Help Me Pack My Bags With the Colonel's Special Blend of Herbs and Spices
April 3, 2008 8:01 PM   Subscribe

Help me pack my bags. I'm anything but a seasoned traveler, and now (insert excitement emoticon) am headed to Berlin for three months. Please tell me about what I do about the different voltage thing they have over there and what it means for my cell phone charger. Tell me if I can put my American health insurance on hold because of the glories of the European welfare state. Tell me how and if Germans tip. Recommend the best carry-on suitcase/bag ever.

Seriously. Aside from about 72 hours in London last fall, I haven't traveled in almost a decade (I know, I know. Shameful. Provincial American. Etc.) I'm now thrilled to have a chance to live in a long-lost favorite city for a while, but don't know enough about Europe to be able to come up with a good to-do or to-buy list. Thus far I know to make multiple photocopies of my passport and store them in secure disclosed locations, and to go to the consulate to get a visa. I am completely clueless about everything else, so I don't even know the right questions to ask. So I'd love to hear what you found handy or necessary on the Continent. Those voltage converter things et al.
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
1. Why do you need a visa? You should be able to stay 3 months as a tourist with just your passport.

2. The voltage ranges of most adapters are compatible. You just need different types of prongs. Go down to Radio Shack and ask them for some.

3. Are you working or a tourist? I wouldn't put your American health insurance on hold in the latter case.

4. Your atm card will allows you to draw Euros from any ATM in Germany.

5. Learn some German. Lots of people speak English in Berlin but all of the chatter around you will be in German.
posted by vacapinta at 8:14 PM on April 3, 2008

First things first, instead of photocopying your passport - just scan it and keep the file in your draft email folder. Then you can access it anywhere, anytime. It's what the cool kids do now. Have a great trip!
posted by meerkatty at 8:14 PM on April 3, 2008

Re: voltage-thingy. Europe-power is 220V. Most things with power adapters will run on this as-is, since it's cheaper for manufacturers to just ship one version everywhere (this is my theory, whether or not it's true I don't know). You'll just need a simple adapter that physically converts between plug types, which you can get at the dollar store.

To figure out if your electrical gizmo will work, just read the specs on the power adapter. If it says something like "Input: 110 - 220 VAC" you're good. OTHERWISE (if only voltage ranges around 110/120 V are listed), you'll need an actual voltage converter, which you can get at Wal-Mart or a similar store for about $30.

ATM cards: Read the back of your ATM/debit card. If it has the "Plus" logo, it should work. I'm not sure about Germany specifically, but in Europe generally I've found Interac-style payment is non-existent. You'll use your ATM card to get cash from ATMs.
posted by wsp at 8:23 PM on April 3, 2008

Get travel health insurance from your US insurance company. It covers health care costs abroad and in particular it covers bringing you home if something bad happens.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:31 PM on April 3, 2008

Tipping........technically you don't have to, but 10% of the bill if you had especially good service.
As far as I'm concerned, the most important German word is Leitungswasser (tap water).
posted by brujita at 8:51 PM on April 3, 2008

Recommend the best carry-on suitcase/bag ever.

Red Oxx Air Boss
Ebags Mother Lode Mini (Carry On Size)
posted by toxic at 8:52 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Depending on your cell phone, odds are very good that it won't work in Germany. Europe uses different phones than most Americans do. Your phone probably will work if it is a GSM phone, and unlocked. If you can find the SIM card, pull it out, put in a different SIM card, and have it work, then it *may* work and is worth bringing over to Europe. Otherwise, just buy a cheap pay-as-you-go phone when you get there.

In my opinion, the best choice for any traveler is a large (but carryon-sized) suitcase with a detachable daypack. It's utterly convenient for traveling and a much, much smarter choice than a rolling suitcase, which is bound to rattle around on the old streets.

One thing that you will learn after you've been traveling for a bit is that you can totally chill about everything. Think about it this way. Germany is at least as advanced as the US. Which means you have absolutely nothing to worry about really.

As far as your ATM card. Even if it doesn't have any of the many, many compatible systems like Plus that are accepted by banks, so long as it's a visa card you can still pull money from it. It's nearly impossible to get a debit card that doesn't work in Europe.

Yeah, I have no idea if you can "suspend" your current health insurance, but you will definitely not be covered by European health care, although effectively if something happens and you go to a hospital, you may not end up paying for the bill anyway (this is what happened with someone I know while I was in the UK, YMMV). I wouldnt' necessarily recommend just going with your current provider unless they can offer a sweet, sweet deal. It's better to shop around. Travel insurance *should be* a whole lot cheaper than normal insurance and for 3 months should run you in the neighborhood of $100 or so (I think).

As far as what to pack: I would pack what you would wear in one week, and then add an additional week's worth of socks and underwear. It can be hard to find time to do laundry when you're travelling, so having the backup undies is a huge help (ignore everyone who tries to sell you on the "only bring two pairs of underwear! wear one and wash the other!" - they are idiots). Wear everything twice (at least) except for shirts that are lying next to your skin. Don't bring any dress shirts that are all cotton - they will be a nightmare of wrinkles. You want cotton-poly blends, especially "Wrinkle-Free" shirts if you have them. They're really wonderful to have when traveling. You need fewer pants than you think. You probably won't need a tie or a sports jacket.

Bring a small compact umbrella. It often rains unexpectedly when you are far away from shelter and umbrella vendors.

Bring a towel. Don't expect that everywhere you go will have a towel waiting for you, and you may find any towels that are offered a bit weird (I'm not familiar with Germany, but it seems like every country in Europe has their own peculiar variety of towel).

You need to bring little tiny gifts for people you meet along the way. If you live in an iconic place, you can get away with tiny keychains or similar tchotkes with the name of your burg.

Food in Europe is not like food in the US. For one thing, bread will generally not last more than one day (or at least it will lose its taste and texture very quickly) so buy smaller breads or rolls rather than whole loaves, unless they are sliced for you and you have access to a fridge and toaster, in which case you can freeze them, pry off a slice, and rejuvenate it in the toaster. In addition to different bread, expect fruits and vegetables to be a bit tastier, if the food in Germany is in any way similar to Switzerland, Italy, etc. Do as much of your shopping as you can in markets, they're everywhere in Europe and generally much cheaper.

I don't know if you know German or not, but if you don't, get a phrase book. Yes, almost everyone in Germany speaks English. But you should learn some German anyway.

In addition to the photocopies, I would save a scan of your passport to an online mail program like gmail so that you can access it no matter what. It can be very, very helpful. Similarly, you should write down all of the phone numbers for your credit card companies (the non 1-800 "Call Collect outside the US" numbers). If your card doesn't have a non-800 number on the back, you will need to call them and get the non-800 number. 800 numbers don't work from Europe.

Don't worry too much about what to pack. I always pack some things I don't use, and realize I haven't packed something I need, every time I travel. One thing you might want to think about packing is ziplock-type bags. They may have them in Germany but they may be a bit harder to find; Europeans aren't as crazy about plastic bags as we are. I personally find ziplock bags to be indispensible when I am going to be moving around a lot during travel. They're great for storing shirts, underwear, first aid kits, random items, and keeping everything organized and compact. I wouldn't bother packing enough toothpaste, soap, etc. to last the trip -- there is plenty to buy in Germany and again the quality could easily be higher. Just bring a toothbrush, one tube of toothpaste and a bar of soap so you don't have to go shopping right away when you land.

Prices in European supermarkets for most items tend to be comparable to the costs here, and in most cases it will be a lot cheaper to buy your food at a supermarket than at a restaurant. However, I have heard that Germany has the highest concentration of Turkish people outside of Turkey, so Berlin may be an excellent place to buy a Kebab (also called Shwarma) which should be relatively cheap. Avoid sticking to the known and familiar when buying food at a supermarket. Europeans can be *slightly* more adventurous than most Americans in their food, so you may encounter foods not available in your average supermarket in the States. One thing that is particularly good, and is just starting to make its presence known here in the States, is canned tuna mixed with vegetables and spices. I think RioMare makes a particularly good version of this. It's delicious spread on large hunks of good bread, and as a lunch will not cost too much.

Speaking of making your own lunches, simple accessories like a knife, fork, and spoon can be very useful. You probably can't bring them with you if you're bringing your pack in carryon, so you may want to consider buying them when you arrive in Germany. But you'll want them right away. Nothing is so annoying as realizing that you are going to have to eat tuna with your hands.

Lots of towns in Europe have "culture centers" where the hipper artsy, mostly younger crowd hang out. This might be a good way to meet new people and it's certainly a good way to hear decent music and find out about local events. Barring that, nearly every town has a tourist information office (usually marked on maps and on street signs with a giant italic i) that will have a calendar of local events.

I love to take the train when I travel. It may be expensive in Germany (I don't know) but it is probably worth it to ride the train once or twice to get to a destination. You get a much better view, usually, than from a car. I assume you are planning to make some day trips (or even longer trips) from Berlin. If you weren't, do so; the countryside is really beautiful and you often miss a country's eccentricities if you remain in the large cities.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:44 PM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Germans tip by leaving what's called Trinkgeld ("drink money"). Traditionally this was a nominal amount, usually the difference between the total and rounding up to the nearest Deutschmark. Nowadays, though, it's more like a US tip, though slightly less at 10% rather than 15%. Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive page on the subject, in case you're going anywhere else.

Also, you're bringing your phone. First, make sure that your phone will actually work in Europe. Second, make sure you aren't going to get raked over the coals by your phone company. Third, consider leaving your phone at home and buying a simple cell phone in Europe and using a pre-paid SIM card.
posted by jedicus at 9:53 PM on April 3, 2008

Another tipping difference: don't leave the tip on the table. When the waiter tells you the total, add any tip or do any rounding up and tell him the amount when you hand over the cash. Otherwise you'll get your exact change back.
posted by cmonkey at 10:26 PM on April 3, 2008

I have heard that Germany has the highest concentration of Turkish people outside of Turkey, so Berlin may be an excellent place to buy a Kebab (also called Shwarma) which should be relatively cheap.

In Germany they are called "doner kebab" - essentially a gyro - and they are ubiquitous, delicious and tasty. Best cheap meal in the country.
posted by gompa at 10:43 PM on April 3, 2008

Deathalicious' advice is brilliant.

I would just add my travelling motto, which I learned from my Dad: I'm packed if I have my wallet.

It is terrible to have lug around a bunch of crap that it turns out you don't need. If you did forget something, it is probably best purchased on the spot; whatever it is will look local and be best suited to local conditions, and obtaining it will be exactly the kind of local-colour adventure that you are travelling for.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:26 AM on April 4, 2008

Presumably you're keeping an eye on the Euro. It takes more USD to buy Euros these days than it used to, so you might not want to make any major purchases in Germany.

Use a debit card, not your credit card, to get cash at ATMs. If you can, join a credit union and put your travel money there; the CU will give you a good exchange rate and not tack on fees at the ATM. You do need to let the CU and your credit card company(ies) know where and the dates you'll be traveling.

An excellent site for all things Europe is the Fodors Europe forum. Most of your questions have been hashed and rehashed by Fodorites, and if not, post your question and you'll get a quick response.

This is pretty basic, but we're not seasoned travelers either, and we weren't familiar with the sequence of hoops you have to go through at your departure airport and then at your arrival airport.

I hope it's a great trip for you.
posted by sevenstars at 4:40 AM on April 4, 2008

foxy_hedgehog you are absolutely right to go to the consulate first and get a visa. Germany doesn't HAVE to let you stay three months. It just happens to be the longest you can stay as a visitor PROVIDED they let you in. I had a scare with this upon arrival in Scotland, intending to stay three months. I've been living in Germany for a year and a half as an American. I first arrived on an tourist visa, then got a job and received a work/residence permit. My advice:

Do bring your debit card, and if you can get an account at either Citibank or Bank of America. Both of these banks will let you withdraw money free in Berlin (there are Citibank ATMs here, and Bank of America lets you use Deutsche Bank ATMs for free). Using Citibank ATMs is awesome because they let you know how much you'll be removing from your account in dollars and give you the option to say a final yes or no.

Berlin is weird in that almost no shops accept credit cards, only EC (electronic cash) which AFAIK is exclusive to Germany and German bank cards. So expect to pay cash.

As for luggage, I get a lot of mileage out of the rolling backpacks you can buy for $20 or less at Ross and sometimes Target. These make the best carry-ons and if the cobblestones on German streets get annoying you can just pick up the thing and put it on your back.

When you arrive: the Berlin public transport system requires you to buy and validate your ticket on the platform before boarding the train, and there are plainclothes inspectors on the trains who periodically check tickets--something to keep in mind when you're completely jetlagged and taking your first trip from the airport into town.

Germany has no free public insurance for tourists, and providers here usually want to see your insurance card before they treat you, just as in the U.S. I use Insure My Trip for short trips (to the U.S., in my case) and recommend it highly.

Also the Toy Town Germany site will help you with what to expect.

Computers and other appliances with AC adapters usually work without voltage converters; printers and peripherals without AC adapters usually do not. Buy a couple of the plug converters (you'll know these aren't the voltage converters because they'll cost under $5) for your computers and chargers.

There is lots more; you're welcome to e-mail me for tips through my profile or the contact form on my web site.
posted by laconic titan at 5:34 AM on April 4, 2008

Evacuation insurance might not be as important in Germany as in Africa, but make sure you have some sort of Remains Repatriation insurance. It's a little morbid, but if something happens to you, you don't want your family trying to figure out how to get your body back from another continent.

Pack as light as you can manage, as you'll have to carry around everything on your own. You probably don't need more than what fits in a carry-on suitcase. I would also suggest packing a small (less than 2') duffel bag in case you find yourself having made some exciting purchases abroad.

I would agree about just bringing a small toothpaste/travel toothbrush and maybe soap along on the flight, and then purchasing those things while you're there, and then leaving them when you leave.

Three months sounds like a long time for just Berlin. Are you participating in some sort of program or class? Are you staying with a family, or in hotels/hostels? I would take some side trips--traveling within the EU is almost mind-numbingly straightforward, and Europe, compared to the US, is small. You can get other places pretty quickly.
posted by that girl at 5:49 AM on April 4, 2008

Wow. Thanks everyone. This is just the sort of information I needed- the stuff it hadn't occurred to me to think about. Thanks for all these links and thoughts and advice- cell phones and fee-free atms and Toy Town and repatriated remains. Scanned passports. Travel insurance. All of 'em. And of course I'd be very grateful for more- I didn't see another thread quite like this in the archives and would love to have it be a resource in perpetuity for Mefi travel naifs.

Possibly relevant details: my arrival and departure dates are three months apart, and for eight weeks I'll be taking an intensive German course at the Goethe Institut in Berlin (I already know how to say that the weather is bad, and ask you where you're from, and ask how much the apples cost, but I would like to be able to have other conversations as well).

I'm going to try to use the time before and after the course to take a side trip or two, as well as hop on a train for a few weekends. I've also planned for a week's stopover in Barcelona on my way home (why yes, I am making up for lost time).

The German course doesn't give me official student status, and while I will be working while I'm in Berlin, it will be a transcontinental version of telecommuting (I'm a freelance writer). If any of you Berlin-based folks have thoughts on freelance writing and editing opportunities, I would love to hear about them.

And yes, oh yes, I am painfully aware of the exchange rate. I see many Gyros in my future.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:30 AM on April 4, 2008

If you buy more stuff when you're abroad you can also buy a bag to put it in. Don't lug an extra duffel around Europe just in case.

I can't echo the traveller's health insurance enough.

I would recommend the Lonely Planet message boards as being more practical than Fodor's and the like, and are populated by very budget-minded folks.

You don't need to bring gifts with you - this isn't a third-world country. If someone does you a kindness that you would want to repay with a gift, buy them something meaningful locally, and not a keychain of the Statue of Liberty that was made in China.

I would, however, bring postcards of your hometown. I know it sounds hokey but it's a great conversation starter.

In addition to the scanned passport, copy your credit cards, passport, bank account numbers, and any other vital information and leave them with a trusted person you know you can always reach on the phone.
posted by micawber at 8:11 AM on April 4, 2008

For an excellent bag (carry on, backpack, nice wheels, padded handles, detachable daypack), check out the Victorinox Trek Pack Plus line. I picked one up pretty cheap at REI in December and have been very pleased with is, so far.
posted by syzygy at 9:03 AM on April 4, 2008

micawber is right regarding the duffel, of course. Somehow while I was sure that you could by myriad items while in Germany, it went over my head that you could also buy an item to put the other items into.
posted by that girl at 11:20 AM on April 4, 2008

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