Most large and many smaller German cities have their own airports, and numerous carriers operate domestic flights within Germany. 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 once you factor in the time it takes to get to and from airports.
Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) has the densest route network. The other main airline offering domestic flights is Eurowings (www.eurowings.com). Destination cities are Berlin-Tegel, Cologne-Bonn, Dortmund, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Hanover, Karlsruhe-Baden-Baden, Leipzig-Halle, Nuremberg, Sylt, Stuttgart, Usedom.
Cycling is allowed on all roads and highways but not on the autobahns (motorways). Cyclists must follow the same rules of the road as cars and motorcycles. Helmets are not compulsory (not even for children), but wearing one is common sense. Dedicated bike lanes are common in bigger cities.
On Public Transport
Bicycles may be taken on most trains but require a separate ticket (Fahrradkarte), costing €9 per trip on long-distance trains (IC and EC and night trains), or €10 on international routes. You need to reserve a space at least one day ahead and leave your bike in the bike compartment, which is usually at the beginning or end of the train. Bicycles are not allowed on high-speed ICE trains.
The fee on local and regional trains (IRE, RB, RE, S-Bahn) is €5.50 per day. There is no charge at all on some local trains. For full details, enquire at a local station or call 01805-99 66 33.
Many regional bus companies have vehicles with special bike racks. Bicycles are also allowed on practically all boat and ferry services.
Most towns and cities have some sort of bicycle-hire station, often at or near the train station. Hire costs range from €7 to €20 per day and from €35 to €85 per week, depending on the model of bicycle. A minimum deposit of €30 (more for fancier bikes) and/or ID are required. Some outfits also offer a repair service or bicycle-storage facilities.
Hotels, especially in resort areas, sometimes keep a stable of bicycles for their guests, often at no charge.
Call a Bike (www.callabike-interaktiv.de) is an automated cycle-hire scheme operated by Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) in some 50 German towns and cities. In order to use it, you need a credit card to pre-register for free online or at one of the dozens of docking stations scattered around the central districts. There are English instructions at the docking stations. Once you're set up, select a bike and call the phone number marked on it in order to release the lock. When you're done, you must drop the bike at another docking station. The base fee for renting a bike is €1 for 30 minutes to a maximum of €15 per 24 hours. Fees are charged to your credit card.
In around 45 German cities, competition for Call a Bike comes from Nextbike, which charges €1 per 30 minutes or €9 for 24 hours. Register for free via its website or smartphone app, by phone or at rental terminals. You'll need a credit or debit card.
Considering that Germany abuts two seas and has a lake- and river-filled interior, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a boat at some point. For basic transport, ferry 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 river sections 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.
The Romanshorn–Friedrichshafen car ferry provides the quickest way across Lake Constance between Switzerland and Germany. It’s operated year-round by Schweizerische Bodensee Schifffahrt and takes 40 minutes.
Local & Regional
Buses are generally slower, less dependable and more polluting than trains, 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, each with their own tariffs and schedules, operate in the different regions.
The frequency of services varies from ‘rarely’ to ‘constantly’. Commuter-geared routes offer limited or no service in the evenings and at weekends, so keep this in mind or risk finding yourself stuck in a remote place on a Saturday night. Make it a habit to ask about special fare deals, such as daily or weekly passes or tourist tickets.
In cities, buses generally converge at the Busbahnhof (bus terminal) or Zentraler Omnibus Bahnhof (ZOB; central bus station), which is often near the Hauptbahnhof (central train station).
The route network has grown enormously in recent years, making exploring Germany by coach easy, inexpensive and popular. Buses are modern, clean, comfortable and air-conditioned. Most companies offer snacks and beverages as well as free on-board wi-fi.
Fierce competition has kept prices extremely low. A trip from Berlin to Hamburg costs as little as €8, while the fare from Frankfurt to Munich averages €15.
MeinFernbus, Flixbus, Postbus (www.postbus.de), and Eurolines are the biggest operators, but there are dozens of smaller, regional options as well. A handy site for finding out which operator goes where, when and for how much is www.busliniensuche.de.
From April to October, special tourist-geared service the Romantic Road Coach runs one coach daily in each direction between Frankfurt and Füssen (for Schloss Neuschwanstein) via Munich; the entire trip takes around 12 hours. There’s no charge for breaking the journey and continuing the next day. Note that buses get incredibly crowded in summer. Tickets are available for the entire route or for short segments. Buy them online or from travel agents, EurAide in Munich or Reisezentrum (travel centre) offices in larger train stations.
Car & Motorcycle
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 network of autobahns (motorways, freeways). Every 40km to 60km, you’ll find elaborate service areas with petrol stations, toilet facilities and restaurants; many are open 24 hours. In between are rest stops (Rastplatz), which usually have picnic tables and toilet facilities. Orange emergency call boxes are spaced about 2km apart.
Autobahns are supplemented by an extensive network of Bundesstrassen (secondary ‘B’ roads, highways) and smaller Landstrassen (country roads). No tolls are charged on any public roads.
If your car is not equipped with a navigational system, having a good map or road atlas is essential, especially when negotiating the tangle of country roads. Navigating in Germany is not done by the points of the compass. That is to say that you’ll find no signs saying ‘north’ or ‘west’. Rather, you’ll see signs pointing you in the direction of a city, so you’d best make sure you have a map. Maps cost a few euros and are sold at bookstores, train stations, airports and petrol stations. The best are published by Freytag & Berndt, ADAC, Falk and Euromap.
Driving in the cities can be stressful thanks to congestion and the expense and scarcity of parking. In city centres, parking is usually limited to parking lots and garages charging between €0.50 and €2.50 per hour. Note that some parking lots (Parkplatz) and garages (Parkhaus) close at night and charge an overnight fee. Many have special parking slots for women that are especially well lit and close to exits.
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 low-cost or free long-term and overnight parking, consider leaving your car outside the centre in a Park & Ride (P+R) lot.
Germany’s main motoring organisation, the ADAC, has offices in all major cities and many smaller ones. Its roadside-assistance program is also available to members of its affiliates, including British (AA), American (AAA) and Canadian (CAA) associations.
Drivers need a valid driving licence. International Driving Permits (IDP) are not compulsory, but having one may help German police make sense of your home licence (always carry that, too) and may simplify the car- or motorcycle-hire process.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Petrol stations, nearly all of which are self-service, are ubiquitous except in sparsely populated rural areas. Petrol is sold in litres.
Finding spare parts should not be a problem, especially in the cities, although availability depends on the age and model of your car. Be sure to have some sort of emergency roadside-assistance plan in case your car breaks down.
Greening City Centres
To decrease air pollution caused by fine particles, most German cities now have low-emissions environmental zones that may only be entered by cars displaying an Umweltplakette (emissions sticker, sometimes also called Feinstaubplakette). And yes, this includes foreign vehicles. No stickers are needed for motorcycles.
The easiest way to obtain the sticker is by ordering it online from www.umwelt-plakette.de, a handy website in many languages. The cost is €31.90. You can cut this amount in half if you order from the TÜV (Technical Inspection Authority) at www.tuev-sued.de or www.tuev-nord.de, both of which provide easy instructions in English. Once in Germany, stickers are also available from designated repair centres, car dealers and vehicle-licensing offices. Drivers caught without one will be fined €80.
As anywhere, rates for car hire vary considerably, but you should be able to get an economy-size vehicle from about €40 to €60 per day, plus insurance and taxes. Expect surcharges for rentals originating at airports and train stations, additional drivers and one-way hire. Child or infant safety seats may be hired for about €5 per day and should be reserved at the time of booking.
Rental cars with automatic transmission are rare in Germany and will usually need to be ordered well in advance.
To hire your own wheels, you’ll need to be at least 25 years old and possess a valid driving licence and a major credit card. Some companies lease to drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 for an additional charge (about €12 to €20 per day). Younger people or those without a credit card are usually out of luck. For insurance reasons, driving into an Eastern European country, such as the Czech Republic or Poland, is often a no-no.
All the main international companies maintain branches at airports, major train stations and towns. These include the following:
Pre-booked 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. Deals can be found on the internet and through companies including Auto Europe, Holiday Autos, and DriveAway Holidays.
Peer-to-peer car rental is still in its infancy in Germany. The main service is Drivy (www.drivy.de). You need to sign up on its website, find a car you'd like to rent, contact the owner and sign the rental agreement at the time you're handed the keys. Renters need to be at least 21 and to have had a driving licence for at least two years. If your licence was not issued in an EU member country, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein, you need to have an International Drivers' License. Payment is by credit card or PayPal. Rentals include full insurance and roadside assistance. For full details, see the website.
German law requires that all registered vehicles, including those brought in from abroad, carry third-party-liability insurance. You could face huge costs by driving uninsured or underinsured. Germans are very fussy about their cars; even nudging someone’s bumper when jostling out of a tight parking space may well result in your having to pay for an entirely new one.
Normally, private cars registered and insured in another European country do not require additional insurance, but do check this with your insurance provider before leaving home. Also keep a record of who to contact in case of a breakdown or accident.
When 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 it 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 it covers in Germany. Note that some local agencies may refuse to accept your credit card coverage as proof of insurance.
Driving is on the right-hand side of the road and standard international signs are in use. If you’re unfamiliar with these, pick up a pamphlet at your local motoring organisation or visit the ADAC website (search for 'traffic signs'). Obey the road rules and speed limits carefully.
Speed- and red-light cameras as well as radar traps are common, and notices are sent to the car’s registration address, wherever that may be. If you’re renting a car, the police will obtain your home address from the rental agency. There’s a long list of fineable actions, including some perhaps surprising ones such as using abusive language or gestures, and running out of petrol on the autobahn.
The usual speed limits are 50km/h on main city streets and 100km/h outside built-up areas, unless otherwise marked. Limits drop to 30km/h in residential streets. And yes, it’s true: there really are no speed limits on autobahns…in theory. In fact, there are many stretches where slower speeds must be observed (near towns, road construction), so be sure to keep an eye out for those signs or risk getting ticketed. And, obviously, the higher the speed, the higher the fuel consumption and emissions.
Other important driving rules:
- The highest permissible blood alcohol level for drivers is 0.05%, which for most people equates to one glass of wine or two small beers.
- Seat belts are mandatory for all passengers, including those in the back seat, and there’s a €30 fine if you get caught not wearing one. If you’re in an accident, not wearing a seat belt may invalidate your insurance. Children need a child seat if under four years and a seat cushion if under 12; they may not ride in the front until age 12.
- Motorcyclists must wear a helmet.
- Mobile phones may be used only if they are equipped with a hands-free kit or speakerphone.
- Pedestrians at crossings have absolute right of way over all motor vehicles.
- Always watch out for cyclists when turning right; they have the right of way.
- Right turns at a red light are only legal if there’s a green arrow pointing to the right.
- Winter tyres are mandatory for snow- and ice-covered roads during the winter months (generally November to March, but check the specific regional legislation).
Watch Your Speed
If you've decided to rent a car to experience the thrill of autobahn driving or to get off the beaten track, you're well advised to pay attention to your speed. Although you're free to (safely) burn rubber on designated stretches of major autobahns, speed limits apply everywhere else. On regional highways and roads in the Harz, it's common for the speed limit to drop from 100km/h to 70km/h, then to 50km/h, and 30km/h when approaching villages. Coming off an autobahn at 150km/h onto a sparsely trafficked rural highway, there's a natural tendency to keep driving a little faster than you should. Don't.
Mobile police patrols and fixed position speed cameras (Radarkontrole) are commonplace and pop up without warning. While you won't lose points on your home licence, you will be fined: the faster you're driving over the limit, the higher the fine, so driving 45km/h in a 30km/h zone is considered the same as doing 115km/h in a 100km/h zone. Rental car companies process speed camera fines and automatically deduct the amount from your credit card.
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.
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 at the front, a red one at the back and yellow reflectors on the wheels and pedals.
Bus & Tram
Buses are a ubiquitous form of public transport, and practically all towns have their own comprehensive network. Buses run at regular intervals, with restricted services in the evenings and at weekends. Some cities operate night buses along popular routes to get night owls safely home.
Occasionally, buses are supplemented by trams (Strassenbahnen), which are usually faster because they travel on their own tracks, largely independent of other traffic. In city centres they sometimes run underground. Bus and tram drivers generally sell single tickets and day passes only.
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 connect urban centres. Rail passes are generally valid on these services. Specific S-Bahn lines are abbreviated with ‘S’ followed by the number (eg S1, S7).
Taxis are expensive and, given the excellent public transport systems, not recommended unless you’re in a real hurry. (They can actually be slower than trains or trams if you’re stuck in traffic.) Cabs are metered and charged at a base rate (flagfall) plus a per-kilometre fee. These charges are fixed but vary from city to city. Some drivers charge extra for bulky luggage or night-time rides. It’s rarely possible to flag down a taxi; more typical is to order one by phone (look up Taxiruf in the phone book) or board at a taxi rank. If you're at a hotel or restaurant, ask staff to call one for you. Taxis also often wait outside theatres or performance venues. Smartphone owners can order a taxi via the Mytaxi app (downloadable for free via iTunes or Google Play) in more than 30 German cities.
Uber (www.uber.com), an app that allows private drivers to connect with potential passengers, is not widely used in Germany after a court ruled in 2015 that the services UberPop and UberBlack violate German transportation laws. Uber reacted by creating UberX, which uses only professionally licensed drivers and is available in Berlin, Düsseldorf and Munich. Trip costs tend to be between 3% and 12% less than regular taxi fares. Exclusive to Berlin at the time of writing is UberTaxi, which hooks passengers up with regular taxis. Normal rates apply.
Underground (subway) trains are known as U-Bahn in Germany and are the fastest form of travel in big cities. Route maps are posted in all stations, and at many 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 in the middle of the day. Tickets bought from vending machines must usually be validated before the start of your journey. Specific U-Bahn lines are abbreviated with ‘U’ followed by the number (eg U1, U7).
Germany’s rail system is operated almost entirely by Deutsche Bahn, with a variety of train types serving just about every corner of the country. The DB website has detailed information (in English and other languages), as well as a ticket-purchasing function with detailed instructions.
There is a growing number of routes operated by private companies – such as Ostdeutsche Eisenbahn in Saxony and Bayerische Oberlandbahn in Bavaria – but integrated into the DB network.
Tickets may be bought using a credit card up to 10 minutes before departure at no surcharge. You will need to present a printout of your ticket, as well as the credit card used to buy it, to the conductor. Smartphone users can register with Deutsche Bahn and download the ticket via the free DB Navigator app.
Tickets are also available from vending machines and agents at the Reisezentrum (travel centre) in train stations. The latter charge a service fee but are useful if you need assistance with planning your itinerary (if necessary, ask for an English-speaking clerk).
Children under 15 travel for free if accompanied by at least one parent or grandparent. The only proviso is that the names of children aged between six and 14 must be registered on your ticket at the time of purchase. Children under six always travel free and without a ticket.
Smaller stations have only a few ticket windows, and the smallest ones are equipped with vending machines only. English instructions are usually provided.
Tickets sold on board incur a surcharge and are not available on regional trains (RE, RB, IRE) or the S-Bahn. Agents, conductors and machines usually accept debit cards and major credit cards. With few exceptions (station unstaffed, vending machine broken), you will be fined if caught without a ticket.
Most train stations have coin-operated lockers (Schliessfach) costing from €1 to €4 per 24-hour period. Larger stations have staffed left-luggage offices (Gepäckaufbewahrung), which are a bit more expensive than lockers. If you leave your suitcase overnight, you’ll be charged for two full days.
A Primer on Train Types
Here's the low-down on the alphabet soup of trains operated by Deutsche Bahn (DB):
InterCity Express (ICE) Long-distance, high-speed trains that stop at major cities only and run at one- or two-hour intervals.
InterCity (IC), EuroCity (EC) Long-distance trains that are fast, but slower than the ICE; also run at one- and two-hour intervals and stop in major cities. EC trains run to major cities in neighbouring countries.
InterRegio-Express (IRE) Regional trains connecting cities with few intermediary stops.
City Night Line (CNL) Night trains with sleeper cars and couchettes.
RegionalBahn (RB) Local trains, mostly in rural areas, with frequent stops; the slowest in the system.
Regional Express (RE) Local trains with limited stops that link rural areas with metropolitan centres and the S-Bahn.
S-Bahn Local trains operating within a city and its suburban area.
German trains have 1st- and 2nd-class cars, both of them modern and comfortable. If you're not too fussy, paying extra for 1st class is usually not worth it, except perhaps on busy travel days, when 2nd-class cars can get very crowded. Seating is either in compartments of up to six people or in open-plan carriages with panoramic windows. On ICE trains you’ll also enjoy reclining seats, tables and audio systems in your armrest. Newer-generation ICE trains also have individual laptop outlets, mobile-phone reception in 1st class and, on some routes, wi-fi access.
Trains and stations are nonsmoking. ICE, IC and EC trains are air-conditioned and have a restaurant or self-service bistro.
German Rail Pass
If your permanent residence is outside Europe (which for this purpose includes Turkey and Russia), you qualify for the German Rail Pass (GRP). Tickets are sold through www.germanrailpasses.com and www.raileurope.com and by agents in your home country.
- The GRP Flexi allows for three, four, five, seven, 10 or 15 days of travel within one month.
- The GRP Consecutive is available for five, 10 or 15 consecutive days.
- Passes are valid on all trains within Germany, including ICE trains, and IC buses to Strasbourg, Prague, Krakow, Antwerp, Brussels, London, Zagreb and Copenhagen; and on EuroCity trains to Kufstein, Innsbruck, Bolzano, Trento, Verona, Bologna, Liège and Brussels.
- Sample fares with GRP Flexi in 2nd class: three-day pass €207, seven-day pass €290. Children between six and 11 pay half fare. Children under six travel free.
- Those aged 12 to 25 qualify for the German Rail Youth Pass, starting at €166 in 2nd class for three days of travel within one month.
- Two adults travelling together can use the German Rail Twin Pass, starting at €311 in 2nd class for three days of travel within one month.
- Seat reservations for long-distance travel are highly recommended, especially if you're travelling any time on Friday, on a Sunday afternoon, during holiday periods or in summer. Choose from window or aisle seats, row or facing seats, or seats with a fixed table.
- Reservations are €4.50 (free if travelling 1st class) and can be made online and at ticket counters until 10 minutes before departure. You need to claim your seat within 15 minutes of boarding the train.
Deutsche Bahn offers a trio of fabulous permanent rail deals: the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket (Nice Weekend Ticket) the Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket (Around Germany Ticket) and the Länder-Tickets (Regional Tickets). As with regular tickets, children under 15 travel for free if accompanied by at least one parent or grandparent. Tickets can be purchased online, from vending machines or, for a €2 surcharge, from station ticket offices.
- One day of unlimited travel on regional trains and local public transport within one of the German states (in some cases, also in two adjacent states) for up to five people travelling together.
- Available for travel in 1st and 2nd class.
- Tickets are valid for travel Monday to Friday from 9am to 3am the following day and on weekends from midnight until 3am the following day.
- Some passes are priced as a flat rate for up to five people travelling together (eg the Brandenburg-Berlin-Ticket costs €29).
- Other passes have staggered pricing: the first person buys the main ticket and up to four people may join for a just few euros more per ticket (eg in Bavaria, the first person pays €25; additional tickets cost €5).
- Some states, including Brandenburg-Berlin, offer cheaper Nacht-Tickets (night passes), usually valid from 6pm until 6am the following day.
A weekday variation of the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket.
- One day of unlimited 2nd-class travel on regional trains (IRE, RE, RB, S-Bahn).
- Available Monday to Friday 9am to 3am the following day (from midnight on national holidays) and all day on weekends.
- Up to five people may travel together.
- Costs €44 for the first ticket and €8 each for up to four additional tickets.
- One day of unlimited 2nd-class travel on regional trains (IRE, RE, RB, S-Bahn), plus local public transport.
- Available from midnight Saturday or Sunday until 3am the next day.
- Costs €44 for the first person and €6 for each additional person up to five in total.
Standard, non-discounted train tickets tend to be quite expensive. On specific trains, a limited number of tickets are available at the discounted Sparpreis (saver fare). You need to book early or be lucky to snag one of these tickets, though. There's a €5 service charge if tickets are purchased by phone, from a travel agent or in the station ticket office. Other promotions, discounted tickets and special offers become available all the time. Check www.bahn.com for the latest deals.
The BahnCard is geared towards residents but may be worth considering if you plan extensive travel or return trips to Germany within one year. Cards are available at all major train stations and online.
BahnCard 25 Entitles you to 25% off regular and saver fares and costs €62/125 in 2nd/1st class. Partners, children, students under 27 and adults over 60 pay €39/81.
BahnCard 50 Gives you a 50% discount on regular and saver fares and costs €255/515 in 2nd/1st class. The cost drops to €69/252 for children, partners, students and adults over 60.