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Sunday 2 May 2010

Expressly Forbidden

Things I wish I had known before coming to Germany #1: Do not take American Express Travelers' Cheques to Germany.

20 years ago, AmEx TCs were absolutely the way to go in Europe. Better than cash, and we always got great exchange rates at local AmEx travel offices.

No more.

Cheques are anathema to German businesses. Commerce here is done via cash, debit cards or direct bank transfer. Nobody wants to touch a cheque, and it doesn't matter that Travelers' Cheques are supposed to be just like cash. Germany's largest bank, one of the 50 largest corporations in the world, will not take them. That should tell you something. AmEx closed all their offices in Germany a few years ago. That should tell you something too.

It took us several days to find an institution that would both accept our travelers' cheques and give us a good rate. Apparently this was a strange request for them, because the cashier followed a Xeroxed protocol that took over two hours and involved discussions with management, phone calls, and generally handling our cheques with the sort of care usually reserved for volatile organic chemicals.

Don't come to Germany expecting to put everything on your credit card, either. This was another great strategy years ago, but fees are a lot higher now. Haven't you heard there was a financial meltdown? Lenders are making up their losses any way they can.

Long story short, if you are coming to Germany for a short time and need a few hundred dollars every once in a while, bring an ATM card. Not a debit card, not a check-card, a plain-vanilla ATM card from your bank. If you need a few thousand dollars, use a wire transfer.

Saturday 1 May 2010

No such thing as a free lunch

Whatever you pay for stuff in U.S. dollars, it's about the same number of Euros in Germany. Since €1 is currently worth about $1.34, you'd think everything is 34% more expensive. But U.S. retail prices are quoted before sales tax, which is currently over 9% in Santa Clara, whereas the 20% value-added tax is included in Germany. Taking that into account, on average you're really only paying about 23% more.

Even with the exchange rate, some things are cheaper in Germany than in the U.S., like booze and coffee. A pint of beer can be had for half a buck. I could learn to like it here.

Getting There

There's one flight per day from San Francisco non-stop all the way to Munich. Operated by Lufthansa, but you can book through United. And it leaves SF at about 9 PM. Traveling with a baby, this is the way to go. And they have movies on-demand in coach. Bonus!

Sunday 25 April 2010

Going Deutsch

Seems I'm going to spend the next 18 months in Germany. Watch this space for some articles about things I'm glad they told me, things I wish they had told me, and things I wish they hadn't told me.