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A Complete Guide for Traveling by Train in Germany
Germany’s first railway opened between Nuremberg and Furth in 1835. As a collection of privately-run enterprises, the country’s rail network expanded quickly, especially following unification of Germany in 1871 and again after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Today, Germany boasts one of the world’s densest rail networks, with approximately 20,000 miles of track. Almost all prominent towns and cities have regular rail services, making German trains some of the most intensely used in Europe. They also rank very highly for safety and reliability of services, making them the primary means of traveling long-distance across the country.
Train companies in Germany
Since 1994, the vast majority of long-distance rail services in reunified Germany have been operated by Deutsche Bahn (DB), a company wholly owned and financed by the federal government in Berlin.
Many of Deutsche Bahn’s long-distance services operate under semi-separate brands, including InterCityExpress (ICE), InterCity, EuroCity, and EuroNight. Despite the separate branding, tickets can be purchased for journeys which use any or all of these combined services simply and easily.
The backbone of the German rail network, Deutsche Bahn’s ICE services are the fastest. Running on long-distance routes, trains reach up to 190 miles per hour.
Stopping at smaller stations and running at slower speeds (and generally having cheaper ticket prices) are InterCity services. EuroCity services are the equivalent of cross-border trains. EuroNight trains are those which operate sleeper or overnight services.
Although these services account for the majority of passenger trains in Germany, Deutsche Bahn no longer has a monopoly for running rail services in the country. An ‘open access’ model is now used, in which other companies are able to use Deutsche Bahn’s infrastructure for a fee. This has seen companies, including Flixtrain, run competing services on popular lines, including Berlin to Aachen, Aachen to Hamburg and Stuttgart to Berlin.
Generally speaking, regional and commuter services are operated under contract with individual German states. Services are usually called a Regional-Express, RegionalBahn or S-Bahn (suburban rail) and may operate under separate brands such as Enno, Metronom and Vlexx among others.
Germany also shares international cross-border rail services with each of its nine bordering countries. Operated by both Deutsche Bahn and the major rail operators of the respective neighboring country, they connect German cities with everywhere from Brussels and Amsterdam to Warsaw and Vienna.
Popular train destinations in Germany
When it comes to the most popular train destinations in Germany, it pays to book your tickets as early as possible. Check out what there is to do in the country’s five top rail destinations and you’ll soon see why!
The German capital’s sparkling main station (or as it’s called in German, ‘hauptbahnhof’ or ‘Hbf’) is a major hub for rail transport, connecting up east-west and north-south lines. ICE, InterCity, EuroCity and many regional services operate right throughout the day. Some of the most notable Berlin attractions include the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Museum Island and some of the hottest night spots in Europe.
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Also well connected by Deutsche Bahn services, the northern city of Hamburg is divided by hundreds of canals. Made rich as a port city, today Hamburg rivals Berlin for entertainment, with the Reeperbahn being the focus of attention by night. By day, check out the early morning fish market before absorbing the atmosphere around the city’s many historic buildings.
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The largest city in Bavaria, regular high-speed services from Berlin, as well as Vienna, provide easy access by rail to one of Germany’s most charming big cities. The home of Oktoberfest, lederhosen, and BMW, it is also a gateway to the Alps, which provide a spectacular backdrop to the mix of historic and modern structures in the city center.
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Just a couple of hours by train from Aachen, Dusseldorf and Bonn, the heart of Cologne has a commanding position on the banks of the River Rhine. Here you’ll find the city’s most famous landmark, its cathedral. Built to contain the Shrine of the Three Kings, its magnificent edifice is also the tallest of any cathedral in the world.
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Located in southern Germany, Stuttgart is a popular destination in Germany for those looking to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. On its doorstep, you’ll not only find the glorious Rosenstein Palace built for King Wilhelm I, but also the Swabian Jura mountain range and the Black Forest, a stunning landscape in spring, summer, fall and winter.
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If you can’t choose which of these cities is most deserving of your time, why not combine them together in an ultimate itinerary? Better yet, visit during the festive season and take a tour of the 10 best Christmas markets across Germany. Alternatively, swap the Christmas markets for an eye-pleasing route taking in the most instagrammed castles in Germany!
The most scenic train routes in Germany
Spend any time at all on the German rail network and you’ll soon realize you can enjoy some incredible landscapes, whether that’s slipping across the urban scenery of Berlin’s top attractions or capturing Germany’s natural beauty in all its glory. To help you get started, we selected our picks for the best scenic train routes in Germany:
Offenburg to Konstanz
Also known as the Black Forest Railway (or Badische Schwarzwaldbahn), this Deutsche Bahn service cuts a slice across 150 km of southwest Germany. Initially passing across pristine meadowland and through small attractive villages, it then delves into the pine trees of the Black Forest before ending its journey close to the shores of Konstanz (Lake Constance) on the Swiss border.
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Koblenz to Mainz
Although a relatively short stretch of track, the route along the Rhine Valley between the cities of Koblenz and Mainz slips through the region’s vineyards. Dotted with ancient castles and wonderful river views, a train trip on this 100 km route lasts just an hour and there are several trains per day, making it a great addition to any itinerary in the region. To get the very best panoramas, be sure to take the route in September or October, just before the grape harvest.
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Munich to Mittenwald
Few rail journeys provide such a contrast as the two-hour train trip between Munich and Mittenwald. Starting in the heart of the Bavarian state capital, the train soon reaches idyllic alpine scenes. In spring and summer, expect to see plenty of cattle feasting on the rich grasses, while in the winter months the area is often covered in a beautiful blanket of snow right up to the traditional streets of Mittenwald itself.
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How to book train travel in Germany
Spontaneous travelers will be happy to hear that the vast majority of train services in Germany – regional, intercity and express services – do not require reservations to be made in advance. However, you will require a ticket before boarding any of these trains. They can be purchased from the train station directly, or online. Tickets normally go on sale six months ahead of departure, although those for the Christmas period are not usually available until mid-October.
While you can book a ticket right up until the departure time of the train, you will only get the cheapest tickets by booking in advance. These ticket types are known as Sparpreis and Super Sparpreis (Saver and Super Saver). They are limited in number, and start around €19.90 (approx. $22). These tickets are only generally valid for a specific train. Super Sparpreis tickets are non-refundable, while Sparpreis tickets can be exchanged for a Deutsche Bahn voucher for future rail travel.
Sparpreis and Super Sparpreis tickets stop being available a few days before departure, leaving just Flexpreis and Flexpreis Plus tickets. These ticket types are fully-priced flexible tickets. Whether they are purchased in advance or on the day of travel, the price remains the same. They are fully refundable and can be used on any train traveling the route on the day.
You can guarantee a seat reservation by paying a small additional charge (of around €5 or $5.50) or buying a Flexpreis Plus ticket with seat reservation included as standard. Most travelers choose to risk it and seek out an unreserved seat once on a train.
Tips for finding deals on train tickets in Germany
Children under six years of age travel free on Deutsche Bahn services and do not even require a ticket. Those aged six to 15 are also able to travel for free when accompanied by a paying adult.
Students who can prove they are in full-time education can receive discounts of 10-15% by making use of special codes when purchasing tickets.
The BahnCard provides significant discounts of 25-50% on journeys and is available in a number of different forms, including one for seniors (65 years of age and over), youth (those under 26 regardless of educational status), and children (aged 6-18 not traveling with an adult). Anyone can purchase these cards – you do not need to be a German citizen or resident.
Available in both second and first class versions, a BahnCard is usually valid for a year and renews automatically unless the subscription is canceled. However, if you’re planning long trips with expensive ticket prices, purchasing a card can still be worthwhile. It is also possible to purchase a ‘trial’ card with a validity of three months. Prices start at just under €18 (approx. $19).
Deutsche Bahn also has a number of rail passes available. In addition to permitting the use of Interrail and Eurail passes, there is a dedicated German Rail Pass. The pass can be used on 3, 4, 5, 7, 10 or 15 days of consecutive unlimited travel across the country for €146 ($157). Alternatively, you can pick specific non-consecutive days of travel within one month for €154 ($165). This pass is only available by post and not online like the first version.
Two people traveling together can take advantage of the Twin Pass, providing further discounts. Depending on where you travel, the passes can offer significant savings on Flexpreis tickets, since they are valid on long-distance and high-speed ICE services. They can only be used on DB operated services, so they exclude some international connections. They are not valid on Flixtrain or other private operators either.
Regional trains offer their own rail passes, if you are happy being limited to these slower services. Quer-Durchs-Land tickets give a ticket holder unlimited travel on regional services for one day from 9 am on weekdays and midnight on Saturdays and Sundays right up until 3 am the following morning anywhere in Germany.
Meanwhile Lander tickets provide similar unlimited travel but for a specific region, such as Bavaria or Saxony.
Types of train services available in Germany
For the most part, German train services are a pleasure to travel on. InterCity Express, or ICE, is Germany’s high-speed network of trains, connecting major towns and cities at a top speed of 186 mph.
Second class has a 2+2 seat arrangement divided by a central aisle, with some groups of four seats around tables. Legroom is usually sufficient even if you place a piece of luggage at your feet. There is also a dedicated bistro or restaurant car. First class passengers on ICE services enjoy a 2+1 configuration, leather seats and greater legroom.
The main difference between ICE and IC (InterCity) services is the speed of the train, with IC services reaching a maximum speed of 125 mph. Both first and second class tickets are available. IC services which cross Germany’s international borders are designated EuroCity services, but they are fundamentally operated in the same way.
EuroNight services provide passengers with sleeper coaches or couchettes, as well as standard seating options. Sleeper compartments can be en suite or have shared bathroom facilities, including restrooms and showers. Seat or sleeper reservations are usually compulsory on these services. Ticket prices may include a simple continental breakfast.
Regional train services come in a variety of forms since they can be operated under contract by private companies on behalf of Deutsche Bahn, as well as by Deutsche Bahn directly. Perfectly suitable for shorter journeys, they do not usually have seat reservations and can be both single-deck and double-decker trains.
Getting to the train station in Germany
Most German train stations are centrally located within towns and cities, although passengers should be aware that trains in large cities such as Berlin may pass by more than one station, allowing you to board the train at whichever station is most convenient for you.
Buses offer connections to train stations from various points as part of Germany’s integrated transport plan, while most stations will also have a taxi rank with metered taxis. Uber is currently limited to a handful of cities in Germany, including Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich. Waits for drivers can be long. FREENOW is an alternative service offering everything from scooters to traditional taxi hire in one app, and is available in several other German cities.
Larger stations such as Berlin Hauptbahnhof can take several minutes to navigate between platforms. Connections of less than 15 minutes are not recommended, and we suggest you arrive at the train station at least 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time of your train to account for any delays you may encounter.
All but the smallest train stations in Germany will have a waiting area with available seating, alongside a manned ticket office open during standard working hours. Major stations also have first class lounges offering complimentary hot drinks, soft drinks and snacks. They can only be used by Flexpreis ticket holders. Automated ticket machines (with English language option) are also normally available for purchasing tickets when the station is open.
Most stations will have at least one kiosk or shop where it’s possible to purchase refreshments for your journey, as well as newspapers and magazines.
Getting on the train in Germany
Getting on the train in Germany is as simple as heading to the correct platform and boarding when the train arrives. You will need to show a valid ticket once onboard, with conductors passing through carriages once the train is moving.
You can present a printed ticket or an e-ticket. You may also be asked for some form of official ID with a name which corresponds to the name on the ticket. It’s no longer required to present the credit or debit card with which the ticket may have been purchased.
On-board experience on German trains
Announcements & signage
Announcements on many long-distance trains are made in both English and German. Seat reservations can be checked using the small LED screens above each seat. Screens will usually show the route during which a seat is reserved.
Some phrases to look out for include ggf.freigeben and bahn.comfort, both of which mean you can generally sit in the seat but may be asked to move by someone with a last-minute reservation. Schwerbehinderte seats are reserved for passengers with disabilities.
Food & beverages
Because of the distances involved, most long-distance train services will have onboard catering serving basic refreshments such as drinks and snacks. Many trains also have dedicated restaurant cars with full meals and waiter service. For holders of standard tickets, you will need to pay extra, while first class ticket holders will often have the price of a meal included in their ticket. You can also bring food with you onto the train and consume it without any issues.
There are no luggage weight limits on Deutsche Bahn services. Larger pieces of luggage can be left in racks at the end of carriages, while smaller items can be stored on racks above your head or underneath the seat in front.
Onboard entertainment is generally no longer offered, but most long-distance services will have relatively reliable onboard Wi-Fi which is free to use and easy to connect to.
Toilets are found at the end of carriages, with indicators to mark when they are vacant or engaged.
The standard of service may be different for trains traveling through Germany operated by the rail companies of neighboring countries, with those of eastern Europe tending to use the oldest carriages with the least facilities and amenities.
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