How to Ride German Transportation Like a Local: Essential Vocabulary and Tips
I had my luggage, but not a word of German.
I’d just landed at the Frankfurt International Airport.
I knew my hostel was near the city’s Central Station, about seven miles away.
But… I couldn’t read the signs or ask for help to get there by train or bus.
So I started to walk.
With all my bags.
In the middle of summer.
I can’t say that was one of my better decisions.
If I’d known how easy it is to navigate Germany’s public transportation system, things definitely would’ve been different that day.
One of the most impressive things about Germany is how extensive its public transportation system is. Most of its major cities have a huge network of buses, subways, trams and trains to help you get from point A to point B. As a result, it’s not uncommon for the younger people in these cities to forego a personal car, simply because they don’t need one.
While German transportation is convenient, the sheer size of these networks means that there’s a little bit of a learning curve—but don’t worry!
After reading the tips in this article, you should be able to travel in and around Germany like a pro.
How to Use German Transportation Like a Local
Get to Know the German Transportation Companies
Germany’s biggest transportation company is the Deutsche Bahn (German Railway) also referred to as DB. The DB is responsible for regional travel and long distance trains. Depending on the city, the DB might also head up the S-Bahn (short for Schnellbahn or “express rail”), Stadtbahn (city rail) or Stadtschnellbahn (express city rail).
After the DB, most transportation services are specialized between regions/cities.
For example, Nuremberg has the VAG and VGN, whereas Hamburg has the HVV and HHA. These companies operate independently from the DB and serve a smaller area, so their ticket prices tend to be cheaper.
Download a Ticket App (but Carry Cash Just in Case)
You’ll typically be able to buy tickets at train station kiosks or onboard buses. Some kiosks in certain cities will accept credit cards, while others are cash only. There’s no hard-and-fast rule regarding which stations accept cards, so it’s good practice to carry a few euros if you plan on traveling via train.
That being said, if you get caught needing a train or bus and you don’t have any cash on hand, most services have some form of ticketing and scheduling app that you can use to both buy and store your tickets, as well as plan your trips. These apps will typically accept credit cards, but a word of warning: not all of the apps have the same level of functionality.
For example, I prefer HVV‘s app to the VGN or VAG apps.
Fahr Schwarz at Your Own Risk!
Germany’s public transportation system isn’t controlled by fare gates. Instead, you’ll have plainclothes inspectors, otherwise known as Fahrkartenkontrolleure, performing random checks. Because there are no fare gates, schwarzfahren (to ride without a ticket) isn’t uncommon, but get caught without a ticket and you’ll be slapped with a 60 euro fine.
I’ve heard stories of people riding without a ticket for months before getting caught, and I even know a couple people who hardly ever buy tickets—but I’ve been checked frequently in the time I’ve been in Germany, so I can’t say I recommend riding without purchasing a ticket.
Consider Getting a Season Pass
If you’re spending an extended period of time in Germany, getting a MobiCard or some form of season pass is worth it, particularly in larger cities such as Berlin and Hamburg.
You can typically register for a season pass through the local transportation service, but because there are differences in how these systems are run, getting a month transit pass has varying degrees of difficulty. For example, getting a month pass in Nuremberg is as simple as going up to a kiosk and printing one out, whereas in Hamburg you’re required to register for a customer card complete with a passport picture and ID number.
Buying a season pass will allow you to ride on all forms of public transportation, excluding the ICE trains. (Below, we’ll go into more detail on the types of trains and passes that you’ll be able to purchase.)
Save Money on the Bus!
Take advantage of omnibus services such as FliXBUS. Intercity travel via bus is often the cheapest option available and the buses are typically fairly comfortable.
I ride FlixBus all the time whenever I’m traveling long distances. You can use websites such as GoEuro to find the most competitive prices.
The Express Ticket to Mastering German Transportation Vocabulary
Now that we’ve learned a little bit of background on German transportation services, let’s go over some key vocabulary and German words for getting around:
Modes of Transportation
Cars and buses:
Der Bus (the bus)
Buses run on a schedule ranging from every five to 10 minutes to every 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the day. On Sundays and holidays, they’ll typically run once every hour, whereas on work days they’ll run at least every 10 minutes in the city center.
Die Linie/Die Buslinie (the line/busline)
Das Taxi (the taxi)
Das Auto (the car)
Trains and subways:
These are integral to German public transportation. Most German transportation companies were founded as train services that evolved to include buses.
Der Zug (the train)
Das Gleis/Der Bahnsteig (the platform)
Die S-Bahn (the express train)
Die Regiobahn (the regional train)
Die Straßenbahn (the tram)
Der ICE (the InterCity Express)
Die U-Bahn (the subway)
Depending on the route, you can expect a U-Bahn every five minutes or so in the middle of the day.
In certain cities, such as Berlin, the distinction between the U-Bahn and S-Bahn can be blurred, but in order of distance between stops, it’ll typically go Straßenbahn, U-Bahn, S-Bahn, Regiobahn and ICE, with Straßenbahn having the stops closest to one another and the ICE having them farthest apart.
You can see more common German vocabulary like this in action on FluentU.
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Alternate modes of transportation:
Das Flugzeug (the airplane)
Das Schiff (the ship)
Das Boot (the boat)
Das Motorrad (the motorcycle)
Das Fahrrad (the bicycle)
You’ll also need to learn some of the vocabulary surrounding ticketing. You’ll typically be able to purchase the following tickets.
Einzelfahrkarte (single ticket)
In other words, a single ride for a single person. This will be the cheapest ticket option.
Mehrere Fahrkarte (multi-ticket)
An example of a Mehrere Fahrkarte would be the Nuremberg 4er or 10er ticket (4- or 10-trip ticket). When you purchase this type of ticket, you receive multiple tickets at a slightly discounted rate. This option is convenient for infrequent riders, such as someone with a bike or who lives within walking distance of their office.
Tagesticket or Tageskarte (day ticket)
With this ticket, you can ride any form of public transportation within the city’s transportation network for the entire day. These are good for when you’re briefly visiting a city. If I make a day trip to another city, I’ll typically pick up one of these.
Wochenkarte (week pass)
Also referred to as a 7-Tage MobiCard. The same rules as the day ticket apply: you’re allowed to ride any form of public transportation within the city’s network for the entire week. These are great for short vacations.
For example, when I went to Munich for Oktoberfest last year, I used a Wochenkarte.
Monatskarte (month pass)
Sometimes called a MobiCard. These are great for visits up to a couple of months, but not ideal if you’re living in Germany for an extended period of time. For that, I’d recommend one of the options below.
3-Monate, 6-Monate or Jahresabo (3-month, 6-month or year subscription, respectively)
With a subscription, as with a Monatskarte, you’re allowed unlimited rides, but the subscriptions typically have discounted prices that increase in size the longer the subscription. These are useful when you know you’ll be staying in one city for an extended period of time.
Different transportation providers will offer tourist tickets, although I’ve never purchased one personally. They’re similar to the Tageskarte but are usually more expensive and cover a larger region. For example, you can buy a Bayern ticket that allows you to ride anywhere in Bavaria for a day or a weekend.
Note: tickets are discounted for children, the elderly and individuals with disabilities!
Phrases You’ll Hear and Use on German Transportation
Finally, here are a couple of phrases you’ll hear on pretty much any train, bus or metro throughout all of Germany:
Sie befinden sich in Richtung… (You’re traveling in the direction of…)
Sehr geehrte Fahrgäste… (Dear passengers…)
Bad news typically follows this phrase, such as a delay because of construction—so when you hear this, it’s worth paying attention.
Ausstieg links/rechts (Exit left/right)
There you have it! Hopefully these tips will help you map out your visit to Germany and see more of the country!
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