Expats Move Home: Blazing the Paper Trail out of Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI’m spilling the beans on all the nitty gritty details of how we ended our expat adventure. To catch up on previous posts, click here.

Moving in America is relatively simple: pack, move, transfer your utilities, and forward your mail if you are desperate not to miss a single issue of your favorite People.

Getting out of Germany is a bit more byzantine. Yep, you do still have to do something with your stuff, but other bureaucratic matters get bumped up from suggested to required. But, is it as hard to get out of Deutschland as it is to get in?

Getting In

Moving to Germany is a nail-biting adventure in paperwork and bureaucracy, similar to attempting to get a visa or green card in the US. Given how much the Germans love order, it’s no surprise that all documents deemed obligatory must be just that – in order.

Strangely, I never posted on any of our experiences in obtaining resident permits at the Burgeramt (affectionately known as the “burger service” in our family), so you’ll have to just trust me on this one.

It is very likely guaranteed that during the initial residency appointment, you’ll suddenly realize or be made to realize you’ve forgotten an essential document (like an original birth certificate). Or, you’ll be scolded for something ridiculous like using all caps instead of upper and lower case… or blue ink instead of black.

For most expats, the “burger service” dishes up the first taste of German culture shock.

Getting Out

Thankfully, leaving Germany is a total piece of (Black Forest) cake. When we wanted out, we simply showed up at the local Burgeramt, filled out a form, provided the date we would exit the country, and received our Abmeldung (more on that below).

I recall thinking the process was just too easy. We must have forgotten something.

But no – the Abmeldung is all that we absolutely had to have as far as the government was concerned. We could even keep our residency cards as souvenirs; no need to turn them in at the Burgeramt or the border. Really!

Don’t let simplicity fool you. One should not underestimate the significance of the all-important Abmeldung. This document really is required. Without it, one cannot cancel contracts such as mobile phone service, internet service, insurance, etc. Remember, order and respecting the system are of first importance!

We asked for our Abmeldung four weeks before departure, but the norm is two weeks or even less. The officials at the Burgeramt did not want to issue the golden ticket so soon, but with a little pleading and begging in our broken German, they eventually obliged.

Duties

Now that we had our eerily-easy official paperwork in order, it was time to tackle other official duties. Thanks, Chandler, for ruining that word for me – forever.

The post office and the bank expected us to provide a German forwarding address, even though we were moving to the US. What?!

Thankfully, a friend volunteered to let us use hers. And, perhaps even more important, she was someone we could trust since she’d be opening our mail and possibly dealing with confidential information.

We notified Deutsche Post of the new address through their website. Again, the process was rather straightforward. Our mail will be forwarded to our friend’s address for one year. The only surprise was that in Germany, mail forwarding is not free!

We opted to leave our bank account open since we knew we would need it for our apartment deposit, German tax return, etc. We switched all our statements to paperless (an option strangely not presented to us before) and provided our new German forwarding address as requested.

If we had wanted to close the bank account, we would have needed to wire the balance to the US and pay some rather hefty fees on both the German and American sides. Seeing as the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar has shifted in favor of the dollar, I don’t foresee that money traveling to US soil anytime soon.

In the future, if we do decide to eventually close the account, we will need to write a letter stating our wishes (in triplicate and notarized in blood, I presume) and include our slashed-to-bits ATM debit cards in the envelope.

Fortunately, we did not have any phone or internet service to cancel since that was included in our rent. We did, however, cancel our health, auto, and personal insurance, providing a copy of our Abmeldung – of course! – to get out of the contracts.

Whew!

While the details of departing Deutschland seemed a smidge overwhelming in the moment, the process turned out to be fairly simple in hindsight. This was a welcome surprise while in the trenches of wrestling our worldly goods into fifteen, thirty-kilo boxes.

Little did we know, the hardest task lay ahead and had nothing to do with packing or  paperwork…

Have you ever had an experience where you thought navigating government bureaucracy would be more or less difficult than it actually turned out to be? And, if you’re an expat, what was the process like to enter/leave your country of residency? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

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Our Unforgettable 10th Anniversary Swiss Getaway

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, SwitzerlandThe last time Doc Sci and I had the chance to escape alone, Charlie was still swimming in my stomach. We went to Milan for one warm, delicious day (the little one must have liked it because we ended up back in Italy to celebrate his first birthday). But with the little guy nearly two (2!!), we were due for another getaway.

With our tenth anniversary on the horizon, I entertained visions of endless days spent lying on Greek beaches, in private villas, and around infinity pools. These images must have been more delusion than dream because who I am kidding?! There’s no way we have the financial or child-care means to support such grand plans.

Instead, we ended up with a plan that was much more “us” than my former imaginations. We booked our trusty babysitter for a day and a half and set off for Switzerland to sleep in the Alps and hike the classic Faulhornweg.

Logistics

Faulhornweg day-trippers need to take the cog wheel train from Wilderswil to Schynige Platte, make their way to First (about 6 solid hours of walking, not including breaks), take the cable car back down to Grindelwald, and then a train back to Wilderswil.

It sounds confusing, but the basic idea is that you must travel up one side of the mountain, walk an insanely long way, and go back down the other side in order to return to your car. It can be done in reverse, but I consistently read that it was recommended to start at Schynige Platte.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The terrace at Hotel Schynige Platte.

I figured with our limited budget, we’d need to overnight at a hotel in Grindelwald or even Interlaken. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Hotel Schynige Platte reasonably priced for Switzerland. The hotel sits just above the cog wheel train station on top of the mountain and affords diners and sleepers glorious views of the big three: Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. Rates include both a five-course dinner and breakfast buffet.

Going Up

Since we missed the cog wheel train experience at Pilatus, both Doc Sci and I were eager to cross this experience off our bucket list. We bought tickets in Wilderswil and waited for the last train of the day. We were asked repeatedly if we had overnight reservations (yes) because it would be a cold night alone on the mountain if we didn’t.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

To our surprise, other than a pack of paragliders, we were the only passengers on the train, save one Swiss family with two children. Doc Sci and I were like giddy school kids, jumping over the benches, hanging out the windows, snapping photos every three seconds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Interlaken!

At the beginning of the train ride, we could see Interlaken, Thunersee, and Brienzersee. But then the train went through a series of tunnels before popping out in front of her majesty, Jungfrau.

Just like with the Eiffel Tower, sometimes the best view is not from the monument itself, but rather from a distance.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Why, hello there.

The Hotel

We pulled into the station at Schynige Platte, and checked into our hotel. The Hotel Schynige Platte is marketed as something from “grandma’s time.” The bathrooms are very modern (though not en-suite), the hotel is renovated and sparkling clean, but we had to laugh at some of the cheesy antiques.

All chuckling aside, we could barely speak when we saw the view from our room. I’m absolutely sure we had the best room in the entire house because it was on the corner and we could see the Alps from both windows.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Jungfrau!

Dinner was a curious affair. I can’t remember the last time I ate a five-course meal in a restaurant. I must have forgotten that snobbery is often the only thing that comes complimentary.

When we arrived at our table, the waitress insisted that we must order drinks. We only drink water with dinner at home, and I didn’t see in any TripAdvisor reviews that drinks (or at least water) were not included in the dinner price. She refused to bring us tap water and because we only had a limited number of francs with us (stupid I know, but I was not expecting to be manhandled), we couldn’t just order anything regardless of cost. We awkwardly asked for a menu.

A little heads up on this would’ve been nice, and a little understanding from the server would’ve been even nicer. We finally ordered a half liter of Sprite to the tune of 6 CHF. Yikes.

The worst part was that we realized later that another table had tap water – and a different waitress.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Several of the courses were served on “plates” of stone or wood.

This flap put a bit of a damper on our dinner. We tried our best to ignore it, but this server was intent on remaining surly throughout the entire meal. To make matters worse, it started raining during dinner, clouding up our view of the Alps.

Well, whatever – we were here without kids, and we were going to make the best of it!

The room was chilly, but a space heater did the trick. As I mentioned, none of the rooms are not en-suite, but we never had to wait for a toilet or shower, and everything was very clean. It was odd to sleep in such silence with nothing but an occasional gust of wind to break it. We savored every minute of it.

In the morning, we rose early in anticipation of the long hike ahead. Breakfast was a limited buffet (though they did have hard boiled eggs and an assortment of pork cold cuts in the protein department). We made ourselves Alpine cheese sandwiches to take along, and we devoured the traditional Swiss yogurt and muesli in between swigs of coffee.

The Hike

After checking out, we stepped out into the drizzle. Unfortunately, the rain from the night before had lingered. Never mind that, our spirits were still high. Whenever anything threatened to fizzle our cheery disposition, we just looked at each other and said, “No kids!”Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

But this weather, this drizzle, was to be the best of the whole day. The plus side was that we were the only people on the trail. We could chat with each other or climb in silence. Our exclamations at the beauty of this place, even despite the fog and rain, annoyed no one. Pit stops were possible anywhere one pleased.

We traversed so many different types of terrain – huge boulders, tiny footpaths, bits of snow, gurgling streams. We dodged cow pies in pastures with scary heifers and slimy black salamanders that came out to frolic in the puddles. It was incredible.

The only thing that could have made it any more amazing would’ve been the lifting of the clouds so that we could have seen the peaks around us while we hiked.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The down side of the nasty weather was that by the middle of the hike, we were already on our way to being soaked. We wanted to sit in shelter somewhere to grab a bite to eat. We came across one restaurant (Berghaus Männdlenen Weberhütte) that rudely shooed us away since we only wanted to take a break and not buy a meal. The only other restaurant (Berghotel Faulhorn) we saw was at the Faulhorn summit. We figured we had about 5 CHF to spare and bought a hot chocolate with that in order to sit inside and warm up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Faulhorn summit.

Unfortunately, our clothing and belongings were now thoroughly drenched (note to self: check waterproofing on clothing and gear before going on a substantial hike). Putting them back on and stepping back out into the chilly rain and blistering wind sent my teeth a-chattering and my body temperature in a frightening downward spiral. Thankfully, I warmed up again after about 30 minutes, and at that time, we discovered a free hut where we could have eaten our lunch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Bachsee.

This hut looked out over the Bachsee, a lake popular with tourists ascending from Grindelwald to First. The sea was dead that day – no swimming, no fishing. I had hoped to take a dip in the Alpine water, but no dice. We had to keep moving to stay warm and get to a place where we could finally dry off.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Don’t get any crazy ideas – that’s a camera and zoom lens in my jacket, not a baby bump.

Water literally poured off of us as we stepped inside the cable car at First for the ride back down to the Grindelwald valley. I think the only things that weren’t completely dripping were our feet (thank God), our cameras, and our phones. We rode down the mountain relieved to have made it and eager to get back to our car to change into dry clothes.

Final Thoughts

Would I do this hike again? Absolutely. But, only if I had the assurance of a clear day with no rain. And I think my boys would love this route in a few years. Perhaps we’ll go back for our 15th anniversary.

Doc Sci and I talked about anything and everything during the hike to stay focused, positive, and warm. I am so thankful that we are the best of friends. The fact that after 10 years of marriage, we still have things to talk about really encouraged me. While I would have obviously wished for better weather and more amazing views, hiking in these awful conditions really solidified something for me. I’d rather be in a miserable place with my husband than in a gorgeous one without him.

Have you ever had weather or vendor attitudes threaten to ruin your plans for an amazing vacation? I’m not always this positive – I think the absence of potential chorus of whining helped – so if you have any tips on how you managed to make the best of things, share them in the comments below.Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Mt. Pilatus – More Swiss Alps… with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with KidsOur romp through Switzerland continues today with an outing to Luzern (or Lucerne, if you prefer). The infamous lake of the same name is guarded by two intimidating peaks – Rigi to the east and Pilatus to the south. Both are big, bad, manly Alps.. so how to choose?

Which Peak?

If you’re trying to decide, you may be interested to know that tourists generally flock to Pilatus, but many Swiss people recommend Rigi. The view is said to be more beautiful from Rigi, though the panorama from Pilatus reportedly beats out Rigi. If you have the cash and want to do both, I’ve heard that the look and feel of the two mountains is very different.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

What made us pick Pilatus? Well, our visit was in June, and the cable car on Rigi is free for children in July and August. There was no way I was going to pay for something crazy expensive like a Swiss cable car ticket when I could just wait a few weeks and then get it for free.

Going Up

There are two ways to reach the top of Mt. Pilatus: cable car and cog wheel train. They both go to the same place, but they start from different sides of the mountain.

Many visitors to Mt. Pilatus choose to do something called the Golden Round Trip. You can start the GRT from anywhere along the way, but the classic route begins in Luzern with a boat trip on Lake Lucerne from the city to Alpnachstad. From there, you board the world’s steepest cog wheel train and chug on up the mountain. After dilly dallying to your hearts content in the thin air, you take two different cable cars down to Kriens where a bus returns you to Luzern.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

We decided that from a logistics and budget standpoint, we would get the most out of our day by going up and down the same side of the mountain. It had to be the cable car side since I discovered that Krienseregg boasts a rather impressive playground called PILU-Land. We’d have to leave the cogwheel train experience for another time.

Parking at Kriens was easy enough, and after being completely ripped off by a terrible euro-franc exchange rate, we were off, sailing up into the blue skies.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The first cable car is small, only big enough for four people (though they wisely allowed us to squeeze Charlie in despite the four-person rule). It glides up Kriens-Krienseregg-Fräkmüntegg. At Fräkmüntegg, passengers switch to another larger cable car to reach the peak. Note that from September 1, 2014, to sometime in the spring of 2015, the Fräkmüntegg – Pilatus Kulm route will be closed due to the construction of a new aerial cableway. 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

At Fräkmüntegg, you can ride Switzerland’s longest summer toboggan run. Ticket prices are reasonable, but note that children under 2 cannot ride and children under 6 must be accompanied by an adult.

Pilatus – The Peak

A fancy hotel and several restaurants sit at the top ready to accept visitors’ francs. We sailed right on by and looked for the trails.

Since we were with another family and this time had six kids in tow (ages 8 and under!), we couldn’t very well do any of the crazy Alpine trails. However, we did manage to hike up to both Esel and Tomlishorn.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

View of the Pilatus station, including restaurants and sundeck, from Esel.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Chillin at Esel. No ugly hiking boots or zipoff pants today.

The walk up to Esel is rather short, and it offers the best view of Lake Luzern itself. The stairs are wide enough that you can climb side by side with kids on the inside (toward the mountain). You’ll find benches here, but also loads of tourists. Munch on lunch, and move on.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

If you’re lucky, you might just spot a crazed mountain man free climbing up to the summit.

Tomlishorn, on the other hand, is trickier but worth the trek. It’s further from the Pilatus summit station (about an hour), and the trail is narrower, sometimes with only thin metal poles and skinny cables to keep you (and your kids) from skidding down the mountain. But there are pretty little signposted wildflowers to keep you company along the way. And the views of the Alps are better from this side.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Starting out toward Tomlishorn.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Things are getting rocky along the way..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

But this picnic spot was well worth the effort.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

And, then, of course, there’s the view..

If you’d rather stay closer to the station, look for the dragon path which you can start from inside the station building. It’s carved into the rock and winds around the north side of Pilatus. On the back side of the path, you can watch the seriously buff hikers finishing their climb up the mountain. You’ll also have a perfect view of the chapel on Klimsenhorn with miles and miles of Swiss land in the background.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The back side of the dragon path.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The chapel on Klimsenhorn. We desperately wanted to go down and check it out, but the terrain was a bit too slippery with young ‘uns and not enough trekking poles to go around.

Back the Way We Came

After we were half tipsy from the endless picture-perfect peaks, we needed to get those six munchkins to the playground ASAP before they wrestled their way down the mountain. When we switched cable cars at Fräkmüntegg, we heard music – alphorns!

At Krienseregg, we joined dozens of other Swiss families for a romp on the PILU-Land playground. In true Swiss style, the grills were all fired up and everyone was eating freshly roasted sausages (well, everyone except BYO cheapskates like us).Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

To top things off, we arrived back at Kriens just in time to watch two paragliders land next to the cable car station. The boys were in heaven, but all I could think of was the hellish barrage of “why can’t I paraglide when I turn 7?” questions for the next three weeks. Sorry, dear, we don’t mind you walking in the clouds as long as your feet are on solid ground, but it’s going to be a very long time before we let you jump off into said clouds with nothing but a little nylon to keep you afloat.

So, How Does Pilatus Compare?

If you’ve read about our Schilthorn experience, you might wonder how Pilatus stacks up. In our opinion, Schilthorn is the better choice, hands down.

Pilatus had no snow on it, and we could only catch hazy glimpses of the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Schilthorn still had some snow, but all the peaks around it were dazzling in white. Also, the view of Lake Luzern is nice, but looking at Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau is just otherworldly. Both peaks are gouge-your-eyes-out expensive. But, if the weather’s clear and it’s within reach, go for Schilthorn.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Don’t miss our third and final Swiss adventure next week which involves NO children, being soaked to the bone, and the only snotty Swiss people I’ve ever met. Subscribe by email, feed reader, or like TTM on Facebook to stay up to date on the latest posts.

Taking the family to Switzerland but don’t have the cash or the time to visit the Alps? Check our adventures in Bellinzona, Stein am Rhein, and Rhein Falls!

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Schilthorn – The Swiss Alps… with Kids! (Part II)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandThis post contains Part II of our day trip to the Swiss Alps.  Click here for Part I.

Where were we?  Oh, right, gazing at the top of Europe!

We spent about 2 1/2 hours at the Schilthorn summit before deciding to check out the lower mountain towns.  Birg offers little more than a picturesque observation platform.  Make a quick stop there, or continue on to Mürren.

Going down..

Going down..

The platform at Birg.

The platform at Birg.

The view of the playground from the cable car.

The view of the playground from the cable car.

As we approached Mürren, we noticed a children’s playground underneath the cable line and decided this would be the perfect place for our picnic lunch.  Lucky for us, the way was signposted (look for Kinderspielplatz though I believe it was also in English).  The route is short, but the path is steep.

Just around the corner from the Mürren cable car station...

Just around the corner from the Mürren cable car station…

You can refill your bottles or splash your face with fresh Alpine water.

You can refill your bottles or splash your face with fresh Alpine water.

And then follow the signs up the mountain...

And then follow the signs up the mountain…

To this playground!

To this playground!

A great spot for a picnic...

A great spot for a picnic…

Watching the cable cars go by.

Watching the cable cars go by.

The boys scurried around, trying the swings, the slide, the rocking horse.  Doc Sci and I unpacked the sandwiches on one of the available picnic tables.  Afterward, we lay on the soft grass in the sunshine, still trying to absorb the Alpine landscape that surrounded us.  The hot sun soon became too much, and we went off in search of the stream we could hear rushing in the background.

Peeling off shoes and socks, Doc Sci plunged his feet in first.  Not even five seconds later, he hobbled out with toes nearly frozen by the frigid glacial water.

Taking a short dip in the stream.

Taking a short dip in the stream.

Though Rick Steeves thinks rather highly of Gimmelwald and Mürren, I can’t say I was too thrilled by either.  Mürren seemed too touristy (but the views peeking in between houses are fabulous), and Gimmelwald was barely more than a half dozen houses (make a quick playground stop).

Mürren.

Mürren.

Of the two, Mürren has more to offer.  With a grocery store, post office, and railway station connecting to Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken, it’s the more happening of the two villages.  If you’re in the market for some Swiss trinkets, Mürren would be your best bet.

We ran into an American family at the Piz Gloria that just happened to be lodging in Gimmelwald.  They mentioned that it’s possible (even with children) to walk downhill from Mürren to Gimmelwald.  The way is paved, and the trek takes about 40 minutes.  Short on time, we skipped this hike.

Gimmelwald.

Gimmelwald.

Though the boys went nuts over the giant slide in Gimmelwald, the most interesting part of this village for us was The Honesty Shop.  This hole in the wall (almost literally) offered everything from bananas to postcards.  Prices were clearly posted, and shoppers were expected to total their merchandise before leaving the correct amount of cash in a small wooden box.  Cool, right?

Maybe I would’ve enjoyed Gimmelwald more if we would have had a few more hours to hike the surrounding countryside.  But alas, nap time was calling; babies were bored and bawling.

For us, the most amazing part of the whole experience was being dwarfed by the massive Alpine peaks: Schilthorn, Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger.  These giant mountains issued a sobering reminder that we are but small specks, our lives a mere vapor in the wind.  And who is this Creator that he is even mindful of us?  I cannot fathom it. Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandBudget willing, we wouldn’t mind standing in the shadow of other Swiss peaks.  For now, we’re satisfied, thankful, and thinking often of the amazing day we experienced at Schilthorn.

Here are those insipid yet indispensable details I mentioned…

  • Planning: If you’re coming/going to northern Switzerland, I would recommend the route through Bern (A2/A6) over Lucerne (A1/A8).  If you choose the latter, get ready for a wild mountain ride and a slew of tunnels.
  • Currency: You can pay in euro or Swiss francs (CHF).  If paying in euro, the exchange rate is poor, and change is given in CHF.  But this was still more practical for us than trying to locate an ATM in the boonies at 7am.
  • Ready: The temperature is a lot colder at the top than at the other stations.  Pack a windbreaker, hat, and scarf, just in case.  Also, slather the family in sunscreen before ascending.
  • Accessibility: It’s certainly possible to take a pram on the cable cars and on the paved village roads.  A lift at the Piz Gloria takes you to the observation tower.  But, you’d miss out on the second observation tower as well as any mountain trails (and the playground at Mürren).
  • Affordability: Prices in Switzerland are unreal.  Bring your own food and drink whenever possible.  I noticed a grocery store (Coop) in Mürren if you need to grab a few necessities.
  • Freaky: The very last cable car ride from Gimmelwald back to Stechelberg swoops noticeably down which, in turn, solicits some serious squealing from passengers.
  • Risky: My five year-old was fascinated by the paragliders.  Several landed right next to our car as we were leaving.  If this is your thing, have a look at Airtime.  The staff were super cool to talk to and even lent us their parking pass when I (stupidly) dropped my paid ticket into a crevice in the console.  Doh!
  • Corny: Get ready to hear the 007 theme song every time a cable car departs.  Oh, and there are statues of movie characters on the observation deck that repeat the same lines over and over.  Yeah, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Rhein Falls with kids!

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Schilthorn – The Swiss Alps… with Kids! (Part I)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandNote: This post is rather long winded.  I thought a minute or twenty about whether to just post pictures or to release an avalanche of words with aforementioned photos.  Since my hope is to inspire others to travel the world high and low with children, I chose the latter.  Feel free to just ogle if that’s more your thing.

Our family is privileged to see amazing places, things, and people in this world with our own eyes.  A dangerous side effect is the possibility of becoming familiar with the sensation of newness, numbly chasing after the next scenic thrill.

But every once in a while, the beauty of a particular place stays with you, haunts you, even changes you.  We recently trekked to the Swiss Alps and hitched a ride to the summit of Schilthorn.  What we saw there is still taking our breath away.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandWow.  Just.  Wow.

My wish would be that every one of you could have the chance to gaze at these peaks, mouth gaping in awe of creation and the Creator.  But, practically speaking, that may not be possible.  So, come along with me, and let’s experience the Alps together.

The valley floor near Stechelberg, Switzerland.

Leaving the valley near Stechelberg, Switzerland.

In order to reach the tippy top of Schilthorn, one must ride a series of cable cars.  The first cable car starts out near the village of Stechelberg.  Arrive by car or by post bus (post as in post office!) from Lauterbrunnen.  I was dismayed to find that we had to pay to park, but at least it wasn’t obnoxiously expensive (about 5 CHF for 7 hours).

Ascending from Gimmelwald.

Ascending from Gimmelwald.

Caution: Tickets to reach the summit of Schilthorn are NOT cheap.  However, we chose Schilthorn over other mountains for several reasons.  First, Schilthorn is less expensive than Jungfrau which will rob you of something like 200 euros per person to reach the top.  Second, you can see three major peaks from Schilthorn (Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger).  Third, the views are 360° which means you see a whole heck of a lot more than just those three mountains.

This is what you see as you go up the mountain...

This is what you see as you go up the mountain…

...and this...

…and this…

...and this...

…and this…

...and this!

…and this!

Fortunately, we discovered one way to save a little on the fare.  Early morning and late afternoon tickets are discounted by about 25%.  Children under 6 ride free.  In all, we shelled out about 130 euro total for two adults.  Though this doesn’t scream “bargain,” I felt like we got what we paid for, and I can’t ask for more than that!

A little note about the early morning tickets… I highly recommend this option.  Not only are the tickets cheaper, but the crowds are nonexistent.  Not so later in the day.  Plus, visibility and weather conditions are often at their best first thing in the morning.  As the day goes on, the clouds roll in.

The clouds started to roll in around noon.

The cloudy afternoon skies.

Obviously, you don’t want to pay Swiss ticket prices to ride to the top and not see anything.  Check the weather first!  Several days before our trip, I hovered like a hawk over the forecast, religiously clicking every few hours to ensure that we would have clear skies.  I like this website since it allows users to check conditions at three altitudes.

For more insipid yet indispensable details, have patience!  I’ve included them in Part II to be published Thursday.

Enough – back to the climb!  Board the first car at Stechelberg.  The ride to Gimmelwald takes approximately 5 minutes.  Switch, and take the second car to Mürren.  Another change, and another car glides up to Birg.  From Birg, the last leg of the journey takes visitors up to the Piz Gloria restaurant on the Schilthorn summit.

Birg, the second to last cable car station.

Birg, the second to last cable car station.

Leaving Birg...

Leaving Birg…

Don't look now, but there's a hiker making his way on foot to the summit!

Don’t look now, but there’s a hiker making his way on foot to the summit!

He's got his eye on the James Bond 007 Breakfast Buffet at the Piz Gloria restaurant.

He’s got his eye on the James Bond 007 Breakfast Buffet at the Piz Gloria restaurant.

At 2790m (9740 ft) above sea level, we were huffing and puffing just climbing the stairs to the observation deck.  We decided to get some fresh air, drink lots of fluids, eat a snack, and take it easy.  We didn’t want to take any chances on developing altitude sickness (read about signs, symptoms, and what to do about it here).

Taking a look around.

Taking a look around.

Identifying the peaks, valleys, forests, and lakes all around.

Identifying the peaks, valleys, forests, and lakes all around.

Could this place BE any more awesome?

Could this place BE any more awesome?

Babies younger than one year should generally not ascend higher than 2500m.  Since Big Foot was the size of a one year-old and two weeks shy of his birthday, we were comfortable taking the risk.  I didn’t see any other babies at the summit, though I did see a few in the other, lower Alpine villages.  Make sure to talk to your doctor before traveling with an infant to high altitudes.

The main attractions on the Schilthorn mountain are the views (obviously), the rotating Piz Gloria restaurant (pricey), and Bond World (hokey, but included in the lift ticket price).

Since much of the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed here, it’s impossible to escape 007’s influence on the place.  A new museum chronicling the filming and movie highlights was recently completed.  Fan or not, do stop in with the kids.  My boys couldn’t get enough of the helicopter cockpit, and Doc Sci was geeking out at the ginormous smart table.

One of the many breathtaking views.

One of the many breathtaking views.

The Piz Gloria rotating restaurant.

The Piz Gloria rotating restaurant.

Bond World!

Bond World!

Exit through the gift shop, of course.

Exit through the gift shop, of course.

After filling the camera memory card with Alpine images, brave parents can step out onto the partially fenced path leading to a second observation platform.  Keep your kids close, and insist on hand holding at all times.  If you’re feeling up to it, photo opportunities are better down here sans unattractive guard rails.  Ask fellow gawkers to swap photographic favors.

Hold on to your kids and your nerves.. we're steppin' out.

Hold on to your kids and your nerves.. we’re steppin’ out.

I wouldn't recommend trying to get this shot with the kids...

I wouldn’t recommend trying to get this shot with children that aren’t strapped on for safety…

For more jaw-dropping views and picture-perfect Alpine villages, you won’t want to miss reading Part II here.  Along with notes on the intermediate cable car stops, I’ll show you one of the best picnic spots ever as well as share what you need to know before YOU take the family to Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps.  Stay tuned!

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Rhein Falls with kids!

Signature-Marigold

Vacation Rentals for Families Big and Small

Thrifty Travel Mama - Vacation Rentals for Families Big and SmallIt’s no secret that I am not a fan of staying in hotels while on vacation.  I may change my mind when the boys are older, but for now, we stick to vacation rentals.  Hotel rooms do not offer our family of five enough space, and – even worse – they are often more expensive than renting an entire apartment.

Want to get in on the vacation rental craze?  For your next vacation, consider a private property for your family instead of a hotel room.  Here are three sites to get you started: Airbnb.com, Homeaway.com, and Vrbo.com.

Airbnb.com

Airbnb is the new kid on the vacation rental block.  Of the three sites, this one is definitely the most diverse.  The current stats on the homepage boast properties in 35,597 cities and 192 countries.  I’ve seen all sorts of interesting spaces for rent here; beyond simple apartments, you can also find houseboats, castles, off-grid homes, cottages, tree houses, bedouin digs, and places to go glamping.

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Simply enter your desired location, dates of stay, and how many guests.  I usually include the older boys, but not the baby.  Some hosts charge for extra guests (even children), so it’s important to be honest about how many are in your party.

Perhaps the key to Airbnb’s variety is that the properties available on their site are often real people’s homes.  Sure, some are managed vacation properties, but many are just some Joe Schmoe’s pad that he wants to rent out while visiting his great Aunt Edna for two weeks at Christmas.

Some properties even state this outright – one woman posted that the property was her actual home, and that if you booked it, she would just move out for a few days.  Airbnb also lists rooms for rent (as opposed to the entire home/apartment) for the super budget-conscious.

More a community than the other two websites, Airbnb requires you to create a profile, upload a photo, and enter your phone number to contact potential hosts.  As an introvert who is not big into social media, I found it rather annoying to have to give away all this information just to make property inquiries.  However, it does add an element of comfort for the owner to be able text a real person, so I acquiesced.

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If you want the entire place to yourself, click on “Entire home/apt” in the left column.  Otherwise, the search results will show private rooms and shared rooms in your desired location.  Adjust price for your budget, and filter results based on neighborhood or amenities.

A few tips on selecting a property… First, take a good look at the photos.  If the property has three bedrooms, are all three pictured?  Even more important, what is not pictured?  The apartment is supposed to have a washer and dryer, but where are they?

Second, ask a LOT of questions.  Ask how far it is to the nearest grocery store.  If there is free parking, is it right outside the house?  In a garage three miles away?

Third, examine the reviews.  Are there any for this property?  If not, why?  Is it new?  Were renters not satisfied?  If a negative review exists, did the host respond to the complaint and post a reply?

I also recommend contacting all the host for the properties where you are interested in staying.  For my recent booking (we’re going to the Netherlands in a few weeks!), I ended up reserving my fifth choice.  My first choice was not available, and my second choice only responded once to questions I asked.  The other two did not reply at all.

Currently, the only method of payment that works for most users on Airbnb is credit card.  As with hotels.com, you must pay in full for the reservation up front.  What happens to your money?  The funds are held by Airbnb and then released to the host 24 hours after the guest checks in.

Some countries allow payments via Paypal, but I was not able to get that option to work.  However, even though the property I reserved was in the Netherlands (payable in euros), I could change my country to the US and pay in dollars.  The exchange rate matched the one I found on xe.com exactly.

Airbnb currently allows credit card payment in USD, CAD, EUR, and GBP.  If your credit card is not in one of these currencies, the rate is charged in EUR.

To read about my personal experience using Airbnb in The Netherlands, click here.  For more help on booking with Airbnb, click here.

Homeaway.com

If I can’t find what I’m looking for on Airbnb, I hop on over to Homeaway.com.  Current stats for Homeaway’s offerings claim 720,000 vacation rental home listings throughout 168 countries.

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Homeaway’s default is the US, but click another region below the map to search Hawaii, the Caribbean, Europe, or worldwide.

I find the listings on Homeaway to be a tad more expensive than Airbnb.  This is probably due to the difference in structure between the two sites – Airbnb charges a service fee for completed bookings, but simply listing your place is free.  Homeaway charges owners to advertise their spaces, but they does not handle transactions or levy guest fees.

Homeaway search options are more limited than Airbnb, but they are much better than Vrbo.com.  Filter results by number of bedrooms, number of guests, or by amenities such as wireless internet, parking, pet-friendly, etc.

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If price is an issue, you should know that it’s only possible to enter a monetary range per week (not per night) and in USD.  Switch to map view to search geographically.

One minor annoyance for international users is that the rates listed in the search results are displayed in USD.  Clicking on individual properties gives the user an approximate exchange rate, but it can be confusing to search in dollars when your budget is in euros.

Also note that many Homeaway properties have minimum stay requirements, some of which are an entire week.  I ran into trouble with this when trying to book our recent Netherlands stay.  However, the advantage to this is that if you are staying a week (or more), rates can be less than when booking per night on other sites.

If a weekly rate is not listed, ask the property manager for a quote.  I was able to get a booking down from $98/night to $89/night with the right dates and a pretty please.

Since Homeaway does not handle transactions, it is important to ask about any extra fees that the host might charge – cleaning, linens, parking, etc. – and payment method.  Get an invoice and a rental agreement in writing before sending any payment.  Make note of the cancellation policy before booking.  Most are quite strict.  For more help with Homeaway bookings, click here.

To find out whether or not I’d personally recommend Homeaway, click here.

Vrbo.com

Vrbo is my least favorite, but it’s still worth a look before giving in to over-priced hotel rooms.  They are owned by Homeaway, which only make sense when you figure out that the two companies have different clientele.  Vrbo has fewer listings (currently 190,000+ properties in 100 countries), but it is the older of the two sites which means it has more loyal customers and more reviewed properties.  Both charge hosts fees for listing their properties and are hands-off when it comes to payment arrangements.

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Like Homeaway, Vrbo is best for US properties, but other locations around the world are searchable by clicking on the tabs to the left.

It can be hard to navigate the listings and find exactly what you are looking for, especially when searching big cities such as Amsterdam, like I did.  Few filters are available to narrow down the options.  But, prices are displayed per night and in local currency which is a nice plus over Homeaway.

When clicking on a listing, scroll down to see details regarding amenities, pricing, and minimum stay requirements.  Keep in mind that even though search results list a nightly rate, a large number of properties require guests to stay longer than that.

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Sort by, Bedrooms, and More filters are the only search options.  Results are displayed in one column below.

Comb the reviews at Vrbo for additional information regarding potential hosts and homes, but keep in mind that Vrbo gives owners the option to display all feedback, only positive feedback, or no feedback at all.  This company wouldn’t still be around if it did not have many reputable rentals, but be extra cautious in asking as many questions as possible until you’re comfortable enough to make the booking.  Read about Vrbo’s advantages here and FAQs for travelers here.

To see how I fared with Vrbo in Salt Lake City, click here.

As always, when renting from individuals, be sure to protect yourself.  If a listing looks to good to be true (think a ten bedroom home in Tuscany for 50 euros per night), it probably is.  Each site has their own safety tips (Airbnb, Homeaway, Vrbo), but you can find additional tips here.

With a little luck and a few simple searches, you could be on your way to renting an amazing home during your next vacation for less than the cost of a hotel room but with enough space for your family.

Have you used any of these sites before to book vacation rentals?  We’d love to hear about your experience!Signature-Marigold

Marvel: Taking It To The Bank

Despite all this talk of searching for deals and paying for insurance, there still remains something to be said about the differences between using money in Germany and the US.

Here are a few money matters from my experience.  If I’ve left anything out, feel free to ask any questions in the comments.

Paying Bills.  Germans pay almost all their bills via electronic bank transfer.  For recurring bills such as kindergarten tuition, the transfer is made sometime at the beginning of each month.

However, there are two options for this: manual and automatic.  Manual is just that – you sign in to your online banking website and set up a money transfer.  If this is a pain in the rear end, just sign up for automatic transfers which allow the payee to deduct the bill amount from your account (usually around the 10th of the month).

I find the electronic bill pay system in Germany to be much more safe than in the US (or at least it has a better illusion of being so).  Not only do you have to enter a customer number and PIN to access the online account, but you must enter what is called a TAN number to complete the transaction.  This TAN number is different  every time, and it’s only possible to enter it correctly if you have the physical list of TAN numbers in front of you.

But, what about checks?  Honestly, I’ve never seen one, and I’ve never heard Germans mention them.  It’s my understanding that checks just aren’t used here.  And why would they be?  The electronic transfer is much more efficient (and therefore, more German!).

Getting Paid.  In the absence of checks, employees in Germany are almost always paid by direct deposit and usually only once per month.  As a fan of biweekly paychecks, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of only twelve paychecks per year.  But, since most bills are due at the beginning of the month and the only things left to worry about for the rest of the month are groceries and pay-as-you-go cell phone minutes, it ends up being okay.

Reimbursements for travel and other job-related expenses are also paid to the employee via direct deposit.  Unfortunately, these payments tend to take much longer than we are used to in America.  Six months seems to be the norm in our experience.  I guess the efficiency of the German way (organization) comes at a price (waiting, waiting, waiting…).

And, by the way, very few German bank accounts are free.  Usually, accounts cost around 5 or 10 euros per month (though this expense is often charged quarterly).  This monthly fee is supposed to offset the cost of transaction charges and provide account protection and security services for the account holder.

Spending Money.  When paying for items in Germany, the customer has two main options: cash or debit.  It’s true that credit cards exist, but they are not as common.  (And, the banks won’t issue them to foreigners unless said foreigners will be in the country legally for more than one year.)

Everyone takes cash, but not every shop takes debit cards.  In cities, bigger stores are guaranteed to do so.  But, smaller towns and mom-and-pop businesses often do not.  As such, I always keep a 20-euro bill in my purse for such situations.

The debit cards here function mostly the same as at home.  Insert card, enter PIN, complete transaction.  Some stores do not have machines for PIN numbers; instead, the customer must sign a sales slip agreeing to the amount (as in a typical credit card transaction).

But German debit cards haves something extra, a chip on the front of the card.  The user can load money on this chip from their bank ATM, activating the Geldkarte feature.  A Geldkarte functions more like pretend cash than a debit card.  No PIN is required to spend the balance on the chip, and banks make no money on Geldkarte transactions.  It’s a less secure means of payment, but some automatic machines (such as those for public transportation and cigarette dispensers) only accept Geldkarte or cash.

How does the German banking system differ from banking where you are?

Ticket Talk: Paying for Airline Tickets with Foreign Currency

Thrifty Travel Mama - Paying for Airline Tickets with Foreign CurrencyFinding travel deals is a lot of work.  Have I told you that before?  Probably not.  After all, I don’t want to scare you away.  Especially if you’re a mama.  With no time.  If you’re a mama with time, just leave a comment below and enlighten us all as to your secrets.  Many thanks in advance!

My summer travel deal ship seems to have come in, and I’m planning on riding it to as many destinations as possible.  This weekend, I went in to uncharted waters while buying an airline ticket, so I thought I’d share my experience with you.

I have this friend, a very good friend, who is tying the knot in September.  I so want to be there.  Luckily, Doc Sci wants me to be there too.  And here’s how much: he’s letting me go alone.  Wowie kazowie, I’m stoked!

But, this means that I must be gone for as little time as possible, and I absolutely have to get the best deal.  A few weeks ago, I found our family’s tickets to Bulgaria on cheaptickets.de.  I had been searching for weeks and weeks with no sign of a deal.  Connections were horrible, prices expensive.  Thanks to a tip from a friend, I was able to get the itinerary I wanted for €100 less than the airline’s website.

Naturally, for this new trip, I turned to cheaptickets.de first.  I have found this website to be a faster (though most likely less thorough) search than Kayak for tickets originating in Germany.  And there you have the key factor: my travel originates in Germany.

Airline pricing rules state that a ticket must be paid for in the currency of the country where travel originates.  If you’re going to Switzerland from the US, you pay in US dollars.  If you’re going to the US from Switzerland, you pay in Swiss francs.  If the ticket is sold as a round trip, you pay in the currency of your departure location.

Cheaptickets.de told me that Air France was the cheapest.  However, upon closer examination, the flights were operated not by Air France but by Delta Airlines through a codeshare agreement.  Given my recent feelings regarding Delta, I did not want to use this itinerary.  However, they had the best schedule and no other European carrier came close to the price.  (Note: Had I been flying with Screech – which was an option but not my first choice – I would have chosen a nonstop with Lufthansa for €250 more.)  Plus, I checked SeatGuru and found out that these particular flights all have audio/video on demand, not the ancient overhead TV’s with wonky colors I experienced when flying Delta from Stuttgart.

My target price for this trip was €550 as this is rock bottom pricing for flying to/from mainland Europe to non-hub US cities (hub cities would be New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, etc.).  The itinerary with AF/Delta was €572, just a bit more than I wanted to pay.  I remembered I had a credit from cheaptickets.de for €25 which would bring me to my ideal price.  BUT, cheaptickets.de charges a €20 booking fee.  So does fly.de.  In my experience, it’s usually better to book with the airline directly.

However, this presented another problem for me.  I do not have a German credit card since my bank will not issue one unless you live in Germany for one year or more.  Visa and Mastercard charge a 3% fee for foreign currency transactions.  This would put me at the mercy of the exchange rate and way over budget.

In Germany, it’s very common to pay by bank transfer (similar to bill pay services by Bank of America and other financial institutions).  But, Delta does not have a German website, and it is not possible to pay for a ticket in this manner.  After some hunting around, I found that Air France does have a German site that allows bank transfers as a method of payment.  Interestingly, the transaction ended up going through KLM, another Sky Team member.

One note about using credit cards for payment..  I am a World Mastercard cardholder, and purchasing tickets via bank transfer leaves me without its protections and benefits.  If I am not going on a major trip with the whole crew of boys, I am willing to forgo this.  However, if you own such a card, it would be wise to weigh whether the 3% fee would be worth it.  Travel insurance alone can cost more than that.   Of course if you’re originating your travel in the US, using a credit card like this is a no-brainer.

So, if you’re going to be thrifty and travel, consider the currency of your ticket and method of payment.  Explore all avenues and possibilities within your time constraints.  If you don’t find a ticket at your target price, consider whether you are willing to pay extra (€22 to be there when a great friend gets married is totally worth it), or keep looking.  The deals are out there.

Happy bargain hunting!Signature-Marigold