Brian's Guide to
Getting Around Germany

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Intercity Transport
Rail Travel

This page last updated January 6, 2024
ICE train near the Rhine Falls (Photo by Deutsche Bahn)

ICE train
(Photo by Deutsche Bahn)

Germans are known to gripe about just about everything, but take their complaints about trains with a bit of a grain of salt. Germany easily has one of the world's largest and most efficient passenger rail systems. In fact, Germany has the largest rail system in Europe. There aren't many places of significance that it doesn't get to, and the trip will generally be comfortable and, with planning, economical. While there certainly are problems that need attention, train service in Germany on the whole is quite good. Europe in general has a high utilization of trains, and Germany is especially reliant on them. After the automobile, rail is by far the most common means of transportation as evidenced by the fact that three of Europe's five busiest stations — and 11 of the top 20 — are in Germany.


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Rail operators
Although there are several independent rail services, the 800 pound gorilla of rail transport in Germany is the Deutsche Bahn (DB, or GermanRail), also known colloquially as "Die Bahn", and so this page focuses mostly on DB services. Over 7 million people a day use the DB's 29,000 trains serving over 5,500 stations along 33,300 km of track.

The Deutsche Bahn was formerly a government monopoly created from the old West German Deutsche Bundesbahn (German Federal Railways) and East German Reichsbahn (Imperial Railways), but it is now completely privatized (although it is still owned entirely by the government), with the different business components (passenger services, cargo, and infrastructure) each spun-off to its own subsidiary. Connections between the former eastern and western halves of the country have been upgraded and expanded, and nearly all of the roadbed in the eastern part of the nation has now either been upgraded or junked.

Deutsche Bahn logo

Deutsche Bahn logo

Non-DB services
Since 1999, the German rail system has been open to competition. There are presently over 100 rail companies providing service in Germany, almost entirely regional lines. In many cases, these are on lines where the DB eliminated service, but in other cases, they augment existing DB services. Many are underwritten by state and local governments, and some are even contracted by the DB itself.

Ironically, one of the biggest intercity bus companies — FlixBus, which was born specifically to compete with rail — now also operates multiple intercity train routes in Germany, and the service is named — you guessed it — FlixTrain. It offers super-low fares using mostly refurbished 1970s-era IC train sets that provide most of the amenities of contemporary DB IC trains including relatively comfortable seats, free Wi-Fi, and electrical outlets at each seat. Perhaps the biggest trade-off is that their trains have no air conditioning, relying instead on open windows for ventilation. During most of the year, this is probably acceptable, but can get quite uncomfortable in summer months. But if you're on a tight budget, FlixTrain can be a good value.

Map of FlixTrain network

Map of FlixTrain network (2023)
(From FlixBus Facebook page)

While timetables and tickets for most of the non-DB services are available on the DB's website, FlixTrain's are not, so you'll need to go straight to the FlixTrain website to check times and fares and to purchase tickets. Alternatively, you can purchase tickets at any FlixBus station, and at a growing number of newsstands, tobacco shops, and grocery stores.

Long-distance buses were once prohibited in Germany by laws designed to protect the DB from competition. With the repeal of those laws in 2013, several low-cost intercity bus companies emerged, and a significant share of intercity passenger traffic shifted to bus. See the intercity bus page for more info on that mode of travel.

Punctuality and future improvements
As the saying used to go, you could set your watch by the trains. But a variety of factors has caused that once sterling reputation to be tarnished in recent years. In 2021, only 75% or so of long-distance trains — and only about two-thirds of ICE services — arrived within five minutes of schedule, and in November 2023, that had sunk to a new low of just 52%. (On a trip to Germany in September and October 2023, only one of my six trains was late.)

One problem is that about half of international IC/EC trains coming into Germany are late, but more so, the main problem is years of under investment in Germany's rail system, resulting in congestion bottlenecks and equipment failures due to deferred maintenance. The DB and federal government are working on solutions to improve on-time rates, including a major upgrade and expansion of the busiest rail corridors starting in 2024, and a restructuring of the work program to minimize disruptions.

Also on the horizon is a massive timetable overhaul called "Deutschlandtakt". This plan, which is very similar to Switzerland's timetable scheme, will standardize and harmonize the schedules so that there will be connections between the big cities at 30 minute intervals at the same clockface time each hour, with regional traffic at interchange stations then being coordinated in the intervening time so that transfers are easier. It was initially planned to implement this in 2030, but recent reports are that this deadline may have been too ambitious.

Strike!
It's worth noting that Germany is a union country, and transport strikes (Streik) can occur at any time and for any ol' reason, although it is still a fairly rare occurrence and there is usually advanced notice. Still, travelers should be aware that even a short "warning strike" (Warnungstreik) in one city can ripple through the entire system causing long delays and even cancellations. On these days, be prepared to adjust your travel plans and wait longer than usual.

"The train was late"
This leads me to an interesting cultural note: since trains and punctuality are so important in the German world, you can request an official "certificate of train tardiness" (Bescheinigung über Zugverspätung) if a train is significantly late. You can use these "tardy slips" for arriving late to work, school, or other appointments, or as a tourist, keep them as souvenirs for the scrapbook. These days, however, because of the widespread and well-known tardiness of trains, nobody really questions an excuse of "my train was late" anymore.

Rolling stock
Most of the DB's rolling stock has been upgraded leaving almost none of the old Cold War-era train sets to be found anymore, although FlixTrain and some of the other non-DB services have refurbished some of that old rolling stock and put it back in use.

Somewhat unexpectedly, many local trains in the big cities (especially the Frankfurt and Rhein-Ruhr areas) have exteriors covered by graffiti, reminiscent of New York subway trains from the 1980s. Generally, it's mainly the lower-end local and regional trains that suffer from these problems, and no matter what the exterior of the train looks like, the interior will usually be quite clean, aside from occasional spilled drinks and litter.

It's not uncommon for train sets rolling through Germany to contain carriages or locomotives from neighboring countries.

The DB was once developing the world's first magnetic-levitation inter-city passenger train line between Berlin and Hamburg, but it was cancelled due to a number of political issues. But another maglev line, connecting Munich's central station and airport, is now being considered.

For the rail enthusiast
If you're really interested in trains (or even marginally), I would recommend sitting on a platform at a major station for a while and watching the trains come and go. You will get to see all of the various types of trains and watch how precisely the system runs. I have done this many times and it still fascinates me just as much now as when I was a kid.

Map of DB long-distance network

Map of DB long-distance network
(From Deutsche Bahn website)


Train categories

The DB offers a hierarchical assortment of services identified by an alphabet soup of letters, although the variety has been pared down a bit in recent years. Services are divided into two main categories: regional and long-distance, and this divide is relevent for fares and ticket policies. Here are most of the train types and designations, in descending order of speed and coverage:

LONG-DISTANCE

REGIONAL

In some places, there is no distinction between RE and RB trains, with routes simply labeled "R", and RB trains typically skip stops in areas served by an S-Bahn.

Some areas also have local or regional services with other branding such as the FEX (Flughafen-Express) service in Berlin and the MEX (Metropolexpress) service in the Stuttgart region. DB competitors often also use different names or designations for their services. Most regional trains are underwritten by state and local governments.

Long-distance trains (ICE and IC) are usually white (or technically, light gray) with a red stripe, although the engines on some ICE trains now sport a green stripe signifying the train's eco-friendliness. Local and regional trains (IRE, RE, RB, and S) are usually red with gray stripes, although many state-sponsored regional routes use trains with a custom livery. Many regional trains are double-decker, and there is now a double-deck IC train ("InterCity 2") in service on several routes.

If your journey takes you to an out-of-the-way locale, part of your trip may utilize a train known as a"Railbus" (Schienenbus). This is a short one or two car train that, as its name implies, is basically a bus on tracks, and provides service on feeder routes with lower ridership. Just like buses, many stops along these routes are flag stops, i.e. the train only stops on request.

State-sponsored RE train in Baden-Württemberg with custom livery

State-sponsored RE train in Baden-Württemberg with custom livery
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Bicycles
If your bike is dismantled and in a bike bag, you can bring it on board as ordinary luggage. Otherwise, most regional and IC trains have a special area for storing bicycles; those carriages are marked with a large bicycle symbol on the outside and require a fee for use. Some trains require you to make a reservation for your bike; these will be indicated on the schedule, so you should check ahead of time. Many newer ICE trains now also include space for bicycles; these also require reservations.

If you will be traveling with a bicycle, you can check for trains that will allow them on the DB's timetable and booking website (see "Timetables and schedules" below.)

The DB also has a bicycle rental service in several cities named "Call-a-bike".

Classes
Most trains are divided into two classes — first and second. The carriages have a large "1" or "2" on the outside near the doors indicating which class they carry, and the first class section often has a yellow stripe along the top outside edge of the carriage. In general, all services available on the train are provided for both first and second class passengers. The main difference is that first class seats are a bit roomier and there are fewer of them. That, and the fact that first class fares are around 50% higher, means first class tends to be less crowded than second class.

Double-decker RE train

Double-decker RE train
(Photo by Brian Purcell)


Long-distance/high-speed trains

The ICE and IC/EC are the fastest trains on the DB roster and provide most of the DB's long-distance connections. Most ICE and IC/EC routes have service frequently through the day, many times hourly and often at the same time each hour. It is highly recommended that you reserve a seat on these trains, especially on weekends and holidays, or you may end-up standing in the aisles or vestibules. More on seat reservations under "Tickets" below.

InterCity Express (ICE)
Although it got off to a fast start (no pun intended) in the early '70s, Germany fell a bit behind the curve in development of high-speed rail due to legal challenges. As a result, the 160 km/h IC/EC trains operated as the DB's fastest service until the ICE finally came online a decade later than planned in 1991. However, the ICE (which is pronounced "I-C-E", not "ice") has rapidly made-up for the late start with trains that can hit 330 km/h, among the fastest in the world. Unfortunately, there are no sections of track in Germany where it can achieve that speed, and just a handful where it can reach 300 km/h, although plans are in the works for a substantial expansion of those routes.

ICE train

Third generation ICE train
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

The ICE has dramatically reduced travel time on nearly every long distance route. For example, the Munich to Hamburg journey, which took an agonizing eight hours in the old days, now takes a more tolerable six hours, and travel times along the Cologne-Frankfurt run, with trains hurtling along at the ICE's top speed, dropped from 2¼ hours to about one hour. Planned future improvements to the high-speed network will continue to decrease travel times.

Unfortunately, the ICE could shave even more travel time off the longer journeys, but due to political pressure, most ICE routes stop in some questionable "should-a-high-speed-train-really-stop-here" places. Fortunately, there are now a few ICE "Sprinter" trains that connect the biggest cities with fewer intermediate stops a few times a day during the morning and evening (and sometimes midday), shaving 30 minutes or more off of travel times.

ICE speed display

Overhead display in ICE carriage showing current speed
Yes, that's almost 200 mph!
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

There are now four generations of ICE trains — with the fifth generation expected to debut in 2024 — operating on over a dozen lines connecting all the principal cities. Several routes run on specially-built roadbeds designed for high speed, while on other routes, ICE trains run on conventional shared roadbeds that have been improved to allow for increased speeds. A few routes are served by tilting trains, i.e. trains that can lean into curves to allow for safe higher speeds on conventional tracks.

ICE trains are pressurized to minimize the annoying ear discomfort to passengers caused by high speed travel through the many tunnels on the system.

Besides being the fastest, the ICE is also the most well-appointed of GermanRail trains. These trains feature air conditioning, adjustable cushioned seats, individual reading lights, free Wi-Fi with free entertainment (bring your own device), and electrical outlets.

Map of ICE network

Map of ICE network
ICE network showing top speeds and frequencies.
(Map by Maxunterwegs from Wikipedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license)

InterCity (IC)
Although outgunned by its newer sibling, the IC is still an excellent fast service that supplements the ICE or connects places that the ICE overshoots. Most all of the same amenities on the ICE are available on the IC as well. The EC (EuroCity) is simply the international version of the IC.

Much of the IC rolling stock is in the process of being replaced with ICE fourth-generation train sets as well as a substantial number of double-decker "IC2" trains.

IC train (Photo by Deutsche Bahn/Georg Wagner)

New double-decker IC train
(Photo by Deutsche Bahn/Georg Wagner)

International routes
In addition to several EC services, various other high-speed trains connect Germany to most neighboring countries. The Thayls connects Cologne to Paris and Brussels and provides a nice segue to the Eurostar to London, and two high-speed ICE/TGV links connect Frankfurt and Stuttgart to Paris. Additional ICE routes cross into neighboring countries, with Basel, Amsterdam, Salzburg, and Vienna being major destinations, and more international high-speed connections are in the works. The DB has even proposed bringing-back the venerable Trans-Europe-Express (TEE) service, which ferried passengers in first class comfort between major cities until 1995. "TEE 2.0", as approved in 2021, could start service in 2025 or 2026. Unfortunately, a previous proposal for a Germany to London ICE connection has been shelved due to alleged safety concerns (although more likely due political resistance.)


Overnight trains

There are many long-distance trains, both domestic and international, that operate overnight. Using a night train can add additional free time to your trip by allowing you to combine travel and sleep time. Many budget travelers use overnight trains entirely in lieu of hotels.

In 2016, the DB discontinued its extensive sleeper train services (Nachtzug, City Night Line) as a result of losses incurred due to the cost of maintaining and renovating the rolling stock and declining ridership as travelers chose faster daytime services or cheap flights instead. Instead, the DB increased some late-night and early-morning ICE and IC services, which unfortunately do not offer the dedicated sleeping accommodations that traditional overnight trains do.

However, a few other train companies — most notably, the Austria national railway's (ÖBB) "NightJet" service — stepped in to provide traditional night train services across Germany as well as internationally. For example, routes in Germany include Munich to Budapest, Venice, Rome, or Vienna; Hamburg to Vienna or Zurich; Berlin to Budapest, Vienna, or Zurich, and several stops in Germany on the Amsterdam-Vienna line. These trains offer the traditional sleeper (Schlafwagen) and couchette (Liegewagen) carriages, as well as standard coach carriages. A few also offer vehicle transportation ("car train") services as well.

Sleepers feature compartments with 1-3 bunks, mattresses and linens, and usually a small washbasin with hot and cold running water. There are sometimes also "deluxe" sleepers with compartments that also include a toilet and shower. Sleepers are full-service and attended by a porter who will provide whatever assistance you require.

Couchette (pronounced koo-SHET) berths are a cheaper (and ergo less luxurious) form of the sleeper. Each couchette compartment has 4-6 bunks. You will be provided with a pillow, sheet, and blanket, but you'll be expected to sleep in your street clothes or something similar (e.g. sweats.)

RailJet couchette cabin

Couchette compartment on NightJet train showing upper bunks folded out but lower bunks in seating configuration
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

For both sleepers and couchettes, you can book an individual bunk or the entire compartment. If you book a bunk, you will likely be sharing the same compartment with other travelers. Most trains do offer a women-only carriage for women who are traveling alone.

Many night trains provide breakfast and possibly dinner or a snack included in the ticket price, and additional snacks and beverages can be purchased onboard and delivered to your compartment.

Both types of compartments have racks or closets to store luggage and usually also have locking doors to the corridor. The conductors and porters also act as watchmen to help keep out the riffraff. It's a good idea, however, to sleep with any significant amounts of money, credit cards, plane tickets, cell phones, or other valuables either locked in a secure bag or in a money belt safely on your person. You should also consider locking or at least clipping your bags to a stationary object.

If you don't want to spring for the couchette or sleeper, you can always try sleeping in the regular coach seats if the train has them. In open coach seating, you'll have the same dilemma as sleeping on an airplane — seats that don't recline much and mysteriously get progressively more uncomfortable as the night drags on. In trains with compartment seating, you may be able to make a bed from the seats. To do so, see if you can pull the seat out from the bottom. If so, the back cushion will then slide down behind the bottom cushion. The armrest can then be stowed up, forming a cushioned reclined surface. Pull out the opposing seat and you'll have an ersatz bed. If desired, you'll need to provide your own linens — a sleep sack works well for this, so if you plan to do this, make sure to pack one.

Overnight trains have been making a comeback in the past few years as people become more interested in environmental sustainability as well as nostalgia. There's still something magical about going to sleep in Munich and waking up in Venice.

Ersatz bed in a regular seating compartment

Example of an ersatz bed in a regular seating compartment
(Photo by ÖBB)

Fares and booking
Most overnight trains require reservations, and it is advisable to purchase tickets ahead of time. Sleeper berths can be pricey with fares over €100, while couchette bunks are more economical starting at €50 or so.

Tickets can be purchased at the station, but it's probably best to book them online. The Austrian railway's NightJet site is the best source for more information and booking of their own services as well as those of other operators of overnight services in Europe.

On the train
With your ticket in hand, head to the platform for your train. Once there, locate your assigned carriage and board it directly from the platform (more on doing that later.) If you have a couchette reservation, you then locate your compartment yourself and settle-in, and the conductor will stop by to check your ticket if they didn't when you boarded. For sleeper reservations, you typically must check-in with the porter of the carriage where your compartment is located and they'll direct you from there.

Note that bunk numbering is not always intuitive, so ask the porter or conductor if you're not sure you've located the correct bunk.

In both the sleeper and couchette carriages, the conductor or porter may take your tickets and passport and keep them for the duration of the trip to avoid having to wake you for ticket or passport checks. You will get them back when you arrive at your destination.

Shortly before arrival at your destination, you will be awoken by the conductor or porter. If you are disembarking at the last stop on the line (which is often the case), you will typically be allowed a reasonable amount of time to get up, get ready, and get off, especially if the train arrives before 7:00am.



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Timetables and schedules

There used to be a day not too long ago when you had to purchase the massive timetable book (Kursbuch), call the DB, or visit a travel agent if you wanted to check train schedules without trekking down to the station. Nowadays, of course, the Internet makes finding schedules anywhere much simpler. The DB has an excellent website — maybe the best in Europe, and in several languages no less — from which you can get train schedules for nearly all of Europe for any date and time that has published schedules. For most domestic and many international trips, once you've located your desired connection, you can then purchase and print your tickets.

https://int.bahn.de/en/booking-information

Some tips on using this service:

Over the past few years, many cool new features have been added to the DB website. For instance, there is now a feature to automatically create and download a calendar item for your electronic calendar. There is a section that shows you the services and a map of the station or a map of the route. And there's even a section that will compare the estimated time, costs, and environmental impacts of the various other modes of transport for your journey.

DB timetable website

DB timetable website

Of course, timetables are still posted in the station (see "At the Station" below.) You can also get "quickie" schedules from the ticket vending machines in stations, or just use the DB app or website on your mobile phone.

Schedule printout from ticket machine

Schedule printout from ticket machine


Tickets and reservations

Like any major transportation service, the DB offers a myriad of tickets, fare schedules, and special deals. Even railway officials sometimes have problems navigating the Byzantine structure of the DB's ticketing options. To top it off, train travel in Germany, while a good value, can be a bit pricey, especially if you book at the last minute; good deals are usually available if you can book early. Fortunately, many tourists don't need to deal with this hassle as rail passes are often a better deal.

Passes
There are a variety of tourist passes offered by GermanRail. These passes generally are a good deal and pay for themselves after a couple or three long-distance trips. The most popular is the GermanRail Pass. This pass, available for purchase only outside of Germany, allows you unlimited rail travel for 3 to 10 days of consecutive or non-consecutive travel within a month; the consecutive day passes are a bit cheaper. The GermanRail TwinPass is a discounted GermanRail Pass valid for two people traveling together. For travelers under 26, there's the GermanRail Youth Pass.

Passes are sold directly by the DB and also through resellers (see links at the bottom of this page.) GermanRail passes are also valid for travel on DB buses (Bahnbus) and KD river cruises.

If your trip includes other countries besides Germany, there are a plethora of Eurail international passes available that cover various combinations of countries and time periods. It might seem unwieldy at first, but you're sure to find a pass that fits your particular itinerary. The Rail Europe travel service and Rick Steves' website (links below) have good comparisons to help you sort it all out.

Before you decide to purchase a pass, you should do a rough calculation of the cost of individual point-to-point tickets for your planned train travel by using the DB's website. If the sum total of point-to-point tickets exceeds the cost of a pass, then the pass will be a better deal. Unfortunately, you sometimes can't get international rates on the DB's site. However, since international trips tend to be fairly lengthy and expensive, a pass will almost surely be a better value in those cases. Passes also offer the most flexibility if that's important to you as you can use any train you want on the day your pass is valid, whereas the discounted point-to-point fares limit you to a specific departure.

GermanRail TwinPass

GermanRail Pass
Note the date boxes at the left center filled-in for each day of use.

If you purchase a pass, be sure to read the directions that come with it and follow them precisely. Ignorance is not considered an excuse for not properly using your pass, and you may be fined (or worse, publicly humiliated) if you don't follow the required steps. (That said, if you really did unintentionally forget to note the date and are sincere when explaining, they will likely just have you fill in the date with a minor admonishment.)

However, the steps to use a pass are quite easy. Most passes require that you have it validated by a rail official at the station before the first use. You do so by going to a ticket counter at the station and presenting the pass and your passport to the agent. He or she will then stamp the pass and fill-in the valid dates. You can do this just before the first time you use it or you can do it in advance if you like; just make sure to tell the agent your desired validity start date if you're not going to start using it right away. Then, each day that you use your pass (including the first day), write the date in ink in the appropriate box on the pass before you board the first train that day. If you have any questions, ask at the information desk or ticket office in the station.

Point-to-point tickets
Prior to 2002, most long-distance fares were calculated based on a flat, per-kilometer fare with surcharges tacked-on for faster services. Since a 2002 tariff reform and subsequent tweakings, the fare structure has become significantly more complex, much like the airline fare system (if you can call it a system.) Now, fares for each segment are based on a combination of factors including a sliding-scale distance fare (longer distances are actually cheaper per kilometer now), speed and travel time on the route, class of service, demand, and when you book it. These "Relationspreise" constitute the standard, full price fare (now known as "Flexpreis"), against which fairly steep discounts are offered. In all cases, you should book as early as you can in order to get the best fare.

For long-distance trips, there are four types of tickets:

Regional trains still have a single fixed price with no need to purchase in advance. Furthermore, you can use regional transport cooperative (Verkehrsverbund) tickets (i.e. the same ticket you get for local public transport) on all regional trains provided, of course, it covers the required number of zones; see the Urban Public Transport page for more information.

Children under age 15 ride free when accompanied by a paying adult.

Except for the FlexPreis Plus, seat reservations are not included unless you're purchasing a first class ticket. However, you can add a reservation at the time of purchase for an additional fee. If you don't, you can still purchase a reservation later.

Special deals
The DB has several special ticket offers including weekend deals, regional fares (Länder-Tickets), and discount cards (BahnCard). Visit the DB's website or ask at the station ticket office for details on these.

How to purchase tickets
There are a variety of ways to purchase tickets nowadays; the method you choose will depend on your circumstance, abilities, and preference. Tickets are available starting six months before departure.

The "old-fashioned" way: Go to the station, locate the departure timetable (large yellow schedules), and find the train that you want to use. Note the train number and departure time. Then go to the ticket counter (in larger stations, look for "Reisezentrum" signs) and give this information and your destination to the ticket agent. Many agents speak English, but if they don't, and you don't speak German, write the train number (e.g. "ICE 123"), departure time, destination, number of tickets (e.g. "2 Tickets"), and first or second class (e.g. "2. Klasse") on a slip of paper and hand it to the agent. Be prepared to wait in line a bit as the ticket counters at busy stations are often not as well-staffed as they could/should be (Germans don't work cheap after all.) Also, make sure that the line you are in will get you the service you need — in some stations, there are still special lines for express service (just tickets- no reservations or information), and domestic (Inland) or international (Ausland) tickets.

Some tips: I suggest that you use the DB's website to determine the approximate fares ahead of time. That way, you'll know if you are getting the correct fare when you purchase. If you have the time, I've also been told it's worthwhile to "shop around" at the station. Get a quote from one agent, then get a quote from a second agent. If they match, OK. If one's cheaper than the other, make sure you're getting the right ticket. If so, then go for the cheaper one.

If you're not confident about reading the timetables, the ticket agents can also help you find connections. Simply tell the agent where you're going and they will produce a computer printout listing the next few scheduled connections and timetables and can book your tickets there on the spot.

DB ticket office

DB ticket office at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

The "newfangled" ways: If you're up-to-speed with technology and don't want to wait in line, or just fear face time with Teutonic train emissaries, you have two options. Option one (and probably the best nowadays) is to book your own tickets online at either the DB's efficient website (see the timetables section above) or the "DB Navigator" mobile app.

Option two is to use the prolific self-service ticket vending machines (usually marked "Fahrkarten" but sometimes "Fahrausweis", "Fahrschein", or "Tickets") that you'll find in most stations. Make sure it has the "DB" logo on it — there may be ticket machines just for local transit services, and you usually can only get regional tickets from those. In the not-too-distant past, you could only use the machines to buy tickets for journeys of less than 100 km. Nowadays, you can purchase tickets and seat reservations for any distance from these machines, as well as obtain schedules, purchase local transit tickets, and get other information. The machines are multi-lingual and touch-screen operated and are fairly intuitive. Some of the machines only take credit cards, others only cash, but most now take both, so double-check before you start to make sure the machine will accept your payment type.

DB ticket machines

DB ticket machines
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

If all else fails: As a last resort, tickets can be purchased on board the train from the conductor. Note, however, that this is typically only available on long-distance trains as most local and many regional trains no longer have conductors. Be sure to approach the conductor before he finds you; otherwise, it will appear as if you were attempting to be a stowaway and you could be fined for Schwartzfahren (literally "black riding", or riding without a valid ticket.) Tickets purchased on-board will be for the full Flexpreis fare plus a 10% surcharge, so use this only as a last resort.

International tickets
Tickets for rail trips in other European countries can also be purchased through the DB. If you purchase a ticket from an origin in Germany to a destination outside of Germany (or vice-versa), it will be a single ticket for the entire journey.

If you have a Germany-only rail pass and want to travel from Germany to an international destination, you can use your pass to get to the border, but you'll need a separate ticket from there to your destination. You can buy this ticket at the station in Germany by simply explaining your plan to the ticket agent. They'll figure-out which border crossing you'll be using so as to get you the right ticket. You'll then show your Germany rail pass to the German conductor and the supplemental ticket to the conductor after you've crossed the border.

Seat reservations
Tickets or passes only guarantee passage from one place to another; they do not actually guarantee you seated passage. In most cases, you should be able to find a seat without much problem. However, seat reservations (Platzreservierung) are recommended on the busier routes, especially on Fridays, Sundays and holidays, and are required on a few trains which are specially noted on the schedule. If not required, these reservations are purchased separately from your ticket, although you can purchase them at the same time you buy your ticket and have the fee included. You can book seats in most cases from six months before departure all the way up to a few minutes before departure. Reservations are possible on all long-distance trains and some regional routes.

Reservation ticket

Reservation ticket for seats 23 and 24 in carriage 2 on the ICE 990 from Munich to Stuttgart

As of 2023, the standard fee for a reservation is €4.90 for each second class seat reserved, and €5.90 for first class. For groups of two to five people, you can purchase a "family reservation" (Familien-Reservierung) for €9.00 for second class, and €11.80 for first class. In all cases, a reservation all connecting trains is included free unless reservations on one or more of the legs are mandatory.

If you book online, you can select your seat from a map and get just what you want. Otherwise, if you're purchasing in person, you'll probably have to state your preferences. You can specify Großraumwagen or Abteilwagen. The Abteilwagen has compartments that open onto a corridor along one side of the carriage. Each compartment has four to six total seats facing each other. The Großraumwagen is the typical open coach carriage (called a "saloon" on the English version of the DB website) with varying seat configurations. Note that not all trains have both. If you want a window seat (am Fenster), aisle seat (am Gang), or a table (am Tisch), be sure to specify that, too. Smoking is no longer permitted on German trains, so that's one less choice to make.

See the section "On Board" below for information on claiming your seat aboard the train.

Cancellations/delays
If you have one of the Sparpreis tickets and your booked train is cancelled, or its arrival at your destination will be delayed 20 minutes or more, or a delay causes you to miss a connection, then the specific train requirement for your ticket is automatically nullified and your ticket then essentially becomes a flex ticket for the day, i.e. you can then take any train that day that gets you to your destination. If possible, you should get certification of the delay from a train official (or take a screenshot of the status in the DB app on your phone), but this is not required. You do not need to cancel and rebook your ticket — just hop on the next train going to your destination and explain to the conductor that your train was cancelled or delayed, which they then can look up if they don't already know about it. If you have your tickets loaded in the DB app, it should suggest alternatives for you.

If your arrival at your destination is delayed by one hour or more, you are entitled to a partial refund. You will need to submit paperwork to obtain this refund. See the DB's "passenger rights" site for more information.

If your train is cancelled, or will be delayed more than one hour, and you wish to abandon your trip, you are entitled to a full refund.

Some restrictions apply to refunds, so it is best to discuss your particular situation with an agent at a DB travel center.

Finally, note that if you had a seat reservation on a train that was cancelled or missed, the reservation does not transfer. If a train is cancelled, the next few trains are likely to be full as passengers from the cancelled train transfer to them, so you'll want to book a reservation on your chosen alternative as soon as possible.


At the station and boarding

Hamburg central station

Hamburg Hauptbahnhof
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

The German word for train station is Bahnhof. If you're in a large city, you will most likely be using the Hauptbahnhof, or central station. Stations are usually located near the heart of the city, except in small towns where they're often located on the edge of town. Large cities will usually have a number of suburban stations as well. Berlin used to have several "main" stations, with the venerable Zoo station serving as the primary station in the western half of the city, and the Ostbahnhof, which prior to 1998 had been named Hauptbahnhof, being the hub for the eastern part. However, a massive new Hauptbahnhof for the city opened in May 2006 across the Spree River from the Reichstag on the site of the former Lehrter Bahnhof, replacing the other stations as the city's main terminus. The five-level glass-shrouded Berlin Hauptbahnhof has a train departing on average every 90 seconds. By contrast, many teeny-tiny villages have only a single trackside platform served by a handful of trains a day. Three of Germany's Hauptbahnhofs are among the five busiest in Europe: Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Munich.

Services
Once you get there, you will find that the larger stations are virtual self-contained cities. Most now feature a large shopping arcade under the branding "Mein Einkaufsbahnhof" with a wide-assortment of stores and restaurants that are open extended hours or even 'round-the-clock. Information and ticket counters are found in most stations of any significance as are luggage lockers. Larger stations usually also have banks and currency exchanges, luggage offices, post offices, showers, and a traveler's aid service called Bahnhofsmission. A few even have a hotel. Many stations are in historical structures and have been or are in the process of being renovated. The DB has a website that provides information on the largest 20 or so stations; see the web links at the bottom of this page.

Signs in the major stations are in German and English and use standard international pictograms. Here are some of the more important ones:

Information sign Tickets sign Ticket office sign Restroom sign
Information
Tickets
Ticket office
Waiting room




Waiting room sign Luggage office sign Luggage lockers sign Lost and found office sign
Restrooms
Luggage office
Luggage lockers
Lost and found

Schedule boards
Timetables are prominently posted throughout the station. You will find two schedules: arrivals (Ankunft) and departures (Abfahrt). Departures are listed on yellow charts, arrivals on white. All trains arriving or departing that station are listed chronologically starting at midnight. Times are listed using the 24-hour clock (e.g. 13:00 = 1:00 pm). Various symbols indicate the services onboard, reservation requirements, and days that train operates — use the legend at the bottom to crack the code. Express trains are listed in red. The train number and the arrival or departure track (Gleis) number are also listed.

In most stations, there will also be large electronic display boards strategically placed around the station showing all the upcoming trains and their status. If you see information shown on a white background, pay attention — this usually indicates delays, platform changes, or other information you need to be aware of. Delays can be shown in a couple of ways depending on the format of the sign: either as the new departure time shown in white next to the original time, or the number of minutes the train is delayed will be shown in a crawling message, e.g. "15 min. verspätet" or "+15 min." Cancellations are usually indicated with "fällt aus."

Sadly, pretty much all of the old electromechanical "split-flap" signs with their distinctive clicking sound have been phased-out in favor of the new digital displays.

Departure boards at Munich central station

Departure boards at Munich central station
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

On the platform
If you already have your ticket, there is no check-in required — just head to your platform.

Once you arrive at the designated track, confirm you are at the correct place by checking the overhead platform indicator displays. There are a variety of displays currently in use; examples of the most common ones are in the photos below. These show the train number, destination, intermediate stops, and departure time of the next train at that platform. Keep in mind that if you arrive rather early, the display may be showing a train that comes before yours; subsequent trains are often shown in a list at the bottom or, on some newer displays, to the side.

Platform indicator sign

Platform indicator display
This display is indicating that the next departing train at this platform is the ICE 522 departing at 7:26 pm bound for Cologne Hauptbahnhof via Ingolstadt and Nuremburg. First class carriages will be in sections A and G, restaurant carriages in sections B and F, and second class carriages in sections C, D, and E. The white strip at the top has a special notice that the composition of the train has been changed (i.e. it won't match what's on the platform charts.) The bottom shows the next trains scheduled at this platform: the ICE 721 from Essen at 7:41 pm and the ICE 1007 from Hamburg-Altona at 8:02 pm. However, both trains are late; the "+25" and "+15" on white backgrounds indicate the trains are approximately 25 minutes and 15 minutes late respectively. Furthermore, the train from Essen will now arrive on platform 23 as indicated by "Gleis 23" on the white background to the right.
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

There will also often be a section on the display that shows where the carriages of the train will stop along the platform. More to that end, you will usually find an utterly practical chart called a Wagenreihungsplan or Wagenstandanzeiger somewhere along the platform. This chart shows the composition of the trains (mostly long-distance trains) that use that track and where they will stop along the platform in relation to lettered signs above the platform (section A, B, C, and so on.) If you have a seat reservation, check your reservation ticket for the carriage number (usually listed after the word "Wagen".) Locate your train on the chart and find that carriage number and its position relative to the lettered sections. Then go wait near the corresponding lettered sign and, magically, you'll be within a few steps of your carriage when the train arrives. If you don't have a reservation, find where a first or second class carriage (depending on your ticket) that's headed in your direction will stop and wait there. First class carriages are shown in yellow; second class carriages in green.

Note that sometimes the composition of trains is changed at the last minute; this is usually announced at the platform and may also be noted on the digital displays.

Train composition chart

Train composition chart
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Train composition chart close-up

Train composition chart close-up
Departure time and train number are listed at the left, followed by any special notes for the train (such as the location where the train will be divided and sent to different destinations), a list of destinations served by that train, and a graphical representation of the layout of the train with second class carriages shown in green, the restaurant or cafe carriage in red, first class carriages in yellow, and sleeper carriages in blue. The white square on each carriage shows the carriage number, and symbols indicating specific other notes about each carriage (e.g. type of seating, family seating, quiet carriage, etc.) are shown to the right of the number. Along the top and bottom of the chart are letters which correspond to the lettered signs above the platform used to approximate where each carriage will stop along the platform. The orange/red dot shows your current position.
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Since the newer platform indicator displays show the train composition, many stations are now doing away with the paper train composition charts. Examples of these displays are below. First class carriages are shown in white on these displays.

Platform sign with train composition

Platform indicator display with train composition
The next departing train is the ICE 278 to Berlin Ostbahnhof departing at 3:14 pm. First class carriages 11-14 will be in sections A and B. Second class carriages 1-9 will be in sections B through F. The bottom shows the next trains at this platform: the RE 55 to Bamberg via Frankfurt (Main)-South at 3:34 pm, which will stop in sections A and B, and the ICE 72 to Hamburg-Altona at 3:58 pm, which will stop in sections A through F.
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

New platform indicator sign

New platform indicator display
This is the newest platform indicator display. The next departing train is typically shown on the side of the display nearest the track; in this case, on the right: the ICE 77 to Zurich Hauptbahnhof departing at 11:26 am with the intervening stops shown, and the train composition at the bottom showing second class carriages 1-9 will be in sections A through E and first class carriages 11-14 in sections F and G. To the left are the next two subsequent trains: the FLX 30/1233 to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, scheduled for 11:54 am but now departing at 12:39 pm, and the ICE 579/LH 3 to Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof departing at 1:04 pm with first class carriages in sections A and B, and second class carriages in sections C through G.
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Occasionally, the platform for a train may be changed at the last minute. This is usually announced via loudspeaker. If you don't understand the announcement (even native speakers often don't), watch the reaction of the people waiting with you. If everyone grumbles and starts walking away, you can bet that they just announced a change, so scurry along with the herd. Such changes will also usually be posted on the main departure boards as well as on the platform indicator displays. For instance, if the display at platform 4 lists your train but has a special notice reading "Gleis 12", then that means your train has been moved to track 12.

Just to keep everyone on their toes, sometimes not all carriages on a train will go to the same destination. Carriages are sometimes switched to other trains en route or just sidetracked altogether. If you don't have a reservation, you'll need to verify that the carriage you are boarding is actually going where you want to go. You can use the aforementioned train composition chart to determine this ahead of time, and when the train arrives at the platform, check for the signs on or near each door on the train that lists the train and carriage numbers, origin and destination, and intermediate stops. Some older and regional trains still use paper signs, but most trains now have electronic displays. Make sure you see your target listed on the carriage you board or you could very well wind-up on a different continent. If in doubt, ask the conductor.

Car number and destination signs Car number and destination signs Class and seat numbers indicator

Carriage number and destination signs
Older carriage number and destination signs (left) indicating that this is carriage #15 on the IC 2110 headed from Stuttgart to Cologne via Heidelberg, Mannheim, Mainz, and Bonn, and electronic version (center) indicating that this is carriage #5 on the IC 897 from Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof to Bregenz via Heidelberg. At the right are static markings indicating this is a second class carriage, carriage number 6, with seats 81 through 144 located at this end of the carriage.
(Photos by Brian Purcell)

Once you're ready to board, allow those who want to disembark to do so first, then hop on. If no one is waiting to get off the train, the door may not open — look for a button or handle to open the door.

Make sure you are at the platform well before your train's scheduled departure time. While some trains may have a lengthy stopover, especially at major stations or at the starting point for a route, most trains stop for just a couple of minutes. Connections are meticulously timed, so it is imperative that everything run on time lest a train-sized monkey wrench get caught in the cogs of the giant GermanRail machine. Accordingly, lollygaggers take note: if you're even a minute late, you could miss your train!

The conductor will often blow a whistle just before departure. The doors will close automatically shortly thereafter, usually with a beeping warning sound followed by a satisfying clunk.



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On board

IC upper level open coach interior

IC upper level open coach interior
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Finding your seat
Once on board, it's time to locate a seat. If you have a reservation, you'll need to find your assigned seat. Seat numbers are fairly logical and clearly posted. In open coach carriages (Großraumwagen), the seat numbers will be posted on the rail above the seat and/or on the side of the aisle seat. In compartment carriages (Abteilwagen), the seat numbers are shown on the outside of each compartment. Ask the conductor if you need help locating your seat.

If you find that someone is already sitting in your seat, simply tell them that you have a reservation ("Entschuldigung, ich habe diesen Platz reserviert.") Most Germans will vacate the seat cheerfully (real or feigned), although occasionally you may have to insist with a squatter. Be sure to claim your seat as soon as you can — reservations expire if you don't claim your seat within 15 minutes of departure.

Reservation tag Electronic reservation tags

Old-style paper reservation tags on a compartment (left)
and overhead electronic reservation display in an open seating carriage (right)
(Photos by Brian Purcell)

If you have not reserved a seat, then look for a vacant seat and check to see if there is a reservation for it. Seat reservations will be shown via an electronic display by the seat numbers, although note that these are sometimes are out of order. Some older trains still use small paper tags in a little plastic doohickey. In both cases, last-minute reservations may not be shown.

The reservation does not show names, but rather shows the city pair of the segment(s) for which it is reserved. For example, a reservation showing "Mannheim - Frankfurt" means the seat is reserved between Mannheim and Frankfurt. If your journey doesn't include that section, you can have the seat. If only part of your journey overlaps, you may sit there until that segment reached and the seat is claimed. If there are other passengers nearby, you might make sure it doesn't already have a squatter by asking them if it is available ("Ist hier noch frei?")

Note that there are sometimes general generic reservations for people with small children (posted as "Kleinkinder"), for handicapped people ("Schwerbehindert"), and seats that the DB holds for last-minute sales (usually marked as "ggf freigeben", which means "surrender on demand"); you can sit in these if they're unoccupied, but if someone comes along saying they've reserved the seat, you'll have to move. Seats marked with "bahn.comfort" or something similar are for holders of a BahnCard and must be surrendered if someone claims them (although they might assume you also have a BahnCard and not even ask!), and seats marked "ggf reserviert" mean the reservation system is out-of-date (in which case, they'll probably all show this), and essentially has the same meaning as "ggf freigeben".

Stashing your stuff
You can store your luggage on the racks above the seats and in the gap between back-to-back rows. There are also usually storage racks at the ends and sometimes in the center of the carriages, although you might not want to use these unless you have a clear view of it so you can keep an eye on your stuff.

At the appointed time, the train will depart. The departure is usually so smooth that you may not even notice you're moving unless you're looking out the window.

Typical ICE interior

Typical ICE second-class open coach interior
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Ticket inspection
On long-distance trains, once the train has been underway for a little while, the conductor will usually come through and ask for tickets. Present your ticket or rail pass (and passport if proof of age or residency is required for your pass.) If you have a traditional paper ticket, the conductor will, in good German form, punch or stamp it and return it to you. For e-tickets, the conductor will scan the code on your phone or paper copy. You should not need to show your ticket again for the duration of your trip unless there is a staff change or you cross a border.

Most regional and local trains no longer have conductors — passengers on these trains are on the honor system. You must purchase all tickets and reservations before you board these trains. Periodic spot checks are made and hefty fines are levied against those without valid tickets. Oh, and don't try to hide in the WC — they don't find that amusing for some reason.

"Komfort check-in"
With e-tickets on the DB app, you have the option of a "Komfort check-in", which allows you to perform self check-in so the conductor does not have to stop and ask for your ticket. In the app, open your ticket and click the "Komfort check-in" button and follow the prompts. If you do not have a seat reservation, it will prompt you for your carriage and seat number (the carriage number can be located on the overhead displays.) However, if the seat you select is one of the special reservations discussed above, it will not allow the check-in and you'll have to wait for the conductor to check your ticket. Also, if you purchased a seat reservation after you bought your ticket, the system may not allow you to check-in because the reservation is technically a separate booking and the system does not recognize it as being linked to your ticket. Finally, even if you use the "Komfort check-in", conductors do sometimes still check, either as a spot-check or due to a system error.

Onboard services
Once you've settled-in and had your ticket checked, you can roam about the train. Toilet facilities (WC) are located at the ends of the carriages and thankfully are not emptied directly onto the tracks anymore, so you can use them even while in a station. However, do not drink the water from the sink as the water tanks don't get flushed and disinfected very often.

Train restroom

Restroom (WC) on ICE train
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

On the ICE and IC trains, as well as some regional trains, there are electronic displays overhead and/or at the ends of the carriages showing the train's itinerary, scheduled and estimated arrival times, and occasionally the train's speed.

ICE overhead display

Overhead display in ICE carriage showing upcoming stops and estimated arrival times as well as the current train speed
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Most long-distance trains have a bistro, buffet, restaurant, or lounge carriage serving a variety of foods, snacks, and beverages, including beer and wine. Some trains will have a server that passes through the carriages selling drinks and snacks. Wandering around the train will also allow you to interact with others and get that sense of belonging with the other travelers. I have had many an interesting conversation with people while waiting in line for a drink.

All ICE and IC trains now have free Wi-Fi, although it can sometimes be spotty. On ICE trains, once you connect to the Wi-Fi, you can connect to the "ICE Portal" entertainment service on your device (go to ICEportal.de in your browser.) Here, you can watch free movies and TV shows and get information about the train including the current status of internet connectivity.

Most ICE trains and some IC trains have power outlets at the seats — on some trains, they're at every seat, on others, only at selected seats. These outlets are usually 220 volt, so you will need to make sure your device either accepts that voltage or you have a transformer. You may also need a plug adapter. Most ICE trains also now have signal repeaters for improved mobile phone reception. At the other end of the spectrum, most ICE trains also have a "quiet zone" carriage, where use of mobile phones is strongly discouraged; be sure to look for this when reserving if that's your preference.

Train compartments

Corridor alongside compartment seating
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Getting off
Stops are announced shortly before arrival. If you miss the announcement (or just don't understand it!), the electronic displays in the carriages and signs on the platforms will tell you where you are. Make sure you are ready to jump off when the train arrives at your destination — remember that at some stops, the train only stops for a minute or two. If you're not ready, you may end up taking an unscheduled diversion to Germany's Timbuktu.

As the train pulls into your station, be standing near a door and when the wheels grind to a halt, open the door, and hop off. To open the door, look for a handle or green button — either should be fairly obvious. As the disembarking passenger, you have the right-of-way over people trying to clamber aboard, but be prepared to shove your way through any Teutons who aren't minding their manners.

Once you get off the train, follow the "Ausgang" signs to leave the station. Large stations have multiple exits, so double-check to make sure you're headed in the right direction. If you're transferring to local public transportation, follow the appropriate signs. If you are making connections, check the electronic departure boards to find out which track your connecting train leaves from, then follow the signs directing you to that platform. Connection information is also usually announced and displayed on board the train as it approaches each station. In some cases, you may only have to cross the platform for your connecting train.

Safety
Unfortunately, trains and stations the world over are frequent hotbeds for petty thieves. However, you can reduce the possibility that your bags will spontaneously walk off by keeping them near you and in sight at all times, and if you can't keep an eye on them, by locking or at least clipping them to luggage racks. If it takes any additional effort to remove your bag, a ruffian will likely leave it and move on to easier prey. And be sure to take precautions with wallets, purses, passports, cell phones, and other valuables on your person.

That said, trains are quite safe, although it is not recommended that you sit in an otherwise empty carriage at night.


Bus and ferry service

The DB operates regional bus service (DB Regio Bus) in several areas served infrequently or not at all by rail. Most of these routes depart from the Zentralomnibusbahnhof (ZOB), or central bus station, usually located adjacent to a train station. The DB also operates the KD cruise boat service along the Rhine River from Cologne to Mainz. Rail tickets and passes are valid on both of these services.


Other sites of interest

Deutsche Bahn
https://www.bahn.de
DB train stations
https://www.bahnhof.de/bahnhof-en
   
The German Way (by Hyde Flippo)
https://www.german-way.com/travel-and-tourism/train-travel-europe/train-travel-in-germany/
RailFanEurope.net (by Marco van Uden)
http://www.railfaneurope.net
Railways in Germany(by Hisayuki Huh)
http://www.rig-bahn.jp/
Erik's Rail News (by Erik Sandblom)
https://eriksrailnews.com/

RAIL PASSES
Rick Steves' Guide to Rail Passes
https://www.ricksteves.com/rail/rail_menu.htm
Rail Europe
https://www.raileurope.com/en
Railpass.com
https://www.railpass.com