Germany may be the land of the BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and the Autobahn, but when it comes to getting around you may find that driving isn’t your best option. Indeed, this is one of the major differences between life in Germany and the US. In Germany, public transportation is more affordable, convenient and reliable than that of many other countries (even in Europe). Given that, it’s no wonder that across Germany people opt to travel by public transport.
Here is a quick guide to the main modes of public transport in Germany; S-Bahn, U-Bahn, bus, tram, train, and everything you might need to know about how to use public transport in Germany.
The tram or Straßenbahn navigates along regular streets in twenty major German cities and towns, including Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Munich and Nuremberg. It was the main means of transport in German large urban areas until it was systematically replaced in the 1960s by buses and the U-Bahn and S-Bahn. Trams are not the most efficient form of transport, as they travel slower than the S-Bahn or U-Bahn and are somewhat affected by traffic conditions and traffic lights, but they are nonetheless practical and reliable. The tram routes often extend to areas not serviced by the U-Bahn or S-Bahn. You will find tram stops marked by a red sign with the word “Tram” written on it. These often double as bus stations as well.
The S-Bahn is a rapid urban commuter train that runs above ground in a metropolitan region in the German-speaking countries. Some of the larger S-Bahn systems provide service similar to rapid transit systems, while smaller ones often resemble commuter or even regional rail. The term derives from Schnellbahn, Stadtbahn or Stadtschnellbahn. The sign for an S-Bahn station is a white S on a green background.
Major German population centers like Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt am Main, Dusseldorf and Nuremberg, have an Untergrundbahn or U-Bahn transit system. These high-speed underground train systems make buzzing around the city very easy. The U-Bahn usually runs through tunnels in the cities and above ground in the suburbs. Where the U-Bahn rises to ground level and goes overhead, it may even be hard to tell it apart from the S-Bahn, but you will see U-Bahn stops clearly marked with a white U on a blue sign.
Bus stops can be located by a green H on a yellow background or a blue picture of a bus.
While most prefer to catch the U-Bahn or the S-Bahn, local bus systems are nonetheless a mainstay of urban transport throughout Germany. They also run throughout the night, albeit less frequently, when other forms of public transport stop running. Although in major cities the S-Bahn and U-Bahn generally run at all hours over the weekend, you should be sure to check the hours of operation in your area if you don’t want to be caught out.
Regional trains, IC and ICE
There are three classes of regional trains to be found in Germany: the IRE (Interregio-Express), RE (Regional-Express) and RB (Regionalbahn), which are generally run by Deutsche Bahn. The RB is the standard regional train with regular stops. As you would expect from an express service, the RE is faster and stops only at major stations. The IRE fast regional connections between cities in the states of Bavaria, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg and Berlin.
Intercity Express (ICE) is a system of high-speed trains operated by Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway. They travel at speeds up to 200 km/h and are tailored for use by business and long-distance commuters as an alternative to flights. There are various types of ICE trains, the latest and fastest being the ICE Sprinter. It is worthwhile traveling by ICE for the higher level of comfort and speed, especially over long distances. Prices are not exorbitant but are more expensive than the IC trains.
Intercity (IC) is the second-highest train classification in Germany, after the ICE. Intercity services are express train services over long distances. There are Intercity routes throughout Germany, and the trains generally operate at a high frequency, especially on core routes. Intercity services are operated by the DB Fernverkehr (long-distance travel). Intercity trains offer a very high standard of speed and comfort – all services offer first-class carriages, and most include catering. A number of Intercity services serve destinations outside Germany; most of these are under the EuroCity classification.
How to buy a train, tram or bus ticket in Germany
For the bus, you can pay the ticket from the bus driver and for the tram or S-Bahn, there should be a machine at the stop or on the tram itself. In general though for local transport it is easiest to download the app of your local provider and purchase a digital ticket. This will often have options varying between single trip tickets, 24-hour tickets, week tickets, month tickets and year tickets. Most cities will have the option of one ticket for all modes of transport. Beware that you may need to buy an added ticket for a bike, and possibly extension tickets for travel beyond your close area. Deutsche Bahn has a helpful Navigator App with which you can buy your train tickets.
Whatever you do, be sure not to get caught “Fahren ohne Fahrschein” (travelling without a ticket). This has long been referred to as “Schwarzfahren” (to travel black) though this term has been discouraged in recent years for its racist connotation. While you can hop on and off public transport without barriers, teams of inspectors will arrive unannounced onto your tram, bus, U-Bahn or S-Bahn and if you do not have a validated (entwertet) ticket (when you buy a pair ticket you often need to validate it by inserting it into the validating machine –Entwerter), you will face get a hefty fine.
Whether you’re on your daily commute, seeing the sites or just passing through, public transport is an incredibly important part of German life. If you still aren’t convinced that public transport is the best way to get around, there’s still one more eco-friendly alternative to the car, because the cycling infrastructure in Germany is nearly as good as the public transport. That being said, for the car enthusiasts, there will always be the call of Autobahn!
Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.