Expats Move Home: Do We Miss Germany?

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany“Do you miss Germany?”

I get asked this all.the.time, and the answer is a resounding, YES!

The more difficult question involves what we miss about Germany, because there are things we most definitely do NOT miss. Hang on to your hats – that list is coming next.

In struggling to adapt back to American culture, I find myself often looking back on our European adventure with rose-colored glasses.

It seems that in every frustrating encounter with our broken American healthcare, every failure to communicate in my native language, every awkward social encounter with a spandex-clad, minivan-wielding soccer mom.. I want to quit. I want to give up and go back. I long for the “good ol’ days.”

But, were those olden days really… good?

If so, then what was good?

Over the past months, I’ve been compiling a list – both for you and for me. For you, the curious – and for me, the perspective. In no particular order, here is what I miss the most about living in Europe.

Travel

This is where I truly struggle the most. America boasts many treasures, and I don’t discount that fact. But, they are all American and relatively new in the history of the world.

What I adored about living in Freiburg was the ability to hop in the car and find myself in a completely different country and/or culture in a half a day’s drive (or less).Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

The European landscape is littered with old castles and ancient fortresses. And, if the drive to a new place seemed too long, budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet made further-flung destinations just a quick flight away.

I guess the ancient old-world feel of Europe is just my style. I could explore and photograph charming provincial villages all.day.long and never tire of the rustic old stones, writhing iron, chiseled wood.

America has a different look that makes her special and unique. Sadly, Route 66 and Palm Springs just don’t do it for me. Perhaps that will change with time. For now, all I want is to be lost in the hill towns of Tuscany.

There’s also something to be said about the European idea that vacation time is a necessity, not a luxury. And while not every European can afford to spend a month in Spain, nearly every one of them receives much more time off than the average American… and the European uses it.

Riding My Bike

When we were searching for jobs last fall, Doc Sci and I desperately wanted to find and move to a walkable or bikeable community. We longed to keep some of that liberating feeling of using our own two legs to get us wherever we need to go.

While our current city is on the smaller side and thankfully doesn’t have too much traffic, it is NOT set up for getting around on two wheels.

For starters, American drivers just absolutely do not watch out for cyclists. I know, because I used to be one of those drivers. Retraining my brain to check the bike lane at every intersection in Germany was not easy, and I constantly worried about accidentally hitting a pedestrian or cyclist.Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

Here in the US, you’re often taking your life in your hands using the bike lane. I know some people do it and don’t die. But with kids? Forget it.

I have tried riding on the sidewalk with the boys to a few places only to discover that sidewalks exist only on certain streets, abruptly beginning or ending without rhyme or reason. It’s there one block and gone the next. Rarely do the sidewalks extend along the full length of our route, forcing us to venture onto the actual road (yikes).

I guess we’ll have to stick with mountain biking or cycling nature trails. Enjoyable – but not at all the same.

Simplicity of Food

You can find many American foods in German supermarkets such as Coca Cola, Oreos, Pringles, etc.; but beware – these goods are not exactly the same. Sure, American Oreos and German Oreos share a common product name, but the ingredient lists are not identical!

American packaged food is often full of chemicals – preservatives, artificial colors, fake sugars. In Germany, soda is made with real sugar, and artificial ingredients are uncommon due to strict labeling laws and a population of consumers that prefer things au natural.

If I want to buy a simple bag of pretzel sticks in the US, I have to search multiple brands and products in order to find one with a short ingredient list and few allergens (and they ALL have sugar!).

Not one single product could boast an ingredient list like the ubiquitous German Salzstangen: flour, water, oil, salt, malt, and yeast.Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

In Deutschland, we grew accustomed to eating whole foods; only rarely did we buy something prepared. In the US, it often feels impossible to find raw ingredients for a decent price. Why is it that packaged food costs less in America than simple pantry staples?

No Bags at the Grocery Store

Can this really be a thing to miss? I have never been much of a staunch environmentalist (though I do think it’s important to care about the earth), but I appreciate a minimalist approach to life, especially with kids.

I have three growing boys, and they want to eat three meals a day and two snacks for some reason (the nerve!). As you can imagine, we buy a car-ful of groceries every week.

At first, I brought my reusable bags everywhere. But, I often forgot to hand them over before the cashier started bagging my items (often double bagging!). I ended up with bushels and bushels of these stupid nuisances within just a few weeks.

The waste drives me nuts; and the effort to recycle them is just one.more.thing to remember when I shop. Now, I just leave the reusable bags in the car and ask for no bags or use the self-checkout when I want to avoid the stares and comments (are you SURE you don’t want ANY bags?!).

Banking

During our cross-country move, I ducked into a store to grab a few things for dinner at the hotel. The woman in front of me in line whipped out a checkbook to pay for her groceries. A check?! Who pays with a check?

The cashier didn’t even know how to process the thing. I just stared. What is this, the 90s?

Nope, it’s 2015 in America – but, we’re still living in the dark ages of banking.

If you want to pay someone in Germany, you simply ask for their bank account number, and you transfer the money. It’s simple and free. Stores accept cash, debit, and sometimes credit. Chip and PIN cards and TAN blocks make transactions secure. If you’re curious, you can read more about German banking here.

While e-banking has changed by leaps and bounds since 2010 and nearly every business accepts some form of electronic payment, the last holdouts still cling to the comfort of old-fashioned checks. I have at least two payees that only accept cash, check, or money order (speaking of relics..). The sooner these antiquated bits of paper make their way from pocketbooks to museums, the better.

Freedom to Roam

Did you know that first graders in Germany are expected to walk themselves to and from school? Sure, parents are encouraged to show the kids the way, even walk the route with them a few times to practice. But then the parents should leave the child be to walk alone.

I’ll admit, I am not ready to give my seven year-old that kind of freedom. But, I do think he should be able to play on our street and in our neighborhood and work up to walking to the park or library by himself when he’s ready. Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

I want my kids to roam freely without fear that I will face repercussions for allowing such actions. Tsh from The Art of Simple discusses her wish for the same thing and gives a rallying cry that we, as a culture, need to stop blaming and start trusting our neighbors and each other. Amen.

Along with allowing our kids the freedom to wander, Germans allow their children to take risks. Playgrounds in Deutschland are full of every kind of wonder that would never be allowed on American soil. The risk of injury and subsequent lawsuit is just too great in the US.

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

German playgrounds don’t sport signs or warnings such as those pictured here.

Fresh Bread

Ask a German in the US what they miss about home, and the words BREAD and BAKERIES will come flying out of their mouth. I never understood why they thought their carbs were so much better. Up until 2010, I ate squishy loaves with the rest of America, laden with dozens of ingredients, multiple allergens, and a hearty dose of preservatives.

In Germany, every grocery store offers freshly baked bread, sans preservatives. Some stores like Lidl even offer a machine where you can slice the whole loaves yourself. Bakeries exist on nearly every corner. Why? Bread is important to Germans, and – I’ll let you in on a little secret – that bread tastes amazing when it’s fresh.

Fast forward to 2014. We’re back in the US, hunting the local store for something to bookend turkey and cheese.

First, we check ingredients; lists read like a food science textbook. None can stick with the basics like flour, yeast, salt, and water. I decide I’ll be generous and settle for allowing a bit of sugar or honey. But no, even this is not enough. I have to wade through -ates and -ites and countless dough conditioners (what the CRAP are those?).

Giving up, we then move on to the squeeze test. If the loaf squishes easily like your favorite pillow, it’s out. Each package crumples like a deflated balloon with the slightest touch.

Nearly a year later, we still have yet to find a great bread here that isn’t made from scratch at home or costs $5+ a loaf. If you know of one, please share it in the comments below.

German Speakers

Over the course of four years, I grew accustomed to hearing German spoken and the quiet that surrounded my lack of fluency. And, since I lived in a university town, I shared the streets with people from all over the world. My neighbors were from Israel, Ghana, India, Tunisia, and China. I loved that.

Yes, America is very diverse and many cities in the US host various ethnic populations. Just not my city. It’s starkly… white. And, considering it’s Arizona, I rarely even hear Spanish being spoken.

Earlier this year, I saw two young men that looked to be from India walking out of Costco as I was walking in. I fought the urge to rush over and ask them where they hung out, where they bought Indian groceries, what the best places were to eat Indian food. In the end, I restrained myself. Out of context, my questions might come across as, well, creepy. I didn’t want to be the one to scare off the only Indians in the city!

Wrap Up

Well, there you have it. All the things I miss and can’t easily obtain in my current place and time. Our German expat experience was incredible; but, it wasn’t all castles and chocolate. For the things I don’t miss, come back on Wednesday.

What things do you miss from a place you used to live or visit frequently? What did you do to cope?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Marvel: The German Tax Frenzy

Thrifty Travel Mama - Expat Life - TaxesI had a nice little post for you today on how to making your own travel journals.  But then last night happened.  And what, pray tell, could be so thrilling as to distract me from posting pretty pictures of paper?

Getting our German taxes done, that’s what.  And, unfortunately, I have no pretty pictures of paperwork.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, sheesh, who cares about taxes?  That’s stupid and boring.  I’ll just get back to my Lean Cuisine microwave meal now, thankyouverymuch.

Well, hang on to your hats for just a minute more while I recap flying through three years of tax returns done in 90 minutes.  Schnell!  Schnell!

We’ve been told over and over that we should do our German taxes because we’d get a decent amount back.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I loathe doing taxes and even more so as an expat.  Doc Sci gets plenty of money taken out of his paycheck, and I was not interested in the amount of effort required to get a “decent” refund.

But one of Doc Sci’s colleagues kept bugging him about it, and she even offered the name of her tax guy who spoke English and came to your house to do the whole shebang.  Finally, we broke down and called this guy – let’s name him Larry since that’s a very nice accountant-ish name – back in January and asked for an appointment.  He informed us he was much too busy for poor peons like us, but we should gather all the paperwork he had listed on his website and call him back in February.

Shucks, I am always up for digging through my files and mining the depths of my archives for financial and legal documents with long names like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Lohnsteuerbescheinigung.  Okay, no, no I’m not.  So, I just made a very impressive looking pile several inches deep and then threw the binder of bank statements on top to look very, very organized.  Go me.

When February came, I picked a time when Doc Sci would be home in the afternoon, and I slipped him Larry’s phone number, a smile, and a few bats of the eyelashes.  Please, oh please, won’t you call Larry again and set up an appointment?  Here’s my planner so you’ll know when we’re available.  Aren’t I a nice wife to help you out like that?

But, Larry didn’t want to schedule an appointment for next week or the week after.  No, no, tonight suited him just fine.  How about four hours from now?  This should’ve been a clue to me that we would’ve been better off calling him Fast & Furious.

Fast & Furious Larry showed up around 8:30pm rolling a briefcase behind him which is a corporate America move, not a German one.  Doc Sci thought Larry looked like an accountant.  Well, what the heck does an accountant look like?  I thought he looked like a nerdy study partner, hair in the eyes, glasses, and a polo shirt.  Maybe that is what an accountant looks like, but what do I know?

This guy made himself right at home, busting out the biggest laptop we had ever (EVER!) seen.  It was equipped with two anti-theft devices.  One was a dongle (I was informed by Doc Sci that this is the proper term, and it is neither inappropriate nor misspelled) that must be inserted in order to use the computer.  The other was its sheer mass, half the size of a Brinks security truck with some computer whirlygigs and a keyboard inside.

Even better, he had a gazillion gadgets duct taped to the cover.  An orange highlighter, one of those bank pens on a spiral cord, a wireless phone (internet maybe?), peanuts, pretzels, a beer, but sadly, not an apple.

We (stupidly) had not asked in advance how much Larry’s services were going to cost, so we decided a few minutes before he arrived that we’d start with that as a means of introduction.  Hello, nice to meet you, are you too expensive for our poor little just-a-cut-above-a-grad-student means?  But, Larry was not interested in small talk.  He whisked away our questions and told us to bring on the paperwork.

Wait, what?  You’re going to do three years of our taxes RIGHT NOW?!  Yes, ma’am and the faster I get it done, the cheaper it is for you.

Ai, ai, Captain Larry, well then let’s not delay!

For the next 90 minutes, Mr. Fast & Furious fired questions and orders in broken English.  “You have bank statement from Flugtickets when you move to Germany?”  “How many kilometers your home in America from the airport?”  “Kindergarten receipts!”  “You have American tax papers?  They not printed out?  Print out!”

Remind me if I ever do this again to wear Nikes and wicking workout gear.  We were dripping sweat sprinting back and forth between the printer churning out credit card statements, receipts, and summaries as far back as 1897.  Every foot/cent/mile/dollar/euro/kilometer counts, as long as you’ve got the backup to prove it.

In the end, he scrawled several numbers on a paper.  “That how much you get back.  That how much you pay me.”

I about fell over when I saw the figures.  We’re getting several thousand (yep, THOUSAND) euros back for the last three years, and homeboy here just made 436 Euros in about an hour and a half.  We are to pay Mr. Fast & Furious this random amount after we receive our refund.  And, of course we must do this by bank transfer.  Checks are so.. American.

Needless to say, we never envisioned our evening to begin with an awkward introduction followed by a frenzy of dollars, sense, and madness to finally land our butts on a pile of gold at the end of the German rainbow.  I’m quite certain that our 2012 April date with Uncle Sam will be neither as thrilling nor as profitable.  But, that’s okay.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get to do this all over again next year.Signature-Marigold

An American Buying a French Car in Germany – Part 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Buying A CarThis is part two of Doc Sci’s adventure in buying our new car!  You can read Part 1 here.

On the appointed day, I was on the bank’s doorstep bright and early.  I got my baller roll of 100 dolla bills. Except in euros they have 500 dolla bills y’all.

The big money is kept in a vault, so if you need those 500 dolla (okay, okay, they are euro) bills, you must wait several minutes.  The lock is on a timer – presumably long enough that an employee could press an alarm and the Polizei could arrive before the bandit made off with the loot.

So after the obligatory wait and with 5 grand in my backpack, I set off – on the bus – to buy a car.  I gave Slick Dealer the cash, and he promptly put it in his safe a.k.a his jacket pocket.  The dude had way more 500 dolla bills too.  A serious baller roll, no joke.

We then climbed into his custom leather seats and took a long, awkward 30-minute drive to the registration office (called the Bürgeramt in Germany).  On the way into the building, he saw no less than 4 people he knew.

Like all government offices, visitors must take a ticket: first-come, first-served.  The place was packed.  So Slick Dealer hit up one of his pals for a ticket, which reduced our wait time to 15 minutes instead of over an hour.  The actual registration of the car took longer than usual because of the French title, but thank God it turned out to be a legit (as in not stolen) vehicle.

Finally, I paid 42 euros and was given my registration, license plate number, and a green sticker to put on the inside of windshield on the passenger side.

Green Environmental Sticker
source

The green sticker is very important.  Next year, our city is requiring all cars that drive in the city center to have these stickers that indicate an acceptable level of emissions and environmental pollution.  Without a sticker, drivers will have to stay out of the city center or pay a fine if caught.  Old cars obviously have a hard time getting these, and so do diesels.

Speaking of old cars, we learned that there is a tax each year on your car which is based on how old the car is as well as how big the engine is.  At some point, it just gets too expensive to drive an old beater because the taxes cost way more than the car is even worth.

Taxes are paid to the government via bank transfer.  In order to register the car, you must give them your bank account number, and sign a piece of paper authorizing the direct debit of the taxes (paid yearly).

Anyway, I took my newly registered paperwork down to the the license plate shop.  Surprise, surprise, Slick Dealer  knew the woman behind the counter.  They had a nice chat, and she only charged me half price for the plates.  At least dealing with this guy had some benefits.

We then got back in his ride for another long, awkward drive back to the car that I now own.  I hesitantly drove it off the lot, double and triple checking traffic, lights, and signs because this is no rental.  I own this clunker and am responsible for anything that happens.

Smarty pants Slick Dealer didn’t put any gas in the tank, so I had to stop off to fill ‘er up.  I watched the gauge go up, up, up, and at 70 euros I had to shut it off because I couldn’t stomach paying more than that for a single tank of gas.

Since I only ride my bike around our city, I had no idea how to get home from the gas station.  Thank goodness for Google maps and a smartphone (which, by the way, just happens to be about the only thing that is cheaper in Germany than in America).

As I’m driving, I realize that all the controls and dashboard messages are either in French or in German.  The car paperwork is missing the code necessary to change languages.  Guess I’ll be giving Slick Dealer a call once again.

This car might be cheap in price, but it’s wicked loaded with electronics.  Halfway home my rear end was so sweaty I had to pull over and figure out how to turn off the butt warmers.  It also took me five minutes to figure out the windshield wipers, and another ten to make heads or tails of the key.  It’s actually the size of a credit card and looks like large keyless entry remote, only you stick the whole thing in a slot and then push a big Stop/Start button to turn the car on and off.  It’s like I need a PhD or something just to own this ride.

In the end, I’m glad it seems our adventure with Slick Dealer was just that – an adventure instead of a nightmare.

Note from Thrifty Travel Mama:  Thanks, Doc Sci for taking time out of your research schedule to write this guest post!  Oh and in case you’re dying to know, our car really is French not only in previous ownership but in make and model (Renault Scenic).  We like to keep things multicultural around here!Signature-Marigold

Household Notebook

I finished my Household Notebook – yay!

Well, “finished” as in as complete as any project done by a perfectionist could possibly be.  I’m doing my best to let it be what it was intended – a tool that our family USES – and not merely a piece of art that adorns my desk.

So, what exactly is a Household or Family Notebook? 

Our family’s Household Notebook – turquoise!

I suppose it’s not the same for everyone; but, for us it’s a collection of documents to manage our family “business” better.  It will help me be even more organized, and it should provide valuable information for Doc Sci or anyone else who might need to take over daily affairs for some reason.  It should also provide quick access to vital information during an emergency situation.

I started out researching what other people had in their notebooks (using Pinterest and Google, of course).  I made a huge list of ideas, and then I narrowed that list down to 15 categories.  In those 15 categories, I wrote down items that were appropriate to the category and would be referenced or used frequently.  I then searched for existing templates that I could use as a springboard to design my own documents.

When poking around online, I noticed some people had four binders instead of one.  Other people used their binders exclusively to pay bills and didn’t include anything else like meal planning or personal health records.  I didn’t want my notebook to be a replacement for a file cabinet – but, I also didn’t I want my desk to be overwhelmed with a library of resources.

Ultimately, a Household Notebook needs to be something useful for that particular household.

So, what’s in my notebook?

Categories.

My 15 categories and a few examples of the documents in each are as follows…

  • Contact Info
    • Emergency phone numbers
    • German & American contact numbers
    • “In case of emergency” document
  • Planning
    • 2012 and 2013 at a glance
    • Important dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc)
    • Yearly calendaring list (everything from dentist appointments to dryer cleanings)
    • German and American holidays including daylight savings schedules (they’re different for the two countries)
    • Doc Sci’s work schedule and my weekly schedule
    • Party planning checklists
  • Home Management
    • Deep cleaning checklist
    • Storage unit contents – Germany and USA
    • Stain removal guide
    • Garment care symbols
  • Meals
    • Grocery lists for regular grocery stores
    • List of items only available at specialty shops
    • Meal planning sheets
    • A list of staple meals
    • A list of meals to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Restaurants to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Seasonal produce guide for menu planning
    • Stockpile inventory
  • Family
    • Children’s current sizes and measurements
    • Chart with American and European sizes, including shoes
    • Children’s daily schedule and routine
    • Babysitter notes for nights out
    • Birthday party ideas
    • Chore chart ideas
  • Health
    • Medical history for each family member
    • Physician phone numbers
    • CPR instructions
  • School
    • School contact info and phone list
    • Home school weekly planning sheet
    • Home school year overview
  • Money & Finance
    • Family budget
    • Wallet contents including card numbers & contact numbers
    • Password log
    • Yearly schedule of the best time to buy household items
    • Auto insurance coverage details
  • Travel
    • Ideas for local family outings (not overnight)
    • Vacation destination idea list (overnight)
    • Packing lists
    • Before-we-leave checklist
    • Frequent flier mile information for all family members
  • Expat Living
    • Copies of passports
    • Resources for renewing visas
  • Projects
    • Generic to do list
    • Generic project work sheet
    • Generic week at a glance schedule for completing a project
  • Holidays
    • Thanksgiving guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Thanksgiving week planner
    • Christmas card labels
    • Gift gift lists
    • Christmas cookie swap party planner
    • Christmas guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Blank copy of December 2012
  • Blog
    • Ideas page for future posts
    • Yearly calendar for planning
  • Activities
    • Local public pool schedules
    • Local sport club classes for kids
    • Ideas for activities during summer and holidays
  • Lists
    • Items I frequently (and currently need to) request from the US
    • List of topics to research
    • Household items to fix
    • Generic sheet for thoughts on a particular topic

Using the documents I found online, I created my own set of documents in Illustrator that fit our family’s situation (living abroad, don’t own a home, etc.).  I also had to make sure all the pages matched and looked pretty!

My funky European two-ring binder.

After designing all the documents, I organized them into folders on my computer hard drive that matched the categories above.  That way, when I need to print out new menu planning sheets, I can just open the “Meals” folder on my computer the same as I could flip to the “Meals” tab in the notebook.

The only tabs I could find that would reach beyond the page protects had to be cut by hand. Not great for someone who can’t snip a straight line to save her life!

I wanted to print out the documents at a lab so they’d look nicer.  Unfortunately, I don’t know of any existing print labs in my city, so I had to settle for our HP Deskjet. Surprisingly, Illustrator did a great job with color, and what I saw on the screen was how it looked on paper.  Sweet!

Some reference documents went in page protectors, and some were just hole-punched and placed in the corresponding category tab.

Page protectors are very cheap here – both in terms of quality and money.

I bought a plastic envelope to put in the back of the notebook to hold takeout menus and other small scraps of paper that didn’t fit anywhere else.  Unfortunately, it was too big, so I’ll have to check a few other stores for smaller pouches.

My too-big plastic envelope.

I have a few finishing touches to put on the notebook (for starters, filling in the budget and phone numbers by hand).  After that, I’m looking forward to how this notebook will help streamline my “mama” job and make life easier for Doc Sci when I’m out of it for a few weeks.  I think my Household Notebook will be a great tool for our family in the years to come.

p.s. – I’ve made a Pinterest board with links to all the documents I used for ideas.  You can view the board and links here.

How about you?  Do you have a household notebook? Why or why not?

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