Sunday, March 22, 2015

Exchange Students: What You Should Know About Traveling to Germany

I am one of the organizers for a summer exchange program for middle school students. The program is for students in the sister cities of Esslingen, Germany, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin (USA) and was established in 2010. In July the group of Sheboygan students and their chaperone fly over to Esslingen to spend three weeks living with host families, attending a few days of school, and touring with the group and with their families. Then the Esslingen students and their chaperone fly with the Sheboygan group to Wisconsin where they spend three weeks getting to know what life is like in the U.S.. It's a fantastic program and we have had really wonderful groups of students participating each year.

As a former teacher I'm a big fan of handouts and written information for students to read and study on their own time and then come back with questions. In an effort to be more eco-friendly, I thought this year I would put my advice on my blog and provide families with the links to read online.

Exchange programs are close to my heart because I participated in one during my junior year (11th grade) in high school. The dear woman who is now my Schwiegermutter was the coordinator of the program in Esslingen, so she has known me since I was a silly 17-year-old. Now she and I work together for the Esslingen program, have both been chaperones for the German students, and do what we can to provide students with a wonderful and educational experience in both countries.

So what advice do I have for American students (specifically those from Sheboygan, WI) coming over to Germany for an exchange program where they will be living with a German family? I'll start with the following. If you have any advice to add, please add a comment!

What to Know About Traveling to Germany

  1. It is essential that you pack good, sturdy walking shoes. Tennis/Gym shoes are probably fine; just don't rely on flip-flops even if you go everywhere in them in Wisconsin. You will be walking on uneven cobblestones and up and down hills and stairs, probably climbing up tall church steeples (the tallest church steeple in the world is in Ulm, a city we will be visiting together!), running to catch a bus or train, and hiking in forests and possibly in hills or mountains. On the days we take day trips together as a group, we will be walking many miles to tour the towns and you will need to wear good walking shoes (not flip-flops) on those days.
  2. Bring a rain jacket, spring jacket, or some jacket that keeps you dry in the rain. We do not cancel day trips because of rain. Your family will surely have an umbrella for you to borrow; in  Germany if there's even a chance of rain, wise people have an umbrella with them. They're not uncool here. :-)

  3. You will likely be riding the city bus and perhaps a train with your partner (never alone!) to get to school, to go into town, or to go to a friend's house. Most Germans use public transportation on a regular - if not daily - basis.

  4. Do not lose your passport. Your passport is the single most important thing you possess when you are traveling internationally, even much more important than money. Without your passport, you cannot get on the plane to return home. Your host family will have to drive you to Munich or Frankfurt (a minimum 2-hour drive each way) to spend several hours waiting in line for an appointment to get a temporary replacement passport so that you can return home. Because this will take all day, tell someone immediately if you think you have lost your passport. Do not delay for fear of getting into trouble, because delaying will make the situation worse.

  5. If you go on a trip with your host family, take your passport with you. If your family wants to take you into Switzerland, for instance, you need your passport to cross and re-cross the border because Switzerland is not a member of the EU. Feel free to ask your host parents to keep your passport safely during your trip to reduce your chance of losing it.

  6. Make and bring TWO copies of your passport with you on the day you leave for Germany. Give one copy to your chaperone and keep one copy in your carry-on.

  7. Once you've arrived at your host family's home, I recommend you put your passport in a safe place (in a drawer in your bedroom, for instance) and keep the copy of your passport in your wallet or purse. Verify visually every single day that you still have your passport and know where it is.

  8. There are not public restrooms all over the place, and even when you do find them, you often have to pay 50 cents to use them. Before you leave a restaurant, pizza parlor, cafe, or home, use the bathroom there - those are free and readily available.

  9. "WC" (Water Closet) is a common abbreviation or sign for a restroom.

  10. Sunday is not a day for shopping. Almost all stores are closed on Sundays in Germany.

  11. A lot of people smoke in Germany! Smoking is generally banned indoors, but you will often find yourself walking behind someone who is smoking, walking through a cloud of smoke, or standing near someone who is smoking at a bus stop, train platform, or waiting to cross a street.

  12. Water is not free in restaurants, and Germans don't drink tap water. You buy bottled water, and you'll want to ask or look for "stilles Wasser" - still water, rather than the very common unflavored carbonated water. There's nothing wrong with the tap water, though, so feel free to drink it at your host family's home!

  13. Air conditioning is not common in stores or homes. On hot days you will be warm.

  14. Clothing is very expensive in Germany. A normal pair of jeans costs around $100. Price tags and signs show exactly what you will pay for the item; the 19% sales tax is already figured in.

Potential Hot Spots

Avoiding or dealing with potentially awkward situations...

Foul Language

English curse words are not bleeped out on TV or in songs on the radio - not even "the f-word". Game show contestants express their frustration often enough by using the English curse words "f---" and "sh--". Curse words in German or in English are not really considered a big deal in Germany - students even use them in school without getting scolded.
A teen comedy movie about students and teachers came out last year called "Fack ju Göthe", and I heard a young child shout that on his way past me out of his school the other day.


Young children play in wading pools, fountains, and streams on hot summer days, often wearing nothing at all, not even a diaper. This is not sick or weird - Europeans are not as uptight about nudity as we Americans are. Do not stare. Nudity is natural, but staring is rude.

At beaches it is generally allowed for women to be topless. Most wear a top, but not all. Do not stare or giggle.


Avoid public ones. In Germany swim suits are not worn in saunas, and they are co-ed (for men and women together). Some people cover themselves with a towel, but many do not. Again, this is not weird; it's just the way its done here. In fact, Germans find it odd that Americans wear swim suits in saunas.

Movies and TV

In Germany Movies and TV shows are rated more strictly for violence than for nudity or sexual scenes. Movies that are rated R in the U.S. because of sexual scenes are commonly rated "not to be seen by children under 12" in Germany. 


Do not waste anything - water, electricity, food, beverages... Europeans tend to be much more conservative than Americans (in other words Americans tend to waste much more than Europeans). Keep your showers as short as possible, turn off lights as you leave rooms, and eat and drink what you take. (When you are served and have no choice about the size of the serving, you do not need to stuff yourself sick. Eat as much as you comfortably can and try to waste as little as possible.)


Ask your family what time you need to be ready to leave, and make sure you are ready before then. Germans are highly punctual; do not make them wait for you.


Do not begin eating until someone has said "Guten Appetit," which means "enjoy your meal." Usually this comes after everyone has served themselves or been served. Follow your partner's lead.

While I can't cover everything in one post, I think these are the most important for young travelers. What do you think, readers? Any other advice for 7th grade students coming to Germany for three weeks this summer?


  1. Anonymous22/3/15 20:03

    Enjoy yourself, have fun, laugh often, be happy! This would be my advice ...

    1. Also good advice! However, after six trips with American high school students to Germany and working for three years with German students to prepare them for spending time in Wisconsin, I have learned that the more they know before they go, the better. THEN they can enjoy themselves, have fun, laugh often and be happy - because they were well-prepared. :-)

  2. My boyfriend still angrily mumbles "Guten Appetit" whenever I start eating before he is completely prepared to start his meal too (which is a situation that happens almost every evening). Hah.

    1. It feels so wrong to not wait for the "Guten Appetit"! I feel devilishly guilty if I sneak in a bite of salad before he's ready (but obviously I have done this). I used to tell my American students this is the equivalent of starting to eat before (or during!) the table prayer.

    2. LOL, I'm so glad my boyfriend doesn't care about stuff like that! by the time he manages to tear himself away from the laptop my dinner would be practically cold!

  3. I still remember being dragged up the steps at Cologne cathedral on my school exchange. All the students moaned so much, but we had to climb the stuipd tower anyway!

    1. But afterwards, weren't you glad you did it?!? (Please say yes.) I am going to "challenge the students to join me" rather than force them. I am going on a reconnaissance trip to Ulm some time this spring, at which time I'm going to see if I can make it! :-)