Traveling Abroad with Pets

Are you moving abroad and want to take pets with you? Learn from the mistakes I made when trying to bring my cat to Germany with us.

First of all, our cat Penny is from Germany and we brought her to the U.S. with us in 2009 when we moved back here. I remember taking her to a vet in Germany and getting her a micro-chip and a passport – that’s right, in the E.U. pets that travel are issued passports (called Heimtier-Ausweis in German). We booked her on our flight with Delta and we brought her over. Unfortunately I did not make note of how much this cost at the time, but I don’t remember it being exorbitant. I remember how stressed I was leaving her to board the plane, I was wracked with guilt for what I was putting her through. During our layover in Chicago I had to pick her up at baggage claim and go through customs where they made me remove her from her crate so they could search it and then I had to re-check her and say goodbye again. It was difficult but it worked and although she seemed scared when we finally arrived in Phoenix, she recovered quickly.

Penny as a kitten
Penny as a kitten

Here we were seven years later moving back to Germany and of course leaving Penny behind wasn’t an option for us.

We assumed that bringing a pet would be like it was the last time. Then we started researching the requirements. What do you need before your pet can travel with you to Germany?

Requirements for bringing a cat to Germany:

  • Micro-chip – ISO compliant
  • Current rabies shot – must be after the animal is chipped & must be administered at least 21 days prior to travel
  • Pets returning to the EU with a valid EU Pet Passport do NOT need a clinical examination
  • EU Health Certificate – issued by a USDA certified veterinarian, only valid for 10 days
  • USDA APHIS Endorsement of EU Health Certificate
  • Crate regulations – check the size regulations for the airline you take – we were forced to purchase a larger one

Mistake #1: Booking with British Airways

We have flown multiple times with British Airways and are in their miles program. It turns out, British Airways outsources pet travel to another company: IAG Cargo. Instead of costing a couple hundred dollars like other airlines, they wanted to charge us $847 to ship our cat. And this was just an estimate they gave me with literally no guarantee they could book her. They told me I couldn’t book her until two weeks before my departure. Talk about stressful! It’s not fun being unsure whether your pet can travel with you until two weeks before a big move. When I contacted them two weeks before my departure they said NO to every day I tried to request because she would arrive in Berlin outside of normal business hours (M-F 9-5) and nobody would be there to receive her. Obviously we were really mad at ourselves for not looking into this before booking with British Airways. I tried several times to reach out to them to get help in booking the flight for her but they continued to be very unaccommodating.

Finally, I decided I was done dealing with IAG Cargo and I opted to pay a ridiculous amount of money to cancel my flight with British airways and re-book with a different airline. Mind you, this was still cheaper than paying the price IAG Cargo quoted me!

I booked a new flight for myself with Scandinavian airlines.

Mistake #2: Not double-checking what the vet was doing

I scheduled an appointment with the vet and told them ahead of time what I needed. We came in 21 days prior to travel to get an updated rabies shot for Penny. No physical examination was necessary since she has a valid EU Pet Passport. I talked to someone there who had experience doing the health certificate and sounded competent so I felt I could relax a bit. I gave them all my information and scheduled an appointment to come get the paperwork exactly 10 days before I would travel.  You can’t get the health certificate until 10 days prior to your pet’s arrival in Germany, but you also need it endorsed by the USDA within that short time frame. Depending on where you live, this could be simple or very complicated. Naturally, for me it was complicated! The only USDA office that serves Arizona is in Albuquerque, so this meant I would have to ship the health certificate to them by air bill with a prepaid return air bill included. They say that their normal turnover on Health Certificates is 48 hours so I needed this all to happen with only five or six business days before I departed.

This gorilla in Albuquerque was flipping me the bird

The day I came in to the vet for my appointment was on a Friday and I was about to leave town for the weekend. I expected them to have the paperwork ready to hand to me so I could hurry it off to be mailed to Albuquerque. Instead I was quite horrified when they asked me for my airline, my layovers and my destination address, then told me I could pick it up when it was finished at the end of the day. This was not what I expected and I thought it was clear from our communications that I would pick up a completed health certificate that morning. Apparently not!

I tried to contain my rage and went home to think about what I would do next. I counted the days on the calendar and was really not feeling good about trusting the mail and the USDA to return the health certificate to me in five business days.

Then I suddenly had an idea: I looked up the driving distance from Phoenix to Albuquerque – about seven hours. If I drove there and handed them the Health Certificate in person, I would at least be able to take things into my own hands instead of worrying all week about it arriving on time.

I called my vet and told them I would pick up the health certificate on Monday, then I called the USDA in Albuquerque and made an appointment for Tuesday.

I drove all night to get to my 9am appointment with the USDA in Albuquerque and when I arrived, my jaw dropped to the floor, “Your vet didn’t fill out this entire page and they did this page wrong,” the guy said to me. He called up my vet and chewed out the poor girl on the phone and told them to fax over the corrections and then he told me to “go out and enjoy Albuquerque”.

I took his advice and wandered around the zoo for a bit until he called to tell me that the vet had faxed over the corrected and completed forms and that the Health Certificate was ready for me to pick up. I spent 14 hours driving and about 4 hours in Albuquerque waiting, but it was better than sitting on pins and needles all week!

Penny is angry in Newark

Mistake #3: Booking a flight that is operated by more than one airline

The new flight I booked was with United from Phoenix to Newark and with Scandinavian airlines to Oslo and then Berlin. I thought I would be able to book my cat just with Scandinavian airlines but instead I had to book my cat separately with both United and Scandinavian airlines. That meant two separate fees and two different sets of requirements for her kennel (United had the stricter kennel requirements – they want the kennels to be very large). It also meant that I had to collect Penny in Newark and re-check her with Scandinavian Airlines. This took about three hours, luckily my layover was long enough!

At this point I was expecting pretty much everything to go wrong, but upon arriving in Berlin I was delighted to see that all of my luggage and my cat had arrived. I was all alone with two large suitcases, a carry on, and a cat crate so I struggled to drag it all over to the customs officer and then with trepidation, held out my paperwork for him to look it over.

“Why don’t you get a cart for all your bags?” he asked me in German.

“Uh…I don’t have any change.”

He shook his head at me and went into his office, then he came back with a plastic coin, got me a cart and helped me load everything on to it.

He helped me push it through the doors into the lobby and then he said:

“Don’t leave your baggage alone, there are thieves.”

And then he walked away.

GUYS, HE NEVER EVEN LOOKED AT THE HEALTH CERTIFICATE!

So there you have it, my story had a happy ending, if you don’t add up all the expenses and the years of my life shaved off from stress…

Cost of transporting Penny back to Germany:

  • New regulation-sized crate: $47.99 (we bought this one)
  • Rabies shot valid for 1 year: $29.99
  • Office Visit: $49.50
  • EU Health certificate: $150
  • APHIS Endorsement: $38
  • Air Bill:
  • IAG Cargo:
  • Fee to cancel British Airways flight: ridiculous
  • Cost of one road trip to Albuquerque: my sanity

Total Cost: I’d really rather not even calculate it!

All this mess for a barn kitty
All this stress for a barn kitty

You may be asking yourself, why did you go to all this trouble and expense for a stupid little barn cat anyway? And the answer is because we are stupid and we love her.  In my opinion, when you make an animal a part of your family and something like an international move comes up you don’t really have a choice!

I hope that you have a much better experience than I did traveling with a pet internationally and that by sharing my mistakes, I will help others avoid making them.

Please remember to research the requirements thoroughly for your airline and destination – below are some links that will help you.

Resources:

Find out the requirements for taking your pet from the U.S. to a different foreign country

Find an accredited veterinarian 

Find your local APHIS Veterinary Services Endorsement Office

Why Germany?

The question “Why Germany?” appears to have a pretty obvious answer for me – I have a German husband. Yes, having a German husband is what has brought me to Germany and what has driven me to spend so many years learning the language & culture. But this is not the reason I have grown to love Germany and chosen it as my new home, which is not necessarily a given when you consider the difficulties I have had adjusting to life in Germany.

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Our wedding in Dresden 2008

I find that no matter where I live, I inevitably compare it to other places I lived before and find it lacking – the cherries in the neighbor’s garden always taste sweeter, right? (die Kirschen in Nachbars Garten schmecken immer süßer). Sometimes it can be really easy as an expat to focus on things that are annoying, difficult or positively maddening about living in a new country. I am often guilty of this and that’s why I wanted to sit down and focus on the things that make me happy about Germany and the things that make me so excited to live there again.

Umweltfreundlich & Gesund

The lifestyle in Germany makes me feel like I am having less of a negative impact on the world than my lifestyle in the U.S. and forces me to adopt healthier habits in my daily routine. Yes, this often means living with fewer conveniences which can be irritating, but I think overall it’s a better way to live. How is the lifestyle more Umweltfreundlich & Gesund?

  • Spargelzeit  (asparagus season)- this is a time of year when Germany goes bananas over white asparagus because it is in season. I’m not kidding, they put it in everything. This is just one example, but Germans often eat things when they are in season. Living in the U.S. I actually have no awareness of when certain produce are in season because it is constantly available to me in the supermarket. But celebrating and enjoying a food when it’s in season means that we are enjoying something that is local, fresh and hasn’t had to be transported halfway across the world.
Spargelzeit
Mmm Spargel!
  • Essen außer Haus (eating out)- on average Germans don’t eat out in restaurants as often as Americans do, instead they tend to prepare their own food at home. In my experience eating in a restaurant is a lot more expensive in Germany than it is back in the U.S. and this discourages people from considering it more than an occasional treat. There are many benefits to this lifestyle – it’s healthier, it saves you money and it promotes time together at home with the family.
  • Einkaufen (shopping)- shopping in Germany is quite the experience for an American for many reasons. I could expound at length on this topic, as many others before me have, but I’ll just point out a few differences for now: in Germany you bring your own bags (in fact, many stores are no longer even selling plastic bags anymore for purchase at the check-out). There are typically smaller local shops such as bakeries and butchers in your neighborhood. Often times it’s possible to walk, bike or take public transport to do your shopping. This combined with the usually tiny size of German fridges encourages people to make more frequent & small shopping trips. This forces me to buy food from local & specialty stores, to waste fewer plastic bags and to get out more instead of driving everywhere like I do in the U.S.
  • Öffentlicher Verkehr (public transportation)- unless you live in a tiny village in Germany, you probably have access to reliable public transportation in the form of buses, street cars, subways and trains. It’s very convenient to drive yourself everywhere in the U.S. and we usually have giant parking lots we can park in. Not the case in Germany where driving often feels very inconvenient with high costs, tiny streets and scarce parking. But this is another case of something inconvenient that I know is actually better, for both me and the environment. Besides getting more exercise and having a smaller footprint, when I walk through my city or ride public transportation I feel like I am a part of my community. Living in Phoenix where everyone drives around in their cars from one building to another I rarely feel connected to the people who live alongside me in my community.
Görlitz Main Train Station
  • Sonnenschein (sunshine)- it’s true that Germany gets much less sunshine than where I’m from in Arizona. Most of the year living in Phoenix we do our best to avoid the sun, hurrying from one air-conditioned box to another. The sun shines most days and you begin to take it for granted. Not so in Germany, where people practically worship the sun when it comes out instead of taking it for granted. When the sun is shining you can find everyone and their mother outside enjoying it. The happy feelings radiating from Germans when it’s sunny are palpable and contagious.
People enjoying a sunny day in Dresden at Semperoper

Sonstiges

Besides being environmentally- and waist-friendly, these are some of the other aspects of life in Germany that I respect and admire:

  • Fachkenntnis (expertise) – Germany has a lot of experts (You can view that as a sarcastic comment on some of their other tendencies, but that’s a different post!) Germans have experts in every field – in order to become even a baker or a shoe salesperson you have to go through certain education or training to get there. I admire this because to me it indicates that Germany places more value on trades than we do in the U.S. It feels like in the states if you don’t go to college you are seen as failing somehow. This greatly devalues occupations that require skill and training but not a college education. This expertise also means that when you go to a place like Saturn (an electronics store in Germany) with a camera that is acting up, an employee on the sales floor will actually know what is wrong with your camera and adjust it for you then & there, even though you didn’t purchase it at their store! This also means that when you go looking for an electronic toothbrush, a knowledgeable employee will give you a ten-minute breakdown of the pros and cons of each type they sell. These are just two experiences I have had in Germany where I have received expert help when I didn’t expect it.
These guys wanted to debate me on the values of grass - clearly they were experts
These guys wanted to debate me on the values of grass – clearly they were experts

Debatte (debate) – Germans are eager to debate issues with you and as an American who has been taught that it is impolite to discuss religion & politics, this came as a shock. I would witness Germans having heated discussions about these topics, all the while thinking that it would end in destroyed friendships, but this is not the case. It seems that Germans are able to debate these kinds of things without getting too personal and I find this behavior healthier than in the U.S. where everything is so polarized that you can barely talk to someone on the “other side” of an issue. I admire this quality a lot in Germany even though sometimes I am intimidated by being challenged to defend my point of view more rigorously than I would have to among many Americans. Recent events in Germany have made me fear that Germany is also becoming more polarized. I really hope that it never reaches the level that it has in the U.S.

Geschichte (history) – Germany is full of fascinating history everywhere you look and it is so much more than WWII, which the Americans can sometimes fixate on. Even though Germany is a fairly new country it has a long and rich history. There’s nothing more intriguing than walking the cobble-stone streets of a German city and imagining the people who walked it before us and the things that happened there. My best recommendation is to take a guided tour of your city to learn more about its history. This helps you appreciate a city so much more than if you knew nothing about its past and it will also make you a better guide when your friends and family come to visit!

German history on display in Leipzig - Monument to the Battle of the Nations
German history on display in Leipzig – Monument to the Battle of the Nations

Schönheit (beauty) – Germany is simply beautiful! There are so many different facets to its beauty: from its nature to its architecture and its local traditions. No two regions are alike and every one of them has unique and interesting qualities such as local food, dialect and festivals that you can only find there. Germany is so much more than the Oktoberfest and Neuschwanstein! If you visit, I encourage you to stray from the typical tourist destinations and check out lesser-known regions to get a unique perspective on life in Germany.

Germany's beautiful architecture on display at Dresden's Frauenkirche
Germany’s beautiful architecture on display at Dresden’s Frauenkirche
Germany’s natural beauty on display at Saxony Switzerland

 

So those are just a few of the reasons why I love Germany. What are your reasons? Let me know in the comments!

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Jerk or German?

Warning: this post contains some generalizations and affectionate “roasting” of the Germans based on my frustrations living there as an expat & struggling to adapt but also on my love for the country and its culture.

I created a game called “Jerk or German?” Before anyone takes offense at the title, please allow me to explain:

I’ve already alluded to the two years I spent living in Dresden (2007-2009) as an often unpleasant time in my memory. In 2006 I met a German guy at my university and then agreed to move to Germany with him after quickly squeezing two German language classes into my course load. While I don’t regret meeting this man (now my husband!) or going to Germany with him, I do have many regrets about how ill-prepared I was and the decisions I made while there. I don’t think I was mature enough or in any way prepared for the challenges of living abroad.

As Americans I think we look at a lot of Europe and imagine that it can’t possibly be that different from us. We just speak different languages, but otherwise the differences are minuscule, right? Sure, they wear socks with sandals and separate their trash and drink lots of beer. No big deal! Well, the cultural differences that I have experienced while living in Germany are a lot sneakier than that. They crept up on me until I was feeling completely depressed & alienated and couldn’t really put my finger on the cause.

Jerk or German
I was depressed because I was constantly feeling offended and hurt by the behavior of the Germans around me. I alternated between thinking that everyone there was being a big jerk and between thinking that I must be overreacting or imagining it. The reality was that both explanations were sometimes true.

Why did I think every German was being a big jerk? Like I said, when I went to live in Germany I wasn’t prepared enough for the cultural differences I would encounter and I was also still very young and not sure of myself. It has taken me a lot of time spent immersing myself in the language and culture over the years since then, but I like to think that I’m better able to put things in perspective now. However, I’m pretty sure that as an expat I will still have to ask myself from time to time, is this person being a jerk or a German?

Here are some of the cultural differences I experienced in Germany that had me asking: Jerk or German?

  1. Customer service I think we’ve all experienced the artificial friendliness one often encounters in the US from customer service staff “My name is ____ and I’ll be helping you today. Is there anything else I can get for you, hon?” It can feel fake and it can be, at times, irritating. But you would not believe how much I missed it after living in Germany. When we came home briefly to the US for a visit and dined at an IHOP I almost cried real tears at how quick, efficient and friendly the service was. I’m not asking for everyone to put on a fake smile and pour it on thick like they sometimes do in the US, but surely it is not too much to ask to be greeted & dealt with pleasantly, and to be acknowledged when you walk into a restaurant and are waiting for something instead of ignored? The customer is most certainly not always right, but we do have the right to be treated decently. This is one cultural difference that I firmly think could use some adjusting.
  2. Slow to make friends The stereotype is that Germans are cold and distant, hard to get to know. Like most stereotypes it is based on some amount of fact but it definitely does not describe everyone. In my experience, Germans come across as less friendly than Americans because they tend to make less small talk and they tend not to promise things that they don’t mean. I’ve heard from many Germans that become confused when an American tells them “let’s hang out!” or “I’ll see you later” and doesn’t really mean it or commit to plans. Even linguistically Germans hold their friends to higher standards than acquaintances! The German word for friend Freund/Freundin is reserved for people who really have earned it, while acquaintances (or people we’d probably easily refer to as friends in the US) are called Bekannter/Bekannte. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it can make it feel very hard for an outsider to break into social circles and make friends.
  3. Reaction to language learners This cultural characteristic of Germans struck me most when I spent some time in Poland. Any weak attempt I made to speak Polish was applauded and praised by them, which made me feel really great and want to learn more. On the flip side I don’t think I can recall a German ever complimenting my language skills even though I have been studying the language for almost a decade and teaching it for over three years. Instead of praise, when I speak German the conversation is usually switched to English. When I speak to strangers I get furrowed brows or rolled eyes. I have to confess that this is still very discouraging, but I am coming to realize that it isn’t going to change. What needs to change is my courage and my attitude. I made a grammar mistake? Big flippin’ deal! I have an accent? Too bad! I shouldn’t let this stop me from putting myself out there.
  4. Eagerness to correct Germans love to let you know if you are doing something incorrectly! If you are jaywalking, walking in the bike lane, biking in the walk lane (?), walking on the grass or parking incorrectly I promise someone will very quickly inform you of your error! I have to confess I don’t fully understand the root of this compulsion, but the Germans take rules very seriously and I can respect that. However coming from the American southwest it can sometimes feel like these people are meddling and should mind their own business! This tendency also falls under the reaction I get when speaking German. I had to convince my husband that it was not helpful when he corrected my German every time I spoke. He meant well & probably thought he was helping me but instead it made me feel afraid to say anything! So be prepared to have total strangers telling you off for doing something incorrectly, just brush it off or perhaps they are right and you should take their advice!
  5. Brutal honesty Germans can be very blunt. You need to lose some weight. Your shirt is ugly. Your opinion is wrong. Whereas in the US most of us would try to sugarcoat any negative comments or resort to little white lies instead in order to spare the feelings of others, the Germans don’t seem to see much value in these strategies. There are times in life when brutal honesty is necessary and important and there are times when it is just plain rude. I admit, I err a bit too often on the side of niceties instead of voicing my real opinion if it saves any conflict, but I feel this is a good guideline: will the honesty do some good or will it just hurt someone’s feelings?

So are Germans all jerks? If you’ve been paying attention, the answer is NO! Just as there are plenty of jerks in the US, there are plenty of jerks in Germany. And just as Germany has its cultural oddities, so does the US. Obviously I bring to Germany all of my own strange cultural behaviors such as my over-sensitivity and you could easily write a book about the weird behavior of Americans.

The point of this post was not to malign or hate on Germans but to work through some of the things that made it so hard for me to adapt to life in Germany the last time in the hopes of being better equipped for it this time. And while there are some things I’m still convinced are just rude, I am working on changing how I let these things affect me because obviously that’s all any of us can do!

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