Rail travel in Germany
Germany offers a fast and (if booked in advance) affordable railway system that reaches most parts of the country. Unless you travel by car, rail is likely to be your major mode of transportation. Crossing Germany from Munich in the south to Hamburg in the north will usually take around 6 hours, while driving by car will take around 8 hours.
Almost all long-distance and many regional trains are operated by Deutsche Bahn ("German Rail"), the state-owned railway company. DB's website in English and DB's website customised for the US (available in many other localisations), is an excellent resource for working out transport options not only in Germany (generally all modes except air travel; bus and ship, but branch line timetables are incomplete) but also pretty much anywhere in Europe (train and a few selected long-distance bus routes only). An interesting gimmick is the carbon dioxide emission comparisons for different train journeys.
For its comparative size, Germany has over 40,000 miles of railways and thus is incredibly well-connected, making it possible to connect from most rural areas to large metropolises. All major German cities have a "Hauptbahnhof" (central railway station) or "Hbf." These are often situated in the center of town and have accommodations, restaurants, and attractions nearby. Be careful as some German cities, such as Berlin and Hamburg, have more than one main line station; be sure to double-check your itinerary. If the city has public transit such as S-Bahn, U-Bahn, or even buses, Hauptbahnhof will be the hub for every local line and transit service. Small towns usually have a single platform station and are bypassed except for regional trains.
All major cities are linked by DB's ICE (InterCity Express) and regular InterCity trains. ICE is a system of high speed trains that are capable of speeding with 330 km/h, the condition of tracks and signals however allows top speeds of only 160 km/h (usual), 200 km/h (routes with special electronic equipment called "Ausbaustrecke") or 250 km/h to 300 km/h (designated high-speed tracks only called "Neubaustrecke"). The top speed of 320 km/h is reached on the journey from Frankfurt to Paris, France. Although significantly faster than by road, they are also expensive, with a 1-hour-trip ( Frankfurt to Cologne, around 180 km) costing around €67 one-way (normal price without any discount). However when you book the ticket online in advance, you can get a considerable discount (see Discounts). Reservations are not mandatory but are recommended, especially when you travel on weekends or holidays. This means, that with Interrail or Eurail pass you can use domestic ICE trains without supplement (except for international ICE trains) - the only exception is the ICE Sprinter, which requires a reservation, though this is bound to change according to announcements of late 2015.
Next are the regular InterCity (IC) and EuroCity (EC) trains. The latter connect the larger European cities and are virtually identical to the regular ICs. These trains are also fairly comfortable, even if they lack the high-tech feeling of the ICE. Many Eurocity trains are provided by neighboring railway operators (e.g. the Prague- Hamburg route is serviced by Czech railways) while this has no effect on booking and prices, the interior of the trains might be notably different from comparable German trains. Also note that Eurocities, especially those that travel very long distances are more prone to delays than purely domestic services.
As most other trains in Germany, apart from some local public transportation, the ICE, IC and EC offer first and second class service. For its higher rates, first class on those trains offers more room (three rather than four seats abreast, more legroom, seats with a large amount of recline) and airline-style waiter service with drinks and food brought to your seat. Do note that the latter is not free - there are no drinks or food included in the price, the only benefit is the service and not having to go to the dining car as the second-class passengers have to. There is also WiFi on the DB long-distance trains, starting in December of 2014 this will be free for first class passengers while second class passengers still have to pay for it through Deutsche Telekom.
In the largest train stations, the first class passengers can enjoy the DB First Class Lounges before their trip. The lounges offer space to sit down and wait comfortably before one's trip, WiFi, as well as a selection of drinks and light snacks. Interestingly, unlike on the trains, all the aforementioned services are free for the first class passengers. There are first class lounges on the Hauptbahnhöfe (the main train stations) of Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Munich. In other major stations, first class passengers can use the regular DB lounges which provide most of the same amenities, but no snacks (only drinks) and no waiter service. The regular DB lounges are also open to the members of Deutsche Bahn's loyalty programme bahn.bonus who have achieved a comfort level (which is done by accumulating 2000 points by travelling in Deutsche Bahn often and registering your trips with your bahn.bonus account, similar to airline frequent flyer programmes). The list of lounges and details can be found in the Deutsche Bahn's website.
On the major lines, an ICE or IC train will run each hour or so during the day, and even certain minor cities of touristic importance like Tübingen or Heringsdorf are connected on a daily or weekly basis. Before you shell out the money for the ICE ticket, you may want to check if it actually makes a significant time difference. ICE trains travel faster than other IC trains only on specially equipped high-speed routes. There are also long distance trains operated by other companies than Deutsche Bahn, usually running over secondary routes. These are usually comfortable enough (although not as comfortable as ICE) and sometimes considerably cheaper, but most of them stop at almost every station en route.
Despite being fast, modern and highly profitable, German railways are known among Germans for their delays specifically on main lines – trains usually do not wait for one another (most local trains normally do for up to 5 min.) you should not rely on connecting times of less than 15 min. If you miss your connection due to a delayed train, you may use another, under certain circumstances even better (e.g. ICE instead of IC) train and if your total delay at your destination exceeds 1 hour you are entitled to a reimbursement. Sometimes you need to get the delay confirmed by a conductor, so do so while still on the train, as they can also advise you on connections. If you are "stranded" after missing the last train due to a delay, you may get the costs of a taxi and/or hotel covered by the reimbursement policy even in many cases of "acts of god" (e.g. bad weather, suicides etc.)
Regional and local trains in Germany come in several flavours:
- IRE (InterRegioExpress). The same as RE, but goes between two regions (Bundesland).
- RE (Regional-Express). Semi-express trains, skips some stations. On many routes, this is the highest available train category.
- RB (Regional-Bahn). Stops everywhere except that it may skip some S-Bahn stops.
- S-Bahn. Commuter network for a city or metropolitan area but can travel fairly long distances. S-Bahn trains do not offer a toilet, with the exception of those in Bremen, Dresden, Hanover, Leipzig and some S-Bahn Rhein-Neckar trains.
Urban transportation systems are usually ran by local companies that are publicly held: these may include subways, city buses, light rail and even regional trains. In larger urban areas, the local companies will often form a Verkehrsverbund or VB (integrated public transport system): you will be able to travel in and between all participating cities using the same tickets and fares. These urban transport networks are often (but not always) integrated with the DB network and Verkehrsverbund tickets are valid in local trains.
There are many companies apart from Deutsche Bahn that run regional trains. This is usually done through a contract with the Bundesland that pays them to run a certain number of trains at specified hours and usually those contracts also stipulate that DB-tickets (such as Ländertickets and the Quer durchs Land ticket) are accepted. In some regions such as Schleswig-Holstein there might be two, three or more different ticket vending machines in the station, one for each company. When in doubt ask people on the platform, or better yet DB personnel.
There are a few locations you can book your tickets:
- On-line. The engine will automatically look up the cheapest possible fares according your requirements, including any applicable early-booking discounts. Pay on-line, print out your ticket, bring it along and you can ride (you must print the ticket on paper, showing it on a computer screen is not acceptable).
- At a vending machine. If already at the station, find a new (touchscreen) ticket machine, tap the British/UK flag, and then navigate through the menus. Like the on-line engine, they will automatically suggest the fastest routes, and credit cards are accepted. The machines sell all DB train tickets including some international tickets, network tickets and tickets for local VB. The new touchscreen machines accept credit cards, but the old ones do not. Ticket machines for the local Verkehrsverbund are yellow, white or grey. They can be used on all local transport in the area, including DB trains, but are not valid outside it. On secondary routes, vending machines placed inside trains are becoming a common sight, usually leaving smaller stations without vending machines. If a station is not equipped with a vending machine, you are allowed to buy your ticket inside the train. If there is no vending machine either, you are obliged to ask staff what to do: the same applies if the ticket machine is not working.
- At a manned ticket counter. Head to any major train station (Hauptbahnhof) and find the Reisezentrum. You will need to queue, at some places draw a waiting number, and pay a small surcharge. It is quite uncommon to buy tickets at the counter, because ticket machines are situated at least at all medium-sized and large train stops.
- On the train. If in a hurry, just run onto the train and grab any non-reserved seat, then buy a ticket from the conductor for about 10% extra. Almost all conductors and every main conductor, called the Zugchef ("Train Boss"), speak English. However, tickets are not sold on regional and local trains so you need to buy them at the station. Signs on the platform or on the train itself saying Einstieg nur mit gültigem Fahrausweis mean that you have to have a ticket before you board or pay €40 extra. Drivers on buses and trams, though, usually do sell tickets, but the assortment may be limited.
Now, if you're traveling on local trains, things can get confusing. The basic unit of confusion is the Verkehrsverbund (VB), or "tariff union", which is basically a region around a large city that has a single tariff system. Examples include VBB around Berlin and RMV around Frankfurt and Hesse. Any travel within a single Verkehrsverbund is "local" and usually quite cheap; but any travel between Verkehrsverbunde requires either a special (within North Rhine-Westphalia) or the full DB fare and will usually be considerably more expensive. The catch is that DB trains often cross between Verkehrsverbunde with no warning at all, and your "local" ticket stops being valid the instant you cross the invisible line.
With many local machines and old DB machines, figure out the four-digit code for your destination, found on a panel of densely packed print nearby. Poke the flag button to switch to English, punch in the code for your destination station on the keypad, then hit the appropriate button in the left ("adult") row below to pick your ticket. The first button is always one-way single (Einzelfahrausweis). A price will be displayed: feed in your money (quickly, since the time out is quite fast, and the machine will spit out your tickets and change. For new blue DB machines, select the local tariff union in the top menu, and the rest is easy.
If you buy a local VB ticket, you will usually have to validate it by time stamping it at the bright yellow punch machines located on platforms. If you have no valid ticket or an un-punched ticket, you will be fined as a fare dodger. Ticket validity varies randomly from one VB to another: usually, there is either a zone system (the further you travel, the more you pay), a time system (the longer you travel, the more you pay), or most commonly a combination of these two. Unlimited transfers between trains, buses, etc. are usually allowed as long as your ticket remains valid. Discounts may be given for return trips, and one-day tickets (Tageskarte) are usually cheaper and much less hassle that single tickets, although zone limits apply to them as well. You can often pick up brochures attempting to explain all this, usually with helpful maps, and occasionally even in English, at a local Reisezentrum (ticket office).
Regional train tickets are point-to-point, with the destinations written on the ticket. They are valid on only trains (but in North Rhine-Westphalia, they are also on certain other means of public transport), although for long-distance tickets, you may have the option to add on a local transport ticket at your destination for a few euro extra.
As standard fares are relatively expensive, there is a sometimes confusing set of special promotions and prices offered by the rail companies at various times (tests showed that even many railway employees at ticket counters failed to find the best bargain). Your best course of action is to check the web or to ask at a train station or their telephone hotline for current details. If you search for a connection with the on-line timetable, it automatically offers you the most favourable discount for the journey. Try several departure times as discount tickets are limited and may be sold out for your initial choice. If you plan to travel a bit more extensively, a BahnCard or rail pass may be the better choice.
- Sparpreis are low-cost one-way tickets, that cost from €19 for journeys up to 250 km, or from €29 for longer journeys. They are available only, if the journey includes the use of ICE or IC/EC-trains (regional trains may be added to complete the journey). The actual price varies according to demand on various days and connections. You should purchase them on-line at least three days in advance. Use a price finder (in German) to find the cheapest Sparpreis variant for your journey.
- Europa-Spezial is a Sparpreis variant for international connections. In Germany this is available for all trains, but abroad there may be restrictions on which trains can be used – if you cannot get a quote for a certain connection on-line, this may be the case.
- Gruppe&Spar is a discount for groups of six or more people. Depending on the demand you can get 50-70% discount. For short journeys, the network tickets can be cheaper.
- bahn.ltur.com Last-Minute-Tickets for €25 (or €35 for an international trip) can be found 1–7 days before departure.
- Children less than 14 years old travel free when accompanied by at least one of their parents or grandparents.
Unlike standard tickets, Sparpreis and Europa-Spezial tickets are valid only on the train booked so you cannot use them on an earlier or later train. Obviously if your train is delayed and you miss the follow-up train connection that restriction is lifted, however it is advisable to get a train conductor or some staff at the train station to confirm this on your ticket.
BahnCard is a good choice if you plan to travel by train a lot. It's valid for one year from the date of purchase and gives you discounts on all standard tickets. Long-distance BahnCard tickets frequently do include one single journey on public transport in many destinations (look out for City ticket). However, you have to keep in mind that once you sign a contract for the card, they will automatically renew your card at the end of its time period unless you cancel it in writing before the last three months of the card starts. The DB employees may not tell you about this stipulation when you buy the card.
The BahnCard discount doesn't apply to network tickets, but some transportation networks do offer their own discounts for BahnCard holders.
- BahnCard 25 costs €61 per year (reduces: €41, €123 for first class) and gives you a 25% discount on all standard tickets. Spouses and kids of BahnCard 25-owners can get additional cards for €5. Bahncard 25 discount can be combined with the Sparpreis and Europa-Spezial.
- Probe Bahncard 25 For travellers, you can also buy a Probe Bahncard 25 for 4 months at a cost of €25. It has the same benefits as the Bahncard 25. Be sure to cancel your subscription several weeks before the expiration date. You can buy a Bahncard 25 for immediate use at a train station, though you will need to supply a European postal address to get the final card.
- BahnCard 50 costs €249 (€482 for first class) and gives you a 50% discount on all standard tickets. You can get this card for €127 if you're a pupil or student in Germany (up to 26 years of age), a pensioner of more than 60 years or disabled. Note that the BahnCard 50 does not give you discount on "Sparpreis" tickets, making the Bahncard 25 the best Bahncard for infrequent travellers.
- BahnCard 100 costs €4090 (€6890 for first class) and gives you unlimited rides on almost all trains and in many cities even on buses, trams and metros. An exception is the AutoZug, which is a train that allows you to take your car along. You will have to pay an additional fare to use the night trains. You'll need to bring a photograph to buy a BahnCard 100, but not for any of the others. If you want to reserve a seat you will still have to pay for that, unless you have a first class Bahn Card 100.
- Jugend BahnCard 25 costs €10 and gives a 25% discount to anyone aged 6–18, so it often pays for itself on the first trip. It's valid in first and second class. Remember that under-14s travel for free with their parents or grandparents.
German network tickets are valid for one day in all DB local trains (S, RB, SE, RE and IRE), local private trains and city public transport. They are often a cheaper alternative to single or return tickets because on many shorter connections, local trains are not much slower than long-distance trains (IC, EC, ICE). Check the travel time at the on-line timetable and select the Only local transport button.
- Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket (translated as "Lovely Weekend Ticket") lets you travel anywhere in Germany on a Saturday or Sunday until 03:00 the following day. If you have time on your hands, it is very inexpensive at just €44 for up to five people. The Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket is potentially an ultra-cheap form of long distance travel: You can get from Munich to Hamburg for as little as €8.80, taking 12 or more hours, but still faster and more comfortable than taking the bus.
- Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket is another one-day network ticket valid on working days from 09:00-03:00 the following day. A ticket costs €44 for one person and €8 for every additional person up to a maximum of five.
- If your travel is contained within a single Bundesland, then you can buy a Länder-Ticket valid in one Land plus, usually, a few short links across the border. Time validity is 09:00-03:00 the next day on working days and 00:01-03:00 the next day on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. Tickets begin at €22 for one person, €25 for two, and €29–39 for a group of up to five people. This is very advantageous in big federal states like Bavaria - you can go for 55 € by ICE from Munich to Nuremberg or, a bit slower, you use a RE or RB for 23 € with a "Bayern-Ticket" (Bavaria-Ticket). And 5 people pay only 39 € instead of 275 €. The Länder-tickets of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thüringen are valid in all of those three Länder for example if you buy a Sachsen-Ticket it will also be valid on all regional trains in Thüringen and Saxony-Anhalt.
All network tickets can be purchased on-line and at ticket machines at railway stations. You cannot buy them from the conductor.
Some locals look for other people at stations to share a journey with to reduce costs and there's a website for searching for a travel companion. Some even sell their network ticket for a discount after arriving at their destination to recoup some of their expenditure. In response, DB now requires you to write your name on the ticket to validate it; however the conductor hardly ever checks your identity.
German Rail Pass
A German Rail Pass allows for unlimited travel throughout Germany in all trains on 3–10 days within a month. There is an interesting "twin" discount for two people travelling together. The pass is available only for residents outside Europe, Turkey and Russia; you can purchase it online at abovementioned website or from travel agencies outside Germany.
Eurail offers a pass for 3–10 days of travel (does not have to be consecutive) throughout Germany.
In some Verkehrsverbünde, you can carry a bike on a train with normal ticket without supplement at off-peak hours. For short journeys outside Verkehrsverbund you can buy a bike supplement ticket for €5, valid on all local trains for one day. On local trains you can carry bike usually in the open area near doors.
On long-distance trains (only IC/EC) the supplement costs €9 for a day (€6 with BahnCard), here you must reserve. On international routes the supplement is €10 for one journey. Long-distance trains have special section with bike holders. Follow up the bike symbols near the car door. Bikes are not allowed on high-speed trains (ICE, Thalys, TGV).
Many airlines that fly to/from German airports offer rail&fly tickets with their flights. they have to be bought together with your flight and are usually cheaper than a comparable domestic flight or even entirely free, depending on the airline and your type of service (discounted or "premium"). rail&fly allows you to take any flight from any station to the airport with any number of changes up to one day prior to the departure / after the arrival of your flight. See also rail air alliances
Although trains in Germany are among the safest in the world and trains in general are the safest mode of transport almost everywhere, there are some security concerns:
As luggage isn't checked in you should always have a watchful eye on it as luggage theft and pickpocketing occur on trains from time to time. If you notice that your bag isn't where you put it, notify a conductor as they may be able to find it if it has just been put elsewhere by someone storing his/her own luggage.
There are usually emergency brakes in every car of the train and they are clearly marked in (at least) German and English as such. While pulling them without justification incurs a heavy fine (often more than €1000 for first time offenders), you are not charged if you can give a plausible reason why you thought the train to be in danger. Note that most conductors have the same right as you to pull the emergency brake and there is thus nothing gained (but maybe valuable time lost) if you ask a conductor before pulling the brake.
If for some reason the door doesn't open there is usually some mechanism to manually open it. If you can, ask a conductor before doing it, or let him/her do it for you, as sometimes these systems have to be disabled manually before the train can drive on, thus causing delays when done incorrectly.
In the unlikely case of an accident the doors may be impassable or not within reach. To provide further routes of escape you can break the windows. This is usually done by hitting the small red dot on top of the window with the red hammer. You can than safely remove the broken window. Make sure that the drop is not too deep before you exit the train.
Information for railway fans
There are several railways of special interest in Germany.
- Rasender Roland (Rushing Roland) on Rugia (Rügen)
- Mecklenburgische Bäderbahn Molli in Bad Doberan
- Harzer Schmalspurbahn (Harz Narrow-Gauge Railways) with 25 steam locomotives (built between 1897 and 1956)
Harzquerbahn through the Harz Mountains through their north–south axis: Wernigerode – Drei Annen Hohne – Nordhausen, Brockenbahn: Drei Annen Hohne (540 m) – Brocken (1142 m)
- Lössnitz Valley Railroad
- Wuppertaler Schwebebahn in Wuppertal, the world's oldest monorail
- H-Bahn in Dortmund
- Schwebebahn Dresden
- Transrapid maglev test track in Emsland
Cog railways are in Stuttgart, up Drachenfels, up the Zugspitze Mountain and up the Wendelstein Mountain.
For an almost complete list, see List of railways worth seeing (in German language Wikivoyage).
- Burgenlandbahn (Artern–Nebra–Naumburg, Zeitz–Teuchern–Weißenfels / Naumburg, Querfurt–Merseburg, Merseburg–Schafstädt)
- Usedomer Bäderbahn (Usedom/ Baltic Sea)
Other railway corporations
- ABELLIO (Bochum–Gelsenkirchen, Essen–Bochum–Letmathe–Iserlohn / Siegen)
- Albtal-Verkehrs-Gesellschaft (Bad Wildbad–Pforzheim, Bruchsal–Bretten–Mühlacker, several lines through Karlsruhe)
- Altona-Kaltenkirchen-Neumünster Eisenbahn (Eidelstedt / Norderstedt–Ulzburg–(Elmshorn–Altona / Hamburg) / Neumünster)
- Bahnbetriebsgesellschaft Stauden (Gessertshausen–Fischach–Markt Wald, Günzburg–Krumbach)
- Bayerische Oberlandbahn (München–Lenggries / Tegernsee / Bayrischzell)
- Bayerische Zugspitzbahn (Garmisch-Partenkirchen–Grainau–Schneefernerhaus/Zugspitzplatt)
- Bodensee-Oberschwaben-Bahn (Friedrichshafen Hafen–Aulendorf)
- Borkumer Kleinbahn und Dampfschiffahrt (on the North Sea island Borkum)
- Breisgau-S-Bahn-Gesellschaft (Freiburg–Breisach, Riegel–Endingen–Breisach, Riegel–Gottenheim, Freiburg–Elzach)
- Brohltal Schmalspur-Eisenbahn (Brohl–Engeln)
- Busverkehr Ober- und Westerzgebirge Bahn (Cranzahl–Oberwiesenthal, Radebeul Ost–Radeburg)
- Chiemseebahn (Prien(DB)–Hafen Stock)
- City Bahn Chemnitz (Chemnitz–Stollberg, Stollberg–St. Egidien–Glauchau, Chemnitz–Burgstädt, Chemnitz–Hainichen)
- Connex Sachsen (Cottbus–Görlitz–Zittau, Leipzig–Bad Lausick–Geithain, Görlitz–Bischofswerda–Dresden)
- Dessau–Wörlitzer Eisenbahn (Dessau / Ferropolis–Oranienbaum–Wörlitz)
- Döllnitzbahn (Oschatz–Mügeln–Kemmlitz, Nebitzschen–Glossen)
- HKX (Hamburg – Köln)
- Netinera Alex (Hof / Praha–Schwandorf–München / Nürnberg, Lindau / Oberstdorf–Kempten–München)