Train travel in Germany - 15 tips for a smooth journey

Traveling by train in Europe is becoming more and more popular and it's no longer only young people who head to the continent with a freshly printed interrail pass in their pocket. Train travel is another way to travel. It is no longer just a transport between two airports, but a journey through cities, forests and open landscapes.

Germany is a large country with a well-developed railway network that covers a large part of the country's cities and it is both easy and convenient to take the train to your final destination. I'm far from a train expert after my three train journeys in Germany, but there are things I wish I'd known before I took the train for the first time. Simply my 15 best tips for a smooth train journey in Germany.

1. Good German words to know

There are not many signs in English on the trains, so it can be good to know the most common German words that may come up when you are going to take a train in Germany.

  • Zug: Trains
  • Hauptbahnhof (HBF): Central station
  • Bahnhof: Railway station
  • Gleis: Platform
  • Abfaht: Departure
  • Ziel: Destination
  • Einsteigen/Aussteigen: Get on / Get off
Ride trains in Germany with fast ICE trains on one platform

2. Deutsche Bahn, or not?

Deutsche Bahn (DB) is the major state-owned operator with the largest network of long-haul destinations, but there are several private competitors, such as the low-cost competitor Flixtrain (most routes in northern Germany).

Deutsche Bahn's long-distance trains are called IC (InterCity) or ICE (InterCity Express). ICE are high-speed trains that can run at up to 300 km/h.

3. Buy a ticket online - or at the station

If you travel with Deutsche Bahn and book online, you can either print the ticket or add the booking in their mobile phone app DB Navigator. Last trip I just used the mobile app, which was very convenient. The app contains up-to-date information about platforms and departure times, which is updated if there are changes to the journey. NOTE: The app is only in German, but it was easy to understand even though I don't speak German.

If you are only going to train by train for a shorter trip with DB, it may be worth buying the ticket directly at the train station. At the train stations there are both manual counters with knowledgeable staff and large red machines where you can buy tickets directly. In the machines, you can choose the language from English and pay by card or cash.

Generally speaking, tickets on long-distance trains become more expensive the later you book, while short regional journeys have the same price regardless of when you book.

The train station in Lübeck if you are going by train in Germany
The train station in Lübeck

4. The train stations are (almost) always in the middle of the cities

The train stations in Germany are almost always right in the center and have a large selection of shops and restaurants for everything from coffee to books. Incredibly convenient and saves a lot of time when you're on the go.

I always prefer to travel by train during the day, both to be able to see the scenery I'm traveling through and to arrive at the destination during the day. Train stations are open 24/7 and although there are many guards everywhere, I did not find the Berlin and Hamburg train stations to be particularly cozy in the middle of the night.

The DB train station in Berlin in glass and metal
Hauptbahnhof in Berlin

5. Looooong trains - where should you stand on the platform?

The high-speed trains in Germany can be up to 400 meters long and have 14 carriages, so you need to plan your journey and stand in the right place on the platform.

At the stations that have electronic signs, the train can be displayed in two ways.

  1. If only a "1" is displayed on the train image, that does not mean not carriage 1, but first class. However, you can figure out roughly which letter you should stand on the platform and in which direction the train is going.
  2. When the train approaches, the "first class" marking is replaced by a carriage number and place on the platform. Then you just have to start heading to the right place, because the train stops very briefly.
Train sign which train you will take in Germany
Train sign showing where on the train you should sit

6. Trains often change platforms

Don't think you know which platform the train leaves from just because you checked a few minutes ago. The trains in Germany often change platforms, which is both confusing and stressful if you are in a large train station.

The destination is shown on the side of the seat on trains in Germany

7. Reserved seats

In Germany, you usually do not need to have a reserved seat when you travel by train, but it is an extra option when you buy the ticket. However, it only costs a few euros and saves you a lot of time on board.

If you do not purchase a seat reservation, you will need to walk around and look for an available seat. To help you, however, you have information signs on the side of the seats that show the routes for which the seat is booked. On my last trip, there were a lot of people who hadn't reserved a seat, which meant that they had to move around at each station.

8. Extra ticket for animals – or bicycles

If you are going to bring your bike or travel with your dog, they often need their own train tickets.

You do not need tickets for small dogs (no larger than a cat) if they are traveling in a carrier bag. Dogs larger than that need a separate ticket. Dogs that do not travel in a transport bag need to be leashed and muzzled.

9. Ticket Controls

On the trains, the conductors often walk around and check the tickets. Make sure you have your ticket ready and an approved form of ID - passport or international ID card. During my last trip, two police officers came on board the train and picked up a passenger who did not have a valid ticket.

The glass roof over the trains at the central station in Berlin

10. Electrical outlet and wifi?

Most long-distance trains have electrical outlets and free Wi-Fi on board.

11. Food and drink on board

There is almost always a restaurant car on board the long-distance trains, which serves everything from light dishes such as sandwiches, soup and currywurst to beer and wine. I thought the prices on board were quite affordable, but most Germans on the train brought their own lunch bag (including alcohol). On one of the trains, the conductor also went around offering cappuccinos, but it felt more like the exception than the rule.

For those who prefer to bring their own food, there are usually plenty of options for take-away at the train station.

Train carriage in Germany with blue seats and information on TV

12. Toilets

Keep in mind that toilets are free on the train, but cost money at the station. Also, you often need coins to go to the toilet at the train station, which complicates things a bit when you're in a hurry. Simply go to the toilet on the train.

13. Keep track of where you're going!

The train often shows a map so you can easily see which is the next stop. The trains stop very briefly at each stop, so you need to be ready with your clothes on and your bag in hand when the train stops.

Map of the train in Germany to show where the train is located

14. Children travel for free

Children up to the age of 6 travel for free and on some trains children up to the age of 14 can travel for free. Children aged 6-14 travel for half the price.

15. Strike and Delays

The last tip, but an important one. In Germany, people often joke about Deutsche Bahn's punctuality and its strikes, but compared to many other countries, the train in Germany still feels very reliable. It's all a matter of what you compare it to.

However, always make sure you have plenty of time to change between trains! Many stations are very large with large distances between platforms. If the train is delayed and you miss connecting trains, it is not entirely easy to know which forms to submit in order to receive compensation.

It happens that there is a strike on the trains. The last time I was going from Freiburg to Frankfurt there was a strike the day before my trip and all trains were cancelled. However, my train the day after the strike left on time and without problems. Strikes are announced in advance, so keep an eye on the news and on Deutsche Bahn's website.

Have you traveled by train in Germany? Do you have any more great tips for a smoother trip?

4 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately, I don't think DB is reliable anymore. Lots of delays and canceled trains compared to before. Having said that, I'm not giving up on it because it's so much fun to ride the train.
    The coffee service thing is not an exception but happens regularly. However, choose cappuccino or similar because DB's black coffee may be the worst coffee in the world.

    • How sad that it got worse! In Germany it appears to be a technical debt that leads to major track works causing delays. The same symptoms as here in Sweden, where there has been no investment in the railway for far too long?

      The cappuccino was perfectly ok! Being served almost made the experience feel like I was traveling first class.

      And I agree – traveling by train is fun! :)

  2. Great information! Especially point 5, where to stand on the platform.
    Speaking of train delays, which seem to be more or less legion these days, are usually due to track works on various routes.
    The more trains that run, the greater the wear and tear, and the interest in train travel steadily increases.
    Thanks again for the clear and concise information!

    • Thanks! :)
      Very relevant comment about the increasing number of people traveling by train and the old tracks. Big investments are definitely needed in many countries to be able to meet the increased pressure on train travel!

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About

Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 60 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel site Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.

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