As an expat living in Germany, we know that the functioning of public transport can be quite confusing. However, once you get used to it, you will realise that Germany has one of the most efficient transportation systems in Europe and most people use public transport to get around, especially in big cities.
There are five different types of transport that are often used: S-Bahn, U-Bahn, regional trains, trams and bus. Let’s find out more about them!
S-Bahn is the name given to hybrid urban-suburban rail lines that serve a metropolitan region. It connects the suburbs and commuter regions to the city centre and the main railway station. The acronym S-Bahn stands for Schnellbahn or Stadtschnellbahn (city rapid rail), and therefore it is the fastest mode of public transport that we can find in Germany. These trains usually provide second class only and seats are taken without reservation. If you find yourself in a Hauptbahnhof and must take the S-Bahn, just follow the signs with a white “S” on a green background and you will easily reach it.
In Germany, there are only 4 U-Bahn systems that we can find in larger cities: Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Nuremberg. The U-Bahn (or Untergrundbahn) is the German term for the metro, subway, underground or “Tube”, as it is called in English. In most stations, you can transfer from the S-Bahn to the U-Bahn (or vice versa) using the same ticket, and a blue sign with a white U on it will help you identify a U-Bahn station. Regarding timetables, both S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains usually run all night over the weekend, which makes them extremely practical after a night out!
No matter how long you have been in Germany for, we are sure that you are familiar with the famous Deutsche Bahn (DB) already. Despite its common delays, regional trains in Germany offer you the possibility to travel around the country easily for reasonable prices. There are two different types of trains offered by the DB: RegionalBahn (RB) trains, which offer several stops, and RegionalExpress (RE) trains, which are faster but have fewer stops.
If you travel by train quite often, we recommend you to download the Deutsche Bahn app on your phone. This way, you can have access to your tickets and up-to-date departure information at all times. In addition, it is possible to purchase the so-called BahnCard that will get you a discount of 25% or 50% of the total price depending on your choice, so travelling around Germany can be very affordable.
Buses and trams
Unlike in other cities, the bus and tram system in Germany works as well as the rail lines. They have multiple stops within the city centre and many German cities rely on buses and trams to connect distant locations and operate late into the night when the rest of forms of public transport are unavailable. In general, tram stops are combined with bus stops and the symbol for both is a green H in a yellow circle.
Buying tickets for public transport
The most common way to get your tickets is to buy them from a ticket machine at any of the stations. Before you board the train, you must validate your ticket using the ticket validator machine (Entwerter) at the platform, which stamps the ticket with a date and a time code. In the case of buses and trams, you can get your tickets directly from the bus driver or from the ticket machine on trams. Likewise, you need to validate it as soon as you get on them. Don’t forget to do this, otherwise, it will be the same as if you didn’t pay for your tickets.
Since you do not need to pass any kind of barrier or ticket check to enter the different means of public transport in Germany, some people may feel tempted not to buy tickets. Nevertheless, you never know when a controller might swing by to check that everyone has a valid ticket. If you get caught without one, you will have to pay a 60 € fine, so it is definitely not worth risking it!
Concerning the price of your tickets, there is a zone system in most German cities that will determine the amount of money that you have to pay. For instance, Berlin is divided into three zones: A, B and C. The further out of the city that you go to (zone C), the more you have to pay. The different zones can be found on the S-Bahn or U-Bahn maps, which are available online and at the stations.
We are aware of how tricky it can be to become familiar with the way that public transport works in Germany. We really hope that you found this article useful and that you won’t get lost trying to find your way around the cities!