This article shall help friends to navigate towards affordable rail travel when in or passing through Germany. The main rail operator in Germany is Deutsche Bahn. Their website www.bahn.de has all the rail connections within Germany and probably also the best overview of any connection in Europe. You can normally also book all tickets from their website. If you can NOT book a ticket there, this may be because you are looking at a local/regional tariff (only available at local ticket machines) or particular international connections (especially to France or Brussels, e.g. TGV or Thalys) which can then be bought at the other international rail operator.
Note: my comments here focus on long-distance travel (usually involving the high-speed ICE trains).
Tickets for intercity connections (NOT local metros etc.) can be bought up to the minute you enter the train at ticket machines, the web or via smartphone (or also on the train but with a heavier extra of more than 10 Euro). The App for finding connections and buying tickets is called DB Navigator. For any app- or online booking you may want to create a profile prior to booking. There is first and second class but just don’t bother about first class. The extra money you pay is not worth it. Also note that on almost all German trains there is no mandatory seat ticket, so you may end up sitting on the floor during peak hours (usually Friday and Sunday afternoon on the main routes between major cities). Seat reservations cost around 5 Euro (for up to two connecting trains). You can buy them online together with the ticket.
Regular long-distance tickets are not cheap. There are generally 3 ways to get them cheaper: 1. Regular discount card (‘Bahncard’), 2. Sparpreis (special offers) and 3. Last-minute (actually last-week) discounts through bus ticket platforms. Each shall be explained in the following.
Bahncard (regular) discounts
Bahn offers general discount cards: Bahncard25 or Bahncard50 which you buy (normally for a year) and they give you a 25% or 50% respectively on the regular ticket price. Normally, Bahncard50 only makes sense, if you are a frequent traveller throughout the year. So, for tourists who do a few trips inside the country, Bahncard25 is most attractive. Often, you find Probe Bahncard25 (trial Bahncard) for about 3 months, e.g. at 19 Euro. This is an attractive offer.
Bahncard may also save you some money for bike rentals (Callabike) and hourly car rentals (Flinkster & Car2Go) in any bigger German city. Plus you get the city option. This allows you to use the local transport options in your destination city until you reach your final destination (e.g. bus, tram, S-Bahn).
Attention: Bahncards always come as a subscription, you need to cancel them about 6 weeks before they expire. You can do this by email – and as soon as you have bought them. If you need an address in Germany, let me know.
This is the obvious bargain. Long distance connections (even international: Europa Sparpreis) can be offered from as cheap as 19 Euro. As expected, pricing is dynamic and reflects the expected load of the trains. Just like air fares. The other interesting thing is that you can combine the Bahncard25 (and only 25!) discount with the Sparpreis, so that you save another 25% off the Sparpreis fare. That is why I suggest the Bahncard25 to anyone who does at least 2 or 3 trips – and manages to book in advance. The 19 Euro for the Bahncard25 are easily saved over the Sparpreis plus you have at least some discount in case you mess something up. For international tickets, you can find some advice on Jon’s blog (also see below).
Special prices as an alternative to bus travel
Because more and more (young) people use buses, Bahn now offers some special fares through the booking platforms for bus travels. These offers are ONLY available through the bus booking platforms like http://www.fernbusse.de/, they only come as internet tickets and they cannot be combined with any Bahncard or other options (like City). These special fares become available only in the last 7 days before departure and they start as low as 19 Euro. So, this option becomes interesting when you are late but then again, do not expect too much. More on this (in German) at my previous blog entry.
Some further advice for long journeys inside Germany and international connections
Booking from abroad
You can book a ticket without living in Germany. The standard (or rather old school) way is that you get paper tickets delivered by post. This may not be too reliable and is also slow. Alternatively, you can book tickets online (website or smartphone) and have them printed or on the smartphone (in the app). In that case you need an additional identifier, for which you can use a Bahncard, your credit card or a German ID card. This identifier needs to be shown to the conductor on the train.
Alternatives and Bahn fuck-ups
Rail is a convenient and usually reliable mode of travel in Germany. However, note that this is not East Asia. On average I would say that 90% of long-distance trains are on time. Another 5% arrive up to 20 mins late and for 5% you may have a mess (no aircon in summer, 1 hour delays etc.). However, note that Bahn has to bring you to the final destination of your ticket. It is just a matter of time… With delays of more than an hour you will also get Bahn vouchers for future tickets.
The major alternative to trains are bus operators. Over the past few years a very competitive bus (‘Fernbus’) market has developed after the market had been liberalised. Bus operators connect most cities (but not all as Bahn does) and prices are much lower. Of course buses may be slower (and more risk of traffic jams) but you will also get free and fast wifi on the buses (which Bahn does not offer). Check Fernbusse.de for all bus connections.
If buses are still too expensive or not available on your route, you can use a Mitfahrgelegenheit, i.e. join someone in a car who goes your way. BlaBlaCar is probably the biggest platform for arranging this now. (I have not tried it yet.)