For us, Germany always has been a storied land that must be experienced. My wife and I have wanted to go there for a very long time, but all manner of distractions caused us to put it off for decades. We have encountered many American military families who have enjoyed tours of duty in Germany, and never one that had a bad experience. Rather, couples told us how they missed it so much and that they eagerly plotted a return trip. It was the kind offer of a friend, who had lived in Germany for fifteen years that moved us to plan and take a ten day trip.
We wanted to see southern Germany, and preferred to have a single flight from the mainland U.S. in order to avoid a long layover in another European country. Delta Airlines offered direct flights between Atlanta, Georgia and Stuttgart, DE, which we snapped up. We had our passports and we selected two credit cards (a primary and a backup) for each of us to use in German bank ATMs to get our Euros. Our friend advised us to get our first Euros at a Stuttgart airport ATM rather than through a money exchange of our U.S. currency, in order to omit costly transaction fees. I had an International Drivers License that I obtained from an automobile association. I received information that I needed to purchase additional liability insurance with the rental car unless the credit card that I used to pay for the car offered such insurance at my European destinations (they did not).
I specifically purchased insurance for my driving in Germany and Austria, and I learned that I must also buy a vignette (a sticker to be placed on the inside of the windshield, left of the driver’s position) to enter Austria. The vignette must be bought at a rest stop service station (major highway rest stops have service stations and a restaurant) before entering Austria.
I learned that Switzerland is the only other European country that requires a vignette to enter. The rental car company included a parking disk (a wheel with the face of a clock and a rotating arrow, like the hand of a clock) in the glove compartment. Since Europe has many towns and villages that have narrow roads, parking options are limited. Expect to pay for most parking, but also, be prepared to move your car if the parking time is limited to an hour or two. Place the parking wheel on the dash and display the hour that you parked. If you do not display the wheel, you likely will be assumed to have parked too long and you will be given a parking fine.
Europeans, and especially Germans, are efficient when it comes to parking and driving fines. All of them are sent to your rental car company where they will be charged to your credit card. Learn the driving laws and the driving signs before you travel. Do not exceed speed limits. Rarely will you see a policeman, and you will not easily see the camera that will catch you if you exceed the posted speed limit.
Have you ever heard the phrase “the ugly American?” Mostly, it means rude Americans who have not familiarized themselves with the customs of the culture that they visit. Speaking loudly, demanding service, refusing to learn the local language, and vulgar speech are examples of rude behavior. One gets tagged as being an American, by the use of non-British accented English and by the wearing of U.S. sports or other U.S. trademarked apparel. Aside from being vulgar and poorly representing the U. S., to dress and act conspicuously American identifies you as a target to a savvy local hoodlum or (worse) a terrorist. Ugly acting tourists from any country are disdained and avoided by locals, who might otherwise have welcomed and helped you. If this is not enough, understand that vulgar speech and gestures are subject to stiff fines.
On a more positive note, realize that visiting another culture is far more than a weekend trip to a U.S. beach or theme park. If you learn how to communicate a bit, wear a smile on your face, and listen carefully before you speak, you will likely find help, hospitality, useful advice (and perhaps a warning), and possibly you will begin enduring friendships that could last a lifetime! Learn how to say good morning, how glad you are to be there, to ask where is the restroom, and how to say that your (German, on my trip) is not good, so that your host will appreciate your efforts and help you as best they can.
A few more bits of useful information: The ATMs give you an option to get usage instructions in English. Train tickets are bought at kiosks at train stations and they have an option to get instructions in English. Purchase either a one way or a round trip train ticket by pushing the button that corresponds to your destination. If you are bringing a bicycle or a dog, you need a ticket for them too. While you are on the train, a man in civilian clothes will stand up and put an armband on his sleeve. He is the train conductor. Show him your ticket. If you have no ticket, you must get off at the next station and pay a fine (no free rides). Do not argue with the conductor or your small fine will escalate to a police matter.
When you enter a restaurant, in most cases, wait to be seated at a table. A table that has a small sign that says “stammtische (German word)” is one that is reserved for regular local patrons. Do not sit there. Keep.50,.20, and.10 Euro coins in your pocket to tip public restroom cleaners (usually.50 to.70 per patron). This is how those people are paid. They are not salaried and they have to buy the cleaning supplies. If you go to the public restroom, tip them on the way out or leave the money in the basket (don’t skip out or you will be an ugly American.) Sometimes you have to deposit the coins in a turnstile on the way into the restroom.
Tipping is actually worth its own paragraph in my article. Before your trip to Europe, you may read that the service tip is included in the billing at restaurants. This is not true. A national tax is included in the billing (called a VAT tax in Germany). It is like a sales tax in the U.S. Your server does not get that money. You owe your server a tip (15% is reasonable and 20% is exceptional). Learn how to ask for your bill. The server will not bring the bill unless you signal them and ask for it. They will tell you the bill once you ask. Pay the server. You should add at least a 15% tip. If you give your server a large Euro note, he/she will return the exact change. Now, you still have to provide the tip. I found it easier to keep Euro coins in my pocket and to hang onto 5 Euro notes. In my head, I know that for each 10 Euro cost of my meal, 15% is 1.5 Euros and that I will round up to the next whole number. I can use the coins and small notes if the server returns to me Euro notes that are still too large to cover the tip and I would otherwise have to ask for change.
I mentioned the VAT tax. In Germany, and probably in the other European countries, you will receive the tax back on your purchase of durable goods that you take out of the country. The best way to get it back is to ask the retailer to ship what you bought back to your home. If you do that, the retailer will credit back the VAT tax for you and essentially, the recoupment of that tax reduces the cost of shipping. Plus, you don’t have to man haul what you bought for the rest of your trip and on the flight home. If you try to collect the tax on your own, you are in for a test of patience. Generally, you will have to provide your passport, fill out forms, show both to a customs agent, who may want to see the actual goods, get a stamp from the customs agent, go find a local bank, get your VAT tax Euros minus the fee charged by the bank, and then you have to find a post office and mail the forms. Most of this will be done by you at the airport on the day of your departure and it will delay your checking your luggage if any of those goods are part of your checked luggage. My advice is just don’t do it. Ship the durable goods home instead.
Stay in Guesthouses, not hotels. Find the guesthouses online. Trip Advisor http://www.tripadvisor.com/ likely has articles that recommend the better ones for your European vacation, the ones that offer stunning views, details about the room with a private bathroom, and the complimentary breakfast. Book online. The guesthouse will be far less expensive than the hotel and it will be the place where you will experience much of the culture of the place that you visit (the people and the food). My wife was worried about staying in guesthouses, but by the end of our vacation to Germany, she prefers them.
When you book your guesthouses on line, your credit card is not charged until the end of your stay, but be certain to cancel your stay should you change your plans, to avoid the risk of a no show charge and because you alone may be one of a few guests for whom the owner incurs an expense to prepare for your arrival. If you plan to visit popular shows, see if you can book them online to guarantee your reservation. Use your credit card to pay for these things, your rental car, gas for your rental car, and for major purchases. Your credit card company will convert the billing to U.S. dollars at no charge to you. Expect to pay cash (Euros) for most other things, to include grocery store purchases, and restaurant meals. Make certain that you have the Euros with you before you go inside. If you want to take home with you inexpensive things to share with others (and for yourself), consider going to a grocery store the day before you travel home and stock up on coffee like espresso, cappuccino, chocolates, cookies, and candies. Toss these into your carryon luggage.
Speaking of luggage, pack light. My wife and I each took a backpack for carryon luggage and put little in going to Germany and we stuffed it coming home. We got everything else into one large checked bag going over and we included an expandable canvass bag in that. On the return trip, our canvass bag (2nd person checked luggage) was filled with whatever we brought that we did not ship home.
I could go on, but it is time to conclude this article. Plan your trip. Get smart on the details, and go with a friend or with several. Bring your camera. Don’t expect everything to be perfect. Do expect the perfect and the imperfect to blend into your personal vacation experience. Smile. Make new friends. My wife and I had a great time in Germany and Austria. We wish that we had gone there when we were younger. We will go on another trip to Europe soon. I have seen estimates that the Euro may continue to fall in value over the next five years. Your trip to Europe this year could be the first of many trips. Enjoy!