So you want to take the train? Deutsche Bahn
What an excellent idea! Unlimited access to loads of countries, all so close together, all positively bursting with history and romantic architecture and sophisticated cuisine.
Sure, there are a few budget airlines that offer safe and reliant travel. Train travel, however, survives from a time when the journey was as important as the destination and Germany is well-served with fast, good-value rail services linking the cities, towns and villages of the country with the same all over Europe. Europe in general has a high utilization of trains and Germany is especially reliant on them. Other than the automobile, rail is by far the most common means of transportation.
Although there are a few independent regional rail lines, the main passenger rail system in Germany is the Deutsche Bahn (DB or GermanRail), also known colloquially as “Die Bahn”. Over 4.5 million people a day use the DB’s 29,000 trains serving over 5,500 stations along 35,000 km of track. The Deutsche Bahn was formerly a government corporation but is now completely privatized.
Start your travel at www.bahn.de where you’ll find tickets information, fare schedules, and special deals. There are a variety of tourist passes that generally are a great deal and pay for themselves after a few long-distance trips. The most popular is the GermanRail Pass. This pass allows you unlimited rail travel for 3 to 10 days (consecutive or non-consecutive) within a month and includes Salzburg (Austria) and Basel (Switzerland). The GermanRail TwinPass is a discounted pass valid for two people traveling together.
For travelers under 26, there’s the Youth Pass, which allows unlimited travel for one month. There are various fly-and-ride, drive-and-ride, holiday, and student passes. Check with your travel agent or website for prices and information on all passes. GermanRail passes are also valid for travel on DB buses (Bahnbus) and KD river cruises.
If your trip includes other countries besides Germany, there are a plethora of Eurail international passes available that cover various combinations of countries and time periods. A great way to save on time and money is to book sleeper trains between cities, which allow you to doze off in Berlin, for example, and wake up in Paris without paying extra for a hotel night. Sleeper compartments can be for two, three, four or six people and come with comfy fold-out bunks, sheets and pillows. Before you decide to purchase a pass, you should do a rough calculation of the cost of individual tickets for your planned train travel by using the DB’s website.
If you purchase a pass, be sure to read the directions that come with it and follow them precisely. Ignorance is not considered an excuse for not properly using your pass and you may be fined (or worse, publicly humiliated) if you don’t follow the required steps. However, those steps are usually quite easy. Most require that you have the pass validated by a rail official at the station before the first use.
Present your pass and your passport to an agent at the ticket counter at the station. He or she will stamp the pass and fill-in the valid dates. You can do this just before the first time you use it or you can do it in advance; just make sure to tell the agent your desired validity start date if you’re not going to start using it right away. Then, each day that you use your pass, remember to write the date in ink in the appropriate box on the pass before you board the first train that day. If you have any questions, ask at the information desk or ticket office in the station.
Tickets and passes only guarantee passage from one place to another; they do not actually guarantee you seated passage. In most cases, you should be able to find a seat without much difficulty. However, seat reservations (Platzreservierung) are recommended on the busier routes, especially on Fridays, Sundays and holidays, and are required on a few trains (noted with a bold “R” on the schedule) as well as the ICE Train. The ICE Train or InterCityExpress, can travel at speeds up to 250 km/hour quite smoothly, traveling between Kaiserslautern and Paris in a mere two hours.
If not required, reservations can be purchased separately from your ticket and you can book seats up to three months in advance. The standard fee is €4.50 for each seat reserved (€5.50 for first class), but that’s reduced by €2.00 if you get the reservation online or at a ticket machine during your original ticket purchase. For groups of five or less people, you can purchase a “family reservation” (Familien-Reservierung) for €5.00 (€7.00 for first class) if purchased online or at the same time the ticket is purchased. In all cases, a reservation on one connecting train is included free.
Speaking of families… kids love trains. The journey becomes part of your holiday. It’s an adventure—a chance to spend some quality time talking and playing games, which is a major advantage over taking a flight or a long road trip. And kids really do love train movement, sleepers or couchettes, where they get to sleep in a bunk bed on a train.
When you purchase seat reservations, you have several options. First, you can specify Großraumwagen or Abteilwagen. The Abteilwagen has compartments that open onto a corridor along one side of the car. Each compartment has four to six seats facing each other. The Großraumwagen is an open coach car with varying seat configurations. You’ll also want to specify rauchen (smoking) or nicht rauchen (non-smoking). If you want a window seat (am Fenster), aisle seat (am Gang), or a table (am Tisch), be sure to specify that too.
The German word for train station is Bahnhof. If you’re in a large city, you will most likely be using the Hauptbahnhof, or central station. Stations are usually located in the heart of the city, except in small towns where they’re often located on the edge of town. Large cities will usually have a number of suburban stations as well.
Once you get there, you will find that the larger stations are self-contained cities. Most now feature a large shopping arcade with a wide-assortment of stores and restaurants with extended operating hours. Information, ticket counters and luggage lockers are found in most mid to large stations. Larger stations may also have banks and currency exchanges, post offices, public showers, and a traveler’s aid service called Bahnhofsmission. Many stations are located in beautiful historical structures that have been or are in the process of being renovated.
Timetables are prominently posted throughout the station. You will find two schedules: arrivals (Ankunft) and departures (Abfahrt). Departures are listed on yellow charts, arrivals on white. All trains arriving or departing that station are listed chronologically starting at midnight. Times are listed using the 24-hour clock (e.g. 13:00 = 1:00pm).
Various symbols indicate the services onboard, reservation requirements, and days that train operates (see below). Express trains are listed in red. The train number and the arrival or departure track (Gleis) number are also listed. The electronic display boards will show the trains scheduled for the next hour or so and their status. Use these resources to determine which platform you need to head to catch your train.
Once you’re ready to board, allow those who want to disembark to do so first, then hop on. If no one is waiting to get off the train, the door may not open; look for a button or handle to open the door.
Make sure you are at the platform well before your train’s scheduled departure time. While some trains may have a lengthy stopover, especially at major stations or at the starting point for a line, most trains stop for just a couple of minutes. Connections are meticulously timed, so it is imperative that everything run on time lest a train-sized monkey wrench get caught in the cogs of the giant GermanRail machine. To wit, lollygaggers take note: if you’re even a minute late, you will almost surely miss your train!
The conductor will blow a whistle just before departure and may shout “Alles einsteigen!” (All aboard!) The doors will close automatically shortly thereafter.
Once onboard, it’s time to locate a seat. If you have a reservation, you’ll need to find your assigned seat. Seat numbers are fairly logical and are clearly posted. In open coach cars, the seat numbers will be on the rail above the seat. In compartment cars, the seat numbers are shown on the outside of the cabin. Reserved seats are marked with a small ticket in the little plastic pocket next to the seat number. On newer trains, there is a small electronic display that shows reservation information. Ask the conductor if you need help locating your seat. If there is someone already sitting in a seat you have reserved, simply indicate that you have reserved that seat by pointing to your ticket. Most Germans will vacate the seat cheerfully (real or feigned) and wish you a good trip. Be sure to claim your seat as soon as you can-- reservations expire if you don’t claim your seat within 15 minutes of departure.
If you have not reserved a seat, locate a vacant seat and check to see if there is a reservation for it. If the seat has been reserved by someone, the reservation will indicate the part of the route for which the seat is reserved. If your journey doesn’t include that section, you can have the seat. Otherwise, you may sit there until that segment is reached and the seat is claimed.
You can store your luggage on the racks above the seats. You can also utilize storage areas at the ends and sometimes in the center of the cars, although I wouldn’t use these unless you have a chain lock or a clear view of the storage area.
Once underway, the conductor will come through and ask for tickets. If you just boarded, present your ticket (and passport if proof of age or residency is required for your pass). The conductor will, in good German form, punch or stamp your ticket and return it to you. You will not need to show it again for the duration of your trip unless there is a staff change. Some regional and most local trains no longer have conductors-- passengers on these trains are on the honor system. You must purchase all tickets and reservations before you board. Periodic spot checks are made and hefty fines are levied against those without valid tickets.
Once you’ve settled-in and had your ticket checked, you can roam about the train (be sure to take your ticket with you.) Toilet facilities (WC) are located at the ends of the cars and thankfully are not emptied directly onto the tracks anymore, so you can use them at any time. However, you still can’t use the water from the sink as drinking water. On the ICE and some newer trains, there are electronic displays at the ends of the coaches showing the train’s itinerary, estimated arrival times, and the train’s speed.
Stops are announced shortly before arrival. If you miss the announcement, or just don’t understand it, signs on the platforms will tell you where you’re at. Make sure you are ready to exit when the train arrives at your destination-- remember that at some stops, the train only stops for a minute or two. If you’re not ready, you may end up taking an unscheduled diversion to Germany’s Timbuktu. As the train pulls into your station, be standing at a door and when the wheels grind to a halt, open the door and step off. To open the door, look for a handle or green button-- either should be fairly obvious.
Once you get off the train, follow the “Ausgang” signs to leave the station. Large stations have multiple exits, so double-check to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. If you are making connections, check the yellow schedules or electronic departure boards to find out which track your connecting train leaves from, and then follow the signs directing you to that platform.
Who needs planes? Not lucky European travelers. Run, run, run from the airport to the closest train station. Train windows do more than let light in— they show off Europe as the incredibly varied travel playground it is. And at night, there’s nothing more romantic than slipping silently out of one of the world’s great cities knowing the morning brings a new one. Train travel in Europe makes complete sense, getting you into even the smallest towns with the minimum of hassle.
Reasons to take the train:
1. Sleep in or get breakfast. You don't have to arrive two hours early.
2. Check-in? What checkin? You basically just climb on the train. Keep your shoes on or take them off, its your choice.
3. Pack everything, including the kitchen sink as long as you can carry it.
4. No electronics interference. Sit down and put your ear buds in.
5. Huge windows, natural light & beautiful scenery.
6. No middle seat!
7. Train compartments are not pressurized.
8. Take a walkabout whenever you want.