In Travel

What You Need to Know About Riding the German Train System

Inside Hamburg German Train Station

Convenience and efficiency — that’s the German train system in a nutshell. You have the sleek, futuristic-looking high-speed trains that glide into the station without so much as a rumble. Then there are the regional services, a bit bulkier, that slow your trip down, but give you access to some of those storybook German towns where English is faintly spoken and hiking trails are everywhere. Within the cities, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find frequent and prevalent public transportation.

This piece is about covering long distance on the German train system. Local transit is a different beast with its own quirks on purchasing tickets and getting around. (If all else fails, shrug your shoulders and play the tourist card.) But getting around the country on Deutsche Bahn (DB) is as easy as it is enjoyable.

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

  • What is a German train?
  • Train ticket booking in Germany
  • Cheap train tickets in Germany
  • ICE Train
  • Eating on German trains
  • Where to Stand on the Platform
  • German Rail Pass

What is a German Train?

Far more often than not, a German train is a Deutsche Bahn (DB) train. DB is the primary train operator in Germany. There have been attempts by smaller outfits to startup and compete against the juggernaut, but for the time being, Deutsche Bahn is the king of German rails. (Click here for their English homepage.)

Train Ticket Booking in Germany

You can book your train in Germany online through Deutsche Bahn or through the Deutsche Bahn app. If you buy online, you often then have the option to download a mobile ticket to your phone on the DB train app and save on paper. This will be what you show the conductor when he or she comes marching through to check tickets. That said, sometimes (for reasons unbeknownst to me) you are required to print your ticket. Fear not, you will be alerted if you need to print it out.

When booking your train, also take note of quiet cabins — typically only available on high-speed and intercity trains. This is what I’m always looking for, so I can either doze off or look out the window in peace. You’ll also have the opportunity to reserve a seat, which is more often than not unnecessary. It’s worth it if you have a bunch of bags and don’t want to drag them around as you look for a seat. A single seat reservation costs €9. That can add up over time if you’re reserving a seat for every train on your trip with multiple people.

Outside Hamburg German Train Station

Cheap Train Tickets in Germany

Buying a last-minute ticket from Düsseldorf to Munich, for example, can be absurdly expensive. Germany rewards planning ahead more so than any country I’ve ever traveled. Cheap train tickets in Germany are only available to those who know their travel plans well in advance. For those who do plan ahead, Deutsche Bahn offers Spar Preis (saver) tickets that open up in availability approximately three months prior to your travel date. Suddenly a $300 trip can be as cheap as $25 each way.

ICE Train

This is the mothership. The ICE train in Germany is your high-speed rail option, cutting travel times across the country significantly. It’s easily the fastest mode of transportation in the country to major cities — faster than driving and even flying (if you include that time you’re wasting twidling your thumbs at the airport because you have to get there early). They also happen to be the cleanest, most pleasant trains you’ll experience in Germany. Anecdotally, something about dropping the “E” and becoming a simple IC train (intercity) tends to make people a bit rowdier and dirtier (relative to German standards of cleanliness). As soon as that train becomes an ICE, things seem to straighten up, keep quiet, and people allow their neighbors to doze off to the hum of the high-speed train.

Eating on German Trains

One of the advantages many U.S. travelers see in travel by car is being able to stop and eat whenever you want. Well, German trains have that covered, too, but you don’t have to stop and you’re still moving faster than by car. All ICE trains have a restaurant wagon where you can sit down and receive table service. It’s not a Michelin-starred restaurant, but you can eat plenty well on the train. Plus there’s something especially enjoyable about having lunch and seeing the countryside whiz by.

IC trains, too, have a restaurant car, but sit-down seating is generally much more limited. Most people who hang out here are standing and drinking a beer. On regional trains, don’t expect to find great food options. I’ve yet to figure out any consistency as to whether or not someone will be offering food on regional trains, but it does happen on occasion that someone will pass by with coffee and snacks.

Where to Stand on the Platform

Before you eat on a German train, you need to board. Granted this isn’t inherently difficult. The train pulls up, you get on, and you find a seat. But some German trains, like the ICEs, can be absurdly long. If you’ve booked a seat, you don’t want to get on the train and then find out you have to snake your way through several wagons, especially if you’re carrying some luggage. Speaking of eating on the train, you might want to board the restaurant car right away.

Figuring out where to board is actually quite easy. On the blue screens hanging over the platform announcing the next train, you’ll see a little-computerized train with 1s and 2s inside the train and letters over those numbers. The numbers refer to the class — first and second. The letters are sections on the platform (you’ll see hanging signs with the letters over the platform). So on that screen, you can easily tell where you need to stand for first or second class.

To get even more specific, you can find a map of the train in a glass case on the platform. Here you can see which wagon number corresponds to your seat as well as where to stand on the platform for easy boarding. This may all sound a bit like gibberish without having done it, but it should click once you’re there.

German Rail Pass

The German Rail Pass is available to travelers who reside permanently outside of Europe, Turkey, and Russia, offering unlimited travel across Germany on everything from regional trains to the legendary ICE. You can even go international, so long as you’re riding a Deutsche Bahn train. That means Venice and Salzburg, for example, are suddenly within reach. Go for this option if you plan on doing significant train travel around Germany.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, and German language tips. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany and finding my roots — There Must Be Order.

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