People who say Germans don’t do small talk are lying – there are a couple of topics (very few to be fair to stereotype), that will probably rouse your average German to passionate speech. One of these, and perhaps the most important, is the bemoaning of the Deutsche Bahn. Germans love to have a good whinge about the trains – for such an efficient, well-run country, the trains can be surprisingly expensive, run-down, delayed, and all round inefficient. However despite this, using the train network is usually the easiest, economical and quickest way of zipping round the country. To assist you on your journeying, I’ve compiled a list of handy hints and some ways to get around some of the most common train issues I’ve faced throughout multiple trips throughout the country.
Step 1: Pick your train type
There are four main types of train to consider when making your journey:
ICE: The InterCity Express is your fastest option – the trains reach up to 300 km an hour, have wifi (supposedly – this one features semi regularly on the complaints list), a restaurant and lots of leg room. The new sprinters are even faster – you can (again, supposedly) travel between Berlin and Munich in under 4 hours. These are my favourite trains to take, they’re super-fast and comfortable – but they are the priciest option.
IC/EC: The InterCity/EuroCity are a bit slower than the ICE trains – but they stop in more places, and can connect you with other cities in Europe – such as Berlin-Amsterdam, Munich-Salzburg etc. Something to note is that it’s not guaranteed that IC/EC trains will have wifi – if you’re relying on it to do work through your journey, check your train model before booking.
RE/RB/IRE: The Regional Trains are the slowest inter-city trains, and they connect different local stations and towns throughout each region in Germany. They’re excellent to get to small towns in one area, or to explore the region you’re in (they’re also the cheapest option) – but they’re definitely not ideal to get between cities quickly.
S-Bahn: This is the suburban commuter service – it connects major metropolitan areas with its outlying areas (sometimes including other towns). This usually only costs a few euros.
There are also overnight trains which operate similarly to the IC/RE trains.
Step 2: Pick your class
Each of these trains has a first class and a second class of seating:
- First Class: The more expensive option, but it affords you a lot more comfort. There are only 3 (leather ooh) seats per row, your seat is guaranteed (i.e. the price is inclusive of reservation), you get a free snack, and have direct drinks service to your seat. You are also able to access the Bahn Lounge where you have access to free food and drink.
- Second Class: This option is cheaper (but you still travel in relative comfort). There are 4 seats per row, and your seat is not guaranteed unless you reserve one in advance.
Step 3: Pick your ticket price
There are three main price categories you need to consider when purchasing your ticket (particularly for IC/ICE trains). You can buy tickets up to 6 months in advance for your journey (and you should definitely book in advance to save if you can – it can end up being over 100 EUR difference. It is also cheaper to book 2 tickets at once, rather than individually):
- Sparpreis: Or ‘Saver fare’ tickets start at 19 EUR for under 250 km, or 29 EUR for longer journeys (second class) – they are cheaper the earlier you book, and are generally available up until about 3-7 days before your departure date. You have to book a specific train/time to take. You are able to change/cancel the ticket for a small fee (or partial refund) up until the departure time.
- Super-Sparpreis: The ‘Super saver fare’ – these are usually a few euro cheaper than the normal Sparpreis, but you cannot change or cancel the ticket at all.
- Flexpreis: This is the standard ticket which you can buy either on the day at the station, or in advance online. The huge advantage of a Flex ticket is that you can hop on any train in your direction, at any time that day. The ticket price is fully refundable should you choose to cancel. However compared to the Saver fares, this option has the potential to be quite pricey.
Step 4: Check if you’re eligible for one of the Group Discount Tickets
- Schönes Wochenende Ticket: For 40 EUR, this ticket will give you unlimited travel on any regional trains (RE/RB/IRE/S-Bahn) throughout Germany for one weekend day ( from the time of purchase until 3am the following day). This ticket is great for groups – you can add up to 5 additional people for 4 EUR per person (e.g. 44 EUR for 2 people, 48 EUR for 3 people). If you are 5 people, this works out to just over 11 EUR each, and is quite a steal.
- Quer-durchs-Land Ticket: This is the weekday equivalent of the Schönes Wochenende Ticket (regional trains (RE/RB/IRE/S-Bahn) throughout Germany). You can use it on one day from 9 am til 3 am the following morning. The ticket for one traveller costs 44 EUR, with 6 EUR per each additional traveller (again, up to a group of 5). If you are a group of 5 this works out to just over 13.5 EUR per person.
- Länder Ticket: This ticket allows day travel for a specific regional state in Germany (you have 16 to pick from), and has the same principles as above (all trains except IC/ICE, 9 am to +3 am, add more people for a fee). The price varies from state to state, but the original ticket is usually 25-35 EUR depending, with a small additional stipend to add extra people. The Bavarian Länder ticket also allows you to get to Salzburg in Austria.
- Sommer Ticket: This is actually just for one person under 27, but hear me out. For 76 EUR if you are under 18, and 96 EUR if you are between the ages of 18-26, you have the option to purchase a Sommer Ticket – essentially 4x open Flexpreis tickets between any 2 destinations you choose, from something like the beginning of June to the end of September (Summer). The great thing about this ticket is that it allows for stop overs on the day of travel, so long as they are on the direct route. For instance if you are travelling from Berlin to Munich, you can get out at Nürnberg <or insert alternative here> and spend the day there, before continuing your journey south in the evening. If you have a couple of trips coming up, this is a worthwhile investment.
- Child Ticket: Children under 6 travel for free on the train, but what a lot of people don’t realise is that children between 6 and 15 can travel for free as well, as long as they are accompanied by a fare paying adult.
Step 5: Get a BahnCard
If you’re in Germany for a while and want to flex your inner discount-loving Deutsch, get yourself a BahnCard. You pay a one-off annual subscription fee for the card itself, and it affords you an extra discount when you book any of your tickets:
- BahnCard 25: 25% off all fares (including Super-Spar and Sparpreis fares). This is my personal favourite option – it pretty much pays for itself with one journey. Story time: My 19.90 EUR fare from Berlin to Nürnberg on an ICE train ended up costing 14.90 EUR. The Flex/Normal fare for the same journey cost over 100 EUR.
- 1st Class: 62 EUR
- 2nd Class: 125 EUR
- If you have this BahnCard, you can get your partner, child or seniors (60+) their own 2nd Class BahnCard for only 41 EUR.
- BahnCard 50: 50% off Flex/Normal ticket fares (you can not use this card for 50% off Saver fares).
- 1st Class: 255 EUR
- 2nd Class: 515 EUR
- BahnCard 100: 100% off all fares. Yes that’s right – the BahnCard 100 affords you unlimited train travel throughout Germany, anytime, anywhere (also usually including the inner city zone within all city transport networks). It’s pricey, but if you travel a lot this could be a really good option.
- 1st Class: 4090 EUR
- 2nd Class: 6890 EUR
Concerning the BahnCard, there are an extra two sneaky tricks to know about – which you will be hard-pressed to find on the English version of the site. (My advice is to always browse the German site, but use the google translate plug in. Do this for anything even slightly bureaucratic in Germany, where it gives you the choice to physically click and view the site in English or German. Somehow the English version of a website always manages to neglect some crucial information. Mysterious.)
- The Probe BahnCard: Or the ‘try out’ BahnCard – it’s essentially a 3 month subscription to the card, instead of a yearly one . Consequently, you pay about a quarter of the price. So if you know you will be need to be zipping round for a specific period of time only, say, the summer holidays – the Probe BahnCard could be an excellent option.
- The My50 BahnCard: If you are under 27 years old, and a registered resident of Germany – you are able to take the My50 BahnCard. This combines the BahnCard 25 & 50 – so you get 50% off all full price fares, and 25% off all saver fares as well. This is just 69 EUR a year for second class, and 252 EUR a year for first class).
Step 6: Sign up to the BahnBonus Points Program
Don’t overlook the BahnBonus points program – for every Euro spent, you earn 1 point. Every 1000 points affords you a 2nd class long distance train trip – regardless of what the price is at the time you book. There are a certain number of tickets per train allocated to the bonus program, so if your desired train is a popular route, you will want to get in quick. You can also use 500 points to upgrade yourself to first class.
Step 7: Check your options through 3rd Party sites
Though the Deutsche Bahn is pretty much the only German train company – I genuinely tend to have a look on 3rd party comparison sites like GoEuro or Rome2Rio to compare routes and options. Sometimes flying actually works out to be cheaper if its last minute, and some other train carriers (such as ÖBB or Alex) operate in certain parts of Germany, which DB doesn’t directly advertise. If you have a favourite site (such as GoEuro) where you collect points and rewards that you value – so much the better. It’s always worth checking out to see if the train is your best option.
If 3rd party reward or deal sites (like Cashback or Shoop) are a bit of you – from time to time there are offers on vouchers, earning double BahnBonus points etc. as well, which are worth looking out for.
Step 8: Think before you reserve a seat
Funnily enough, when you book a train with the Deutsche Bahn, a seat is not automatically included with your ticket – I found this out the hard way when I had to stand/sit on the ground on a train all the way from Amsterdam to Berlin. When you book a ticket, you are given the option to pay an extra 4.99 EUR and reserve a seat. However this is just another sneaky way for DB to make money and can easily be avoided. 8 times out of 10 you will not need a seat reservation as there will be plenty of places free. To get around this, you need to understand the seat reservation system. When you reserve a seat, the system allocates you a seat from the block closest to the on-board restaurant first, and progresses down the train. So the most available seats are located in the carriage the furthest away from the on-board restaurant. When your train rocks up, you just need to be at that far away carriage (you can check the train carriage plan on the platform), and you will usually get a seat.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule – these are a few of the following situations in where I would consider booking a seat (but I would only check 1-3 days before anyway, and if there was still lots of availability I wouldn’t bother).
- Any train connecting cities in different countries (Berlin to Amsterdam or Prague, or Frankfurt to Paris spring to mind as a couple of the busiest routes – they are often plagued with backpackers in the summer months.)
- Any train over 5 hours (including overnight trains)
- Any routes during commuting hours (departing 6-9am and 5-7pm) – in particularly Sprinters in between big cities (Frankfurt to Berlin here’s looking at you)
- During the Christmas period. Tickets get released for travel dates after the 12th December only from mid October, and it is quite the scramble. Seriously, every year I get plagued with horror stories about people being physically dragged off over-crowded trains despite having purchased a ticket, pregnant women waiting in the cold for 8 hours etc. It’s the most manic time of the year folks.
Step 9: Consider FlixTrain
Although the state-owned Deutsche Bahn pretty much has a monopoly on intercity rail routes in Germany, when the industry was deregulated in 2013, a new German company called FlixBus popped up, offering affordable inter-city routes via bus and has now expanded throughout Europe and North America. What some people don’t know is that locally they’re also muscling in on the train lines – and have several low-cost intercity routes for as little as 9.99 EUR. They run two main routes, Stuttgart to Berlin and Cologne to Hamburg – with several stops in between.
Step 10: Consider the Rail Pass
If you don’t live in Germany, and have somehow gotten all the way down here then I salute you. You are eligible to pick up an Interrail pass (for European Residents) or a German Rail Pass (for overseas visitors). These work out to be quite valuable if you are intending to do a lot of travel throughout Germany, and unlike many other European countries that are part of the Inter/Euro Rail Scheme, Germany doesn’t charge you a ridiculous reservation fee or issue a quota for pass-holders – you have unlimited travel which basically means that Deutschland is your oyster.
If you have any other German train tips, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments below! I’m always looking out for new ways to get the most out of travel, particularly within Germany.