Miles Away Episode 25: It’s Time to Plan Your Trip to Oktoberfest
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There’s an awful lot to love about Munich all year round, but there’s nothing quite like visiting the Bavarian capital during Oktoberfest; or so I hear, at least — this is the first year I’ll actually get to go!
Today, my good friend and TripSavvy general manager Molly Fergus joins Miles Away to share her Oktoberfest booking strategy, including securing flights, hotel rooms, and — perhaps most important of all — a table in one of the festival’s more popular tents.
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Featured Image by Shutterstock.
Zach Honig: Welcome back to Miles Away. Today, we are talking about Oktoberfest and today we have a very special guest. We have Molly Fergus, who’s the general manager of TripSavvy, with us today. Welcome, Molly.
Molly Fergus: Thank you, Zach. Happy to be here.
Zach Honig: Can you tell me a little bit about your website, TripSavvy?
Molly Fergus: Sure. TripSavvy is a travel-advice website. We reach almost 10 million US readers every single month, and we publish travel guides to the best destinations all across the world. Our writers are based in the cities and countries that they cover, and offer really in-depth content for you to help you plan your vacation.
Zach Honig: Molly and I go way, way, way back.
Molly Fergus: — Way back.
Zach Honig: — before my journalism career to, I think, our Summer Welcome before freshman year of college. Is that right?
Molly Fergus: I believe so. I wasn’t even old enough to get a credit card then. I think I was 17, so …
Zach Honig: Oh my god, I just barely was. I think I had just gotten the American Airlines credit card or I was thinking about it. Like, “Oh, I really want to get this card.” One of the things I used my miles for was trips to Europe, and I never actually made it to Oktoberfest, but I know some of our friends that studied abroad did. When was the first time that you went?
Molly Fergus: I went for the first time in 2015 actually, so not while studying abroad. As an adult, I decided that “I’m going to do this trip, and make it happen.”
Zach Honig: What brought you to Munich that time?
Molly Fergus: We had some friends running the Berlin Marathon, so I went and cheered on my now-husband and a bunch of friends running that, and then the Berlin Marathon aligns with Oktoberfest so we drove from Berlin after the race and went to Oktoberfest in Munich. It’s about a six-hour drive because you figure while you’re there, if you’re there at that time, you have to experience it.
Zach Honig: Oh yeah. What was it like for your first time? You’re going back this year, right?
Molly Fergus: I am going back, so it must have been good. When I thought of Oktoberfest, I pictured sort of a beer hall in the US like on steroids and maybe some tents that are set up like maybe for a wedding with dirt floors, but it is way above and beyond that. These tents are spectacular. They are full-fledged, semi-permanent structures with steel I-beams and wooden floors. Some of them seat almost 10,000 people.
Zach Honig: Oh my god, in one tent?
Molly Fergus: In one tent, all drinking liters of beer and only liters of beer. That is all you can drink. It’s really just sort of magical and something you have to experience to understand.
Zach Honig: There’s a dedicated venue for Oktoberfest, right? Is it in kind of the center of Munich or is it in a different part of town?
Molly Fergus: It’s just outside the center, so you could walk there from the center of Munich or take a quick cab ride. There were pedicabs, I know, going back and forth as well, but they’re the fest grounds. It’s designated on the map, so when you look, you’ll see sort of a big, open area, and it says Bavaria Strasse, I think, is the ring that goes around that area. The fest grounds are there all year long and I think they actually start setting up these tents in the summer — so well ahead of the fest. You can even go and take a look and see the tents.
Zach Honig: Obviously, drinking beer, specifically, is a big component of Oktoberfest …
Molly Fergus: Sure.
Zach Honig: … but what else is there to do? Is it just drinking all day and night, or are there other activities?
Molly Fergus: It depends on your style. You certainly could do that, but it’s actually a huge carnival. So when you go, that was the one thing that really surprised me is there’s a giant roller coaster set up, there’s swings, there’s tons of games. You could spend all day just sort of having fun with that too, and then listening to the live music, and bobbing around and people-watching is really, really fun.
Zach Honig: Is there a lot of food? Is it just like a big food and drink fest?
Molly Fergus: Yes, there’s tons of food. A lot of Bavarian specialties. You’ll see these roast chickens everywhere that are truly delicious. It sounds sort of boring, like, “Whatever, we’ve all had a roast chicken,” but they’re so, so good — really juicy, roasting on a spit. There’s tons of pretzels, of course. There’s great cheese spreads. There’s different grilled fish. You could eat your way around the fest.
Zach Honig: How does the Oktoberfest experience compare to a state fair? If someone’s been to a state fair in the US, is it similar in a way, with a lot more beer?
Molly Fergus: It’s more organized and more structured. Again, these tents are all buildings, and they’re all decorated differently. They’re really, really beautiful. You have definitely that fair element with the stands and the food, but then I would say a little more the culture and a little more pomp and circumstance behind it all.
Zach Honig: Can you walk us through just very quickly the history and the cultural background of Oktoberfest?
Molly Fergus: Sure. So Oktoberfest actually started as a celebration for, I believe, King Ludwig I wedding. It was a big wedding celebration. They had a great party, and they had such a good time that they decided to repeat this party every year. Then they moved it back to September instead of, actually, October. Legend has it and I’ve heard, because the weather was just nicer.
Zach Honig: Oh, that makes sense.
Molly Fergus: Yeah.
Zach Honig: OK, it does overlap with October. Just very, very briefly.
Molly Fergus: A couple days. Yep.
Zach Honig: What are the dates this year?
Molly Fergus: September 21 to October 6, so you do get a full week in October this year.
Zach Honig: Should you be there for the first weekend? Is that kind of the most exciting time to go?
Molly Fergus: That’s certainly a great time to go. It’s when they tap the keg. There’s one tent, Schottenhamel, I don’t know if I said that right, I probably definitely didn’t, but they tap the keg in there, historically, every single year, and no other tents can serve beer until they tap the keg in that tent. That kicks off the whole party.
Zach Honig: Oh, OK, so you have to get there early in the morning for the keg tapping?
Molly Fergus: I think it’s at noon, so not that early, but (laughter)
Zach Honig: Oh, got it. OK, what are the general age ranges of people that go to Oktoberfest?
Molly Fergus: All ages. Truly, like children to very elderly people, all depending …
Zach Honig: Really? OK.
Molly Fergus: … and It’s going to vary depending on time of day, so if you’re there around lunchtime, you’re going to see a lot of middle age … this is when you maybe see some of the more elderly people hanging out and having lunch, but then as you get toward the evening, it’s younger people. The crowd gets a little more rowdy as the evening goes on, as you might expect.
Zach Honig: Do you see families in the tents as well, or are they kind of hanging out on the amusement rides?
Molly Fergus: Absolutely. No, absolutely, you see families in the tents as well, but then they’re on the amusement park rides. They’re playing games. They’re participating in the fest. It’s a festival.
Zach Honig: How do the logistics work, because I know that you said you’ve reserved a couple tents, specific tents, already for this coming Oktoberfest?
Molly Fergus: Yes. Some of the tents fill up really quickly. Hofbräuhaus is one that’s really famous. That can book up to a year in advance even. So you can go and look up the 14 tents, there are 14 every year, and on the Oktoberfest website you can find contact information for each of them. Every tent is owned by a different brewery and they only sell their own beer, and it is typically specially brewed for the festival. So, you can only get this beer at this festival every year. You can email them and ask for reservations. Every tent has sort of a different policy. I know that one tent we’re going to didn’t require any cash upfront, so we just have a reservation for 20 people with my name on it. Another one, you have to purchase a drink-and-food package basically, so you pay €37 and you get two liters and a roast chicken, one of those delicious roast chickens I mentioned.
Zach Honig: Oh, OK. When I think of Oktoberfest, I definitely think of the traditional outfits, I guess, that both men and women wear, right?
Molly Fergus: Yes. Yes.
Zach Honig: Do you get all dressed up, or … ?
Molly Fergus: You can. You don’t have to but it certainly adds to the festiveness of it. I recommend it. What I do not recommend is buying the fake stuff. So we made the big mistake of buying these costumes in Berlin and Berlin is very different from Munich. They’re very different parts of Germany, and we just went into a costume shop, and I bought my dirndl, and a couple of my friends bought their lederhosen. My dirndl was mostly passable, but my husband and one of our good friends were wearing fake lederhosen, and I say fake because lederhosen are really nice leather pants. They’re embroidered. They’re really beautiful, well-constructed. What they were wearing were like that felt, fake leather, right?
Zach Honig: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Molly Fergus: So, it didn’t even look — I mean, it was really, really different from what a real lederhosen should look like.
Zach Honig: It’s like a Halloween costume you might wear in the States —
Molly Fergus: Exactly. Exactly. And they were approached by two — two lovely Bavarian women came up and sort of said, “Oh, could we get a picture with you?” Then took a photo, and then started giggling and walked away. So, don’t do that. What you can do, if you don’t want to splurge on leather pants, which is completely fair, is actually rent these costumes in town. There’s a few different places that provide it. It’s usually around €40 or €50 per day for the whole get-up: so shoes, suspenders, pants, the whole deal.
Zach Honig: You said it’s about €37 for … you get the two beer, chicken, and your seat reservations?
Molly Fergus: Yes.
Zach Honig: So, say, you do a couple days of that, a couple days of an outfit, it’s I guess a pretty affordable weekend, potentially. Where do the big expenses come in at?
Molly Fergus: Your big expense on the ground, for sure, is your hotel. As you can imagine, Munich is not the biggest city in the world and it fills up really, really quickly, and prices get expensive for the fest.
Zach Honig: Let’s talk a little bit about the atmosphere in the tent. You see the pictures, and I’ve seen maybe a few videos, but what’s it like all day?
Molly Fergus: It’s really fun and sort of progresses throughout the day. When I’ve gone to both of the tents, I had an 11:30am to 4pm reservation. So you can imagine, you get in, people are getting lunch, they’re getting their first beers, it’s a little quieter. As the music starts playing and the beers start flowing, it becomes rowdier, and people are definitely dancing on the tables. There’s usually a live band. We found that in the afternoons the bands were playing more traditional music and then as the night went on for the evening sessions you got into some more rock and pop music. You have to be prepared for some drinking songs and chants. That is a requirement, and you will not leave without hearing the song, Ein Prosit, which is perhaps the most famous Oktoberfest song.
Zach Honig: Can we get a verse here?
Molly Fergus: (singing) Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit …
Zach Honig: OK.
Molly Fergus: … It really just means “Drink.” That’s all it is, and they play it, seemingly, progressively faster as the day goes on.
Zach Honig: Do you interact with the locals and the German visitors? Is everybody just having a great time together or do you stick to your own groups? Just whatever you prefer?
Molly Fergus: It’s whatever you prefer. I found you end up talking to people for sure. The first time I went, we had one German speaker with us, so that definitely facilitated the conversations for us, but, yeah, it’s just a festive atmosphere. People are just happy.
Zach Honig: Who would you not recommend Oktoberfest for? Obviously, you said families and kids go, so it sounds like it’s friendly to nondrinkers as well?
Molly Fergus: Sure. If you don’t love crowds, you probably don’t want to go to Oktoberfest. There’s an element of theme-park-ness to it, right? There’s carnival grounds. There’s fairgrounds. You’re going to be dealing with a lot of other people, so if that’s not your scene, you probably don’t want to go. Even if you’re not a big drinker, go for one day and see the spectacle. If you don’t like to drink or don’t think you want to spend all day at the tent, you don’t have to get a reservation. You could just go walk around. There’s beer gardens. You can sit outside. Just spend an hour or two there sort of soaking up the atmosphere.
Zach Honig: Can you get into the tents if you don’t have a reservation far in advance, or … ?
Molly Fergus: Sometimes. It just depends, and especially those weekday afternoons you’re a lot more likely … if there’s a table, they’re going to let you in. They will make everyone leave at 4pm when the next set of reservations start for the evening though, so just be prepared for that.
Zach Honig: Got it. OK. So what else do you do in Munich during Oktoberfest? Are you really focused on the event? Do you kind of take break before or after going to one of the tents?
Molly Fergus: You could do it a few ways. We were focused on the tents when we were there, so we did two days in the tents. Then we were kind of wiped out from that, but you can definitely do sightseeing. You can walk and see the Glockenspiel. You can go to Hofbräuhaus, as well.
Zach Honig: Is that a clock?
Molly Fergus: That is a clock in the center of town. A really elaborate, kind of incredible cuckoo clock. You can go to the original Hofbräuhaus, not the tent, but the actual beer hall. That’s something to do and see. It is similar in atmosphere to Oktoberfest. It’s what all the chains are based around, so you know there’s Hofbräuhauses kind of everywhere now, so that’s the original one.
Zach Honig: You booked your reservations for the day time slots for both tents?
Molly Fergus: Yes, we did.
Zach Honig: Why do you do that instead of the evenings?
Molly Fergus: Evenings fill up, and so there’s a little bit of seniority we found with this. So if you’ve booked in the tent in the past, then you’re more likely to get a good slot the next year, but this is only our second time, so we didn’t get the premier.
Zach Honig: Oh, OK. So, like, “Fergus? Fergus sounds familiar, but not too familiar, so here’s a daytime slot for you”?
Molly Fergus: (laughter) Exactly. Yes.
Zach Honig: We’re going to take a quick break, and then when we come back we’re going to dig into your flight and hotel options to get to Oktoberfest.
Molly Fergus: Excellent.
Zach Honig: Molly, how are you booking your trip this year to get out there?
Molly Fergus: This year to get out there, we’re actually flying in and out of Paris. So we didn’t use points for that. We were able to find a really cheap fare, so we just purchased that, and then we’re taking a train from Paris. In the past, I’ve used points with Air Berlin, which is now defunct, but I was …
Zach Honig: OK. No Air Berlin.
Molly Fergus: … Yeah, no Air Berlin option, but that was a nice option a few years ago. Then I know United has flights. You could even fly into Zürich. I was looking, and that’s only a three-hour train ride. It’s nice that Munich’s really centrally located. You can …
Zach Honig: How long is the train from Paris?
Molly Fergus: … From Paris, it’s about five hours.
Zach Honig: OK. Do you need to book your tickets in advance, or you just kind of show up at the station and you’re good to go?
Molly Fergus: You could book them a little bit in advance, but I looked right now and it was still too soon for us to purchase them, so we have to … Yeah.
Zach Honig: Oh, OK. So if you can’t find availability to Munich, specifically, consider another like Paris, Zürich.
Molly Fergus: Vienna’s not too far.
Zach Honig: OK.
Molly Fergus: Yeah.
Zach Honig: So it might even make sense to pair your Munich trip with another European city?
Molly Fergus: Yep, absolutely.
Zach Honig: And so, because it’s the fall, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding award availability, I would say?
Molly Fergus: Right.
Zach Honig: It is kind of a business-travel season. After the slower summer, business travel picks up again, but especially in economy there should be decent availability. If you can’t find flights to Munich, you can connect in Frankfurt, potentially. If you’re booking with Lufthansa, with Star Alliance miles, you can connect in Geneva or Zürich. Sounds like you can actually fly into Zürich and then take a train?
Molly Fergus: Yep.
Zach Honig: Maybe explore a little bit of Switzerland on your way to Munich, and then, yeah, Paris sounds like a decent option as well.
Molly Fergus: Yeah.
Zach Honig: Then for hotels, there’s a couple that are close to the fairgrounds, right?
Molly Fergus: Yes. There’s a Hilton and a Sheraton that are both about a mile away from the fairgrounds, and as you might expect, getting cabs can be sort of tricky at a really busy event like that, so being within walking distance is a huge benefit.
Zach Honig: What’s the weather like, generally, this time of year? What was your experience?
Molly Fergus: It was lovely September weather, so chilly at night. You do want a jacket and something to warm up to, but nice, crisp fall.
Zach Honig: OK. Because we’ve identified a couple hotels that do have award availability. The cash rates are pretty high, but you said they’re, what, about a mile away or so?
Molly Fergus: Yeah, when I was looking at both of those on Google Maps About a mile.
Zach Honig: So, maybe a 15-, 20-minute walk, which isn’t terrible at all. There’s Sheraton Westpark, so there’s a few Marriott properties, but the Sheraton Westpark is probably closest to the fairgrounds?
Molly Fergus: Yes, with availability, that I’ve seen right now.
Zach Honig: And the cash rates are in the $500 range, which is very steep I would say for a Sheraton in Munich. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it maybe closer to 100, $150 …
Molly Fergus: Other times of the year.
Zach Honig: … other times of the year. Exactly, but you can redeem 25,000 points per night for a stay there, so I would definitely go that route for sure. Then there’s a Hilton as well: the Hilton Munich Park, I think is the one that’s closest by?
Molly Fergus: Yes.
Zach Honig: The cash rates are like 350 or so there, or 70,000 Hilton points.
Molly Fergus: Right.
Zach Honig: Obviously, of those two options, I think you’re going to do a little bit better with that 25,000 redemption for the Sheraton.
Molly Fergus: Yes, and if you’re thinking about going at all, it’s worth just booking a room right now because they do fill up. People end up camping. They get tiny, little Airbnbs. The city really fills up.
Zach Honig: In general, if points reservations are canceled, well, up until a day or two before arrival, so it makes sense to lock in that space now. If you have elite status and you can cancel and redeposit an award, even if you’re not 100% sure you’re going to be able to book a tent or go to Oktoberfest this year, I would start thinking about it and get your bookings in.
Molly Fergus: Absolutely.
Zach Honig: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Molly. If someone wants to follow along on your adventures, where can they find you on social media?
Molly Fergus: I’m on Instagram @mollyfergus, and then TripSavvy’s also on Instagram @tripsavvy.
Zach Honig: All right. Well, thanks for joining us. Safe travels.
Molly Fergus: Thank you. You too.
Zach Honig: That’s it for this episode of Miles Away. Thanks again to Molly Fergus, general manager of TripSavvy. Again, I am your host, Zach Honig. This episode was produced by Margaret Kelley and Caroline Schagrin. Our music is by Alex Schiff. If you’ve been enjoying Miles Away so far, please subscribe, rate, and review on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you choose to listen.
Featured photo by f.cadiou/Getty Images
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