It’s easy to get tripped up or confused when you arrive in a country without having been there before. Customs are different, things aren’t like they are back home. A lot of confusion can be avoided if you know what to expect. These Travel Tips for Germany aren’t going to make or break your experience, but they might make your travel easier… or at least, it will ward off some unwanted surprises. Look at the list as tips from a friend who just wants to make sure you have the best possible visit to Germany.
Travel Tips for Germany
Using Public Restrooms is not Free-
Keep coins (Kleingeld) in your pocket or handy in your purse. Most public restrooms require money to use them. Consider it a fair exchange for having a clean, well equipped restroom, that doesn’t have a gap between the door and wall for people to see you through. (I’ll take that over some of the nasty porta-potties I’ve had the misfortune to visit) At Filling Stations, you may even get a coupon to use in their shop. Note… some larger restaurants may have ladies sitting there at all times keeping the restrooms clean. There will be a plate or bowl for tips…don’t stiff her, she has a difficult job.
Don’t Walk in the Bike Path–
Walking on a sidewalk in a city? Look down. You might see that the cobblestones or pavement come in two colors, or there is a line down the sidewalk. One side is for walkers, the other is for bicycle riders. DO NOT walk in the bike path. You will get hit by a cyclist. (On the other hand, don’t ride your bike on the walking side, if the police don’t ticket you, an Oma will get you with her purse and some strong language).
Don’t Cross Against the Ampelman–
I know this has been said 100 times and in 100 different ways, but when the Ampelman (the little cross walk man) is red, DO NOT step into the road. I don’t care if you are 20km outside of town, it’s 3am, and there are no cars for miles. Someone will see you, and you will be either ticketed, or that Oma who smacked you for riding a bike on the walking path will show up to smack you again. Wait for Green.
Green is Coming–
One of my favorite little things is the way a crossing button will TELL YOU that the light is going to change. Here at home I press the button 27 times, because I don’t know if it registered. In Germany, when the button is pressed, a digital display will let you know that “Signal Kommt” (the signal is coming) and you are good.
Stop Lights Flash Yellow Before Green–
In the US, we have a simple system. Green means go, yellow means slow down because red is coming, and red is stop. German stop lights will do all that, but when the light is going from red to green, it will flash yellow, just as a heads up you are about to go again. Kind of nice. I’ve even seen some intersections with notice boards that light up with the words, the light change is coming.
Dining out Takes Longer–
Do not walk into a restaurant thinking you will be in and out in no time. If you want fast, go to an Imbiß or Döner shop. Food is more than just nourishment, and a meal is a celebration. Get comfortable and enjoy it.
People Greet You or Say Goodbye in Restaurants–
I don’t just mean the owner or waiter/ress, customers will say goodbye as they leave the place. I’ve noticed this especially at breakfasts in Hotels or Cafes. People come in, and everyone says “good morning”, when folks leave, they wish you a nice day, and a good rest of your meal.
Drinks DO NOT Come with Refills–
Unlike the bottomless drinks we have in the US, when you order a Cola in Germany, you get A COLA. Finish it, and you can certainly get another, but you will pay for it. Same with water, juice, and other beverages. It’s easier and cheaper to order a Kännchen (little pitcher) of coffee or tea instead of a single cup if you know it will take 2 cups to get you going. Many restaurants offer small and large sizes for other drinks.
Be Specific About Your Water-
Water comes carbonated or still. Be specific when you order. If you don’t like carbonate Mineral Water, say “Still Bitte” (Still, Please). You can order a whole bottle to be put on the table. Generally, asking for Tap water will get you a weird look.
Be Careful When Getting on Trains-
Ever hear the phrase “Mind the Gap”? Honestly, I can not emphasize enough how important that is. The Gap is WIDE. Once upon a time, my 3 year old fell down into it while boarding a streetcar (thankfully, my cousin had her by the hand and swoop pulled her back out). On Trains you have the Gap AND possibly a Step. Throw your gear onto the train, and use the hand holds to get in safely.
Train and Streetcar Doors don’t Open Automatically-
When riding the bus or streetcar, be sure to press the button for the stop you want to get off, otherwise the they may not stop (especially if you are outside of big cities). If you are riding, and the train comes a stop, you have to press a button to make the door open. (Note- it will not open while the train is underway) You also have to press if you want to get in, and no one inside is trying to get out.
Get On the Right Train, in the Right Car–
The German Train System is fabulous. It goes most places in Germany smoothly and efficiently. But there are … umm…. hiccups. Sometimes the trains get cancelled, or the platforms get switched. Be mindful that the train number you want is the one you are getting on. AND for extra fun, there are different classes of cars. Be sure you are getting into a car that matches what you paid for. Every platform has an elaborate time schedule for all the trains, and there should be a guide showing the car class order. Or you can totally immerse yourself in Germany by having the Deutsche Bahn App DB Navigator on your smartphone like all the cool kids.
Most Trains, Buses and Streetcars Have Route Screens
When you are on the train/bus/Streetcar, look up… generally you will see a screen. It shows the next stop, and sometimes even shows the next few stops, so you can plan your escape (or finally figure out if you are going in the right direction).
Reserve a Seat–
Worried that you won’t find a seat on the train for a longer trip? Maybe you are traveling with a few people and want to insure that you sit together? Reserve your seat. The seat number will show up on your ticket, and the seat will be marked reserved. People in Germany respect the reserved sign.
Don’t Put Your Suitcases and Bags on the Seat–
Just about every train car has a spot near the door for you to stick your bags. They also have overhead racks for smaller parcels (as well as hooks by the windows for coats).
People Wish You a Good Journey–
While traveling on a train, if you end up in a car close to other people, they may not talk to you while the train is underway… but when they get up to leave, they will wish you a pleasant rest of your journey. How nice is that?
Cash is King-
Yes, restaurants and hotels take credit cards, but it is a very good idea to have cash in your wallet. Most places prefer CASH. Do not try to buy your Brötchen from the Train Station kiosk with a debit card. (And the women running the licorice stand at the Wochenmarkt will lose her mind)
- Bring a Debit Card-
Don’t go to the money changers (unless you really are stuck), use a debit card to withdraw cash from an ATM. There are ATM machines EVERYWHERE, even in small towns. You will get the current exchange rate (and have a nice record of your withdrawals when you get home). It’s virtually impossible to find a bank that will exchange American Dollars, unless you have an account with them, and Traveler’s Checks went the way of the Dodo bird.
Expect to Share Tables–
If you are a small party, and the tables are big, you will be sharing. Don’t panic! Just say hello, and carry on. Generally people say hello and goodbye, and will mind their own business.
Use the Cloakroom–
Don’t carry your coat, travel bags and shopping through a museum. All Museums have cloakrooms or lockers, and they all have security that goes bananas if they see you lugging gear through the displays. Make it easy on yourself (you won’t need your jacket, I promise) check your things. And take my word for it, being hounded by security because of a backpack or jacket over your arm is a drag
Store Your Bags at the Train Station–
Did you check out early in the day or maybe you arrived in a new place before check in, and now you don’t know what to do with your bags? Many Train Stations will store bags for you. In Cologne they even have an amazing Automated System! You put in money, it opens up for all your stuff, gives you a ticket, and whisks it away to a secret underground locker. Later, just put the ticket, and your things will magically reappear. Fabulous.
No Ride-share Services-–
Used to grabbing an Uber or Lyft? In Germany, you will have to take a Taxi. There are taxi stands around many cities (often near train stations) or you can call for one.
Have a Euro Handy for Shopping Carts-
Shopping Carts in German grocery stores are all locked together in front of the story. You can release yours by sticking a Euro Coin into the slot. Don’t worry! You will get the Euro back when you return the cart (this is how they get away from having to round up carts from all over the neighborhood… because they don’t have bagging clerks… see #25)
Bring Your Own Shopping Bag–
Did you decide to stop by the Grocery store for some chocolates or maybe snacks? You will have to provide your own bag… or buy one from the checker.
Bag Your Own Stuff-
Which brings me to the next thing… there are no baggers at Grocery stores. In fact, you have to be FAST! The checker will flip things through their scanner, and it’s up to you to catch it all up and bag it. Think High Speed Tetris. Of course, you can toss everything back in to the cart, and go to the handy ledge at the front of the store to bag it properly.
Don’t Worry about Calculating Tax, but Prepare to Calculate Pfand–
Say you are at the Train Station or grocery store, and you want a bottle of water. It costs 1,80€. But the guy charges you 2,20€. That difference is not tax, it’s the Pfand. Pfand is the money paid in to cover recycling, and when you return a bottle, you get the money back. I would suggest keeping your bottle until you see a Pfand collection machine (you can usually find them in grocery stores) or reuse that bottle until you get to the airport, where you will see handy “donate your Pfand” bins to collect bottles from people leaving the country.
Walking on Cobblestones is HARDER THAN IT LOOKS–
Wear comfortable shoes if you plan to do a lot of walking in old towns. Cobblestones will reach up and grab your ankles when you aren’t paying attention.
Stairs and Elevators–
In older buildings, you might notice that the elevators are small. How small? One person and a single suitcase small. Make a few trips or take the stairs. And FYI… in OLD restaurants, don’t be surprised if the restrooms are either up or down a steep flight of stairs. It’s a workout. (And a pain in the neck if you forgot your change)
Don’t Expect a Giant Cover over Your WHOLE Bed in a Hotel–
In Germany, it is customary for each person to get their own blanket or feather bed. You won’t have a giant quilt or bedspread to cover you and your other person, don’t worry, you will get used to not having to share.
Train Stations have Decent Take-Away Meals-
If you are looking for a quick and yummy something to eat, you can usually find sandwiches and other quick stuff at a train station. So many people buy there, that the selection is usually varied, and fresh.
Stores are Closed on Sunday–
For travelers, this can be a hassle, especially if you want to grab something quick to eat or a magazine. Have no fear, go to the train station, shops there are generally open.
The Further You Are from a City, the Less Likely You Are to Hear English–
At the Frankfurt Train Station, announcements are made in German and English. Go further out… and it’s just German. Don’t panic. Know where you are getting off, and ask the conductor or a fellow passenger with the DB App for help if needed.
Your next trip to Germany will be fabulous. Don’t worry about things going wrong! I’m hoping you take these Traveling Tips for Germany like suggestions from a friend. And when you get there… everything will seem familiar! You’ve got this!
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