Beginners Guide to the German Train System

The German Rail System for Beginners

I’m about 48 hours home from a week long vacation covering Northern and Western Germany, and I’m still drunk in love with the Deutche Bahn system. This warm affection didn’t come without a mild initial nervous breakdown and fair lack of planning on my part. That said, it’s all still very do-able. I had done some initial research- mostly for budget purposes, but found myself stuck without enough time to pre-purchase my ticket online (lesson ONE: They send most tickets by physical MAIL. Buy your ticket at least two weeks in advance if you’re planning on buying online). Lets, for the sake of example, say that you’ve done like me and are not buying tickets online. We’ll start from there.

Have an idea of what kind of ticket you want.

If you’re going to be in Germany for any span of several days or more and plan on traversing more than one city, the unlimited pass is really the only option. In the end, the simplicity of not having to buy multiple tickets and not having to worry which train I could or could not board and when, was worth every penny. Speaking of pennies, these tickets are not cheap. I had assumed at first that the tickets were like the EuroRail pass that I had heard of since college, that you buy one ticket for like fifty bucks and can traverse the entire continent. While I can’t say whether or not that legend is accurate, it sure as hell is NOT accurate for Germany. One city to city ticket could run you 70-100 euros or more so buying single tickets is not cost effective. So what are your choices? Shop ahead for what makes sense for you on bahn.de (link in english). If you’re traveling with a buddy (spouse, friend, etc) always opt for the TWIN ticket. The savings are significant if you’ll always be riding together. You can buy those tickets in 3, 5, 7 or 10 day increments and you can choose whether those days are consecutive or sporadic through a 30 day period (flex tickets). These unlimited passes are for visitors, so you must have a non-German passport for verification. These tickets also give you various other discounts on things like bus passes and ferry rides. We didn’t end up using them, but it’s good to know. We purchased the 5 day twin flex ticket because we knew there would be 2 days in our 7 day trip that we wouldn’t be on the train. These tickets only include travel within Germany, so we also bought a round trip ticket to Amsterdam for day trip which ran an extra 50 euros for each of us. Point being: you can upgrade/supplement your ticket with extras if you have day trips planned.

Now buy your ticket.

This is where MY meltdown occurred. Learn from my mistake. Bahn.de said tickets could be purchased at an expansive list of city train stations, one of which was Dusseldorf where we were flying in and out of. “Excellent!” I thought to myself, and didn’t think about it another bit. We landed there, and looked for a sign that directed us to the nearest train station. Off we went. Much to my dismay, I found only touch screen ticket machine, in only German. The train we (thought) we needed was in the station and boarding and there I was fumbling with my poor translation skills with an overly complicated ticket machine. I cried. I quickly admitted defeat. We retreated back into the airport and looked for an information counter. The gentleman was kind and helpful, and directed us to the main Airport station. We had found a small sub station. The airport train station was much more what I had envisioned, and had a ticket counter manned with humans. We explained what we wanted, and got the ticket in a few minutes. Victory!

Next, plan your route. 

There are several types of trains in the Deutsche Bahn system. What I found we used most often was the RE (Regional Express), IC (Intercity) and ICE (Intercity Express). I highly recommend using the ICE trains whenever possible. They’re fast, quiet and super comfortable, with wifi, food and nice bathrooms.

bahn 7

Next, memorize the word HAUPTBAHNHOF. Say it with me… HAUPT… BAHN… HOF. It means “Central Train Station”. It’s basically the biggest and most centralized station in any given city. Once I figured this out, everything became 100 times easier. If you’re planning multiple cities, I can’t recommend enough picking hotels/hostels near the HBF. All of ours were walking distance from the HBF and it was infinitely helpful. You’ll be lugging your baggage around, and it’s nice to have a short walk to your sleeping quarters and have an easy access point to move around the city either by train or bus, as they ALL stop there. Important note: The AIRPORT bahnhof is NOT the same as the Hauptbanhof! I made this mistake in Dusseldorf. They were different stations in every city we visited. Second important note: These stations have large lockers! Large enough to fit most luggage. If you’re sight seeing in a city you reached by train and aren’t sleeping there or can’t check in until later, the lockers are extremely useful. The large one big enough for our suitcase ran 5 euros for 24 hours or storage. Money well spent compared to lugging your crap around all day.

While DB has an app, I found it a little cumbersome for most inquiries and route planning, and picked our trains using my GoogleMaps app and choosing transit directions. It gave perfect DB schedules, and told us our train numbers. The only thing it didn’t do is inform us of delays (and that is simple enough to look up on the DB app) and which platform the train arrives at. Train numbers will have the type of train and the route number- for example, ICE 129. Then you simply have to either look for the bright yellow schedule posters or the digital signs for which number platform your train will be located at. Important note: The schedules are arranged by TIME, not by destination which is disorienting for those of us used to airport displays in American airports. I’m used to looking up a city and seeing the times and gates, and this goes by TIME (in 24 hour format- not AM/PM!) So if you’re looking for your 4:25PM train to Berlin HBF, you’d find the 16:00 heading, and find your train number (which, again, you can easily get from GoogleMaps) and it will show your platform number.

bahn 3

A Screenshot from using the iPhone Google Maps app to plan a route from Bonn Germany to Amsterdam Centraal station. Note you are given the exact train number (ICE 122) and departure time!

Important note: SOME trains, especially regionals may link on with other trains and then decouple (detach) later in the route, so keep an ear out for those announcements! You might find yourself headed in the wrong direction if you’re not careful. Announcements are all done in German and then in English, but are sometimes not the easiest to understand. Watch the digital signs as well.

Boarding the train without feeling out of place

The first time we got on a train, I was convinced I was in the first class cabin, on the wrong train, and had no seat. Another meltdown nearly ensued, but the employee at the bar car was kindly enough to talk me off the ledge and let me know I was, in fact, in the second class car and I was on the right train. I was shocked, as the train was so nice! My American brain expected cheap subway style seats and uncomfortable surroundings and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The ICE trains are luxurious by any standards, even in the 2nd class accommodations. They have food, drinks, spacious bathrooms and WIFI!

What we learned about seating is that it is mostly first come first serve, and the trains don’t really effectively “sell out”, they become standing room only. You’ll notice above each seat there is a small digital screen, and if there is are city names, the seat has been reserved for between those cities. If you’re getting off and on before the cities on there, you’re in the clear. If you risk it anyhow, be prepared to potentially be ousted from your seat by someone with a reservation. We risked it with a couple with no issue, and got kicked out a couple times too. Not a big deal either way. Reservations weren’t required on any of the trains we were on, but I’ve heard the overnight trains do require a reservation. I also had heard most reservations don’t cost anything, but when I tried to reserve on our trip from Amsterdam back to Dusseldorf, it wanted to charge us 8 euros each online, so we took our chances with open seats and did just fine. If you know you’ll be on a long haul, it may be worth it so you have a guaranteed spot.

If you’re with a bigger group or want a little more room, there are tables with four seats facing each other, and there are also five and six seat booths. Those get reserved quick, so don’t count on keeping them on busy routes without a reservation. The table seats are pretty great for long hauls, and we were able to get a booth on the way to Amsterdam and watch a movie on our tablet.

Relax, and enjoy.

Once you get the hang of them, you’ll be a pro in no time and fall in love with how easily you can traverse the country!