Tips for rail travel in Germany

The German railway system offers a great way for travelers to get around while visiting that country. Many guidebooks and websites describe how to use the rail service but often omit facts that would be very useful to novice travelers. The following isn’t a complete primer on the German rail system but is intended to primarily fill in some of the gaps present in other sources of information. It’s based on our visits to Germany in each of the past three years, most recently in May ’05.

Before your trip, check out Rick Steves’ website (, which provides plenty of useful information about European train travel.

Some Lonely Planet guidebooks also provide a wealth of practical rail information.

Use the Die Bahn (DB) website ( to obtain detailed train schedules and prices. (Click on the “Internat. Guests” link for information in English.)

Finally, use a German phrase book to learn key railroad terms. For example, Gleis is “platform.”

Here’s a ranking of the various types of trains you’ll encounter. Trains higher on the list generally will be faster, nicer, better equipped and cleaner and offer better food service, have better WCs, provide more luggage storage space and options, make fewer stops and have newer rolling stock than those lower down the list.

  • ICE (InterCity Express)
  • IC & EC (InterCity and Euro­City)
  • RE (Regional Express)
  • RB (Regional Bahn)

The ICE/IC/EC trains typically provide detailed printed schedules on board (often on tables and in seat pockets) that offer data such as the duration of each stop and when the train changes directions (very helpful if you don’t like to ride facing backward). Seat reservations are usually available, even in second class. Be forewarned that high-speed ICEs may have smaller windows than other trains; some seats have virtually no view outside.

Don’t expect any food or drink availability on REs and RBs. Storing large pieces of luggage can be challenging on these local trains. Don’t expect seat reservations on these trains.

We’ve found that it’s acceptable to eat and drink at your seat on any train either with food you’ve taken with you or purchased on board. All trains should have working WCs, but be prepared to provide your own soap. (The powdered soap dispensers are more commonly empty or clogged than working.)

Individual railcars may be designated as smoking, nonsmoking or both (with a barrier between the sections). Likewise, railcars may be first class, second class or both (again with a dividing barrier). Study the markings on the car exteriors to determine which of these service types are inside. Typically, only the RE/RB trains have individual cars that contain both first- and second-class service or both smoking and nonsmoking sections.

Don’t be tripped up by seat reservations. While you typically won’t be reserving seats, you need to be sure not to sit in a seat that someone else has reserved. Seat reservations most often are indicated by small paper labels above the seats. The newest cars will have LED indicators instead. Study the information they provide. Reservations typically cover only part of a train’s route. A seat with a reservation label may be available during most or all of your route segment.

Learn to read the detailed and extremely useful train schedules displayed in every train station. The schedules are printed on large yellow sheets of paper and are sorted by departure time. Don’t confuse these with the white arrival schedules that are sometimes also displayed.

Be sure that you are reading the correct departure schedule. Smaller train stations may also post the departure schedule for the nearest large train station. Large train stations (Cologne is an example) may post departure schedules covering different (but overlapping) time frames.

In addition, rail stations will have signs displaying car layouts of ICE/IC/EC trains. Study these before your train arrives to identify which cars are appropriate for you.

Have all of your luggage at hand and be ready to move quickly when boarding or exiting a train. Stops are often as brief as two minutes. If you’re not ready or if you get stuck behind someone who isn’t ready or has limited mobility, you might very well be stuck.

My personal recommendation for exiting a train is to be standing at the door with all of your luggage before the train rolls to a stop. Not all doors open automatically, so be sure you know how to open them. (Have your phrase book handy or ask someone who can translate.) I often stand behind someone who looks like a local and knows what she is doing.

When connecting to another train, be sure you know its platform before you arrive at the station. Connections can be very tight (especially when your train is arriving late); the time you save might mean the difference between making or missing your connection. You likely will have to go up and down at least one set of stairs, so traveling light really pays off when traveling extensively by rail.

Expect trains to arrive and depart either on time or within five minutes of the scheduled time.

If you need help, the general advice is to find a conductor. My experience with conductors has been mixed. Some have been very helpful (and spoke English quite well), but on several occasions I’ve encountered pairs of conductors engaged in conversation with each other who ignored my attempts to question them.

Significant discounts are provided for groups of five or more traveling together. Ticket discounts also are offered for older travelers. The DB website has the details.

At smaller train stations there probably won’t be an open ticket office. Instead, there will be a ticket vending machine (possibly out of service) with instructions solely in German (and not likely to be of much use to you). When this happens, just buy your ticket from the conductor on the train.

We once saw a clever young British couple use their digital camera to photograph a broken ticket-vending machine. They were then able to show the photo to the conductor in an attempt to avoid the higher prices charged when buying tickets on board a train.

Charlotte, NC