The most comfortable way to travel across Germany is naturally by train. Deutsche Bahn, the German Rail company, is one of the companies everyone in Germany loves to hate, but that is largely because so many Germans are comparatively dependent upon rail travel. Yes, sometimes trains are late, sometimes connections are missed — but if I had to choose between two extra hours in a bus, a plane, or a train, I would naturally choose the train. At least you can walk around, get up and go to the bathroom or the restaurant car, and compared to the other two, train seats are (still) relatively spacious. The fast ICE (pronounced eee-say-eh) trains deliver you to your destination faster than a car can (Hamburg-Berlin in 1.5 hours vs. 3-4 hours driving; Berlin-Cologne in 4.25 hours vs. 5-6 hours driving). So what’s stopping you already?
Oh right, the exorbitant ticket prices! If you think taking the train is still too expensive, you could benefit from the following tricks for booking the cheapest tickets on German Rail.
+ Book Online: German Rail has a great website which is a useful resource for finding the schedules for trains all across Europe (when you can’t find/understand the Slovak Rail website, for example). The best deals are available online — check out “Surf and Rail International” as well as the various “Länder Tickets.” German Rail is happy to accept your credit card for payment and will also let you print an online ticket rather than having paper tickets sent somewhere. You can do it from anywhere in the world.
+ Book Early: German Rail has introduced a new staggered pricing structure to better compete with low-cost airlines for business and leisure travelers. If you book early enough in advance, you can catch a 29 euro fare one-way across Germany. Depending on the route, they may also offer contingents of 39 and 59 euro tickets when the lower-priced tickets are all taken. This is still a significant savings compared to the full price, usually somewhere around 99 euros one-way (or round-trip).
+ Book at Least 3 Days in Advance: If all the super-cheap tickets have been sold, you can still snag up to 50% off the retail price if you book just three days in advance. These tickets may also have a limited contingent, however if so, it is much larger than the ones mentioned above and rarely if ever sells out. The discount applies to round trips only.
+ Buy from the Ticket Machine: If you were unable to plan ahead and purchase/print your tickets online, you can still save a few euros by purchasing your tickets from a machine in the train station rather than from a ticket counter. The modern machines have an English option on the touchscreens and accept credit cards. Depending on the purchase, this can save you 3-5 euros per ticket.
+ Watch the Sales: Fairly predictably, in early spring and late summer, when train traffic is presumably low, German Rail offers sales on ICE trains, with a greater contingent of the 29 euro one-way tickets; last spring, they offered the 2-hour IC/EC Berlin-Hamburg for 29 euros round-trip. These sales are advertised on the front page of the website.
+ Rail and Fly: To get to and from a flight in Germany (and in certain cases, Amsterdam) with select airlines, you can book ICE tickets for 19 euros one-way. These tickets must be booked in conjunction with your flight.
+ Travel Overnight: If you can sleep in a train, book overnight tickets. German Rail offers domestic and international overnight tickets starting at 29 euros for a seat and 49 for a couchette.
+ Consider Other Discounts: There are also discounts based upon number of passengers and age, depending on the ticket. The “Länder Tickets” and “Schönes Wochenende Tickets” allow up to 5 people to travel on the same ticket for one flat price (if you have a group traveling together and are not in a big hurry, this option will be impossible to beat). Many international fares have discounts for people under 24 or 26. Children up to 14 travel free with parents and grandparents. German Rail allows you to enter all passengers and their ages, which will calculate the best rate for everyone. Additionally, families and groups can save big if they book in advance.
+ Get a BahnCard: If you’re going to be in Germany for awhile and taking the train quite a bit, it will most likely pay to invest in a BahnCard. There are two versions of interest: BahnCard25 and BahnCard50, which entitle you to the percent discount their name implies. The 25 costs one quarter as much as the 50 — depending on how much you plan to travel, you should reckon which is more appropriate for you. You can find more details in the link above. You cannot apply for the BahnCard before your arrival in Germany and you will need a photo for the application.
I purchased a BahnCard50 the year my family took a trip to Germany; back then, the 50 entitled up to 4 passengers traveling with one BahnCard to the same rebate, which very quickly paid for itself. This is sadly no longer the case. I am still debating whether to get a discounted BahnCard50 for the coming year, as by booking early and traveling on discounted tickets (which the BahnCard doesn’t discount any further), I have been able to travel as cheaply or cheaper than with a BahnCard. For a Hamburg friend whose boyfriend lives in Cologne, the BahnCard allows her guaranteed half-price tickets every time she travels, even on the day of travel, which lowers the cost of an unplanned weekend visit.
Leave a comment if you’ve discovered another trick to purchasing German train tickets or if these tips have saved you a wad of cash
The train not for you? Check out other options in Getting Across Germany Cheaply, Part Two.