My journey from NYC to Berlin was long and painful. I used Norwegian, a discount airline based in Oslo that is gaining international popularity due to its cheap flights ($250 flights NYC to Oslo, and my flight to Berlin was only $390!). My flight was originally scheduled for Monday, September 2nd, but a few hours before the flight I received a text that its was delayed from 9pm until 4am. Then more texts that it was delayed until the next morning. Finally, after about three or four delays I received a message informing me that their Dreamliner was having technical issues and that they had leased a plane from HiFly and that the flight would be at 10:15 the following Thursday morning. I took a cab back to Manhattan and stayed two extra nights. Fortunately the cab rides will be reimbursed (I hope). Anyhow, I ended up spending the night in Stockholm before a connection to Oslo and finally my last leg to Berlin. The overall experience was terrible. First, it took an unnecessary trip to the airport to find out that it was going to be delayed by one day. Then there was an entire series of delays. And finally, when everyone showed up again on Wednesday, three hours before the flight, there was nobody even at the airport to help us. Norwegian’s staff finally showed up around 8am, just two hours prior to the flight and were unable to help us with reimbursements for travel expenses. They just kept telling us to go to the website to get reimbursed. Then on the flight they did not even serve meals unless you had pre-ordered one. I did not preorder one because I had not been planning on having a flight that left in the morning, two days late, so I went the entire day without eating. When we did finally land in Stockholm, it was 2am local time and nothing in the airport was open, so even with a food voucher, I had to wait until 4am to find open restaurants. How frustrating. All of that said though, I got the impression that this entire experience was a fluke and that Norwegian is usually a decent airline with a very new aircraft fleet. It seems that they simply lack customer service and feel no need to go out of their way to help customers if they screw up.
We arrived at Schönefeld Airport which is a tiny airport that serves discount airlines. I was surprised to walk right off of the plane, into the airport, and out the door. There was no checking of passports or customs check in. Nothing. I was especially surprised given that we were arriving from Norway which is not even a member of the EU. I even tried talking to the customs officer who had a tiny office upstairs in the airport and he simply gave me a funny look and laughed, asking why I would ever need a stamp in my passport. And that was that - I was in the country. From there I made my way to the S-Bahn at which I found a confused cluster of newly arrived visitors. Both foreigners and German natives alike were equally confused as to which train to get on and which way to go. Although the S-Bahn/U-Bahn is a very efficient and easy to use system, everything is in German and the trains are described by their final destination, so if you don’t have a good understanding of Berlin’s geography, you’ll be completely lost. After collaborating with a few other tourists (mostly from the UK) I finally decided to dive in and use Google Maps to see if I was going the right way (I had no cell service but my GPS still worked). We had guessed correctly and were on our way.
Getting my phone set up was important - I needed a way to call people, send texts, and use Google Maps and check the internet while out and about. My first stop after leaving the airport was Saturn at Alexanderplatz (a huge electronics store) and bought a SIM card for €10 and a US to Germany outlet converter for €8 (which was too much). I walked over to a coffee shop and used Skype over Wifi to call Verizon and unlock my iPhone (free) which then allowed me to activate the SIM card with O2. It didn’t work at first which I later realized was because you have to go to O2.de and activate it. This requires a valid German address, so I used the address of the Airbnb rental that I’m staying at.
- Very dog friendly. Dogs are allowed on the U-Bahn and into a lot of shops and restaurants.
- Very international. Lots of ethnicities and languages are spoken. It’s as diverse as most cities in the US. It’s not uncommon for waiters here to be foreigners that don’t speak much German. You’ll run into Americans everywhere.
- Everyone speaks English. Fluently. And they are happy to speak it. However, menus, place names, train stations, etc are all in German, so German is still helpful to know. Most of the Turkish shop owners and street venders in Neukölln (my neighborhood) don’t speak English. Ordering Turkish food is an ordeal without speaking German.
- Berlin is a completely safe city. There are occasional problems (like any city ever) with bike theft, purse snatching, etc, but there is virtually no violent crime here and even pickpocketing on the U-Bahn is not really a problem (but still be careful, it is a European subway). There are no bad parts of town, only parts where you might be solicited to buy drugs. And yes, we were solicited to buy drugs in a good part of town by a drug dealer on my second night, but there was no feeling of being unsafe. We just said no and he was polite and left us alone.
- People make small talk less than in the US, but they warm up quickly once you meet them and are friendly.
- Rent is cheap here. €200-300 ($260-$390) gets you a shitty yet livable room in a multi person flat. €400-€600 gets you a nice place. €600+ gets you a one bedroom place.
- The architecture is mostly old style housing. Stone, solid wood beams, tall (REALLY TALL) ceilings, gigantic bedrooms big enough to put couches and tables in. Thick wooden doors.
- I’ve heard repeatedly that the winter here is dreadfully cold and dark. More dark than cold (sunrise is at 8am and sets at 3:30pm at the heart of winter) Supposedly it’s one reason rent is still cheap here.
- Berlin is a fairly spread out city. Streets are wide, rooms and hallways are wide. However, it is still easy to get around using the U-Bahn and biking. Most people do not have cars. There are numerous carshare programs around the cities that are easy and common to use.
- Dress is casual. T-shirts with logos. Jeans. Comfortable jackets. People dress perhaps a tad nicer here than in most of the US, but it’s not extreme. It’s more casual the NYC.
- There is a strong tech and startup presence here. It’s probably comparable to Seattle. Maybe a bit smaller. It’s small and new enough that there’s still room to stand out and have an impact.
- It’s a very laid-back place. People like to chill, party, go to flea markets and concerts. It’s a party city, actually. Clubbing is big, nightlife is huge. The chill-ness factor is comparable to Seattle or Boulder.
- You can walk around in public with beer - and people do it often. You’ll see people walking down the street with beer in their hand.
- Some of the clubs are intense. People will get to the club on Thursday night and stay until Monday. Apparently there are couches in the clubs for them to sleep on.
- There is a lot of graffiti. Everywhere. And most of it is beautiful and artistic, although there is still a fair amount of grungy graffiti. But graffiti does not equal sketchy or unsafe.
- There is a lot of litter, but the city still feels mostly clean and the air quality is good. There’s not a lot of gum on the sidewalk and there isn’t smelly sewage. You can get .50c or €1 back for bottles, so people will come by and pick them up to get money, so it’s OK to leave bottles sitting on the sidewalk - it’s not littering.
- There are lots of nice parks and open spaces.