While most European countries have had a system of long distance buses for a long time, intercity bus travel was virtually nonexistent in Germany until 2012. Things have changed rapidly in recent years, however, and intercity buses now offer relatively budget friendly transport alternatives to a wide range of German and a handful of international destinations.
Long distance bus services which competed with the railways were prohibited in Germany from 1934 until the market was liberalised on January 1, 2013. The main exception was services to and from Berlin and international lines with few stops in Germany, mainly to central and eastern European countries.
Currently, prices are lower than most competing train services, because of fierce competition and because buses don't pay for using roads, whereas trains (even those operated by the state-owned Deutsche Bahn) have to pay for using tracks. The government in Germany is a coalition between the SPD and the CDU: the SPD is in favor of a toll for buses, but the CDU has flatly refused because it is not part of the coalition agreement signed in 2013. The next elections are scheduled for 2017 and a toll for buses might become an issue during the campaign or afterwards.
Generally speaking the buses are reasonably new and safe, but legroom and seat pitch is often unsatisfactory for large people. Most bus companies sell snacks and drinks on board (or make stops at places where you can buy food), but you should still consider bringing your own as the selection is very limited. Although Wi-Fi is often promised, it is not available in all buses. Also, keep in mind that the internet connection is provided via a normal cellphone signal so bandwidth and access (especially on a full bus) may be limited.
Buses are usually slower than even regional train services, unless the connection by bus is more direct. There are three main reasons for this:
- The top speed of buses is somewhere around 100km/h, whereas "low-speed" trains can go up to 160km/h and frequently do so with the help of tilting technology and modernized tracks. High speed trains (which almost all long distance trains in Germany are) of course have top speeds of around 250km/h to 300 km/h and are rarely slower than 200km/h for long stretches.
- Buses have to get into and out of cities, often using congested roads, whereas trains simply zip through on dedicated tracks that usually don't slow them down as much.
- By law, bus drivers have to take regular breaks (usually 30 minutes for every four and a half hours traveled). So if a bus is running late (for example because of traffic), the driver might be legally required to take an (unscheduled) break.
As with many forms of infrastructure, the west of Germany is better served than the east, where most companies focus on routes to/from Berlin and major Baltic Sea Coast destinations while mid-sized cities have few or no connections. On the other hand the Berlin - Dresden route is one of the best served in the market with fierce competition driving down prices, mostly due to it being part of the Berlin - Prague route, which is also served by international operators to whom the German domestic market is incidental at best.
In November 2016 the number of routes operated declined by 30% compared with the previous month. This has largely been interpreted as a result of continuing market consolidation and maturation. Some cities that previously had intercity bus service have lost it in the course of this consolidation and it is unclear which of those - if any - will regain service in the foreseeable future.
While most companies will transport bicycles (provided you pay extra) capacity is usually very limited (hardly more than three or four per bus) and it requires advance notice. Also keep in mind that the "trick" that is common on trains - to take a foldable bicycle or put a bicycle in a bag and declare it normal luggage - is less feasible on buses, as there is little space in the bus and the luggage compartments and excess baggage will almost certainly incur a surcharge. It might work out cheaper and more comfortable to take an IC or regional train (ICE trains do not transport bicycles unless in the ways mentioned above, when they are deemed "luggage").
Like long distance trains and most flights in Germany, prices for buses are cheapest when booked well in advance online. It is possible to buy tickets directly from the driver prior to boarding, however expect to pay up to ten times the (advertised) lowest possible rate. Some companies operate their own ticket offices (sometimes integrated into other shops like newspaper shops) at some bus stations. However, ticket offices don't usually sell tickets for competing companies, so you might end up paying a higher price than you would have online. While connecting services with a change of buses are possible, most companies don't guarantee all connections. Delays due to traffic are especially common during holidays and on weekends. If you want to buy your ticket directly from the driver keep in mind that you are not allowed to board a bus if all seats are taken, as standing is illegal on long distance buses in Germany. Most companies also sell tickets through tour operators. However, prices will be if anything higher than the rates online, as there will be some premium for the vendor or the personal service included in the price. Unlike for trains, there are no discounts for frequent travelers and fewer special offers for connecting services.
The bus market in Germany has consolidated since it was originally liberalised and Flixbus now controls around 80% of the domestic market. Prices have been slowly increasing. Routes with heavy competition or smaller players on the market still offer some bargains, but clearly the days of ultra-cheap fares are over. Nevertheless, unless the train connection is much inferior in other terms (more changes, longer travel time) a bus ticket bought on the same day will usually be cheaper than a train ticket for the same trip, if the train ticket is not discounted. That said, Deutsche Bahn has introduced a few special offers specifically to compete with bus operators and some aggregator websites even list Deutsche Bahn, so check before you buy the ticket. If you have a BahnCard, note that most aggregators don't figure in BahnCard discounts even if having a BahnCard could entitle you to a discount on the fare.
In general cancellations are relatively easy but only possible ahead of the scheduled departure of the bus. Flixbus gives you a voucher of the price of your ticket minus 1€. Deinbus gives you your money back in the form you originally paid minus a 3€ fee. Onebus lets you chose your money back minus a 5€ fee or a full value voucher. Unlike Flixbus you have to cancel 24 hours prior to departure or earlier.
The mainly domestic companies are almost all recent start-ups whereas the international companies have mostly been around for longer.
The market for domestic services consolidated a lot in late 2016 with Flixbus taking over almost all domestic competition and some of the others folding. Ever since, prices have been slowly but surely increasing, but are still below those for most comparable train tickets and flights. As no company made any profit in the early stages of the opening of the bus market, it remains to be seen how much prices will rise and whether any new entrants into the market will challenge the dominant position of Flixbus. Buses still do not pay any toll for roads, but some cities are trying to charge for the use of bus station facilities. However, some companies in the past chose to only serve stations with no or low access fees.
Flixbus controls around 90% of the long distance bus market in Germany. It has the largest network in Germany. Its buses are usually green. The company expanded organically and also bought several competitors, and now has routes in neighboring European countries as well, including connections as far as London. Unlike some of its competitors, Flixbus does not own most of its buses. In practice that means the bus you will get may well be a bit older, lack Wifi or electric outlets or have other problems. Flixbus is experimenting with an entertainment portal which can be accessed using on board wifi. However for the time being it will be "on select buses only". "Flixbus Interflix" -a ticket similar to an Interrail pass- is valid for five one-way trips over up to three months and costs 99€. Flixbus is also known for somewhat misleading names for some bus stations. For example they call their stop in Kornwestheim "Stuttgart", to suggest it being closer to Stuttgart than it actually is.
DeinBus has good coverage in the south and southwest of Germany but has no routes to eastern Germany. They expanded their network somewhat to cover more of the North and West of Germany as well as neighboring France, Belgium and the Netherlands. They have a codeshare agreement (similar to airlines) with Dutch operator Citybusexpress, allowing them to offer tickets farther north. DeinBus has a market share of less than 1%.
Onebus is one of the newer entrants to the market as such their route network is much smaller than that of others.
Eurolines mostly serves eastern Europe but has destinations in other parts of Europe as well. Eurolines predates the opening of the bus market in Germany and has offered some domestic routes under the brand name (Deutsche) Touring for decades.
IC Bus a recent subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn bookable via the regular DB website. They offer very limited international connections to neighboring countries. They are currently expanding their network. Deutsche Bahn rates and prices (including BahnCard discounts) apply. Booking is through the normal DB website and the booking system treats the buses as if they were intercity trains requiring a reservation.
student agency (sometimes also known as Regiojet) is a Czech company with a network throughout Europe that also serves some domestic routes in Germany. While they don't serve many places in Germany their prices and service (free hot beverages, video screens at every seat) make them worth considering on the routes they do serve. Unfortunately they only offer WiFi inside the Czech Republic.
Sindbad a Polish company serving several destinations in Germany as well as other countries in Europe. Oddly enough they only serve a handful of stops in Eastern Germany while having a lot more in the West.
Ecolines serves destinations throughout Europe
Hellö is Austrian railways' (ÖBB in German, hence the omnipresence of "ö" in their corporate design) answer to the bus competition. Having started in the summer of 2016 they offer a number of international connections serving major cities in the German speaking countries, Italy, the Czech Republic and Slovenia as well as Zagreb. Their website promises Wifi even outside of Austria. Domestic trips within Germany can be booked, however, no domestic trips in other countries are possible. It is has been reported that Flixbus will take over Hellö's operations effective August 2017.
Polskibus is - who would have guessed it - a Polish bus company serving several domestic routes in Poland but also domestic and international routes in Germany and other European countries.
As the market is still maturing, most lines don't operate from dedicated stations as such but rather go from and to places close to the central (train) station or leave from the regional transport ZOB (Zentraler Omnibus Bahnhof, central bus station) that is often also centrally located. If you don't know the bus stop, check with your online ticket, as it usually includes an address and a small map of the station. Some companies serve more than one station in a city, especially if the city is very big (e.g. Berlin) has more than one major train station (e.g. Dresden) or has a major international airport (e.g. Frankfurt) make sure to be at the right station and for connecting services make sure whether the station where your connection leaves and arrives are the same and if not how to get from one to the other and how much time that takes (unless you are going by light rail/ subway/ tram plan some extra time for traffic-congestion). As of 2014 most bus-stations don't have any services or stores particular to them but as many of them are close to a train station you can use their facilities. In exceptional cases, such as the Berlin bus station, prices at bus station stores seem to be in the same (high) range as prices at gas stations. In some cities conflict between bus operators and the city as well as concerns about downtown congestion have led to the relocation of stations. Some stations are closer to the airport than the city center, so check closely where your bus stops, as actually getting downtown may involve a lengthy (and sometimes costly) trip on another mode of transport.
Intercity buses in France - modeled after the German system and some players are or have been active in both markets.