To Germany….and Beyond!

February 8, 2022

LISBON, PORTUGAL

We’d planned on spending three months in Lisbon as our first stop, but after renting a car and driving throughout Portugal on our holiday break, we knew we needed to pivot. We realized we hadn’t given enough weight to big horizons, forest walks, or green spaces. When making our decision to live in Lisbon, we’d instead given too much weight to quaint, ‘old-town’ housing, access to attractions, and city living. 

But once we had a car, it became clear that we wanted to continue having a car! With a car we wouldn’t be dependent on public transportation — meaning we’d be able to find cheaper Airbnb’s outside the city with better dog-walking options, be able to take day trips to anywhere that might strike our fancy, and generally just see more and experience more of whatever country we’d find ourselves in. It would also make a HUGE difference in our ability to travel in and out of the Schengen Zone as required by visa limitations — not only in terms of vastly increasing the options of where we could go (we’d no longer need to pick a destination accessed by direct flight), but also in the quality of that travel.

Because flying with big dogs is not all that easy (something we had sadly underestimated). If nothing else, this new lifestyle is providing us with a lot of opportunities to learn new things!

<DETOUR>

What we’ve learned (so far) about traveling with big dogs as a tourist in Europe, where you can only spend 90 days out of every 180 in the Schengen Zone and must therefore move every few months at a minimum:

  • The USDA-APHIS paperwork (EU Pet Health Certificate) necessary to travel to Europe from the U.S. is complicated to obtain — only some veterinarians are qualified to fill it out, it costs money, and it has to be fully completed (meaning the pet examined, forms completed, and paperwork physically mailed to and returned from the USDA) within 10 days of travel. PLUS, it is only valid for 4 months, after which you must get the dog examined again.
  • Large dogs need large dog crates for the plane rides, which are both pricey and take up a lot of space. Getting ourselves, our dogs, and those dog crates to and from the airport is a challenge we were only able to solve by arranging for van transportation, which adds a considerable cost to the travel budget.
  • While you can find many inexpensive flights from one European city to another, flying your dogs essentially doubles the cost and adds another hit to the travel budget.
  • You have to choose direct flights or risk losing your dog in the transfer.
  • Checking your pet in to the flight adds at least another tense hour to your already stressful pre-flight check-in time. Plan to add in even more time in case the agent at the oversized baggage area doesn’t understand your paperwork. Also be prepared to reassemble the crates while you’re waiting in line (they won’t fit in a van fully assembled), and deal with the angry, disgusted looks directed your way from every person in line behind you checking their surfboards and golf clubs.
  • Picking up your dog at the oversized baggage claim area after the flight takes an unpredictable amount of time, making it difficult to coordinate a ride to your lodging. You’ll also need to disassemble the crate while at the airport — and good luck breaking the corner zip ties! (pro tip: remember to pack a knife in your checked baggage).
  • Finally, while we can’t speak for all dogs, ours don’t particularly enjoy the experience—to put it mildly.

<END DETOUR / BACK TO THE CAR STORY>

Once we experienced the advantage of having a car during our 10-day tour around Portugal, there was no stuffing that realization back in the box [FOOTNOTE TK]. We immediately started looking into leaving our Airbnb a month early and figuring out how to get a car for our trip out of the Schengen Zone (deadline: March 1).

But we discovered one big obstacle: as a non-EU citizen, you effectively can’t buy a car in Europe!

Yes, there are some (possibly shady) ways around this. We read about lease buy-back programs in Germany. We also heard that it might be possible to buy a car in the UK because the government doesn’t verify the address you list as your permanent residence. But if you’re a law-abiding person on a budget, the difficulties between registering and insuring (mandatory) a car as a non-citizen without a permanent address make the process more-or-less impossible. We found ourselves wishing we’d shipped our cars instead of selling them before we left… 

But as it turns out we had an unknown ace in the hole! Years ago, Sarah’s brother met, fell in love with, and married a German woman and they currently live in Germany — aka “The Detroit of Europe”. Even better, said sister-in-law offered to help us by registering and insuring a car for us in her name! It was a no-brainer — we decided to get out of our Lisbon Airbnb agreement early, fly to Germany, stay with D & K and their adorable 20 month old son, and buy a car.

HATTEN, GERMANY

Boy, does it rain a lot here in February!

We’ve only been here a week, but D & K’s assistance has already been invaluable. First, they helped us get our EU digital COVID passports — essentially a QR code app that has been asked for at every indoor restaurant and event we’ve been to and that we were told were impossible for non-EU citizens to get. We’ve found that our vaccination cards from CVS have been accepted, but the QR code is so much more durable, convenient, and easy. D went to a pharmacy on his way to work one day and asked if they could do it for us. When we went down later that day, the employee had to get management’s permission but in the end we were digitized without a hitch.

Next, K made an appointment for us with her German veterinary clinic and came to the appointment with us as translator and facilitator. We were not only able to get our dogs their updated vaccinations and monthly heartworm and flea & tick meds (which were cheap by U.S. standards!), but K also helped us get EU pet passports. The pet passports hold all the dog’s information including name and contact info of the owner, microchip number, and a record of all vaccination dates. They don’t expire and will make border crossings so much easier. The USDA-APHIS paperwork combined with our U.S. veterinary records were confusing and time-consuming for the respective authorities to decipher, and are now thankfully a thing of the past.

Thirdly, today they helped us buy a car!!!

Negotiating German websites (even using browser translate) to find information we used to know how to find easily via Kelly Bluebook and Edmunds like crash test data, vehicle reviews, and value-for-cost ratios was the first hurdle. We did get a lot of info from UK sites, in English, but with such a dizzying amount of information on models and specs that we are unfamiliar with, even the most basic research to try to determine a suitable, safe, and reliable car was difficult in its own right. Add in trying to figure how to test drive, ask relevant questions, agree on a fair price, pay for a car and then get it registered and insured — all in a foreign language!?! That would have been completely out of reach for us without D & K’s help. Thank you SO MUCH guys!!

<FIRST IMPRESSIONS: GERMANY>

We flew into Hamburg and fortunately D was there to greet us right away and helped us get the dogs, dog crates, and luggage into his car. He found us trying to push a dog crate (with the dog in it and a roll-aboard suitcase on top of it) across the baggage claim area and through a revolving door to the pick-up area. Remember earlier in this post when we mentioned the need to stow a knife in your checked baggage? Without a knife, we couldn’t break the corner zip ties on the dog crates; without the ability to get the dogs out of the crates, we had to move them inside the crates (heavy!!); without a second euro for the rental of a second luggage cart, we had one dog-in-crate on a luggage rack with backpacks piled on top and one dog-in-crate with luggage piled on top that we needed to push across the floor. Needless to say, this experience reinforced our decision that we needed to buy a car!!

Dog-at-airport experience aside, in many ways life in Germany feels very similar to life in the U.S. The pace, the rules, the driving, the stores, the layout of items within stores, etc., all feel very familiar. But there are still some quirks:

  • Grocery carts (not just airport luggage carts) require a token or a one euro coin to unlock and use, which you get back when you return the cart. Keep your coins handy, especially since it rains a lot here and you’ll get wet while figuring it out.
  • Speed traps by radar are abundant. It’s a good thing you can download free radar detector apps because otherwise it’d be mighty easy to get zapped with heavy fines. The system tags you, sends the ticket to your address, and adds cost and hassle to your insurance rates, even to the point of license suspension…beware!
  • Many people get around by bicycle here, even in winter. It’s nice to see, but keep an eye out as the cyclists don’t seem to stop for pedestrians and can be quite vocal about telling you to stay out of their way.
  • The cities, towns, and even subdivisions we saw all seemed to be designed with walking in mind, which we love! There are pathways and cut-throughs just for walkers and cyclists. The subdivision that D and K live in is very cute with narrow alleyways and walkways for pedestrians linking crooked streets. It is obviously a relatively new build, but with houses facing different directions and the mix of single-family and townhouse-style buildings, it feels far from the planned developments in U.S. suburbs. that make it fun to walk around. Houses face different directions and are of the townhouse style.
  • The U.S. could learn from Germany regarding paving. The brick streets here are not bumpy nor misshapen due to frost heaves or underground roots — all the bricks stay level and true.
  • We’re having trouble figuring out European pharmacies, and this was reinforced during our stay in Germany. Years ago they used to have antibiotics over the counter, but now even your multivitamins, aspirin, and contact lens solution are behind the counter. Also, vitamin availability is not at the same level as it is in the States. Europeans must be stunned when they walk into any U.S. drugstore and find out how many things that they want are readily available, in large quantity, and with multiple options.
  • Bacon. We just don’t get it. Most stores we’ve seen are basically either selling bacon that is thinly sliced like charcuterie and in a package containing only ten pieces (about one-third the amount in an American package of bacon), or sold in a hunk (and a small hunk at that) that you are then somehow supposed to slice. Or maybe it’s for soup?  In Portugal, what was labeled as bacon was often just ham slices and not bacon at all.
  • When you rent an apartment in Germany, it most often comes without any of what we’d consider the basics of a kitchen! Instead, you have to buy and install the entire kitchen — sink, counters, appliances, cabinets, etc. When you leave, you take it all with you.

While in Germany we had the opportunity to take a quick side trip into Gronigen, The Netherlands. More about that trip in another post!

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