Deutsche Bahn (DB—German Rail) is a very efficient, semi-privatized railway. Its high-speed InterCity Express (ICE), InterCity (IC), and EuroCity (EC) trains make journeys between the centers of many cities—Munich–Frankfurt, for example—faster by rail than by air. All InterCity and InterCity Express trains have restaurant cars and trolley service. RE, RB, and IRE trains are regional trains. It's also possible to sleep on the train and save a day of your trip: a decreasing number of CityNightLine (CNL) trains serving domestic destinations and neighboring countries have sleepers, couches, and recliners.
Once on your platform or Bahnsteig—the area between two tracks—you can check the notice boards that give details of the layout of trains (Wagenstandanzeiger) arriving on that track (Gleis). They show the locations of first- and second-class cars and the restaurant car, as well as where they will stop, relative to the lettered sectors, along the platform. Large railroad stations have English-speaking staff handling information inquiries.
For fare and schedule information, the Deutsche Bahn information line connects you to a live operator; you may have to wait a few moments before someone can help you in English. The automated number is toll-free and gives schedule information. Deutsche Bahn has an excellent website (www.bahn.de), available in English. To calculate the fare, enter your departure and arrival points, any town you wish to pass through, and whether you have a bike. The fare finder will tell you which type of train you'll be riding on—which could be important if you suffer from motion sickness. The ICE, the French TGV, the Swiss ICN, and the Italian Cisalpino all use "tilt technology" for a less jerky ride. One side effect, however, is that some passengers might feel queasy, especially if the track is curvy. An over-the-counter drug for motion sickness should help.
Most major train stations have luggage lockers (in four sizes). By inserting exact change into a storage unit, you release the unit's key. Prices range from €2 for a small locker to €5 for a "jumbo" one. Smaller towns' train stations may not have any storage options.
Throughout Germany, Deutsche Bahn can deliver your baggage from a private residence or hotel to another or even to one of six airports: Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig-Halle, Munich, Hamburg, or Hannover. You must have a valid rail ticket. Buy a Kuriergepäck ticket at any DB ticket counter, at which time you must schedule a pickup three workdays before your flight. The service costs €38 for a medium suitcase up to 31 kg (68 pounds).
Deutsche Bahn offers many discount options with specific conditions, so do your homework on its website or ask about options at the counter before paying for a full-price ticket. For round-trip travel you can save 25% if you book at least three days in advance, 50% if you stay over a Saturday night and book at least three to seven days in advance. However, there's a limited number of seats sold at any of these discount prices, so book as early as possible, at least a week in advance, to get the savings. A discounted rate is called a Sparpreis. If you change your travel plans after booking, you will have to pay a fee. The surcharge for tickets bought on board is 10% of the ticket cost, or a minimum of €5. Most local, RE, and RB services do not allow purchasing tickets on board. Not having a ticket is considered Schwarzfahren (riding black) and is usually subject to a €60 fine. Tickets booked at a counter always cost more than over the Internet or from an automated ticket machine.
Children under 15 travel free when accompanied by a parent or relative on normal, discounted, and some, but not all, special-fare tickets. However, you must indicate the number of children traveling with you when you purchase the ticket; to ride free, the child (or children) must be listed on the ticket. If you have a ticket with 25% or 50% off, a Mitfahrer-Rabatt allows a second person to travel with you for a 50% discount (minimum of €15 for a second-class ticket). The Schönes Wochenend Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket) provides unlimited travel on regional trains on weekends for up to five persons for €42 (€40 if purchased online or at a vending machine). Groups of six or more should inquire about Gruppen & Spar (group) savings. Each German state, or Land, has its own Länder-Ticket, which lets up to five people travel from 9 am to 3 am for around €25.
If you plan to travel by train within a day after your flight arrives, purchase a heavily discounted "Rail and Fly" ticket for DB trains at the same time you book your flight. Trains connect with 14 German airports and two airports outside Germany, Basel and Amsterdam.
A first-class seat is approximately 55% more than a second-class seat. For this premium you get a bit more legroom and the convenience of having meals (not included) delivered directly to your seat. Most people find second class entirely adequate and first class not worth the cost. Many regional trains offer an upgrade to first class for as little as €4. This is especially helpful on weekends when local trains are stuffed with cyclists and day-tripping locals. ICs and the later-generation ICE trains are equipped with electrical outlets for laptops and other gadgets.
Tickets purchased through Deutsche Bahn's website can be retrieved from station vending machines. Always check that your ticket is valid for the type of train you are planning to take, not just for the destination served. If you have the wrong type of ticket, you will have to pay the difference on the train, in cash or by credit card. If you book an online ticket and print it yourself, you must present the credit card used to pay for the ticket to the conductor for the ticket to be valid.
The ReisePacket service is for travelers who are inexperienced, elderly, disabled, or just appreciative of extra help. It costs €11 and provides, among other things, help boarding, disembarking, and transferring on certain trains that serve major cities and vacation areas. It also includes a seat reservation and a voucher for an onboard snack. Purchase the service at least one day before travel.
If Germany is your only destination in Europe, consider purchasing a German Rail Pass, which allows 3 to 10 days of unlimited first- or second-class travel within a one-month period on any DB train, up to and including the ICE. A Twin Pass saves two people traveling together 50% off one person's fare. A Youth Pass, sold to those 12–25, is much the same but for second-class travel only. You can also use these passes aboard KD Rhine Line along certain sections of the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Prices begin at $304 per person in second class. Twin Passes begin at $338 for two people in second class, and Youth Passes begin at $180. Additional days may be added to either pass, but only at the time of purchase and not once the pass has been issued. Extensions of the German Rail Pass to Brussels, Venice, Verona, Prague, and Innsbrück are also available.
Germany is one of 21 countries in which you can use a Eurailpass, which provides unlimited first-class rail travel in all participating countries for the duration of the pass. Two adults traveling together can pay either €580 each for 15 consecutive days of travel or €746 each for 21 consecutive days of travel. The youth fare is €379 for 15 consecutive days and €446 for 10 days within two months. Eurailpasses are available from most travel agents and directly from www.eurail.com.
Eurailpasses and some of the German Rail Passes should be purchased before you leave for Europe. You can purchase a Eurailpass and 5- or 10-day German Rail Passes at the Frankfurt airport and at some major German train stations, but the cost will be higher (a youth ticket for five days of travel is just under €149). When you buy your pass, consider purchasing rail-pass insurance in case you lose it during your travels.
In order to comply with the strict rules about validating tickets before you begin travel, read the instructions carefully. Some tickets require that a train official validate your pass, while others require you to write in the first date of travel.
Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them seats on the trains they wish to ride. Not so. You need to book seats ahead even if you are using a rail pass; seat reservations are required on some European trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are a good idea in summer, on national holidays, and on popular routes. If you board the train without a reserved seat, you risk having to stand. You'll also need a reservation if you purchase sleeping accommodations. Seat reservations on InterCity trains cost €6, and a reservation is absolutely necessary for the ICE-Sprinter trains (€12 for second class). There are no reservations on regional trains.
Travel from Great Britain
There are several ways to reach Germany from London on British Rail. Travelers coming from the United Kingdom should take the Channel Tunnel to save time, the ferry to save money. Fastest and most expensive is the route via the Channel Tunnel on Eurostar trains. They leave at two-hour intervals from St. Pancras International and require a change of trains in Brussels, from which ICE trains reach Köln in 2½ hours and Frankfurt in 3½ hours. Prices for one-way tickets from London to Köln begin at €100–€129. Cheapest and slowest are the 8 to 10 departures daily from Victoria using the Ramsgate–Ostend ferry, jetfoil, or SeaCat catamaran service.
Channel Tunnel Car Transport
Eurotunnel. 0870/535–3535; 070/223–210; 0810/630–304; www.eurotunnel.com.
Rail Europe. 0870/241–5415; www.raileurope.co.uk.
Channel Tunnel Passenger Service
Eurostar. 08432/186–186; 1233/617–575; www.eurostar.co.uk.
Rail Europe. 888/382–7245; 0870/584–8848; www.raileurope.com.
Deutsche Bahn. 0800/150–7090; 11861; 491805/996–633; www.bahn.de.
Eurostar. 0870/518–6186; www.eurostar.com.