Advice for Studying Abroad in Germany
November 30, 2007 1:18 PM   Subscribe

I have just been accepted into a study abroad program in Germany for next summer, and am very excited! But now I would like some advice.

I just got accepted into a five week Study Abroad program in Germany to study the history of medicine and veterinary medicine, with a scholarship. Obviously, I am ridiculously excited. However, I would like some advice.

First off, I speak no German, and have no real knowledge of the country. Does anyone have recommendation for a good guidebook and a book on basic, conversational German I could pick up and start looking over? I will be staying with a host family in Düsseldorf, and part of the course is getting exposed to German culture and learning a bit of the language from them, but I would love a leg up.

Secondly, we have all of our weekends free, and are encouraged to travel and sightsee during them. Since I'm staying in Düsseldorf, I'm planning to visit Amsterdam for one of the weekends, since it seems close by. I'd also like to go to Berlin. Does anyone have any recommendations on other good, nearby places to visit, as well as what I should see, how I should travel, and where I should stay?

This brings me to my next point: I will have a Eurail train pass, and since a scholarship is covering a good deal of my program fees, I'll have (hopefully) around $2000-3000 (USD) to spend on these weekend trips. Is this going to be sufficient for traveling and spending nights at hostels on these weekends? Any advice in this area would be great.

And finally, does anyone have any general advice for preparing to travel? The program is in July and August 2008. I've started the process to get my passport, I'm trying to get airfare taken care of right now, and I'm saving money like none other. What else should I be doing?

Pertinent info: I am a 20 year old white female from Texas. I have never been out of the country (sans one trip to the Bahamas when I was little that I can't even remember). I have no criminal record.

(Also, I know a lot of these questions will be answered during my program orientations in the Spring. But I want to know now, gosh darn it!)
posted by internet!Hannah to Travel & Transportation around Germany (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Save more money. Save as much money as possible. Take AT LEAST $5000 for your weekend trips. You'll be able to cheap it most places (smaller places) but if you want to spend any time in the larger, more tourist-centric Euro cities, i.e. Paris, Milan, you'll need a nice-sized pocketbook. Saving as much money now as possible will totally pay off when you have some amazing memories to look back on. Evaluate how much more kick-ass it'll be to say you had drinks at the same pub Shakespeare would hang out at for the same price that you could've seen Fred Claus with? Exactly.

Also, prepare yourself to be homesick. When I traveled abroad I missed my family and friends terribly, and ended up racking up a $800 phone bill one month (the month after I got there and the reality of "omg I can't just see my mom if I want, even if I'm sick, and my best friend's birthday, he won't be here!" sank in) - so as impossible as it sounds, prepare to be homesick. Don't go into it thinking you'll be a-okay all the time, because the being homesick will hit twice as hard.

Have fun and take pictures, but don't take so many pictures that you don't SEE the places yourself.

Be safe. Bring peanut butter. You'll miss it.
posted by banannafish at 1:46 PM on November 30, 2007

I did a six-week "self-directed" study abroad in Germany over the summer of 2002. (I was 21.)

Guidebook: I used the Let's Go guide to Germany and it was great. I was traveling on my own for most of the trip, and it got me along fine. All the hostels and hotels I stayed in were chosen from it and they were all exactly what I expected based on the description in the book.

Language: I don't have a recommendation on a book, but you will be able to get very far with just a dictionary, the phrases for "Do you speak English," and "Sorry, I don't speak German," as well as please and thank you and "Do you have a room," etc. You will also pick up a lot just by virtue of being around it all the time. I would recommend bringing a pretty good-sized dictionary, like what you would use in a class at school, even though it will be a little heavier than a pocket-size phrasebook.

Money: I had five grand and it lasted me 6 weeks, and I was paying for lodging every night and eating all my meals out. I think even with the current lower exchange rate you should be more than fine with $2-3K for 5 weeks of weekends.
posted by slenderloris at 1:49 PM on November 30, 2007

Congratulations! You're going to have a great time. Some tips:

- $2000-$3000 is way way way way enough money for weekend trips to Berlin and Amsterdam. You could fly to Thailand or something on the weekends for that much. :) Suggestions for other places to go: Cologne (really close!), Paris, Antwerp.

- I warn you that getting the train pass will almost certainly be a worse deal than buying normal point-to-point tickets. Seat 61, basically the most exhaustive railway site ever, run by one guy in Britain, has a bunch of questions you can ask yourself to see if a rail pass will be good value for you (but given your itinerary: I'm guessing it won't be).

- The Deutsche Bahn website is amazingly complete and will show you everything you need to know about trains in Germany.

- Some German will be useful, but don't stress too much about this. I spent a weekend in Berlin a month ago and my knowledge of German, in total, consisted of "ausgang" and "bitte". I was fine as pretty much everyone spoke English once they realized that my "uh..." was the sign of a less-than-cosmopolitan American.

- Head to the library and sit down with a Lonely Planet/Rough Gide/Let's Go Europe guide and check out what's in the neighborhood around Dusseldorf.
posted by mdonley at 1:52 PM on November 30, 2007

I stayed at the Hostel in Amsterdam and it was very reasonable for a single room, probably dirt cheap if you want to share sleeping quarters. The price also included breakfast which was fairly extensive and would fill you up for most of the day.

In Amsterdam, I'd suggest buying the annual museum pass. You can buy one at a kiosk outside the main train station. It is about $35 and is good for a lot of the museums including the Van Gogh Museum and the Rij and lots of other ones. Even for a weekend buying the annual pass will probably be cheaper than buying individual tickets to a few museums. Amsterdam is also a wonderful walking city with lots to see, plus you could do a boat tour of the canals. I won't assume you are there for drugs, but if you do indulge, do not--repeat, DO NOT-- try and take anything out of the country. At one border crossing I had on a bus a young man was ripped off the bus and detained. We don't know what happened to him but he was pretty freaked out and so was everyone else left on the bus. Amsterdam may turn a blind eye to the drug use, but other countries do not.

Most of the European hostels I stayed at were okay, not great, not slum pits and usually there were a lot of people in your age bracket who were also traveling so if you wanted to sightsee with a companion for one day, you could probably find someone to do something with at a hostel. Have fun! Being able to take those weekend trips will really be a great experience for you--enjoy!
posted by 45moore45 at 2:00 PM on November 30, 2007

Oh, some hostel ideas:

TripAdvisor and Hostelz both have user-created reviews and pictures.
posted by mdonley at 2:04 PM on November 30, 2007

Yes, the language thing won't be too much of a big deal -- in my experience, German cities are populated by surprising (and humbling) numbers of people who speak fine English. Of course, for manners' sake, you will certainly learn some basic phrases, and you will always ask if someone speaks English in German first.

You may find that, in the meantime, you prefer listening/speaking with tapes or CDs rather than trying to learn phrases out of a book. (Of course, take a phrase book and a dictionary with you -- though in the interests of traveling light, don't take more than a good pocket dictionary. You really don't want to be lugging around a heavy book wherever you go!)

As for the broader issues of culture shock: I think that's part of the fun. The randomest details of day-to-day life will simply be different... the food, of course, but also things like toilets and postage stamps and how people line up in the store and the way streets are laid out. More than anything, go with an open mindset -- too many people travel out of the country for the first time, and their surprise that the rest of the world is different turns into taking offense. ("I can't believe these people don't have low-fat ranch dressing/use this kind of toilet paper/go to a special window to buy stamps/don't have a 24-hour convenience store/etc.")

Expecting the unexpected (and packing ample supplies of humor and manners) will go a long way to making your experience a great one. Have a wonderful time!
posted by scody at 2:08 PM on November 30, 2007

$3,000 for five weekend trips is more than enough. The Lonely Planet Thorntree boards are organised by region and a great resource for travel planning, too - might be worth a good browse through there.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:10 PM on November 30, 2007

Even though you have a rail pass you can fly further afield for next to nothing with Ryanair. Europe is your oyster with regards to travel.
posted by fire&wings at 2:55 PM on November 30, 2007

You'll quickly find that even if you do learn more than just a little German, you'll rarely even be given the opportunity to practice it once people realize you're a native English speaker, at least with younger people, so don't worrry about that. Learn as much as you can before going over there, of course, but don't let it stress you out.

For weekend trips, Munich and Nuremberg are very nice, although not particularly close to Düsseldorf. When you're in the Netherlands, try to explore the towns outside of Amesterdam. I was bored stiff in Antwerp, Belgium, but it and Brussels might be an easy weekend trip.

One other thing to consider is how you'll convert your $2-3K into Euros. Carrying cash is risky, but exchanging travellers cheques can be expensive, depending on where you go, and American banks often charge obscene amounts when you use foreign ATMs (Wells Fargo charges a $5 "foreign currency conversion fee" each time, for example). Keep a photocopy of your passport ID page in your wallet, and buy a pre-paid calling card.
posted by cmonkey at 3:05 PM on November 30, 2007

Congratulations! Five weeks is a pretty short time, but you'll have a blast, I'm sure.

Have you checked with the German Department over at A&M to see if there's a German TA that might be willing to give you a few language and travel tips in exchange for a cappucino or a beer at the Dixie Chicken? Better yet, if you cook, invite her or him to dinner. There may even be a student Stammtisch you could visit.

For guide books, I really like the Rough Guides series. They cover the basics, and then have breakdowns by city or area. Make sure you get a recent one. The other thing I'd point out to you are the expatriate websites, where English-speaking ex-pats help one another out. Their tips will be up to date. My favorite is Toytown Germany, but there's also Expatica. Given your short timeframe there, don't spend it all with ex-pats, but the websites can give you a good idea of the current events.

If someone else is paying for the rail pass, that might be the way to go, but air travel isn't bad there. German Wings, Air Berlin, and a number of other carriers fly all over Germany.

If you find you don't like the hostel route, you might try discount hotels from HRS, or a B&B service like EBAB. If you hit Berlin, Cologne, and Amsterdam, you'll have done well.

Personally, I think your budgeting might be just a bit low, given the weak dollar. Know that your ATM card will work just fine over there, and you get a decent rate of exchange doing it that way, so you do not have to physically carry your whole bank account around.

Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, bring gifts for the host family, as well as some photos, maps, and maybe a coffee-table book about Texas or A&M for them. Nothing too kitschy, but recognize that they're offering their home and part of their lives, and when you're gone, you want them to tell some great stories to their friends about your brief visit.
posted by TuffAustin at 3:07 PM on November 30, 2007

I studied in Germany a few years back and had a blast. Seconding most suggestions so far. Especially the stuff about English. I had studied German for almost 5 years, and rarely needed it. I was studying closer to Nuremburg, but my then girlfriend was in Bonn. A great, great, great, awesome beyond words trip to take is exploring The Rhein River between Bonn and Mainz. It's lovely. Old castles, The Lorelei, vineyards, little villages. You might be able to do some of this as day/afternoon trips from Dusseldorf. Oh, and have an Altbier. Mmmmm, Altbier.
posted by fantastic at 3:31 PM on November 30, 2007

you will be able to get very far with just a dictionary, the phrases for "Do you speak English," and "Sorry, I don't speak German," as well as please and thank you and "Do you have a room," etc.

In some parts of what used to be East Germany, you'd be better off speaking Russian than English.

You will encounter people at some point who you really need to talk to, but who do not speak English very well. It happens.
posted by oaf at 3:46 PM on November 30, 2007

I just spent three weeks in Germany (Frankfurt, Cologne and Berlin as well as a few days in Luxembourg) and even though I speak relatively fluent German, I didn't encounter a single instance where English would not have sufficed. YMMV of course, but really, this should not be a major concern.

Seconding a quick visit to Cologne. You're damn lucky that you'll be there in 2008 after the new smoking rules (whatever they end up being) kick in. Cologne was ein Qual (a torture) for this nonsmoker- I didn't think any place could be worse than Buenos Aires (c 2004) in this regard, but I found it. I only found one resto aside from McD's that even had a nonsmoking section.

I'd also suggest Luxembourg for a weekend- it's like a microcosm of Europe, really a beautiful, fascinating and accessible little city.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 4:43 PM on November 30, 2007

If you're not traveling until next summer, why not look into taking a short class in German? See if one of the community colleges in your area has a conversational German class in their continuing ed program. They're usually something like 10 weeks and will give you enough of the basics of pronunciation and vocabulary to get you through. But, like most people have said, many, many people in Germany, particularly in cities, speak English.

Cologne is close by. Ask your Düsseldorf host family whose beer is better, Cologne's or Düsseldorf's. Heh. (The two cities have a bit of a beer rivalry, or at least they did last time I was there.) Really, anywhere that you can get to within a 2-3 hour train ride would be great for a weekend trip. Even Brussels, which you can get to with a train change at Cologne, is reasonable for a weekend trip. Antwerp is fairly close to Brussels too, so you could take a quick train over there and explore. You have a lot of possibilities!

As for guides, I like the Lonely Planet guidebooks, and their phrasebooks are pretty decent as well. Have fun!
posted by bedhead at 5:08 PM on November 30, 2007

Hannah, that's a lot of advice you're asking! Just a few pointers. I used to live near Düsseldorf in Germany. It lies in a big urban industrial, ex-mining area of Germany. Cologne is just across the river and has better nightlife. A good read on basics could be the CIA world factbook - Germany.

What you will find at first: Everything is really small. Tiny fridges (no icemaker), burgers, small towels. Shops close at 9, sundays, public holidays. Depending on your host family, it's a possible chance to see how people get by without pimped out crtr.comforts, having more fun. I think your host family deserves one of your weekends since the weekends are the traditional "family time" in Germany.

Socially: Germans and Americans get on very well in my experience. What above posters said. It only takes a short time to learn to distinguish classic German directness from rudeness. ... Also you will find out that "how are you" will be taken literally, not as a cursory phrase. Learn to take everything with a grain of salt at first, and things like that will be loads of fun ... If you do have a brush with that slight current trend of somewhat shallow Anti-Americanism in Germany, I wouldn't let it bother me too much, since it is mostly really, really vague opinions. Explain America and GWB = not the same, etc. (but don't say you love GWB.)

Practical: A lot of American credit cards work nicely in most ATM's and shops in Germany. Credit card phones in railway stations, airports, ... If you get to use your family's landline, you can use special prefix numbers that'll cost a few cents a minute to USA. Once you're there, get a prepaid-card cellphone for really cheap as well. Language-wise, the most important thing is to get the knack of how to say written German words from a phrasebook so people will actually recognize them. Since sounds such as "sch" or Umlauts etc. are never ever used in your language, your ears won't even pick up the difference at first... so listen carefully for those new sounds (-;

I'm with the other posters who suggested that 3-5000 is a big budget for 5 weekends. You could hold out on that alone in Berlin for a couple months (that place is so cheap)! Apart from that, it's enough for flying all over the place - almost no need for a railpass. If you book rail tickets two or three weeks in advance via (german railways) you get up to 50% off anyway. With a budget like that there's way too many options...

Whoever said Lorelei is the place to go was right.
posted by yoHighness at 5:27 PM on November 30, 2007

Unlike bananafish, you don't need to spend $800 on phone calls back to the US: use Skype. As long as you have access to a computer and the internet, it's much easier - free, if the other person is also using Skype. If you want, you can get a local (US) phone number attached to your account, and people can call that number and reach you on your computer. I use it daily. You can pick up a cheap prepaid cellphone (er, a "Handy", as they call cellphones here) for use in Europe.

Buses (and some of the cheap airlines) may actually be cheaper than the train, depending on where you are going, and when. Check out eurolines for busses. As mentioned above, RyanAir, EasyJet, AirBerlin, etc. are all worth checking out on the airline front.

While it isn't necessary to speak German, people will really appreciate the effort. If you can take a basic intro course in German over the next semester - and practice a bunch of boring but practical words and phrases (stuff relating to transportation, food, etc.), day-to-day life will be a lot easier. Sure, you won't be fluent, but you'll feel a little less at sea in day-to-day life, and you'll be in a better position when (not if) you run into people who don't speak much, if any, English.

I'd try to stay away from Toytown and the other expats: while searching the boards can occasionally be useful, you don't want to spend your time in Germany hanging around with a bunch of Americans - particularly when a significant number seem to be really bitter about being in Germany. Most towns will have info about events and such in newspapers, and there are often free things (not quite as good as alt-weeklies in the US) that'll have listings of events.

Enjoy your time in Germany, though! There really is a lot to look forward to.
posted by ubersturm at 5:46 PM on November 30, 2007

Go to Erfut, it's really really pretty.
posted by divabat at 6:35 PM on November 30, 2007

Find a German tutor. Small group work in the language between now and then will exponentially increase you enjoyment of the country. Spending $20-$30 an hour with a German tutor once a week will pay off tenfold in the amount of fun you will have once there. The fun is about being able to do whatever you want to while you are there--a good working knowledge of the German language will go a long way.

Berlin is my favorite city on the face of the Earth. So many young people, so much going on at every moment. You could spend a lifetime exploring that place.

Also, work hard to keep using German. I have so many very close friends over there--Everytime I come back, I try to speak German immediately--and after 5 minutes they want to practice their English with me. Grammatically perfect German with an English accent often is responded to in English.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:17 PM on November 30, 2007

Lots of good advice here but I offer a few more things. Dusseldorf is a wonderful city and will place you in the center of western Europe with lots to do within easy reach. There is a lot of information on the web about places to go but your host family will be a great resource. Some of the less touristy but not to be missed near by destinations that come to mind - these are all great day trips from Dusseldorf:

Vaals and Three Frontier Point (Drei Landen Punt)
Henri-Chapelle American Military Cemetery (there is a wonderful bakery in the center of Henri-Chapelle and fantastic chocolatier in nearby Kelmis)
Burg Eltz
Maastricht (a lovely city but there is also a movie theater playing movies in English with Dutch subtitles of course)

On the language - nearly everyone you meet will have some English, and likely some Dutch and/or French as well in addition to German. There is a Goethe Institute in Dusseldorf - the German courses are excellent but very pricey.

Have a wonderful time!
posted by bluesky43 at 9:27 AM on December 1, 2007

Duesseldorf is a wonderful city, so say I. You may encounter many Germans who will say otherwise. Apparently the Duesseldorfers have a reputation for arrogance. I didn't notice, and I lived there almost 5 years (left 5 years ago).

The beer in Duesseldorf is the best, no question. If, by "best", you meant Alt Bier. It's an ale, and it's very pleasant. The best is to be had poured fresh, in the Altstadt. If you want better, you'll have to go to Belgium!

Don't worry about peanut butter. If you need it, you can find it. Karstadt usually has some, or, you can go to the English/American store near the Hauptbahnhoff. Say 'hi' to Steve, the owner. He's British, and a friend.

Wherever you tour, don't neglect Aachen, the capital of Charlemagne's empire. Amsterdam is a fun place, but you can catch a bit of that fun as close as Venlo, a border town about 45 minutes drive from Duessledorf.

If you need any specific information about Duesseldorf, feel free to write.
posted by Goofyy at 5:58 AM on December 3, 2007

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