A guide to German trains

Published Tue 23 October 2007 23:48 (+1300)
  • travel (188 posts and 1102 photos)
  • germany (41 posts and 147 photos)

Germany, land of beer, sausage, history, and trains that run on time. They even go places that you want to go! Brilliant.

I got around exclusively on trains when in Germany, and so will you, coz it's environmentally sound, all the cool kids are doing it, and it's almost fun.

Types of trains

There are three categories of trains in Germany, the main regional & national inter-city trains, and the U-Bahn and S-Bahn.

Some train station words

That said, you'll still need to know how enough to understand where you're at and where you're going, so these ones are essential:

I don't think we have an exact translation for bahn in English (though I assume it's something like ‘way’ or ‘route’), but for our purposes a bahn is a road (as in the autobahn) or a train track.
Station (ie. train station).
Main station. (This is a good example of how in German words get stuck together to make other words – which is good because there's less to remember, and you can often make a guess at unfamiliar words if you know part of them.)
Nord-, Ost-, Süd-, West-
North-, east-, south-, west-. For example, Ostbahnhof would be the East Train Station (a couple of cities have these; eg. Berlin's Ostbahnhof, which was the main train station of East German Berlin, is effectively the secondary main station for the city, a number of international trains stop there).

We'll come back for some ticket words below.

U-Bahn and S-Bahn

The U-Bahn and S-Bahn are what you use to get around in the cities. In comparing the two, many guidebooks waffle on about how “the U-Bahn tram network runs mostly below ground, whereas the S-Bahn runs mostly above”, which might be true, in a lot of cities, but is of pretty much no use to anyone who just wants to know which to use to go places.

What you really need to know is that the S in S-Bahn stands for schnell – fast. So the S-Bahn is for hoofing it around the city or the surrounding area, whereas the U-Bahn is for circulating around smaller distances in the city itself.

So the U-Bahn will tend to have 3-4 times as many stops as the S-Bahn. Personally, I almost never used the U-Bahn – if I was only going for a very short hop, I'd just walk, and the S-Bahn nearly always stopped often enough to get close to where I was going.

There's one other important plus with the S-Bahn which is that you can use the main rail passes on it (but not the U-Bahn), but we'll get onto that later.

Both S-Bahn and U-Bahn run frequently, especially as you tend to find you can take one of several lines to go to most places in the core of cities (and they group them all together on one platform! so well organised ;)).

Regional & intercity trains

Although the S-Bahn networks do often extend into the immediate area of the main cities, as a general rule, if you want to go between different cities & towns, you're going to be using the main railways, Deutsche Bahn.

Now, I could break them down into the main types, R trains, RE trains, IC trains, and ICE trains, and I could tell you that they basically stand for Regional, Regional Express, Inter-City, and Inter-City Express, and that that's in order from slowest to fastest. But I'm not gonna, because you don't need to know that (you can see how fast they get there by looking at the timetable).

In fact, the only one that you need to know about is the ICE, which is special because it costs more (even if you have a rail pass), so we'll talk more about that in the fares section below.


English speakers should find it no problem to get around on German trains.

Announcements on the intercity trains were all given in English as well as German (though we often got the short version). The shorter-distance regional and metropolitan (S-Bahn & U-Bahn) trains were often in German only, but their announcements were pretty much just ‘nächste halte – Friedrichstrasse’, and when you hear that pronounced you'll have no trouble understanding that means ‘next stop – Friedrichstrasse’, whether you speak German or not :).

Also, on nearly all S-Bahn trains, many U-Bahn trains, and a lot of the regional trains, the scrolling electronic signs at the front and/or back of each carriage show what the next stop is (sometimes with other info too), which is even easier for us English speakers to understand.

As for getting a ticket, most counter staff will speak enough English to conduct a transaction, but honestly, you shouldn't need to go and talk to them ever if you know where you want to go; you can buy everything (and check timetables) using the automatic ticket machines (see below), and they all offer 3-5 languages (with nice obvious flag symbols to get you through the first screen).

The only problems you're likely to have are understanding the ticket you've bought, and for that I've got a section on train ticket words later.

Some train ticket words

A DB ticket from an automated ticket vending machine, stamped by the conductor
A DB ticket from an automated ticket vending machine, stamped by the conductor
A validated DB-issued 1-zone ticket, for S-Bahning and U-Bahning
A validated DB-issued 1-zone ticket, for S-Bahning and U-Bahning
An RMV-issued ticket, doesn't matter what they look like as long as you can understand 'em :)
An RMV-issued ticket, doesn't matter what they look like as long as you can understand 'em :)

Some words to help decode your ticket:

To (in this context)
Over (really means via, in this context)
Amount (ie. price)
Fare/ticket (as in train fare/ticket)
Booking (as in seat booking)
Single trip
Class (I am always second class :/)
Time (of day)
Platform (as in a train station platform)

(I also want to pimp dict.cc excellent community-contributed German-English dictionary – it has a hell of a lot more words than the online translators do.)

If you buy a seat reservation, the little abbreviated cryptic description of where you should go requires further translation, see below.

Buying train tickets

There's not really a lot to know about buying the tickets, once you know what you want.

What kind of ticket to buy

You don't need to understand all the fare options available; with the touchscreen machines (see below), you can simply hit the button for a single ticket, and tell it your destination. However, there are lots of deals available, so it's worth knowing a little more.

Validating your ticket

It's very important to note that with U-Bahn and S-Bahn tickets, you must validate them before getting on the train (this is a separate step to purchasing the ticket – to allow you to purchase tickets ahead of time, they aren't timestamped until you validate them).

To validate, you simply feed the end of the ticket with the metallic strip into the slots in the little boxes on posts on the platforms (usually, right next to the ticket machines). They make a reassuring clunk/bing! noise when they've done it.

(You'll see dozens of other ppl doing the same, so just go with the flow.)

Every once in a while, plainclothes ticket inspectors jump on and check that you both have a ticket, and have validated it.

You do not need to validate DB tickets – they have conductors who come around and look at your tickets.

Where to buy 'em at the station

As I mentioned earlier, you really don't need to go wait in the counter-service lines if you know what your destination is, the automatic machines can handle everything.

You can buy tickets for all three types of trains using the ticket machines on the platforms for that type of train.

In fact, it's better than that; the S-Bahn network and the Deutsche Bahn network are closely integrated, so those machines will let you buy tickets for the other.

(For all I know, the U-Bahn ticket machines let you buy DB tickets too – I didn't really use them.)

Also, in most cities the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, and (if they have them) bus systems have interchangeable tickets – so say you start the day by taking the S-Bahn in to town and buy a day ticket to do that, that ticket also covers the U-Bahn, you don't need a separate ticket.

(Surprisingly, the tickets you buy in U-Bahn platforms may look completely different to the ones from S-Bahn platforms, even in cities where they're interchangeable.)

Using the automated ticket machines

There's basically two types of ticket machine, the ones with a touchscreen terminal that let you buy tickets to anywhere, and the older style where there's just two long columns of buttons, one for each type of ticket you can buy plus a bunch of major destinations (I mainly saw these in smaller towns' stations, but there are a few sprinkled around the big stations).

(Sorry, I forgot to take photos of 'em before I left :/).

Use the touchscreen ones if you can, they're very easy to use.

So for these, hit the flag symbols at the bottom of the main screen, and choose English from the next screen.

Then you'll be back at the main screen, and really you can just follow the prompts (or use the help button).

But all you have to do is hit the big on-screen button to buy a single ticket, and type in the destination you want to go to (actually once you've typed the first few characters it'll prolly show you a menu you can choose from, so you don't have to type the whole thing in).

As far as paying, the types of payment the machine accepts is shown on the front, and it does vary – but most of these touchscreen ones took everything, notes, coins, and credit cards. The other style of machine seemed to be mostly cash only. Have a look around, big train stations usually had a mixture of different machines.

If you just want to check out the timetables, you can do that on the machines as well, just follow the prompts. (There's also big paper posters showing the trains and times and platforms up around the stations, and if you go into the ticket office you can pick up a free paperback showing all the trains leaving that station.)

If you get asked to choose a train

If the destination you select means going over the regional network, you'll be shown a list of trains that you can take, and asked to choose one before you're shown the price and can buy it. However, this does not mean that your ticket is only valid for that particular train (the exception being the ‘special price’ fares mentioned above, which are fixed to a particular train).

The reason it has to ask you to choose anyway, is that the fares are all priced per km (plus an extra charge for the newer ICE trains) – and until you've chosen a train, it doesn't know what distance you'll travel (since you might choose to go via one of several routes) nor whether you're using the ICE.

So once you've chosen, excepting ‘special price’ fares, your ticket is valid for any train of that type, going by that route – but you can go at any time of the day. So if you miss the train you were supposed to get, you can just wait for the next such train, you won't need a new ticket.

Metropolitan tickets

S-Bahn and U-Bahn tickets are usually priced based on zones, eg. Berlin has concentric A, B, and C zones – and a single ticket isn't for one exact station to another exact station, it's just an AB-zone ticket or an ABC-zone ticket.

If you plan to be several trips around the city one day, instead of buying single AB/ABC/whatever tickets, you can just buy an AB/ABC/whatever tageskarte (tag means day, so tageskarte is literally day-ticket – ain't it nice how you don't have to remember all the various compound words?).

Go ahead and hit the help button if you want to check out what the different types of metro tickets cover for the city you're in. The metro maps stuck on the wall will show you where the stops are and where the zones end.

Regional & intercity tickets

Now, the real money is in regional and national DB tickets.

For long distances, it's very much worthwhile buying the tickets at ‘special price’; these are only available 3 days in advance, and they do sell out (sometimes a month in advance).

I strongly recommend you use the online ticketing website to buy the tickets for any big journeys you have planned in advance. We're talking the difference between 98 EUR and 29 EUR for many of my long hauls, which I think is well worth the loss of flexibility.

If you've missed out on the special-price fares, single tickets may be your only option.

(NB. there are other restrictions with the special-price fares, in particular that with those you are tied to a particular train at a particular time on a particular day – whereas with regular fares you can take any train on that route.)

However, if your travels for the day are all within one of the Länder (states/provinces) – eg. Bavaria, or Baden-Württemberg – and you don't need to use any of the IC or ICE trains, you can do it all on one (quite reasonably-priced) Länder-ticket. The main Länder-tickets are geared towards families and groups travelling together, but if you're travelling solo, you can get the ‘single’ Länder-tickets, which are even cheaper.

For example, buying a single ticket from Stuttgart to Hechingen was about 14 EUR; for less than a EUR more, I got a single Länder-ticket that also covered the same trip back, plus all S-Bahning for the day (though I was a thickie and didn't think of that at the very start of the day, so wasted a couple of EUR buying an S-Bahn ticket first).

Passes like these cover the S-Bahns but not the U-Bahns. Go the S-Bahn!

There's also other discount schemes for people who plan to do a lot of travel on the DB network. The big flat-rate rail passes are only worthwhile if you're travelling through a number of countries or doing a huge amount of back and forth – it's worth running the numbers. Again, most of those big rail passes are AFAIK OK on DB trains (with surcharge for the ICE) and S-Bahn but not U-Bahn.

Final words

It's not like you need to actually remember all that, it's just FYI – I didn't see any big writeups like this one before I left, and I got on fine just by reading the signs and asking ppl, so don't stress about it. When all else fails, do what everyone else is doing :).

Good luck!

Seat reservations

A pre-loved online DB ticket, as stamped by the conductors
A pre-loved online DB ticket, as stamped by the conductors
A DB seat reservation from an automated ticket vending machine
A DB seat reservation from an automated ticket vending machine

Finally, note that a ticket alone doesn't have a particular seat associated with it – you can sit anywhere, and you aren't guaranteed a place.

However, for a small extra charge – usually 1.50 EUR – you can reserve a seat. The DB website says this is a good idea if it's a particularly high-use train – the online ticketing website will show you if it is – but most of us wouldn't bother except in the most extreme periods.

But, I still did it for a few of my big journeys, because it meant that I could reserve a seat at a window, at a table (the online ticketing system lets you specify all these things if you like when you buy the seat reservation).

Of course, if you end up not taking that train, you've only wasted the 1.50 EUR (or whatever), not the whole ticket price – they're separate things. Again, ‘special price’ tickets are an exception as above.

On the tickets that you print off from the online ticketing website, the Fahr/Reservierung column of the little table that shows you the train date, time, platform etc. will say something pretty cryptic like “EC 179, 1 Sitzplatz, Wg. 259, Pl. 96, 1 Fenster, Tisch, Nichtraucher”.

This means that

  • the train is called EC179,
  • you've reserved one seat place,
  • it's in wagon (carriage) #259 (walk along the train till you find it, the signs at the start and end show you the wagon number),
  • place (seat) #96,
  • 1 window (window seat – that's the fenster bit; aisle would be gang),
  • table (sitting at a table, tisch, as opposed to being in a compartment or a seat in coach with no table),
  • non-smoking.

The little reservation slips you get if you buy the reservation from a machine are much simpler, since you don't have so many options there, they just pretty much say the klasse, sitzplatz and fenster_/_gang.

As always, if in doubt… ask another passenger, or a conductor. Actually, unless you ask as soon as it arrives, get on, then ask a conductor – you don't have much time to screw around, the trains leave on time :).

Where to buy 'em from home

A pre-loved online DB ticket, as stamped by the conductors
A pre-loved online DB ticket, as stamped by the conductors

You can't buy tickets for metropolitan trains online (which would be pretty silly anyway), but you can buy tickets for all the DB trains. Even when I wasn't actually buying tickets from home, I used the online service just to check out where they went, what times they ran, etc. (Also, handy: the train stations and tracks are all on Google Earth!)

Hit up the English DB TravelService page (you can just google for Deutsche Bahn and if that doesn't get you there straight away, change the language to English using the little drop-down menu and you're away).

It's totally easy to use – you just type in the name of the place you want to go from, and the name of the place you want to go to, and change the date (dd.mm.yy format) and time, and hit search.

It's pretty flexible about how you write the names, it accepts not just the proper german way (with umlauts and all, eg. München), but also the English transliteration (eg. Muenchen) and even the English name for the place (eg. Munich). Aren't they nice?

Naturally, there's more than one station the trains stop at in many cities, so the next screen will let you choose from those. Remember from the basic train station words up above, “bf” will be Bahnhof, “hbf” will be Hauptbahnhof.

(If you search for something like “Forbach” and the options include “Forbach (F)”, that actually means Forbach in (F)rance – but you'll figure that out when you wonder why it wants to cross the border ;-). More likely, you'll see it give choices for similarly-named towns in different regions of Germany, but you'll work all that out no probs.)

When you come to buy the ticket you'll be confused to find that it asks you for your credit card (or bahncard number) twice. Once is for the account that you actually want it charged to; the other is for the card that you want to use as ID – you must take this card with you and have it on you at all times, along with the ticket itself; they need to see it to validate the ticket.

(By the way, on long trips they'll check the ticket multiple times, so keep it with you.)

Unless you choose the option to get them to post the tickets to you, you need to print the ticket that it issues out (the conductors on the train scan the big 2D barcode thing in when they check your ticket). If your dog eats it or whatever, and can't find a printer to print it out again (you can log back in to the website to get it), go to the ticket office and show them the reservation details and they'll deal with it. Better yet, get a cat.