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TRAIN TRAVEL

Everything you need to know about exploring Germany by train

Germany's comprehensive rail system can be a challenge when you use it for the first time - or even 20th. Here is our guide to German trains including tips and useful vocabulary.

Everything you need to know about exploring Germany by train
A typical double decker German regional train. Photo: DPA

The majority of rail services throughout Germany are run by Deutsche Bahn (DB). There is nothing the Germans like more than a good complain about Deutsche Bahn’s train delays, strikes and technical problems. But, trains are still generally fairly efficient and offer a good experience for travelling throughout Germany. 

SEE ALSO: How Deutsche Bahn plans to improve its service and routes

What types of trains are there in Germany?

The fast ICE (Intercity Express) trains connect most major German cities. They usually run every hour or sometimes even more frequently.

The InterCity (IC) and EuroCity (EC) and trains are slightly cheaper and only slightly slower than the ICE trains and run every hour or two.

Regional trains such as the IRE, RE, and RB connect cities and towns within regions. They are less efficient as they stop at multiple stations, but they are also more affordable.  

There are also some overnight sleeper trains run by ÖBB (the Austrian Railways) covering international routes such as Berlin to Vienna and Munich to Rome.

SEE ALSO: Beloved overnight trains to come back on track in Germany

Trains always have first and second class tickets and the class of a carriage is normally written on the outside by the doors.

How do you buy a ticket?

Online: You can buy a ticket in advance online on websites or apps such as TrainLine or Rail Europe. Deutsche Bahn also sells tickets through their website and their app. You can either print the tickets off at home, carry them electronically on your phone, or have them sent to you (although you have to pay 4.90 this).

At the Station: You can buy tickets at the station at ticket machines (which are in English and in German) and at ticket offices. This is easy to do for regional train services, but for long distance travel such as ICE, IC and EC trains it is better to buy your tickets in advance as you will save money – a ticket purchased day of travel can cost up to 4 times the price as one bought a month or two in advance (you can buy tickets up to 6 months in advance).

An ICE train at Berlin's Hauptbahnhof. Photo: DPA

What types of tickets are available?

There are two standard ticket types: Sparpreis and Flexpreis.

Sparpreis (saver ticket) is a cheaper ticket with no flexibility, whereas Flexpreis is a much more expensive ticket which is valid for any train on the day of travel and you can cancel the ticket for free. Deutsche Bahn has a Sparpreis finder tool on their website so that you can find cheaper tickets for your journey.  

How can you reserve a seat?

Intercity trains offer optional seat reservations which cost €4.50 and for travelling at busy times, especially weekends, and are normally worth it. It only costs €9 to make a family reservation

if you are travelling with children, and if you use the same train to commute everyday you can make a permanent reservation which costs €46 per month.

Seat reservations are also available on some regional trains and cost €1.

How can you save money on train travel in Germany?

If you use regional trains rather than the faster intercity trains you are more likely to be able to find a discount:

A regional day ticket (Länder-Ticket) allows unlimited travel in one state over one day. It costs from €23 and additional passengers (up to 5) can be added for as little as €3 each.

A Germany wide day ticket (Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket) allows unlimited travel throughout Germany on one day using regional trains. It costs from €44 and additional passengers can be added for as little as €8 each. A weekend version of this ticket is also available (Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket).

There are also some discounts which are available on all of Germany’s train services:

Group tickets: If you are travelling in a group of 6 or more you can get a group ticket. It comes with free seat reservations and can save you a significant amount of money, particularly on really long journeys.

BahnCard: This offers various discounts on train tickets and is a good option you are living in Germany or here for an extended period of time. There are various cards available at different prices which give you a discount from 25 percent up to 100 percent. It is only available for German residents and is not suitable for tourists. Normally it is purchased annually, but you can buy a card for 3 months for €19.90 to test it out and see if it is for you.

German Rail Pass: Only valid for those who live outside of Europe, but is still a good option which allows you to save money and explore Germany by train. You can either buy a consecutive day ticket for up to a week, or a flexible ticket which can be used a certain number of days of your choosing within a month.

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station). Photo: DPA

What other tips are there for German rail travel?

The Departures Board: You’ll find your train platform via the departure board at the train station. Don’t worry if you don’t see your train because they often only display trains departing within the next 10-20 minutes. Most trains have letters and numbers ( e.g. ICE 802, RE 3) as well as destination names, and sometimes this is the easiest way to identify your train and which platform it is on.

Self-Service Machines: Don’t worry if you don’t speak German because the ticket machines (and train station signs) are all in English.

Most large cities have multiple train stations which can be confusing. It is worth double checking you have the right station.

On the platform you can find a practical chart called a Wagenstandsanzeiger. This shows the composition of major trains and where different carriages will stop on the platform – this is particularly useful to help you find a reserved seat.

Here are some useful phrases and vocabulary for train travel in Germany:

Der Bahnhof – train station

Die Fahrkarte/der Fahrausweis – ticket

Das Gleis – track (but actually used how we would use 'platform' in English – Gleis 3 means platform 3)

Der Fahrplan – timetable

Die Abfahrt – departure

Die Ankunft – arrival

Wann fährt der Zug nach Berlin ab? – When does the train to Berlin leave?

Wann kommt der Zug in Stuttgart an? – When does the train arrive in Stuttgart?

Muss ich umsteigen? – Do I have to change trains?

Entschuldigen Sie, ich glaube das ist mein Platz. – Sorry, I think that is my seat.

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TRAIN TRAVEL

E-cars and sleeper trains: How Germany’s new government will reform transport

Germany's new traffic light coalition has a fitting name - they have lofty ambitions for the transport sector. Now under the control of the Free Democrats, the transport ministry will focus on e-mobility, modernising the railways and bringing local public transport up to scratch.

A sign for an e-car charging station
A sign for a charging station in Wolfsburg. dpa | Swen Pförtner

Cars

Germany’s pride and joy is its automobile industry, which employs close to a million people. The next government has pledged to support this industry in transitioning to e-mobility while securing its place as a global export powerhouse.

The coalition agreement isn’t afraid to go into detail on what it expects to achieve. The Ampel parties want to see 15 million electric cars on the streets by the end of the decade. They’ve committed to an end to new combustion engines by 2035.

They also pledge “massive” support for charging infrastructure. Specifically the documents sets out an “expansion of the charging point infrastructure with the goal of one million publicly accessible charging points by 2030, with a focus on fast-charging infrastructure.”

In terms of old fashioned asphalt, the coalition says it will “focus on the maintenance and rehabilitation of federal roads, with a particular emphasis on engineering structures.”

Maintenance of autobahns and bridges will receive a bigger share of the federal budget in the coming years, they say.

There will also be no general speed limit imposed on German motorways.

Some good news for teenagers: they also want to lower the legal driving age to 16, with driving at that age possible under supervision. The intention is to “train young people in the dangers of road traffic at an early stage.”

Public transport

The coalition wants to “invest significantly more in rail than in road transport” and will establish sleeper train services that will connect German to destinations in other EU countries. Between the largest cities, trains are to run every half hour in future, and transfer times are to be significantly shortened.

They also commit to having 75 percent of the rail network run on electricity by the end of the decade. 

There is a vague commitment to “supporting innovative rail technologies” while more money will also be given to local governments to “improve the attractiveness and capacity of local public transport with the aim of significantly increasing passenger numbers.” 

To bring local transport up to standard, new quality criteria will be drawn up for connections in urban and rural areas, while the federal government will dole out more money to plug gaps in regional transport budgets. 

Regional train in Schleswig-Holstein
A regional train travels through Friedrichstadt in Schleswig-Holstein. The traffic light coalition wants to lift standards on regional transport with major investment and national quality criteria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Molter

The next pledge comes under the category of ‘boring but important’: all rail services from track repair, to station maintenance to trains will be rolled up into one company. The various state-owned companies that make up Deutsche Bahn have been leaking money at an alarming rate in recent years, making an overhaul all but inevitable.

There is a general commitment to app-based booking and car sharing. They also want to support digital booking across transport companies, while also “funding digital mobility services, innovative mobility solutions and car sharing.”

Aviation

The focus here is on decarbonizing the aviation sector. There is a pledge to “ramp-up” support for of synthetic fuels that enable climate-neutral flying. They also promise to lobby the European Union to ensure that airline tickets cannot be sold at a rock-bottom prices.

Bikes

The Green party’s manifesto pledge to subsidize cargo bikes has not made it into the agreement.

Instead there is a commitment to “implementing and updating the National Cycling Plan” and to work on “modernization of the bike path network, and promote municipal cycling infrastructure.”

The minister

Volker Wissing arrives at negotiations in Belrin on November 11th. Photo: DPA/ Kay Nietfeld

The ministry is going to be led by Free Democrat general Secretary Volker Wissing, who ran the transport ministry in Rhineland-Palatinate until 2018.

Wissing is fairly new on the national scene and something of an unknown quantity. A man of growing influence in his party, he led the early ‘traffic light’ negotiations for his party.

READ MORE:

The Free Democrats were staunch opponents of a speed limit on the autobahns. They traditionally have the reputation of being a party of men who drive fast cars.

Due to their advocacy of economic liberalism, the FDP are likely to be hesitant about imposing too many government targets on the car industry.

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