Germany's rail system is fast, reliable and covers most points of interest. While tickets bought "last minute" can be expensive, they can, with a bit of planning, also be surprisingly cheap. Despite the rise of intercity buses, trains are still only second to cars when it comes to getting around. A train journey from Hamburg in the north to Munich in the south usually takes less than six hours. The same journey by car takes around eight hours, a bus takes ten hours or more and neither of those figures accounts for traffic congestion. Furthermore, most trains depart every hour or every two hours while buses tend to have a much sparser schedule.
According to Deutsche Bahn, train travel is rather environmentally friendly. In 2014, one passenger-kilometre of travel on a DB long-distance train emitted almost 13 times less CO2 than the same distance travelled by car. Local and regional trains emit more, since they tend to use less renewable energy and more diesel. DB also aims to steadily increase the share of renewable energy in the electricity it uses for its trains. In fact, the green stripe on all BahnCards indicates a promise that all tickets sold to BahnCard owners represent trains running with 100% renewable electricity.
Long distance train travel is operated by the state-owned Deutsche Bahn. However, the monopoly was ultimately broken when Flixtrain (the same company that operates Flixbus) entered the market on key routes serving some of Germany's largest cities such as between Berlin and Stuttgart, Berlin and Aachen, and Hamburg and Aachen, with cheaper fares albeit slightly outdated cabins. Meanwhile another private operator Alex operates lines between selected cities in Bavaria and Prague in the Czech Republic.
Operators from neighbouring countries also operate lines from a city or two in Germany to their respective countries using rolling stocks from either Deutsche Bahn or their own. Most of these lines can also be used for domestic travel and may also be booked at the Deutsche Bahn website.
Deutsche Bahn operates the vast majority of German long distance trains and also sells tickets for regional and local trains operated by other companies. The DB website (which has localised versions for many places and is available at least partially in English and a half dozen other languages) is an excellent resource to find train connections throughout Europe, although some heritage railways and railway integrated bus services are not listed. The DB website sells tickets for most trips originating and/or terminating in Germany, but not for a trip only passing through Germany (for example, for a trip from Paris to Warsaw you'd have to buy a ticket from Paris to Berlin and one from Berlin to Warsaw) and won't display prices or sell tickets for some international as well as a few local train connections. The DB website is working to include the ability to buy tickets for non-German railways but this can still be hit-and-miss and for purely domestic tickets outside Germany the corresponding national railway is usually your best bet.
Timetables and fares
Timetables and standard fares (Flexpreis) are generally valid for one year. A new timetable comes into effect each December, usually being published in mid-October. DB usually increases their prices mostly for long-distance trains with the schedule change. Verkehrsverbünde usually change their schedule around the same time but not always on the same day. There might be transition periods for the validity of local tickets.
On most routes tickets can be booked up to 180 days ahead, but tickets after the schedule change only go on sale once the new schedule has been published. If you want to get cheap tickets for long-distance trains, buy the special tickets (such as saver fares) as early as possible. The price of these limited tickets for long-distance trains increases the closer the departure date is, and they might be sold out. However, most Germans don't book more than one week ahead, with the possible exception of international tickets.
Prices for standard fares for any train and special tickets for regional and local trains normally stay the same over the year (and they are unlimited), so they can be bought just before your trip.
Integrated public transport systems (Verkehrsverbund)
In larger urban areas, local transportation companies often form an integrated public transport system, called Verkehrsverbund (VB) (or Verkehrsverbünde in its plural form). In each Verkehrsverbund all public transport (this may include subways, city buses, S-Bahn, light rail and even regional trains) can be used with a common ticket and fare system. A Verkehrsverbund also offers a common and coordinated schedule. Examples include VBB around Berlin and Brandenburg (the largest by area), RMV around Frankfurt, MVV around Munich, or Bodo for the area in Germany immediately next to Lake Constance.
These urban transport networks are often (but not always) integrated with the DB network and Verkehrsverbund tickets are valid on local trains. The trend has been towards bigger Verkehrsverbünde with better railway integration and local transport schedules are often made with the train schedules in mind. The S-Bahn is usually the "heart" of a Verkehrsverbund and S-Bahn expansion has in the past often coincided with Verkehrsverbund expansion.
Long-distance trains (which includes, e.g., Flixtrain and all "white" DB trains) are not part of a Verkehrsverbund, which means a passenger may not use such services to commute between two points in a metro area with only a Verkehrsverbund ticket.
The DB Navigator app allows you to purchase most Verkersverbund tickets using a VISA/Mastercard debit or credit card even if you do not have a long distance train journey on the days you wish to use local city transport.
Germany has over 40,000 km of railways (making it the sixth longest rail network and one of the densest worldwide) and thus is incredibly well-connected, making it possible to connect from most rural areas to large metropolises. No German town with more than 100 000 inhabitants lacks rail service and most towns with more than 20 000 inhabitants have regular rail service.
Deutsche Bahn — the main railway operator in the country — is in an unusual position. Since 1994, it has been organised as an Aktiengesellschaft (joint-stock company), which is normally expected to return a profit. However, the state owns all the shares. This means DB gets pulled in two directions at the same time: it is supposed to act like a private for-profit company and also act like a state institution. Consequently the CEO - and at least some members of the board - is a political appointment and usually a household name in Germany shortly after taking office. The CEO is often referred to in the media and informally as Bahnchef ('rail boss'). So the current CEO Richard Lutz is often just called Bahnchef Lutz.
While all operators (including DB) are in theory free to run long-distance trains on any given route at any price they see fit — provided they pay track access charges to state-owned DB Netz (itself a DB subsidiary) — the situation for local trains is more complicated. The federal government gives a certain amount of money to the states which they are supposed to spend on local railway service. Some states hand this money on to local Verkehrsverbünde while others have one big pot at the state level. The state or the Verkehrsverbund that has been given the authority to do so by the state then sets timetables and train requirements (for example one train every hour with a specific number of first and second class seats, Wi-fi and level boarding) and asks for bids from all over Europe. Usually DB will be among those bidding, but often other operators will ask for a lower subsidy and thus get the contract. Bidding for a new contract usually starts before the old contract has run out. Contract terms tend to be quite long: on some routes DB still operates under contracts that weren't subject to open bidding or where DB was the only bidder. This is one of the main reasons why Wi-fi is very rare on local trains: operators are not obligated to provide anything not stipulated in the original contract. The contracts are often rather specific and some observers joke that the only thing a railway operator actually gets to choose is the colour scheme and the wages of employees - naturally leading to claims of DB's private competition undercutting DB's union wages still influenced by former civil servant contracts.
Almost all long distance trains are run by Deutsche Bahn. All major cities are linked by DB's ICE (InterCity Express) and regular IC (InterCity) trains.
- InterCity Express (ICE) trains. High speed trains capable of speeds up to 320 km/h (200 mph). The condition of tracks and signals however allows top speeds of only 160 km/h (99 mph) on unmodified legacy tracks, 200 km/h (120 mph) on routes with special electronic equipment called "Ausbaustrecke" (the Berlin Hamburg railway is an Ausbaustrecke built for 230 km/h (140 mph)), or 250 km/h (160 mph) to 300 km/h (190 mph) on designated high-speed tracks called "Neubaustrecke". The top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph) is reached on the journey from Frankfurt to Paris, France. Although significantly faster than by road, they can also be expensive, with a 1-hour-trip (Frankfurt to Cologne, around 180 km) costing up to €67 one-way ("Flexpreis", i.e. walk up fare without any discount). However when you book the ticket in advance and are a bit flexible with hour and date of travel, you can get a considerable discount. All domestic ICEs are electric. There are several different types of ICE, but they are all fairly similar to one another and only distinguishable for non-enthusiasts by their top speed and age. One notable difference is the ICE 4 which was introduced into regular service in December 2017 and is the only ICE which carries bicycles. The order for the ICE 4 was one of the biggest in DB history and it will take into the mid 2020s before all ordered trains enter service.
- ICE Sprinter. The same trains as regular ICEs, but they run non-stop between major cities or have only one intermediate stop. Their travel times are all below four hours in order to equal or beat door to door travel times of the airlines. There is no surcharge for using ICE Sprinter services anymore, but cheap early bird tickets may be scarcer for them. For example, an ICE Sprinter trip between Berlin and Munich takes just about 4 hours.
- InterCity (IC) trains. Fairly comfortable, even if they lack the high-tech feeling of the ICE. ICE trains are only faster than IC trains on purpose-built tracks or existing track which has been upgraded. Older ICs are locomotive hauled single level stock dating back as far as the 1970s, but most were built or refurbished in the 1990s or later. Old ICs have top speeds up to 200 km/h. In 2016 DB introduced a slew of new bi-level Intercity stock, called "Intercity 2". They have a top speed of 160 km/h (99 mph) and are fairly modern and comfy with electric outlets, reclining seats and at-your-seat snack and drink service, but the space for luggage is rather limited, so avoid them if you have a lot of stuff to carry — however there's usually space under the seats if all else fails. On some routes IC trains are hauled by Diesel locomotives, but this is getting rarer as more routes are electrified and more routes are operated by multiple units that make switching out the motive power difficult.
- EuroCity (EC) trains. Connect larger European cities and are virtually identical to IC trains. Many EC trains are provided by neighboring railway operators (for example the Prague-Hamburg route operated 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, EC trains, especially those that travel very long distances, are more prone to delays than purely domestic services.
- EuroCity Express trains. Introduced in December 2017, they only serve the Frankfurt-Milan corridor and the Munich-Zurich corridor with stops in Switzerland. Unlike all other train categories, there is a mandatory (but free) reservation and tickets are bound to a specific train even for "Flexpreis" tickets (but Flexpreis tickets can be rebooked to another train free of charge subject to availability). The trains are Swiss tilting trains of the ETR 610 family with a top speed of 250 km/h (160 mph). Unlike EC, IC and ICE, the category "EuroCity Express" is not yet used by other railways - not even the Swiss and Italian ones, so these trains will show up on Swiss and Italian schedules as regular EC.
However, given the caveats above about top speeds of certain lines, you might want to check if the ICE is significantly faster than regional and local trains before you shell out for an ICE ticket. Still, early bird tickets are often priced very much in line with expected demand and faster trips tend to be more expensive than a trip with many changes or along slower lines between the same endpoints.
There are also long-distance trains operated by other companies than Deutsche Bahn (see below), usually running over secondary routes with cheaper track access charges. These are usually comfortable enough (although not as comfortable as ICE) and sometimes considerably cheaper, but their stopping pattern can be both vastly more frequent or vastly more infrequent than comparable DB trains. Before the liberalisation of the intercity bus market competition on long-distance train routes had been increasing. But since the buses were generally even cheaper than the train services competing with DB, several companies exited the market, shelved plans to enter it or greatly reduced their services. With Flixbus now controlling well north of ninety percent of the intercity bus market, they are also the main competition to DB in the field of long distance trains.
Seat reservations are not mandatory but are recommended, especially if you are travelling on Fridays, Sundays or holidays, when trains are more likely to be full. That means with an Interrail or Eurail pass you can use domestic ICE trains (including Sprinter ICE trains, but not international ICE trains) without paying a supplement.
A seat reservation costs €4 in 2nd class and is included in the price of 1st class tickets. Seat reservations are valid for 15 minutes from the time the train departs. After that time other passengers can legitimately take your seat if you have not occupied it.
If you don't have or want to buy a seat reservation, look for a seat that hasn't been reserved at all, or that is only reserved for a section of the trip after you get off the train. Seat reservations are marked either with an electronic display above or in the seat or on a small paper sign at the window.
If your reserved train gets cancelled or delayed, you can have your seat reservation changed to another train at a DB Service counter or have it refunded via Passenger rights claim.
There is free Wi-Fi on virtually all ICEs, but not on ICs. As it is provided via a mobile signal, bandwidth can be lacking sometimes. To access the Wi-Fi just select "Wi-Fi on ICE" and the program should walk you through the next steps. On the second class, speed may be reduced after 200MB of usage per device. On some international trains, the Wi-Fi network may stop working when the train leaves Germany.
There is also an entertainment portal with around 50 series and movies free of charge. The full spectrum of around 1000 shows and movie is only available to maxdome customers. As the entertainment portal is accessed via onboard servers, it not affected by lack of bandwidth or other potential Wi-Fi issues. Similarly, the ICE Portal also offers free audiobooks and news (mostly in German) as well as some information about the trip and the next destination; you can also see where the train is on a map and how fast it's going.
In every train there is either a Bistro or a restaurant, where passengers can order drinks or snacks and enjoy them at a standing table or sitting down. They sometimes also bring these drinks on carts should you wish to stay in your seat. Payment can be made in cash or credit card, though the latter can be sometimes slow or even non operational as the terminal depends entirely on cellphone reception. Prices are on par to slightly more expensive than at the train station.
All announcements and signs on trains, including the approaching station and connections from there are conducted in German and English. The conductor can speak at least some English, whom you may ask should you miss a connection or require an assistance.
Selected cars at every train are quiet cabins, which do not allow noise or even cellphone rings; reservation costs the same as for seats in a normal car. Cabins for 6 people are also available, but may not be booked privately, i.e. 2 people in a 6-people cabin.
Most trains in Germany, apart from some local trains, have first and second class sections. First class passengers on long-distance trains get more room (three rather than four seats abreast, more legroom, seats which recline more) and - on ICE trains - you can ask the conductor to bring you drinks and food from the restaurant car. Drinks or food are not included in the fare, but seat reservation is. Second Class passengers are normally not allowed to sit in first class sections. The price difference between first and second class varies widely and there are separate BahnCards for first and second class, but sometimes you can get a first class ticket for a few euros more than a second class ticket. First Class is marked with the number 1 and (as per the European standard) a yellow stripe of paint on the outside of first class sections. First Class passengers can also enjoy lounge services in select lounges in major German train stations and lounges of partner railway companies outside Germany for international routes.
DB ended its sleeper train services in 2016, replacing them with a limited amount of regular ICEs running at night as well as some buses.
The main operator of sleeper trains in Germany is ÖBB, the Austrian state railway. Tickets for what they call Nightjet trains start at €29 for the cheapest seats and early booking. Sleepers or last minute bookings are naturally more expensive. Every sleeper ticket includes breakfast and can be booked via the DB website. You can book anything from your own compartment with bed and shower to a single seat in a six-seat compartment. ÖBB is modernising their fleet (some of which they bought from DB when DB got out of the night train business) and has announced intentions to run additional routes, however difficulties in getting regulatory approval and the fact that ÖBB intends to repair and service all trains in Austria limit the scope of possible expansion.
Operated by ÖBB
- NJ 40490/40421: Düsseldorf – Frankfurt – Nuremberg – Passau – Vienna
- NJ 420/421: Düsseldorf – Frankfurt – Nuremberg – Augsburg – Munich – Innsbruck
- NJ 490/491: Hamburg – Hanover – Nuremberg – Passau – Vienna
- NJ 40420/40491: Hamburg – Hanover – Nuremberg – Augsburg – Munich – Innsbruck
- NJ 40470/401: Hamburg – Zürich
- NJ 456/457: Berlin – Wrocław – Vienna
- NJ 470/471: Berlin – Zürich
- NJ 294/295: Munich – Rome
- NJ 40463/40236: Munich – Venice
- NJ 40295/40235: Munich – Milan
- NJ 424/425 and NJ 50490/50425: Vienna or Innsbruck – Munich - Nuremberg - Frankfurt-Cologne-Brussels
- EN 462/463: Budapest – Vienna – Salzburg – Munich, in cooperation with Hungarian Railway MÁV
- EN 498/50463: Zagreb – Ljubljana – Munich, in cooperation with Croatian Railway HŽ
- EN 480/60463: Rijeka – Ljubljana – Salzburg – Munich, in cooperation with Croatian Railway HŽ
Other night trains
- Berlin Night Express: Berlin – Malmö, operated by Snälltåget and only runs in summer
- №23/24: Moscow – Berlin – Paris, operated by Russian Railways
- Nachtexpress a summer season sleeper train from Sylt to Salzburg. Booking is per six person compartment - whether there's one person or six in your group, you pay the same fare.
BahnTouristikExpress — a company which specializes in renting out trains to tour operators and private groups — runs a train service (BTE AutoReiseZug) from Lörrach in the Southwest of Germany, close to Basel, Switzerland, and the French Alsace to Hamburg-Altona year round. ÖBB Nightjet also runs car trains (Autoreisezug) from Vienna and Innsbruck to Hamburg Altona and Düsseldorf. DB stopped running its own car trains (except for the Sylt train, which is only a 50-minute ride) in 2016.
Regular car trains link the island of Sylt with the mainland, operated by DB (under the brand Sylt Shuttle) and the private company Autozug Sylt, a subsidiary of the American Railroad Development Company (RDC) (the only other link to the mainland is a ferry from Denmark.) Their prices are broadly similar, though -as the newer entrant to the market-Autozug Sylt tries to undercut DB. Unlike most non-regional trains in Germany, there is no discount for advance purchase of tickets, but there are discounts if you buy ten or twelve tickets at once and there is another discount for Sylt residents. The two companies use the same terminals in Sylt and 1 Niebüll.
Regional and local trains
Regional and local trains in Germany are conveniently referred to with the German word Nahverkehr. These trains come in several flavours:
- InterRegio-Express (IRE). The fastest type of regional train, calling only at a few stations. They usually cover longer distances than "normal" REs.
- Regional-Express (RE). Semi-express trains that skip some stations. On many routes, this is the highest available train category.
- Regional-Bahn (RB). Stops everywhere except that it may skip some S-Bahn stops.
- S-Bahn. Commuter network for a city or metropolitan area, which can nonetheless cover fairly long distances. Some S-Bahn trains are the only trains in Germany routinely not to offer a toilet, though this in part depends on the precise region and line and is getting rarer.
The majority of regional and local trains run once an hour or once every two hours from 05:00 or 06:00 to roughly 23:00 or even later. S-Bahn lines often have headways of 30 minutes or less which can come down to 15 minutes or even seven and a half minutes on trunk routes where several lines overlap. Between big cities in a major metropolitan area S-Bahn and regional trains may overlap in their route, giving more transportation options when you want to go from city centre to city centre.
On regional trains WiFi is still the exception rather than the rule. It is estimated that only around 10% of trains will have WiFi by 2020. WiFi was not a requirement in most current contracts for regional trains and there are not enough mobile phone masts along the lines.
On regional trains first class — if available at all — is usually pretty similar to second class, but as there is usually no reserved seating in either class, you're more likely to get a seat in first class on busy routes. Some operators however do try to justify the markup for first class by (for example) providing better seats or seat pitch or reserving the upper deck on bi-level stock for first class.
Many companies apart from Deutsche Bahn 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. With very rare exceptions you can buy tickets valid on non-DB trains with standard DB vending machines, but not the other way round.
Reserved seating on local trains
By and large you can't reserve a seat on local trains. However, the first class surcharge in many ways works as a de facto "seat reservation" because first class almost never gets so full no seats are available (and obviously a first class ticket entitles you to ride in second class just as well). However, some commuter lines have experimented with reserved seats as a further enticement for people to buy monthly or yearly tickets. There may then be seats marked with numbers and an explanation in German (and sometimes also in English) that the seat should be given up to someone who has a reservation. In practice this is usually only an issue during the morning and evening rush hour. On a handful of regional trains you can also buy a seat reservation (only at the ticket machine - not online or at the counter) for €1, but as they are limited, they may sell out even for trains where they are otherwise available.
Other train operators
Even though the German rail market has been liberalised for years, there are relatively few train operators other than DB, and they are all tiny. They can also be hard to use - they don't show up in the central train planner, and Eurail passes are not valid on them. They can be much cheaper than DB though, especially on short notice. DB seems to deliberately bunch its own IC/ICE trains around the departure times of competing services on some routes, so if the departure time of the competition agrees with you, you'll have more choice than usual.
Here are some examples:
- Alex. Alex trains offer (among other connections) a connection from Munich, Nuremberg or Regensburg to Prague from €23 one-way or €43 return ticket (Prag Spezial). Tickets can be bought on the train. On almost all of their trains you can buy snacks and drinks at very reasonable prices. Ultimately part of the Italian national railway (Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane) through a series of German subsidiaries.
- Flixbus / Flixtrain, the near monopolist in Intercity buses in Germany has taken over two independent operators on Hamburg-Cologne and Berlin-Stuttgart routes. They've subsequently added Berlin-Cologne service. When booking make sure you actually book a train, as Flixbus also sells bus tickets along the same routes. They plan to expand their network, including an extension of Berlin-Cologne service to Aachen and Leipzig by December 2019.
Apart from those, there are several steam or diesel heritage railways, often using narrow gauge tracks. They are usually not integrated into DB ticketing or Verkehrsverbund ticketing and can be significantly more expensive on a per km basis than mainline operators. They run the gamut from summer season and weekends only to daily operations that have significant transport value.
DB also operates a handful of IC Bus routes. They are fully integrated into DB's ticketing and fare system and are treated by the booking system like an InterCity train with mandatory free seat reservations. IC Buses mostly serve routes where the railway infrastructure does not allow high enough speeds for fast service and they usually have fewer stops than parallel train services.
Local buses are usually integrated into the ticket system of any given Verkehrsverbund and the DB City Ticket, which is available at no extra cost for many long distance tickets with a BahnCard discount, includes a ride on buses, trams, light rail and subway as applicable to/from your final destination within the origin/departure city.
Flixbus, being primarily a bus company sells tickets for its two rail routes as well as through tickets which combine its buses with trains. They do not, however, sell combined tickets with local trains.
Cooperation with airlines
- See also: Rail air alliances
Lufthansa has cooperated with DB in one form or another since the 1980s. For a time they even ran their own trains, complete with Lufthansa livery. Today, AIRail enables certain ICEs to be booked like a flight sector (you can even earn miles), with check-in at the train station. (You still have to drop your luggage off at the airport, though.) Practically all German airports are linked [dead link] to the mainline rail network, the local tram or the subway network. A handful of airports even have trains stopping there but no scheduled flights. You can usually buy a through ticket all the way to the airport through DB. Many airlines that fly to/from German airports offer rail&fly tickets . They usually have to be booked together with the flight. Such tickets are usually cheaper than a comparable domestic flight or even entirely free, depending on the airline and ticket type. Rail&fly lets you take any train from any station in Germany (and even some in adjacent countries) to the airport (again, even some non-German airports are part of the program) with any number of changes up to one day prior to departure, and to take any train from the airport to any station on the return journey. Rail&Fly is a standard feature for package holidays departing Germany, but if you book a flight only, a few airlines that nominally offer rail&fly can make it a bit difficult to book. You can check in for your Rail&Fly train trip up to 72 hours before departure on this website.
How to buy tickets
There are a several ways to buy tickets. If you are caught without a valid ticket, you have to pay at least a €60 penalty fare.
On the Internet/Mobile App
Printing online tickets
For a long time you either had to print your online ticket, or show it via the DB Navigator app. However, the DB terms and conditions (6.3.2 and 6.3.3) allow you to simply show the PDF document (with the barcode) on a mobile device. There might still be tickets that you need to print (such as bicycle reservations), or some uninformed ticket inspector or bus driver might refuse to accept the PDF document. If you want to be on the safe side, then you should either print the ticket or show it via the app.
You can buy tickets on the DB website or via the DB Navigator App. The journey planner will automatically show the cheapest possible fares, including any early-booking discounts. However, some offers for regional trains may not show up unless you remove the checkmark for "prefer fast connections" and/or add the checkmark for "regional trains only".
You either need to print the ticket or present it via the app. Showing the ticket as PDF document on a mobile device might be accepted (see infobox).
When making the booking you have to specify your name (as well as those in your travelling party) and the ticket is only valid for you and those in your travelling party. Upon ticket inspection you may have to show some form of identification (passport or EU ID card, but driver's licenses are not accepted) for both types of tickets.
On the DB website, you can book tickets without an account, however for the app, you need to create one. If you use an account on the DB website, your tickets will automatically be available in the app. Otherwise, you can always input the ticket's confirmation number and your last name to retrieve your reservation in the app.
You can also buy tickets online and have them mailed anywhere in the world for €3.90. You don't need to show ID when travelling with such tickets, but if they are lost in the mail DB will not replace them.
Beware of travel agent sites that appear when searching for the DB website. They pay heavily to appear at the top of search results, and may overcharge significantly. Be sure to use the official site linked above.
In addition to long distance tickets, you may also use the DB Navigator app to purchase most kinds of tickets for most local transport associations even if you do not have a long distance train journey. This is handy if you do not prefer to use cash (which may be the only way to pay for some tickets) or do not have a German address (which may be required if you want to use the apps specific to each transport associations).
At a vending machine
At a station, find a ticket machine with a touchscreen, choose your language, and then navigate through the menus. Like the online journey planner, it will automatically suggest the fastest routes. The machines sell all DB train tickets including some international tickets, special tickets (both for long-distance and regional and local trains) and tickets for local transport. Touchscreen machines accept credit cards, older ones do not.
Ticket machines for local Verkehrsverbund are yellow, white or grey. They can be used to buy tickets for local transport, including DB trains. On secondary routes, vending machines inside trains are becoming more common, usually leaving smaller stations without vending machines.
Many local machines and old DB machines require you to enter a four-digit code for your destination, found on a panel of densely packed print nearby. Press 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: insert your money (quickly, since the timeout is quite fast), and the machine will spit out your tickets and change. Vending machines give max. €9.90 change in coins and will not accept larger notes. For new blue DB machines, select the local tariff union in the top menu, and the rest is easy.
If a station is not equipped with a vending machine or if all the machines are out of order, you have to buy your ticket from a manned ticket counter. If this isn't available either or it is closed, you are allowed to buy your ticket on the train. If there is no vending machine on the train, you have to approach the staff right away and ask them what to do. You should then be able to buy a ticket without paying a surcharge. However, it is usually much less hassle to just buy a ticket via the app.
At a manned ticket counter
Go to the Reisezentrum at any major train station. You might have to take a number and wait until it is called. It is becoming less common to buy tickets at the counter, but if your itinerary is unusual or you can't make heads or tails of the machines, talking to an actual human being can be a godsend. DB charges €2 extra for some special tickets (for regional and local trains) if bought at the ticket counter.
On the train
On long-distance trains, you can buy a ticket from the conductor, but it costs €19 extra. All "main conductors" (the Zugchef in German) speak English, as do most other conductors (though the quality of the English they speak is debatable).
On regional and local trains, tickets are usually not sold so you need to buy them at the station. Signs on platforms or on trains saying Einstieg nur mit gültigem Fahrausweis mean that you have to have a ticket before you board. Drivers on buses and trams usually do sell tickets, though they might not have (or know about) all ticket types. Some regional trains do sell tickets on board either through machines or via conductors. This is usually also shown on the door upon entry. Of course you should buy a ticket as soon as you board in those cases.
Standard tickets (Flexpreis; flexible fare) have the fewest restrictions, but can be quite expensive. The maximum price for a standard ticket (single rail journey within Germany) is €142 in 2nd class and €237 in first class. They are valid for 1 day (trips of up to 100 km) and for 2 days (trips more than 200 km) to travel between a specified departure and destination train station and are not tied to a specific train. Sometimes the word "via" followed by either some cryptic code or a city name will appear on your ticket. That means the ticket is only valid for the specific route booked and not for a different route to the same destination.
Unlike in other countries, standard tickets do not get sold out for a specific train. If you don't have a seat reservation (which costs extra for 2nd class), then you might have to stand or sit on the floor if the train is very busy. When booking long-distance tickets on the DB website, the search results for a train journey will indicate how full/busy the train is likely going to be.
BahnCard holders get discounts on all standard DB tickets. A BahnCard can be of great use if you plan to travel by train a lot or a long-term stay in Germany. BahnCards are typically valid for one year from the date of purchase and is renewed automatically unless cancelled in writing at least six weeks before the end of validity. They can be bought at train stations for immediate discounts. If you do that you'll get a temporary (paper) card and you will need to supply a European postal address to get the proper plastic card. Alternatively, one can purchase a 'digital' BahnCard on the DB Navigator app; upon completion, a barcode which contains important information about your subscription will be generated and you can retrieve it whenever you open the app. Ticket inspectors on trains will normally insist that you present not only your ticket, but also the BahnCard used to claim any discount and some form of official ID with a photo. You may present your 'digital' BahnCard in lieu of the physical one during inspection.
The BahnCard discount doesn't necessarily apply to all regional transport day tickets, but some do offer their own discounts for BahnCard holders. BahnCard holders can also get discounts on international trains, as long as the journey originates or terminates somewhere in Germany.
There are three variations of BahnCard. The normal BahnCards are offered for passengers ages 27 and above:
- BahnCard 25. Costs €55,70 (concessions €36,90) for 2nd class (€112/€72,90 for 1st class) and grants you a 25% discount on all standard tickets for a year. Spouses/partners and kids of BahnCard 25 holders can get additional cards for €5 each. The BahnCard 25 discount can be combined with any Sparpreis discounts. (In effect granting you a further 25% discount on an already discounted fare.)
- BahnCard 50. Costs €229 (concessions €114) for 2nd class (€463/€226 for 1st class) and grants you a 50% discount on all standard tickets as well as a 25% discount on Sparpreis tickets for a year.
- BahnCard 100. Costs €4027 for 2nd class (€6812 for 1st class). Unlimited travel for a year on all trains and in many cities even all public transportation. Night trains cost extra. You'll need to bring a photo to buy a BahnCard 100. Holders of 2nd class BahnCard 100 still have to pay for seat reservations; holders of first class ones do not, just like with normal tickets.
There are also variations of the BahnCard 25 and BahnCard 50:
- Probe BahnCard 25 / Probe BahnCard 50. ("Probe" is the German word for test/trial/sample.) More suitable if you're not ready to commit, don't need a card for a whole year, or will be in Germany only for a short time (but will spend a lot of time commuting by train), these cards are valid for three months and entitle holders to the same discounts as the regular BahnCards listed above. A Probe BahnCard 25 costs €17,90 (2nd class) or €35,90 (1st class), and a Probe BahnCard 50 costs €71,90 (2nd class) or €143 (1st class). Probe BahnCards become regular ones unless cancelled at least six weeks before the end of their validity.
- My BahnCard 25 / My BahnCard 50. These cards can be bought by anyone under the age of 27 and entitle the holder to the same discounts listed above. My BahnCard 25 costs €34,90 (2nd class) or €72,90 (1st class), and My BahnCard 50 costs €61,90 (2nd class) or €226 (1st class). As with other cards these get renewed automatically unless cancelled at least six weeks before the end of their validity.
- Jugend BahnCard 25. Open to anyone aged 6 to 18, costs €9 and entitles the holder to a 25% discount, so it often pays off on the first trip. It's valid in 1st and 2nd class. Remember that under 14s travel for free with their parents or grandparents. Unlike other BahnCards, they are valid for up to five years, or until their 19th birthday, whichever comes first.
Special tickets (long-distance trains)
Standard fares are relatively expensive, but special promotions and prices exist. Your best course of action is to check the DB offers page, to ask at a train station, or call them for current details. If you search for a connection with the journey planner, it automatically offers you the most favourable discount for the journey in addition to the standard fare.
Saver fares (Sparpreis) are low-cost one-way tickets for journeys that include long-distance trains (ICE or IC/EC). Regional trains can be added to complete the journey. These tickets are limited, and the actual price varies according to demand. You should purchase them as far in advance as possible (up to 180 days before the departure date), though they can be available minutes before departure for some routes and times. You can use the saver fare finder to find the cheapest saver fare variant.
The following saver fares are offered:
- Sparpreis (Saver fare). Prices start at €21.50 (second class) and €32.30 (first class). BahnCard customers get a 25% discount on top of those prices. The ticket includes a City-Ticket for trips longer than 100km. The ticket can be refunded up to one day before its validity at a cost of €10. The refund is given as a DB voucher. DB offers "insurance" on Sparpreis offers that covers cancellation and rebooking in case of major injury or illness, but it is not really worth it compared to other travel insurance. First class customers are entitled to use the DB Lounge.
- Super Sparpreis (Super saver fare). Prices start at €17.90 (second class) or €26.90 (first class). BahnCard customers get a 25% discount on top of those prices. The ticket cannot be refunded (unlike "normal" Sparpreis tickets) and they do not include a City-Ticket. First class customers are not entitled to use the DB Lounge in the stations.
- Sparpreis Europa and Super Sparpreis Europa (Saver fare Europe and Super saver fare Europe). 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 online, this may be the case. There are often some specific routes or start points near the border which can net you even cheaper fares.
- Sparpreis Gruppe (Group saver fare). For groups of six or more people. Prices start at €9.90 (second class) or €27.90 (first class) per person, and include seat reservations. These tickets can be booked up to 12 months in advance at the ticket counter, or up to 6 months in advance online. For short journeys, the regional train day tickets can be cheaper.
Unlike standard tickets, any Sparpreis ticket is valid only on the train booked so you cannot use them on an earlier or later train. That restriction only applies to the long-distance trains of your journey. You can use different regional trains if your ticket includes both regional and long distance trains. 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. If your expected arrival at the final destination is longer than 20 min, you are no longer bound by the restriction.
Deutsche Bahn also offers — usually without too much advance notice — some special offers on a semi-regular basis. Usually they are fixed-price tickets that can be used for pretty much any train (sometimes certain days of the week or hours of departure, e.g. Friday evening are excluded). Those tickets are often sold at supermarkets, other types of store or online. While they may be more expensive than the cheapest early bird tickets in some cases, they usually offer the benefit of being flexible until you board the train and fill them out.
L’TUR offers last-minute tickets for €25 (or €35 for an international trip) 1–7 days before departure.
Special tickets (regional and local trains)
On many shorter connections, local trains are not much slower than long-distance trains (IC, EC, ICE). Most of the special tickets for regional and local trains are automatically offered in addition to the standard fare if you use the DB journey planner and select the Only local transport option.
Almost all special offers for regional travel are available at all times and can be bought in advance or minutes before departure.
There are discounted tickets for trips with specific maximum lengths within a certain region (e.g. 150 km or less within Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia) either one way or round trip. There are also fixed prices for certain connections, e.g. Berlin-Hamburg in an InterRegio-Express.
Day tickets are valid for one day in all DB regional and local trains (S, RB, SE, RE and IRE), some private local trains and often include public transport (subway light rail and bus) in cities and allow for unlimited travel. They are often cheaper than single or return tickets. All day tickets can be purchased online and at ticket machines at railway stations. You cannot buy them from the conductor.
All of these tickets are group tickets, but can be used by a single traveller as well. There are few general rules to keep in mind:
- The price of the ticket usually depends upon the number of travellers with a relatively high base price and a small supplement for every other member of the group up to five.
- The ticket must bear the name of (at least) one member of the group. That person may be asked for ID. Sometimes all members of the group will have to be mentioned on the ticket.
- Most Ländertickets are only valid for second class (although in some states they are also offered for first class for a higher price). The difference between first and second class on regional trains is small to non-existent, and some trains don't even have first class. On the other hand first class may be empty on an otherwise crowded train.
The most common day tickets are:
- Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket (QdL). Valid for one day on all regional trains in Germany from 09:00 until 03:00 the following day. The ticket costs €44 for one person and €8 for every additional person (there is a maximum of five people in total).
- Länder-Ticket . This ticket is valid within one federal state (Bundesland) or a collective of them (usually, a few short links across the border are included). Specific Länder-Tickets cover more than one state: a Länder-Ticket bought in either Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt or Thüringen are valid in all of those three states together, the same holds for Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland, while a Länder ticket bought in Schleswig-Holstein is also valid in Hamburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, but not the other way round. The Länder-Ticket is valid between 09:00 till 03:00 the next day on working days, or between 00:00 till 03:00 the next day on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. Tickets are priced differently, but expect to cash out at least €20 for one person and €6 for an additional person. A few states still have flat-rate tickets that cost the same for one or groups of up to five people.
- Cross border day tickets. In some areas a ticket is available for travel within the state or a part of it plus an adjacent region across an international border. Their conditions are often similar to the Ländertickets.
If for some reason the door doesn't open there is usually some mechanism to open it manually. If you can, ask a conductor before doing so, 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 event of an accident the doors may be impassable or not within reach. You can create other escape routes by breaking the windows. This is usually done by hitting the small red dot on top of the window with the red hammer. You can then safely remove the broken window. Make sure that the drop is not too deep before you exit the train.
Intercity buses in Germany — frequently a competitor worth checking out