Germans are whizzes at moving people around, and the public transport network is among the best in Europe. The two best ways of getting around the country are by car and by train. Regional bus services fill the gaps in areas not well served by the rail network.
With two seas and a lake- and river-filled interior, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a boat at some point or other. For basic transport, boats are primarily used when travelling to or between the East Frisian Islands in Lower Saxony; the North Frisian Islands in Schleswig-Holstein; Helgoland, which also belongs to Schleswig-Holstein; and the islands of Poel, Rügen and Hiddensee in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Scheduled boat services operate along sections of the Rhine, the Elbe and the Danube. There are also ferry services in areas with no or only a few bridges as well as on major lakes such as the Chiemsee and Lake Starnberg in Bavaria and Lake Constance in Baden-Württemberg.
From around April to October, local operators run scenic river or lake cruises lasting from one hour to a full day.
Hitching (Trampen) is never entirely safe in any country and we don’t recommend it. That said, in some rural areas in Germany poorly served by public transport – such as sections of the Alpine foothills and the Bavarian Forest – it is not uncommon to see people thumbing for a ride. If you do decide to hitch, understand that you are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Remember that it’s safer to travel in pairs and be sure to let someone know where you are planning to go.
It’s illegal to hitchhike on autobahns or their entry/exit ramps. You can save yourself a lot of trouble by arranging a lift through a Mitfahrzentrale .
Buses are the most ubiquitous form of public transportation and practically all towns have their own comprehensive network. Buses run at regular intervals, with restricted service in the evenings and at weekends. Some cities operate night buses along the most popular routes to get night owls safely back home.
Occasionally, buses are supplemented by trams, which are usually faster because they travel on their own tracks, largely independent of other traffic. In city centres, they sometimes go underground. Bus and tram drivers normally sell single tickets and day passes only.
Basically, wherever there is a train, take it. Buses are generally much slower and less dependable, but in some rural areas they may be your only option for getting around without your own vehicle. This is especially true of the Harz Mountains, sections of the Bavarian Forest and the Alpine foothills. Separate bus companies operate in the different regions, each with their own tariffs and schedules.
The frequency of service varies from ‘rarely’ to ‘constantly’. Commuter-geared routes offer limited or no service in the evenings and at weekends. If you depend on buses to get around, always keep this in mind or risk finding yourself stuck in a remote place on a Saturday night.
In cities, buses generally converge at the central bus station (Busbahnhof or Zentraler Omnibus Bahnhof/ZOB), which is often close or adjacent to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). Tickets are sold by the bus companies, which often have offices or kiosks at the bus station, or by the driver on board. Special fare deals, such as day passes, weekly passes or special tourist tickets, are quite common, so make it a habit to ask about them.
A subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, Deutsche Touring (069-790 350; www.deutsche-touring.com), runs Europabus coach services geared towards individual travellers on three routes within Germany:
Romantische Strasse (Romantic Road) The most popular route operates between Würzburg and Füssen from April to October. There are links to Würzburg from Frankfurt and to Füssen from Munich. Sample fares: Frankfurt–Munich €99/138 one-way/return; Würzburg–Füssen €59/82; Rothenburg ob der Tauer–Füssen €46/64.
Burgenstrasse (Castle Road) Dozens of castles and palaces line this route from Mannheim to Nuremberg via Heidelberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauer and Ansbach; buses run from May to September. Sample fares: Mannheim–Nuremberg €48/66 one way/return; Rothenburg–Heidelberg €32/45.
Strassbourg-Reutlingen Year-round service from Strassbourg, France to Reutlingen via the Black Forest and such towns as Freudenstadt and Tübingen. Sample fares: Reutlingen–Strassbourg €25.50 each way, Freudenstadt–Strassbourg €13.
There’s one coach in either direction daily. You can break the journey as often as you’d like, but plan your stops carefully as you’ll have to wait a full day for the next bus to come around (reserve a seat before disembarking). The Romantic Road and the Castle Road both stop in Rothenburg, where you can switch from one line to the other.
Tickets can be purchased by phone or online and are available either for the entire distance or for segments between any of the stops. Eurail and German Rail pass holders get a 60% discount; people under 26 or over 60 qualify for 10% off, while children ages four to 12 pay half-price.
Bicycles may be transported with three days’ advance notice. The fee ranges from €3 to €15, depending on the distance travelled.
German roads are excellent and motoring around the country can be a lot of fun. The country’s pride and joy is its 11, 000km of autobahn (motorway, freeway), which is supplemented by an extensive network of Bundesstrassen (secondary ‘B’ roads, highways) and smaller Landstrassen (country roads). No tolls are charged on any public roads.
Along each autobahn, you’ll find there are elaborate service areas with petrol stations, toilet facilities and restaurants every 40km to 60km; many are open 24 hours. In between are rest stops (Rastplatz), which usually have picnic tables and toilet facilities. Emergency call boxes are spaced about 2km apart. Simply lift the metal flap and follow the (pictorial) instructions.
Seat belts are mandatory for all passengers and there’s a €30 fine if you get caught not wearing one. If you’re in an accident, not wearing a seatbelt may invalidate your insurance. Children need a child seat if under four years old and a seat cushion if under 12; they may not ride in the front until age 13. Motorcyclists must wear a helmet. The use of hand-held mobile phones while driving is very much verboten (forbidden).
Parking in city centres is usually limited to lots and garages charging between €0.50 and €2 per hour. Many cities have electronic parking guidance systems directing you to the nearest garage and indicating the number of available spaces. Street parking usually works on the pay-and-display system and tends to be short-term (one or two hours) only. For long-term and overnight parking, consider leaving your car outside the centre in a Park & Ride (P+R) lot, which are free or low-cost.
In order to hire your own wheels you’ll need to be at least 25 years old, possess a valid driving licence and a major credit card. Some agencies rent to drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 for an additional charge. Those younger or not in possession of a credit card are often out of luck, although some local car-rental outfits may accept cash or a travellers cheque as a deposit. Taking your rental car into an Eastern European country, such as the Czech Republic or Poland, is often a no-no, so check in advance if that’s where you’re headed.
All major international car-rental companies maintain branches at airports and major train stations, and in towns. Contact the following central reservation numbers for the one nearest you:
Avis (01805-217 702; www.avis.com)
Budget (01805-244 388; www.budget.com)
Europcar (01805-8000; www.europcar.com)
Hertz (01805-938 814; www.hertz.com)
You could make a booking when calling the reservation agent, although it may be worth checking directly with the local branch for special promotions the agent may not know about. Smaller local agencies sometimes offer better prices, so it’s worth checking into that as well.
As always, rates for car rentals vary considerably by model, pick-up date and location, but you should be able to get an economy-size vehicle from about €35 per day, plus insurance and taxes. Expect surcharges for rentals originating at airports and train stations, additional drivers and one-way rentals. Child or infant safety seats may be rented for about €5 per day and should be reserved at the time of booking.
Prebooked and prepaid packages, arranged in your home country, usually work out much cheaper than on-the-spot-rentals. The same is true of fly/drive packages. Check for deals with the online travel agencies, travel agents or car-rental brokers such as the US company Auto Europe (in US 888-223-5555, see website for numbers in other countries; www.autoeurope.com) or UK-based Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk).
German law requires that all registered vehicles carry third-party liability insurance. You could get seriously screwed by driving uninsured or underinsured. Germans are very fussy about their cars, and even nudging someone’s bumper when jostling out of a tight parking space may well result in you having to pay for an entirely new one.
If you’re hiring a vehicle, make sure your contract includes adequate liability insurance at the very minimum. Rental agencies almost never include insurance that covers damage to the vehicle itself, called Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW). It’s optional but driving without one is not recommended. Some credit-card companies cover CDW/LDW for a certain period if you charge the entire rental to your card. Always confirm with your card issuer what coverage it provides in Germany.
The German rail system is justifiably known as the most efficient in Europe. With 41, 000km of tracks, the network is Europe’s most extensive, serving over 7000 cities and towns. A wide range of services and ticket options is available.
Nearly all trains are operated by Deutsche Bahn (DB; reservations & information 118 61, free auto-mated timetable information 0800-150 7090, www.bahn.de), although there are also some private lines such as the LausitzBahn in Saxony and the Bayerische Oberlandbahn in Bavaria.
The DB website has an entire section in English (click on ‘International Guests’), where you’ll find detailed information about buying tickets, train types and services, timetables, route maps and lots of other useful pretrip planning nuggets.
Many train stations have a Reisezentrum (travel centre) where staff sell tickets and can help you plan an itinerary (ask for an English-speaking clerk). Smaller stations may only have a few ticket windows and the smallest ones aren’t staffed at all. In this case, you must buy tickets from vending machines. These are also plentiful at staffed stations and convenient if you don’t want to queue at a ticket counter. English instructions are normally provided. Both Reisezentrum agents and machines usually accept major credit cards.
Tickets sold on board (cash only) incur a service fee of €2 to €7 unless the station where you boarded was unstaffed or had a broken vending machine.
For trips over 50km, you can also buy tickets online up to 10 minutes before departure at no surcharge. You’ll need a major credit card and a print-out of your ticket to present to the conductor.
Most train stations have coin-operated left-luggage lockers ranging in cost from €0.50 to €3 for each 24-hour period. Larger stations have staffed left-luggage offices (Gepäckaufbewahrung), but these are more expensive than lockers. If you leave your suitcase overnight, you’re charged for two full days.
Standard, nondiscounted train tickets tend to be quite expensive, but promotions, discount tickets and special offers become available all the time. Check the website or ask at the train station. A one-way ICE train ticket from Munich to Hamburg, for instance, costs €115 in 2nd class and €175 in 1st class, which can be the same as or more than a cheap flight.
Depending on how much travelling you plan to do, you can cut costs by buying a rail pass or by taking advantage of discount tickets and special offers. Always check www.bahn.de for the latest rail promotions.
The ‘Nice-Weekend-Ticket’ is Europe’s finest rail deal. It allows you and up to four accompanying passengers (or one or both parents or grandparents plus all their children or grandchildren up to 14 years) to travel anywhere in Germany on one day from midnight Saturday or Sunday until 3am the next day for just €30. The catch is that you can only use IRE, RE, RB and S-Bahn trains in 2nd class.
These are essentially a variation of the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket, except that they are valid any day of the week and are limited to travel within one of the German states (or, in some cases, also in bordering states). Prices vary slightly from state to state but are in the €22 to €27 range. Some states also offer cheaper tickets for solo travellers costing between €17 and €21. Night passes, valid from 7pm until 6am the following day, are available in Berlin-Brandenburg and in Munich.
Seat reservations for long-distance travel are highly recommended, especially if you’re travelling on a Friday or Sunday afternoon, during holiday periods or in summer. Choose from window or aisle seats, row seats or facing seats or seats with a fixed table. The fee is €3 or €6 for groups of up to five people. If you reserve seats at the time of ticket purchase, the price drops to €1.50 and €3, respectively. Reservations can be made online and at ticket counters as late as 10 minutes before departure.
Most towns have efficient, frequent and punctual public transportation systems. Bigger cities, such as Berlin and Munich, have comprehensive transportation networks that integrate buses, trams, and U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (suburban) trains.
Fares may be determined by zones or time travelled, or sometimes both. Multiticket strips (Streifenkarte) or day passes (Tageskarte) generally offer better value than single-ride tickets. Sometimes tickets must be stamped upon boarding in order to be valid. Fines are levied if you’re caught without a valid ticket.
Metropolitan areas such as Berlin and Munich have a system of suburban trains called the S-Bahn. They are faster and cover a wider area than buses or trams but tend to be less frequent. S-Bahn lines are often linked to the national rail network and sometimes interconnect urban centres. Rail passes are generally valid on these services.
The fastest and most efficient travel in large German cities is by underground/subway train, known as the U-Bahn. Route maps are posted in all stations and at many stations you’ll be able to pick up a printed copy from the stationmaster or ticket office. The frequency of trains usually fluctuates with demand, meaning there are more trains during commuter rush hours than, say, in the middle of the day. Buy tickets from vending machines and validate them before the start of your journey.
Most large and many smaller German cities have their own airports and numerous carriers operate domestic flights within Germany. Lufthansa, of course, has the most dense route network. Other airlines offering domestic flights include Air Berlin, Cirrus Air and Germanwings.
Unless you’re flying from one end of the country to the other, say Berlin to Munich or Hamburg to Munich, planes are only marginally quicker than trains if you factor in the time it takes to get to and from the airports. Even the big carriers often have some very attractive fares, finally making domestic air travel a viable option.
From nuns to Lance Armstrong wannabes, Germans love to cycle, be it for errands, commuting, fitness or pleasure. Many cities have dedicated bicycle lanes, which must be used unless obstructed. There’s no helmet law, not even for children, although using one is recommended, for obvious reasons. Bicycles must be equipped with a white light in the front, a red one in the back and yellow reflectors on the wheels and pedals.
Bicycling is allowed on all roads and highways but not on the autobahns. Cyclists must follow the same rules of the road as vehicles. Helmets are not compulsory, not even for children.
Most towns and cities have some sort of bicycle-hire station, which is often at or near the train station. Hire costs range from €9 to €25 per day and €35 to €85 per week, depending on the model of bicycle you hire. A minimum deposit of €30 (more for fancier bikes) and/or ID are required. Some outfits also offer repair service or bicycle storage facilities.
Hotels, especially in resort areas, sometimes keep a stable of bicycles for their guests, often at no charge.
If you plan to spend several weeks or longer in the saddle, buying a second-hand bike may work out cheaper than renting one and easier than bringing your own. You may get a cheap, basic two-wheeler for around €60, although for good reconditioned models you’ll probably have to shell out at least €200. The hire stations sometimes sell used bicycles or may be able to steer you to a good place locally. Flea markets are another source as are the classified sections of daily news-papers and listings magazines. Notice boards at universities, hostels or supermarkets may also yield some leads. A useful website for secondhand purchases is www.zweitehand.de, although it’s in German only.
Bicycles may be taken on most trains but require purchasing a separate ticket (Fahrradkarte). These cost €8 on long-distance trains (IC and EC, reservations required) and €3.50 on regional trains (IRE, RB, RE and S-Bahn). Bicycles are not allowed on high-speed ICE trains. If bought in combination with one of the saver tickets, such as Länderticket or the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket the €3.50 fee is good for all trips you take while the ticket is valid. There is no charge at all on some trains. For full details, enquire at a local station or call the DB Radfahrer-Hotline (bicycle hotline; 01805-151 415). Free lines are also listed in DB’s complimentary Bahn & Bike brochure (in German), as are the almost 50 stations where you can rent bikes. It’s also available for downloading from www.bahn.de.
Many regional companies use buses with special bike racks. Bicycles are also allowed on practically all boat and ferry services on Germany’s lakes and rivers.