German Rail – Deutsche Bahn

Last year in the summer in Germany you could buy the 5 Euro ticket and ride all trains across Germany. This year starting from May you will be able to buy the 49 Euro ticket and ride all trains across Germany. All trains? Let’s dive into the German rail system.

Train Types in Germany

Every time friends visit me in Germany, they get confused with the rail system as there are different types of trains and public transport and of course different tickets. So, what are the main train types?

U-Bahn – this is the underground or subway. 

S-Bahn – this is the suburban rail. Suburban trains mostly connect major cities in the same region. Figured that one S-Bahn line doesn’t exceed the distance of 100km.

Strassen Bahn – that’s the tram

Regional Express – trains that connect cities in the same region but on longer distances than the S-Bahn

ICE – intercity speed trains that connect cities across Germany.

What about the tickets?

Based on the Dusseldorf example, U-Bahn, Tram, and Bus share the same tickets. Here you have single tickets, 24h hour ticket or multi ticket valid for four rides. S-Bahn and Regional Express sort of share the same tickets. When you buy those in the ticket machine you need to type in the destination you’re going to and based on this the ticket price gets calculated. ICE trains work similarly, you need to type where your journey starts and where does it end and based on this the ticket price gets calculated. Now, you need to be careful because some tickets you need to punch, and some are already punched after they come from the ticket machine. How can you tell the difference between which are already punched, and which aren’t? If you see this written on your ticket – nur gültig mit entwerteraufdruck it means you need to punch your ticket. If you see this written on your ticket – bereits entwertet it means your ticket was automatically punched.

Now when you buy the 49 Euro ticket, which trains are you allowed to use without additional charge? Everything what is Germany is called Nahverkehr – so trams, U-Bahn, S-Bahn, buses, regional express trains… everything except the intercity trains so ICEs. Funny thing is you can travel from the north to south or the west to east part of Germany using the 49 Euro ticket only riding on regional express trains. Yes, it will take you longer to reach your desired destination, but it will be cheaper than taking the intercity train. But fear not there is also a solution to get cheap intercity trains. Tickets for ICE trains can be purchased six months in advance and you can catch a nice deal if you buy your ticket a) earlier b) outside the peak hours. Also on the webpage of Deutsche Bahn is a box if you want to see good ticket deals. For example, last year I booked a return ticket from Dusseldorf to Hamburg for 50 Euros – bought that ticket in May to travel in August. Last week I booked a ticket from Dusseldorf to Bremen for 35 Euros to travel in May. A visualisation lets say I would like to go for a weekend to Munich in July.

If I’m willing to do some sacrifices like late arrival in Munich and arriving back in Dusseldorf past midnight on Sunday, I would pay 45.8 Euro for the return ticket. 

Facts about the Deutsche Bahn

1.     Seat reservation – forget about seat reservation on S-Bahn or Regional Express trains; you just take whatever seat is empty… if a seat is empty. On ICEs however you can reserve a seat but is it worth it? Well trains in Germany are usually busy so when you reserve a seat you get a guarantee that you will be able to sit down and relax during the whole journey. I never reserved a seat while traveling on ICEs and I always found an empty seat to chill in. Worst case scenario if you can’t find an empty seat you go to the restaurant compartment, sit down behind a table and order a beer or two 😉

2.     Deutsche Bahn is always punctual. Nothing more wrong than that. It’s a myth that German trains are always punctual. The rails punctuality is a running joke in Germany. Mostly when you arrive at the train station at least 10 min before the train departure you see that your train is surprise, surprise at least 10 min late or that it fell out. Example from last Saturday. I wanted to go to the neighbouring city Dortmund to visit an art gallery. Arrived at the station and it turned out that the train I wanted to take fell out and the train that was next in line had a 20 min delay. Eventually I arrived in Dortmund and went to the art gallery but on the way back to Dusseldorf another surprise. The regional express 11 was late 15 minutes and in the middle of the ride the announcement came – Dear Passengers we are sorry but due to the huge delays of all trains in the region today this train will terminate its ride in Duisburg and won’t go to Dusseldorf. Amazing! This meant that instead of getting out of Dusseldorf Main Station I had to get out in Duisburg and wait for another connection to Dusseldorf. 

Another funny story is the one my friend told me about this ride to Berlin. Somehow the ICE took a wrong turn and instead of reaching Berlin Central Station it “landed” on Berlin Potsdamer Platz Station. Now go figure how a train can take the wrong turn.

3.     Changes, changes. The train schedule is not the only thing that changes in light speed. Very often the platform from which the train is departing changes as well. Also, an example from last week. My B-Friend Konrad was visiting and Sunday he needed to take the RE6 train to get to Cologne/Bonn airport. We were standing at platform 4 where the train was supposed to leave but 5 min before the scheduled departure the info table showed that the train will now leave from platform 6. Konrad said that he wouldn’t even notice the change and would have waited at platform 4. A piece of advice here, really pay attention to what is being shown at the info tables at the platform as the announcements of any changes are made in German. If you don’t speak German, you need to be observant. 

Despite all the flaws the Deutsche Bahn has, it’s a very good and convenient way to travel around Germany. The trains connect all major cities and despite the whole joke about impunctuality you will reach your destination. A piece of advice here. If you plan a train journey in Germany, check the train you would like to take as well as two alternatives. In case you planned to take a particular train at a particular hour just in case check its earlier departure times… there is a chance you might catch it anyway. You can also download the app DB Navigator; it shows you real time updates of any train delays or how crowded it will be. It was useful to me a couple of times.

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