In Europe, it’s NOT “All about the base”

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

I would like to stay “on topic” and discuss only the fun stuff that relates to European travel, customs and cultures, but occasionally there's info to share with military families who are planning to PCS to Germany, or have recently arrived and are still acclimating. Since it's a little longer than most posts, you might want to jump to specific areas of interest.


Stateside friends and family; although this post targets military families, it does include some interesting tidbits about what it's like for Americans living in Germany!


Where you choose to live may be directly associated with why you’re here. If you are an active duty family, odds are you either live “on base” or very near the base due to children who will attend schools on base. On the other hand, if you are active duty without children, a GS employee or contractor, there’s a good chance you will opt for off-post housing.


Regardless of where you live, I encourage you to explore all the darling towns that are within an arms’ reach! When we lived in the KMC (Kaiserslautern Military Community) 2008-2012, we encountered many Americans who were intimidated by venturing too far off the military bases. I can’t stress enough that the whole benefit of being here is to immerse yourself in the culture! If you’re going to do everything on base, you might as well be anywhere in the states! Go out and see what living in Europe is like! Make friends, learn a bit of the language, drink their drinks, eat their foods, shop in their stores, explore their many walking paths and parks, learn about their history, adapt to what’s unique about their lifestyle, celebrate their traditions, explore the countryside and cityscapes, and by all means….travel to other parts of Germany and Europe!


Afraid you might not be able to effectively communicate due to the language barrier? If you live or travel within any area where there’s a US military base, you will find an abundance of German’s who can communicate in English. Most retailers depend upon revenue generated by the military presence, so they have adapted. Even when you venture further, many Germans have learned English as their second language. And one of the first things you should do upon your arrival (or even before) is to install some translation apps on your smart phone. Although most restaurant staff can communicate in English, it is much less common for them to offer menus in both languages. Your translation app will be a huge help.


IT’S NOT “ALL ABOUT THE BASE”


First, for the newcomers, let’s clarify that the term “On the economy” means shopping and/or obtaining services locally in Germany, as opposed to “on base”.


Let’s talk about shopping!

When you shop off base, you are going to want a size conversion table handy until you become comfortable knowing your European sizes. I recommend installing a smart phone app that allows you to easily choose your categories (see left). However, most clothing includes tags to show sizes for various countries.




Cars!


Please see my previous post on German Automobiles regarding your ability to purchase vehicles while you’re here. There are some advantages!


Other large purchases:


Whether it’s new furniture, a motorcycle, or any other large purchase, please see your VAT (Value Added Tax) office on post for special VAT forms that allow you to purchase tax-free. Those forms are different from the "normal VAT forms" that allow you to purchase electronics, clothing, and pay for services tax-free.


Use of VAT forms


Since you have to purchase the VAT forms, it’s worth weighing how you use them If you spend $50 to purchase 10 VAT forms ($5 each*), before you use one on a purchase of €120 (for example), determine how much the VAT form will save you (19%) and whether it’s worth applying at VAT to that purchase, or if it would be smarter to save it for items/services where the VAT form will grant you larger savings. I believe the most VAT forms allocated to any one family at a time is ten, but if you use a portion of those ten, you can turn in the used forms for more. These are not to be confused with the special VAT forms (NF-2 VAT) for large purchases (anything over $2500, like motorcycles, furniture, boats, RVs, etc.)


During much of 2020, the German government reduced the sales tax to 16% to help relieve the COVID-19 economic burden, and to possibly entice sales during a weakened economy. The current tax rate in Germany will be a consideration when calculating whether to apply your VAT form. Please note that the 19% savings indicated above refers to “normal times”.


*A discount is available only for new arrivals and first time only; $40 for 10 forms. For more information about VAT forms and how to use them, click here.


Clothing

Depending upon your nearest large (or even semi-large) city, you are likely to find many stores you recognize, like H&M, New Yorker, Sally’s Beauty Supply, and TK Maxx (same as TJ Maxx in the US!). But even if you don’t live near a town that has those stores, almost all German towns have locally owned boutiques with darling fashions, and it’s likely those branded stores you recognize are only a short drive or train ride away.


Speaking of the boutiques, there seems to be a lot of lingerie boutiques in the mid-large sized towns. It’s kind of funny to see Victoria Secret style lingerie AND the stuff your great grandma sleeps in……..both displayed in the same store front! And one specific brand (Tschibo) also sells coffee, so you can get your exotic lingerie and your coffee beans in a single stop!


Of course, you also have the option to shop for clothes at the PX.


A side note: since Germany’s winters are usually longer with more snow than many of us are accustomed to (depending upon where you live/lived in the states), their stores have way better options (quantity, quality, variation, style) for severe weather outer wear, including ski pants, shoes, gloves, hats.


Shoes

Personally, I find that European shoes are made much better, are much kinder to my feet, and last way longer! So, although you can easily purchase shoes at the PX, there are also great options on the economy! Seriously, most towns have enough shoe stores to make them competitively priced, and most have an awesome selection of styles for every season. Perhaps due to their longer winters, women will find way more darling options for high quality boots and booties on the economy.


If you’re into shoes like Birkenstocks, you can find them everywhere here because they are made here. If you prefer a European brand known for its comfort and durability, you will also find the Dansko brand readily available. However, I have found that even the shoes with no recognizable brand name are really well-made, stylish and extremely comfortable.


Electronics


This is one to watch out for! If you purchase on the economy, there’s a good chance it’s going to be ONLY 220 and not usable when you return to the states. If you only care about it being useful over the length of your assignment here, no problem.


On the other hand, items you purchase at the PX might be ONLY 110 volts, because families who live on base have access to 110 plugs; those items would have a longer life because you can use them when you return to the states, but aren't likely to get much use off base because it's very rare to find an off-base home that has 110 or both.


The PX often has SOME items marked DUAL VOLTAGE (usually has a sticker that says 110/220 to stand out from the 110 only items). Those items would obviously also be usable in both countries.

Likewise, depending upon what you’re purchasing, many of the German stores (especially in close proximity to US military bases in Europe) have some dual voltage items. For example, higher-end furniture stores that sell recliners often offer dual voltage options that would provide use beyond your time in Europe.


Since most stateside electronics retailers offer German brands (LG, Bosch) you will be familiar with many brands found on the economy, as well as other German brands like Braun and Siemens; also the brands manufactured in other countries like Samsung, Apple, Bose. My personal recommendation before purchasing is to do your due diligence; research availability, features, warranties, and cost of the same (or very similar) item at the PX verses stores on the economy. Sometimes one or the other will have a great sale that’s not available at the other.


If you are nearing the end of your assignment here, a benefit to purchasing from the PX is that if something goes wrong with it, you will still be able to return/exchange it at any AAFES location, even stateside. Since most warranties in Germany require you to return it to the retailer where you purchased it, once you are stateside you won’t have that option on electronics you purchased on the economy.


Unless you are not only new to Germany, but also new to the military, you are probably already familiar with the Bookoo Yard Sale sites. Many newcomers prefer to find their nearest Bookoo site to purchase 220 appliances because they only need them to last for the duration of their assignment, and the prices are sometimes close to FREE! People who are PCSing OUT of Germany have transformers, converters, irons, vacuum cleaners blow dryers, curling irons, treadmills, and many other electronics that are 220 they need to dispose of before leaving Europe. Most of them have only been used for 3 years and still have a lot of life left in them………..unless they also purchased from Bookoo when they arrived:)


Another great source are the Thrift Stores on military bases. Many people donate their used electronics (as well as clothes, children’s toys, baby equipment, books, and much more) to the Thrift Stores during their stay, and especially when they are about to leave. Those reusable items are very economically priced. I’ve heard many people say that’s where they purchased their 220 adapters and converters, and even pre-lit Christmas trees!


Groceries


This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine! While I’m grateful for the privilege of shopping at the Commissary, there’s a few issues. Most of these may be unique to Grafenwoehr and/or Vilseck; we didn’t notice these things to be true when we lived in the KMC from 2008-2012.


Expiration dates at the commissary mean very little. Yes, I know they are supposed to have one isle designated for items with a short shelf life left, but we have purchased from many areas of the commissary only to find we have a day or two to use before it’s expired. It’s particularly bad with things like cottage cheese, sour cream or cream cheese, but we’ve even bought soups that have a very short shelf life. I don’t know what’s up with that, but we have become extremely careful about checking expiration dates on EVERYTHING we purchase from the Commissary.

They are convenient for brands we grew up using; those which are standard in US grocery stores, but the German stores usually have either the same or a German version of the same product….sometimes even better! For example, I don’t think the Commissary can even come close to being as good as the German Bakeries (Bäckerei) or Butcher Shops (Metzgerei). Although there are lots of freestanding bakeries and butcher shops, most large German grocery stores have both inside their stores too. While in the states we are content with Johnsonville Brats, but when you’re living in GERMANY, why would you?!?!?!? We also find the produce at German stores to be much fresher than at the Commissary.


In fact, almost every German town (regardless of size) has a nearby fresh produce market at least once a week; some even more frequently. The only thing that’s more difficult to find in German produce is the small GREEN asparagus, since they prefer the fat white!


Check out this video; she's done a really nice job of walking you through a German grocery store, although I THINK the grocery store she's in (REAL) is the only kind that has an upstairs like shown here. (I also encourage you to visit her YouTube Channel site because they have been here longer and have had the opportunity to do far more travel that they have documented!)


Alcoholic Beverages


This is a no-brainer! Not only do the German beverage markets (huge stores that carry nothing but beverages!!!) have all the German brands of beer you’re dying to try, but they (and the grocery stores) have a huge variety of wine, liqueurs, and liquors, including the brands to which you’ve grown accustomed……….for MUCH LESS!! Even if you convert the € to $, it’s still cheaper to buy on the economy than on base (Class 6 or Shoppette)!! And if you’re looking for something produced in Germany (like Jagermeister, many varieties of schnapps or brandy like Asbach Uralt), it is definitely less expensive in the German stores.


From the abundance of vineyards, wineries and breweries in Germany to the shorter distance to transport into Germany (from other great wineries and breweries in neighboring countries), the variety of wine and the far less expensive cost makes wine a big seller here.

I’ve heard it said that it’s cheaper to buy beer than water in Belgium, and cheaper to by wine than water in Spain! I wouldn’t go that far, but seriously, you can purchase a mid-quality wine here for €3-€5! You WILL pay much more for it on base!


For the same size bottle of Amaretto DiSaronno, the Shoppette sells for $22, I can buy on the economy for €14 (which equates to less than 17 US dollars!) The same is true for Baileys, Kahlúa, etc. Certainly, it’s true for Dooley’s since its produced in Germany.


If you live in the Rhineland Pfalz (which includes everyone in the KMC area), and you take a winery cruise along the Rhine or Mosel Rivers, or a bus trip to the wineries, you will be fully entertained, and can mix and match a case of wine………….and use a VAT form to get it tax-free!


Home Repairs


Yes, the PX/BX will have your basics; things most military families need to set up their new living space, as well as outdoor living equipment and camping gear. But if you live off post and can’t wait for your landlord to fix something that needs immediate attention, there are stores on the economy that are set up very much like Lowes and Home Depot where you can find anything you need. This is one of those areas where your location will probably make the decision for you. A good example is German style curtains for all your windows; AAFES will have a limited selection with the bare minimum of accessories to get them hung. But if you really want to immerse yourself in the German culture, and perhaps go above and beyond the basic, those “Home Depot” type of stores on the economy will offer some amazing options.


Bicycles

As you might have guessed, bicycles are a HUGE part of the European culture; people not only ride them for exercise, but it’s the primary means of transportation for many who don’t need to travel very far to shop for anything. Most have some type of basket or carrier attached for easy transport of their goods. But there are also paths all over the country for walking/bicycling and they are usually packed when the weather is nice. You can find a decent variety of bikes at the PX/BX for adults and children; however, the German bicycles shops have the cream of the crop when it comes to bikes and accessories! If you’re looking for a bargain to get you and your family through your few years in this country, and assuming you don’t race for sport, AAFES is a good option; much better prices! But if you want to see the high-end bikes (many of which are motorized), they are easy to find on the economy! Check out your nearest CUBE store if you’ve never really had sticker-shock as it relates to bicycles!! It’s a German-made high-end bicycle that I’m guessing is 1) a status symbol and 2) geared towards professional cyclists! They can run between $5,000-$7,000 even at a discounted bike shop!


Fresh Flowers

I can’t speak for all AAFES locations in Germany (I think Ramstein might actually have a florist in their PX; not sure anymore since COVID closures), but in Bavaria there are no florists on base. However, almost every single Saturday you can buy them from kiosks in a nearby town, and most grocery stores have a pretty good selection. The best source I’ve found are the local Garten Zentrums (Garden Centers), which are just fun to stroll through for landscaping ideas, holiday décor, etc.


Online Shopping

I have to admit I am not nearly as familiar with other sources for online shopping in Germany, but I’m quite familiar with Amazon.de (the Germany sister to Amazon.com). It works exactly the same as in the states, and in your browser you can click on the flag at the top to change the language to English from the dropdown list, making it extremely easy to search/shop their site. Military families have the advantage of shopping from either Amazon site, if you live off base and have a German street address; the difference is that items purchased on Amazon.com will be shipped to your CMR address (on base) and items purchased on Amazon.de will be delivered to your German street address through the German post, DHL, Hermes, etc. Assuming what you want to purchase is in stock at both, items purchased on Amazon.de will obviously reach you faster!


A little side note for those at home! If your spouse typically picks up the mail/shipments from the on-base post office, and frequently asks “Now, what did you order?!?” , you can avoid that question by using Amazon.de and having it arrive at your German street address:)


Caution: If you have a US Amazon Prime account and you access it in Germany, you are seeing all of your Prime TV viewing options in ENGLISH! When shopping on Amazon.de, and offered the opportunity to sign up for Prime for a free trial, DON’T DO IT unless you’re prepared for all your viewing options to appear on your devices in Deutsch!! It happens so quickly after you hit that “try Prime for free” button, that it will take a while for you to realize why it’s now all in Deutsche. If there’s a way to have a Prime account in both locations and keep your devices displaying options in English, I’m not aware of it and welcome your comments on how to do that!


Vitamins/Supplements


We are not supposed to be shipping vitamins, supplements or prescription drugs into Germany; you will see notices at the post office on base to that effect. But the good news is that vitamins and supplements are often (not always!) less expensive in Germany than in the US (including AAFES locations). You can purchase them online or at a Mueller’s type store (like an elaborate Walgreens!).

"Many of the products to which you are accustomed are available on the economy and you might even find some bargains that you won’t find online or on base. Eucerin and Nivea are German products so you will find those everywhere; often less expensive.

Cosmetics and Hair Products

Many of the products to which you are accustomed are available on the economy and you might even find some bargains that you won’t find online or on base. Eucerin and Nivea are German products and Cereve is made just across the border, in Austria, so you will find those everywhere; and often less expensive.


However, because we are creatures of habit, and some of us like sticking with our US based products, and instructions we don’t have to translate, AAFES will be your best bet for those.

But don’t be afraid to explore solutions available at German stores that specialize in face and body care, or hair products your German hair stylists might recommend. If you find one you love, you just might find it for less on Amazon.de.


Now, on to Services


This will depend upon the type of town you live in, or how close you are to a mid-sized town. We are fortunate enough to have ALL services (I mean ALL) right inside the city center where we live. If you live on base, it’s probably easier to use the barber and hair salons inside the AAFES facility, but if you live off post, you can easily find extremely qualified English-speaking providers, from hair salons/barbers, tailors/seamstresses, and dry cleaners to nail salons, shoe repair shops and upholstery shops.


Of course, other services (like carpenters, electricians, plumbers) are also available and will come to your home, but they are not as likely to speak fluent English; and many do, but act like they don't! If you ask when they will be back to finish, there's a good chance they won't comprehend, but if you ask them how much you owe them, they will have no problem telling you! :)


Optic Shops

There are so many Optic (Optik) shops in any mid-large size German town that I wonder how there can possibly be enough business to support all of them! You might wonder if it’s better to use the optic shops on base, which is a personal call. However, I can tell you most of the German optic shops have English-speaking staff and can fill prescriptions; they also appear to have more name brand styles of glasses. And if you need an eye exam, it’s easy to get one there.


Physicians & Dentists


Of course, if you are an active duty military family, you have access to on base clinics or medical centers for medical care, vaccinations, dental care, etc. But depending upon your location and how overwhelmed those facilities are, often Retirees, GS employees and Contractors must use off-post providers. Everyone (regardless of status) can get their Rx filled at the pharmacies on base, unless you've seen a German doc who writes a script for a drug they don't carry (See Apotekes below).


If you are in (or near) a mid-large size German city, most Physicians, Dentists (as well as veterinarians), and Hospitals have English-speaking staff. From personal experience, the ability for HOSPITAL staff to communicate in English is hit or miss. I had surgery at a hospital in the KMC and had no problem at all communicating. However, my husband spent several days in a German hospital in Bavaria where the communications left a lot to be desired.*


*Please note; If you end up in a German hospital, there is SUPPOSED to be a patient liaison assigned to you so that there is no communication gap regarding their treatment, prognosis, and after-care! The liaisons should be notified that you’ve been admitted and should reach out to you, but sometimes that doesn’t happen as smoothly as it should. If the hospital has an abundance of US military related patients, the priority for the liaisons is active duty, spouse of active duty, retirees, GS employees, contractors. If you need a patient liaison, you should contact the clinic on the base to which you are assigned to inquire about how to obtain one. The way the liaison program works can vary depending upon the part of Germany where you are assigned, so the best solution is to contact your US base clinic for assistance.


There is a difference in German physicians and their capabilities. Most of the people I know who are living here, who cannot be seen on base, have English-speaking German doctors whom they trust to manage all their needs, and who will refer them to specialists as needed. Those doctors are “the norm”. However, there are also doctors near US military bases that we refer to as “the pill doctors”! If you cannot be seen by a physician on base and haven’t been here long enough to secure a German doctor, and you have no refills remaining on your prescription, the pharmacy might refer you to that “pill doctor”. Most just charge you €10 for the convenience, and might ask you a few questions about your medical record before handing you a new script, but rarely will they check your BP. I suppose they CAN send you for labs and administer flu shots, but personally I would only use the “pill doctor”……..for pills! Seek referrals from sponsors, friends, co-workers for trusted English-speaking healthcare providers unless all you ever need is a new script!

German Surgeons and Specialists

If you do not live near Landstuhl Regional Medical Center or you are not eligible to receive treatment there, and you need surgery, you are likely to have questions. I have heard of Americans PCSing back to the states because they need surgery or a procedure and just feel more comfortable doing that in their own country; some feel American surgeons are more qualified, but often those are unfounded assumptions. I know quite a few Americans who have been living in Germany a long time who are as comfortable having surgery performed here as in the states. In fact, one of my close friends living in Germany has been at her husband’s side through surgeries on base and on the economy - surgeries at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (American surgeons) while he was still eligible, as well as many at German hospitals in the KMC. I am hoping she has the time to weigh in on her opinion or comparison of the quality, results, and communications.


You may find helpful information on this topic here.


I have personally had sinus surgery at a German hospital as well as dental surgery and was quite pleased with both. As a matter of fact, my ENT, my Dentist (who was US Military, retired here, and now offers his services on the economy) and my anesthesiologist were all extremely qualified and spoke impeccable English!


Speaking of the Anesthesiologist (my personal favorite part of any hospital procedure:), in Germany (unless an Emergency situation, of course) your Anesthesiologist requires an office visit prior to your scheduled surgery to review your medical history, potential drug allergies, etc. This is very unlike surgeries in the U.S. where you typically meet your anesthesiologist a moment or two before he/she knocks you out, and there’s a good chance you will never see them again! Although it may take an extra hour out of your day, I liked the personal touch in Germany - the practice of meeting in advance; it just made me feel that they weren’t trusting my health to the assumed accuracy of the records my physician shared with them.


Pharmacies (Apothekes)

These are as prevalent throughout Germany as the Optic Shops! In many cities, there’s one on almost every corner. Some are larger and carry high-end cosmetics and other health-related merchandise, but all can fill prescriptions, and many speak English. When will you need to use them? Whenever your German healthcare provider writes a script for a medication not carried at the pharmacy on base.


Converting Currency

When we moved to Germany the first time (2008) we spent way more time converting currency to determine how much US money we were actually spending when we made a purchase using Euros. But after the first year, we kind of stopped bothering and just started treating Euros like Dollars. For the most part, after you’re here for a while, it’s not that you don’t care; it’s that you always know the approximate difference and calculate it into your decisions about spending.


Certainly, if you’re making a large purchase (high-end electronics, automobile, motorcycle, furniture, etc.) you will want to do the math to determine how much you are paying in US dollars based on the currency conversion so that you know if you can find it cheaper elsewhere.


Whether you live on base or not, I have found the best way to learn about Germany outside of the post gates, is to join Facebook groups who share photos, recommendations for restaurants, doctors, etc. To be honest, I was very late to the game as it relates to Facebook; just didn’t have the need…………..until we arrived here this time! These groups were my key to finding my way around, and to asking questions and getting answers. Since the members are other Americans, they have been where you are and offer assistance. Or maybe you want help from other English-speaking members (not necessarily Americans) who may have more experience in towns further from a US military installation, you might look for groups geared towards Expats living in Germany. At the very least, I recommend you look for a fb group whose members know more about the military community you live in than you do! Your military command is also likely to have a fb site you will want to follow to stay informed about post activities/closures, etc.


Example of helpful Facebook Groups that probably mimic some of those in your area!

Love Germany Group

Americans in Germany

Americans Living in Southern Germany

Expats in Germany

Expats Move To Germany


I'm extending an open invitation to friends/subscribers who, because they grew up in Germany or have been living here a lot longer than we have, to either correct anything I've said, or to share additional info. Comments are ALWAYS welcome!