Public Transport in Germany

S-BAHN | U-BAHN | STADTBAHN | BUS | TRAM | TAXI | UBER

Public Transport in Germany and Europe is usually excellent. It is very practical to live in any large German city or metropolitan area without owning a car. Even medium-sized cities have good public transportation networks that use buses, trams, and urban/suburban rail lines to move people around.

S-Bahn Hauptbahnhof Berlin

An S-Bahn train makes a stop at Berlin’s main rail station. Learn more about the S-Bahn below. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Because the public transportation systems in Germany are usually regional, a ticket for the S-Bahn is also valid for a streetcar or bus. For instance, the S-Bahn in Berlin is a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, the national railway, but it is also part of the Transport Association Berlin-Brandenburg (VBB). That means a ticket bought at an S-Bahn station is also valid for buses, the U-Bahn, or trams. If you buy a ticket from a bus driver (normal practice in Berlin), it is also valid for the S-Bahn, as long as you use it within two hours of your purchase. Tickets are also available at multilingual ticket machines on platforms or at sales points in major stations.

Fahrkarten VBB

Multilingual ticket machines make it easy to buy a ticket to ride – here in Berlin. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

How to Buy a Ticket
Unlike the “Tube” in London, the Metro in Paris, BART in San Francisco, or urban rail systems in most world cities, you won’t encounter any turnstiles on the S- or U-Bahn in Germany. You don’t have to feed your ticket into a machine in order to get to your train.

You thus may be tempted to skip buying a ticket, but Germany’s “honor system” for public transport operates on the “trust but verify” principle. You never know when plain-clothes controllers will suddenly flash their badges and say the dreaded words: “Fahrkarten bitte!” (“Tickets please!”) If you get caught without a valid (stamped) ticket or pass, you’ll have to pay a fine on the spot – tourists included! The fine went up in spring 2015 from €40 to €60 (about $68 USD). Since the typical one-way fare is about €2.70 ($3.00), it’s really not worth the embarassment, let alone the fine.

Schwarzfahren
The German verb schwarzfahren means to ride public transport without a ticket (“to travel black,” as in black market). A person who does this is called a Schwarzfahrer. In the 1980s some students in Germany set up so-called Schwarzfahrer-Versicherung (“fare-dodger insurance”). If they got caught, the informal insurance group paid their fine. Although there are currently similar fare-dodger insurance schemes in Paris and Stockholm, this idea has not been very popular in Germany, especially now with the recent fine increase.

You can save some money by buying a “strip ticket” (eine Streifenkarte, a set of perforated tickets in a strip) or a multiticket set of four tickets. Each city seems to do this a little differently, but it saves you a little money to buy “in bulk.” To save even more, you can buy weekly, monthly, annual, or group tickets at a discount. (If you are an expat in Berlin, Munich, or elsewhere, consider getting an annual or monthly pass.) A Tageskarte (“day ticket”) is valid for 24 hours of travel, and will save you money if you plan to make a lot of trips within that time. Check with your local public transport agency for ticket pricing and options.

Berlin, Frankfurt, and some other cities also offer Kurzstrecke (“short route”) tickets that are good for a maximum of three stops. If you buy a short-route ticket and then travel past the limit, it’s the same as having no ticket.

Entwerter

The ticket validator (Entwerter) stamps your ticket with a date and time code. Use it before you go to the station platform. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

The Entwerter – Validating Your Ticket
It is important to know that just having a ticket in your possession isn’t enough. Your ticket must be validated, either before you board the train (using machines at the station entrance or on the platform), or immediately after you board a bus or tram (using machines in the aisle). The “Entwerter” stamps your ticket with a code for the date and time. A ticket without a stamp from the Entwerter is not a valid ticket.

Practices in Europe vary, but in Germany you can usually buy a ticket from the bus driver when you board (cash only, exact change), or using the ticket machine on trams. (In some Swiss cities you must have a ticket before you board a bus or tram.) If you already have a valid ticket, show it to the bus driver when you get on. Buses have front and rear doors. You always board in the front (“Einstieg”) and exit in the back (“Ausstieg”). Trams often have two or more cars, and you can board any one of them.

BVG validated ticket

This VBB/BVG ticket has a time-and-date stamp that shows it has been validated. It is valid for travel in zones A and B, and is part of a set of four tickets. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo/VBB

In most German cities a normal ticket is valid for transport in one direction for two hours. Within that time you can use your ticket to transfer among the various modes of transport (bus, tram, S-Bahn, U-Bahn), but you can’t use that same ticket to travel back towards where you began your journey. For that you’ll need a new ticket.

Zones
Most German cities use a zone system to determine the price (Tariff) of your ticket. For example, Berlin has three zones: A, B and C – with A being in the center, B further out, and C on the outskirts. Tickets are priced (in euros) for zones AB (2.70), BC (3.00), or ABC (3.30). When you buy a ticket – either from a ticket agent or a machine – you must select or say which zones you need. If you have an AB ticket and travel into zone C (or from C into A), then you have an invalid ticket. You can see the zones on the S-Bahn or U-Bahn maps – located at stations, in print, and online. There’s even an app for that in some cities, and you can also get a digital ticket on your mobile phone, similar to an airline boarding pass. (See the photo below.)

Ticket app code

Some cities allow you to use an app (Android or iOS) to purchase a ticket for public transport, as shown here for Berlin. PHOTO: BVG

The S-Bahn
The term “S-Bahn” is an abbreviation of “Stadtschnellbahn” (German for “city rapid rail”). The first urban rail system to be called an S-Bahn was introduced in 1930 when Berlin expanded its electrified rail network. After the original steam-locomotive smoke and noise had become a nuisance, Berlin inaugurated an electrified (third-rail, 800-volt DC) system in 1924. Today many cities all across Germany, Austria, and German Switzerland have a commuter rail systems known as the S-Bahn.

In larger German cities the S-Bahn is also part of a rail network that includes underground “U-Bahn” lines. In Berlin, for instance, it is possible to transfer from the S-Bahn to the U-Bahn (or vice versa) at some stations, all with the same ticket. Berlin’s S-Bahn, Germany’s largest system, has 15 lines with a 330-kilometer (205-mile) network that mostly runs above ground. A round green sign with a white S signifies an S-Bahn station.

Berlin Liniennetz

This detail from a BVG/VBB (Berlin) route map shows both S- and U-Bahn lines, as well as Regio (RE) train lines. The orange “A” refers to that zone. There are other maps for bus and tram routes. PHOTO: BVG/VBB

Residents of Berlin get used to hearing the “Zurückbleiben, bitte!” (“Stand back, please!”) announcement just before an S-Bahn or U-Bahn train shuts its doors prior to departure. The S-Bahn is the keystone of Berlin’s public transport system. The 15 S-Bahn routes criss-cross the city’s vast area, from Köpenick in the southeast to Spandau in the northwest. The “Ring” lines (41 and 42) encircle Zone A, the central part of Berlin, and connect with all of the other lines. Running every ten minutes at peak times, every 20 minutes at other times, the S-Bahn is the best way to cover longer distances, sometimes in combination with the underground U-Bahn.

Cities and Metro Areas in Germany with S-Bahn Lines
Berlin-Brandenburg Magdeburg Rhein-Neckar*
*Ludwigshafen, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Kaiserslautern, Karlsruhe
Bremen/Niedersachsen Mitteldeutschland** Nordrhein-Westfalen
**Leipzig, Halle (Saale), Zwickau
Dresden Munich (München) Rhein-Ruhr (Düsseldorf)
Hamburg Nuremberg (Nürnberg) Cologne (Köln), Bonn
Hanover Rhein-Main*** Rostock
Stuttgart
***Frankfurt am Main, Darmstadt, Wiesbaden, Mainz, Offenbach am Main

Kurfuerstendamm U-Bahn

A blue-and-white U-Bahn sign on Berlin’s famous Ku’damm. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

The U-Bahn
U-Bahn (short for “Untergrundbahn”) is the German term for what is variously known in English as the metro, subway, underground, or “Tube.” Although U-Bahn trains usually run underground, they can also be seen above-ground, often on elevated steel viaducts. A blue sign with a white U identifies a U-Bahn station.

The world’s first electrified underground rail line opened in London on November 4, 1890. In Germany, the first U-Bahn began running in 1902 in Berlin. The Berlin U-Bahn network has gradually expanded to become Germany’s largest, with 10 lines covering a total distance of 146.2 kilometers (91 miles) and stopping at 173 U-Bahn stations. (The extension of the U5 line between the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz, now under construction, will add about 2 km, just over a mile.)

U-Bahn U2 Berlin

A Berlin U-Bahn train on the U2 line just before departure. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Today only four German cities (and Vienna in Austria) have underground/metro (U-Bahn) lines: Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Nuremberg. A few cities, such as Cologne, Hanover and Stuttgart, have light-rail (Stadtbahn) trains that sometimes run underground, but these are not true underground subway lines. (See “Stadtbahn” below.) The U-Bahn is a speedy way to get around in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Nuremberg, and Vienna, with trains running in five to ten-minute intervals at peak traffic times.

The rules for buying and validating tickets for the S-Bahn, described above, also apply to the U-Bahn.

Bikes and Dogs
Most public transport systems in Germany have special cars marked with a bicycle symbol indicating that you can bring a bike on board. But, in addition to your own ticket, you need to buy a ticket for your bike! The same rule applies to dogs larger than a cat. Dogs must also wear a muzzle and be on a leash.

Die Stadtbahn (Light Rail)
Some German cities have a light-rail system known as the “Stadtbahn” (“city rail”). The Stadtbahn concept uses a mixture of special and regular streetcars that use underground tunnels and stations to increase the system’s speed by avoiding vehicular traffic. In some cases, unlike a normal tram, the Stadtbahn travels on its own railbed, often on a grassy median strip, to keep it from being hindered by road traffic.

In cities without a true U-Bahn, including Düsseldorf, Frankfurt am Main, and Stuttgart, the Stadtbahn, with its tunnels, provides a cheaper alternative to building a full underground system like those in Berlin or Munich. These systems even use signs with a white “U” on a blue background, similar to real U-Bahn lines in Germany. By using rail lines that are separated from road traffic and normal streetcars, the Stadtbahn can provide faster service than a normal tram.

In other cities, it can be difficult to distinguish between a Stadtbahn and normal streetcars. In places like Chemnitz, Erfurt, and Freiburg, the Stadtbahn consists of normal trams that run on tracks separated from roadways, but without any tunnels. In some cases, the Stadtbahn trams have low floors (Niederflur-Straßenbahn) only inches above the ground, avoiding the need for special boarding platforms.

Haltestelle Blankenese

A typical bus stop (Haltestelle) sign in Germany. This stop is for the Elbe River ferry pier in the Hamburg suburb of Blankenese. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Buses and Trams
A round sign with green H in a yellow circle identifies a Haltestelle, a bus or tram stop. (See photo.) At some stops there may be an electronic sign that indicates the route number and when the next bus or tram will arrive. In almost all cases, you will find a framed timetable on a post at the stop.

If you already have a ticket, show it to the bus driver as you board, and then validate it with a yellow, orange or red machine in the aisle labeled “Bitte hier entwerten.” (Skip this step if you have a ticket that has already been stamped.) If you don’t have a ticket, you can usually buy one from the bus driver (but not on trams, which have ticket machines in each car). On some systems, electronic season tickets are validated by holding them against a red circle on a special machine near the entrance.

There are buttons on posts along the aisle that you press to signal when you want to get off. Modern buses and trams have an electronic sign above the driver’s compartment that indicates the name of the next stop, and “Bus hält” (“bus will stop”) if someone has pressed the stop button. In some cases, you’ll hear a chime and a recorded voice that announces the name of the next stop. Always exit through the rear door. You may have to press a button to open the door if you are the first person to exit.

A Cheap Bus Tour
In addition to regular buses, Berlin has doubledecker buses, similar to those in London. If you sit on the top deck of the 100 bus in Berlin, you can enjoy a wonderful city tour for the price of a normal bus ticket (€2.70). The 100 bus travels between Bahnhof Zoo in the West and Alexanderplatz in the East, passing many of the city’s top attractions. With a day ticket, you can also get on and off along the way. There’s even a special web page for the 100 bus. – For more about Berlin sights, see our Berlin City Guide.

Regio
Another option for getting around locally comes from Deutsche Bahn (German Rail). Regional trains in Germany are designated RB (“Regio” – RegionalBahn, stops everywhere) and RE (RegionalExpress, faster, with fewer stops). For more about regional and other intercity trains, see Train Travel in Germany.

Taxis
Although taxis are not really part of the public transportation system in German-speaking Europe, we include this category as an important alternative for certain situations. For instance, if you need to get to the airport with all your luggage, especially if there is more than one person traveling, ordering a taxi in advance could be a smart option. A cab is also helpful when you need to get somewhere in town that is not close to a public transport stop. Shoppers sometimes go to the store via public transportation, and use a taxi to bring home the goods they bought.

Taxis in Germany are always the same cream beige color with a yellow-and-black “Taxi” sign on the top. They used to always be a Mercedes, an Audi, or other luxury car, but nowadays you’re just as likely to be riding in a nice Asian import. Although you can flag down a cab on the street, it is best to either order one in advance or go to a taxi stand, of which there are many in downtown areas. If there are no taxis at the stand, you can use a special taxi call-box to get a cab.

Compared to many other countries, taxi rates in Germany are reasonable but not inexpensive. All taxis must have a meter that displays all charges. The amount always includes tax. It is common to tip the driver about ten percent, more if the driver helped you with heavy luggage or packages. If you use a credit card for payment, there may be an extra charge. (A little reminder that you’re in Germany.)

Uber
Following a German court ruling in 2015, the Uber ride service was effectively banned in Germany. (That’s what they get for leaving out the umlaut ( ¨ ) in Uber, a German word.) The uberPop service was ruled in violation of German labor and licensing laws. Only uberTaxi (with licensed drivers) is offered in Berlin, and only uberX/UberBlack/Van in Munich. After the court ban, Uber pulled out of three German cities (Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Düsseldorf). See Uber Pulls Out Of Three German Cities After Court Ban Shrinks Driver Pool (techcrunch.com, Nov. 2, 2015) for more.

For more about taxis in Germany, see this page at gettingaroundgermany.info.

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