bodies or the Krankenkassen. Private hospitals exist, but mainly for non-life-threatening conditions. Doctor's surgeries on the other hand are mostly private, but most accept patients from the Krankenkassen. Many Austrians choose to buy supplemental private health insurance. This allows them to see doctors that don't accept Krankenkassen and to stay in special hospital wards with fewer beds (which often receive preferential treatment).
If you are a traveller from the EU, you can get any form of urgent treatment for free (or a small token fee) that is covered by the Krankenkassen. Non-urgent treatment is not covered. Simply show your European Health Insurance Card and passport to the doctor or hospital. When going to a GP, watch out if the street sign says "Alle Kassen" (all Krankenkassen accepted), or "Keine Kassen" (no Krankenkassen accepted), in which case your EHIC is not valid. Supplemental travel insurance is recommended if you want to be able to see any doctor or go to the special ward.
If you are a traveller from outside the EU, and have no travel insurance, you will need to pay the full cost of treatment up-front (with the exception of the emergency room). Medical bills can be very expensive, though still reasonable when compared to the USA.
Austria has a dense network of helicopter ambulances that can reach any point in the country within 15 minutes. Beware: Mountain rescue by helicopter is not covered by your EHIC, or indeed most travel insurances. If you have a medical emergency while you are in the mountains (eg. break a leg while skiing), the helicopter will be called on you regardless of whether you ask for it or not, and you will be billed upwards of ˆ1,000. Mountain sports insurace is therefore highly recommended; you can obtain this from your health insurer or by becoming a member of the Austrian Alpine Club. (ˆ 48,50 for one year of membership, automatic insurance for mountain search-and-rescue costs up to ˆ 22.000)
Certain regions in Austria (Carinthia, Styria, Lower Austria) are affected by tick borne encephalitis. For those who plan doing outdoor activities in spring or summer a vaccine is strongly recommended. Also be aware that there is a small, endangered population of sand vipers in the south.
Tap water is of exceptional quality and safe to drink in Austria (except in some parts of lower Austria, where it is recommended to ask about the water quality first!). The quality of water in Vienna is supposedly comparable to that of Evian.
Austrians (especially those over 40) take formalities and etiquette seriously. Even if you are the most uncharismatic person in the world, old-fashioned good manners ( Gutes Benehmen ) can take you a long way in a social situation. On the flip side, there are endless possibilities to put your foot in it and attract frowns for breaking an obscure rule.
In public many people can be impolite and pushy however. Many tourists perceive Austrians as unfriendly on the street and in shops, but in many cases this is directness and formality mistaken for unfriendliness. You may find for example that a shop assistant tells you off only to be extremely helpful a minute later. In Vienna a cafe isn't considered a real cafe without bad-tempered and arrogant waiters.
Perhaps surprisingly for a rather conservative nation, Austria's attitude towards nudity is one of the most relaxed in Europe. The display of full nudity in the mainstream media and advertising can be a shock for many visitors, especially those from outside Europe. It is not uncommon for women to bathe topless in beaches and recreational areas in summer. Though swimming costumes must normally be worn in public pools and beaches, when bathing "wild" in rivers and lakes is normally OK to take one's clothes off. Nudity is compulsory in Austria's many nude beaches ( FKK Strand ), health spas and hotel saunas.
Some basic etiquette (Of course most of this doesn't really matter when you are in a younger crowd)
- When entering and leaving public places Austrians always say hello ( Guten Tag or Gru? Gott ) and goodbye ( Auf Wiedersehen ). When entering a small shop, one should say "Gru? Gott" to the shop keeper when entering and "Wiedersehen" when leaving (the "Auf" is normally left off). Phone calls are usually answered by telling your name, and finished with Auf Wiederhoren .
- Don't raise your voice or shout in public, especially on public transportation. It might be interpreted as aggression. If you are speaking a language other than German, it becomes all the more important to speak quietly in order to not be a "loud foreigner".
- When being introduced to someone, always shake them by the hand, keep the other hand out of your pocket, say your name and make eye contact . Failure to make eye contact, even if out of shyness, is considered condescending.
- It is a custom to kiss ones cheeks twice when friends meet, except for Vorarlberg, where people kiss each other three times. When you're not sure whether this is appropriate, wait until your counterpart starts the greeting.
- When drinking alcohol you don't drink until you have toasted ("ansto?en"). Say "prost" or "cheers" and most importantly make eye contact when toasting.
- In restaurants, it is considered rude to start smoking while someone on the table is still eating. Wait until everybody has finished, or ask if it is okay with everyone.
- If you have drunk all your wine and want more it's okay to pour some more into your glass, but only after you've kindly asked everyone around you at the table if they need any more.
- If you really want to show your manners while eating, let your unused hand rest on the table next to your plate and use it occasionally to hold your plate while eating, if necessary. Austrians use generally European table manners, that is, they hold the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left hand, eating with both utensils. It is polite to let your wrists or hands rest on the table, but not your elbows.
- In most Austrian households it is customary to take off one's shoes. This is a habit prevailing in most of Central Europe, maybe because of general cleanliness, but also because grit and slush from the pavements can cause havoc to a flat in winter.
- Austrians (like other Central European nations) love their titles. People who think of themselves as being respectable always expect to be addressed by their proper title, be it Prof., Dr., Mag. (Master's), Dipl.Ing. (Master's in Engineering), Ing. (Graduate Engineer) or even B.A. What sets Austrians aside is that if one holds more than one title, they are all listed! This is especially true for older people.