Updated Nov 2017. 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, Deutsche Bahn, 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. Let me enlighten you on the ways of German train travel so you can get the most out of it and travel in comfort, not confusion.
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.
Saving Money on German Train Travel
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. Also, with this STA affiliate link, you can get Eurail discounts for travelers under 28 years old.
Good to Know
If you have bad timing, you might want to do German train travel during strike times. These are not that common, fortunately. However, delays are. Also, trains are often rearranged or replaced without proper notice.
It’s good to check the train coach order on the announcement screens at the platform or ask the conductor to be extra sure. If coaches are swapped or taken away, it might mean that your seating ticket is void. In case there is no rearrangement, take a look at the original coach order on the posters on the platform before your train arrives. Look for the time of departure and destination and you can see the seat allocation, so you know exactly where to get on. This helps avoiding running around the train looking for your reserved seat.
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 just an hour before, though). Not all German train travel stations have Wifi though and even if they do, sometimes you need a Telekom account to access it. On the fast trains, ICE, there should be wifi though.
Summer Sadness with German Train Travel
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 toilets on train stations and travel with a hand sanitiser.
Now you know why Germans like to talk a lot about the Deutsche Bahn and how you can use it as well! I wish you happy travels and in the eternal words of German train conductors, “Senk yuh fur trevellllllling wehsse Deutsche Bahn.”
Do you have any experiences with German trains? Or maybe questions? The comment section is all yours.
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