Friday, June 12, 2015

Photo Locations

Wasserturm during Karneval/Fastnacht (in February)
Wasserturm in Spring

This is the Wasserturm in Mannheim. It's one of the prettiest locations in Mannheim, and it's certainly gorgeous in the spring time. During the winter, the fountains are off, and there aren't flowers. It's definitely a great place to take any relatives that come to visit, and when it gets warmer, you should definitely go organize a picnic there. I'd also recommend bringing a frisbee or something to throw around when the weather is warm as well.
Wasserturm in Winter

Travel Tip #4: Traveling

I'm sure if you've picked Mannheim, or even Germany as your study abroad destination, it could partially be because Germany is rather central in terms of location, and therefore easier (somewhat) to get to your dream destinations. And part of the excitement of being abroad is traveling to tons of different cultures, and expanding your horizons. So I'm going to provide you with some tips I've learned to hopefully make your time a little easier. If you weren't planning on traveling at all, I would highly recommend you reconsider. I think traveling (even as stressful as it can be) was a really good and fun experience.


First off, make a list of places you REALLY want to go. For example, my one dream destination was London, so obviously it always topped my list. If you have a certain goal you want to obtain, make sure to note that as well. I wanted to be able to go to at least 10 countries in Europe and so I also made note of that. With Mannheim, you get around 3 weeks off for Easter (sadly I don't know of any breaks for Fall semester so keep that in mind!), so I would suggest planing (and budgeting) for most of your travel time then. If you're not in a rush to leave after lectures/exams end, you can also plan for traveling then (it's probably the best time since you'll have no academic responsibilities to head back to). Keep in mind that you might not be able to get to all of your destinations, so try for the ones you really wish to go to.

Secondly, look into hostels/hotels ASAP! I would recommend hostels because they are cheaper, but maybe if you're traveling with parents/relatives, you would want a hotel. Hostels are usually set up so you can have many choices in terms of rooms. You can rent out a private room, or you can pick a bed in a mixed dorm (usually ranging from 4-12+ people) or female and male dorms (also ranging from around 4-9+). If you're not interested in being in the same hostel room with people of the opposite sex, then I'd recommend the dorms for only your gender. However, I've only stayed in mixed hostel rooms and they've turned out pretty well. Make sure you know what you're comfortable with in terms of the number of people you're staying with. For example, in Barcelona, I stayed in a 12 person mixed dorm, and while nothing bad happened, it was simply too many people to be with. Especially since some groups would go out at night, and come back early in the morning. Thankfully I am a heavy sleeper, but if you're a light sleeper this wouldn't be ideal. If you're traveling with friends, you can all stay in the same hostel room even if you've booked it separately. Just make sure you book it early enough (basically when you get your plane/train/bus tickets and know a concrete time). To save money in the more expensive places, such as Amsterdam, you can try to organize your bus trip so you take an overnight bus/train/whatever, stay one night and then take an overnight back the next day. Although it can be tiring, it's certainly a way to save money. Sometimes hostels have showers in the room, and sometimes they're shared in a hallway with others as well. Keep this in mind too! It's almost like a shared dorm bathroom so shower shoes are always great to wear. I've never dealt with nasty bathrooms in hostels but they exist! I usually brought my own lock for the lockers, but in some hostels you can borrow one (there might be a deposit).

My third piece of advice is figure out what you want to do in the place you're traveling. There are tons of websites that allow you to do this, but one of my personal favorites is Atlas Addict. Located at this website, it contains tons of travel guides as well as pictures so you can get a good feel of the area you're wishing to visit. I would HIGHLY recommend at least having a plan. While traveling with friends, one of them made a list that was extremely helpful. It contained:

  • The address of our hostel/hotel, and the ways to get there. I can't stress how important it is to make sure where you're staying is at least a reasonable distance away from either the city center, or where you'll be spending most of your time exploring. There's no need to spend money on a taxi if there's an easier (and cheaper) way. This is also helpful for if your phone dies.
  • List of monuments/sites that we collectively created. this also had the addresses of the places, just in case we needed to ask around
  • A few helpful phrases in the language of the area. While it isn't necessary to be fluent in a language for a weekend trip, it's important to learn a few phrases to be considerate. The most important phrases are thank you, please, and excuse me. You'll most likely use those the most, and they are just a polite way to try to connect to the people you're interacting with. They'll appreciate your effort in trying. 
It might seem like a lot of effort, but in the end it'll be worth it. Also try to figure out what restaurants around you that might be within your budget. You don't want to accidentally get stuck in a restaurant that's too expensive.

One special travel tip I have is to take as many photos/videos as you can. Whether it's through an iPhone, Canon/Nikon, polaroid, or film camera, make sure to try to document as much as you can. You'll thank yourself for saving all the memories. I created a video at the end of my exchange, and while I had a lot of videos to provide, I always wish I took more so it would be more reflective of my time on exchange. I also regret not starting a travel vlog (which would have been much easier for me than to update a blog), so if that's your kind of thing I'd say go for it!

My final tip is TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE WIFI. There are so many places that offer free wifi, such as Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King, Costa Coffee etc. It will save you on your travel charges based on what phone plan you're using, and it's a good way to load up google maps/whatever traveling app you use to get to your destination.

Some iPhone apps I recommend are:
  • Google Maps, which can show what trains/trams you're going to need, or even just the easiest way to walk to your destination.
  • I really like this app, because you can download the maps of the places you are traveling, and you can use it offline and without wifi (just make sure to download the map first). You can search for what you're looking for and it'll tell you the street it's on/around, as well as allowing you to search for specific things like restaurants. 

Okay so there are tons of options of ways to get around. And I'm just going to talk about which ones I liked the best/didn't like, so maybe you get an idea of what works for you. If you want to figure it all out on your own, feel free! It's always an adventure.

Ryanair was the airline I used to get around Europe. While the flights are pretty cheap (depending on where you're going), the airports are usually inconvenient. The closest Ryanair airports are Baden-Baden and Frankfurt Hahn. I always used Frankfurt Hahn so I don't know how easy it is to get to Baden-Baden. However Frankfurt Hahn is around 2 hours away, and not near the Frankfurt Main Train Station at all (go figure). The best way to get there is by taking the Frankfurt Hahn shuttle bus from Mannheim ZOB (Busbahnhof near the Main Train Station). You can find the bus times here. Keep in mind whether it's the summer timetable or winter one. I didn't like the shuttle bus because sometimes you have to take the bus at 2:30 in the morning for an 8 am flight, and therefore were waiting around in the airport for a while. I would recommend trying to avoid spending 5 hours trying to kill time in an airport like I did (which was horrible), but make sure you get there with enough time so you get through security and to your gate before it closes. Also make sure you check-in/print your tickets off in advance or else it will be a fee. I packed light for Ryanair flights (either my backpack or a small carry-on) so I wouldn't have to worry about waiting for a checked bag once I landed, and so I wouldn't have to pay for a checked bag (sometimes they asked if I wanted to check a bag for free but I still declined). Sometimes the airports in the country you're going to are also out of the way, and require the purchase of bus/train tickets to get to the city center. 
Overall I didn't really like Ryanair that much. Yes it was the cheapest option, but sometimes I felt so inconvenienced by them. For example, getting to the airport was a hassle sometimes, and required an early start and a lot of waiting time in the airport. But also I had a horrible experience with them during my Easter break, in which my flight from Girona to London was delayed 5 hours. Yes they provided me with vouchers, but I had to get a 3:30 am bus to get to the Girona airport, that I ended up not sleeping for a while that day. If you're looking for cheap though, Ryanair is definitely the best. However I would recommend looking into other options (maybe for the sake of convenience and comfort).

The Busbahnhof at Mannheim became my best friend midway through the semester. You can catch Meinfernbus (also known as Flixbus) there, and while a lot of destinations are in Germany, there are some outside that you can get to (like Amsterdam). I rode Meinfernbus on my way to and from Berlin, and I really enjoyed it. They had their own wifi network (which sometimes worked), but once you were connected, it also had the options to watch some movies (all in German though so keep that in mind). It was simple to get to, and the buses usually went to the main bus station at the final destination, which made it easy to figure out where to go next (I don't think all buses go to the main bus station so I'd recommend looking it up). I also took Megabus which I had to travel to Frankfurt in order to catch it (while it seemed like unnecessary traveling, it was rather cheap to travel to where I wanted to go). I didn't mind Megabus, but the wifi was spotty, and sometimes the final locations were a bit out of the way. Buses take a lot longer than flights, but they're certainly cheaper. Make sure to pack food though if you're on the bus for a while, but in some cases there is a vending machine on board that you can purchase coffee from (I believe it was DB buses that have that). As a precaution, print out your bus tickets in advance. Some prefer you to have it in print, rather than loaded on your phone, and it's better to be safe than sorry in my opinion.

I've only traveled by trains to get to places within Germany, and it was relatively easy. I'd recommend downloading the DB app, for it can be rather helpful. You can also have your tickets preloaded on the DB app, which saves you the hassle of having to get it printed out. It tells you what platforms your trains are on, and if you need to catch any connections which for me was rather helpful. Train tickets can be sort of expensive so I'd recommend getting a DB 25 card, which gives you 25% off of train tickets for three months. Just remember to cancel it or else you'll get a new card. While I was in Mannheim, DB was on strike quite a few times, and that affected others traveling, so that could also be something to keep in mind.

Hope this was somewhat informative, and happy traveling :)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Travel Tip #222: Public Transportation/Schwarzfahren

One thing I was looking forward to in Germany was efficient public transportation. I heard so much about how punctual they are, that I was excited with the idea of no late buses or trams. Unfortunately that's been disproven. Sometimes the buses are late, sometimes the buses are early, but most times they run around the schedule time.
There are a few ways to get around Mannheim. They are:
1. Buses: There are many different lines to get around depending on where you're going. If you live in Ulmenweg/Hafenstraße/G7, you'll probably become familiar with the 60 bus which stops at all of those places. Keep in mind that if you live in Ulmenweg your commute to/from school is around 20 minutes, if you start around the Schloss. Getting on the bus is pretty straightforward. You either have a valid ticket, or you buy one from the bus driver which is around €2.40. The bus driver will most likely ask where your final stop is, so make sure you know where you're going. Also if it's after 8pm, the bus driver will stop opening the other doors, so the only way to enter the bus is through the front door. During school hours, the buses can be crowded, but if you're on at an unusual time, you'll be able to get a seat. Keep in mind that the schedule changes depending on the day. For example, if it's Monday-Friday before 7pm, they'll come at the "normal" scheduled time (every 20 minutes). However, on weekends and after 7pm, the schedule changes to every 30 minutes, so make sure you know when your bus comes! If you have an iPhone, I'd recommend getting the rnv/vrn ticket app because it shows the bus schedule. Keep in mind that sometimes the bus drivers will stop for you if they see you running to the bus, and in that case make sure to thank them for doing so.
2. Trams: Trams run more frequently, meaning every 10 minutes during normal hours. If you are out later, the trams begin to run once every hours so keep that in mind if you're planning on staying in the quadrat later than the last bus/tram runs. However, the trams are easy to find, and the stops are rather close together, so if you just miss one, you might be able to make the next stop if you run. There are ticket machines next to almost every tram stop, so if you need to get a ticket those are easy to buy before the tram comes, and make sure to validate them on the tram (the boxes that are present near every door on the tram are the places to validate the tickets). In most cases, you can get to most places easier with a tram. However, if you live in Ulmenweg, you won't have a tram line that goes directly to Ulmenweg (unless they finally finish construction on the tram line that's been under construction for around 2 years). If you need to take the tram, and live in Ulmenweg, the best stop to get off at is Exerzierplatz (which is a stop on the 4 and 5 tram), and then a 10 minute walk to Ulmenweg. It's not ideal, but if the buses aren't running when you want to get back, it's worth it. 
3. Trains: Now the trains I'm talking about are the DB trains that you can catch at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station/HBF). Those trains won't get you around Mannheim, but they certainly will get you out of Mannheim. You can use those trains as ways to travel, if you need to catch a train to Berlin/Munich/wherever you might want to travel. This train will also be your first experience with getting to Mannheim, for you'll most likely grab the ICE train from the Frankfurt airport (if that's the airport you fly into) to Mannheim. You're also a quick train ride away from Heidelberg, which is very pretty, so it's definitely worth it to go. There are different types of trains that you can take from the Mannheim HBF. There are ICE/CE/IC trains, which are usually faster than the other options but the tickets are also more expensive. There's also S/RE trains which are the regional ones, which are the cheaper options but sometimes you have to switch trains multiple times, and takes a significant amount of time. However at the ticket machines at the HBF, there's usually ticket deals, so you and a couple friends can get Baden-Württemberg ticket, which allows you to travel around Baden-Württemberg on regional trains for cheaper than everyone buying an individual ticket. Also near the main train station is the Busbahnhof, which is where you'll catch buses to Frankfurt Hahn, or any meinfernbus/flixbus.
Depending on where you're living, you'll probably end up buying a semester ticket. While it is €150, which definitely will put a bit of a dent in your first week expenses, it'll be worth it. With the semester ticket, you'll be able to use the transportation systems all around Mannheim/Heidelberg/anywhere with a RNV/VRN system. You can also go in a 50 kilometer radius around Mannheim with the DB trains, which is great fi you want to explore the little towns around the area. Semester tickets usually start on the first of the month in which the semester officially starts, which is not ideal for those arriving early for IWA/ISA. While I've heard of some friends who got their semester tickets to start immediately, a majority of people I know didn't. So what you'll need to do is ask for an month long ticket that'll let you get around Mannheim for the month before your semester ticket starts. It'll be around another €50ish-60 euros, but you'll want to have it since it'll be better than buying €2.40 tickets every time you want to ride anywhere. It seems like a lot of costs upfront but it's worth it if you're here for 5 months. If you're studying in Mannheim for a year, don't buy a semester ticket. You'll get one for free at K7 when you register, so don't waste unnecessary funds if you don't have to.
If you think that you'll be able to get around Mannheim without ever buying a ticket, you're completely wrong. And I do NOT advise you do it. You will get caught. It's called Schwarzfahren and it's not okay. Bus drivers make you show them the ticket, and you'll get a surprise ticket checker on the trams every once and a while. If you're caught without a ticket, you will be cornered by people asking you why, and you'll be fined €40. So in reality, it's very much worth it because with every time you're checked for a ticket it could be a €40 fine instead, so the amount you save by not being fined adds up. This also goes for having the right tickets. Make sure if you're riding on an ICE/CE/IC train, you have the appropriate tickets, which are different than regional trains. If the ticket checkers notice that you got on the wrong train, they will fine you. Make sure you're polite to them because they are only doing their job. So if you're planning a trip with some switch overs, make sure that you know what train you're supposed to go on. 
It's super important that you know how to get around Mannheim, as well as making sure you're not breaking any laws, and receiving any unnecessary fines that could have been avoided.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Travel Tip #1: Traveling around Germany with little knowledge of German

If you've read the title and realized this applies to you, I must commend you on your courage. It is incredibly brave of you to go off and have to deal with little to no knowledge of the words around you.
Now luckily I've been fortunate to have taken German for years, both at high school and university. If possible, I would recommend finding German/Whatever language courses, but it can be tough to fit those in last minute.
Thankfully due to modern technology, there are a lot of apps you can get your phone that can help you learn a language. My personal favorite is Duolingo, which is easily found in the app store. It gives you certain word categories, such as groceries or clothing, as well as grammar structures. It encourages you to practice every day to strengthen your skills, and review categories that have weakened. It also accesses your microphone so you can practice saying the words out loud. I highly recommend this app but make sure you keep up with it!
There's also a lot of websites that help you look up certain words you may be struggling with. I recommend because it's proven to be the most accurate in specific words. Google translate fails to be grammatically correct, so I would recommend avoiding it as much as possible. You can obviously use Google translate to get the meaning out of the sentence you're struggling with, but I wouldn't recommend using it for any German assignments you have to do.
Here are some of the most important German phrases (in my opinion) that you should definitely try to learn:
Danke: thank you. this is super important because it's always good to know how to say thank you. you can make it more kinder by saying danke schön, which roughly translates to "thank you very much"
Bitte: this means "please" in most contexts, and "you're welcome" in others (usually if it's following "danke" then it's "you're welcome")
Ich spreche kein Deutsch: this translates to "I don't speak any German". This will be very helpful if someone comes up to you speaking German, and you aren't sure what they're saying
Sprechen Sie Englisch?: this translates to "Do you speak English?". This is the more formal contraction of the sentence because it's kinder to be too polite than informal. This is especially helpful if you are trying to speak to a cashier or some one in a shop or something

The most important thing when it comes to speaking German is to try to speak in spite of mistakes. I've been held back by too many fears about speaking wrong that I never felt I improved until I had to take that risk. For the most part, you'll be happy that you did.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Welcome to Murphy's Law

I'm sure many of you have heard about Murphy's Law. For those of you who haven't, it goes something like this, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong"
It's rather terrifying to imagine everything going wrong, and not knowing what to do about it, especially when you've relocated to another city (most likely) abroad. But that's why this blog was created. Throughout the next five months I'll be in Mannheim, I'm going to do my best updating on the worst case scenarios, either experienced by me or my friends, and give you the best advice for dealing with them. Now I'm not necessarily the end-all-be-all of advice, but I know going into studying abroad, I had a lot of questions that I figured out through trial and error. Hopefully I'll be able to give you a nudge in the right direction, and help you feel more confident about your time. 
I'll also be posting the occasional photo, and advice for what to do/what to see/what to eat around Mannheim/Germany, or even other places in Europe. However, this is primarily advice on what to do when everything feels like it's going wrong. 
For the most part, messing up is half the fun.