If you have been around Germans for a while you would know that our favourite pastime is not train watching like the Japanese, but to complain. And complaining about trains is high on that list. In Germany, we have one major company providing train services and you will not get around using them if you want to have a scenic train ride around the country. As generally clean and fast as German trains are, they also have their drawbacks and confusions. Let me enlighten you on the ways of travelling with the Deutsche Bahn, our main train company.
Tickets and the Booking Process
There are two ways to get a German train ticket. The classical approach of heading for a station and asking for your ticket at the Service Center or by booking it online. The train page can be accessed in English as well and is easy to use. Type in your preferred day and time and take a look at the different prices, types of trains and changing times. You can even click to see earlier or later train times to get the best deals. One thing you should know is, the earlier you book, the better the deal you get. And always check whether all parts of your trip are included in the ticket price or if you need to buy a ticket for subways, trams, etc.
Regardless of your booking time, there will usually be two ticket options (apart from second and first class). A regular ticket or a special price ticket. The regular one allows you to take any train on the day of validity, whereas the other one is restricted to the exact train combination you chose upon booking. If one of your trains is cancelled (which can happen!), the restriction is revoked but you have to have a train staff member confirm this before embarking on the train.
When you book online, you have the option to choose between different ways of delivery. You can have it sent per mail (for an extra fee), via mail to print out (in A4 format only!) or on your phone as a Q Code. If you do it online, you also need to select your means of identification, which can be your passport or credit card. Make absolutely sure to travel with your chosen ID and show it to the conductor when they are checking your ticket. Otherwise you might pay a penalty!
If you are staying for a couple of months in Germany, you could consider the option of a German ‘Bahncard’. There are trial deals for 3 months and these allow you 25% off the normal ticket price in addition to using local transport in combination with your tickets (only in combination, this is not meant for everyday public transport within cities). Not bad, right? Also, there are regional and state deals for unlimited rides over a set period and sometimes group deals. But most of all, book well in advance and check different dates and times.
Good to Know
If you had a peek at German news this spring you would have heard of all the strikes and protests going on. Strikes are a normal annual thing but delays are much more common. Often, trains are rearranged as well as replaced without proper notice and your seating ticket could even lose validity or cause you to run from one end of the platform to the other. You should always check the wagon arrangement in advance (there is usually one big poster of it next to the regular train times on each platform) but if such a thing happens, looking in advance is no good either.
What you should also check is your mail box (including spam folder) on the day of your trip. If you have ticked the notification box (and you should), you will receive an email if there has been a change, delay or cancellation regarding your booking (could be jsut an hour before, though). That’s of course not handy if you don’t have access to internet and rather inconvenient especially if the service centre is closed and no staff member in sight in train stations and on platforms.
Travelling in winter is never big fun as it is cold both outside and inside, but in summer the aircon is sure to give your neck a chill. That is, as long as it is working. More often than not, it is not and then the air can get super stuffy inside and even water bottles as an alleviation quickly run out and you might not get one. Not sure if that is just my personal experience but the death of the aircon usually appears together with the detachment of one wagon on an extremely crowded train.
Also, toilets have always been somewhat an issue and you would be wise to prepare for the worst (wet floor, paper sticking to it, lack of soap). If it is not the case, all the better. I find that regional trains are in better shape than the ICE, probably because of less people using them during off peak times. If you want to make extra sure and prefer cleanliness, choose to invest 50 cents for privately owned train station toilets and travel with a hand sanitiser.