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A poignant image of Germany’s long and troubled history comes from the lyrics of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a song he wrote while he lived in Berlin: “I can remember/ standing by the Wall/ and the guns shot over our heads/ and we kissed as though nothing could fall.” But the Wall did finally go down, because Time marches on. This pregnant history permeates everywhere and lends a melancholy atmosphere to the lavish beauty of this country.
Germany is not merely gravity and philosophical reflection, however, although it’s spawned much of both. With its famous annual beer festival in October, Germany is also a place of great joy and celebration. When you travel there, keep in mind that one trip will not be enough; it will beget a myriad of future trips.
How do I get in?
United States citizens can enter Germany with a valid passport so long as it does not expire for at least another three months. You are then able to stay in Germany for up to three months before you would have to leave. Germany does not require any vaccinations upon entry, although it’s a good idea to make sure you are up to date on the common vaccines (measles, polio, etc.). See http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/germany for further information.
Germany is part of the Schengen Agreement, which allows you to cross the borders from one country into any other that’s part of the agreement, as long as you are qualified to enter the Schengen area, which consists of 26 countries in Europe. This allows you to expand your trip, make Germany a home base (ideal for its centralized location in Europe), and incorporate other countries into your vacation.
Can I afford it?
Germany is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, an economic juggernaut, especially considering its relative size. Yet vacationing in Germany is relatively affordable. You can expect to spend about $200 to $250 USD a day if you stay at mid-range hotels and use public transportation, and this allows for a couple of good meals and a moderate amount of money spent on sightseeing.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can stay at hostels, prepare your own food, and limit your entertainment options. Following this course you can get by for as low as roughly $60 if you’re resourceful; however, budgeting to spend about $100 a day is your best bet.
Germany uses the euro as its currency and many banks and post offices will convert your money for you. You will also find dedicated (this is primarily what they do) foreign-exchange offices to be a convenient way to do this. The Reisebank offices, located at some of the bigger train stations, provide some of the best exchange rates you’ll find.
While there are large sales taxes on many goods and services throughout the Schengen area, those are refundable for residents outside the EU, but you have to shop at places where signs are displayed for “Tax-Free Tourists,” and you have to get a form from the sales clerk. Before you leave the country, show this form, your receipts, and any unused goods you’re taking with you to the customs official to get the forms stamped; then, you can get your refund at the cash refund office in the airport.
Tipping in Germany differs substantially from US practices and expectations. Restaurant servers and bartenders are typically paid a better base salary there than we pay here. Consequently, the appropriate way to tip is to round up to the nearest full euro. You can tip an additional few euros, 5-10% is acceptable, for exceptional service. Unlike in the US, you do not get a check, nor are you supposed to leave money on the table. Instead, your server will verbally tell you the amount of your bill and you tell them how much you will be paying over the amount. For taxi drivers, it’s appropriate to round up to the nearest full euro. For hotel porters, tipping is expected, about 1-3 euros per bag. It’s also common to tip the housekeeper (3-5 euros per day) and concierges if they are particularly helpful (10-20 euros). Tour guides typically receive a tip of around 10% of the tour cost, although they may ask that you post a good review on a sponsoring website in lieu of the tip because they get bonuses that way.
As you travel around Germany, expect to pay cash. Most places do not accept credit cards, and while they will occasionally accept debit cards, these are specific to the region. Paying with travelers checks usually invokes an addition service fee.
How do I get around?
You have several options available to travel from city to city in Germany, the most common being by train, bus, rented car, or by hitchhiking (although it is illegal to hitchhike along the Autobahn itself).
Deutsche Bahn operates most of the trains in Germany. The faster the train, the more expensive; however, booking your train ticket in advance online often gives you major discounts. If you plan to travel extensively throughout Germany or even into other countries in the Schengen area, you can buy various types of passes online including the German Rail Pass (you even get special discounts for traveling in pairs with the “twin discount”), which allows unlimited travel on all of Germany’s trains for 3-10 days within a one month period. The Deutshe Bahn website is the best place to go for information about the train system in Germany: http://www.bahn.com/i/view/USA/en/index.shtml. One important caveat about traveling on local trains involves the Verkehsverbund (VB) system, which designates regions around large cities as local areas for the purpose of train travel and pricing. Traveling within a VB region is considered local travel and is much cheaper in comparison to traveling from one VB region to another. Crossing one VB region into another can happen without warning however, making your local train ticket invalid and requiring additional expenses.
Until recently, long distance buses were not allowed to compete with the train system for a share of the transportation market. Now that they are allowed to do, you’re apt to find great bargains for long distance travel from city to city. Traveling within a city or from a city to a small village or town in the same region is also widely available. Be sure to read the departure boards carefully, particularly in rural areas or at night, because some bus tickets can only be ordered by phone in advance.
Another option is to rent a car. The German network of roads is world famous. One detriment to travel by car is the high price of gasoline. Furthermore if you plan to travel from Germany into some Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic or Poland, rental cars from Germany are prohibited from travel into these countries, but this prohibition does not apply the other way around (you can drive a rental car from Poland into Germany, for example).
Ride sharing is a common means of travel within Germany as well, and numerous websites exist to put drivers in search of passengers in touch with travelers needing a ride. This is exceptionally cheaper than renting a car yourself.
Hitchhiking in Germany is fairly common. Since vehicles cannot stop along the Autobahn, your best approach is to inquire at gas stations (referred to in Germany and throughout Europe as petrol stations) and other service areas. For best results agree in advance about where you want to be let off.
A unique form of train hitchhiking is also available, since special train tickets can be purchased for groups of up to four people. These specialized tickets are available at night or on weekends. If you go into a car, ask people if they have a weekend trip and can you can travel with them, but be aware that you must be included as part of a ticket before the train conductor checks tickets or you can be fined heavily. Another way to do this for travel within a local region is to approach other people who are milling around a ticket machine around 20 minutes in advance of the train’s arrival to inquire about sharing a ticket. The number of people sharing the ticket has to be known in advance of the ticket’s purchase in this case. Hitchhiking by train or car is widely practiced in Germany, so you can find numerous websites that allow you to make travel arrangements in advance.
How do I get there?
Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, and Munich provide the largest airports which cater to international travel. Other airports which offer some international connections include Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, and Stuttgart. Some airports specialize in budget flights from smaller air carriers, although you need to research to make sure that additional baggage fees and bus ride prices (since some of these airports are a little out of the way) still give you savings. These include the Berlin-Schönefeld, Frankfurt-Hahn and Weeze (in Dusseldorf) airports.
Other options for getting into Germany are by train using the DB train lines or buses from other European locations or a ferry service from the Scandinavian countries to get to Germany by boat.
The traveler’s tongue
In the larger cities, and even in many of the smaller ones, many people speak English rather fluently. While Germans love the opportunity to practice their English, they equally love it when you make the attempt to speak German. In some of the more rural areas, you are less apt to find English speakers, so communication in German is the norm, but developing a degree of “survival German” should be adequate.
Germany is a large country with varied activities and sights specific to each city, town, or region. Using a guidebook such as the ones provided by Lonely Planet or Fodor’s is highly recommended to help you make your plans, and is a good investment to help in making future plans for your inevitable future trips as well.
C.W. Garay is an alumnus from the University of North Texas, where he received both his BA in psychology and an MA in English, specializing in creative writing, fiction. When not traveling he resides in Denton, TX, rated as the number one small town in which to live in the US according to Business Insider’s 2013 survey. In addition to writing articles on traveling, he also writes fiction under a pseudonym. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.