Trains: Traveling by Rail in Germany
German trains are clean, comfortable, reliable and fast. Between the downtown areas of most German cities the travel time by train is as fast or faster than the travel time by plane, when you calculate in the time it takes to get to and from the airport.
Germany's privatized national railway, the Deutsche Bahn, features the super-fast InterCity Express (ICE) trains. They zoom around the country at hourly and two-hourly intervals and link up all major cities. Transferring from one of them to another is usually just a matter of crossing the station platform and speeding off again within minutes of your arrival. Some ICE trains also operate between major international destinations including Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands.
The ICE trains are quiet and fully air-conditioned with reclining seats, tables at seats, dining and bistro cars. And they are fast. An ICE line connects Frankfurt and Cologne in only 58 minutes.
Trains similar to the ICEs, with the same internationally stipulated quality standards, connect major cities in Germany as well as German cities with major cities of neighboring countries. The trains connecting German cities are called Intercity (IC) trains and the ones connecting German cities with neighboring countries are called EuroCity (EC) trains.
The ICE trains have laptop connections and repeaters to make use of cell phones easy. And they have special compartments for handicapped travelers and travelers with babies. There are plenty of “Rest Areas” on an ICE where the use of mobile phones, ring tones and loud music (including with headphones) are not welcome. Reservations are highly recommended for special features such as the repeaters or baby and handicapped compartments. Seats on the trains can be reserved, for a fee of €4.50, as much as three months in advance. A reservation is also recommended on ICE and EC trains if you plan to travel on summer weekends or during holiday periods.
CityNightLine (CNL) trains are sleepers with economy and deluxe sleeper cars (with single, double, triple or four bed configurations and private WC and showers) as well as couchette cars that can accommodate up to six people and cars that have reclining seats. There are now 17 of them operating between a variety of destinations. They usually reach the destination city before the first plane of the day does.
Not only is train travel often faster than air travel, it is also more reliable. Air travel is more subject to weather-related delays. Because of this, major efforts are being made to integrate air and rail travel. ICE trains stop at the Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and Köln-Bonn airports.
Rail is often faster than driving, too, and much more relaxing. On the trains you can do some work, read the paper, snooze or enjoy a sandwich and beer. And downtown parking is no problem.
All this and a price structure that many travelers find attractive. It is aimed at luring people away from their private cars, and from those cut-rate airlines that are making life difficult for the railroad and the traditional airlines.
The price of rail travel is lower than it used to be (though sometimes short distances cost more) and there is a dizzying array of ways of saving for the savvy traveler. Popular special offers include:
- Saver Fare (Sparpreis) – prices for one-way tickets in Germany start from €19 for short distances (up to 250 km). For longer distances prices start at €29 (Second Class) and €49 (First Class) Travel on the ICE is possible. Prices for two people traveling together start at €49 in Second Class. Up to three more people can go on the same trip with the couple for €20 each.
- Group discounts – the Bahn offers a variety of discounts for various sized groups for travel in Germany as well as internationally. Savings can range from 30% to 70%.
- Federal States Tickets (Länder-Tickets) – unlimited travel for one day in the German State of your choice. Includes travel on Interregio-Express, Regional Express, Regionalbahn, S-Bahn and some urban and local transport systems. Valid for up to 5 travelers. There are some restrictions.
- One-day Unlimited Tickets (Quer-durch-Land Ticket) – unlimited travel throughout Germany for a day for €44. Four others may join for an €8 supplement each. Offer is valid for Mondays to Fridays and includes travel only on regional trains.
- Happy Weekend Ticket (Schönes-Wochende-Ticket) – a single ticket allows a group of 5 to travel for a single low price (€44 if purchased online, €46 at a DB Travel Center) on a single day on a weekend. Travel is restricted to local trains.
Click here for a full listing in English of the special offers and their conditions can be found on the Deutsche Bahn website.
There are also three BahnCards that will get you reductions. With the so-called "BahnCard 25" you pay three-quarters of the ticket price, with the "BahnCard 50" you pay half price, and with the "BahnCard 100" you pay nothing except the price of the card.
The "BahnCard 25" costs €62 Standard Class and €125 First Class. A BahnCard 25 can often pay for itself the first time you use it. A BahnCard 25 Standard Class is offered for €41 for a partner, children and seniors. The "BahnCard 50" costs €255 Standard Class and €515 First Class. The "BahnCard 50," is half price for your spouse or partner, children (from ages 6 to 17), students under age 27, the severely handicapped and seniors over 60. It cannot be used together with other "Savings" fare offers. The "BahnCard 100" costs €4,090 Standard Class and €6,890 First Class. All BahnCards are good for a year from the date of issue. They are automatically renewed for following years unless cancelled in writing at least 6 weeks before the renewal date. There are different features for each of the cards. Click here to learn more (in English) about BahnCards.
Non-European visitors can save a lot with a "Eurailpass," which is good for unlimited travel on most European railroads. Eurail, together with the Deutsche Bahn, has created the website www.germanrailpasses.com which offers the "German Rail Pass". The German Rail Pass is dedicated to train travel in Germany. It is available for non-Europeans and is a great way to explore Germany.
Traveling with a Bike
You cannot take a bike on an ICE (InterCity Express) train unless it is a storable, folding bike, which are becoming very popular for everyday use in urban areas in Germany. You can take a bike on all the following trains: IC (Inter City) Interregio-Express (IRE), Regional-Express (RE), Regionalbahn (RB) and S-Bahn (light rail), but there are stipulations that vary from region to region and there are time restrictions for some as well (usually during rush hour). Most trains have compartments for bikes, but it is strictly first come, first served. If traveling in high season on an IC, it is advisable to reserve a space for your bike several days before your trip when traveling on heavily frequented routes. Trains with lighter travel usually always have enough room to accommodate your 2 wheels. Check train configuration posters on the platform to find-out which train car is designated for bicycles. The designated car is usually found in the front and/or at the back of each train.
Buy your ticket before boarding!
You can still purchase tickets from conductors on ICE trains if necessary, for an extra fee, either with cash or by credit card. But for all other trains you must purchase your ticket before boarding, otherwise you will be subject to a heavy fine on top of your ticket purchase. There are automats for ticket purchases and you can always still use the old fashion method - going to the ticket counter. If using the automats, be ready with your EC bank card or your credit card with PIN. Normally you will need about 5-7 minutes, maybe 10 for your first purchase. Step 1: change the automats language to English.
Seven ways to purchase a ticket: http://www.bahn.de
Online ticket booking tips: http://www.bahn.de
Traveling with small children and/or baby?
Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) offers great Mutter/Klein Kind (mother and small child) compartment that is spacious enough for up to 2 large baby wagons and has overhead storage for large bags as well as a little extra floor space. There is plenty of legroom for most seats and there is a table with wrap-around bench seating. When purchasing your tickets at a ticket counter or by phone, ask for it specifically and be sure to inquire what generation train car the ICE is. First and Second generation cars do not have this compartment. Instead, extra seating is provided in normal, 6 person compartments, when space is available. Only Third generation ICE's (the newest) have this Mutter/Klein Kind compartment and are often completely reserved as a result. Book early and be sure to ask for a 3rd generation ICE with Mutter/Klein Kind abteilen. A week in advance should be adequate to secure a comfortable seat for you and child or children. Note: this is not just for mothers. Anyone traveling with a baby or small child may reserve these seats.