Friday, April 25, 2014

Traveling to Germany

It's nearing the end of April, and we will be having several visitors from the U.S. during the second half of May. I thought I would take this opportunity to write about some of the tips I have for Americans traveling to Germany in the spring, in case I can be of service. The following advice applies to trips of approximately two weeks in length.

Things to bring:

  1. Your favorite OTC pain killers (Aleve, Advil, Tylenol). The main reason is that such things must be purchased in a pharmacy in Germany, which means you'll need to speak to the pharmacist, who may or may not speak English well enough to select the right medicine for your ailment. Besides, the American pills seem to me to be stronger, or more effective.
  2. Your favorite cold medicine, just in case - for the same reasons. You'll be breathing recycled airplane air for 10+ hours before you get here, and you'll be lucky if all you catch is a cold.
  3. One or two copies of your passport, kept where you don't keep your passport. If you lose your passport, this will make the horribly annoying process of getting an emergency replacement slightly less terrible.
  4. Clothing you can layer. This is not different from in the Midwest - it can be right chilly in the morning, and blazing hot by the early afternoon.
  5. Sturdy, comfortable, broken-in shoes for walking! If you're doing it right, you'll be doing a LOT of walking - don't bother with flip-flops and cutsey little shoes, ladies. Comfort and a lack of blisters are the only important factors.
  6. Noise-cancelling headphones for the flights! Trust me.
  7. Fewer clothes than you think you'll need. I have come across this packing tip many times: Pack in your suitcase what you think you'll need, and then unpack half of it. You do not need twice the number of shirts than days you'll be here. Quite honestly you can easily wear a shirt twice without washing - who's going to notice or care? The people you're traveling with are worrying about their own outfits, not yours. Remember, you'll want to have space to bring home souvenirs!
  8. A washcloth in a plastic bag (in case you have to pack it and it's still damp), if you usually use one. There are bath towels and hand towels in German hotels, but not washclothes.
  9. A compact umbrella, even if you would never use one at home. Don't let a little rain spoil your plans. If you don't use one because you think they're uncool, you will be the one looking silly, drenched, and cold. Bring it with you every day you go out sight-seeing unless the weather forecast for that day has assured you it will remain dry.
  10. A book, crossword puzzles, Sudoku... entertainment that doesn't require a charged battery. You may very well find yourself with a dead battery and no opportunity to charge it at some point. Have a back-up plan of the old-fashioned kind.

Things to leave at home:

  1. Your USA pride t-shirts. This is not a big deal, but I wouldn't wear them here. The main reason is that they peg you as an American tourist (easy and desirable prey for pick-pockets).
  2. Anything to which you say, when thinking of packing it, "This could come in handy..." If you can live without it for two weeks, leave it at home.

Things to know about being in Germany:

  1. Outlets have 220 volts. Make sure your various chargers can handle that. I have had a student blow out the power in a small hotel with a hair dryer, and another one set off sparks plugging in his Ipod.
    Outlets and plugs look like this. The plugs have two round prongs, and the outlets are often set into the wall by 2 cm.
    If the outlet you're using is child-proof (like in a bathroom), you have to push really hard to get the plug in. I struggle with my hair dryer every day.
  2. Refills are not free. If you ask for water in a restaurant, it will be bottled water and you'll pay for it. Tell the server you'd like still water, or you might get carbonated.
  3. Most clothing is more expensive in Germany than in the U.S.. A good pair of jeans is at least $100.
  4. Come to think of it, nearly everything is more expensive here.
  5. Many small stores and businesses, including family-owned restaurants, do not take credit cards. It's a good idea to have several hundred Euro in cash with you, and/or to check as you enter if credit cards are accepted if you are hoping to use one.
  6. You will not find public restrooms all over, so always use the "WC" when you stop at a restaurant or cafe. When you do find a public restroom, you may have to pay to use it. Therefore...
  7. It is best to always have Euro coins with you - 50 cent pieces especially, which is usually how much a restroom visit costs. 
  8. If you see a sign on the outside of a restaurant or cafe that says "Nette Toilette," ("nice toilet") that means you are welcome to use their restroom even if you aren't eating there. Otherwise such places frown upon people walking in off the street and using their restroom. In case of an urgent need, just ask. Most proprietors will understand. Still, it's best to plan ahead, and use the restroom when you happen to see one.
  9. Air conditioning is not common in stores, homes, small hotels, restaurants, or museums. On a hot, humid day, it's hot and humid inside as well. If you need some relief from the heat, find a big medieval stone church and have a look inside. Be quiet and respectful, though, because you will often find people in there who came to pray.
  10. Breakfast will likely be included with your hotel fare. You'll probably find yogurt and a granola-like cereal (Müsli), but expect rolls (crunchy on the outside, deliciously soft on the inside), cold cuts and cheese, big pretzels, and fruit. You may be asked if you'd like an egg, which will probably be soft-boiled. Pancakes, waffles, and sweet rolls are uncommon except at big fancy hotels.
  11. There are no Taco Bells here. McDonald's is everywhere except Esslingen, and yes they serve beer. It's not very good beer, from what I was told, so I wouldn't bother. They don't have Quarter Pounders because they use the metric system here.
    But for pity's sake, eat authentic, delicious German food while you're here! Ask your server what he or she recommends from the local specialties.
  12. Tipping in a restaurant: Forget about percentages. A tip is already included in your final bill. Round up by several Euro to an even amount so the server doesn't have to dig for small change. Before your server comes back for the money, decide on the total amount including tip that you want him/her to keep, and say that amount to him/her. See here and here for more details about dining and tipping in Germany. 
There's probably more to say, but I'll quit here for now. In a recent post I gave some advice specifically about air travel, if you're interested. For those of you who have traveled to Germany for a vacation, what tips do you have?

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