Getting around: A guide to transport in Germany

Marle

Updated on Aug 06 • 6 minute read

Transport in Germany features a highly efficient (spoiler: you'll cross paths with German efficiency more than once) and a comprehensive public transport network. High taxes and heavy investment by the state allow passengers the ease of a strong infrastructure, in fact, one of the best in Europe.

Our customer survey of 2020 revealed that one of the top challenges for internationals is transportation and infrastructure in a foreign country. With this guide, we’ll take you on a tour of how to get around in Germany; we promise you, you’ll easily master the public transport system in Germany!

How can you get around Germany?

As a newcomer arriving in Germany, you’ll want to know how you get around in Germany. No matter where you’ll spend your next months in Germany, the odds are high that you’ll have a cleverly devised public transport system surrounding you. Metropolis just like smaller cities are kitted-out in terms of their transport system: buses, trams, trains, U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (suburban trains) are integrated into one convenient system – and will take you anywhere reliably.

Even better: The vast network makes traveling within a region easy but on top of that, it’ll take you across the country from city to city in the most convenient way. Fair's fair: there’s no need for a car.

Alongside buses and trams, the vast majority of German cities also have U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (suburban railways) as their main public transport. The regional trains (RE/RB/IRE) make traveling to the outside area of a region easy and high-speed trains ICE/IC takes you along at 300 km/h in the blink of an eye to another city. Frankfurt to Berlin in 4 hours? An ICE will make it happen.

There’s no easier way to get around Germany than with this comprehensive network.

Long Distance (Travel) Relationship with Deutsche Bahn (DB)

The red letters "DB" adorn the red rectangle on plain trains: Deutsche Bahn (DB) is the German national railway company that operates a vast route network across Germany. Within some regions, you’ll also find other local operators that replace DB partially.

How to get train tickets

There are two types of tickets that you can buy: 1. Flexpreis (flexible fare): As the name suggests, this ticket gives you all the freedom you crave. Choose your ideal route from your selected departure and arrival point and travel within 1 or 2 days of your valid ticket. 2. Sparangebot (saving fare): Bound but cheap. With the savings fare, you fetch the bargain price of the ticket. You'll have to stick to the time and route you've booked. So, if you’re into planning instead of making last-minute decisions, this offer will pay off for you.

Are trains in Germany expensive? Well, truth to be told, this strongly depends on the timing of your booking. The price system of DB works similar to flight booking platforms. Meaning: The earlier you book, the most likely you’ll fetch a good deal! So if you’re on a low budget, it’s worth planning and purchasing train tickets in advance.

Berlin to Hamburg in 2 hours: Travel times with Deutsche Bahn

To give you a sense of the distances by train, here are the travel times from one major German city to the next:

Berlin to Munich: 4.5 to 5 hours Berlin to Hamburg: > 2 hours Frankfurt to Hamburg: 3.5 to 4 hours Frankfurt to Berlin: 4 hours Frankfurt to Munich: 3 to 3.5 hours Hamburg to Munich: 5.5 to 6 hours

Get around with the main transportations in Germany: Trams, trains and buses

In every mid-sized to big city in Germany, you'll come across a well-thought-out transport network that connects bus, train and suburban train in one large network.

With an integrated transport association (German: Verkehrsbund) for every region, you can use your ticket for any mode of transport. That means you can hop from the bus on to a train or subway without having to buy a new ticket.

Bus services in Germany

Each town, no matter how small, typically has an extensive bus network that takes you from door to door at regular intervals. In larger cities, buses are sometimes replaced by trams to speed up the transport. You'll discover that on weekends and at night the buses follow a different schedule; most of them run a little less frequently. Perhaps you'll be lucky and there is a night bus in your city at night!

S-Bahn (suburban train) services in Germany

Living in the suburbs of a city? No worries, the train with the green and white symbol takes you to the city within the blink of an eye! The S-Bahn (suburban train) that’s linked to the national rail network covers a vast area; much more than buses and trams.

U-Bahn (Underground) services in Germany

If you have accommodation within the city, the subway and bus are likely to become your constant companions. The German subway is the easiest and fastest way to reach every corner of the city. The subways run at regular intervals and depending on time and demand, more or less frequently.

Tickets for local transport in Germany

In contrast to most other countries and their metropolises, no public transport in Germany has ticket turnstiles for your ticket to enter the station. So, even without a ticket, you’ll be able to get on a tram. This easily gives the illusion that public transport in Germany is free. Bad news: No, this is not the case.

The public transportation system in Germany is based on a "principle of trust" which is, however, occasionally verified by inspectors. Then out of the blue, casually-dressed ticket inspectors get on the subway, lift their badges with a “Die Fahrscheine, bitte!” and prompt you to show your valid ticket. We promise you, you’d want to avoid the embarrassment of paying a fine on the spot.

How to buy tickets for public transportation Ticketing works the same way in all cities: for the U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (suburban railway), you can buy a ticket from a ticket machine (Fahrtkarten- / Ticketautomat). Especially if you are not yet comfortable with German, this is the easiest option as the multilingual machine lets you select your preferred language. In bigger cities such as Berlin, you can even comfortably get your tickets directly from the BVG app of the railway provider!

Buying a ticket for buses takes you back in time. Here you purchase a ticket directly from the bus driver - with cash. (Yes, in terms of money, Germany’s still quite old school!)

However, if you’re an expat and you’ll need to rely on public transport for the coming months, consider buying a monthly or annual ticket. To do this, you’ll likely be asked to purchase a ticket from the ticket counter during business hours. The downside: staff from the ticket counter might not be able to speak English. It’s best to check out the official website of your local transport authority to understand which type of ticket you’d like and which documents you’ll need to take with you (e.g. a passport photo).

Good to know: You're enrolled in a university in the city? Check with your university to see if you're eligible for a student ticket. Most universities have a contract with the local public transport system that grants students free use of public transport.

Get the right ticket A wide array of ticket options means every Jack has his Jill: whether it's a single or day ticket, with the family or the dog, for a month or a year, you’ll find a ticket option that matches your needs!

Although each region differs slightly in its tickets, there are generally some common types: 1. Single ticket/one-time pass (Einzelticket): This ticket entitles you to ride on any means of transport for 1.5 hours within your chosen zone. So you just hop from the bus to the subway without having to draw a new ticket. Note: This pass works like a one-way trip; in other words, it only allows you to travel in the direction of your destination without commuting back and forth. 2. Day ticket/day pass (Tagesticket): With this, you could shuttle back and forth in your selected zone all day long. Note: The name tends to be misleading. Contrary to the assumption that the ticket is valid for 24 hours, it’s actually only valid for that day (until 3 a.m. closing time). 3. Group ticket (Gruppenticket): You’re traveling with your new mates or family? Then the group ticket is your match! With a maximum of five people, you’ll share a day-ticket! At times, it might be restricted in age.

Zoom into the right zone Fares (Tarife) are set depending on zone or time, sometimes both. Each region has several zones meaning that you'll have to pay per zone you pass through. As a rule of thumb, the further you go, the more you’ll pay. Let’s take Berlin as an example that divides the city into three zones: A, B, and C; with A being the urban area, B the city boundary and C the outskirts. Don't fret: there's no need to know the zones by heart. Just type in your destination at the ticket machine and you’ll get the right ticket.

Getting around Germany like a local

So from now on, you'll handle public transport like a local. Challenges? Transportation is no longer one. We promise you: once you've taken a look at all the options at hand, the public transport system - with its huge network and variety of modes of transport - is set to take you anywhere. The speediest way to cross the country is by fast train (ICE/IC): within 6 hours you can get from Berlin to Munich. And if you tend to be organised rather than spontaneous, you’ll be rewarded with a bargain fare if you book early! The local transportation systems work similarly across the country. However, some cities might have slight differences. Whereas in Berlin, you’ll have to validate your ticket before entering the underground, there’s no need to do so in Hamburg as you can’t buy tickets in advance.

In general, the fares for a ticket depends on the zones you’ll cross or time spent on a subway or bus. A rule of thumb is that day passes are cheaper than single tickets.

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