Finding a bed is rarely a problem in Germany and the range of accommodation – from half-timbered hostel to high-rise designer hotel, pension to palace – means there’s something to suit all budgets and tastes. There are two caveats: during high season in premier resorts and during major festivals, when you may struggle to find a room; and when expense accounts roll into town during city trade fairs known as Messen, when you may baulk at the prices demanded.
In the past decade the country’s hoteliers have busied themselves updating what was a fairly frumpy hotel stock to at least a nod to contemporary decor, even if that does mean a preponderance of identikit, bland furnishings in cheaper places. Another trend is the emergence of an independent hostel sector. Though targeted at the backpacker market, these convivial hostels are open to all comers and often offer cheerful modern doubles for around €20; less than you’d pay for a tired, cheap hotel. Even the latter are generally clean, even if their decor saps the spirit.
While the strength of the euro means hotel accommodation is not quite the bargain of a decade or so ago, Germany remains good value compared with the United Kingdom at least. Notwithstanding that prices vary hugely, you can expect to pay around €80–120 for a double in an average mid-range hotel. Many city hotels, especially those that target the executive market, offer cheaper weekend rates. Hostels charge about half that price for a double room, and under €30 for a dormitory. The other source of a cheap bed is rooms in private houses or farms – those in more remote regions such as the Black Forest and Bavarian Alps abound in country character and provide bargains to boot.
A peculiarly German quirk is the enduring love affair with the sauna and spa or “wellness” centre, which you’ll find even in dated hotels – worth remembering before you thrill to the notion of a “spa hotel”. Another national tradition is the Kurtaxe, which is charged in spa towns and “health” resorts, a definition extended to encompass most coastal resorts. This adds €2–4 to your hotel bill on the grounds that facilities are laid on for the resort’s tourists.
For reservations most tourist offices will book all forms of accommodation either for free or for around €2–4 per person. Those in resorts are a good, first port-of-call if you arrive without a reservation in peak season. Many in destinations with a high visitor rate have touchscreen info-points outside, sometimes with a free telephone. And if you make a reservation be sure to notify staff about an expected arrival time after 6pm – or else your room may be given away.
Many hotels in Germany have aligned themselves with a voluntary five-star Deutschen Hotelklassifizierung rating system based on the assessment of 280 criteria by an independent body. This ensures that participating one-star establishments have rooms of up to 12m squared, with en-suite toilet and shower; that three-star hotels offer larger rooms, a minibar and 24-hour call on reception even if they are not manned; and that in five-star places, you will enjoy rooms of at least 18m squared and luxuries such as 24-hour room service and reception, and laundry services. Most hotels have a restaurant – those named a “Hotel garni” serve breakfast only.
Whether aligned to the Deutschen Hotelklassifizierung system or not, German hotels are generally comfortable enough for you to have few complaints; they are clean, generally en suite except in the cheapest establishments, and rooms nearly always come with a TV. In the lower and mid-range, you can expect either a fairly anonymous business style or a dated Eighties throwback. Budget hotel chains Etap and Ibis provide functional modern rooms at rates comparable to a room in an independent hostel. That said, a growing number of style hotels in the cities also offer interior style at affordable prices, and at the upper end you can have a pick of hotels with wow factor, with many luxury outfits installed in historic palaces or castles. All hotels provide breakfast, generally buffet-style and included in the price of your room, but do double-check.
Pensions, inns, private rooms and farmstays
A shift away from the formality and anonymity of blander hotel chains is the pension: by and large smaller, cheaper establishments, often in large houses or in city apartment blocks. What they lack in mod-cons – you’ll usually have to share bathroom amenities, for example – they make up in character in the form of personal service and homely decor. In Bavaria they are often called a Gästehaus; a similar style can be found in a Gasthof or a Gaststätte, which roughly translates into English as an inn. Accommodation is generally above a traditional restaurant – that it is often in a historic building is all part of the charm of a stay, although bear in mind that this means room dimensions are historic, too. For obvious reasons these are especially prevalent in small towns and in the countryside. Both pensions and inns will provide breakfast.
A step down from the pension or inn is the private room in the house of locals. Priced from around €15, these are rarely more expensive than €30, making them a valuable alternative to the hostel for budget travellers. At their best, private rooms offer a chance to dip a toe into everyday life and to glean the insider information from a local host. Such intimacy may not be to all tastes, however. Tourist information offices can book rooms, or look for signs advertising Zimmer frei or Fremdenzimmer, or source rooms (and apartments) online at bed-and-breakfast.de and bedandbreakfast.de.
One of the most notable developments in German accommodation in the past decade is the rise of farmstays. Beloved by city families as a rural escape, and often good bases for country pursuits such as walking or riding, these are classified either as Landurlaub (country holiday) – former farms or country houses with typical regional charm – or as Urlaub auf dem Bauernhof (farm holiday) which provide rooms on working farms and vintners. Many of the latter feature home-made produce for breakfast and, on occasion, evening meals – but you’ll obviously need your own transport. Again, local tourist offices can recommend farmstays, or try farmstay organizations, all of which sell brochures or guidebooks.
Bauernhof and Urlaub bauernhofurlaub-deutschland.de.
Zentrale für den Landurlaub bauernhofurlaub.com.
Since 1912, the pioneering German Youth Hostelling Association (Deutscher Jugendherbergswerk, or DJH) has been providing clean and basic accommodation and now has over 600 hostels throughout Germany. This means you’ll find a DJH hostel in most towns. The majority have been refurbished to provide modern accommodation with facilities such as internet access. Most have also relaxed their institutional feel, making them more welcoming for families – with en-suite rooms available and the lunchtime lock-out and 11pm curfew eliminated in city hostels. The bad news is that they can be insanely popular with school groups and are often a bus ride from a town centre.
To stay at a hostel you must be a member of the Hostelling International association. Nonmembers can join for €15.50 or buy a night’s membership known as a Welcome Stamp for €3.10 – collect six stamps to become a worldwide member. The price of a dorm bed in Germany hovers around the €20 mark, with over-26s charged €3 extra; throughout the guide we have quoted the price for members under 26. The DJH website (jugendherberge.de) acts as a portal for all hostels as well as regional websites. Around half of DJH hostels permit online booking.
Linen and breakfast are included in the price, and cheap half- or full-board is almost universally available; many hostels also provide packed lunches and a bistro. Opening hours also vary – while those in large cities are generally open 24/7, many outside cities close at 11pm. Reception times are generally morning and late afternoon only. Note, too, that unless otherwise confirmed reservations are held until 6pm; after that, a reserved room may be given to another guest. Many hostels close between Christmas and New Year, sometimes even in January or February. A few remote hostels only open in summer.
No change in Germany has benefitted budget travellers as much as the rise of the independent hostel scene in the past decade or so. Unlike DJH hostels, these hostels target independent travellers rather than groups – indeed, some refuse organized groups to preserve the communal vibe.
Independence makes generalizations tricky, but these hostels tend to be relaxed and friendly, with a young international clientele. Most are small, often in converted houses or apartments in a city’s nightlife district, and will typically provide laundry facilities, a communal TV lounge, internet access (or wi-fi) and perhaps a games room. Accommodation is in mixed dormitories, typically from four- to cheaper ten-bed, as well as in double or twin rooms, and a handful of singles. Some hostels operate single-sex dorms – washrooms are nearly always segregated. Bed linen is generally included in the price and a simple buffet breakfast is available for around €3–5.
Many hostels have noticeboards advertising work and cheap activities and many also rent bikes. Staff are generally young, well-travelled and knowledgeable about the local area. The one negative to consider is that city dorm rooms are not conducive to early nights, especially those in bar districts.
As a nation besotted with the outdoors, Germany has over 2500 campgrounds nationwide, most sited beside lakes or in the bosom of some inspiring landscape. Most are above average by European standards: even the most basic will have a dedicated reception, often with a mini-shop, and offer full washing facilities, while high-end sites are more like resorts, often with an outdoor pool, restaurants, a bar and a supermarket, and organized activities for kids. However, German campsites can be seriously uptight, often sterile places with row after tidy row of caravans and motorhomes sprouting satellite TV antennas.
Most campgrounds open between April and October, although some operate year-round. Prices, which vary according to the facilities, are by pitch and the number of people plus a car if you have one. Some charge a euro or two for showers – you may have to buy tokens from reception – and electricity, if required. The annual Camping Card (€10) of the European Federation of Campingsite Organizations (EFCO; campingeurope.com) provides 25 percent discounts.
The website of the Federal Association of German Campsites (BVCD; bvcd.de) has a searchable database of 1300 sites organized by region, and publishes a highly condensed guidebook of sites (€2.50) that can be ordered through its website. Online database Cris 24 (cris24.com), with a similar number of campgrounds, permits reservations. You’ll also find guidebooks in bookshops; that of national auto association the ADAC, ADAC Camping-Caravaning-Führer, is reliable. Free camping is illegal on environmental grounds.
Finally a note about campervanning, a mode of holiday-making dear to German hearts. As well as campsites, many towns and cities will provide a Wohnmobil Parkplatz (motorhome car park) for overnight stays; look for signs of a motorhome as you enter a town. These vary from free wasteground car parks at the town outskirts to reserved areas with drinking water and waste disposal. The latter charge around €10 a night – still cheaper than a hostel for a night and often in the centre of a city.