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.
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.
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.
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.
A weekday variation of the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket.
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.