Tips for Travelling to Germany for the First Time… From a German!
If you’re planning a trip to Germany, and you’ve never been there before, you might be wondering what to expect. Germany is a wonderfully diverse country that’s different from one town or city to the next. Planning ahead is always a smart move as is asking yourself “What do I need for travelling to Germany”. From Germany travel tips to money and language, there are lots of things to know before travelling to Germany!
We write a lot about Germany given that we’re a Canadian and German writing Penguin and Pia. We love helping you discover Germany’s “Hidden Gems” – so much so that we’ve written a whole series on them! You can read these posts about some amazing places to visit in Germany:
- Want a small city built around a castle on a hill? Check out Coburg for More Castles in the South of Germany.
- Are you into wine, cobblestone streets, and old fortresses? Würzburg sounds like the place for you then!
- The north of Germany shouldn’t be missed – Here’s a brief guide to checking out Hamburg!
- Explore a small, historic spa city: Aachen, Germany is where you want to be!
So, having said that – here’s our take on providing you with the essentials for travel to Germany. We’ll even tell you about some do’s and don’ts. Consider this your travelling to Germany checklist! Oh, and if you’re travelling to Europe you’ll probably need travel insurance, you can check here to get an idea about how much travel insurance for your trip could be. Ready to go? Let’s travel to Germany!
General Information About Germany
Germany, or Deutschland in German, is located in Western/Central Europe. The three biggest cities in Germany are Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, with Berlin being the capital.
Germany has a population of approx. 82 million people. The country is divided into 16 “Bundesländer” such as Bavaria, Northrine-Westphalia etc. which have jurisdiction power over some things such as education. Think of “states” if you’re American or “Provinces” if you’re Canadian. For you as a visitor, this doesn’t really matter – however, it might be relevant if you travel with a special train ticket which allows unlimited travel within a certain area.
While German is the language spoken, there are many different dialects. The biggest differences are between the north and the south of Germany. So, if you can’t understand someone because of the dialect – don’t worry. Sometimes, even German people from the North can’t understand a person from the south when speaking in a Bavarian dialect.
Visa Information to Visit Germany
Do you need a visa to travel to Germany for tourism? This is a good question and definitely one to ask if you’re unsure because travel visas can be complicated. The answer for Germany is: it depends. Germany is located in the Schengen Zone. We won’t go too in-depth about what the Schengen Zone is – that’s for another article entirely. We will, however, talk about the Schengen Zone with regards to visiting Europe (and Germany).
In short, the Schengen Zone is an area in continental Europe of 26 countries that allow free movement between them once you’re in any of them. If you enter the Schengen Zone, American passport holders and Canadian passport holders have 90 days of visa-free travel before having to leave again. It gets more complicated because you can only spend 90 days in any 180 day period, but if you’re going for a short trip to Europe you’ll be fine.
Some passports don’t just get visa-free travel in the Schengen Zone and require a Schengen Visa to travel around the zone (that Germany is in) so it’s important to check with your country’s government/embassy.
Debunking North American Stereotypes
Writing this post as a Canadian and German couple, it’s always interesting to talk about how people and countries perceive other countries and cultures. One of the biggest misconceptions that bothers Lisa was when Eric told her how North America generally stereotypes Germany.
When Eric was newly dating Lisa, people would joke about how he would have to start “wearing Lederhosn and drinking beer from large steins”. What many people stereotype Germany to be is basically a giant Oktoberfest all the time. What they are describing is a small part of the culture in Bavaria.
Bavaria is only one region and not representative of the whole country. Not everyone wears dirndl and Lederhosn, drinks Weißbier (wheat beer) and eats Brezln (pretzel). While this is certainly done during certain occasions in certain parts of the country, it is definitely not a representation of the country as a whole.
For North Americans, it would be like saying everyone in the US wears cowboy boots and hats. People in New York would be like “hell no, that’s Texas”. The same goes for Canada – it would be like saying all Canadians live a coastal, fisherman’s lifestyle. People from Ontario, the Prairies, the West Coast, AND all the Territories would be like “no, that’s the East Coast”. For Germans, the same is true about Bavarian life.
Paying and Tipping In Germany
The currency that is used in Germany is the Euro. While you will probably be able to pay with credit card in most restaurants, it might not always be an option – especially in cafés. Just in case, make sure to carry some cash with you at all time and you’ll be just fine.
In Germany, it is normal to give a tip but the tipping amount is nowhere near as much as in North America. When you’re at a café and the bill is small, it’s fine to just round up to the next full Euro or give a 50 cent tip. If the bill is more expensive or you eat at a restaurant giving between 2 Euro and 10% of the bill is usually fine.
Plugs/Electronics Used in Germany
Germany uses a two-prong officially classified as Type C, or E/F plug with 230 Volt. This is also the kind of plug that will work in many other places in Europe. That means if you’re coming from North America or the United Kingdom, you will need an adapter for your style of plug. Most electronics you’ll be bringing along can handle a range of voltage from 110 to 240 V and it’ll say on the label.
If your electronic isn’t compatible for a 230-volt plug (most should, but check) then you’ll need BOTH a converter AND an adapter. Buying a travel adapter that handles different voltages can save you some worry. You can find one exactly like that here. It even includes USB ports for charging smaller electronics (cameras, phones, etc).
In general, Germany has a good public transport system. If you are only travelling to bigger cities you’ll be more than fine to get around by bus, tram, S-Train, or Subway. Most of the cities also have apps for their public transport system and these can be very helpful for finding out how to get from A to B.
Germany also has a very good railway network and, only recently, also a pretty good long-distance bus system. If you want to take the train from one city to another or go on a day trip, you can look up the train schedule here. You can buy your ticket in advance and print it out or download the app and show it on your phone.
If it is short distance trains only, you can also buy a ticket at the machine at the train station. However, for long distance connections including an ICE (the fast trains), there is a certain amount of “Savings Tickets” which can be significantly cheaper than the standard fare. Once these tickets are gone, you have to pay the standard fare which can make it quite expensive. So, if you plan on travelling a long distance while in Germany, book your ticket in advance where possible.
If you’re travelling to Germany for the first time as an English speaker, you’ll find that most younger people in bigger cities speak enough English to at least communicate with you. Those people working in the services industry or the tourism sector usually speak English quite well.
If you are travelling to smaller towns and/or want to communicate with older people, it might be helpful to learn a couple of German phrases before your trip. We’ve written a whole post on the necessary German phrases to know before you travel to Germany!
Often times, German people might also understand more English than they can speak (take Lisa’s mom for example). People are generally helpful and patient so you shouldn’t worry that nobody will be able to understand you. Also, being able to say “Danke” (thank you) and “Bitte” (please, you’re welcome) will go a long way and you’ll be sure to make some Germans smile for trying to speak their native language.
Safety While Travelling in Germany
Generally, Germany is a safe country. However, as in any other country, you should be aware of your belongings when you walk through touristy places. Pick-pocketing can, and does, occur – but as long as you make sure you’re careful with your things you should be fine.
In big cities, there can be certain areas that you should not necessarily walk through as they can be considered “rougher” parts of town. This is not to say that something would happen to you if you did, but more a precaution to consider. Most of the time these areas are in the outskirts of cities (like in Berlin) and you would never have any reason to go there anyway.
Renting a Car & Driving on the Autobahn
If you’re planning on renting a car, you should know that most Germans drive a stick shift so this is the default car you can find at rental agencies. If you only know how to drive automatic you should make sure that this is what you get when you rent a car online. There have been stories where people just get an equivalent level car but with a stick shift as for most European people, it does not matter. Check and compare the best rental car prices in Germany.
Also, in Germany, you drive on the same side of the road as in the US or Canada.
One good piece of advice (as this is something that Lisa found super frustrating in Canada and the US): If you are driving on the Highway (Autobahn) and you’re driving slower than other cars make sure you are driving on the OUTSIDE LANE TO THE RIGHT! There is nothing more frustrating than slow cars driving in the middle or left lane and holding everyone up behind them. Since there is no speed limit at some parts of the Autobahn (or if there is a speed limit it is often times still higher than in North America), this can cause real problems and does lead to unnecessary accidents. So please be aware of this when driving in Germany.
Eric adds: As a North American driver, Canada and the US are FAR TOO lenient on people driving slowly in the left lane. If you do that in Germany, you will honestly get yourself killed. When a car is coming from behind you doing over 110 mph/175 km, there’s no time to go “oh, better get over now”. It’s already too late. Learn how to drive and be where you’re supposed to be driving or don’t drive at all. Rant over!
It goes without saying that Germany has played a large role in shaping the course of human history over the past few centuries. Some parts of that history Germany is proud to acknowledge, while other parts remain a point of remorse and shame for many German people. As such, there are a few things you should know about Germany culture and history.
The big one is: watch the casual phrases you toss around. Saying “don’t be such a Nazi” to someone who is being anal or over prepared about something isn’t the smartest move in Germany. Also, jokes about Hitler are offside and inappropriate. While these phrases might have become quite common in North America, you should never use them in Germany. History is still a touchy subject and, while many Germans had nothing to do with times of oppression back in the day, the majority of Germans don’t think it is appropriate to make fun of it.
German Culture: Smalltalk is Not a Thing
As a North American, this can come as a surprise for you, but Germans are not used to small talk. The cashier at the supermarket will likely not ask you how you’re doing and you’re not expected to ask them either. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to use manners. You should say thank you at the end! Sometimes, they wish you a nice evening/nice weekend which you, of course, should return as well. In conclusion, if you’re in line waiting for something don’t expect people starting a conversation – it’s just not that common!
And there you have it – 11 things you should know before travelling to Germany for the first time. Germany is a big, beautiful country full of interesting people, a rich history, a proud culture, and a bright future. We love Germany – and not just because Lisa calls it home. We’d advise anyone travelling to Europe to stop through and see for themselves what makes Germany such a great country to visit. We hope this is helpful for first-time travellers! Oh, and definitely let us know how your trip to Germany goes!
As always, Guten Waddle,