What foreigners need to know when planning a trip to Germany

Every country has their own way of doing things – and rule-loving Germany is definitely no exception.

Mostly, tourists are given a free pass if they’re not totally by the way with the local customs, but having a sense of how things work beforehand can nonetheless save you some costly (and potentially embarrassing) mistakes.

Here are some of the most useful things for foreigners to know before visiting the federal republicso you can act like a true local from the start.

Money

Bring lots of cash (or a card with free ATM withdrawals)

Though the Covid pandemic did change this slightly, Germany is still a surprisingly cash-based economy and you can’t rely on using a debit or credit card everywhere you go. Surprisingly, even restaurants where you might expect to pay €100 or more for a family meal will insist that you pay with cash. The same goes for the majority of bars and small, independent shops and cafes.

There are a few places that have moved into the 21st century: supermarkets, chain shops and petrol stations are a few of them. But generally, if you’re coming to Germany, you’ll want to bring a credit card that allows you to withdraw cash for free or stock up on euros before you travel.

READ ALSO: Ask an expert: Why is cash still so popular in Germany – and is it changing?

Get savvy about the regional differences

The key to travelling Germany on a budget is to understand that the cost of certain things can vary wildly between different states and even between different boroughs in a city.

As a general rule of thumb, the East/West divide still exists in terms of the cost of living in each part of the country. For example, a camping holiday in affluent Bavaria will likely set you back a fair bit more than a similar holiday in the former East German states of Saxony or Thuringia. If you’re travelling on the cheap in a big city like Berlin, do some research beforehand on the different districts and aim to spend time out of the centre in the more up-and-coming areas frequented by students and young people.

Travel

Understand the transport system

In metropolitan areas, transport in Germany tends to be both affordable and reliable – but the ticketing system can be confusing for tourists. Generally, local transport is organised in ‘zones’, with the first zone covering the city centre, the second zone covering the suburbs and the third zone covering the wider metropolitan area where airports are often located. However, different cities do things slightly differently, so it’s worth looking at a map of the local transport network to work out what ticket you need.

You usually have the option of buying single or return tickets as well as daily, weekly and monthly tickets. If you’re planning on travelling by public transport a lot, the daily and weekly tickets often work out cheapest. Keep an eye out for special deals for tourists, which tend to include a travel card for your trip as well as discounts for restaurants and popular tourist attractions. Once you have a travel card sorted, you can use it on any type of public transport, including the metro, trains, buses and trams. But remember to validate it by stamping the date on it after purchasing it to make sure you don’t fall afoul of the ticket inspectors!

If you’re renting a car while here, don’t forget to observe the rules of the road, which are detailed in the below article:

Busting the myths around zebra crossings – the rocky rules of German roads

Buy train tickets in advance

Train travel can get expensive in Germany – especially if you buy your tickets on the day. The high-speed ICE and other long-distance trains tend to be the priciest, but you can find good deals if you book at least a few weeks beforehand.

For more information on finding cheap train tickets, check out our comprehensive guide below:

EXPLAINED: How to find cheap train tickets in Germany

A cyclist waits for a regional train in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Find out if any deals are running

At the moment, Germany has two travel deals running simultaneously. The first is the €9 ticket – an incredibly cheap offer that lets people travel on regional and local transport anywhere in the country for just €9 per month.

Though the deal expires at the end of August, there’s been some talk about finding a replacement for it, so keep an eye out for a potential successor in autumn or winter.

The second deal is the ‘Egal Wohin’ (Doesn’t Matter Where) ticket, which takes you anywhere in the country by train for just €39.90. These have to be bought and used by June 30th 2023, though the journey itself can take place anytime before next December.

On a more long-term basis, states tend to run special deals for groups taking day trips in the region. You can find a full list of the offers in each state in English here on the Deutsche Bahn website.

READ ALSO:

Eating Out

Get to grips with the vegetarian and vegan options

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you won’t have a hard time being catered to in bigger cities and touristy areas, but some smaller towns may have less of a selection. This should come as no surprise, since Germans are known for their love of pork and potatoes. If you’re stuck, look out for Turkish and Vietnamese restaurants. There are large immigrant populations from both countries in Germany, and their national cuisines offer a slightly larger range of non-meat and dairy options.

Know when – and how – to tip

Hospitality workers in Germany aren’t expected to survive primarily from their tips, but there is nonetheless a tipping culture to observe. As a general rule, you tip most places where there’s table service, though you’re welcome to tip bartenders and baristas as well. Unlike in countries like the UK, people don’t leave the tip on the table after a meal, but simply round up the bill when paying. Tipping around 10 percent is standard.

READ ALSO: Trinkgeld: What you need to know about tipping culture in Germany

A tip in a German restaurant

A €2.50 tip is left on top of a bill in a Munich restaurant. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Shopping

Do your urgent shopping on a Saturday

This is one that tends to catch out foreigners: on Sundays, pretty much all supermarkets and shops are closed. The same goes for most tourist attractions.

That means that if you’re in self-catering accommodation, it’s best to buy anything you urgently need on a Saturday night. If you do forget, you can sometimes find one or two supermarkets open in big train stations, but otherwise you’ll likely have to eat out.

Rules

Check the Covid regulations in your state

While most countries in Europe have scrapped the majority of their Covid rules, Germany still has one or two in place. Until October, mask-wearing on planes and public transport is mandatory – so don’t forget to bring a medical mask with you while out and about.

In autumn, a new set of rules is due to come in, which will largely be dependent on the current pandemic situation. One rule that is bound to remain in place is mandatory masks on planes and other long-distance transport, though states can decide for themselves whether they keep this measure on local transportation.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to check the regional Covid rules on The Local or state websites before your trip.

READ ALSO: Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

Avoid jaywalking – especially in front of children

Crossing the road when the light is red is illegal in Germany, and tends to be frowned upon by the locals as well. This is largely because people expect you to set a good example for children.

So next time you’re at a zebra crossing, be patient and wait for the light to go green.

Red Ampelmann in Germany

A red ‘Ampelmann’ on a German traffic light. Jaywalking is frowned upon in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / Candy Welz / Arifoto Ug/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa | arifoto UG

Drinking on the street is totally fine…

This one will come as a shock to most Americans, but there’s absolutely no taboo about drinking in public in Germany. In fact, it’s part of the culture to pick up a beer from a corner shop and enjoy it at a local park or by the river.

It’s also not uncommon to see people cycling one-handed while clutching a beer, though you should be aware that cycling drunk can land you a pretty hefty fine.

READ ALSO: Five German drinks to try this summer

… But be careful where you smoke

While Germany has a pretty tolerant attitude to smokers, smoking indoors isn’t permitted everywhere. In most places in the federal republicindoor smoking is disallowed almost everywhere, though you can sometimes find little pubs known as smoking places that do allow it.

One major exception to this is Berlin, where the vast majority of pubs still permit smoking in spite of the ban.

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