Germany is the largest country in Central Europe , known to travelers for its history, hospitality , food and Oktoberfest. Unless you plan to travel the country by car, rail will be the most used method of transportation. The trains are clean and they can get you anywhere. However, just showing up in the station is a pricy option and you need to book the ticket online and in advance to get the best fares.
Types of trains which are available in Germany
Most of the trains are operated by Deutsche Bahn and the following types of trains are available in Germany:
- InterCity Express (ICE): the fastest trains, capable of 330 kmph. If the rail doesn’t allow for such speeds, they do at least 160 kmph but the majority of them operate at 200 kmph. These trains connect all major German towns. The trains are quite, with AC, reclining seats, laptop connections and dining cars.
- InterCity (IC) and EuroCity (EC): these are basically the same type of trains, but the latter connect the German cities to other major European cities. They are almost as fast as IC , especially on the routes where ICE cannot reach its top speed (so double check the total time spent traveling before you pay more for an ICE ticket).
- CityNightLine (CNL): are sleepers with reclining seats and berths. They operate within Germany and connect to other cities in Europe, too. If you want to maximize your time spent traveling, these are an excellent choice and usually get to the destination before the first plane of the day does.
- Long distance trains: these are operated by other companies than Deutsche Bahn and are usually comfortable enough. Most of them stop at almost every station along the route.
- InterRegioExpress (IRE): connects different regions and are semi-express trains (hence skipping smaller stations).
- Regional-Express (RE): these are semi-express trains, as well, and on many routes this is the highest available train category.
- Regional-Bahn (RB): they stop everywhere (except some S-Bahn stops)
- S-Bahn: this is the commuter network for the large cities.
Fast trains vs planes
Deutsche Bahn offers the InterCity Express (ICE) trains which are capable of 330 kmph (where the rails allow for it). Otherwise, they do at least 160 kmph. Although very fast — and much faster than cars – , the fares tend to be quite expensive.
The standard fare for the Frankfurt to Cologne route is €67 (but if you book in advance you can get away with €34) , but the only way to fly between the two cities is via Berlin or Munich and the fares start at €92 (without considering the transit to/from the airports). By the time you get to the airport, clear security and actually board the plane, you’ll already at the destination.
Where to buy tickets from
The easiest (and cheapest) way is to get the ticket online. There are many discounts available if you choose to book early. Just pay for your ticket, print it and bring it with you when you travel.
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There are ticket machines in stations. Just tap the British flag and everything is easy and in English. The new machines accept credit cards/debit cards, but the older ones don’t. You can purchase any Deutsche Bahn ticket here, as well as S-Bahn tickets and local tickets.
There are still ticket counters available in some stations but you do pay a commission for using it. It’s also possible to buy a ticket directly from train’s conductor (but, again, you’ll pay more for this).
Saving on fares: BahnCard , discounts and Rail passes
If you plan to stay in Germany longer and travel a lot by train, the BahnCard is a good option. For example BahnCard25 gives you 25% discount on all standard tickets. It can be combined with almost all the discounts on offer. With BahnCard100 you don’t pay for a ticket but , just like in the case of the other cards, you pay the price of the card.
Some of the discounts to keep in mind are:
- Sparpreis: is a low-cost one-way ticket. The fare is €19 for journeys up to 250 km and €29 for longer journeys but the actual price depends on the demand on the day you travel. Get it only prior to departure (3 days).
- Sparpreis 25/50: if you buy a return ticket (at least 3 days in advance) you get 25% discount. Travel during the weekend and get 50% off from your return ticket.
- Europa-Spezial: is the Sparpreis for international journeys. In Germany, it’s valid for all trains, but outside the country it can only be used on fast trains (IC, ICE and other fast trains).
- Gruppe&Spar: is a group ticket (for 6 or more) and offer discounts of up to 70%.
- Sparpreis, Sparpreis 25/50 and Europa-Spezial tickets are valid only the trains you’ve booked. If the train is delayed and you miss a connection, you need to re-book the ticket at the station (generally without a fee).
The German Rail pass allows for unlimited travel throughout Germany in all trains for 3 to 10 days. There are discounts available for two people traveling together. Do note that these rail passes are available only to persons living outside Europe (Turkey and Russia included). Eurail offers a similar pass but the travel days don’t have to be consecutive.