Does the local transit system here in Germany seem like a riddle to you?
We’ll guide you through the puzzle of how German public transit works.
We demystify the whole concept for those whom it is completely alien and confusing. The public transport system here is, on the whole, extremely efficient, safe and reliable with well-maintained, clean vehicles and a very logical ticketing system. At least once you know the vagaries of how it works!
So, how does German Public Transport work?
We’ll cover how the system is set up, how the zoning principle works which governs ticket costs and validity, how to buy a ticket, the different ticket types and we’ll explain briefly how buses, trams and trains all fit into the system in an integrated way, each complementing one another as they seamlessly work within the same network.
Cheap it most certainly isn’t, nonetheless, some of the day tickets and special offers certainly offer exceedingly good value for money, especially the regional group tickets which deserve a call-out on their own.
Travel Zones (Waben)
To begin to answer how German public transit works requires a quick crash course in the concept of travel zones.
Central to the system and one of the first things to get your head around is the Waben, or zoning which is the foundation upon which ticket charges are based. The whole system is integrated, meaning that one of the basic principles when considering how does German public transport work is that each transit company operates within an alliance (or Verkehrsverbund in German).
They must each offer and accept the same types of tickets across the network. Pricing and ticket types are determined by the alliance. The ticket you buy on a city bus is therefore also valid for completing your journey on a tram or underground train.
IMPORTANT: As long as you remain within the zone for which the ticket is valid. If you venture outside of the zone for which the ticket is valid, you could be fined if you are caught). The same goes for different bus or train operators within the same zone (or zones, if you have a ticket which crosses into another zone.
When you buy a single ticket, it is typically valid for a 60 or 90 minute period and you are free to use any type of public transport available within the network to complete your journey.
Integrated Transit Systems (Verkehrsverbunde)
Each area of Germany is represented by a Verkehrsverbund. Within each of these integrated public transit alliances, buses, trams and trains all operate within the network, often through by different companies or municipal networks, all working under the same tariff rules. which are governed by the alliance. The Verkehrsverbunde covering the major metropolitan areas are linked to below. Where they have an English web page, I have linked to this. However, in almost all cases the German site is more comprehensive and contains much more information. Just click to German on the page if you can’t find what you’re looking for.
Cologne / Bonn
Dusseldorf and Ruhrgebiet Cities
Frankfurt / Mainz / Wiesbaden / Darmstadt (Rhein-Main)
Mannheim / Heidelberg / Ludwigshafen (Rhein-Neckar)
Leipzig (in German only)