Germany Travel for Dummies
November 25, 2012 12:52 PM   Subscribe

Getting around and staying connected in Bremen, Germany: your tips, tricks, and general advice for a semester abroad.

A younger sibling of mine, a sophomore in college, will be spending the upcoming spring semester in Bremen, Germany with fellow students from his college (they will be housed together in a dorm-type living facility that includes a cafeteria). He has never traveled to Europe/anywhere requiring a passport before but is cautiously excited about this opportunity. He will have had one semester of German upon arrival and will continue to take German as one of his courses there. He anticipates devoting most of his time to his studies and isn't anticipating a lot of side excursions - but I am gently trying to encourage this.

As the family member who has most recently traveled abroad, I am the go-to resource for the black hole of information his college has somehow failed to provide. He's a great kid but not always completely on top of things organizationally so I'd love to take advantage of some hivemind wisdom. Relevant blog or forum resources are also appreciated!


1. Cell phone logistics. He will be bringing an iPhone 3GS that is not currently attached to a US contract plan. His plan is to purchase a SIM card and install it upon arrival in Germany, and then top up as needed during the semester. He plans to use WiFi for data needs and Skype to call home; he mainly wants to be able to keep in touch with traveling companions as needed. How does this sound? Any recommendations for vendors/places to purchase/top up ? I saw this link from this post - recommendable?

2. I don't know that he is signed up for an ISIC student card. I had one a few years back when I spent some time in London and found it very useful; should I recommend it?

3. General (Bremen- and Germany-specific) travel tips for the uninitiated? I haven't traveled extensively but things I learned quickly and wasn't initially "aware of needing to be aware of" included personal item vigilance, always carrying cash vs. using a debit/credit card to pay for everything, and being mindful of communication costs (e.g., is it cheaper to text or call my family in the US? what about people traveling with me?). Anything else you'd recommend?

Thanks in advance hive, look forward to hearing your tips!
posted by shortskirtlongjacket to Travel & Transportation around Bremen, Germany (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Answering some of "3.:
Cash vs. Card: in my experience all works fine, even though German trade often still relies on cash, especially for small amounts.
Transportation: embrace the services of the bus company (Bremer Strassenbahn AG.), they'll get you pretty much anywhere. However check out which payment deals and routines apply so you don't pay too much or get stuck in front of a ticket machine with no cash or stuff.
Otherwise, a bike might be serviceable. There are bike paths almost everywhere; the only thing one must be careful about is non-looking right-turning bike path-crossing moronic car drivers of which there are quite a few.
The old city center beyond the central station is really quite charming. Great for touristing, shopping, and just enjoying. There's a great European-style food market on the Domshof. Tons of Caf├ęs and whatnot.
"Das [Ostertor] Viertel", on the other hand, needs to be navigated with some inside knowledge, even if there are some neat places there to hang out. Others aren't, you guess it, quite that neat (at all).
Most people talk English. You need to make them talk German if you want to learn anything about the language.
Locally produced Hachez chocolate is great. Some of the beers too.
Cabs don't do fixed deals. If one tries, get out. They have to use a meter.
posted by Namlit at 1:12 PM on November 25, 2012

Maybe also check/ask in the local expat forum
posted by runincircles at 1:54 PM on November 25, 2012

If he goes to a supermarket to buy anything, he will always have to bag his own stuff because there aren't any baggers in Germany. He will also either have to bring his own grocery bag with him, or buy one from the cashier for 10 cents or so.

A weird, related side-effect of this bagging-your-own-groceries is that the bit of the cash register that shows you the final price is oriented differently in Germany than it is in the U.S. Namely, it's oriented so that you can see the price easily when you're standing down at the bagging end of the conveyor belt (not when you're standing directly across from the cashier like in the U.S.). This might seem like a stupid detail, but if your German isn't that good yet (and numbers in German are particularly confusing), when you go to buy stuff, remember to stand a bit farther towards the bagging end than you're used to--even if you don't have that much stuff--because then you'll be able to read the price. And then you don't have to guess what the cashier means when she says in a bored monotone, "einundzwanzigf├╝nfundzwanzig, bitte."
posted by colfax at 1:55 PM on November 25, 2012

Sounds like an amazing oppurtunity! I just got back from my year abroad (in Norway) but travelled in Germany and have lots of german friends.

1) Sounds like a great plan, you want to make sure the iphone is GSM compatible. As far as I understand, CDMA phones from the US and Canada are not supported in Europe. Is the phone unlocked? Even if its not on contract it be locked to a specific provider. You can ask the phone company to unlock it for a fee if that's the case or go to unlock store (I've seen tons in Chinatown in Toronto for example). You may also be able to do this yourself, I'm not exactly sure how it works but maybe worth looking into. I used E-Plus when I was in Germany, there are kiosks everywhere and most people will have no problem with speaking english.

If your phone is not unlocked(able) for whatever reason you could grab a cheap unlocked phone and then use the Iphone for Wi-fi and other uses.

As some general advice, I would really advise him to not get stuck just hanging out with the group that he's living with from his college or the other international students. I was the only Canadian at the university where I studied abroad, and was kind of forced to make other friends, some of which turned out to be some of the best friends I've had in a long time that I keep in daily contact with. Its also easy just to hang out with other international students and not meet locals. I ended up teaching skiing and meeting a bunch of Norwegians, which was great! Getting involved in something outside of the international student community would allow him to 1) Practise language skills with a buddy, and meet other people.

Culture shock is also likely going to hit your brother at some point, encourage him to keep an open mind about things and accept that the smallest things that are different may cause the weirdest feelings. An example, I noticed that people didn't tend to hold doors open for the people behind them or make eye contact in public, it threw me off for a long time.

Definitely do some travelling!!! It is super easy to get around Europe (trains, planes, buses) and can be cheap if you time it right. I had a friend in London who would look at the Ryanair deal page before the weekend to decide where to go and then would just go to a random new place. She had a ton of great experiences! Travelling was my favorite and most educational part of being abroad. Studying and school is important, but the experiences of travelling is amazing and so worth it as well!!

That's all I can think of off the top of my head, feel free to me-mail me with more questions. If you have any Germany specific I can toss them off to some German friends of mine. Best of luck!
posted by snowysoul at 1:58 PM on November 25, 2012

I was there several years ago with a month and half to travel Western Europe (mostly Germany and the UK), so I don't know how much of my experience will help.

On the credit/debit card: I found that Mastercard was ~FAR~ more common that Visa.

I had no problem heading out on my own when others didn't want to. Some of my fondest memories are actually of those times. I could do what I wanted when I wanted and didn't have to compromise with others.

Aside from basic personal item vigilance, I had zero concerns about my safety. I just tried to look less like a tourist.

Most important thing: Get out of the dorm and have fun! Who know when there will be a return trip.
posted by Leenie at 3:03 PM on November 25, 2012

His SIM plan sounds pretty good. Many expats I know do PAYG plans.

I visited Bremen for a few days this summer and found it to be a geographically larger city than I expect, with some not-great parts. Not unsafe I don't think, just not as cute as I'd thought it'd all be. People were generally friendly and patient with my broken German & fluent English.

A bike is a must. Great city & surrounding countryside for biking. The town has trams and buses, and he should look into which transit pass is best for him. Similarly, Deutsche Bahn has savings schemes if he wants to travel within Germany a bit. Hamburg's not far, and the DB pass should also get him savings if he heads to Denmark or to the Netherlands.

Is he picky about food? If not, one thing he should keep in mind is that it's worth it to try absolutely EVERYTHING. Not just the local wurst varieties & broetchen & the like, but also things that seem familiar, but a bit different from back home. The only examples I can come up with right now are flavors of ice cream or soda, sadly.

Definitely befriend some local students.. and non-students. See if through them, or the university, he can get "adopted" by a local family (are there MeFites there, I wonder?), so he can meet more people and have the occasional home-cooked meal with friendly non-students.
posted by knile at 3:37 PM on November 25, 2012

Some hints from my experience abroad and in Germany (but not in Bremen)
I don't know if an ISIC card would be that necessary actually. I suspect his university student ID card will provide access to most student discounts. I'm not sure ISIC cards are that well known in Germany to be honest.
Lots of students travel by bike / walking so investigate the cost of a secondhand bike and, distances permitting, he could save the cost of a semester ticket on the public transport system. (That said, semester tickets - with your uni student ID - are often quite a good deal in Germany) Bikes absolutely do get stolen, so spend more on the lock than on the bike, and consider putting it away inside somewhere if you're travelling for the weekend. You don't need any fancy cycling gear though - all kinds of people cycle in whatever they are wearing at the time.

Bureaucracy in Germany can seem slow, but be patient, my experience is that staff mostly keep their promises and the system usually works.
Customer service in Germany is not 'smiley' like in the US, people here can seem serious or even gruff to English speaking outsiders. Service staff don't routinely approach the customer in shops, instead customers need to be proactive and ask if they need help . I would say this is part of German culture, but it does seem to be a bit of a culture shock, even a sticking point, for English speaking foreigners in Germany. On a similar note, Germans can be more direct and 'to the point' than is usual in the US.

If his German is good enough, I would encourage speaking it and using it whereever possible! It is easy to fall into an expat bubble as lots of others do speak English, but service staff, bureaucrats and university officials are (in my experience) prefer it if you 'have a try' in German first.

Is he old enough to drink in the US? Legal drinking age in Germany is 16 I think and alcohol is cheap for students and available virtually everywhere. Germans therefore can hold their liquor - be wary of trying to keep up! Getting absolutely blind drunk isn't as cool as you might expect either.

HAVE FUN! Tell him I hope he really enjoys it - I didn't do half the activities on offer during my student exchange semester and I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Any other questions feel free to memail me!!
posted by EatMyHat at 5:33 AM on November 26, 2012

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