Planes, trains and automobiles, not to mention buses, boats and bikes: Germany deals in the full deck of options for travel within the country, with one of the finest public transport systems in Europe. Unusually for a largely landlocked nation, it also affords considerable opportunities for travel on its arterial rivers – slow travel at its best in which the getting there is as much a reason to travel as the destination. Services operate on arterial rivers such as the Rhine, Mosel and Elbe, generally from April to October; details are provided in relevant destinations. Prices are more expensive than those for rail, but that’s not really the point.
Alongside national carrier Lufthansa, budget airlines such as Air Berlin and Hapag-Lloyd Express offer daily routes throughout the country, with single fares for as little as €30 including taxes. Lufthansa flights are more expensive but still good value, with the greatest number of routes and the most frequent departures. These can be hourly between popular destinations such as Hamburg–Munich, a route that saves five hours compared to the same journey by train. Advance bookings – at least two weeks prior – provide substantial discounts.
The much-lauded national rail system operated by Deutsche Bahn is superb, but not quite as faultless as you might think. Trains can be a few minutes late and strikes are not unknown. Nevertheless, trains remain the workhorse of public transport and the nation has good reason to be proud of its efficient privatized system. Its 43,900km of track is the most extensive in Europe; trains are frequent – generally hourly, with extra services at rush hours; invariably clean; and prices are fair, with weekend, regional and other discounts often helping to sweeten the deal.
Kings of the rails are the flagship Intercity-Express (ICE) trains, which travel at speeds up to 300km/hr and offer the most comfort, including a bistro. When making a reservation you can also request a seat in areas with boosted mobile-phone reception or none at all. Not as fast or flash are Intercity (IC) and international Eurocity (EC) trains, though these hurtle along at 200km/hr, and still have electricity terminals throughout and a buffet carriage. Local trains come as swift InterRegio-Express (IRE), the steady Regional-Express (RE) trains then the slowish local Regionalbahn (RB), which tend to stop at every station en route. In cities, Stadt-Express (SE) trains or the commuter S-Bahn trains also operate.
Standard tickets (Fahrkarten) – not restricted to any particular train and refundable for a small charge – are priced according to the distance travelled, so returns cost twice as much as singles. Reservations (€4 per journey) are worthwhile for peak long-distance trains, especially the popular Friday late-afternoon getaway.
You can over the counter at the Reisezentrum (travel centre) of larger stations or, at all but the rural stations, from touchscreen vending machines with English instructions. You can also buy tickets on board for a nominal service charge – all trains now accept major credit cards. Telephone reservations are on 01805/99 66 33; registered users can buy tickets online at bahn.com at no surcharge up to ten minutes before departure – you’ll require a print-out of the ticket and your credit card as proof of purchase.
Flexible standard tickets are reasonably priced, though the use of ICE trains can be a little expensive – an ICE Hamburg–Berlin ticket costs €70; an ICE Hamburg–Munich €129. But it’s worth taking advantage of discounted fares by booking in advance: Sparpreis 25 tickets give 25 percent discounts on return journeys for a specified day and train and must be bought three days in advance – weekend restrictions apply. Sparpreis 50 tickets have further restrictions in that the return trip cannot be sooner than the following Sunday unless your outward journey is on a Sunday, in which case you can return on the following Saturday; at weekends same-day returns are permitted. Group tickets for up to six people are called Gruppe&Spar and save between fifty and seventy percent of the fare depending on availability – this type of ticket needs to be bought at least an hour in advance.
The greatest bargain in Germany – and one worth arranging your holiday plans around – is the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket (“Nice Weekend Ticket”). It permits up to five people (or one parent/grandparent travelling with any number of children aged under 14) one day’s travel on a Saturday or a Sunday until 3am the following day. All for just €39, making savings on long-distance travel substantial. The weekday equivalent is the Länder-Ticket. Again valid for up to five people, this permits one day’s unlimited second-class travel within one federal state from 9am until 3am the following day; most Länder-Tickets are also valid on Saturday and Sunday, and some can be used for overnight travel on weekdays. It can be used on all local trains (IRE, RE, RB, S-Bahn). Regulations and tariffs also vary by state, but are typically about €30 with a €2 discount if bought through ticket machines. Things get messy for city transport on both the Länder-Ticket and the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket, with some states happy to accept it, others not. Check as you buy or consult the Deutsche Bahn website.
Finally a note on overnight trains. Deutsche Bahn’s City Night Line (CNL; www.citynightline.de) trains to the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland and destinations throughout Germany offer travel in reclining seats, couchette or comfortable sleeper carriages, with soothing curved corridors, soft lighting, shower and toilet or a wash-basin inside compartments. Ticket prices are calculated as additional charges to regular fares and range from €4 for a reclining seat, through €40 for a four-berth couchette to €100 for a single-occupancy sleeper.
If you are staying in Germany for long it may be worth picking up an annual national rail pass, the BahnCard. The BahnCard 25 (€114 first class, €57 second class) provides 25 percent discount on all tickets; the BahnCard 50 (€460/230) provides fifty percent off and comes at half-price to students under 27 and seniors over 60; or the BahnCard 100 (€6400/3800) provides free travel for a year. Non-European residents (or those who have been out of Europe for six months) qualify for the month-long German Rail Pass. This provides free rail transport – plus free travel on Rhine and Mosel boats of the KD Köln–Düsseldorf line – for three (€175) to ten days (€308) in second class. First class is around a third more expensive, as are twin tickets for two adults. Second-class Youth tickets for under-25s cost £140–214.
German bus services exist primarily to supplement Germany’s trains, so you’ll only need them for the final leg of journeys or in rural areas such as the Harz, the Thuringian Forest, the Black Forest or the Bavarian Alps where the rail network is thin. Regional companies operate local services that vary in frequency from every twenty minutes or so to daily or even fewer, with most routes scheduled to serve commuters from early morning to early evenings. Services can dry up at weekends. In addition, buses need not adhere to strict schedules, so may leave earlier than times published – use the printed timetables as a guide only and arrive early. The exception to this is from the terminus, known in cities as a Busbahnhof or Zentral Omnibus Bahnhof (ZOB) and ubiquitously located near the train station. Tickets are bought either from kiosks or from the driver. If you intend to travel widely in a region ask about a day-card (Tageskarte) or week-card (Wochenkarte).
Holders of any home national – or international – driving licence are permitted to drive in Germany provided they have this to hand. If driving your own car you will also require vehicle registration documents and a valid third-party insurance certificate. If bringing your own car, be aware, too, that a growing number of cities – 32 as of 2010 – have implemented Low Emission Zones to reduce exhaust fumes. Vehicles in a central “Green Zone” must display an “Emission Badge” (Umwelt Plakette), which is bought for around €10 from repair centres, dealers and MOT (Tüv) stations, or via websites www.tuev-nord.de (northern Germany) and www.tuev-sued.de (southern Germany). In practice this means pre-’93 petrol models and pre-’97 diesels will not pass unless retro-fitted with a catalytic converter. In theory, vehicles entering a Green Zone without a badge will be fined, though there is still some leniency for foreigners.
Germany’s most celebrated principal roads are its three- or four-lane Autobahnen (motorways), indicated with blue signs and an A prefix. Famously, there are no overall speed limits, though many stretches, particularly near towns and cities do have speed limits imposed (white sign with red edge). If you pass a round white sign with three diagonal stripes, that means you’re entering a section with no speed limit though 130km/hr is often the recommended limit. But even here you can often forget fantasies of barrelling along at 200km/hr in your BMW, since traffic is often heavy, with east–west pan-European routes particularly packed with truckers. Major roadworks and accidents also often frequently seem to be problems, helping to explain the national obsession with traffic jams (Staus). All this is perhaps just as well, since if you have an accident at what your insurer regards as an excessive speed they may not pay out; and the police will take speed into account when apportioning blame.
Secondary B routes (Bundesstrassen) are usually dual carriageway, with three lanes on heavy sections, and have a speed limit of 100km/hr. Speed limits in urban areas are 50km/hr. All routes are toll free.
On-the-spot speeding fines are issued on a sliding scale depending on the speeds involved. Traffic police are fair but determined – don’t expect to weasel out of a fine with pleas of innocence. The maximum blood alcohol limit is 0.5mg/l. Penalties for those over the limit are severe – fines are steep, licences can be revoked – and even those involved in an accident but under the limit can have licences and vehicles confiscated temporarily. The use of mobile phones while driving is forbidden except with a hands-free set.
On Autobahnen, emergency telephones are located every 1.5km for breakdown services; ask for Strassenwachthilfe. Phones connect to Germany’s principal automobile organization, Allegmeiner Deutscher Automobil Club (ADAC; breakdown line 01802/22 22 22; adac.de), affiliated to the British AA, American AAA and Canadian CA, though check the extent of cover with your own breakdown service.
On the road
Driving is on the right, overtaking on the left, and seatbelts compulsory for all, including those on back seats – whoever isn’t wearing one will be fined, a law which extends to taxis though isn’t rigorously enforced. Some states request (but not demand) that headlights are always on when driving. Carrying a reflective hazard-warning triangle is mandatory and should be set up 100m behind the vehicle on the hard shoulder if required. In southern Germany snow chains are a good idea if you intend to venture onto Alpine backroads, but most routes are kept snow-free with grit, salt and snowploughs.
For first-time foreign drivers, remember that anything approaching from the right commands respect and you will be safe – until cities. Here trams have the right of way regardless of their direction. Since tramstops are at the roadside, overtaking stationary trams is forbidden. Pay special attention for pedestrians and cyclists in cities – you might receive a green light to pull away from a junction, but the road you turn into is often green for a pedestrian crossing. So treat every junction with caution and double-check before you turn. Signs for Stadt Mitte (city centre) or Altstadt (old town) lead you to a town’s heart; orange signs announce an Umleitung (diversion), which can lead you a merry dance but gets you there in the end.
Car parks (Parkhaus) are generally on the edge of pedestrianized centres, and marked by a blue “P”. While most car parks offer flat-rate overnight parking, some spring surprises – check to avoid a shock in the morning. Street parking is either pay-and-display or free for a specified time beneath a blue P, in which case cardboard “clocks” bought from petrol stations are left on the dashboard to indicate the time of arrival.
Petrol – all Bleifrei (unleaded) and either Super Plus (98 octane) or Super (95 octane) – is available every 50km or so on Autobahnen, where major players are open 24 hours a day. All petrol stations are self-service.
Car rental (Autovermeitung) is widely available, with multinational chains operating desks at all airports and either in or around the Hauptbahnhof of most cities. Rack rates are steep – around €80 a day without a promotional deal or a fly-drive deal – and, if you don’t care about the car’s looks, smaller local outfits can be better value.
Taxis and car shares
Taxis – nearly always cream-coloured – will only save money over well-priced public transport if you are in a group; even then savings will be minimal. Available cabs have rooftop lights lit, though it’s rare to hail one on the street. Most gather at city centre ranks, at the edge of the pedestrian centres and inevitably outside the Hauptbahnhof. Fares are metered, priced per kilometre and rise slightly between 11pm and 6am and on Sunday. Some drivers may charge a nominal fee for large items of luggage.
Eco-aware Germany has a shared-car system called Mitfahrzentralen that operates as a form of organized hitchhiking (which is otherwise not recommended). Agencies in cities connect drivers with passengers, who usually split fuel costs. Most agencies publish searchable online journeys lists, many of them international – and since all drivers are required to provide details of addresses and registration numbers, the ride should be safe. Prices vary according to passenger numbers, but you can expect to pay around €35 from Hamburg to Berlin. Check websites mitfahrzentrale.de, www.blablacar.de, mfz.de and drive2day.de for rides.
Cyclists have an easy ride in Germany: many small roads have dedicated cycle-paths, as do cities where cycle lanes are often built into the pavement. When you are forced onto the road in towns you will be treated with respect by drivers rather than rammed into the curb. A network of long-distance cycle-paths, often following major rivers, such as the Elbe, Danube or Rhine, make cycling between destinations an appealing prospect were it not for the distances involved – Germany is deceptively large by European standards. However, all trains bar ICE services, accommodate bikes so long as you have purchased an additional Fahrrad-Karte (bicycle ticket), which costs €9 (or €6.50 with a rail card) on IC and EC services, which generally have a dedicated carriage, and €4.50 or free on local services and the S-Bahn, depending on the state. You’ll also find bike racks on the buses in popular touring areas such as Rügen or Sylt, and bikes are permitted on just about all ferry services. All cyclists must ride with front and back lights at night.
Bike rental is widely available in cities, usually from the Hauptbahnhof; the Deutsche Bahn website lists contact details for fifty Fahrrad-Vermietstationen (bike rental stations). A highly convenient innovation introduced and run by DB is CallBikes. Silver-and-red bicycles can be rented at any time of day for €0.08 per minute (up to €15 per 24hr period), with no deposit or minimum charge. Users need to register a credit card (0700/05 22 55 22, callabike.de). Once you’ve registered, it’s just a matter of calling the individual number on the side of a bike and receiving an electronic code to open the lock; the obligatory registration of your mobile phone means your account will be automatically debited when you call. To drop the bike off you can leave it on any street corner then ring up for a code to lock the bike and leave its location as a recorded message. Participating cities are Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart and Karlsruhe. Otherwise, hostels are an excellent source of bike rental, or many cycle shops offer rental for around €10–15 a day; enquire at local tourist offices.
Municipal transport in Germany is almost always efficient and fairly priced. The cornerstones of most systems in major cities are two rail systems, supplemented on the streets by buses and trams. Once on board any of them, illuminated signs and announcements ensure it’s easy to find the right stop. Tickets are available from machines at stations, on trams or from bus drivers – but be sure to validate them by punching the ticket when you travel. An un-validated ticket is as good as no ticket at all and will result in a fine at spot-checks.
The mainstay of most city-centre systems is the U-Bahn, which is clean, punctual and rarely crowded. Running both under- and overground, these cover much of the centre: trains tend to run from 4am to around 12.30am, and all night on Friday and Saturday in the metropolises. Out of these hours, their routes are usually covered by night buses – denoted by a number with the prefix “N”. The S-Bahn systems are a separate network of suburban trains that run largely overground, and are better for covering long distances fast, with generally larger distances between each stop. Within small and medium-sized towns, the tram or bus replaces the U-Bahn as the heart of city transport, operating a network of circuits. Otherwise, the modus operandi remains the same, the only exception being that you may have to buy tickets direct from the driver rather than from a vending machine at your stop.
Transport networks are usually divided into zones – A, B, C or 1, 2, 3, etc – and ticket prices vary according to their reach. Basic singles are called Einzeltickets, or you can usually buy a cheaper Kurzstrecke, a short-trip ticket that permits travel for a limited number of stops (no return journeys or transfers). Buying a day-ticket (Tageskarte) will generally work out cheaper still – look out for group tickets (Gruppenkarten). Another possibility for short-term city visitors are the cards promoted by city tourist offices that provide 48 or 72 hours’ unlimited travel alongside discounted entry to city sights. If not named after its city, it is often called a Welcome Card.