It's not easy but one savvy traveler who's been doing it for 16 years tells how to beat the refund red tape at German airports.

This story was submitted by Dr. Timothy Boehm of Little Rock AR, a frequent traveler to Europe and longtime Gemütlichkeit subscriber. Readers should be aware that VAT paid for non-merchandise purchases such as hotels, meals, car rentals, etc. is not refundable.

Over the past 16 years, we have attempted to get Mehrwertsteuer (Value-Added Tax) refunds at European airports at least 30 times and have found the procedure at Frankfurt especially difficult. There is a definite economic incentive, since the VAT is typically 16% of your purchases. On the other hand, there is no incentive for German authorities to make the process easy since, if you are successful, they lose money.

The basic procedure is the store where you make the purchase provides the tax-free status paperwork and you show the merchandise and paperwork to the Export Certification authorities at the airport. Once the paperwork is officially stamped, you can either get the tax refund in cash at one of the counters after you pass through security and passport control or, in the case of some of the experienced merchants (e.g. Kathe Wohlfart), mail the paperwork back to the storekeeper and have your credit card credited. The latter procedure avoids a significant commission charged by the in-airport tax-free shopping centers.

Now the fun and potential complications begin. At Frankfurt airport there are two Export Certification desks, one for checked baggage (on the lower level inside baggage claim in the old Terminal 1) and a separate one for carry-on baggage usually located in a hard-to-find location around or past passport control. In terminal 1 you will have to carry your checked bags downstairs after checking them in with the airline, find the Export Certification office in Baggage Claim after explaining to someone why you are taking baggage into Baggage Claim, ring a bell to arouse a clerk, maybe wait in line, and maybe have your bags searched before your paperwork from the merchant is stamped. For carry-on baggage, you must find a different Export Certification desk, ring a bell, hope someone behind the door heard you, display your merchandise and have your paperwork stamped. Quite often the initial desk to which you are referred won't be open and you end up asking someone who refers you to another desk in a distant part of the airport which may or may not be open.

My advice is to view the entire process of getting a VAT refund as a potentially rewarding challenge. Check your paperwork from the merchant; complete addresses, passport numbers etc. before you get to the airport; give yourself plenty of time; understand that there are different procedures for checked and carry-on baggage; be patient and pleasant; and be pleasantly surprised if you are able to complete the process and successfully get your reward. You will get more money back if the paperwork is mailed directly back to the merchant, rather than presented to the Tax-Free shopping counter past security in the airport or mail it aback to European Tax-free shopping.

Stuttgart, if anything, is more difficult than Frankfurt. We flew Delta and the VAT process requires going to another terminal. The Delta agent called it a "hit and miss" process. We finally found the right office obscurely behind a newsstand and simply labeled Zoll. We had to complete three different forms and then go back through security to make stops at the Reisebank and at the Bundespost to mail a form to a retailer.

In Stuttgart, I suggest the following: 1.) bring envelopes for mailing; 2.) copy all paperwork; 3.) keep tax-free purchases in a carry-on; and 4.) allow plenty of time, especially since the Zoll office is not continually staffed.

(Editors Note: Our own experience at the Munich airport was easier. Once we found the counter for the carry-on luggage, there was a just a short wait to get the paperwork stamped. Then to another line, to wait again. When it was our turn, we went into a glass-enclosed room where we presented paperwork, showed the merchandise and received our refund.)

December 2002/January 2003