Your Different Options For Intercity Travel In Germany
Travelling long-distance in Germany used to mean only one thing: Taking an intercity train. Why? Because there was very little other choice.
Domestic flights, dominated by Lufthansa, were reliable and convenient but also extremely expensive; a result of there being no competition on many routes. Even now, many domestic routes are only offered by Lufthansa and their subsidiaries, especially since the recent insolvency of Air Berlin and with some of their assets and routes being bought by the German flagship carrier.
Long-distance bus travel was not an option because of a protectionist law which prohibited it. Deutsche Bahn lobbied aggressively for many years to fight liberalisation and open the market to bus competition. This changed in 2013 and since then, long-distance bus companies have emerged, offering real competition to rail at the cheaper end of the spectrum.
Finally, ride-sharing has been present in Germany for a long time but it has grown in popularity enormously since the advent of smartphones and with them ride-sharing apps. Previously, travellers are at the behest of the Mitfahrzentrale, an office in all major cities which would manually match drivers with passengers on popular routes.
All of this has changed now and intercity travel in Germany provides numerous options. We take a look at each of them, introduce the major players in the market and summarise the pros and cons.
While the German high-speed railway network is not as modern or as comprehensive as France or Spain’s, it nonetheless offers a very well developed infrastructure of fast train connections to offer intercity travel in Germany to pretty much everywhere in the country. In December 2017, the inaugural journey was made on the upgraded high-speed line linking Berlin to Munich, which now offers journey times between the two cities in under 4 hours.
High speed connections cover many but not all intercity routes. Intercity (IC), which cover national routes, and EuroCity (EC), which cover international services, are the slower trains and usually make more stops and have older rolling stock. Intercity Express (ICE) are the modern, bullet-esque high-speed trains which can reach speeds of over 300 kmh.
Deutsche Bahn operates all long distance, intercity services except for the cross-border trains which they share responsibility for with the respective rail operators in those countries. Their website is excellent and offers most information and booking service in English. Online tickets can be purchased and the QR-code then accessed through the App. Tickets can also be purchased through the App but frustratingly, you need to create a user account on the main DB website first.
Long distance services on German trains are modern and extremely comfortable, with wifi offered on most ICE services (although it’s not free unless you travel 1st Class). Seats in standard 2nd Class are mostly in a 2 x 2 format in open-plan carriages. There are both quiet coaches and coaches where mobile phones are permitted. Restaurant cars are a feature on all IC, EC and ICE services.
Train travel offers best value when booked well in advance, on a stipulated train. These tickets are only transferrable for a fee and as such are not suited to business travel or when plans can change at short notice. On Deutsche Bahn’s website, these are identified by the term Sparpreis.
Last minute travel, or tickets offering complete flexibility, are usually much more expensive and is very often more costly than renting a car or taking an internal flight. As a rule of thumb, booking less than 3 days in advance usually means paying the standard (pricey) fare.
Bicycles can be transported on most IC services (at a surcharge) but not on ICE trains.
Anyone who is likely to make several long-distance trips in the space of a year is almost certain to save money through obtaining a Bahn Card. These come in various forms, the most popular of which is the BahnCard 25, offering 25% off all rail fares (except suburban trains) for an annual price of € 62.
For a superb, comprehensive guide to travelling by long distance train in Germany, I would recommend you check out the excellent article by California Globetrotter on this topic. There’s no need for Live Work Germany to write something on this when such a great guide already exists!
Intercity rail travel’s unique selling point is that it takes you to the heart of the city you are travelling to, without the traffic jams on the Autobahn or airport security hassle.
Due to the dominance of Lufthansa, pricing is usually at a premium on these routes as a result of there being no direct competition.
However, in some instances it is possible to beat train fares by taking advantage of promotions offered from time to time on domestic intercity travel in Germany.
Lufthansa regularly offers domestic flights for €89 when booked in advance and outside of peak, popular travel times. There are also occasional €20 voucher codes on offer. The popular website and App Urlaubspiraten is a good source to find out about when these offers are being promoted.
Subsidiary (budget) airlines of Lufthansa are Germanwings and Eurowings. Lufthansa proper is based primarily out of Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf, whereas Germanwings has hubs in Cologne and Stuttgart.
Since Lufthansa introduced a policy of charging extra for checked baggage, there is very little difference betweem the quality of service offered by Lufthansa themselves and their subsidiaries. Whether or not I have to pay for coffee and a nasty tasting sandwich is irrelevant to me, and I would imagine it also is to most other passengers. There is, however, a substantial difference in the cost of a flight. A Germanwings flight from Cologne to Berlin will typically cost less than a comparable Lufthansa flight from Düsseldorf.
If you live near the Swiss, Belgian or Czech border, it may be worthwhile taking a flight from Basel, Brussels or Prague to, say, Hamburg or Munich. Why? Because Lufthansa does not have a monopoly on these routes and therefore more price competition exists.
It was also announced in November that British budget airline Easyjet will start flying from Berlin Tegel to domestic German destinations
The biggest advantage of domestic air travel is obviously speed, especially if you live close to an airport and can travel there by public transport to avoid parking or taxi costs.
Following the liberalisation of the market for intercity bus travel, a huge number of domestic long distance bus companies sprang up as a viable budget alternative to taking the train or a domestic flight.
Pricing is usually based on the classic demand vs. supply model. Unlike flights and train travel, there is less of a spike in cost for last minute bookings.
A number of companies which originally entered the market have either pulled out or gone out of business, leaving a much more consolidated number of players in the market.
Click the graphic or the link to find out the latest offers from FlixBus.
Most buses are air conditioned and the major players all offer wifi on their services. Because long distance buses are more of a budget travel option, you will find connections to and from major university cities to be frequent, much more so than taking the train as these smaller cities are often not located on the high-speed rail network.
The major benefit of long distance bus travel is the cost. Unless you have an extremely good Sparpreis from Deutsche Bahn, it is almost always cheaper than the train and is a no-brainer n cost compared to domestic air travel. The question is whether you are willing to suffer journey times which are sometimes double that of taking the train.
Ride sharing has enjoyed something of a renaissance with the advent of smartphones and Apps.
Its popularity never reached its full potential previously for two main reasons. Firstly, there was the problem of reach. An agency office in each city did not have the exponential growth potential that a smartphone app does. Secondly, especially among female travellers, there was the issue of safety. Whereas an app can provide verification and ratings, a simple drIver / passenger matching agency had a more difficult job to do this.
The main benefit for most people of using a ride-sharing service is also its biggest potential downside: Namely, the uncertainty of how pleasant an experience it will be. You could make a new friend with your ride buddy, have great conversation and the hours can pass like minutes. But equally, it could be the most awkward 4 hours of your life if you don’t get along! Much easier to ignore the person in the seat next to you on a train or plane than in their own car.