A comprehensive guide to train travel in Germany
Coming to Europe and wondering how to use the train system in Germany? Train travel in Germany is huge. As a German expat I use trains pretty much every time I visit friends and family in Germany. You may know this from my article on transportation for backpackers in Germany. There are a few things that are different than elsewhere. So I thought I’d write about my experience with Deutsche Bahn (German trains).
Tickets are 2 Euros more expensive if you buy them at the counter as opposed to online or at a ticket machine. If you buy an online ticket, make sure you have the actual pdf on your device, not just the screenshot. They do not accept pictures as valid tickets, even if the bar code is unique.
Check which ticket is the best option. Online you will see suggestions for ways to save. But some, you have to know about. For example, they offer state tickets. With these you can travel cheaply through one state at a time after morning rush hour with up to 5 people. This may be much cheaper than buying a regular ticket for each traveler.
For regional and national trains you do not have to stamp/validate your ticket at the platform as you do in some other countries. For some trains that only operate in one city, however, you do. This goes for overground and underground trains. Look at people around you and ask if you’re not sure.
You must have a ticket before you board the train, otherwise you will be charged at least 60 Euros. The exception is if you board at a stop where there is no ticket machine. In that case you can buy your ticket from the conductor. But it is still more expensive than an online ticket.
Regional trains don’t allow seat reservations. On trains connecting the mayor cities and high speed trains (called ICE trains), you can reserve a seat. Depending on when and where you travel and how many people are in your party it may be worth it. But for myself as solo traveler I so far have always found a seat and room for my luggage without reservations. Before you sit down, check the display above the seat to make sure it is not reserved by somebody else.
Most seats will have overhead storage for light items. Big suitcases go between opposite facing seats, never in the isle. Unfortunately, luggage racks are not as common on German trains. Regional trains often have two levels. If you don’t want to carry your suitcase upstairs, you can find a spot in a train car with foldable chairs. You can keep you luggage there without obstructing the isle.
How do I find my train at the station?
At larger train stations you will see a big digital board, like at airports, listing all trains. In Germany this is ALWAYS done chronologically, not by destination. You need to know when your train leaves exactly, to check which platform to go to. And I mean exactly. They are timed to the minute, so your train might leave at 11.47am, and it will. Unless there is a notification on the board or being announced.
At all stations and smaller stops you will also find big yellow posters with every single departure from that station. Find your train by checking time, stops and destination, then go to the platform it says on the right. Once you get to the platform there will be signs where you can check that are indeed waiting for a train in your direction of travel. Listen to PA announcements, as platforms may change at larger train stations.
Where am I?
Usually, in every train car there will be a display, showing the time of day, next stop and final destination of the train. You will also hear an announcement before every stop. They come early enough so you have enough time to grab all your belongings and still disembark on time. On ICE trains, displays and announcements are also done in English.
On trains crossing European borders, often in both languages of the countries served by the train. On regional trains you usually find printed maps/schedules near the doors. On ICE trains there is a magazine, similar to in-flight magazines in the seat pocket that has a map.
Wifi is available for free on ICE high speed trains. However, it is not strong enough to stream anything and usually better the closer you sit to first class. It’s fine for e-mail, social media and using the train app. Just find a seat in the car behind first class 🙂 on those trains you will also find power outlets with for EU chargers. Get an adaptor if you need to, before you board the train.
Just like any major transport company, Deutsche Bahn has an app you can download to purchase and store your tickets and check on train times. Their website is bahn.de. What I like most about it’s service, is that they include local buses and foreign train company times if that is what your request merits. They won’t usually be able to give you pricing for foreign tickets, but at least you can check on the connection.
Services on board
On ICE trains there is a restaurant car and they will come through the train offering drinks and snacks. On regional trains there is no food, no wifi, usually no power outlets – you will have to buy food at the station. If you are ok with having no services included at all a are just looking for a cheap ticket, also check out Flix train. Flix bus and Flix train offer cheap travel through Germany and other European countries, but you cannot book these tickets using bahn.de or their app.
Germany is very efficient. Do not block doorways, as this way delay the train and cause everybody else to arrive late. In Germany, one minute late is late. Be respectful of others, as you would be anywhere else: don’t make noise, don’t block seats with your stuff, offer your seat to the elderly or pregnant, don’t eat smelly food.