From half-timbered medieval towns to cosmopolitan cities, Germany offers a thoroughly engaging mix of tradition and modernity. You can explore Bavaria’s magnificent baroque palaces one day, and immerse yourself in Hamburg’s cool, redeveloped HafenCity the next. In hip Berlin, historic sites such as the Brandenburg Gate and contemporary art galleries create exciting contrasts. Throughout the country, discovering world-class museums and cutting-edge design is as quintessentially German as grabbing a stein of beer at a centuries-old biergarten.
The least-expensive airfares on major carriers to Germany are often priced for round-trip travel and usually must be purchased in advance. Budget airline tickets are always priced one way. Airlines generally allow you to change your return date for a fee; most low-fare tickets, however, are nonrefundable. Fares between the British Isles and Germany on “no-frills” airlines such as Air Berlin and EasyJet can range from €15 to €70. Although a budget airfare may not be refundable, new EU regulations require that all other supplemental fees and taxes are. That means that when the €1 fare from Berlin to Munich turns out to cost €70 with fuel surcharges and the like, you only lose €1. Refund procedures vary between airlines.
Flying time to Frankfurt is 1½ hours from London, 7½ hours from New York, 10 hours from Chicago, and 12 hours from Los Angeles.
Lufthansa is Germany’s leading carrier and has shared mileage plans and flights with Air Canada and United, as well as all members of the Star Alliance.
Germany’s internal air network is excellent, with flights linking all major cities in, at most, little more than an hour. Germany’s second-largest airline, Air Berlin, is a low-cost, full-service operator flying domestic and international routes from its hubs in Berlin, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, and Hamburg. It is almost always a cheaper and more comfortable option than a flag carrier. Air Berlin is a member of the OneWorld Alliance and shares frequent-flyer programs with British Airways and American Airlines. A handful of smaller airlines—Germanwings, EasyJet, and TUIfly—compete with low-fare flights within Germany and to other European cities. These companies are reliable, do business almost exclusively over the Internet, as talking to an actual person drives the price of the ticket up astronomically, and often beat the German rail fares. The earlier you book, the cheaper the fare.
Frankfurt is Germany’s air hub. The large airport has the convenience of its own long-distance train station, but if you’re transferring between flights, don’t dawdle or you could miss your connection.
Munich is Germany’s second air hub, with many services to North America and Asia. The airport is like a minicity, with plenty of activities to keep you entertained during a long layover. Experience a true German tradition and have a beer from the world’s first airport brewery at the Hofbräuhaus here. For a more active layover, play miniature golf, beach volleyball, or soccer, or ice-skate in winter. There’s also a playground. Live concerts and 150 shops with downtown prices draw locals to the airport as well. If you’re an airplane aficionado (and German speaker), you can take advantage of a small cinema showing movies on aviation themes or take a bus tour of the airport’s facilities, including maintenance hangars and engine-testing facilities. Looking for some R&R? The airport offers massages at the gate, relaxation zones, and napcabs (soundproof minirooms to nap in). Munich’s S-bahn railway connects the airport with the city center; trips take about 40 minutes, and trains leave every 10 minutes.
United and Air Berlin have nonstop service between New York and Berlin-Tegel. Air Berlin also flies from Berlin-Tegel to Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles. Major airlines, like Lufthansa, fly in and out of Berlin-Tegel, while most budget airlines use Berlin-Schönefeld. Once the Berlin Brandenburg airport finally opens—it was originally slated to open in 2011, but it likely won’t open until late 2017—both Tegel and Schönefeld will close.
United also has nonstop service between New York and Hamburg. There are a few nonstop services from North America to Düsseldorf. Stuttgart is convenient to the Black Forest. Also convenient to the Black Forest is the EuroAirport Freiburg-Basel-Mulhouse, which is used by many airlines for European destinations and as a stopover.
Eurailpasses and German Rail Passes are honored by KD Rhine Line on the Rhine River and on the Mosel River between Trier and Koblenz. (If you use the fast hydrofoil, a supplementary fee is required.) The rail lines follow the Rhine and Mosel rivers most of their length, meaning you can go one way by ship and return by train. Cruises generally operate between April and October. If you are planning to visit Denmark or Sweden after Germany, note that Scandlines ferries offer discounts for Eurailpass owners.
The MS Duchess of Scandinavia carries passengers and cars three times a week for the 19½-hour run between Cuxhaven, Germany, and Harwich, England.
Germany has good local and long-distance bus service. Many cities are served by BerlinLinien Bus or MeinFernBus. Deutsche Touring, a subsidiary of the Deutsche Bahn, has offices and agents countrywide and travels from Germany to cities elsewhere in Europe. It offers one-day tours along the Castle Road and the Romantic Road. The Romantic Road route is between Würzburg (with connections to and from Frankfurt) and Füssen (with connections to and from Munich, Augsburg, and Garmisch-Partenkirchen). With a Eurailpass or German Rail Pass you get a 20% discount on this route. Buses, with an attendant on board, travel in each direction between April and October.
All towns of any size have local buses, which often link up with trams (streetcars) and electric railway (S-bahn) and subway (U-bahn) services. Fares sometimes vary according to distance, but a ticket usually allows you to transfer freely between the various forms of transportation.
Entry formalities for motorists are few: all you need is proof of insurance; an international car-registration document; and a U.S., Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand driver’s license. If you or your car is from an EU country, Norway, or Switzerland, all you need is your domestic license and proof of insurance. All foreign cars must have a country sticker. There are no toll roads in Germany, except for a few Alpine mountain passes, although the autobahn may change to a toll system in 2017. Many large German cities require an environmental sticker on the front windshield. If your rental car doesn’t have one, it’s likely you’ll be required to pay the fine.
It is easy to rent a car in Germany, but not always cheap. You will need an International Driving Permit (IDP); it’s available from the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the National Automobile Club. These international permits are universally recognized, and having one in your wallet may save you problems with the local authorities. In Germany, you usually must be 21 to rent a car. Nearly all agencies allow you to drive into Germany’s neighboring countries. It’s frequently possible to return the car in another West European country, but not in Poland or the Czech Republic, for example.
Rates with the major car-rental companies begin at about €55 per day and €300 per week for an economy car with a manual transmission and unlimited mileage. It is invariably cheaper to rent a car in advance from home than to do it on the fly in Germany. Most rentals are manual, so if you want an automatic, be sure to request one in advance. If you’re traveling with children, don’t forget to ask for a car seat when you reserve. Note that in some major cities, even automobile-producing Stuttgart, rental firms are prohibited from placing signs at major pickup and drop-off locations, such as the main train station. If dropping a car off in an unfamiliar city, you might have to guess your way to the station’s underground parking garage; once there, look for a generic sign such as Mietwagen (rental cars). The German railway system, Deutsche Bahn, offers discounts on rental cars.
Depending on what you would like to see, you may or may not need a car for all or part of your stay. Most parts of Germany are connected by reliable rail service, so it might be a better plan to take a train to the region you plan to visit and rent a car only for side trips to out-of-the-way destinations.
CRUISE SHIP TRAVEL
The American-owned Viking River Cruises company tours the Rhine, Main, Elbe, and Danube rivers, with four- to eight-day itineraries that include walking tours at ports of call. The longer cruises (up to 18 days) on the Danube (Donau, in German), which go to the Black Sea and back, are in great demand, so reserve six months in advance. The company normally books American passengers on ships that cater exclusively to Americans. If you prefer to travel on a European ship, specify so when booking. Köln–Düsseldorfer Deutsche Rheinschiffahrt (KD Rhine Line) offers trips of one day or less on the Rhine and Mosel. Between Easter and October there’s Rhine service between Köln and Mainz, and between May and October, Mosel service between Koblenz and Cochem. Check the website for special winter tours. You’ll get a free trip on your birthday if you bring a document verifying your date of birth.
Deutsche Bahn (DB—German Rail) is a very efficient, semi-privatized railway. Its high-speed InterCity Express (ICE), InterCity (IC), and EuroCity (EC) trains make journeys between the centers of many cities—Munich–Frankfurt, for example—faster by rail than by air. All InterCity and InterCity Express trains have restaurant cars and trolley service. RE, RB, and IRE trains are regional trains. It’s also possible to sleep on the train and save a day of your trip: a decreasing number of CityNightLine (CNL) trains serving domestic destinations and neighboring countries have sleepers, couches, and recliners.
Once on your platform or Bahnsteig—the area between two tracks—you can check the notice boards that give details of the layout of trains (Wagenstandanzeiger) arriving on that track (Gleis). They show the locations of first- and second-class cars and the restaurant car, as well as where they will stop, relative to the lettered sectors, along the platform. Large railroad stations have English-speaking staff handling information inquiries.
For fare and schedule information, the Deutsche Bahn information line connects you to a live operator; you may have to wait a few moments before someone can help you in English. The automated number is toll-free and gives schedule information. Deutsche Bahn has an excellent website (www.bahn.de), available in English. To calculate the fare, enter your departure and arrival points, any town you wish to pass through, and whether you have a bike. The fare finder will tell you which type of train you’ll be riding on—which could be important if you suffer from motion sickness. The ICE, the French TGV, the Swiss ICN, and the Italian Cisalpino all use “tilt technology” for a less jerky ride. One side effect, however, is that some passengers might feel queasy, especially if the track is curvy. An over-the-counter drug for motion sickness should help.
Most major train stations have luggage lockers (in four sizes). By inserting exact change into a storage unit, you release the unit’s key. Prices range from €2 for a small locker to €5 for a “jumbo” one. Smaller towns’ train stations may not have any storage options.
Throughout Germany, Deutsche Bahn can deliver your baggage from a private residence or hotel to another or even to one of six airports: Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig-Halle, Munich, Hamburg, or Hannover. You must have a valid rail ticket. Buy a Kuriergepäck ticket at any DB ticket counter, at which time you must schedule a pickup three workdays before your flight. The service costs €38 for a medium suitcase up to 68 pounds.
Deutsche Bahn offers many discount options with specific conditions, so do your homework on its website or ask about options at the counter before paying for a full-price ticket. For round-trip travel, you can save 25% if you book at least three days in advance, 50% if you stay over a Saturday night and book at least three to seven days in advance. However, there’s a limited number of seats sold at any of these discount prices, so book as early as possible, at least a week in advance, to get the savings. A discounted rate is called a Sparpreis. If you change your travel plans after booking, you will have to pay a fee. The surcharge for tickets bought on board is 10% of the ticket cost or a minimum of €5. Most local, RE, and RB services do not allow purchasing tickets onboard. Not having a ticket is considered Schwarzfahren (riding black) and is usually subject to a €60 fine. Tickets booked at a counter always cost more than over the Internet or from an automated ticket machine.
Children under 15 travel free when accompanied by a parent or relative on normal, discounted, and some, but not all, special-fare tickets. However, you must indicate the number of children traveling with you when you purchase the ticket; to ride free, the child (or children) must be listed on the ticket. If you have a ticket with 25% or 50% off, a Mitfahrer-Rabatt allows a second person to travel with you for a 50% discount (minimum of €15 for a second-class ticket). The Schönes Wochenend Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket) provides unlimited travel on regional trains on weekends for up to five persons for €42 (€40 if purchased online or at a vending machine). Groups of six or more should inquire about Gruppen & Spar (group) savings. Each German state, or Land, has its own Länder-Ticket, which lets up to five people travel from 9 am to 3 am for around €25.
If you plan to travel by train within a day after your flight arrives, purchase a heavily discounted “Rail and Fly” ticket for DB trains at the same time you book your flight. Trains connect with 14 German airports and two airports outside Germany, Basel, and Amsterdam.
A first-class seat is approximately 55% more than a second-class seat. For this premium, you get a bit more legroom and the convenience of having meals (not included) delivered directly to your seat. Most people find second-class entirely adequate and first-class not worth the cost. Many regional trains offer an upgrade to first class for as little as €4. This is especially helpful on weekends when local trains are stuffed with cyclists and day-tripping locals. ICs and the later-generation ICE trains are equipped with electrical outlets for laptops and other gadgets.
Tickets purchased through Deutsche Bahn’s website can be retrieved from station vending machines. Always check that your ticket is valid for the type of train you are planning to take, not just for the destination served. If you have the wrong type of ticket, you will have to pay the difference on the train, in cash or by credit card. If you book an online ticket and print it yourself, you must present the credit card used to pay for the ticket to the conductor for the ticket to be valid.
The ReisePacket service is for travelers who are inexperienced, elderly, disabled, or just appreciative of extra help. It costs €11 and provides, among other things, help boarding, disembarking, and transferring on certain trains that serve major cities and vacation areas. It also includes a seat reservation and a voucher for an onboard snack. Purchase the service at least one day before travel.
If Germany is your only destination in Europe, consider purchasing a German Rail Pass, which allows 3 to 10 days of unlimited first- or second-class travel within a one-month period on any DB train, up to and including the ICE. A Twin Pass saves two people traveling together 50% off one person’s fare. A Youth Pass, sold to those 12–25, is much the same but for second-class travel only. You can also use these passes aboard KD Rhine Line along certain sections of the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Prices begin at $304 per person in second class. Twin Passes begin at $338 for two people in second class, and Youth Passes begin at $180. Additional days may be added to either pass, but only at the time of purchase and not once the pass has been issued. Extensions of the German Rail Pass to Brussels, Venice, Verona, Prague, and Innsbrück are also available.
Germany is one of 21 countries in which you can use a Eurailpass, which provides unlimited first-class rail travel in all participating countries for the duration of the pass. Two adults traveling together can pay either €580 each for 15 consecutive days of travel or €746 each for 21 consecutive days of travel. The youth fare is €379 for 15 consecutive days and €446 for 10 days within two months. Eurailpasses are available from most travel agents and directly from www.eurail.com.
Eurailpasses and some of the German Rail Passes should be purchased before you leave for Europe. You can purchase a Eurailpass and 5- or 10-day German Rail Passes at the Frankfurt airport and at some major German train stations, but the cost will be higher (a youth ticket for five days of travel is just under €149). When you buy your pass, consider purchasing rail-pass insurance in case you lose it during your travels.
In order to comply with the strict rules about validating tickets before you begin travel, read the instructions carefully. Some tickets require that a train official validate your pass, while others require you to write in the first date of travel.
Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them seats on the trains they wish to ride. Not so. You need to book seats ahead even if you are using a rail pass; seat reservations are required on some European trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are a good idea in summer, on national holidays, and on popular routes. If you board the train without a reserved seat, you risk having to stand. You’ll also need a reservation if you purchase sleeping accommodations. Seat reservations on InterCity trains cost €6, and a reservation is absolutely necessary for the ICE-Sprinter trains (€12 for second class). There are no reservations on regional trains.
Travel from Great Britain
There are several ways to reach Germany from London on British Rail. Travelers coming from the United Kingdom should take the Channel Tunnel to save time, the ferry to save money. The fastest and most expensive is the route via the Channel Tunnel on Eurostar trains. They leave at two-hour intervals from St. Pancras International and require a change of trains in Brussels, from which ICE trains reach Köln in 2½ hours and Frankfurt in 3½ hours. Prices for one-way tickets from London to Köln begin at €100–€129. Cheapest and slowest are the 8 to 10 departures daily from Victoria using the Ramsgate–Ostend ferry, jetfoil, or SeaCat catamaran service.
Many hotels have in-room data ports, but you may have to purchase, or borrow from the front desk, a cable with an end that matches German phone jacks. If you’re plugging into a phone line, you’ll need a local access number for a connection. Wireless Internet (called WLAN in Germany) is more and more common in even the most average hotel. The service is not always free, however. Sometimes you must purchase blocks of time from the front desk or online using a credit card. The cost is fairly high, usually around €4 for 30 minutes.
There are alternatives. Some hotels have an Internet room for guests needing to check their email. Otherwise, Internet cafés are common, and many bars and restaurants let you surf the Web.
The good news is that you can make a direct-dial telephone call from Germany to 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. Because most Germans own mobile phones, finding a telephone booth is becoming increasingly difficult. 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 Germany is 49. When dialing a German number from abroad, drop the initial “0” from the local area code.
Many companies have service lines beginning with 0180. The cost of these calls averages €0.28 per call. Numbers that begin with 0190 can cost €1.85 per minute and more.
Calling Within Germany
The German telephone system is very efficient, so it’s unlikely you’ll have to use an operator unless you’re seeking information. For information in English, dial 11837 for numbers within Germany and 11834 for numbers elsewhere. But first, look for the number in the phone book or online (www.teleauskunft.de), because directory assistance is costly. Calls to 11837 and 11834 cost at least €0.50, more if the call lasts more than 30 seconds.
A local call from a telephone booth costs €0.10 per minute. Dial the “0” before the area code when making a long-distance call within Germany. When dialing within a local area code, drop the “0” and the area code.
Telephone booths are no longer a common feature on the streets, so be prepared to walk out of your way to find one. Phone booths have instructions in English as well as German. Most telephone booths in Germany are card-operated, so buy a phone card. Coin-operated phones, which take €0.10, €0.20, €0.50, €1, and €2 coins, don’t make change.
Calling Outside Germany
The country code for the United States is 1.
International calls can be made from any telephone booth in Germany. It costs only €0.13 per minute to call the United States, day or night, no matter how long the call lasts. Use a phone card. If you don’t have a good deal with a calling card, there are many stores that offer international calls at rates well below what you will pay from a phone booth. At a hotel, rates will be at least double the regular charge.
Post offices, newsstands, and exchange places sell cards with €5, €10, or €20 worth of credit to use at public payphones. An advantage of a card: it charges only what the call costs. A €5 card with a good rate for calls to the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada is Go Bananas!
You can buy an inexpensive unlocked mobile phone and a SIM card at almost every corner shop and even at the supermarket. Most shops require identification to purchase a SIM card, but you can avoid this by purchasing a card at any number of phone centers or call shops, usually located near train stations. This is the best option if you just want to make local calls. If you bring a phone from abroad, your provider may have to unlock it for you to use a different SIM card and a prepaid service plan in the 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 cell phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.
Many prepaid plans, like Blau World, offer calling plans to the United States and other countries, starting at €0.03 per minute. Many Germans use these SIM cards to call abroad, as the rates are much cheaper than from landlines.
If you have a multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies from 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 because text messages have a very low set fee (often less than 5¢).
Cellular Abroad rents and sells GMS phones and sells SIM cards that work in many countries. Mobal rents mobiles and sells GSM phones (starting at $49) that will operate in 140 countries. Planet Fone rents cell phones, but the per-minute rates are expensive.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your cell 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
German Customs and Border Control is fairly simple and straightforward. The system works efficiently and professionally, and 99% of all travelers will have no real cause to interact with them.
You’re always allowed to bring goods of a certain value back home without having to pay any duty or import tax. But there’s a limit on the amount of tobacco and liquor you can bring back duty-free, and some countries have separate limits for perfumes; for exact figures, check with your customs department. The values of so-called duty-free goods are included in these amounts. When you shop abroad, save all your receipts, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased. If the total value of your goods is more than the duty-free limit, you’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit.
For anyone entering Germany from outside the EU, the following limitations apply: (1) 200 cigarettes or 100 cigarillos or 50 cigars or 250 grams of tobacco; (2) 2 liters of still table wine; (3) 1 liter of spirits over 22% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 2 liters of spirits under 22% ABV (fortified and sparkling wines) or 2 more liters of table wine; (4) 50 grams of perfume and 250 milliliters of eau de toilette; (5) 500 grams of roasted coffee or 200 grams of instant coffee; (6) other goods to the value of €175.
If you have questions regarding customs or bringing a pet into the country, contact the Zoll-Infocenter.
Almost every street in Germany has its Gaststätte, a sort of combination restaurant and pub, and every village its Gasthof, or inn. The emphasis in either is on simple food at reasonable prices. A Bierstube (pub) or Weinstube (wine cellar) may also serve light snacks or meals.
Service can be slow, but you’ll never be rushed out of your seat. Something else that may seem jarring at first: people can, and do, join other parties at a table in a casual restaurant if seating is tight. It’s common courtesy to ask first, though.
Since Germans don’t generally drink from the tap, water always costs extra and comes as still or sparkling mineral water.
Budget Dining Tips
Imbiss (snack) stands can be found in almost every busy shopping street, in parking lots, train stations, and near markets. They serve Würste (sausages), grilled, roasted, or boiled, and rolls filled with cheese, cold meat, or fish. Many stands sell Turkish-style wraps called döner kebab. Prices range from €1.50 to €2.50 per portion. It’s acceptable to bring sandwich fixings to a beer garden so long as you order a beer there; just be sure not to sit at a table with a tablecloth.
Butcher shops, known as Metzgereien, often serve warm snacks or very good sandwiches. Try warmer Leberkäs mit Kartoffelsalat, a typical Bavarian specialty, which is a sort of baked meatloaf with mustard and potato salad. In northern Germany try Bouletten, small meatballs, or Currywurst, sausages in a piquant curry sauce. Thuringia has a reputation for its bratwurst, which is usually broken in two and packed into a roll with mustard. Up north, the specialty snack is a herring sandwich with onions.
Restaurants in department stores are especially recommended for appetizing and inexpensive lunches. Kaufhof, Karstadt, Wertheim, and Horton are names to note. Germany’s vast numbers of Turkish, Italian, Greek, Chinese, and Balkan restaurants are often inexpensive.
Meals and Mealtimes
Most hotels serve a buffet-style breakfast (Frühstück) of rolls, cheese, cold cuts, eggs, cereals, yogurt, and spreads, which is often included in the price of a room. Cafés, especially the more trendy ones, offer breakfast menus sometimes including pancakes, omelets, muesli, or even Thai rice soup. By American standards, a cup (Tasse) of coffee in Germany is very petite, and you don’t get free refills. Order a Pot or Kännchen if you want a larger portion.
For lunch (Mittagessen), you can get sandwiches from most cafés and bakeries, and many fine restaurants have special lunch menus that make the gourmet experience much more affordable. Dinner (Abendessen) is usually accompanied by a potato or spätzle side dish. A salad sometimes comes with the main dish.
Gaststätten normally serve hot meals from 11:30 am to 9 pm; many places stop serving hot meals between 2 pm and 6 pm, although you can still order cold dishes. If you feel like a hot meal, look for a restaurant advertising durchgehend geöffnet, or look for a pizza parlor.
Once most restaurants have closed, your options are limited. Take-out pizza parlors and Turkish eateries often stay open later. Failing that, your best option is a train station or a gas station with a convenience store. Many bars serve snacks.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Credit cards are generally accepted only in moderate to expensive restaurants, so check before sitting down. You will need to ask for the bill (say “Die Rechnung, bitte.”) in order to get it from the waiter, the idea being that the table is yours for the evening. Round up the bill 5% to 10% and pay the waiter directly rather than leaving any money or tip on the table. The waiter will likely wait at the table for you to pay after he has brought the check. He will also wear a money pouch and make change out of it at the table. If you don’t need change, say “Stimmt so.” (“Keep the change.”), otherwise tell the waiter how much change you want back, adding in the tip. Meals are subject to 19% tax (abbreviated as “MwSt” on your bill).
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In most fine-dining establishments it’s expected. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Parties of more than four should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.)
Note that even when Germans dress casually, their look is generally crisp and neat. Jeans are acceptable for most social occasions unless you’re meeting the president.
For such an otherwise health-conscious nation, Germans do smoke. A lot. New anti-smoking laws came into effect in 2008, effectively banning smoking in all restaurants and many pubs, but many Germans, particularly in Berlin and Hamburg, tend to ignore them. Many hotels have nonsmoking rooms and even nonsmoking floors. However, a smoker will find it intrusive if you ask him or her to refrain.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Wines of Germany promotes the wines of all 13 German wine regions and can supply you with information on wine festivals and visitor-friendly wineries. It also arranges six-day guided winery tours in spring and fall in conjunction with the German Wine Academy.
It’s legal to drink beer from open containers in public (even in the passenger seat of a car), and having a beer at one’s midday break is nothing to raise an eyebrow at. Bavaria is not the only place to try beer. While Munich’s beers have achieved world fame—Löwenbräu and Paulaner, for example—beer connoisseurs will really want to travel to places farther north like Alpirsbach, Bamberg, Erfurt, Cologne, or Görlitz, where smaller breweries produce top-notch brews. Berlin is at the center of a beer revolution that makes it one of the most interesting beer cities in Germany.
The electrical current in Germany is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets take Continental-type 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 laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts) so 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.
Throughout Germany call 110 for police, 112 for an ambulance or the fire department.
Customs of the Country
Being on time for appointments, even casual social ones, is very important. There is no “fashionably late” in Germany. Germans are more formal in addressing each other than Americans. Always address acquaintances as Herr (Mr.) or Frau (Mrs.) plus their last name; do not call them by their first name unless invited to do so. The German language has informal and formal pronouns for “you”: formal is Sie, and informal is du. Even if adults are on a first-name basis with one another, they may still keep to the Sie form.
Germans are less formal when it comes to nudity: a sign that reads “freikörper” or “fkk” indicates a park or beach that allows nude sunbathing. At a sauna or steam bath, you will often be asked to remove all clothing.
The standard “Guten Tag” is the way to greet people throughout the country. When you depart, say “Auf Wiedersehen.” “Hallo” is also used frequently, as is “Hi” among the younger crowd. A less formal leave-taking is “Tschüss” or “ciao.” You will also hear regional differences in greetings.
English is spoken in most hotels, restaurants, airports, museums, and other places of interest. However, English is not widely spoken in rural areas or by people over 40; this is especially true of the eastern part of Germany. Learning the basics before going is always a good idea, especially bitte (please) and danke (thank you). Apologizing for your poor German before asking a question in English will make locals feel respected and begins all communication on the right foot.
A phrasebook and language-tape set can help get you started.
Under no circumstances use profanity or pejoratives. Germans take these very seriously, and a slip of the tongue can result in expensive criminal and civil penalties. Calling a police officer a “Nazi” or using vulgar finger gestures can cost you up to €10,000 and two years in jail.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Warm winters have recently caused an explosion in the summertime tick population, which often causes outbreaks of Lyme disease. If you intend to do a lot of hiking, especially in the southern half of the country, be aware of the danger of ticks spreading Lyme disease. There is no vaccination against them, so prevention is important. Wear high shoes or boots, long pants, and light-color clothing. Use a good insect repellent, and check yourself for ticks after outdoor activities, especially if you’ve walked through high grass.
All over-the-counter medicines, even aspirin, are only available at an Apotheke (pharmacy): the German term Drogerie, or drugstore, refers to a shop for sundry items.
Apotheken are open during normal business hours, with those in train stations or airports open later and on weekends. Apotheken are plentiful, and there is invariably one within a few blocks. Every district has an emergency pharmacy that is open after hours. These are listed as Apotheken Notdienst or Apotheken-Bereitschaftsdienst on the window of every other pharmacy in town, often with directions for how to get there. Pharmacies will have a bell you must ring to enter. Most pharmacists in larger cities speak enough English to help. Some drugs have different names: acetaminophen—or Tylenol—is called paracetomol.
Shots and Medications
Germany is by and large a healthy place. There are occasional outbreaks of measles—including one in North Rhine–Westfalia—so be sure you have been vaccinated.
Germany has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. There are some areas, such as the neighborhoods around train stations and the streets surrounding red-light districts, where you should keep an eye out for potential dangers. The best advice is to take the usual precautions. Secure your valuables in the hotel safe. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, and keep expensive electronics out of sight when you are not using them. Carry shoulder bags or purses so that they can’t be easily snatched, and never leave them hanging on the back of a chair at a café or restaurant. Avoid walking alone at night, even in relatively safe neighborhoods. Due to increasing incidents of violence in Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, use caution late at night in the subway.
When withdrawing cash, don’t use an ATM in a deserted area or one that is outside. It is best to avoid freestanding ATMs in subway stations and other locations away from a bank. Make sure that no one is looking over your shoulder when you enter your PIN. And never use a machine that appears to have been tampered with.
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
Business hours are inconsistent throughout the country and vary from state to state and even from city to city. Banks are generally open weekdays from 8:30 or 9 am to 3 or 4 pm (5 or 6 pm on Thursday), sometimes with a lunch break of about an hour at smaller branches. Some banks close by 2:30 on Friday afternoon. Banks at airports and main train stations open as early as 6:30 am and close as late as 10:30 pm.
Most museums are open from Tuesday to Sunday 10–6. Some close for an hour or more at lunch. Many stay open until 8 pm or later one day a week, usually Thursday. In smaller towns or in rural areas, museums may be open only on weekends or just a few hours a day.
All stores are closed Sunday, with the exception of those in or near train stations. Larger stores are generally open from 9:30 or 10 am to 8 or 9 pm on weekdays and close between 6 and 8 pm on Saturday. Smaller shops and some department stores in smaller towns close at 6 or 6:30 on weekdays and as early as 4 on Saturday. German shop owners take their closing times seriously. If you come in five minutes before closing, you may not be treated like royalty. Apologizing profusely and making a speedy purchase will help.
Along the autobahn and major highways, as well as in larger cities, gas stations and their small convenience shops are often open late, if not around the clock.
The following national holidays are observed in Germany: January 1; January 6 (Epiphany—Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt, and Baden-Württemberg only); Good Friday; Easter Monday; May 1 (Workers’ Day); Ascension; Pentecost Monday; Corpus Christi (southern Germany only); Assumption Day (Bavaria and Saarland only); October 3 (German Unity Day); November 1 (All Saints’ Day—Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Pfalz, and Saarland); December 24–26 (Christmas).
Pre-Lenten celebrations in Cologne and the Rhineland are known as Karneval, and for several days before Ash Wednesday work grinds to a halt as people celebrate with parades, banquets, and general debauchery. Farther south, in the state of Baden-Württenburg, the festivities are called Fasching, and tend to be more traditional. In either area, expect businesses to be closed both before and after “Fat Tuesday.”
Credit cards are not usually accepted by most businesses, but you probably won’t have to use cash for payment in high-end hotels and restaurants. Many businesses on the other end of the spectrum don’t accept them, however. It’s a good idea to check in advance if you’re staying in a budget lodging or eating in a simple country inn.
Prices throughout are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
Banks almost 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
Twenty-four-hour ATMs (Geldautomaten) can be accessed with Plus or Cirrus credit and banking cards. Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad, and some German banks exact €3–€5 fees for use of their ATMs. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange via 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. Since some ATM keypads show no letters, know the numeric equivalent of your password. Always use ATMs inside the bank.
PINs 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.
Most credit cards issued in Europe are now so-called “chip-and-PIN” credit cards that store user information on a computer chip embedded in the card. In the United States, all credit cards switched to “chip-and-signature” cards in fall 2015. While European cardholders are expected to know and use their PIN number for all transactions rather than signing a charge slip, U.S. chip-and-signature cards usually still require users to sign the charge slip. (Very few U.S. issuers offer a PIN along with their cards, except for cash withdrawals at an ATM, though this is expected to change in the future.) The good news: unlike the old magnetic-strip cards that gave American travelers in Europe so much trouble, the new chip-and-signature cards are accepted at many more locations, including in many cases at machines that sell train tickets, machines that process automated motorway tolls at unmanned booths, and automated gas stations—even without a signature or PIN. The bad news: not all European locations will accept the chip-and-signature cards, and you won’t know until you try, so it’s a good idea to carry enough cash to cover small purchases.
All major U.S. credit cards are accepted in Germany. The most frequently used are MasterCard and Visa. American Express is used less frequently, and Diners Club even less. Since the credit-card companies demand fairly substantial fees, some businesses will not accept credit cards for small purchases. Cheaper restaurants and lodgings often do not accept credit cards. Many credit card companies charge substantial foreign transaction fees–-typically about 3% on every transaction. You can save money by applying for a no-fee credit card well ahead of your departure.
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, via email, or in the Cloud, so you’re prepared should something go wrong.
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.
Currency and Exchange
Germany shares a common currency, the euro (€), with 18 other countries: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. The euro is divided into 100 cents. There are bills of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 500 euros and coins of €1 and €2, and 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents. Many businesses and restaurants do not accept €200 and €500 notes. It is virtually impossible to pay for anything in U.S. dollars, but you should have no problem exchanging currency. The large number of banks and exchange services means that you can shop around for the best rate if you’re so inclined. But the cheapest and easiest way to go is using your ATM card.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh . . . that’s right. The sign didn’t say no fee.) And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
For visits to German cities, pack as you would for an American city: dressy outfits for formal restaurants and nightclubs, casual clothes elsewhere. Jeans are as popular in Germany as anywhere else, and are perfectly acceptable for sightseeing and informal dining. In the evening, men will probably feel more comfortable wearing a jacket in more expensive restaurants, although it’s almost never required. Many German women wear stylish outfits to restaurants and the theater, especially in the larger cities.
Winters can be bitterly cold; summers are warm but with days that suddenly turn cool and rainy. In summer, take a warm jacket or heavy sweater if you are visiting the Bavarian Alps or the Black Forest, where the nights can be chilly even after hot days. In Berlin and on the Baltic, it is windy, which can be quite pleasant in summer but a complete bear in winter. To discourage purse-snatchers and pickpockets, carry a handbag with long straps that you can sling across your body bandolier style and with a zippered compartment for money and other valuables.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
Visitors from the United States and Canada, including children, are required to have a passport to enter the EU for a period of up to 90 days. There are no official passport controls at any of Germany’s land borders, although random spot checks and customs checks are becoming more frequent. Most travelers will only show their documents on entering and leaving the EU. Your passport should be valid for up to six months after your trip ends or this will raise questions at the border. EU citizens can enter Germany with a national identity card or passport. Traveling with children can be problematic. Single parents traveling with their own children rarely face any hassle, but overzealous border guards have been known to ask children about their relationship with the other parent. If you are a parent or grandparent traveling with a child, it helps to have a signed and notarized power of attorney in order to dispel any questions.
Public restrooms are found in large cities, although you are not guaranteed to find one in an emergency. If you are in need, there are several options. You can enter the next café or restaurant and ask very politely to use the facilities. You can find a department store and look for the “WC” sign. Museums are also a good place to find facilities.
Train stations are increasingly turning to McClean, a privately run enterprise that demands €0.60 to €1.10 for admission to its restrooms. These facilities, staffed by attendants who clean almost constantly, sparkle. You won’t find them in smaller stations, however. Their restrooms are usually adequate.
On the highways, the vast majority of gas stations have public restrooms, though you may have to ask for a key—we won’t vouch for their cleanliness. You might want to wait until you see a sign for a restaurant.
Restrooms almost always cost money. It’s customary to pay €0.20–€0.70 to the bathroom attendant.
Most prices you see on items already include Germany’s 19% value-added tax (V.A.T.). Some goods, such as food, books, and antiquities, carry a 7% V.A.T. as a percentage of the purchase price. A physical item must cost at least €25 to qualify for a V.A.T. refund.
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 Refund is a Europe-wide service with 225,000 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.
V.A.T. Refunds at the Airport
If you’re departing from Terminal 1 at Frankfurt Airport, where you bring your purchases to claim your tax back depends on how you’ve packed the goods. If the items are in your checked luggage, check in as normal, but let the ticket counter know you have yet to claim your tax refund. They will give you your luggage back to bring to the customs office in Departure Hall B, Level 2. For goods you are carrying on the plane with you, go to the customs office on the way to your gate. After you pass through passport control, there is a Global Refund office.
If you’re departing from Terminal 2, bring goods in luggage to be checked to the customs office in Hall D, Level 2 (opposite the Delta Airlines check-in counters). For goods you are carrying on the plane with you, see the customs office in Hall E, Level 3 (near security control).
At Munich’s airport, the Terminal 2 customs area is on the same level as check-in. If your V.A.T. refund items are in your luggage, check in first, and then bring your bags to the customs office on Level 04. From here your bags will be sent to your flight, and you can go to the Global Refund counter around the corner. If your refund items are in your carry-on, go to the Global Refund office in the customs area on Level 05 south. Terminal 1 has customs areas in modules C and D, Level 04.
Tipping is done at your own discretion. Theater ushers do not necessarily expect a tip, while waiters, tour guides, bartenders, and taxi drivers do. Rounding off bills to the next highest sum is customary for bills under €10. Above that sum you should add a little more.
Service charges are included in all restaurant checks (listed as Bedienung), as is tax (listed as MwSt). Nonetheless, it is customary to round up the bill to the nearest euro or to leave about 5%–10%. Give it to the waitstaff as you pay the bill; don’t leave it on the table, as that’s considered rude.
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.