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Trip Report Sharing the tips from our first-time self-driving in Southern Germany

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Dear travel lovers,

We have had a wonderful trip for our first time traveling Europe (Southern Germany) on our own in early May. I’m so grateful to bettyk, bobthenavigator, iris1745, Suspaul, Holly76 and all others who had helped in responding to my first time online inquiry. Without them, it couldn’t become a nearly perfect trip. In return, I’d like to share my tips with those who need them in their next trip to Europe.

Here is our travel ‘style’: enjoy photograph, enjoy nature, architecture and arts etc.; enjoy some ‘freedom’ and ‘adventure’ by self-traveling; enjoy new experiences in food and culture, prefer to take 10-15 days vacation time with the low to mid-level budget.

1. GPS, Plug adaptor, Maps and Driving.

I ordered the Germany Atlas online for $30 (couldn’t find it in the retail stores in US). You actually could get it in that country at any big gas station for 10-15 Euro if you don’t mind missing a little English for the legend.

To use our laptop in Europe, I realized I needed a plug adaptor last minute before our trip. It’s too late to order online that is cheaper and with many choices. It’s hard to find any in the retailed stores in US and even when you find one (cost $25 or more), it may say: ‘not applicable to computer’. Luckily our first hotel got one to lend, but not the second hotel. We had to use our car charger to charge our camera battery until we bought a little one (2.5 Euro) at the chain store ‘Media Markt’ (didn’t get its meaning at first) which worked perfectly.

I cannot imagine how much harder it would be for us to drive around without a GPS. With a 1:300000 Atlas map, a GPS can help for the small roads that were not labeled on the map. Using the built-in GPS in the rental car, you can take the advantage of its POI (Points of Interest) feature to help you to find nearby TI (Tourist Information) office, Park & Ride, Tourist Attraction etc. But even with the GPS, you might still get disoriented -- A name on the map could be confused with other places (same name) in different areas; When a road is blocked the GPS could get ‘lost’ too; Sometimes you want to avoid certain roads but you cannot let GPS understand you. In addition, it cannot locate the small towns (in grey) on the map… I guess the GPS built-in our rental Mercedes A170 Cdi was less advanced.

Even though the roads were all so well built, driving is still a hard work for us first visitors. But it pays off for random stops, ‘sideway’ trips and a lot of freedom out of fixed bus/train schedules. I’m glad we did it.

In many towns, you can always get a free local map marked with the POI, parking lots and WC when you visit its TI office. But sometimes you just drive around without it to save time.

2. Car rental at the Frankfurt.

Yes, it’s worth taking a short taxi ride to nearby Kelsterbach picking up the rental. Since we had about one hour to spare before the rental office at Kelsterbach opened at 8:00am, we ventured to take the train (2.3 Euro/pp) but we ended up lost in the hard-to-find-people-around and hard-to-find-any-English-speaker suburb. Luckily we met one who could understand us and pointed to the right direction that took us walked about 2 miles dragging our luggage through an open field before we got to the small rental office.

By the time we were happy to find the route to return our car at the airport, I noticed our bill was overcharged 105 Euro after my husband signed the paper without a look – we forgot to fill up the gas! I thought we would go to fill it up after our last stop at Frankfurt downtown for we could always find a gas station on the way. Oddly, it’s not the case in Frankfurt. Once you are on the highway, you don’t see anything until you hit the airport! The AVIS check-up lady didn’t mention a word when she asked for the signature. We actually have three-hour for going out to fill up the gas (cost no more than $30) before taking on the flight! That’s why I called our trip ‘ALMOST’ perfect. People we met in the Germany were all very friendly and helpful, but not this lady who sounded very cold, ‘Sorry, the contract is over!’ when I asked if we could make up for it for we simply overlooked it.

3. Hotel Booking, ATM and AAA international drive license.

I booked 5 out of 6 hotels for our trip from hotel.de that provided large selections and good information at fair price. I booked the one in Austria on their website for they offered discount for 3-night stay.

For we drove about 3000 km in two weeks, staying in one hotel for two nights at least was indeed a good advice.

We have an account at Bank of America (BOA). It’s very easy to find the DUESTCH bank (that BOA affiliates with) cash machine in any major tourist area. It involves only the exchange rate if you withdraw the EURO using the BOA debit card. Sometimes, we have to pay with the VISA card, similar exchange rate, but with additional 2% fee.

My husband paid $15 plus $8 for two photos for the international drive license (valid for a year) from AAA. No one ever asked for it anywhere during our trip. I guess it can be useful only when you get the policemen’s attention.

4. Sightseeing

Starting from Frankfurt, we visited Strasbourg (in France), Baden-Baden*, driving through the Black Forest, stopped at Gutach and Triberg, out of the Black Forest to Meersburg*, Mainau Island*, Konstanz, Fussen (King's Castles), Oberammergau, Schloss Linderhof*, Salzburg, Hallstatt, Berchtesgaden (Konigsee), St. Wolfgangsee*, Munich*, Scholss Nymphenburg, Nordingen, Heidelberg, Bad Wimpfen*, Rothenburg, Wurzburg and Frankfurt downtown.

Even though I don’t drive I couldn’t rest my eyes most of the time on the road for that the view was just too beautiful to be missed (as long as it’s not on the super highway)!

Driving through the winding roads in the Black Forest was beautiful but a bit of ‘heavy’ for the driver. And it took longer time than estimated to get anywhere so we ended up skipped Titsee as planned.

I marked our stops with * where I found exciting to wander around. The Salzburg Cathedral in Salzburg was my favorite too though I didn’t mark on Salzburg. Heidelberg was beautiful but so hard to park and so crowded to drive through that we only visited the old castle. Rothenburg o.d.T seemed the most popular tourists’ spot and I found it very representative for many beautiful towns we passed by, but I’d love more of the other towns that seemed more ‘organic’ to me in a sense.

Munich has it’s own charm, unique as a ‘big city’. The BMW Museum, the Englischer Garten, the Marienplatz were worth visiting. It was amazing to see so many people strolling in Englischer Garten, rather than a conventional ‘garden’ you would imagine, it’s a vast beautifully ‘carved’ area for people to walk, play or lay down, and it has some large open ‘restaurants’ (call it ‘beer garden’) for people to eat and drink. You would have a memorable yummy lunch with beers there indeed. The people and the nature were blended in such a pleasant and harmonious atmosphere, I wish I had more time to wander around.

Southern Germany, it has delicious sausages and beers, it has extremely beautiful land and architectures including numerous castles, and it was extremely peaceful that made me think of the wonderland in a fairy tale.

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