Germany has an amazingly efficient and expansive country-wide rail system. You can go basically anywhere in the country quickly and cost effectively. Your public transportation options include high speed ICE trains, regional trains, S-bahn, U-bahn, Trolley/Street cars, and city buses. Germany also has long distance buses but they are not as efficient as train travel and I have never utilized them so I won’t be discussing them here.
Deutsche Bahn (I’ll be referring to it as DB now) is the nationwide company that runs the German train system. With the exception of city metro and buses they control city SBahns, Regional, and ICE trains. I found it really nice that one company runs everything because everything is streamlined and easy to navigate from city to city. The DB navigator smartphone app is an absolute necessity for getting around Germany! You can choose any starting and ending location in the country and it will show you every public transportation option available to get you there! For example if I’m in Berlin and o want to go from my hotel room to the Natural History museum I just plug in the two locations (you can even select points on the map if you don’t know the name or address) and it will pull up how to get there like “walk to ubahn station ____, take U6 to ____ transfer to U4 to ____”. It’s so helpful and very easy to read!
Let’s start with ICE trains because they require the most planning. ICE trains are very very fast trains that travel long distances. Most of their routes are about 4-5 hours long but they make many stops along the way. Seat reservations are not required, but popular routes and times will be very full and you don’t want to get stuck standing in a doorway for 4 hours! Seat reservations for ICE trains can be made 3 months in advance on the DB website. ICE trains have a first class section and a second class section. We chose first class for all our train travels so I cannot speak on behalf of the regular cars but I did walk through one and it seemed to be perfectly suitable. The seats and foot room was smaller and more people crammed into one car but otherwise just fine. I mainly chose the first class cars because you can get quiet enclosed rooms (perfect for families with children so you don’t disrupt the entire car!) and seats of 2 or 4 with tables between them.
We took ICE trains from Munich to Köln, Köln to Nuremberg, Nuremberg to Munich, and Munich to Berlin. Three of those four trips were about 4 hour long rides that went across the country. ICE trains are a great way to take in all the beautiful scenery and get to your destination in a timely fashion while still allowing you to take potty breaks whenever you want and relax.
ICE trains have bathrooms in every car much like airplane bathrooms. There is a restaurant car that will have drinks, pizza, sandwiches, snacks, etc. There’s overhead bin space above each seat and also luggage racks for large suitcases at the back of each car. Some cars are equipped for bike and stroller storage and those will be marked with signs.
Buying tickets for ICE trains is very easy, they can be purchased on the DB website. Since DB runs ICE, regional, and Sbahn services I highly recommend buying a multi day ticket that covers all 3 if you plan on using multiple lines during your time in Germany. We were in Germany for 15 days so I bought a 15 day ticket
When you are in the main train station read the boards or check the DB app to see which platform your ICE train will be leaving from. When you are at your platform and your train arrives the outside of each car will be numbered so you just find your assigned car number. You should have either a picture of your reservation or you can view it on the DB app. It will tell your car number and the seats you have reserved. One in your assigned train car the seats are numbered above them like an airplane. There is a small digital screen by the seat number that will let you know what legs of the journey the seat is reserved for. For example if you are traveling from Munich to Berlin and the digital sign says “Munich-Nuremberg” then that seat is reserved until Nuremberg then free. It the digital sign doesn’t say anything then the seat is not reserved. A DB staff member will check your ticket at least once, maybe a couple times during your journey.
I have no personal experience with regional trains in Germany, but they’re operated by DB so your DB ticket works for them too. You just need to find the correct train you want, platform number, and hop on.
Metro/subway/Sbahn/Ubahn are a little more complicated but super easy once you figure them out. The DB app will be your best friend with what trains to take and what transfers to make. Sbahn trains are operated by DB so your DB ticket will cover them. They are above ground subway lines. Underground subway lines are called UBahn. You can buy tickets for them at little ticket machines at the stations. Nobody ever checks tickets on S&U trains so they simply rely on people to do the right thing.
S & U trains have 2 lines that make the same stops going in opposite directions. It is critical that you make sure you are on the correct side of the platform or else you will go the wrong way. For example if you need to take U4 you go down into the U4 station and read the “map” posted on the wall. The “map” will list every stop that U4 makes. You need to find the correct U4 map to your destination and enter that platform. There will be 2 sides to U4 so you have to find which side is yours. It sounds confusing but it’s really not once you’re in the station.
S&U trains are usually very crowded. There are seats but you will most likely have to stand. Be sure to keep an eye on the screen inside the train that shows which stop is next because you will have to press a button to open the door to your train car when you get to your stop. The train stops and the doors open and close in a matter of a minute so be prepared to get on and get off very quickly.
City buses are not part of the DB system but they’re very easy to use and the DB app will also show you bus routes available to your desired destinations. Buses work the same as the subway system. You can buy tickets from kiosks at the bus stops and you just hop on when your desired bus comes. The driver may look at your ticket if you get on at the front of the bus but most likely no one checks the ticket.
After WW2 Germany spent a lot of time and money building their public transportation system and it is truly awesome in my opinion and I can’t same the same for many other countries including my own. Trains and stations are very clean, well kept, and user friendly.