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Patience and Problem-Solving: An Introduction to German Transportation

GermanyI arrived in the Frankfurt Airport tired, nervous, and jet lagged, and needed to get to Berlin.  I also assumed German trains ran on time.  I went to the DB (German Trains) office and bought a ticket with a reserved seat to Berlin.

Thirty minutes after my departure time, a fuzzy announcement notified me that my train had been canceled.  Back at the DB office they told me to get to the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to catch a different train to Berlin without a seat reservation.  I found a short train to the Hauptbahnhof and then got onto a train packed with commuters visibly annoyed by my mounds of luggage.

After standing with my luggage and getting jostled by disgruntled Germans for a couple of hours, I got off at Fulda to transfer to the Berlin-bound train.  Unfortunately, that train had already departed and I would need to find a different train to Berlin.  I had already used up all of my Euro coinage, so I had no way of informing Alfa (my contact in Berlin who I would stay with for my first night) as to when I would be arriving.  I found the next train to Berlin, and luckily the Ticketmaster was understanding about my situation and allowed me to stay on.

In Berlin I bought a coffee to get change so I could call Alfa, who was already back home, but gave me directions to get there.  At this point it was so late that my complimentary public transportation ticket was about to expire, so I quickly hopped onto a bus with the right end-station.  Evidently that’s where the bus was coming from (not going to), but it was too late for me to get off and onto another one because my ticket expired, so I stayed until the route turned around.  Finally, I reached my destination.

Alfa had basketball on the TV and a beer ready for me, just to ease the culture shock.

~Arthur Gutzke, Illinois Study Abroad Office Peer Advisor

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Staying Safe Abroad While Getting from Here to There

Travelling-safetyEvery country’s transportation systems are different, but there are a few rules that apply everywhere in keeping yourself and your things safe while in transit.

Universal rule #1: Don’t trust strangers.
While the majority of strangers who offer to help you find your way or with your things are legitimate, it can never hurt to be too careful when you’re en-route. Never leave your stuff with someone you don’t know, and always keep an eye on valuables. Some veteran traveler techniques include keeping your backpack in front of you or your hand on your purse or pocket while standing on the bus. You may feel silly at first, but you’ll soon notice that many locals travel like this.
Universal rule #2: Always stay more attentive abroad to what’s around you than when you are at home or on campus.
You may have taken public transportation before, but being an American in another country brings a lot more attention to you than in the States (or your home country). Always be monitoring your surroundings and look alert (i.e not lost!), whether in a taxi, bus, train, or walking.

Universal rule #3: Never arrive to a location at nighttime

Sometimes this cannot be helped because of the way train/bus schedules work out, but arriving to a location at night puts you at risk for criminal activity simply because there is typically less foot traffic and more dark or poorly-lit areas that make you an easier target, especially if you aren’t attentive. Always know how to get from the point of arrival to the final destination before beginning your journey, whether it be to and from class, or to or from cities in your host country.

Universal rule #4: Sign up for the US Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan.
This free program provides you with the latest updates on travel warnings and alerts in the country you’re in.  It is highly recommended for anyone abroad—especially study abroad students.

In the end, the absolute best way to be safe is to ask trusted locals for advice (such as your housemates, Resident Director, International Student Office, etc).  Some good questions to ask include:

  1. What modes of transportation can be dangerous?
  2. How do I know if a taxi is legitimate?
  3. Are there certain bus stops and neighborhoods I should avoid?
  4. What is conspicuous to have out in the open on a bus/train? (ie credit cards, cell phone, iPhone, iPod, laptop, etc.)
  5. Will a photocopy of my passport instead of the original suffice for identification?

Learning how to get around while abroad is a wonderful experience, so don’t be afraid to dive in.  Just be smart!

~Jeanne Zeller, Illinois Study Abroad Office Peer Advisor

Tips on Using Public Transportation Abroad

Tipos on TransitWhile abroad, most people will have to make use of local public transportation at some point or another. Whether you’re going to or from the airport, finding your hostel, or just going across town to class, you will have to maneuver your way through bus and train systems.  In some places public transportation works in much the same way as it does in the US–you buy a ticket on the bus or at the train station and take it as far as you need to go. The process is different in many other places, though, and foreign languages make it difficult to get help from the locals.  In order to avoid confusion and hefty fines, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Sometimes you will be able to enter a train or bus without presenting a purchased ticket. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean your ride is free. In these cases, transit workers will occasionally walk around and ask to see each passenger’s ticket. If they ask to see your ticket and you don’t have one, they can give you a citation worth hundreds of US dollars. Don’t step on a bus or train unless you have purchased a ticket or you know that you can buy one on board.
  2. Additionally, some transit systems require you to present your ticket in order to exit the station only, so if you’ve managed to get onto the train/bus without a ticket, and no one from the transportation authority has fined you, keep in mind you’ll still need a way (i.e. a purchased ticket) to get off, so don’t throw away your ticket once you are on the train.
  3. Often times tickets are purchased based on how far you are traveling, as measured by the number of “zones” you pass through. For example, if you are caught having traveled through 3 zones with only a 1-zone ticket, you may also get an expensive citation. Before purchasing your ticket, map out exactly where you’re going and make sure your ticket covers you for that distance.
  4. In some places bus tickets are purchased at street kiosks rather than on the bus, try to ask the locals for the proper protocol.
  5. Catching a bus may require that you flag it down, especially if at the bus stop, there is more than one route designated to stop there. If you don’t do this, the bus may just pass right by you. Arrive at the bus stop early and see how the locals indicate that they would like the bus to pick them up.

Finally, here’s a tip for minimizing difficulties with using public transportation: plan ahead and bring a pocket-sized notepad.  It is best to plan out your transit itinerary using the internet/transportation book or other resources before leaving home because it can be difficult figuring it out on the fly, especially if you are not comfortable with the local language.  If you are going somewhere from an airport and haven’t devised your route yet, ask for directions there; virtually all airports have informational booths where employees can tell you in English how to get to your destination via public transportation, if it’s possible. Also, it is very helpful to write down notes for your trip (such as the address of your destination, the names of the train/bus lines you’ll be taking, what stops you’ll be getting off at, etc.) on a small notepad and keep it with you while you’re traveling.  It may come in handy if you get lost or confused and makes it easier for locals to help you when you don’t speak their language.  Also, an actual notepad is preferable to an electronic device because they draw less attention to you and are not dependent on battery life or finding a signal.

–Eli Kliejunas, Illinois Study Abroad Office Peer Advisor