Planted firmly in the heart of Central Europe, the Czech Republic is culturally and historically more closely linked to Western, particularly Germanic, culture than any of its former Eastern-bloc brethren. The most popular tourist destination in the region, Prague was discovered shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But the stunning medieval towns in southern Bohemia and the famous spa resorts of the west are just as approachable. Travelers looking to get off the beaten path may wish to head for Moravia, the lesser-visited region in the eastern Czech Republic.
EXPLORE CZECH REPUBLIC
Prague is served by a growing number of budget carriers, which connect the Czech capital to several cities in the United Kingdom and across the European continent. These airlines are a great and cheap way to travel within Europe—though since the flights are popular, be sure to book well in advance. Budget carriers, however, are usually not much help in cutting costs when traveling from North America. Most of these carriers operate out of secondary airports (for example, Stansted in London instead of Heathrow, where most transatlantic flights land; Orly in Paris instead of the larger Charles de Gaulle airport). This means travelers must change not only airlines but also airports, which can add frustration and expense. Also, consider limits on both carry-on and checked baggage, which are often more stringent on budget carriers than on large international carriers. For flights within Europe, low-cost airlines are sometimes a viable alternative to bus and train travel.
The nonstop flight from New York to Prague takes about 8 hours, but the entire journey will take longer (12–15 hours) if you have to change planes at a European hub. The flight from London to Prague takes about 2 hours; the flight from Vienna to Prague takes less than an hour.
Prague’s Václav Havel Airport (formerly Ruzyně Airport) is the country’s main international airport and lies about 15 km (10 miles) northwest of the city center. The airport has two main terminals—Terminal 1 (T1) and Terminal 2 (T2)—so make sure to read your ticket carefully to see where you are arriving and departing from. There is also a Terminal 3 for private and charter flights. The trip from the airport to the downtown area by car or taxi will take about 30 minutes—add another 20 minutes during rush hour (7–9 am and 4–6 pm).
There are several options for getting into town from the airport, depending on the amount of time you have, your budget, and the amount of luggage.
The cheapest option is Prague’s municipal bus service, Bus No. 119, which leaves from just outside the arrivals area and makes the run to the Nádraží Veleslavín Metro station (Line A [green]) every 15 minutes or so during weekdays and less frequently on weekends and evenings. The 32 Kč ticket—plus an extra 16 Kč ticket if you have a large bag—can be purchased at the yellow vending machine at the bus stop and includes a transfer to the metro. A cheaper 24 Kč ticket allows for half an hour of travel, but that may not be enough to get all the way downtown. To reach Wenceslas Square, get off at Můstek station. It’s important to buy your tickets before you get on the bus. Ticket inspectors ride the airport line often.
The Cedaz minibus shuttle links the airport with the central V Celnici street, adjacent to Náměstí Republiky (Republic Square), which is not far from the Old Town Square. It runs regularly between 7:30 am and 7 pm daily. The one-way fare to V Celnici is 150 Kč.
A taxi ride to the center will set you back about 600 Kč–900 Kč; the fare will be higher for destinations outside the center and away from the airport. Be sure to agree on the fare with the driver before leaving the airport. AAA Radiotaxi and FIX Taxi have exclusive concessions to operate from the airport, but you can take any cab to the airport.
Prague Airport Shuttle offers transport to your hotel for a fixed price of 140 Kč per person to the center of Prague or a fixed rate to hotels that depend on the number of passengers (one to seven). The company promises to wait up to an hour from your originally scheduled arrival if your flight is delayed or if customs and immigration are slow. Reservations must be made in advance via email.
Delta Airlines offers nonstop flights from the United States (from New York’s JFK airport) to Prague in the summer (daily flights during the busiest season). No carrier offers direct service in the winter. Most major U.S.-based airlines fly to Prague through code-share arrangements with their European counterparts. However, nearly all the major European airlines fly there, so it’s usually easy to connect through a major European airport (such as London–Heathrow, Paris, Amsterdam, or Vienna) and continue to Prague; indeed, flights between the United Kingdom and Prague are numerous and frequent, including some on cheap discount airlines, though in London most of these leave from Gatwick or Stansted airports rather than Heathrow, making them less attractive options for Americans. Fares from the United States tend to rise dramatically during the busy summer season, particularly from June through August or September. There are many discounts during the slow winter months.
The Czech complex of regional bus lines known collectively as ČSAD operates its dense network from the sprawling Florenc station. For information about routes and schedules, consult the confusingly displayed timetables posted at the station, or visit the information window in the lower-level lobby, which is open daily from 6 am to 9 pm. The company’s website will give you bus and train information in English (click on the British flag).
There are also private bus companies servicing routes between Czech towns and cities. Many of these have newer buses with added services and comfort, as well as competitive prices and seasonal deals.
Most, but not all, buses use the Florenc station. Some buses—primarily those heading to smaller destinations in the south of the country—depart from above Roztyly Metro station (Line C [red]). You won’t know beforehand which buses leave from Roztyly or one of several other hubs, so you will have to ask first at Florenc or check the website. There’s no central information center at most other hubs; you simply have to sort out the timetables at the bus stops or ask someone.
Buses offer an easier and quicker alternative to trains for many destinations. The western Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary, for example, is an easy two-hour bus ride away. The same journey by train—because of the circuitous rail route—often takes three and a half hours.
Traveling by car has some obvious advantages: it offers much more flexibility and is often quicker than a bus or train. But these advantages can be outweighed by the costs of the rental and gasoline, as well as the general hassles of driving in the Czech Republic. Most roads in the country are of the two-lane variety and are often jammed with trucks. And then there’s parking. It’s impossible in Prague and often difficult in the larger cities and towns outside the capital. If you do decide to rent a car and drive, don’t set out without a large, up-to-date Český Autoatlas, available at gas stations and bookstores, or an updated map on your smartphone.
A special permit is required to drive on expressways and other four-lane highways. Rental cars should already have a permit affixed to the windshield. Temporary permits—for 10 days (310 Kč) or one month (440 Kč)—are available at border crossings, post offices, and service stations.
Gas stations are plentiful on major thoroughfares and near large cities. Many are open around the clock. At least two grades of unleaded gasoline are sold, usually 91–93 octane (regular) and 94–98 octane (super), as well as diesel. Prices are per liter, and the average cost of gasoline is substantially higher than in the United States. The Czech word for gasoline is benzin, and at the station, you pump it yourself.
Finding a parking spot in Prague can be next to impossible. Most of the spaces in the city center, Prague 1, 2, 3, 7, and 10 are reserved for residents, so you’ll have to look for public lots with machines that issue temporary permits (look for the big blue “P” on machines). To use the machines, insert the required amount of change—usually 20–30 Kč an hour—then place the ticket in a visible spot on the dashboard. Violators will find their cars towed away or immobilized by a “boot” on the tire. Some hotels offer parking—and this is a real advantage—though you may have to pay extra. A few streets also have meter parking that sells tickets to put in your window, but finding a spot is a virtual impossibility. Changes in the parking policy are pending, due to complaints from local businesses.
Parking is generally unrestricted in the outer areas of the city, though vacant spots can still be hard to find. If you have a car and you need to get rid of it, try parking it on one of the streets in Prague 5 or Prague 6. There’s an underground lot at Náměstí Jana Palacha, near Old Town Square. There are also park-and-ride (p+r) lots at distant suburban Metro stations, including Skalka (Line A), Zličín and Černý Most (Line B), and Nádraží Holešovice and Opatov (Line C). These charge as little as 20 Kč per day, substantially cheaper than downtown parking.
Rules of the Road
The Czech Republic follows the usual Continental rules of the road. A right turn on red is permitted only when indicated by a green arrow. Signposts with yellow diamonds indicate a main road where drivers have the right of way. The speed limit is 130 kph (78 mph) on four-lane highways, 90 kph (56 mph) on open roads, and 50 kph (30 mph) in built-up areas and villages. Passengers under 12 years of age, or less than 5 feet in height, must ride in the backseat.
Several major rental agencies have offices at the airport and also in the city. Prices can differ greatly, so be sure to shop around. Major firms like Avis and Hertz offer Western-style cars starting at around $45 per day or $300 per week, which includes insurance, damage waiver, and V.A.T. (value-added tax); cars equipped with automatic transmission and air-conditioning are available but are generally more expensive. Small-size “city cars,” like Smart cars or Mini Coopers, are cheaper. It’s best to reserve your rental car before you leave home, and it may be less expensive as well. Smaller local companies, on the other hand, can rent Czech cars for significantly less, but the service and insurance coverage may be inferior.
Drivers from the United States need no international driving permit to rent a car in the Czech Republic, only a valid domestic license, along with the vehicle registration. If you intend to drive across a border, ask about restrictions on driving into other countries. The minimum age required for renting is usually 21 or older, and some companies also have maximum ages; be sure to inquire when making your arrangements. The Czech Republic requires that you have held your driver’s license for at least a year before you can rent a car.
PUBLIC TRANSIT TRAVEL
Prague has an excellent public transit system, which includes a clean and reliable underground subway system—called the Metro—as well as an extensive tram and bus network. Metro stations are marked with an inconspicuous “M” sign. A refurbished old tram (No. 91) travels through the Old Town and Lesser Quarter on summer weekends. Beware of pickpockets, who often operate in large groups on crowded trams and Metro cars and all other forms of transportation, including intercity buses.
The basic Metro, bus, and tram ticket costs 32 Kč. It permits 90 minutes of travel throughout the Metro, tram, and bus network. Short-term tickets cost 24 Kč and allow 30 minutes’ ride on a tram, bus, or Metro. If you’re carrying a big bag, you need to buy an additional 16 Kč ticket. Most local people have monthly or annual passes, so while it may look like almost everyone is riding for free, they do have tickets. A matter of politeness: Czechs keep to the right side of escalators, leaving the left side free to people who want to walk up or down. It just takes one person on the wrong side to block the entire escalator.
Tickets (jízdenky) can be bought at dispensing machines in Metro stations and at some newsstands. They can also be purchased via SMS over a mobile phone by calling 902–06–26 if you have a SIM card from a Czech service provider. If you send an SMS that says DPT24 or DPT32 to the number, you will receive a virtual ticket for 24 Kč or 32 Kč.
You can buy a one-day pass allowing unlimited use of the system for 110 Kč or a three-day pass for 310 Kč. Validated one- or three-day passes allow traveling with a child 6–15 years old for free. The passes can be purchased at main Metro stations, from ticket machines, and at some newsstands in the center. A pass is not valid until stamped in the orange machines in Metro stations or aboard trams.
The trams and Metro shut down around midnight, but special night trams (Nos. 50–59) and some buses run all night. Night trams run at 20- to 30-minute intervals, and all routes intersect at the corner of Lazarská and Spálená streets in the New Town, near the Národní třída Metro station. Schedules and regulations in English are on the transportation department’s official website. Travel information centers provide all substantial information about public transport operations, routes, timetables, and so on. They are at major Metro stations and at both terminals at the airport.
Validate your Metro ticket at an orange stamping machine before descending the escalator. Trains are patrolled often; the fine for riding without a valid ticket is 1,500 Kč, but the fine is reduced to 800 Kč if you pay on the spot or within 15 days. Tickets for buses are the same as those used for the Metro, although you validate them at machines inside the bus or tram. Information about tickets, route changes, and fines is on the city transit company website.
Taxis are a convenient way of getting around town, particularly in the evening, when the number of trams and Metro trains starts to thin out. But be on the lookout for dishonest drivers, especially if you hail a taxi on the street or from one of the taxi stands at heavily touristed areas like Wenceslas Square. Typical scams include drivers doctoring the meter or failing to turn the meter on and then demanding an exorbitant sum at the end of the ride. In an honest cab, the meter starts at 40 Kč and increases by 28 Kč per km (½ mile) or 6 Kč per minute at rest. Most rides within town should cost no more than 150–250 Kč. A loophole in the law allows drivers to set their own prices, even though the city has an official price. To counter this, the city has Fair Place stands with taxis that meet a minimum standard and agree to follow the set price list. Average prices are posted on a sign at each stand. The best way to avoid getting ripped off is to ask your hotel or restaurant to call a cab for you. If you have to hail a taxi on the street, agree with the driver on a fare before getting in. (If the driver says he can’t tell you what the approximate fare will be, that’s almost a sure sign he’s giving you a line.) If you have access to a phone, a better bet is to call one of the many radio-operated companies, like AAA Taxi. The drivers are honest, and the dispatchers speak English.
Prague is serviced by two international train stations, so always make certain you know which station your train is using. The main station, Hlavní Nádraží, is about 500 yards east of Wenceslas Square via Washingtonova ulice. The other international station is Nádraží Holešovice, in a suburban area about 2 km (1 mile) north of the city center along the Metro Line C (red). Nádraží Holešovice is frequently the point of departure for trains heading to Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest. Two other large stations in Prague service mostly local destinations. Smíchovské Nádraží—southwest of the city center across the Vltava (on Metro Line B [yellow])—services destinations to the west, including trains to Karlštejn. Masarykovo Nádraží, near Náměstí Republiky in the center of the city, services mostly suburban destinations.
For train times, consult the timetables posted at the stations. On timetables, departures (odjezd) appear on a yellow background; arrivals (příjezd) are on white. There are two information desks at the main station, Hlavní Nádraží. The main Čedok office downtown can advise on train times and schedules.
On arriving at Hlavní Nádraží, the best way to get to the center of town is by Metro. The station lies on Metro Line C (red), and is just one stop from the top of Wenceslas Square (station: Muzeum)—travel in the direction of Haje station. You can also walk the 500 yards or so to the square, though the walk is not advisable late at night. A taxi ride from the main station to the center should cost about 100 Kč. To reach the city center from Nádraží Holešovice, take the Metro Line C (red) four stops to Muzeum; a taxi ride should cost roughly 200–250 Kč.
The state-run rail system is called České dráhy (ČD). On longer runs, it’s not really worth taking anything less than an express (rychlík) train, marked in red on the timetable. Tickets are inexpensive: a second-class ticket from Prague to Brno (a distance of 200 km [124 miles]) costs about 220 Kč. A 40–60 Kč supplement is charged for the excellent international expresses, EuroCity (EC) and InterCity (IC), and for domestic SuperCity (SC) schedules. A 35 Kč supplement applies to reserved seats on domestic journeys, or up tp 250 Kč for the high-speed Pendolino train, which goes to Plzeň, Pardubice, Olomouc, and Ostrava. If you haven’t bought a ticket in advance, you can buy one aboard the train, but for an extra fee. It’s possible to book sleepers (lůžkový) or the less-roomy couchettes (lehátkový) on most overnight trains. You do not need to validate your train ticket before boarding.
Recently, private firms have been allowed to operate trains. Two companies, Leo Express, and RegioJet, have routes from Prague to other major cities and also some international destinations. Tickets are not interchangeable between companies.
The Eurail Pass and the Eurail Youthpass are valid for travel within the Czech Republic, and if you’re traveling through to neighboring countries like Hungary, Austria, or Poland, it can be an economic way to bounce between the regions. (A three-country pass starts at €385 for adults or €253 for students.) The European East Pass is also a good option for first-class travel on the national railroads of the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. The pass allows five days of unlimited travel within a one-month period for €230 for first-class and €158 for second-class, and it must be purchased from Rail Europe before your departure. The many Czech rail passes available are useful chiefly by regular travelers. A discount applies to any group of 2–30 people traveling second class (sleva pro skupiny). It’s always cheaper to buy a return ticket. Foreign visitors will find it easiest to inquire at the international booking offices of major stations for the latest discounts and passes that will apply to them.
Internet is widely available at hotels, and many provide Wi-Fi. Cafés with Internet stations can be found all over Prague, and you’ll find you can check your email everywhere from the local bookstore to the Laundromat. Many Internet cafés allow Skype calling internationally.
The good news is that you can now make a direct-dial telephone call from virtually any point on earth. The bad news? You can’t always do so cheaply. Calling from a hotel is almost always the most expensive option; hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. In some countries, you can phone from call centers or even the post office. Calling cards usually keep costs to a minimum, but only if you purchase them locally. And then there are mobile phones, which are sometimes more prevalent—particularly in the developing world—than landlines; as expensive as mobile phone calls can be, they are still usually a much cheaper option than calling from your hotel.
The country code for the Czech Republic is 420. To call the Czech Republic from outside the country, dial the international access prefix, then “420,” and then the nine-digit Czech number. To call from the United States, for example, dial “011–420–xxx–xxx–xxx.”
Calling Within the Czech Republic
Most people in Prague have mobile phones, but a reasonable phone booth network still exists. Different payphones accept Czech coins, euro coins, chip-based cards, or a combination of the three. Some phones allow for sending (but not receiving) SMSs and email. The special chip-based pay-phone cards called O2 Trick are available for 180 Kč and up at O2 service stores, some post offices, and newsstands. In almost all phones, instructions are written in English. A domestic call is 15 Kč per impulse from a coin-operated phone. SMS and email over a payphone is 5 Kč domestically and 10 Kč abroad. An impulse ranges from one minute to three minutes. International calls start at 15 Kč for 18 or 38 seconds, depending on the country called. International calling cards, usable on any phone, are much cheaper. Calls from a payphone to a mobile phone can be quite expensive. The dial tone is a series of alternating short and long buzzes.
You can reach an English-speaking operator from one of the major long-distance services on a toll-free number listed in the instructions on the public phone. The operator will connect your collect or credit-card call at the carrier’s standard rates. In Prague, many phone booths allow direct international dialing.
There are no regional or area codes in the Czech Republic. Numbers that start with the first three digits running from 601 to 777, however, are mobile phones and the charge may be correspondingly higher. When calling a Czech number from within the Czech Republic, do not use the country code or any prefixes; simply dial the nine-digit number.
Calling Outside the Czech Republic
When dialing out of the country, the country code is 1 for the United States and Canada. To dial overseas directly, first dial “00” and then the country code of the country you are calling. A call to the United States or Canada, for example, would begin with 001, followed by the U.S. or Canadian area code and number.
You can also ask the receptionist at your hotel to put the call through for you. In the latter instance, the surcharges and rates will probably be very high.
Newsstands carry cards with low rates for international calls, but these are no longer very common. Most brands are intended for discounts for calling Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa, and Asia.
If you have a multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies than what’s used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, however: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. And overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call since text messages have a very low set fee (often less than 5¢).
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan at your destination. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. If your trip is extensive, you could also simply buy a new phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time. Some virtual mobile operators such as OpenCall offer SIM cards with no long-term commitment and very low international rates. Call prices within the European Union are regulated by law.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your mobile-phone company to unlock it for you, and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
There are few restrictions on what you can take out of the Czech Republic. The main exception is items with special historical or cultural value. To be exported, an antique or work of art must have an export certificate. Reputable shops should be willing to advise customers on how to comply with the regulations. If a shop can’t provide proof of the item’s suitability for export, be wary. Now that the Czech Republic is in the Schengen zone, there should be no restrictions on bringing cigarettes and alcohol to neighboring countries. Austria, however, has cracked down on people with more than a carton of cigarettes due to the lack of required German-language health warnings. Large knives and martial-arts items, common in Czech tourist shops, are also illegal in much of Europe, even though border checks have been dropped.
Under certain circumstances, you can receive a refund of 21% value-added tax (V.A.T.) payable on purchases over 2,001 Kč, provided the goods are taken out of the country soon after purchase. Ask about “Tax-Free Shopping” at the store when you purchase the goods and make sure to collect all of the necessary stamps and receipts. You can get a cash refund at the airport. Many downtown stores specializing in fashion, glass, or other popular items have a “tax-free” sticker on the door, meaning they have the proper forms for reclaiming tax.
The electrical current in Eastern and Central Europe is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets generally take plugs with two round prongs.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptop and mobile-phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so they require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked for shavers only for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Make sure food has been thoroughly cooked and is served to you fresh and hot. If you have problems, mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids; if you can’t keep fluids down, seek medical help immediately.
Infectious diseases can be airborne or passed via mosquitoes and ticks and through direct or indirect physical contact with animals or people. Some, including Norwalk-like viruses that affect your digestive tract, can be passed along through contaminated food. Condoms can help prevent most sexually transmitted diseases, but they aren’t absolutely reliable, and their quality varies from country to country. Speak with your physician and/or check the CDC or World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant, traveling with children, or have a chronic illness.
Pharmacies in Prague are well stocked with prescription and nonprescription drugs, though you may have trouble persuading a pharmacist to fill a foreign prescription. It’s best to bring from home all of the prescribed medications you are likely to need. Pharmacies are generally open during regular business hours from 9 am to 6 pm, with some offering night and weekend service. A new law requires a standard 30 Kč fee per prescription. During off-hours, pharmacies will often post the name and address of the nearest open pharmacy on their doors. Pharmacies not only sell prescription medicines but are the only licensed dealers of typical over-the-counter products like pain relievers and cough medicines. Most standard U.S. over-the-counter products have Czech equivalents. Aspirin is widely available. However, items such as aspirin cannot be found outside pharmacies. The most common nonaspirin pain reliever is Ibalgin (ibuprofen), sold in 200 mg and 400 mg doses.
Pharmacists may not speak English or know a drug’s non-Czech brand name, but will certainly know the drug’s generic name (“acetaminophen” for Tylenol, for example). Be sure to call a drug by its generic name when asking for it.
Shots and Medications
If you plan on doing a lot of hiking or camping, note that tick-borne Lyme disease is a serious risk in the woodlands of the Czech Republic. Schedule vaccinations well in advance of departure, because some require several doses, and others may cause uncomfortable side effects.
To avoid problems clearing customs, diabetic travelers carrying needles and syringes should have on hand a letter from their physician confirming their need for insulin injections.
Crime rates are relatively low in Prague, but travelers should be wary of pickpockets in crowded areas, especially on metros and trams, and at railway stations. Trams popular with tourists—like No. 22, which circumnavigates most of the major sites—are also popular with pickpockets. In general, always keep your valuables on your person; purses, backpacks, or cameras are easy targets if they are hung on or placed next to chairs.
Violent crime is extremely rare, and you shouldn’t experience any problems of this sort. That said, you should certainly take the typical precautions you would take in any large city.
Although nothing is likely to happen, it is not wise for a woman to go alone to a bar or nightclub or to wander the streets late at night. When traveling by train at night, seek out compartments that are well populated.
As with any city popular with tourists, Prague has its share of scams. The most common rip-offs are dishonest taxi drivers, pickpockets in trams and on the Metro, and the ubiquitous offers to “change money” on the street. All these are easily avoided if you take precautions. If you have to hail a cab on the street, ask the driver what the approximate fare will be before you get in (if he can’t tell you, that’s a bad sign), and ask for a receipt (paragon) at the end of the ride. In trams and on the Metro watch your valuables carefully. And never exchange money on the street unless you want to end up with a handful of fake and worthless bills.
Distribute your cash, credit cards, IDs, and other valuables between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money pouch. Don’t reach for the money pouch once you’re in public.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Though hours vary, most banks are open weekdays 8–5. Private currency exchange offices usually have longer hours, and some are open all night.
Gas stations on the main roads are open 24 hours a day.
In season (from May through September), most museums, castles, and other major sights are open Tuesday–Sunday 9–4. Hours vary at other times during the year, and some attractions in smaller, off-the-beaten-track places shut down altogether from November to March.
Most pharmacies are open weekdays 9–6 and are closed on weekends. For emergencies, some pharmacies maintain weekend hours, though these can change from week to week. Ask someone locally for advice.
Some stores are open weekdays from 9–6, but many are now are open to 11 pm. Some larger grocery stores open as early as 6 am, and a few of the hypermarkets in Prague (usually well outside of town along Metro lines) are open 24 hours. Department stores often stay open until 9 or even 10 pm. Outside Prague, most stores close for the weekend at noon on Saturday, although you may find a grocery store open at night or on the weekend.
January 1; Good Friday, Easter Monday; May 1 (Labor Day); May 8 (Liberation Day); July 5 (Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day); July 6 (Jan Hus Day); September 28 (Day of Czech Statehood); October 28 (Czech National Day); November 17 (Day of a Struggle for Liberty and Democracy, aka Velvet Revolution Day); and December 24, 25, and 26 (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day).
The Czech crown has been maintained at a level to promote foreign trade and tourism, though prices for some items are close to those of Western Europe. Many hotel prices are more realistic thanks to tough competition, and it’s easy to find last-minute bargains. Prices at tourist resorts outside the capital are lower and, in the outlying areas and off the beaten track, very low. The story is similar for restaurants, with Prague being comparable to the United States and Western Europe, whereas outlying towns are much more reasonable. The prices for castles, museums, and other sights are rising, but still low by outside standards.
ATMs are common in Prague and most towns in the Czech Republic, and more often than not are part of the Cirrus and Plus networks, meaning you can get cash easily. Outside of urban areas, machines can be scarce, and you should plan to carry enough cash to meet your needs.
In Czech an ATM is called a bankomat, and a PIN is also a PIN, just as in English.
Banks in the United States never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PIN numbers with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
ATMs are safe and reliable, but there have been some incidents of stolen PIN numbers. Instructions are in English. If in doubt, use machines attached to established banks like Česká Spořitelna, Komerčni Banka, and ČSOB.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are widely accepted by major hotels, restaurants, and stores, Diners Club less so. Smaller establishments and those off the beaten track, unsurprisingly, are less likely to accept credit cards.
Currency and Exchange
Although at some point in the future the Czech Republic is supposed to change to the euro, for now, the unit of currency in the Czech Republic is the koruna (plural: koruny), or crown (Kč), which is divided into 100 haléřů, or hellers. The 50-heller coin, the last of the small denominations, was phased out in 2008, but prices are still marked in hellers. There are coins of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 Kč; and notes of 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000, and 5,000 Kč. Notes of 1,000 Kč and up may not always be accepted for small purchases. Notes for 50 Kč were phased out in 2011 and are no longer accepted.
Try to avoid exchanging money at hotels or private exchange booths, including the ubiquitous Chequepoint and Exact Change booths. They routinely take commissions of 8%–10%, in addition to giving poor rates. The best places to exchange money are at bank counters, where the commissions average 1%–3%, or at ATMs. The koruna is fully convertible, which means it can be purchased outside the country and exchanged for other currencies. Of course, never change money with people on the street; not only is it illegal, but you will almost definitely be ripped off.
On arrival at the airport, your best bets for exchanging money are the ATM machines lined up in the terminal just as you leave the arrivals area. The currency-exchange windows at the airport offer rates similar to what you will find at exchange booths in town, but not quite as good as those at banks.
Service is not usually included in restaurant bills. In pubs or ordinary places, simply round up the bill to the next multiple of 10 (if the bill comes to 83 Kč, for example, give the waiter 90 Kč); in nicer places, 10% is considered appropriate for good food and service. Tip porters who bring bags to your rooms 40–50 Kč total. For room service, a 20 Kč tip is enough. In taxis, add 10%. Give tour guides and helpful concierges 50–100 Kč for services rendered.
Prague’s climate is continental, so in summer plan on relatively warm days and cool nights. Spring tends to be wet and cool; fall is drier but also on the chilly side. In winter, pack plenty of warm clothes and plan to use them. An umbrella is a good idea any time of year. Note that areas in higher elevations tend to stay very cool even in midsummer.
In general, pack for comfort rather than for style. Casual dress is the norm for everyday wear, including at most restaurants. Men will need a sport coat for an evening out at a concert or the opera. Shorts for men are not as common in Prague as they are in North America. In the evening, long pants are the norm, even in summer.
Many areas are best seen on foot, so take a pair of sturdy walking shoes and be prepared to use them. High heels can present considerable problems on the cobblestone streets of Prague.
Some items that you take for granted at home are occasionally unavailable or of questionable quality in Eastern and Central Europe, though the situation has been steadily improving. Toiletries and personal hygiene products are relatively easy to find, but it’s always a good idea to bring necessities when traveling in outlying areas, especially on weekends.
Citizens of the United States need only a valid passport to enter the Czech Republic and can stay for as long as 90 days without a visa. It’s a good idea to make sure your passport is valid for at least six months on entry. If you plan on living or working in the Czech Republic, be advised that long-term and work visas must be obtained outside the country. Contact the Czech embassy or consulate in your home country well in advance of your trip. The Czech Republic is now part of the Schengen area, meaning that once a visitor enters one of the countries in the zone, which covers most of Europe, he or she will not have to show a passport at each border; a visitor’s three-month stay begins upon the first point of entry into the Schengen area. Travelers are still required to have a valid passport, and spot checks still occur.
Public restrooms are more common, and cleaner, than they used to be in the Czech Republic. You nearly always have to pay 5–10 Kč to the attendant. Restaurant and bar toilets are generally for customers only, but if you’re discreet, no one will care if you just drop by to use the facilities.
Taxes are usually included in the prices of hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and items purchased in shops. The price on the tag is what you’ll pay at the register.
The Czech V.A.T. is called DPH (daň z přidané hodnoty), and there are two rates. The higher one (21%) covers nearly everything—gifts, souvenirs, clothing, and food in restaurants. Food in grocery stores and books are taxed by 15%. Exported goods are exempt from the tax, which can be refunded. All tourists outside the EU are entitled to claim the tax back if they spend more than 2,000 Kč in one shop on the same day. Global Blue processes V.A.T. refunds in the Czech Republic and will give you your refund in cash (U.S. dollars or euros) from a booth at the airport; be aware that the Czech Republic does not provide a postage-paid mailer for V.A.T. refund forms, unlike most other European countries.
When making a purchase, ask for a V.A.T. refund form and find out whether the merchant gives refunds—not all stores do, nor are they required to. Have the form stamped like any customs form by customs officials when you leave the country or, if you’re visiting several European Union countries when you leave the EU. After you’re through passport control, take the form to a refund-service counter for an on-the-spot refund (which is usually the quickest and easiest option), or mail it to the address on the form (or the envelope with it) after you arrive home. You receive the total refund stated on the form, but the processing time can be long, especially if you request a credit-card adjustment.
Global Blue is a Europe-wide service with 240,000 affiliated stores and more than 700 refund counters at major airports and border crossings. Its refund form, called a Tax Free Check, is the most common across the European continent. The service issues refunds in the form of cash, check, or credit-card adjustment.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.