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From Montreal to Berlin: what you need to know

A few months ago, I got accepted for an 8 month internship with Nokia HERE in Berlin. I am set to begin on May 1 and work until December 15, 2015.

Such a trip involves a fair amount of planning, so I decided to write down my findings in the hopes of helping future Canadian travellers make their way to Germany.

Travel insurance

If you travel abroad, you should get health insurance. If you want a German visa, you need it.

If you are a Québec resident, you have minimal coverage already, but I strongly recommend you to get private insurance since the RAMQ will only reimburse your bills after some time. Knowing you will get some money back after several weeks will be of little use if you are stuck footing a several thousand dollar bill in a German hospital.

If you are staying for more than 6 months, you need to ask for an extension of your RAMQ coverage. Your travel insurance company will mention it anyway. The process is as simple as giving them a call and signing the letter they will send you. Their customer service is surprisingly good!

Make sure you shop around before buying insurance. I got quotes varying between $1300 and $500 for the same kind of coverage. Better yet, you can get it for free!

If you are a Québec university student, check if your university partners with ASÉQ. They offer dirt cheap health, dental, vision and travel insurance. Since I am travelling for school-related business, they extended the usual 120 day coverage to the duration of my internship plus 120 days before and after for free. The same exact plan would have cost me over a thousand dollars if I went with the Blue Cross directly.

Plane tickets

As soon as you know when you leave, get your tickets. I bought mine on January 8 for my April 23 departure. I checked again today and the prices did not change much. However, if you wait until the very last minute, you can expect a steep price increase.

Use Google's flight matrix to find the cheapest available tickets. It lets you find the cheapest tickets between two destinations on a range of days. I discovered I could save about a hundred dollars on my one way ticket by leaving a day earlier.

Don't limit yourself to the airports in your home city. My Toronto-Rome flight was $300 cheaper than a Montreal-Rome flight on the same day, and this held true for several other destinations I have checked. No matter how you get from Montreal to Toronto, it will be a lot cheaper than that. With sufficient advance, you can get a bus ticket to Toronto for as low as $10 with Megabus. Busbud can help you find cheap bus tickets, and there's always VIA rail if last minute bus tickets are too expensive. Just try to avoid Greyhound.

Visas

If you stay for more than 90 days, you will need a German visa.This will be the trickiest part. You can obtain it from the German consulate in Toronto or from the Austrian embassy in Ottawa, but not from the German embassy.

The consulate will only answer visa-related questions from 8AM to 9AM, and will only take visa appointments from 9 to 12. It is really hard to get a hold of someone at the consulate, but once you do, they will gladly help you with a lovely German accent. If you have any questions, make sure you call before making the 6 hour trip from Montreal to see them in person.

You can save yourself some time by applying by mail, but you will need to involve a notary. More importantly, they will only issue a 90 day visa that needs to be renewed once in Germany for an extra €100. If you don't speak German very well (or at all), I strongly recommend that you deal with the bureaucratic process while you're still in Canada.

The visa application form will require you to give them a proof of first housing. A hotel room reservation is sufficient, as confirmed by the German consulate employee that helped me.

Finding a place to live

This is the other tricky part. Finding a place to live is pretty hard if you are there for a few months. You have two options: find a furnished apartment or find a bedroom in a shared living apartment.

First, you need to know a few terms in order to begin your search. An apartment is called a flat in Europe, or Wohnung in German. A furnished flat Möbliert Wohnung means furnished apartment. A shared living apartment is called a WG (pronounced vay-gay), an abbreviation for Wohngemeinschaft.

Finding a WG Zimmer is by far the most economical solution. You can find a room close to Berlin Mitte for €400, all expenses included. However, finding a room is challenging, especially if you don't speak German. As any Montrealer would, Berliners prefer people they can meet beforehand, and favour long term roommates.

The best way to find an room is through WG-gesucht.de, as recommended by pretty much anyone you'll ask. You can also find a few interesting offers through some Facebook groups such as this one.

The easiest way to find a place to live is to look for furnished flats. It's far more expensive, but the convenience is worth it. You can go through Crocrodilian, City-Wohnen and other rental agencies, but they all have very mixed reviews and very high fees. After weeks of searching, I stumbled upon Nestpick, by far the most helpful agency I have found. The level of service I received put everyone in the housing industry to shame, and their website is far easier to navigate.

A third option is to look for student housing agencies, but I yet have to find a single one that doesn't have abysmal reviews. Some of them list their rooms on Nestpick, so be wary of listings with "Ref-Number" in them, because they are managed by Medici.

When looking at apartment listings, use Mapnificent to find places that are close to your workplace (if applicable). Make sure to learn about the good and bad areas, although Berlin is allegedly a pretty safe city.

Other considerations

Before you leave, you must call your bank and inform them of your travel plans. Make sure to ask about various travel fees. If your credit card company suddenly sees foreign transactions, they might block your card at a very inopportune moment.

If you want to keep your Canadian cellphone number, call your carrier and tell them you intend to travel. You can put your phone service on hold for $7 a month as long as you are not on contract. You can allegedly do the same thing with Telus and other companies. Alternatively, you can switch to a cheaper plan for the duration of your trip if you don't fear losing your current plan. Don't waste money getting a travel plan. Phone plans in Germany are absurdly cheap compared to ours.

Keep in mind that Europeans use different cellphone bands than some Canadian carriers. Although you will be able to call and use your data plan, you might not get LTE or even 3G speeds. This article explains it rather well. The iPhone's LTE support page is a nice reference if you need to know which bands your phone needs to support to get LTE speeds.

You will also need to get adapters for your electronics. Canada has 110V power plugs while Europe has 220V plugs. Most power adapters support both (check the label), but even then, you will need an adapter for the German "Schuko" plug.

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