Help for travelers and traveling families traveling by train in Germany
Are you planning a trip to Germany and need to get around by train? Then this post is for you!
The German rail system is excellent, and most of the time it is the easiest and most efficient way to travel in country. Follow along as I walk you through how to book tickets yourself – online at bahn.de.
Here’s the DB (Deutsche Bahn) home page. Yes, it’s in German, but don’t let that scare you. It’s rather easy to change the language.
If you’re English-speaking, I recommend changing the country to Germany. I’m sure I had a good reason for doing this a few years ago when I started booking tickets online, but I’ve forgotten it by now. If you prefer to choose USA or UK/Ireland, go for it.
Enter your starting point and destination in the first two fields on the left-hand side of the page. Select the dates of travel (select Return journey for round-trip), and the times you would like to depart or arrive.
Though it is possible to book a train ticket with more than one destination, I won’t be covering that in today’s post. If you’d like to try your hand at it, click “Further Search Options,” and enter your stopover(s).
Now, select the number of passengers in each age range. It’s important to note that certain discounts can apply if two or more adults are traveling together and if one or more adults are traveling with children.
Awesome news for families – there’s no charge for children five and under! Children aged 6 to 14 also travel free provided they are accompanied by their parent(s) or guardian(s). Only enter the number of children five and under if you’d like a seat reservation for them. I’ll get to seat reservations in a minute, but in case you are wondering at this stage of the game, I always enter my three children in my search whether or I actually reserve a seat or not.
Discounts are only given for those carrying a German BahnCard, Austrian VORTEILScard, Swiss HalbtaxAbo, or a Voordeelurenabo card from the Netherlands. More on BahnCards below… It’s worth noting that discount cards will be checked on board, so don’t claim to have one if you don’t.
Next, you’re going to see a page with several train options based on the criteria entered on the homepage. Here are some things to pay attention to!
First, double check the exact name of the station. Big cities (such as Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, etc.) have multiple Bahnhofs (train stations). Tief means underground, and refers to a particular part of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Frankfurt Flughafen (Airport) and Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof are not the same! However, at the Frankfurt Airport, Fernbahnhof (long distance trains) and Regionalbahnhof (regional trains such as those going to the city of Frankfurt) are two areas of the same station.
Triple check your dates and remember that Europeans use the DD.MM.YY format.
When determining which train to select, the number of changes should be considered. Ideally, nonstop trains are everyone’s first choice. But, they may be more expensive or unavailable between the two cities you selected. From personal experience, if you are making your way to/from an airport with luggage, it is worth it to pay extra for a nonstop train if that is an option.
Total travel time can also be used to narrow down your options. The main factor in travel time is the type of train used on the route. Here’s a crash course on a few types of trains you might see:
- ICE (Inter City Express) trains are the fastest but often the most expensive.
- IC (Inter City) trains are a little slower than ICE and not as luxurious.
- RE (Regional Express) and RB (Regional Bahn) are much slower because they make multiple stops along the route.
- S (S-bahn or Schnell-bahn) are often only used in a regions, not usually between big cities. They are commuter trains and may have limited seating and facilities.
Another deciding factor for me personally is the amount of transfer time between trains. Five minutes or less is generally not enough time to shuffle two preschoolers, a baby, a pram, four suitcases, and two frazzled adults from one train to another. I find ten to fifteen minutes to be ideal. Any more time than that and the boys start going stir crazy trying to entertain themselves on a very boring train platform.
It’s also worth noting the platform numbers. If the numbers are, say, 4 and 5, you probably do not have far to go, and a tighter connection may be doable.
Of course, if the train is late, then all bets are off and even your ten to fifteen minute cushion may disappear into thin air. Not that a German train would ever be late…
Once you’ve chosen your train, it’s time to take a look at price (or did you start with price and then narrow down from there?). All routes have standard fares that usually only change once per year. But, a certain number of tickets on each route are offered at the Savings Fare (also called Sparpreis).
Savings Fares can be up to 50% off and a super deal if you nab them in time. The best time to secure a Savings Fare is when the route opens, 90 days prior to departure. After that, it’s anyone’s guess how long they’ll be available. Savings Fares are not available within 3 days of departure.
Lest you find yourself in shock, I should let you know that the price displayed on the first leg of your itinerary is NOT the full price for the journey. The full price for both legs will be calculated once both train routes have been selected.
So since we’re thrifty around here, it seems only right that we’d always choose the Savings Fare if available, right? Wrong.
Savings Fares come with very specific conditions. If you book the 9am train from Mannheim to Frankfurt (Main) Hbf and pay the Savings Fare, you MUST take that train, or you lose your ticket. If you book the 9am train from Mannheim to Frankfurt (Main) Hbf and pay the Standard Fare, then you may take ANY train on that day provided the departure and arrival points are the same (even if the route is slightly different).
When would a Standard Fare be worth the extra money? In my experience, the only time I have considered coughing up full price is to and from the airport. Let’s say you arrive on a 12pm flight. You estimate two hours to clear customs, collect luggage, find the train station, and get yourself to the platform. But, what if your flight is delayed and you arrive at 1pm instead of 12pm? Despite your best efforts, you may not make the connection, and Deutsche Bahn is not interested in excuses, only in correct tickets. Consider the best and worst case scenarios, and choose wisely!
Once in a while, I have seen First Class fares that rivaled (or beat) Second Class Fares. What is First Class and why would you want to pay more for it? Here’s an honest review.
After selecting the fare, you may or may not be given the recommendation to purchase a BahnCard and save immediately. A BahnCard 25 gives the user 25 percent of all fares, Standard and Savings. A BahnCard 50 gives the user a 50 percent savings on Standard fares only.
Should you get a BahnCard? Well, it depends on if you are a resident (definitely yes) or a visitor (maybe). The temporary BahnCard (ready to print and use immediately) is normally valid for only 30 days. The actual BahnCard is then shipped to you (as far as I understand, it’s fine to ship a BahnCard to a foreign address). If you’re a visitor, you’ll either need to order it in advance so that the card arrives before you depart for Germany, or you’ll need to time the purchase just right so that you will only ever need the temporary card.
I’ve had a BahnCard 25 every year I’ve lived here. It pays for itself with two roundtrips to Frankfurt Airport. And for those who are residents with a partner and children, the BahnCard 25 is a sweet deal. The partner card costs only 10 euros for the year! You’ll need to visit a DB office in person to apply for a partner card.
Then, choose how to proceed with the booking. If you don’t plan on booking with DB again, just select “Book without registering.” Otherwise, subsequent bookings are much faster if you register.
The most convenient (and cheapest) way to ticket the journey is online via .pdf. (I have yet to try the Mobile Phone Ticket – this is a new feature since I last used DB in September 2012.)
Now, it’s time to think about seat reservations. On the one hand, seat reservations are quite convenient and a blessing when trains are SRO (yes, this frequently happens during peak travel times and holidays). On the other hand, they cost money, and if the train is empty you may feel like you wasted your cash.
My general rule is to pay for seat reservations on any journey over 2 or 2 1/2 hours, with two exceptions: traveling alone or during children’s sleep times. We often have to take the 5am train from our city to the Frankfurt Airport. I find it best to reserve a compartment, keep the children in pj’s, and then have them lie down across two seats for an hour-long nap. We have also had the boys nap successfully going to/from Berlin and Hamburg.
What are the different types of seats available?
- Open Saloon – main compartment. Seats are similar to airline seats: two across, foot rests, tray tables. Seats may or may not be facing direction of travel.
- Open Saloon with table – four seats around a table in the main compartment.
- Compartment – six seats in a closed cabin. The four seats closest to the window are around a small table. The two seats closest to the compartment door have a small side table. I always chose this type of seat reservation when possible.
- Parent-and-child Compartment – similar to a Compartment, but slightly larger. I’ve only ever seen these on ICE trains. Since there’s only one per train, they book fast. If you risk having no reservation and want to try to sit here (please do not try this if you do not have children!), the compartment is usually located between the dining car and the first class coaches.
The next page will show whether or not DB was able to accommodate the seat reservation request. In this case, the parent-and-child compartment was not available, so alternative seats were assigned. If you don’t like the seating arrangements provided, go back and select another type. If no suitable arrangements can be made, it’s up to you whether or not to pay for the reservation.
DB is as strict as the airlines when it comes to matching tickets with identification cards. Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance to select a means of ID that you will no doubt be carrying on your person at the time of travel. Input the name(s) correctly, and double check. Take note that if you’re using a government-issued ID card, you may not use a credit card to pay for the ticket(s).
The rest is rather simple. Just enter your personal data, payment method, confirm the details, and purchase. If you chose online ticketing, the ticket will pop up after payment is processed. A copy is also sent to the email address you provide on the personal data screen. Print out the ticket(s), bag your selected form of ID, and show up 10-15 minutes prior to the train’s departure.
Enjoy your trip!