While I love exploring new places, there’s something special about travel in Germany that just gets me.
There’s mindblowing nature next to fairytale towns, big vibrant cities next to mounds of potato and meat 😉 By my accounts, it’s a near-perfect place.
… and that’s why I love it here! There are certain quirks however that I wish was aware of before I decided to travel in Germany (and um, you know, eventually move there). Despite being so similar to North America in many ways, there are radical differences to home that disorient even the most seasoned travellers. Having learned most of these things the hard way, I’ve decided to valiantly compile my best tips for you – the important things you must keep in mind when you travel to Germany!
PS: I know, I know – Germany is a massive country, and it’s bad to generalize. Much of my experience has been in Bavaria, where I live, and no, not all these tips will apply everywhere, but I have travelled a fair bit around the country as well and have found that much of this holds true. Anyways, enough yapping – grab a beer and notepad – it’s time to travel Germany through these 17 important tips!
Here's what we're covering today:
- 17 Important Must-Knows Before You Travel in Germany
- 1. It’s all about that cash money, yo
- 2. Good luck if you wanna pee for free
- 3. On Sundays, may the odds be ever in your favour
- 4. German punctuality is not a joke
- 5. I hope you like staring contests
- 6. Keep your voice down, lest you be judged
- 7. You might see some naked people
- 8. When you travel in Germany, look for group discounts on travel/train tickets
- 9. Water will cost you, and it’ll probably be fizzy
- 10. Most people speak English, except (weirdly) where it counts
- 11. Avoid the bike lane or risk certain death
- 12. Oh yeah, jaywalking is worse than murder
- 13. Travelling to Germany is a lot of Pfand
- 14. Small talk and pleasantries are not a thing
- 15. Expect customer service to be frostier than a snowman on skis
- 16. Good luck at the Grocery Store AKA the freaking Olympic Games
- 17. Be ready to giggle at fun words like “fahrt”
- Want to travel smarter and more often?
17 Important Must-Knows Before You Travel in Germany
1. It’s all about that cash money, yo
You might expect Germany, producer of supercars and epic technology to be on board with the whole credit card trend, but this simply isn’t the case. I know it’s weird, but you’ll find that many places in Germany don’t actually take credit card, even shops in major transit hubs like central train stations. So, if you plan to frolic/travel Germany for a while, make sure you have plenty of cash on you.
BONUS TIP: Coins are good to have as well. Carry at least some change with you at all times, especially if you have a weak bladder because…
2. Good luck if you wanna pee for free
The chance to travel in Germany is really like a fairytale come true… but sadly one where happily ever after involves paying to urinate. Free public restrooms are quite rare, which means you’ll usually have to cough up 50 cents or more to pee at train stations, bus stations, shopping malls and even McDonalds (yeah, for real!) NOTE: Often these places with paid washrooms will give you a little coupon to use on a future purchase, so if you need to go, head to the washroom first before buying your McNuggets.
Even restaurants and clubs aren’t immune to this, so that’s why I say you should bring change with you at all times. Often washrooms in busy restaurants/clubs/events will have an attendant there who keeps it clean. In these cases, a tip isn’t mandatory, but heavily expected, sooo unless you enjoy getting vicious side-eye, bring some change with you.
3. On Sundays, may the odds be ever in your favour
So I’m not saying that Germany becomes the Hunger Games on Sundays…. but Germany kinda becomes the Hunger Games on Sundays.
In many parts of Germany, Sundays are a day of rest, which means that most shops (supermarkets, retail stores, malls, etc.) will be closed. Many restaurants will still be open, but if you’re hoping to run any errands or do any shopping, plan around the Sunday closures……. or you know, starve. It’s cool.
4. German punctuality is not a joke
Germans are crazy punctual. And for the most part, so is their public transport (at least in Munich, anyway!) This means you should always get to your bus, tram and train and few minutes early, otherwise it will mercilessly leave without you. Likewise, when making plans with a German person, don’t expect to get the whole 30 minutes buffer time you get in North America, where you both message “on my way! sorry! traffic is bad!” back and forth until one of you dies. No, a German will be on time. Maybe even ten minutes early. Do not disappoint the German.
5. I hope you like staring contests
In my experience, Germans seem to really like staring.
Sometimes I like to pretend it’s because I’m a radiant goddess, but then the sensible part of me realizes it’s just a cultural thing. If you think you’re being judged by that grumpy grandma sneering at you from two seats away, let’s be honest: you probably are. We even have a special word for the older judgey people – the Oma and Opa-Polizei, (aka the grandma/grandpa police) who are sure to cast shade at you for even the most minuscule of offenses. One time, an old woman stopped a friend of mine and yelled at him because she didn’t like his lederhosen. It’s just a way of life. Learn to laugh at it and move on. On that note…
6. Keep your voice down, lest you be judged
Germans don’t tend to speak very loudly (unless they’re shrieking folk songs after a few beers). In fact, public transit is often eerily quiet, and if you don’t keep it down, your English voice will surely pierce through the calm and tear through the entire fabric of German social propriety. Refer to #6 – people will stare at you, and you will feel awkward.
7. You might see some naked people
Ironically, for people who hate small talk and being loud on public transit, Germans are weirdly down with being nude.
Like, you wanna go to the park in the summer time? You will likely see a naked human being.
I mean maybe this is an odd Bavarian thing, but I learned it the hard way. Once upon a time, I tried to have a peaceful picnic by the river in Munich’s English Garden (one of the world’s largest city parks). Eating my pretzel was difficult as an elderly man ran naked, wild and free across the river from me, periodically bathing himself and flaunting his body like he was Ryan Gosling on steroids. Anyway, nudity can be common – just prepare yourself.
PS: In many saunas, wellness spas, etc., nudity is not only expected, but mandatory. This is another lesson I learned the hard way. *cringe*
8. When you travel in Germany, look for group discounts on travel/train tickets
If you decide to travel Germany by train, make sure you take advantage of all the amazing discounts! Germans LOVE rewarding you for having friends, so group tickets will often save you ludicrous amounts of money. As an example, in Munich a one-way bus ticket is 2.80, whereas a 3 day group ticket for unlimited travel for up to 5 people is less than 30! That’s only 6 euros a person, for 3 days of unlimited joy rides. It’s insane.
Likewise, look into special regional tickets for trains which get cheaper the more friends you bring. In Bavaria, we call this a “Bayern ticket”, but I know other states have them too. For us, you pay 25 euros for the first person, then 6 euros additional for every extra human you get on there, which means huge savings if you get up to 5 (the maximum) on the same ticket. It’s also valid for unlimited train travel within that region, which means Godzilla-sized savings.
9. Water will cost you, and it’ll probably be fizzy
One of the biggest shocks for North Americans who travel to Germany is that in restaurants, a) water isn’t free and b) fizzy, carbonated water is usually what you get by default. This thrills me because I would literally carbonate everything if I could, but I know a lot of folks hate fizzy water (ugh, weirdos). So, be sure to clarify whether you want still or sparkling. Sadly, there’s not much you can do about paying for it though (unless you have your own sneaky bottle of water with you).
PS: Buying bottled water at the shop will become the most confusing thing in the world (and a significant source of anxiety). Every brand has their own colour code/name for which water has gas or not. Some consider “natural” to be with gas, some without, some use blue for fizzy water, others use green…. They even categorize by how fizzy it is (e.g. Medium), and I just about lost it when once, I saw a teal bottle that said “EXTRA STILL” on it. What even is extra still water? How could still water possibly get any still-er? Turns out, it’s a cryptic German code for mildly fizzy water. Nothing is safe, folks. Enjoy your Russian roulette of hydration. [Sorry for the rant, I am just weirdly passionate about this topic]
10. Most people speak English, except (weirdly) where it counts
I always joke with friends that I could stop anyone on the street here in Germany and they would probably speak fluent English, yet as soon as I step into any bureaucratic environment (e.g. to get my visa sorted, to open a bank account, etc.), I’m left flailing in broken German. Fair enough though – after all, remember that you’re in a foreign country so you shouldn’t expect people to automatically speak your language. That’s why it’s helpful to brush up on some basic German phrases, although you shouldn’t worry too much because there usually at least some fluent English speakers lurking around, especially in big cities like Munich and Berlin.
11. Avoid the bike lane or risk certain death
Biking culture is pretty big here, especially in Munich where I live. Trust me when I say that you have not gotten a real taste of travel in Germany until you’ve stared death in the face while accidentally prancing down a bike lane. There’s not often a clear division between the path for bikes/for people, and they tend to exist side by side to really shake things up and get you that sweet adrenaline rush. Here’s your best survival tip: check whether or not you’re in the bike lane!
12. Oh yeah, jaywalking is worse than murder
So sure, maybe I’m exaggerating but I have literally never met a group of humans so collectively and vocally against jaywalking. I once saw a guy in the suburbs who still waited dutifully for the light to change before crossing, despite not a single car or witness in sight (besides me, always a’lurkin). Especially when there are kids around, parents get super angry at you for setting a bad example (which is fair enough), so it’s better safe than sorry. There are few things more terrifying than being yelled at by an old German woman from across the street. Well, apart from trying to select the right water at the grocery store that is. Sorry – still not over it.
13. Travelling to Germany is a lot of Pfand
This is a very lame pun that won’t make sense unless you speak German, but Germans are really into recycling and the term “Pfand” essentially refers to a refundable deposit that you pay on things like cans, bottles and even glasses/mugs at beer gardens and Christmas markets. It functions as an incentive for you to return those items to get your money back. So, in the case of cans/bottles, it encourages recycling and in the case of glasses/mugs, it prevents you from pocketing them as fun souvenirs (though many still do).
This is a really important word to know, because often items will be more expensive than the listed price at the store because of the pfand. So that 1 euro can of Coke might become 1.25 at checkout. Similarly, let’s say you’re at a German Christmas Market for the first time and want to get yourself a nice mulled wine for 3 euros. You might end up paying 5 euros at first, because of the 2 euro pfand on the mug. Extra picky places will even give you a token to return alongside your glassware to get your refund back.
Soooo remember: if your cashier slides you a plastic coin at the beer garden, it’s not some kind of sketch business dealing, it’s just something you must return to get your moola back.
14. Small talk and pleasantries are not a thing
As a Canadian, it’s in my DNA to fill any voids of silence with meaningless chit chat. “It’s a windy day out, eh?” I’ll often murmur, yearning for that sweet human connection as I do. Germans hate this. Germans literally do not understand the point of small talk. Often, if you try it, they will be confused at why you are wasting their time and getting all up in their personal space. On that note…
15. Expect customer service to be frostier than a snowman on skis
There are of course exceptions to this, but generally speaking, customer service is not very friendly or warm in Germany. This goes for restaurants, retail shops and yes, official places like banks. But hey, if you play your cards right and smile sweetly, you might get a vague acknowledgement of your presence in return 😉 Yay, little wins. So, the next time your waiter ghosts you and doesn’t return for like, 10 years, don’t take it personally – it’s not you!
On that note, tipping is still expected – but not to the crazy extent that we take it to in North America. Generally, rounding up is enough.
16. Good luck at the Grocery Store AKA the freaking Olympic Games
Never in my life did I think I’d need to do warm-up exercises before visiting the grocery store.
… Then I moved to Germany.
I swear the cashiers in Germany are all training for the Olympic Games. They scan items so absurdly quickly that it’s like a duel every single time. Like, dude – I just wanted some bananas, why are you rushing like your wife has gone into labour?
So, be prepared if you choose to visit the grocery store (which you should, because it helps you save loads of money!!). Another important thing is to bring your own bag – most people do. There are bags you can buy at the checkout, but remember to pick one up and put it at the front of your item haul, otherwise you’ll be left with a million items from the Usain Bolt of groceries and nowhere to put them.
17. Be ready to giggle at fun words like “fahrt”
German is a different language than English. Duh, yes, hi – Captain Obvious reporting for duty.
BUT, there are some German words that sound just like words we have in English, usually with very different meanings. Fahrt is one such word. To complicate matters, it is SO common. You will literally see it everywhere – road signs, transit hubs, everywhere. And while I wish the Germans were simply big fans of flatulence, the truth is the word “fahrt” means a lot of things like trip, drive, way, outing, etc. Feel free to giggle about it though – you’re an adult who can do whatever you want.
Full disclosure: even after 2 years here, I still giggle when the little ticket machine tells me “Gute Fahrt!” after I’ve purchased a ticket. They really are trying to say “Have a good trip!”
PS: “Rathaus” (aka Rat House) means town hall and “schmuck” is actually jewellery. Heh. German is such a fun language.
I hope you enjoyed this roundup of must-knows for those who plan to travel in Germany! As always, if you have any more travel in Germany tips, let me know in the comments!
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