Traveling by train in Europe can be a lot more fun if you know some of the tricks of the trade—particularly in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Below we’ll reveal some of the things travelers need to know in order to get the most out of rail travel in Germany and Europe.
Types of Trains
Although a speedy ICE train may be your first choice, the normal, everyday InterCity (IC), EuroCity (EC) and Regio trains still crisscross Germany and Europe, offering convenient connections to almost anywhere you want to go. The discontinued D-Züge (through-trains) and the slower Eilzug will not be missed. (Although eilen means “to hurry,” an Eilzug wasn’t really fast at all.) Regional trains in Germany are now designated RB (“Regio” – RegionalBahn, stops everywhere) and RE (RegionalExpress, faster, with fewer stops). Learning to read the train codes (RE, EC, IC, ICE, etc.) on German schedules can help you find the best rail connection to your destination. (See the full German train code list below.)
Since all big or medium-sized cities, as well as many smaller communities in German-speaking Europe have a train station (or two or three), train travel is convenient and efficient. The main train station (Hauptbahnhof) is usually located in the center of town, from which commuter trains, taxis, streetcars, and buses can take the traveler straight to a final destination. The weakest link in this otherwise efficient chain is often the station ticket office, where it seems there are always too few ticket agents for too many passengers. Long lines and long waits are all too common. (TIP: Try buying tickets online or from the automated ticket machines, which have an English option!)
Deutsche Bahn also has a well-deserved reputation for delayed trains and other frustrations (technical failures, strikes, dirty coaches) for its passengers, but when things go right, travel by rail in Germany can be a very pleasant experience. Compared to rail travel in some other European countries (Italy comes to mind), German trains are above average in quality and service. (I could write an entire chapter about my misadventures on an Italian train from Venice to Rome!) But sometimes German efficiency does not equal its reputation.
You Gotta Have Class!
European trains are divided into first and second class. Look for a large 1 or 2 label on the car near the door. Some special trains (EC, IC, ICE, etc.) also have a surcharge (Zuschlag) added to the price of the ticket, whether it is first or second class. If you have not already paid the surcharge, the conductor will require payment when checking your ticket. The surcharge for ICE trains varies, depending on the connection. (See photo below.)
Almost everyone has heard of the Eurailpass, but Deutsche Bahn also offers a similar rail pass for travel only within Germany called the German Rail Pass. One big advantage of having a Eurailpass, Flexipass, Europass, or German Rail Pass, besides any cost savings, is you can avoid ticket-buying hassles. You’ll only have to confront a DB ticket window to make reservations if you want them. (This is advisable during peak travel periods in the summer or on popular trains.) Prices for a second-class German Rail Pass (for travel on any 5 days in a month) start at $191 (for tavelers under age 25). An adult five-day first-class German Rail Pass starts at $319. (Prices may vary. See the website below for current info.)
Remember that these special rail pass tickets have to be bought in advance and may have restrictions. A Eurailpass, for example, may only be purchased in North America – before you leave for Germany. For a fee, it is also possible to get an extension for a German Rail Pass that allows additional travel in some neighboring countries. Austria and Switzerland have their own special rail pass offers. Web: German Rail Pass (germanrailpasses.com)
Group Tickets – Gruppe&Spar
If you will be traveling with a group of six or more people, Deutsche Bahn also offers special group fares. Sometimes a group ticket will save money over a rail pass. It is ideal for adult groups, student groups or other groups traveling in Germany. All the people in the group must travel together to use a group ticket. Web: Group Travel (DB) (bahn.com)
Deutsche Bahn offers its so-called BahnCard that can get you various discounts on some types of train tickets, or even a flat rate. If you are living in Germany or will be there for an extended period of time, a BahnCard may be a good option. It is only available for German residents and is not suitable for tourists or anyone traveling for shorter periods of time. See the BahnCard website (in German) for prices and benefits.
More about German rail travel below…
Deutsche Bahn Train Types and Codes
When you look at a German train schedule or the arrival/departure signs in a German train station, the following abbreviations refer to the various types of trains in use in Germany. Example: RB = RegionalBahn, a regional train that makes frequent stops.
- InterCity-Express (ICE) – High-speed long-distance trains mostly on national routes, but also to some EU countries (Austria, Belgium, France, etc.)
- ICE Sprint (ICE-S) – Special ICE trains that run non-stop only between large German cities offering speedy connections for business people
- EuroCity (EC) – International long-distance trains (former Trans Europ Express, TEE, pre-1987)
- InterCity (IC) – Long-distance trains linking German cities
- EuroNight (EN) – International night trains with sleeping cars. Typical EuroNight routes are Cologne-Frankfurt-Vienna, Berlin-Prague-Bratislava-Budapest and Munich-Salzburg-Vienna.
- City Night Line (CNL) – National and international night trains with sleeping cars
- German Regional Trains
- Interregio-Express (IRE) – Fast local services on longer distances than RE trains (below)
- Regional-Express (RE) – Faster regional trains with fewer stops than the RB trains below
- RegionalBahn (RB) – Regio – standard regional trains
- S-Bahn (S) – Local commuter rail service in larger cities. Some S-Bahn stations connect to regional trains.
- U-Bahn (U) – Underground commuter trains in larger cities (not run by DB)
- Privately Run Trains – Some German Bundesländer (states) have contracted with private rail operators like NordWestBahn or Arriva PLC (owned by DB) for regional train service.
Glossary: Useful German Train Vocabulary and Info
Knowing the following German terms can help you have a better rail travel experience in German-speaking Europe.
Abfahrt, die = departures | Printed on large golden yellow posters (also digital displays)
Ankunft, die = arrivals | Printed on white
Bahnhof, der = train station | A main train station is called the Hauptbahnhof, abbreviated Hbf. Since larger cities often have more than one station, this is an important distinction. In a city like Berlin, Hamburg, or Vienna, it could take as much as 30 minutes longer to get from your hotel to the station, depending on which station you are departing from.
Bahnsteig, der = train platform | NOTE: Bahnsteig vs. Gleis or Austria vs. Germany. A “Bahnsteig” is a railway station platform. “Gleis” means track. In Germany train schedules show which track (Gleis) the train will arrive on or depart from. In Austria, the schedule usually indicates the Bahnsteig, which in effect is the same as the track/Gleis in Germany, with one added source of confusion: “Bahnsteig 1a” and “Bahnsteig 1b” refer to the same platform but a different section of that platform. This is not to be confused with the system of designating areas of a platform with letters A-E to help you find the right car using the car locator (see Wagenstandanzeiger below). – Alles klar? (Got that?)
More on The German Way
Public Transport in Germany
Getting around locally via S-Bahn, U-Bahn, bus, and tram
Fahrkarte, die or Fahrausweis, der = ticket | You buy a rail ticket at a travel agent (Reisebüro) or at the Bahnhof. Ask for a one-way ticket (einfach) or a round trip ticket (Rückfahrkarte, hin und zurück) at the ticket window (Schalter). Although some ticket agents speak English, you can’t always count on that. A little German vocabulary concerning numbers and some of the terms listed here could come in handy. Of course there’s also the option of purchasing your ticket online or via an app (see “Handy-Ticket” below).
Fahrplan, der = schedule, time table | There are two kinds of Fahrpläne: the printed booklet-sized ones and the large ones posted at the Bahnhof. Remember they are in 24-hour time! Observe the symbols carefully (usually keyed in English and German) because they tell you if a train only runs on weekdays or certain times of the year, etc.
Gleis, das = track | You need to know on which track or platform you’ll find your train: Gleis 4 = Track 4.
Kurswagen, der = through coach | A car/coach going to only one place on a train with a different final destination. It is very important to check the sign on the side of the car to see where it is going. Sometimes cars are taken off in the middle of the night at a transfer station. If you’re in the wrong car, you could wake up in Munich instead of Stuttgart.
Liegewagen = couchette car | A special car that offers sleeping accommodations in four to six bunks per compartment that convert back to regular seats during the day. (Also see COUCHETTES above.)
reserviert = reserved (seat) | Rather obvious, but we’re trying to be thorough here.
Schlafwagen, der = Pullman sleeper car | Nice but very expensive. Often flying is cheaper!
Speisewagen, der = dining car | A somewhat dated term for what is now know as the Restaurant or Bistro car. As in the US, eating on a German train can be frustrating and expensive. Many travelers bring their own food, buying only cold drinks or coffee on the train or at the station. But you can linger over a good cup of coffee and, if you’re lucky, enjoy some good company in the Speisewagen.
Wagenreihungsplan, der or Wagenstandanzeiger, der = car/coach locator | This handy display shows you where your coach will be along the length of the platform, helping you avoid walking through half the train! TIP: Make sure you are looking at the correct train number and car number. (See photo below.)
There’s an app for that! If you use an iPhone, the free DB Tickets app allows you to easily buy a one-way or round-trip ticket on your phone. The app will also notify you if your train is delayed for some reason. Here’s the German: Handy-Ticket ab sofort für Hin- und Rückfahrt in einem Vorgang buchbar • Verspätungs-Alarm direkt aufs iPhone • „Trusted App“-Gütesiegel für Apps DB Navigator und DB Tickets
See the website links below for more about rail travel in Germany and Europe.
Back | Train Travel – Introduction
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Train Travel – Introduction
- Public Transport in Germany – Getting around locally via S-Bahn, U-Bahn, bus, and tram
- Castles and Palaces in Germany – Guides to castles and palaces in Germany
- City Guides: Germany – Guides for Berlin, Potsdam, Frankfurt, Munich, Dresden, Trier
- Hotels and B&B’s – Finding accommodations in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland
- Driving in Europe – Tips for driving in Germany and Europe
- Air Travel – Flying to or in Germany
ON THE WEB
- German Rail Pass – Unlimited train travel in Germany
- Rail Travel – Brian’s Guide to Getting Around Germany – About rail travel in Germany
- Bahn.com – DB Bahn, the official German Rail site
- Deutsche Bahn AG – The German Rail site
- ÖBB – The Austrian Rail site (in German)
- SBB Online – The Swiss Rail site
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