Traveling by train in Germany
(Last Updated On: 8. September 2019)
The Germans have different opinions about the German railway company, called Deutsche Bahn [dɔʏtʃə ba:n]. A lot of them love to travel with the “Bahn”, how it’s called in Germany. On the other hand, a lot of people cursing it as unpunctual, as dirty, with bad service, and with a fare system which nobody understands. But in defence of the Deutsche Bahn I need to say that the Germans tend to complain and to grumble often. That’s why we in Germany have a saying, that the Germans have a so-called “whining gene”. Besides that, opinions are very subjective, and if you consider it more objectively, you will find that to travel by train in Germany is not as bad as it’s been told. I’ve been traveling for a couple of years by train across Germany and had mostly good experiences. In this article I’d like to give you some information about traveling by train in Germany.
Train types in Germany
First we should take a look onto different train types. It is important for you to know this, so you can decide if you would like to travel fast and more expensive or rather slowly but cheaper.
Actually, there are four different and most common types of trains in Germany. There are some more different types, but they can be summed up to one type. More about it later below.
1) RB (Regional Bahn) – the slowest train type. It stops at almost every place with a train platform. In return you would need to pay the lowest price, and you can enjoy the landscapes while traveling with the RB. This train is red coloured.
2) RE (Regional Express) – this train type is faster than the RB and skips some train stations so you would reach your destination a bit faster. On the other hand, you would pay a higher price. This train is also red coloured.
3) IC (Inter City) – the Inter City is pretty fast and stops only between bigger towns or cities. The price for a ticket is much higher in comparison to an RB or RE. The color of this train is white with a red stripe. The IC was the predecessor of the ICE (more about ICE in the next paragraph) and thus, this train type is fast but not as fast as the ICE. That’s also the reason why it has an older equipment on board than the ICE. Regarding the velocity, an IC can achieve a pace of max. 200 km/h (about 125 mph).
4) ICE (Inter City Express) – this one is real fast and stops only between big cities like Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Würzburg, Leipzig, Dresden, and so on. An ICE can achieve velocities about 330 km/h (about 205 mph). But in Germany there are just a couple of sections where the ICE would move with such a pace. That’s why the newest generation of ICE, the ICE 4, can achieve a top speed of about “just” 250 km/h (about 155 mph). Nevertheless, the ICE is the fastest train type in Germany. The color of this train type is the same like of the IC – white with a red stripe.
Other train types in Germany
There are some special train types operating within metropolitan areas to deal with the big traffic volume.
SE (City Express) – is comparable to the RB but this train type skips some stops. It is operating only within metropolitan areas and is usually red coloured. It has the same price category like the RB.
S (S-Bahn) – the S-Bahn is like a subway which operates above-ground within metropolitan areas, like Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin an so on.
Private train companies in Germany
The trains I’ve explained above belong all to the Deutsche Bahn. But there are some private companies using the tracks of the Deutsche Bahn. How it works exactly is not the topic of this article and doesn’t matter here. What is important for you, is to know that there are some other abbreviations you would find in the train timetable.
Besides of an RB, RE, IC and so on, sometimes you would see on the timetable an EB, a BOB, a BGW, a NOB, a HKX, and several other abbreviations. Looks pretty inscrutable, right? But trust me, it is not! For all those train types are equivalent to an RB or RE of the Deutsche Bahn because they are all regional train companies. Thus, when you see one of those abbreviations, don’t be confused and just know, that they are regional private train companies using the tracks of the Deutsche Bahn. You can use them all, and you pay there the same price like in the trains of the Deutsche Bahn.
Rate of punctuality of the German trains
The Deutsche Bahn is aiming a punctuality rate of at least 80%. Usually, this rate lies above 80%. Especially the local railway traffic regularly achieves a punctuality rate above 93%. In the long-distance traffic, the 80% rate is usually reached. Only sometimes this rate cannot be achieved and lies between 70% and 80%. The Deutsche Bahn states this result to the weather influences. Here you will find an overview with the punctualities in the past tree years.
The price system and how cheap are the ticket prices
For long distances, the ticket price of the Deutsche Bahn is linked to the demand. During the rush hour the price is usually higher than normal. The good thing is, that in off-peak hours the prices could be pretty moderate. If you travel short distances, the price is actually always the same.
Therefore, when you have to travel longer distances, I recommend you to book a ticket several weeks in advance. Sometimes you would save up to 50% of the original price with this method.
When you travel short distances, e.g. within a specific region, you can buy a ticket spontaneously. But first you should check the ticket specials. More about this in the section below.
In general, I recommend you to check the prices online or at the ticket machines and not at the help desk. Because if you ask the help desk, you will pay an extra service charge.
Ticket specials of the Deutsche Bahn
The typical special is the so-called regional day ticket (Länderticket). When you buy a regional ticket, you can travel by train the whole day as much as you want. The only condition is, that you need to stay within a federal state (e.g. within Bavaria) and you can only use the regional trains like RB or RE. So when you are traveling through Bavaria, you would buy a Bavaria-Ticket, if you are in Hesse, you would buy a Hesse-Ticket and so on. A regional ticket is valid during a working day from 9 am to 3 am of the subsequent day. At the weekend, a regional ticket is valid already from the midnight to 3 am of the next day.
Using a regional ticket, you have some opportunities
You can either buy a regional ticket for one person or for groups up to five persons. Besides that, with a regional ticket, you can usually use the subway, the tram and busses without buying an extra ticket. A pretty good thing, right? More information about the regional day tickets you will find on the website of the Deutsche Bahn.
Saving money with a BahnCard
A BahnCard is another possibility to save money. If you a frequented traveller you can buy a BahnCard and you will save either 25%, 50% or even 100% of your ticket prices. 100% is not possible you say? Well, it is indeed possible. But actually in reality only high frequented travellers use this type of BahnCard. Because a BahnCard 100% costs more than 4000,- EUR per year. Paying this amount, you can use each train in Germany for free.
A BahnCard 25% costs about 62,- EUR (2nd class) and a BahnCard 50% costs about 255,- EUR per year. When I was a student, I used a BahnCard 50. As I had no car, I used the train very often. So a BahnCard was really worth for me. Thus, if you decide to stay a bit longer in Germany, a BahnCard might be a good opportunity for you to save money. More information about the BahnCard you will find on the website of the Bahn.
There are some other promotions of the Deutsche Bahn (like super saver fare, flexible fare and so on) I will not explain as they change from time to time. Just check them on the website of the Deutsche Bahn in the same section of the BahnCard.
Overcrowded wagons in German trains?
I assume, it’s like in all countries with a high usage of public means of transportation. During the rush hour, bridging days and public holidays, the wagons usually are pretty full. The seats would not be only fully occupied but there would also people standing everywhere it’s just possible. But during the off-peak hours the chance is pretty good, you would get a seat.
Thus, if you can arrange it, try to travel by train in Germany during the off-peak hours. If you cannot do this, you should reserve a seat if you travel in the IC or ICE. Otherwise, it could happen that your seat would become reservated by another guest. In this case you would need to clear your place. In an RB, RE or other regional trains a seat reservation is not possible. A seat reservation would cost you an extra charge about 4,- EUR.
Deutsche Bahn apps
The Deutsche Bahn offers an app (DB Navigator) in different languages with a pretty good usability. With this app, you can book tickets, check time schedules or manage your online tickets. You can download the DB Navigator here for free.
Another useful app for you might be one called “Zugradar” (engl. train radar). With this app you can see the position of your train while you are waiting at the train station. Thus, you can see if your train would arrive punctually or with a delay. You can download the Zugradar here.
Take a pet in the train?
Usually, you would not take a pet with you when you travel. But just in case: small pets like a cat can be transported in the trains for free. But you need to put them in a transport cage. For bigger dogs though, you need to buy an extra ticket. For these pets you pay the half-price of your ticket price. How is a bigger dog defined? Those are all dogs which don’t fit in a transport cage.
Wi-Fi in the German trains
A couple of years ago public Wi-Fi in Germany was very difficult to find. The reason for this was a special law which said that the owner of a public Wi-Fi would be liable in case of damage (e.g. hacking attack). First in the year 2017 this law was abandoned by the German government to support the development of public Wi-Fi. This leads to the fact that until 2017 not only in the public but also in the German trains no free Wi-Fi was available except in the first class of the ICE.
Now, after the old law was abandoned, the Deutsche Bahn is pushing the development of public Wi-Fi in its trains. Thus, you maybe would have some luck and could surf on the internet even in a regional train. But note: the whole topic “Wi-Fi” in the German trains is still an ongoing project. So don’t be surprised if you wouldn’t find any Wi-Fi at all in the regional trains. If you travel in an IC or ICE, free Wi-Fi should be available in every train of those types.
Okay folks, that’s it. If you have some questions, please leave a comment in the comment section. At the end, I’d like to give you another interesting source about traveling by train (not only in Germany but across the whole Europe). In this case you should visit the website called ShowMeTheJourney where you will find a lot of useful information about this type of traveling.