You can get the true basics — like, “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you” — elsewhere online, on language apps, and in phrasebooks. You might already even know these phrases in the language you’re studying. But there are a handful of phrases I’ve found to be incredibly useful across the language spectrum that aren’t as prominent in the variety of language learning tools. Yet somehow knowing how to say “lawyer” is always front and center.
German is a language many North American travelers don’t bother with before traveling to Germany, yet it’s the most spoken language in Europe. There’s the assumption that, “Oh, they speak English,” and it’s true to the extent of the major cities and the tourism sector in those cities. Once you get beyond the hotels, restaurants, and into the small towns, which you’ll almost certainly want to do if go hiking along one of the country’s long-distance premium trails, then some pigeon German will go a long way. Here are the 10 most important German travel phrases.
How to Order in German
Ich hätte gern(e)
You’re in a German-speaking country and need something to eat. Sure, you can just point and smile like a dummy — I’ve certainly been there — but wouldn’t it be nice if you could interact like a human person? The phrase you want here is, “Ich hätte gern(e)” That “e” is in parentheses because some German speakers pronounce it, others don’t. Despite being a language with tons of rules for different situations, this is one instance where German is actually indifferent.
It’s common to be asked if you’re ordering for here or to-go even if you think it’s obvious one way or the other. Listen for, “zum mitnehmen?” with that question mark inflection and you’ll know what they’re asking. Respond, “Hier” if you’re staying put or confirm, “zum mitnehmen.” If you’re ordering and want to beat them to the punch, just point to what you want — either read it off the menu or just say, “Das” — and tell them, “Zum mitnehmen, bitte.”
I used to think Latin Americans (and then Germans and then Europeans in general stand really close together in a line, but I’m starting to think North Americans are the only ones who appreciate personal space. In any event, you’re likely going to be accidentally bumping into people, needing to squeeze through a group or get by that inevitable nitwit with the ginormous suitcase who stops in the middle of the sidewalk and retreats immediately into their phone as if the entire world around them has ceased with them. “Ent-schul-dee-gung” is your word of choice here. It’ll also work to get someone’s attention.
We’ve all been in the spot where someone at a hotel, restaurant, or shop wants to help you but they’re suddenly overwhelmed with a number of requests. They might speak English, but they’ve encountered a linguistic hiccup as they apologetically try to quickly explain that you need to hold on a moment. I’ve always found a smiling, “No rush!” to work well in these situations. Auf Deutsch, you’ll say, “Keine Eile!”
Similar to the latter, I like to reassure people I’m interacting with that I’m not as cold and stiff as speaking in caveman English — that is, short and inadvertently demanding commands — might lead someone to believe. A simple, “no problem!” brings some of your native language personality to any situation where, say, a restaurant lets you know that what you ordered is no longer available, that the hotel needs a few more minutes to prepare your room, or that the shop got the measurements wrong on your custom-made BDSM lederhosen (hey, when in Berlin, right?). Kein Problem!
Have A Nice Day and Goodbye
Schönen Tag noch
You probably know how to say, “Goodbye” in German. Fact is, I’ve heard Heidi Klum say, “Auf Wiedersehen” more on Project Runway (overhearing from my wife’s Netflix-ing, thank you very much) than I actually have in person. Much more commonly I hear, “Schönen Tag noch” followed by a high-pitched, cutesy, “Tschüss!” Bonus points for using, “Gleichfalls” or “Ebenso,” which just mean, “likewise.” Use those if someone says, “Schönen Tag noch” to you first.
I asked a Brit transplant to Germany how to say this during a trip to Eisenach because I’m not a shopper and I never knew what to say when a shop owner asks me if they can help me with anything. You learn in the language apps what they’re saying, “Kann Ich Ihnen helfen?” (Can I help you?), but the rest of what they teach operates on the assumption that you want a tee-shirt or pants or something. Me? I’m stocked up on shirts. So, I wanted to learn how to say what I would say when mistaken for a shopper in an English-speaking country. That is, “Just looking.” In Germany, it’s “Nur schauen.”
Do You Take Credit Card?
Nehmen Sie Kreditkarte?
German-speaking countries are still cash countries to the frustration of many non-Eurozone travelers. This topic can be an article in and of itself, so we’ll stick to the linguistic practicality of the situation here. If you’re heading to a restaurant and want to know in advance if they take credit card, simply ask, “Nehmen Sie Kreditkarte?” Even if you don’t nail the pronunciation, they’ll likely at least understand, “Kreditkarte” and know what you’re ultimately asking. Listen for, “Nur Bar,” which means, “Only cash.”
I Have/We Have A Reservation
Ich habe/Wir haben eine Reservierung
This phrase will get you through hotel and restaurant reservations. Again, you’ll likely be fine with English in the major cities. But if you’re going hiking through some small German towns — which you 100 percent must — English speakers are fewer and farther between. So, when you waddle into your hotel after 10-15 miles of hiking, you’re going to want a relatively seamless, basic German conversation. Start with your polite, basic pleasantries and let them know you have a reservation. You can preempt the rest of the conversation by having your passport (Reisepass) ready to share and give them your name. They might ask if you want breakfast — Frühstück — to which you can reply, “Ja, bitte” or “Nein, danke.”
Now go shower. You smell.
Could I/We Pay?
Könnte Ich/Könnten wir bezahlen?
You can learn how to say “Die Rechnung” (the bill) in the various German language guides out there, but that’s not how I’ve heard Germans pay for meals. Yes, “Die Rechnung” will get the job done, but it’s not how I’d pay at a restaurant in an English-speaking country. I’d politely ask if I could pay. Well, that’s what they do here in Germany as well. “Könnte ich bezahlen?” or “Könnten wir bezahlen?” literally means, “Could I” or “we pay?” They’ll respond, “Gerne!” (With pleasure!) or instruct you to pay up front.
Noch eine, bitte
Booze traveling is a big part of traveling in Germany. Whether it’s drinking the beer of the city or town you’re in or sampling some riesling in German wine country, chances are you’re going to want another. “Noch eine, bitte” will keep your glass full.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany and finding my roots — There Must Be Order.