German transport works with German efficiency, and it’s a breeze to get around the country – although you have to pay a high price for top speed (especially if you don’t buy your tickets in advance). By far the most popular options are car hire or train travel. If trains are too expensive for you, organised carpooling or one of the many new intercity buses in Germany are often viable alternatives.
Domestic flights are mainly used for business travel, while rail is an easier, sometimes faster and often (but not always) cheaper alternative for other travel. The emergence of low-cost airlines and increased competition has made some flights to some major cities competitive with rail. However, make sure you arrive at the right destination: Budget airlines are notorious for misnaming small airports in the middle of nowhere as if they were near cities 100 km away (e.g. “Frankfurt-Hahn” is actually in Hahn, more than two hours by bus from the city of Frankfurt). Also note that if the airport is congested due to bad weather or a strike, domestic flights are the first to be delayed or even cancelled.
The following airlines operate flights within Germany:
- Lufthansa Lufthansa is a national airline and a member of the Star Alliance. Lufthansa serves all major domestic German routes almost every hour, with hubs in Frankfurt and Munich. In the designated areas of the terminals, coffee, tea and a large selection of newspapers are available free of charge, even for Economy Class passengers.
- Air Berlin is the second largest German airline and also serves most German airports, with hubs in Berlin-Tegel, Düsseldorf and Nuremberg. Checked baggage and standard services are also included in the fares. It is a member of the oneworld alliance.
- The Düsseldorf-based subsidiary of eurowings Lufthansa also serves some domestic German routes.
Some islands, such as Sylt or some of the East Frisian islands, have small airports that are also served by Lufthansa, Air Berlin and Eurowings. Other operators are also present:
- Sylt Air flies mainly Hamburg-Sylt
- OFD (abbreviation for Ostfriesischer Flugdienst) serves several islands, mainly the East Frisian Islands, from northern Germany.
Germany offers a fast and (with advance booking) cheap rail system that allows you to reach many parts of the country. Unless you are traveling by car, the train is likely to be your primary mode of transport. A journey across Germany, from Munich in the south to Hamburg in the north, usually takes about 6 hours, while travelling by car takes about 8 hours.
Almost all long-distance trains and many regional trains are operated by Deutsche Bahn. The DB website in English and the DB website adapted to the US (which is also available in many other locations) are excellent resources for identifying transport options not only in Germany but virtually anywhere in Europe.
All major cities are connected by DB’s ICE (InterCity Express) and InterCity regular trains. The ICE is a high-speed train system that can reach speeds of up to 330 km/h. They can be expensive, a one-hour journey (from Frankfurt to Cologne, about 180 km) costs about 67 euros one way (normal “flex fare” without discount).
If you want to save money, try the discounted “Sparpreis” tickets, which start at 29 euros each way (and sometimes only 19 euros for journeys of less than 250 km). As these tickets are mainly sold to attract people to less popular routes and timetables, try to look for them outside peak hours (Tuesday lunchtime is the time when trains are most empty, according to statistics). With 29-euro tickets, you cannot change trains or departure times. If you miss a train due to another train being late, you can take the next train if you have confirmation of the delay. With the BahnCard 25 or the BahnCard 50 you get a 25% discount on Sparpreis tickets.
Reservations are not compulsory but are recommended, especially when travelling at weekends or on public holidays. This means that with an Interrail or Eurail card you can use national ICE trains at no extra charge (except international ICE trains).
This is followed by the regular InterCity (IC) and EuroCity (EC) trains. These connect major European cities and are practically identical to the regular ICs. These trains are also quite comfortable, even if they don’t have the high-tech feel of the IC. The rolling stock used for IC traffic is very diverse. It includes old carriages from the 1970s and 1980s as well as much newer carriages – sometimes in the same train – and double-decker railcars (Dosto) that only entered service in 2015. The Eurocities, on the other hand, are often made up of cars from several countries, with the associated differences in style and quality.
On the main routes, there is an ICE or IC every hour or so, and some smaller towns that are important for tourism, such as Tübingen or Heringsdorf, are also connected daily or weekly. Before you pay for the ICE ticket, you should check whether the time difference is really important. ICE trains only travel faster than other IC trains on specially equipped high-speed lines. There are also long-distance trains of companies other than Deutsche Bahn, which usually run on secondary routes. Long-distance trains of companies other than DB were slowly gaining ground before the opening of the long-distance bus market eliminated their niche – those who were not price-conscious travelled on DB trains, while price-sensitive customers took the bus. Today, the only non-DB domestic train that still covers a significant distance is the Hamburg Köln Express (HKX). In addition, international trains such as the Thalys or the TGV serve stations in Germany and partly also domestic routes. However, with the timetable change in December 2016, some operators have announced that they will offer a certain range of trains, especially in the area of sleeper trains, as DB is discontinuing this service altogether. As a rule, DB only sells tickets for other operators if there is a cooperation or if it is legally obliged to do so (e.g. all regional trains). DB tickets are usually not sold by other operators either.
In Germany, regional and local trains come in several varieties:
- IRE (InterRegioExpress). Same as IRE, but between two regions (federal state).
- RE (Regional Express). Half-express trains that skip some stations. On many lines this is the highest train category available.
- RB (regional train). It stops everywhere, but may skip some S-Bahn stops.
- Suburban railway. A suburban network for a city or conurbation, but which can cover longer distances. There are no toilets in the S-Bahns, except in Bremen, Dresden, Hanover, Leipzig, Nuremberg and some Rhine-Neckar S-Bahns.
Within a federal state, it is often possible to buy a Länderticket, which is valid for one day. It can be used for BR, RB, most S-Bahn and some bus services within the federal state. Some, but not necessarily all, local S-Bahn networks are also included. It is available as an individual or group ticket. Prices for country tickets vary from region to region, but generally start at around €23-27 for a single person and usually range from €3 to €5 for each additional member of your group, up to a group of five. You can find more information on the Deutsche Bahn website and in most federal states in the “Get Around” section.
Although regional trains are increasingly operated by companies other than Deutsche Bahn and have a different livery to the DB red, in practice this makes little difference as all regional trains are subject to a concession, with the state prescribing everything from the timetable to the rolling stock, and the operators also receive a subsidy in addition to the fare. At the stations they serve, you will find ticket vending machines or ticket counters of various regional train operators, but Deutsche Bahn is also obliged – with a few exceptions – to sell you a ticket, and country tickets are also accepted there. Although many non-DB operators follow the pattern described above, some have chosen to name their services differently than RB or RE, but they still often distinguish between “express” and “local” (semi).
Generally, there is no on-board catering on local trains, but sometimes a vendor comes by the seats to sell drinks and snacks (usually too expensive). Some lines and operators – such as Metronom – also have vending machines on board their trains.
Sharing of group train tickets
Even though the days when you could take a group of five on a cheap Schönes-Wochenende ticket and travel through Germany for the price of a good book are long gone, it is still possible to travel cheaply on regional trains with a small group. While group ticket sharing has existed in a grey area for some time, Deutsche Bahn has now released its own app (for Android and iphone) explicitly for group ticket sharing. Although it only covers a handful of states so far (May 2016), the implementation of this application in other states has already been announced.
There are four main caveats that need to be considered:
- The price of the ticket is usually based on the number of passengers, with a relatively high basic fare and a small surcharge for each additional member of the group up to 5
- The ticket must bear the name of at least one member of the group. This person may be required to show identification. Sometimes all members of the group must be mentioned on the ticket.
- These tickets are only valid for regional trains (RE, RB and S-Bahn) and some local transport (Stadtbahn and bus) depending on the city. It is not possible to take an ICE or IC with such a ticket.
- In some federal states, first class tickets are offered (for an extra charge), but they are only valid for second class unless otherwise stated. On regional trains there is little or no difference between first and second class, in some trains there is not even a first class. On the other hand, first class may be empty in an otherwise busy train.
If you know your route, you can organise a group on the internet, buy a ticket and go. All tickets are valid from 9am on weekdays and from midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. Their validity usually ends at 3am the next day. The most common regional tickets are as follows
- Quer durchs Land Ticket (QdL) – valid for one day on all regional trains in Germany. 44€ plus 8€ for each additional member of your group up to five
- Ländertickets: are usually valid in one or two bordering federal states (e.g. Lower Saxony and Bremen). In the three federal states of Saxony, Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt there are Ländertickets, which are always valid in all three federal states. Prices usually start at €23-28 for one person, with an additional €2-6 for each additional group member up to five people. In some federal states there are still all-inclusive tickets that cost the same for a single traveller or a group of five.
- Ticket Schönes Wochenende: By no means the ultra-cheap ticket of the past, but a good offer with the same conditions as the QdL, but a cheaper base price (40€) and a surcharge per person (4€). Valid only one day on Saturday and Sunday.
- Border crossing tickets: In some areas, a ticket may be available for travel within the state or part of the state and an adjoining area across an international border. Their conditions are often similar to those of state tickets, but they can be more expensive.
If your group consists of more than five people, ask Deutsche Bahn about special offers for larger groups.
There are dozens of daily connections from most major cities, which are often much cheaper than trains. Most buses offer services such as Wi-Fi and power sockets, and some can even carry bicycles.
There is also a very dense network of regional and local bus lines. In rural areas, however, many lines only run once a day. Regional and local express line codes usually contain the letters CE (local), E (regional around Hamburg; in other regions E is used for special lines), S (regional), SB (regional and local) or X (local within Berlin), while city bus line codes may contain the letters BB (“Bürgerbus”, not part of the tariff associations), C or O. Always look carefully at the departure boards: sometimes, especially at night or in rural areas, you have to order your bus by phone.
Germany has a world-class network of excellent roads and motorways, with no tolls or charges for cars. Although public transport in Germany is excellent, those who choose to drive will also find a fast and efficient road network. As in most European countries, the right-hand driving rule applies in Germany.
Check in advance whether your non-German driving licence is valid in Germany. If not, you risk a heavy fine or up to one year in prison. For longer stays, most foreign driving licences are not valid, regardless of your residence status. If you plan to drive during a longer stay (several months or years), try to get a European driving licence, which is usually valid throughout the European Union.
When does the holiday begin? Germans often ask themselves this question and have to look it up on the internet. School holidays are set by the federal states. It is useful to know when the holidays start in order to avoid traffic jams on the main roads, especially in the south.
Respect red lights, but there is one exception: you can turn right if there is a small green sign with a right arrow next to the red light – but this still requires you to stop, look and give way before turning right.
Speed limits are taken seriously, there are a large number of speed cameras. The speed limits are:
- 5 km/h on the “play streets” (marked by a blue/white sign indicating that children are playing, pedestrians have priority).
- 30 km/h in most residential areas within cities (marked by a sign “30-Zone Wohngebiet”, there are also zones 20 and 10).
- 50 km/h within cities (marked with a yellow sign at the entrance) and including “motor roads” (marked with a sign showing a white car on a blue background).
- 100 km/h outside cities
- There is no general, constant speed limit for cars and motorbikes not towing trailers on motorways and motorways. Speed is not completely free, as certain sections are subject to periodic or permanent speed limits. The recommended speed limit on the motorway is 130 km/h, and you should try to stick to this if you are new to high-speed traffic. However, some “speed tourists” come to Germany just to rent an exotic sports car and blast the motorway network, which is the third largest in the world.
Carpooling is very popular in Germany and the price of the ride is often lower than that of the train. The most popular websites for organising carpooling are mitfahrgelegenheit.de and Blablacar. International trips can also be organised in this way.
Taxis are expensive and often only accept cash. The conditions are usually not written on the vehicle, so ask the driver. Fares are set by the local authorities.
Motorists, especially those with single-digit numbers (connecting large regions over long distances) or those in or near conurbations (e.g. Rhine/Ruhr) are very busy from the Friday afternoon of the summer holidays. However, the popular arterial roads leading to southern Italy or north to the Baltic and North Sea coasts are busy at the beginning of the school holidays in all federal states. When planning your trip, pay attention to the start of the school holidays and try to avoid journeys on that day or the following weekend. During the winter holidays (Christmas and Carnival), the roads leading to the ski resorts in the Alps can also be a little crowded, made worse by even moderate snowfall, especially if it is the first snow of the season.
With recreational vehicle and campervans
German campsites (like most others in Western Europe) usually offer a full range of services. They always have their own electricity connection, and water and waste water connections are the same for everyone. Every campsite has toilets and showers, as well as kitchens, washing machines and a tumble dryer.
The camping yellow book, or if you like, the camping bible in Germany, is the ADAC Camping Guide, a camping guide by Germany’s largest automobile club, the ADAC. It lists almost all campsites, with prices, type of site, size, opening hours, facilities and the name of the campsite. Since the guide uses many symbols that are explained in several languages, it is also suitable for foreign travellers.
Remember that there is a general speed limit for recreational vehicles and anything towing anything – even on stretches of motorway without a posted limit. There is usually a sticker on the back or your papers or rental contract will indicate this.
It is possible to hitchhike in Germany and most Germans speak basic English, so you will be understood if you speak slowly. Drivers rarely expect you to give them money for the ride. The first letters of the German number plate (before the hyphen) indicate the city where the car is registered. If you know the destination code, this increases your chances of stopping the right vehicle.
Stopping is prohibited on the highway itself, but hitchhiking from rest stops or petrol stations is a good way to cover long distances (100-200 km). The most difficult thing is to get on the highway, so it is best to stay near petrol stations if you are going far. At petrol stations you can get a free brochure called Refuelling and Resting, which includes a map of the highway and petrol stations. If you take the lift, arrange with the driver where you will get off and make sure there is a petrol station. Try to avoid motorway service stations.
It is also quite common to arrange a ride in a private vehicle in advance through an offline agency or via the internet. Offline agencies such as Citynetz or ADM have offices in larger cities, usually near the city centre or the main railway station. These offline agencies charge a commission on the fuel price you have to pay for the driver.
In recent years, online services for organising rides in private vehicles have become very popular, as both parties do not have to pay commission to traditional agencies. They only have to contribute to the fuel costs. (Example: from Frankfurt to Berlin 25 euros). You can contact the driver directly by email, phone or sms. As the drivers have to be registered, this is safer than hitchhiking.
Hitchhikers is a comparable, multilingual and free service. Mitfahrgelegenheit and Mitfahrzentrale are other well-known players whose databases contain many rides. Mitfahrzentrale even operates across Europe. Raumobil is a new player on the market, but it is a rather private company. Mitflugzentrale organises private air travel.
Germany is generally cycle-friendly, with many cycle paths in the cities. There is also an extensive network of well-signposted long-distance cycle routes. If there is a cycle path parallel to the road, signposted with white on blue “Cycle” signs (see right), the cyclist should use it. In some cities, cycle lanes are marked with dark red paving stones in the main walking area. But be careful, as cyclists and pedestrians tend to cross these boundaries.
The same traffic rules apply to cyclists as to motor vehicles. Getting drunk on a bicycle is considered the same as driving a motor vehicle – so you can lose your licence, but the limit is higher, as only a blood alcohol level of more than 1.3 per mille will result in a mandatory fine.
Most train stations, shopping areas, hotels and business premises have bicycle racks (some covered) with a place to attach your own bicycle lock chain.
On regional trains, there is usually a carriage where you can take your bicycle. You can also take a bicycle on Intercity trains, but not on ICEs. A separate ticket and/or reservation is usually required to use a bicycle.
If you want to take your bike on a long-distance bus, you need to book several days in advance and it may not be possible as bike storage space is very limited (only two or three bikes per bus).
Several German cities now offer self-service bike programmes, most of which are operated by nextbike or the Deutsche Bahn subsidiary “bike”. They are great for covering short distances within a city, but are not the best option for longer tours, as the maximum rental period is usually 24 hours. Classic bike rentals still exist in many towns and in small villages near the coast that are popular with tourists. They often require a deposit or an identity card for rental.