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Germany's rail system is fast and reliable and covers most points of interest. While tickets booked "last minute" can be expensive, a bit of planning can make tickets surprisingly cheap. Despite the rise of Intercity buses in Germany, trains are still the main mode besides cars for travelers to get around. A train journey from Hamburg in the north to Munich in the south will usually take less than 6 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.
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 localized versions for many places and is available 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 cannot sell tickets 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.
According to Deutsche Bahn figures, train travel is rather "green". In 2014 one passenger kilometer of travel with a DB long distance train emitted on average 11 grams of CO2 while one passenger kilometer by car emitted 142 grams. Local and regional trains emit more, since they tend to use less renewable energy and more diesel.
Germany has over 40,000 kilometers 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. Almost all major German cities have a "Hauptbahnhof" (central railway station) or "Hbf." These are often in the center of town and have accommodations, restaurants, and attractions nearby. Some larger German cities, such as Berlin and Hamburg, have more than one main line station. In some cities (most notably Kassel) long-distance trains like ICEs might stop at another station than local trains. If the city has public transit such as S-Bahn, U-Bahn, or even buses, Hauptbahnhof will often be the hub for every local line and transit service. Small towns usually have a single platform station and normally only regional and local trains stop there. No German town above 100 000 inhabitants lacks rail service and most towns above 20 000 inhabitants have regular rail service.
Timetables and standard fares are generally valid for one year. A new timetable comes into effect each December, usually being published in mid October. On most routes tickets can be booked up to 180 days ahead and if you know your itinerary this far ahead, it is advisable to book so early as there are next to no last minute offers and pre-booked tickets rise in price on a "first come first served" basis. However, most Germans don't book more than one week ahead, with the possible exception of international tickets.
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 different 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 over 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.
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 that are capable of speeds up to 320 km/h, the condition of tracks and signals however allows top speeds of only 160 km/h (unmodified legacy tracks), 200 km/h (routes with special electronic equipment called "Ausbaustrecke"; the Berlin Hamburg railway is an Ausbaustrecke built for 230 km/h) 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 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 run on electric traction. 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 will start regular service in December 2017 and will be the only part of the ICE fleet to carry bicycles.
- ICE Sprinter are physically the same trains as "normal" ICEs, but they run non-stop between major cities or have only one intermediate stop. Their travel times are all below four hours and compete directly with airlines. There is no surcharge for using ICE Sprinter services, but cheap early bird tickets may be scarcer for them.
- 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 InterCities 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 bilevel Intercity stock, called "Intercity 2" and also marked as such on their website. They have a top speed of 160 km/h 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 EuroCity trains are provided by neighboring railway operators. (The Prague-Hamburg route is operated by Czech railways, for example). 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 EuroCity trains, especially those that travel very long distances, are more prone to delays than purely domestic services.
- EuroCityExpress trains to be introduced with the December 2017 schedule change, they only serve the Frankfurt-Milan 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.
Before you shell out for an ICE ticket, you may want to check if the ICE is significantly faster than regional and local trains.
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.
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 €4.50 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.
Wi-Fi and on-board entertainment
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. There is a cap on maximum traffic, but you'd have to be using the Wi-Fi pretty heavily to reach the limit. On international trains, the Wi-Fi stops working when the train leaves Germany. Since April 2017, there is also an entertainment portal with series and movies. Some 50 monthly rotating works are accessible free of charge, while the full roughly 1000 entry program is only available to paying customers of maxdome. As the entertainment portal is accessed via onboard servers, it does not get affected by lack of bandwidth or other potential Wi-Fi issues. Similarly, the ICE Portal also offers free audiobooks and news (most of it in German only) 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.
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 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 (4.50€ in second class) is. Second class passengers are not normally allowed to sit in first class sections. The price difference between first and second class varies widely and there are separate Bahn Cards for first and second class, but sometimes you can get a first class ticket for a few Euros more than a second class ticket.
At 15 major stations across Germany, first class passengers can access DB Lounges. They have more comfortable seating, WiFi, free drinks, newspapers and work spaces. DB lounges are also open to members of Deutsche Bahn's bahn.bonus loyalty programme who have reached comfort level. (Similar to frequent flyer programmes.) Deutsche Bahn's website lists all lounges and provides further details. Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich main stations have lounges with special areas reserved for first class passengers only, where passengers are also served light snacks.
Regional and local trains
Regional and local trains in Germany 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.
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.
The majority of regional and local trains run once an hour or once every two hours from 5:00 or 6:00 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 center to city center.
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. While coverage will improve slowly, some have asked whether it makes sense to invest in providing WiFi on trains given that the price of accessing the internet directly from mobile phones keeps falling.
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 for first class.
Integrated public transport systems (Verkehrsverbund)
Urban transport systems are usually run by local companies that are publicly owned: these may include subways, city buses, light rail and even regional trains.
In larger urban areas, local companies will often form a Verkehrsverbund (integrated public transport system) or VB: You can travel in and between all participating cities using the same tickets and fares. 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 in recent years 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 Verkerhsverbund expansion.
That said, there is a (slight) downside to the Verkehrsverbund as the DB website often can't quote a price for trips entirely within one Verkehrsverbund. If you know the name of the relevant Verkehrsverbund, just go to its website and buy the ticket there. Ticket machines at train stations are usually equipped to sell tickets within the same Verkehrsverbund (as well as DB tickets). Failing that, there are usually machines specifically for Verkehrsverbund tickets. If you don't have a ticket before you get to the station, don't worry because regional tickets cost the same no matter when you book, just make sure you have some time to find a ticket machine, wait in line if necessary and navigate to your ticket; fare inspectors won't take "I didn't have any time to buy a ticket" as an excuse and you'll be fined 60€ for not having a ticket. If there is a stamping machine on the platform, chances are tickets need to be stamped prior to boarding. An unstamped ticket is not valid and will be treated as attempted fare evasion, even for foreigners and first time offenders.
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.
- EN 490/491: Hamburg – Hanover – Nuremberg – Passau – Vienna
- EN 40490/40421: Düsseldorf – Frankfurt – Nuremberg – Passau – Vienna
- EN 420/421: Düsseldorf – Frankfurt – Nuremberg – Augsburg – Munich – Kufstein – Innsbruck
- EN 40420/40491: Hamburg – Hanover – Nuremberg – Augsburg – Munich – Kufstein – Innsbruck
- EN 470/471: Zürich – Basel Badischer Bahnhof – Frankfurt – Erfurt – Berlin – Hamburg
- EN 294/295, EN 40463/40236, EN 40295/40235: Munich – Salzburg – Rome/Venice/Milan
Operated in cooperation with ÖBB by other national railroads
- EN 40406/40477 Vienna-Prague-Dresden-Berlin
- EN 462/463 Budapest-Vienna-Salzburg-Munich
- EN 498/50463 Zagreb-Ljubljana-Munich
- EN 480/60463 Rijeka-Ljubljana-Salzburg-Munich
Operated by Snälltåget
- Berlin-Malmö (in the summer only).
Operated by Russian Railways
Operated by Schnee Express
Schnee Express ("snow express") runs a winter season night train aimed at ski tourists from Hamburg (with several other stops in Germany) all the way to Austria.
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.
BahnTouristikExpress — a company which specializes in renting out trains to tour operators and private groups — runs a train service from Lörrach in the Southwest of Germany, close to Basel and the French Alsace to Hamburg-Altona year round. There is also Euro-Express with a line from Düsseldorf to Verona, Italy with another route to Livorno starting service in July 2017. This service is summer season only and operates May-September with one weekly departure each way per destination. ÖBB also runs car trains 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 December 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. Both companies use the same terminal in both Sylt and 1 Niebüll.
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.
- Hamburg-Köln-Express (HKX). This train operates between Cologne and Hamburg from Friday till Monday (one train per day for each direction). DB tickets are not valid on this train.
- Alex. This company offers (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.
- Harz Berlin Express this train is a weekend and holiday only extension of a regular regional train. While the part that is "ordered" and paid for by the state can be taken with a regular DB ticket, only tickets specifically for this train (not sold by DB or at DB ticket machines) are valid for the whole trip between places in the Harz and Berlin. As the current contract runs out in 2018 and the company running this train has not won the bidding process for this route, it is doubtful whether any form of the Harz Berlin Express will operate after that.
- Locomore trains run "4-5 times" a week, the single route covers Berlin-Wolfsburg-Frankfurt-Stuttgart. Train tickets are sold via the Flixbus website. Flixbus also sets ticket prices, so they vary considerably, depending on demand. Originally "the world's first crowd-funded rail company", Locomore's train and route were taken over by Czech bus and train operator Leo Express.
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 lone rail route 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, rented from DB and complete with Lufthansa livery. Today, AIRail enables certain ICEs to be booked like a flight sector (you can even earn miles) and checking in at the train station. (You still have to drop your luggage off at the airport, though.) With very few exceptions, German airports are linked to either the mainline rail network or the local tram or subway network. 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.
How to buy tickets
There are a several different ways to buy tickets:
- Online or via the DB 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. An email or PDF document on a screen is unlikely to be accepted. If you create an account on the DB website, your tickets will automatically be available in the app.
- When making the booking you have to specify your name and the ticket is only valid for you. On 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.
- 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 overcharge significantly. Be sure to use the official site linked above.
- 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.
- 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 €12.50 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) all tickets that exist. 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.
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.
If you are caught without a valid ticket, you have to pay at least a €60 penalty fare.
Standard tickets (Flexpreis) 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 100km) and for 2 days (trips more than 200km) 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 reaching the same endpoint.
Regional train tickets are point-to-point, with the destination printed 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. If you have a BahnCard this is usually included (indicated by + City below the departure and/or destination city).
Verkehrsverbund (regional and local trains only)
Each Verkehrsverbund (VB) has a single integrated tariff system. Any travel within a single Verkehrsverbund is "local" and usually quite cheap. However any travel between different Verkehrsverbünde (VBs) requires either a special fare (within North Rhine-Westphalia) or the full DB fare and will usually be considerably more expensive.
DB trains often cross between VBs with at best a cryptic "three letter acronym (that being the Verkehrsverbund) only till X" (in German) on the display at the platform and sometimes no warning at all, and your "local" ticket stops being valid the instant you cross the invisible line. On some trains there is an announcement upon leaving a Verkehrsverbund, but don't count on it.
If you buy a local VB ticket, you will usually have to validate it by time stamping it at machines on platforms. If you are caught without a valid ticket you might be fined as a fare dodger. Unstamped tickets are not valid tickets.
Ticket validity varies 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 or groups, and one-day tickets (Tageskarte) are usually cheaper and much less hassle than single tickets, although zone limits apply to them as well.
At local ticket offices ('Reisezentrum') you can often pick up brochures explaining all the details, usually with helpful maps, and occasionally even in English.
BahnCard holders get discounts on all standard DB tickets. A BahnCard is a good choice if you plan to travel by train a lot. BahnCards are typically valid for one year from the date of purchase. The contract gets renewed automatically unless cancelled in writing at least six weeks before the end of the twelve months. You can buy a BahnCard at train stations (or online) and use it to get discounts right away. 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. 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.
If your ticket has "+City" printed next to the station you start your trip at or next to the destination, you can use the ticket on local public transport to get to/from the station.
The BahnCard discount doesn't 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 involves crossing a border.
There are endless varieties of BahnCard. The most common ones are the BahnCard 25 and BahnCard 50:
- BahnCard 25. Costs €62 (concessions €41) for 2nd class (€125/€81 for 1st class) and grants you a 25% discount on all standard tickets. Spouses/partners and kids of BahnCard 25 holders can get additional cards for €5 each. The BahnCard 25 discount can be combined with Sparpreis and Europa-Spezial discounts. (In effect granting you a further 25% discount on an already discounted fare.)
- BahnCard 50. Costs €255 for 2nd class (€515 for 1st class) and grants you a 50% discount on all standard tickets as well as a 25% discount on Sparpreis tickets. Schoolchildren, students up to the age of 26, pensioners aged at least 60 and the disabled can buy a BahnCard 50 for €127.
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 or don't need a card for a whole year, 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 €19 (2nd class) or €39 (1st class), and a Probe BahnCard 50 costs €79 (2nd class) or €159 (1st class). Probe BahnCards become regular ones unless cancelled at least six weeks before the end of the three months.
- My BahnCard 25 / Probe 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 €39 (2nd class) or €81 (1st class), and My BahnCard 50 costs €69 (2nd class) or €252 (1st class). As with other cards these get renewed automatically unless cancelled at least six weeks before the end of their validity.
- BahnCard 100. Costs €4090 for 2nd class (€6890 for 1st class). Unlimited rides for a year on almost all trains and in many cities even on buses, trams and metros. Night trains cost extra. You'll need to bring a photo to buy a BahnCard 100. Holders of 2nd class BahnCard 100 pay for seat reservations, holders of first class ones do not, just like with normal tickets.
- Jugend BahnCard 25. Open to anyone aged 6 to 18, costs €10 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 the holder is 18, whichever comes first.
Standard fares are relatively expensive, but special promotions and prices exist. Your best course of action is to check the DB offers page or 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.
If you plan to travel a bit more extensively, a BahnCard or rail pass may be the better choice.
Discount tickets for long-distance trains are limited and may be sold out for your initial choice, so try out several departure times. The following discount tickets are offered:
- Sparpreis (Saver fare) are low-cost one-way tickets, that cost from €19 for journeys up to 250 km, or from €29 for longer journeys. There are also semi-regular "specials" for €19 tickets even for longer distances. 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 as far in advance as possible (they are for sale starting 180 days before the departure date), though they can be available minutes before departure for some routes and times. 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 online, 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 regional train day tickets can be cheaper.
- Last-Minute-Tickets for €25 (or €35 for an international trip) are offered by L’TUR and can be found 1–7 days before departure.
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. Usually Sparpreis tickets can only be cancelled prior to the first day of validity and there is a 15€ cancellation fee. 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.
Deutsche Bahn also offers — usually without too much advance notice — some special offers on a semi-regular basis. Usually they are a (number of) fixed price ticket(s) 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.
Regional and local trains
On many shorter connections, local trains are not much slower than long-distance trains (IC, EC, ICE). Check the travel time at the online timetable and select the Only local transport button.
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 traveler as well. There are few general rules to keep in mind:
- The price of the ticket usually depends upon the number of travelers 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.
- While some Ländertickets are available for first class (provided you pay extra) they are only valid for second class unless specified otherwise. 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:
- Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket (loosely translated as "Lovely Weekend Ticket"). This ticket lets you travel anywhere in Germany on a Saturday or Sunday from 00:00 until 03:00 the following day and costs €40 for one person and €4 for additional people (there is a maximum of five people in total). While the old days when a dirt cheap schönes Wochenende Ticket could get a group of five around Germany for the price of a good book are long gone, it is still possible to get around cheaply with regional trains when you get a small group together.
- 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 offered for every federal state (Bundesland). It is an option if your travel is contained within a single state (usually, a few short links across the border are included). Specific Länder-Tickets cover more than one state. For example, the Länder-Tickets of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thüringen are valid in all of those three states together and you have to buy just one of them. The same holds for Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland. 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. Ticket prices begin at €23 for one person, €25 for two, and €29–49 for a group of up to five people. A few states still have flat-rate tickets that cost the same for a solo traveler or a group of five.
- Cross border day tickets. In some areas a ticket is available for travel within the state or a part of it and an adjacent region across an international border. Their conditions are often similar to the Ländertickets but they may be more expensive.
Sharing day tickets
While sharing day tickets existed in a grey zone for some time, Deutsche Bahn has now published their own App (for Android and iPhone) explicitly for sharing group tickets. Currently (May 2016) it only covers a handful of states, however the implementation of more states has already been announced.
Some locals look for other people at stations to share a journey with to reduce costs. If you know your itinerary, you can arrange a group on the Internet, buy a ticket and get started. For example, there's a website for searching for a travel companion.
Some people sell their day 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. Reusing such a ticket is illegal and (if caught) you may be charged with a crime.
German Rail Pass
A German Rail Pass allows 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 on the DB website or from travel agencies outside Germany.
Eurail offers a pass for 3–10 days of travel (which do not have to be consecutive) throughout Germany.
Youth and child discounts
Children younger than 6 travel for free and don't need a ticket (but you might want to reserve seats in a Familienabteil; family compartment), children aged 6 to fourteen (inclusive) can travel for free when traveling with their own parent or grandparent if that person pays a Flexpreis or Special price ticket. The number of children has to be specified when purchasing the ticket. There is also a discount for people aged below fifteen traveling in the company of someone who is not their parent or grandparent, but it is usually only 50%. Some special offers are explicitly limited to students or "young people" with a cutoff point usually in the mid twenties.
Train stations run the gamut from barely a bus shelter by the trackside to multilevel temples of transit with ample shopping (usually at least partially open on Sundays and public holidays) that are often architecturally stunning as well. In German there is a distinction between "Bahnhof" (Bhf.) and "Haltepunkt" (Hp.) with the former usually being major stations and the latter basically just a point along regular tracks where a train stops. As a rule of thumb you won't find many amenities at Haltepunkte - there might not even be toilets. Most train stations were built in the 19th century and some show very visible signs of their age.
Track layouts can be somewhat complicated in larger stations and track numbers are not necessarily always logical. One track number will usually only be assigned once per station, even if there are multiple levels, but platforms are not always in a logical and mathematical arrangement. Similarly individual numbers may be skipped. There may well be a track number 1, 2, 3 and 4 as well as track numbers 21 and 22. Tracks 21 and 22 may well be to the opposite of side 1 than track number 2. If you don't know the station, allow some time for connections, especially if it says "tief" on your ticket, which indicates the underground level on stations such as Frankfurt or Berlin main station.
Major train stations are virtually always a hub of local public transportation and you can usually hail a cab or rent a bike from a station as well. While most train stations were built on what was then cheap land outside the historic old town, subsequent development has meant that train stations are usually very close to at least one major center of business, retail and city life and often the center. "Sugar beet stations" as found along French high speed rail lines are very rare and even suburban stations surrounded by park & ride lots will usually have some bus service to get you to where you want to.
Despite being fast, modern and highly profitable, German railways are known among Germans for delays on main lines. Long-distance trains usually do not wait for one another in case of delays, whereas most local trains normally wait for up to 5 minutes. You should not rely on connecting times of less than 15 minutes. However, if you think you might miss your connection because the train you are on is delayed, talk to a conductor on board. They may be able to arrange for the connecting train to wait a little, or give you information on other connections you can take to reach your end destination.
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. However, you have to speak to a member of staff before you do this.
EU Passenger Rights mean you are entitled to a refund of 25% of the single ticket price if your train arrives at your destination an hour late, or 50% if arriving two or more hours late. However, for special day tickets for regional and local trains (for example Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket, Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket, Länder-Ticket), you only get a refund of €1.50 for delays of an hour or more. Refunds are only given if the refund value is more than €4, but you can claim a refund for multiple tickets at the same time. You can choose whether you want the refund in cash or as a voucher. It is best 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 miss the last train of the day due to a delay or a cancelled train and cannot continue your trip to your destination as a result, DB will either arrange an alternative way to complete the journey (like a taxi), or will arrange free overnight accommodation. However, the first step is always to contact DB (for example by speaking to the conductor on the delayed train, or personnel at the train station). Only if you cannot contact DB can you arrange for alternative transport or accommodation yourself. In such cases, a maximum of €80 is refunded.
In some cases, you can also get transportation back to your initial point of departure, if the delay makes your journey otherwise pointless.
Passenger rights are laid out by European legislation and even apply in many cases of "acts of god" (e.g. bad weather, suicides etc.).
If there is a dispute, SÖP can arbitrate between you and the railway company to find a mutually satisfactory solution (usually a reimbursement).
An overview for information on accessible travel is provided (in German). DB is required and makes an effort to make newly built stations and newly purchased rolling stock accessible. Furthermore existing stations are modernized and upgraded with elevators and the likes whenever possible. Unfortunately, there is an exemption for small stations, that don't have elevators, but local or state government sometimes pays for such modernization. One big issue keeping full accessibility and level boarding from happening are the different platform heights. Unlike most of Europe, two platform heights have historically been common in Germany and both are still used even in new construction.
A general service number for information and help about accessible travel is available daily from 06:00-22:00 on ☎ 0180 6512512. Calls cost €0.20 per call from a German landline, and a maximum of €1 per call from a mobile phone. If you need assistance boarding or changing trains, you can book this up to 20:00 one day before your trip by calling the phone number.
If you plan your journey online with the journey planner, information is provided in the detailed view (click on show details, then station information) for each station whether platforms can be reached with a wheel chair. The same information about each train station can be searched directly on this webpage (in German). In newer train stations platforms often provide level access to trains. However, some trains (especially older ones) still have stairs.
On IC/EC trains bikes cost €9 extra for a day (€6 if you have a BahnCard) and you must reserve a space in advance. On international routes the cost is €10 for one journey. Long-distance trains have a special section with bike holders. Follow the bike symbols near the carriage door. Bikes are not allowed on high-speed trains (ICE, Thalys, TGV). However, there are some bike spaces on the new fourth generation ICE to enter service after the December 2017 schedule change.
On local trains you do not need a reservation and you can usually put your bike in the open area near doors. In some Verkehrsverbünde, if you have a valid ticket for yourself you can bring your bike for free at off-peak hours. For short journeys outside the Verkehrsverbund you have to buy a bike supplement ticket for €5, valid on all local trains for one day. If there is no space for bicycles on the train, staff might refuse to let you on, even if you have a valid ticket. Át peak times, you might have to wait for the next train. Remove any bags attached to your bicycle to reduce the space it takes up (to allow other travellers to bring their bicycle aboard too). Secure your bike so that it does not fall over, or stay close to it and hold on it.
DB also has a luggage service which can send your bags to any address in Germany, including islands, cruise ships and major airports. Bags can also be delivered to Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Allow at least two working days for delivery. The service also transports bikes on most routes, which may be less hassle than taking it on the train. The service itself is provided by Hermes, a German parcel delivery company.
Train travel in Germany is very safe for train passengers. Most fatalities and serious injuries involving trains in Germany are the results of accidents at level crossings or people being on the tracks. In 2015, only around 2% of fatalities relating to train accidents were actually train passengers. There are however 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 plausibly explain why you thought the train was 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 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.