Brian's Guide to
Getting Around Germany

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[!] Warning From 15 July to 14 December, the main rail line between Frankfurt and Mannheim will be closed for reconstruction. This will result in numerous service changes and likely delays. More details (in German) here.
Local Transport
Urban Public Transport

This page last updated May 19, 2024

German cities have remarkable public transportation systems, especially when compared with American cities of equal size, and they operate with all the efficiency you'd expect from our Teutonic friends. Just about every town of substantial size has at minimum a decent bus system. Transport mode options increase considerably as the place you're in gets bigger. Public transportation is so good, you should never need or want a car to get around most cities.

Overall, Germany probably has more urban public transportation systems, especially rail systems, than just about any other country in the world. In a book I once read about urban rail systems, the authors wrote that "Germans know how to do mass transit properly", and I would wholeheartedly agree.


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Types of service

Bus logo Bus
Bus/Omnibus

Nearly every town and many rural areas have scheduled local bus service. In larger towns and cities, lines crisscross the city. Where local rail service is offered, buses typically feed and compliment those services. In the biggest cities, there may be several different bus systems in operation. In Berlin, you'll even find double-decker buses. In some places, especially smaller towns, bus services may be operated by GermanRail (Bahnbus) in lieu of rail service.

Service intervals vary widely depending on the location and time. Many large cities also offer night bus service, which is typically an abbreviated collection of routes.

Bus stops throughout Germany are marked with this sign: Bus or streetcar stop

Bus plaza in Frankfurt

Bus plaza at suburban Frankfurt rail station
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Stadtbahn logo Streetcar/Tram
Straßenbahn/Trambahn

Most medium and large cities have a streetcar/tram system, sometimes fairly extensive. The majority of cities with trams are in the former East Germany. In some areas, streetcar lines run underground in the central city area. Most systems have been modernized with sleek new rolling stock, and some systems now carry the more trendy Trambahn moniker, although the term Straßenbahn is still widely used.

These systems generally serve most of the major corridors of medium-sized cities, and in larger cities serve districts that may not be directly served by U‑Bahn and S‑Bahn services (see below.) Service is fairly frequent, usually 10-30 minutes during the day.

A few places have streetcar lines known as an Überlandstraßenbahn, or interurban tram. These are streetcar routes that connect exurban or rural towns.

Streetcar stops throughout Germany are marked with this sign: Bus or streetcar stop

Streetcar in Heidelberg

Heidelberg streetcar
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Stadtbahn logo Light rail
Stadtbahn

Some cities — most notably Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Hanover, Cologne, Essen, Dusseldorf, Dortmund, and Bonn — have upgraded their former streetcar systems to modern light rail systems known as a Stadtbahn. Generally, these systems function very much like a U‑Bahn system (subway, see below) with standard-gauge tracks, longer and wider trains, and level boarding. However, while the Stadtbahn usually runs underground within the central city areas like an U‑Bahn, it runs mostly overground outside of the central city. But unlike streetcars, the Stadtbahn runs almost entirely in exclusive rights-of-way, making them faster than streetcars. Several of these systems were developed with the intent of eventually upgrading to a full-fleged U‑Bahn, but many of those plans have since been shelved due to cost.

These systems generally serve the central city and close-in suburbs. Service is frequent, usually 5-15 minutes during the day.

Because of their similarity with U‑Bahns, most Stadtbahn systems mark their stations (both subterranean as well as aboveground) with the standard blue "U" U‑Bahn sign, sometimes with the word "Stadtbahn" added below or across the "U", such as the examples below, and Stadtbahn lines are typically numbered with a "U" followed by a number (e.g. U2).

Stadtbahn logo Stadtbahn logo

Other "Stadtbahns"
There are other uses of the word "Stadtbahn" in Germany that don't describe a light rail system as discussed above. For example, several medium-sized cities have "Stadtbahn" systems that are an upgraded streetcar system, but not to the extent described above. A few other cities use the term for a hyrbid streetcar/S‑Bahn system ("tram-train"; more on these in the "Other local public transport options" below.)

In Berlin, the main east-west elevated rail corridor that carries both the S‑Bahn as well as regional and intercity trains is known as the "Stadtbahn".

Stuttgart Stadtbahn

Stuttgart Stadtbahn
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

U-Bahn logo Subway/Underground/Metro
U‑Bahn (Untergrundbahn)

A few of Germany's largest cities — namely Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Nuremberg — have a full-fledged subway system, or U‑Bahn. For the most part, these systems are located underground, but may run on elevated tracks or at ground level, especially in outlying areas.

These systems generally serve the central city and the immediate vicinity. Service is frequent, usually 5-15 minutes during the day.

U‑Bahn stations in all German cities are marked with the standard blue "U" sign shown above, and lines are numbered with a "U" followed by a number (e.g. U2).

Munich U-Bahn

Munich U‑Bahn
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

S-Bahn logo Suburban rail
S‑Bahn (Schnellbahn/Stadtschnellbahn)

Most urban regions in Germany have an ingenious suburban/regional train system called the S‑Bahn. These are rapid transit trains that run from the central city into the suburbs and/or outlying areas. S‑Bahn routes primarily run above ground, but in a few of the largest metropolitan areas, they run underground through the central city, often on a trunked corridor. In Berlin, most S‑Bahn lines are elevated through the city with the exception of the north-south corridor, which runs underground through central Berlin.

In the smaller regions, the S‑Bahn is mostly a regional service. But in the large metropolitan areas, besides providing suburban service, the S‑Bahn also makes several stops in the central city area, providing service similar to the U‑Bahn or Stadtbahn. However, the stops along the S‑Bahn tend to be a bit further apart than those on the U‑Bahn or Stadtbahn, which can make the S‑Bahn a faster option for longer central city journeys.

Some cities like Karlsruhe have a hybrid tram/S‑Bahn system in which trams function nominally as S‑Bahns in outlying area. (More on these in the "Other local public transport options" below.)

Unlike most other local transit systems, which are operated by local governments or franchises, most S‑Bahn systems are operated by the Deutsche Bahn. As a result, you can use DB and Eurail passes on them (see special note under Tickets below.)

Service is fairly frequent, usually 15-30 minutes during the day.

S‑Bahn stations in all cities in Germany are marked with the standard green "S" sign shown above. S‑Bahn lines are numbered with an "S" followed by a number (e.g. S2).

Berlin S-Bahn

Berlin S‑Bahn
(Photo by Brian Purcell)


Other local public transport options
Other modes of urban public transport you may come across include:

Note that the service times indicated above are for weekdays. Service on Sundays and holidays may be reduced. Schedules are usually posted at stops and stations and are available online (see the links section at the bottom of this page.)

Most transit systems use the central rail station (Hauptbahnhof) as a major hub. This makes it easy to get to and from the station from any part of the city.

S-Bahn and U-Bahn signs

Typical S‑Bahn and U‑Bahn signs
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

So wait, what's the difference between an S‑Bahn, Stadtbahn, and U‑Bahn, and why does it matter?
Some foreign visitors confuse or conflate the S‑Bahn and U‑Bahn, especially in those big cities where the S‑Bahn runs partially underground and works just like the U‑Bahn. Also, many foreigners (and even some Germans) confuse or interchange S‑Bahn, Straßenbahn, and Stadtbahn. While all of these are technically different modes with substantially (and perhaps arcanely) different operational characteristics, there is oftentimes some overlap or similarities between the various modes, so some confusion is understandable.

Some of the confusion is due to marketing and branding by transit operators, who many times use terms that don't correctly identify their systems, at least using the strict technical definitions. A good example of this is the "U‑Bahn" in Frankfurt, which is actually a Stadtbahn, or the numerous uses of "Stadtbahn" mentioned previously.

In the end, most of the time, the differences probably don't matter much to someone just trying to get from point A to point B — just use the service that gets you where you need to go, regardless of what it's called.


How to ride

To get around on public transport, you'll need to do two things: plan your route, and purchase a ticket.

Route planning
First, you'll need to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to go. One option nowadays is to use technology, most commonly in the the form of an app on your phone. Most regional transit agencies have apps or websites where you can plan your journey, and both Google Maps and Apple Maps also have a transit option.

Alternatively, you can go old-school and plot your own route using paper or electronic maps. The transit maps (Netzplan) for the largest cities are quite complex, oftentimes resembling some kind of electrical wiring diagram. But once you study them for a few minutes, they're usually pretty easy to understand. Most cities use color-coded schematic plans to make the system easier to decipher.

Maps can be obtained for free from tourist and transit information offices and are often included in guidebooks, and you can also download a copy from the respective transit agency's websites (see links section at the bottom of this page.) You'll also find them posted at most bus and streetcar stops and rail stations. Street maps of the surrounding neighborhood are also usually posted in rail stations making it easy to find your way from the station to your destination.

Berlin rail system map

Berlin rail system map

To plan your route, you'll need to determine which line or lines you need to take and in which direction. Lines are numbered or occasionally lettered. As mentioned above, lines may be prefixed with a "U" for U-Bahn or Stadtbahn lines, and an "S" for S-Bahn lines. The direction of a line is given by the name of its terminus (last station on the line), so you will need to note that as well, because that is how the platforms and trains will be labeled. For example, in Berlin, if you're at Potsdamer Platz and want to go to Alexander Platz, you'll need to take U2 line labeled "Pankow" as that is the last station on the U2 in that direction.

If you need to take more than one line, be sure to note the name of the station where you have to transfer.

Ticket and fares basics
Once you've figured-out how to get where you're going, you'll need a ticket before you can ride.

German public transport operates on the honor system, so you won't find fare gates or turnstiles to enter stations. Many tourists have interpreted this to mean that public transport is free; however, this is not the case! You must have a valid ticket to use public transportation in Germany, and there are spot checks (more on that below.) In most cases, a ticket is required in order to board the vehicle (except buses, where you can pay your fare to the driver, and some trams, which have ticket machines on board), but in some cities, you must have a ticket to even be on the platform.

In each metropolitan area or region, all of the transit networks operate under a single regional transport cooperative (Verkehrsverbund) with uniform fares and tickets. A single ticket (Ticket, Fahrkarte, Fahrschein, or Fahrausweis) is good for all modes of public transport in the region including transfers to other trains or buses needed to complete your journey.

Fares on German transport networks are based on a zone system. The transport regions are divided into tariff zones (Tarifzonen) and your fare is based on the number of zones you cross. Some cities have a single zone (Innenraum) covering the central city, but some others have a cluster of zones for the central city with all journeys starting and ending anywhere in the cluster have the same fare as a single zone. However, you generally don't need to know how many zones your trip will cross as the ticket machines or apps will calculate that for you based on your origin and destination.

Fares generally start at €1-4 for shorter trips and increase from there for longer distances.

Ticket types
The standard ticket is the single-trip ticket (Einzelfahrkarte, Einzelfahrausweis, EinzelTicket, etc.) The specific rules vary from region to region, but in most places, your ticket allows you a single journey in one continuous direction to your destination during a finite length of time, typically two hours or so, including any transfers. Most also allow for short breaks in the trip as long as you reach your final destination within the time limit. Again, these rules vary by city, so be sure to check the specific rules for your city.

Many cities have single-trip tickets for short journeys (typically up to three to six stops depending on the mode of transport); these tickets (Kurzstreckekarte) cost considerably less than a standard single-trip ticket.

Several cities also offer multi-tickets (Mehrfahrtenkarte, Streifenkarte, 4er-Ticket, etc.) You purchase one ticket that has blank sections on it for several uses (typically between 4 and 10), often at a slightly reduced price from the corresponding total of individual fares. To use the ticket, you need to validate it as you begin each journey by inserting the next unvalidated section into a validating machine (see below.) Once validated, it works like an individual ticket with regards to use. On most systems, you can use a single multi-ticket for several people traveling together — just validate the appropriate number of sections of the ticket for each person.

There are also day passes (Tageskarte, 24-Stunde Karte) which are valid for an entire day — these are usually a really good deal if you're making more than a couple of trips. In some cities, these are valid for 24 hours from purchase; in others, they're valid up to a set time, usually early the following day. And, some are valid immediately upon purchase, while others need to be validated first (more on validation below.) Some systems also sell a group day ticket which allows several people to use one day ticket, or passes that also include admission or discounts to museums and attractions.

If you live in Germany and use public transit extensively, you can subscribe to the "Deutschland-Ticket" for €49 a month, which allows you unlimited use of local and regional transit all across Germany.

(Note: German has several words for "ticket" including "Fahrkarte, Fahrscheine, Fahrausweis", and even "Ticket". I've listed some of the more common names in the descriptions above, but substitute accordingly.)

Purchasing tickets
There are multiple ways to purchase a ticket. Most transport agencies now offer an online app with schedules, route planning, and electronic ticketing. The function and features of these apps vary by agency. In most cases, these apps are the most convenient way (and often slightly discounted) to purchase a ticket nowadays. If you use an app to purchase a ticket, be aware that you must purchase it before boarding the vehicle. Purchases are timestamped (and in most cases now, also geo-located), so a ticket inspector will be able to tell when and where you purchased it. (More on ticket inspections below.)

If you opt not to use an app, you can still purchase a physical ticket. For buses, you usually purchase your ticket from the driver. Simply state your final destination and the driver will tell you how much the fare is. Pay them and they will give you your ticket. In most places, you can only use cash, but a few do now take cards. Unlike in the US, in most German cities, the driver can usually make change, but it's probably a good idea to have enough change on-hand to pay the exact fare or close to it.

Busier bus stops will often have a ticket machine; if so, you will be expected to purchase your ticket from the machine rather than the driver (more on ticket machines below.) This helps to expedite boarding.

Many tram stops have ticket machines, but in some places, there are ticket machines on board the trams instead; if so, you'll need to purchase your ticket from one of these machines immediately after boarding. Be aware that many of these on-board machines only accept coins.

For most rail systems (Stadtbahn, U‑Bahn, S‑Bahn, etc.), you will need to purchase your ticket before you board. Tickets are available from automated ticket machines (labeled Tickets, Fahrkarten, Fahrscheine, or Fahrausweise) located in the station. While the exact operation of these machines varies from region to region, the basic functionality is mostly the same these days with touch-screens that step you through the process in a number of different languages, and most now accept credit or debit cards or smartphone payments in addition to good ole' cash.

Ticket machine Validating machine

Ticket machine in Munich (left) and Entwerter (validator) in Berlin (right)
(Photos by Brian Purcell)

Validation
Depending on the city, once you purchase your ticket, you may then be required to validate it just before you use it — look for the words "Entwerten" or "Entwerter" and maybe an arrow on the ticket (see examples below.) If your ticket requires validation, find a small machine with a slot on the front (see photo above.) You'll typically find these located at the entrances to rail stations and/or on the platform, and on board buses and trams. Insert your ticket in the slot as indicated by the arrows. The date, time, and location will be stamped on the ticket. If in doubt, it never hurts to validate your ticket anyway.

Berlin subway ticket Munich subway ticket

Tickets showing validation required
Really old Berlin subway ticket (left showing validation requirement and timestamp in the top section) and a group day ticket in Munich (right showing validation requirement at the top prior to validation.)

Kids, dogs, and bikes
In some places, children under a certain age ride free with a paying adult. Otherwise, they will need their own ticket, which is usually sold at a discounted rate.

Most systems will allow you take your dog or bike on board trains and buses, but you may have to buy a ticket for them, most likely the children's fare or equivalent. Also, note that bicycles may be restricted to certain cars and/or may not be allowed during rush hours.

Ticket inspection
Once you have your ticket (and validated it if required), you may board the train or bus. Keep your ticket with you for the duration of your journey. As mentioned earlier, German transit operates on the honor system, so there are no fare gates or turnstiles. However, to keep honest people honest, undercover ticket inspectors (Fahrkartenkontrolleur) will periodically walk-through the trains and buses checking tickets, or occasionally even on the platform in cities where a ticket is required there. Sometimes, ticket checkpoints are found when exiting a station. Inspectors will typically announce themselves by asking "Fahrkarten/Fahrausweise, bitte" and may show a badge or identification card. Hand them your ticket and wait for them to check it. Those without tickets are publicly humiliated, a torture which only ends by coughing-up a fine, usually €60 or so, which can be paid on the spot; if you do so, be sure to get a receipt. Keep in mind that they've heard all the excuses (and being a foreigner is no excuse), so don't expect mercy. If caught, it's in your best interest to just pay up and get on with your life. They also know how to spot people attempting to evading them, so it's best not to try. Also, be aware that tickets purchased on an app are generally not valid for the first few minutes after purchase — this is to prevent someone from purchasing a ticket at the last minute when they realize a ticket inspector is approaching.

S‑Bahn passes
In areas where the Deutsche Bahn operates the S‑Bahn system (which is most places), DB and Eurail passes are valid on S‑Bahn trains provided your pass is valid for the day you want to use the S‑Bahn. But note that rail passes are only valid on the S‑Bahn, not on the U‑Bahn, Stadtbahn, or trams. So if you're using a rail pass for the S‑Bahn in conjunction with other modes of public transportation for a journey (such as the U‑Bahn), you will need to purchase a separate ticket for the segment of your trip that is not via S‑Bahn. For instance, if your trip from Point A to Point C includes an S‑Bahn from A to B and an U‑Bahn from B to C, then you will need to purchase a ticket for the B to C segment, and you will need to purchase and/or validate this ticket when you reach Point B.

Here's an additional tip: if you have a flexipass and did not or will not be riding a long-distance mainline train on a given day, don't waste a flexipass day on S‑Bahn travel — you can get a day ticket or individual journey tickets much cheaper than the pro-rated cost of a flexipass day.

DB "City-Ticket"
Some DB intercity tickets include a "City-Ticket", which allows you to use local public transportation to get to the DB station to start your train trip and/or to get from the station to reach your final destination. In this case, it includes all forms of local public transport, including U‑Bahn, Stadtbahn, streetcars, and buses, in addition to the S‑Bahn. A few restrictions apply; for more details on this, check the DB website or ask at a DB ticket office.


Safety

Public transit in Germany is remarkably safe, even at night, but it's always wise to be aware of your surroundings. The main threat is pickpocketing, especially during peak periods and in the busier stations and trains. Therefore, take extra precautions to safeguard any valuables that you may be carrying. At night, you should avoid riding in empty cars and preferably ride in the car nearest the driver.

Trains and stations can fill with intoxicated and rowdy people late at night and before and after major football matches. In the case of the latter, a heightened police presence is usually quite evident.

Emergency telephones (Notrufsäule) are located in every station and on board most trains, and police make frequent patrols, especially in areas where an increase in crime is noted.

Several cities now have have combined call boxes at stations and/or on board trains that, in addition to being emergency phones, also allow you to call for information or even to arrange for a taxi to get you from the station to your final destination.

Emergency/information phone
Combined emergency/information call box post in Berlin subway station
(Photo by Brian Purcell)


Other sites of interest

UrbanRail.net (by Robert Schwandl)
https://www.urbanrail.net/index.htm
Railfaneurope.net
http://www.railfaneurope.net
Metro Bits (by Mike Rohde)
https://mic-ro.com/metro/

REGIONAL TRANSIT AGENCIES
Berlin
https://www.bvg.de/
Cologne
https://www.vrsinfo.de/
Dresden
https://www.dvb.de/de-de/
Frankfurt (Rhein-Main)
https://www.rmv.de
Hamburg
https://www.hvv.de/
Hannover
https://www.uestra.de/
Leipzig/Halle
https://www.l.de/verkehrsbetriebe
Mannheim
https://www.vrn.de/
Munich
https://www.mvv-muenchen.de/
Nuremberg
https://www.vgn.de
Rhein-Ruhr Region
https://www.vrr.de/
Stuttgart
https://www.vvs.de/