17 Essential Germany Transportation Tips For Travelers

germany transportation

Riding the train in Germany. Photo courtesy of Eric the Fish.

For those traveling through Germany, it’s also guaranteed you’ll be using the public transport system — especially the trains — at some point during your travels. If you’re unfamiliar with how this works or if you don’t speak German, this can be quite confusing (I had quite a few mishaps myself as I got familiar with the city!). To help you have a stress-free trip, here are 17 essential Germany transportation travel tips.

1. Understand How To Read A Subway Line Listing

Being from NYC, I’m pretty good at reading even the most daunting subway map. That being said, I’ll admit it can be confusing when the words — or even the spelling or pronunciation — are foreign. One thing to keep in mind is that trains are often listed by their final destination, no matter where you are in the world, and this may be different from where YOU’RE going. Before heading to the station, know the final destination for the direction you’re heading.

Luckily, in Germany the platforms typically have moving signs that will tell you all of the stops on the line and which side the train will be on. This simplifies things for you a lot.

2. Think About Getting A City Transport Pass

Depending on how much public transport you plan to take, opting for a special city card might be a smart option. For example, in Hamburg I purchased a daily Hamburg CARD for 9.75 Euros (about $11.75 USD) and had unlimited access to the city’s trains, buses and ferries. Moreover, the card gets you discounts on certain attractions and restaurants. Do the math to see if you’ll end up saving with the pass.

germany transportation

Taking a photo as I wait patiently for the train

3. Understand The Different Types Of Trains

In most cities you’ll see the U-Bahn and S-Bahn. The major difference, aside for the stops themselves, is that the U-Bahn is a generally an underground subway (although at times is also overground) while the S-Bahn is an overland rapid train. There’s also the Inter-City-Express Train (ICE) which is a rapid train that travels in between major cities. Certain train cars are silent or have stronger cell reception, so request these if desired. When you get your ticket, you’ll receive an assigned car and seat to sit in. You can make reservations 90 days in advance and will receive a booking # that you will then type into a ticket machine in your local train station to have printed.

4. Think About The Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus

My regular readers who know I’m all about going local and finding offbeat experiences might be surprised to know I’m a big fan of the Hop On, Hop Off bus. Not really for the tour itself — although I appreciate having some background of the sites. These tickets are typically budget-friendly and take you all over the city to the main attractions and neighborhoods, making for a stress-free way to get around. For instance, in a Hop On, Hop Off Bus ticket costs $22.32 in Hamburg and $22 in Berlin.

Side note: these can make for great nap stations. I’d be lying if I said I’d never been craving sleep while my hostel was being cleaned and bought a Hop On, Hop Off Bus ticket to see the sights… and have a safe place to sleep!

germany transportation

Photo courtesy of Dennis Skley

5. You’ll Pay For The Bathroom — But Will Also Get Back

I can’t vouch for every train station in the country, but at least in Hamburg my experience was that when you paid 1 Euro (about $1.25 USD) to use the bathroom — undoubtedly grimacing as you place way too much money in the machine — you get a coupon for 0.50 Euros to use in the train center. While annoying to pay so much money, I couldn’t help but admire the savvy tactic at keeping money flowing through the station and encouraging local business. This also allows the station to hire attendants to keep it clean. These cash back reward bathrooms are popular in major train stations and rest stops.

6. Germany Rail Is Expensive

I’m from NYC, which everyone touts as being expensive; however, after paying 3 Euros (almost $4!) for a one-way S-Bahn ticket to a station about 30 minutes away, I was in shock. Same with when I took the 2-hour train from Hamburg to Leipzig — 87 Euros (about $112 USD)! On that note, I’ll admit the trains in Germany are very clean and comfortable, and you often get free snacks and drinks.

7. Transport Workers Are Generally Nice

Now I’m not sure if this is because I’m from NYC where every time I ask a train or bus worker a question they roll their eyes like I’m wasting their time, but transport workers in Germany are actually helpful — and nice! In Hamburg I accidentally got on the wrong train — luckily at least going in the correct direction — and the ticket checker seemed delighted to pull out his smartphone and help re-route me. It was a pretty nice change from my normal situation, especially when a staff member brought me a free chocolate granola bar.

8. Taxis Accept Credit Card

Some may require a $10 minimum, but for the most part taxi drivers in major cities do accept credit cards.

germany transportation

Hamburg’s scenic waterfront, at the Museumshafen Oevelgönne (historic ship museum)

9. In Hamburg, The Water Is A Viable Transport Hub

No other city in Germany has more waterways than Hamburg, from rivers to canals to lakes and beyond. Because of this you’ll not only find great seafood, boating museums, a lively fish market and a rich fishing heritage, but ferries, water taxis and cruises that can take you where you need to go in a more scenic way. While I didn’t do it myself, I heard from many people that cruising on Lake Alster is a memorable experience.

10. “Hbf = Central/Main Station”

If you’re looking for the Central Station of a city make sure you get off at the one that has the letters “Hbf” — which stands for Hauptbahnhof — as this denotes this. All major cities have multiple train stations, for example, Berlin Hbf vs Berlin Sudkreuz, so you’ll want to get off at the correct one to avoid any hassles.

11. On The Train, Press The Green Button To Exit

My first time taking the ICE train from Hamburg to Leipzig I stared stupidly at the un-opening doors when we reached my stop. I waited for them to open on their own, but no cigar. Luckily, the woman behind me — who was either a local or had gotten the memo — reached from behind me and pressed a bright green button and, voila!, I was able to exit.

germany transportation

A peek at my train tickets from my journey from Hamburg to Leipzig

12. You’ll Need To Look At More Than Your Ticket To Know Where To Go

Understanding where to go to get your train as well as the route means looking at more than just your ticket. In the train station, you’ll need to find the printed schedule to find the correct train time and number. Once you locate this, you’ll look for the corresponding platform and stop information. It’s simple to read; however, if you don’t know to do this beforehand you’ll be very confused. In my case I ended up asking a police officer for help.

Note: Because trains are sometimes late and the times can be a bit off it’s helpful to know your train or ICE number so you can check you’re getting on the correct one when it arrives.

13. Get Last Minute Deals On Trains

If you can be flexible with what train you take, don’t purchase your ICE train ticket in advance. Instead, wait until about five days before your desired departure and visit Ltur.de. Here, you’ll typically be able to find insanely reduced last minute deals on leftover train tickets for about 1/3 or 1/4 the original ticket price.

14. Station Lockers Are Usually Available For Major Hubs

If you’re going to be taking the train later in the day and can’t store your luggage at your hotel, opt for a train station locker. They’re usually very affordable and worth the convenience if it means you don’t have to lug your stuff around all day. For example, at Hamburg Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) a locker cost 4 Euros (about $5.15 USD) for up to 72 hours.

germany transportation

Trying out an eTrike for myself

15. In Berlin, Scooters Are A Cheap Transport Option

Through a company called Berlin Scooter, it’s possible to rent a scooter for cheap: 5 Euros (about $6.32 USD) per hour; 19 Euros ($24 USD) for four hours and 29 Euros ($37 USD) for 24 hours. Discounts are available for multi-day renters.

Also fun is something called an “eTrike” — you can see me riding on in the photo above. It’s offered by Berlin on Bike through their array of city tours. When I asked the company if someone could rent them without a tour they seemed unsure, like they don’t but might be willing to. Their reply was that for now it’s only offered via tour, but they’re looking to change that in the near future. If interested in just renting I would give them a call/email to see if you might be able to work something out.

16. Depending On Your Age, A Eurail Pass Might Be A Smart Idea

Depending on your itinerary, a Eurail Pass can help you save money by offering discounted prices for train travel without a certain amount of time. There are Youth Passes, Adult Passes and Family Passes, and an array of different tickets depending on how many countries you plan on visiting. For example, a Germany-Switzerland Regional Pass for a Youth (12 to 25 years of age) traveling for five days within two months (meaning you can choose five days within a two-month span to enjoy unlimited train travel) would be $331 USD. Calculate what your train trips would be without the pass and see if it makes sense to purchase one before you go.

I used one the first time I backpacked Europe for three months and it saved me a ton. I also love that they send an updated train timetable for all of the countries they work in so you don’t have to navigate unfamiliar transport websites.

17. When In Doubt, Speak Up

In Hamburg, Leipzig and Berlin, many locals speak English and are happy to help you. In fact, I’d say at least 9 out of every 10 people I approached for one reasons or another spoke English.

Do you have any Germany transportation travel tips to add? Please share in the comments below.

*My trip to Germany was sponsored by the Germany Tourism Board. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated. All opinions are 100% my own.

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11 Comments

  1. One of my tips for train travel in Germany would be that it isn’t entirely necessary to pay for the U-Bahn, S-Bahn or city trams as the transport systems in cities run in an honesty-type way with no barriers like there is in London (if there was no barriers or inspectors where I live there would probably be no railway because everyone would bunk the fare..). I was in Germany for a month in the summer and didn’t pay once for travel when actually in a city. Of course you run the risk of getting caught but it seemed highly unlikely. Call me dishonest but hey, thats another bratwurst for me.

  2. Jess, you have a really great blog. Their are so many travels blogs out there these days but yours stands apart by having useful quality content – so thanks!! I am going to Germany and February and was wondering where you would recommend getting a cuckoo clock? I hear they are very popular there and my dad is obsessed with the ones that have black forest figurines on it (kind of like these ones http://www.bavarianclockworks.com/). I don’t know if I’ll be making it down to the black forest region or not so was wondering if you think they are okay to buy in the more main stream parts of Germany?

    1. @Melissa: Thank you for the kind words. They are very popular but sadly I did not purchase one and am not sure of the best place (though I have also heard the Black Forest is the best place). I’ve also been told you can get nice ones in Munich if you get away from where the tourists shop! 🙂

  3. Awesome tips! This is so useful! especially when it comes to something important like transportation, safety is always the utmost concern!

  4. Hey JESSIE FESTA !!!

    Great article !!!its good to read your article.I really appreciate it.Germany’s cities and larger towns have efficient public-transport systems. Bigger cities, such as Berlin and Munich, integrate buses, trams, U-Bahn (underground, subway) trains and S-Bahn (suburban) trains into a single network.
    Fares are determined by zones or time travelled, sometimes by both. A multi-ticket strip (Streifenkarte or 4-Fahrtenkarte) or day pass (Tageskarte) generally offers better value than a single-ride ticket. Normally, tickets must be stamped upon boarding in order to be valid. Fines are levied if you’re caught without a valid ticket.

    Keep posting such article.
    Thanks for posting
    have a great day..

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