Using public transportation in Germany

USAG Stuttgart Public Relations Office

S-Bahn trains connect Stuttgart to closer outlying areas, with more stops and greater frequency closer to the city center. Photo by Bardia Khajenoori.

Public transport is the ideal way to travel in Germany and throughout Europe. The various levels of transit services work together to connect nearly every city, town and village in Germany. Stops and stations may be served by one or more agencies and types of transit, including S-Bahn lines, U-Bahn lines, Strassenbahn (streetcar) and bus lines. VVS coordinates operations between all transit companies in the greater Stuttgart area so that one ticket may be used across all available modes of transport.

Deutsche Bahn operates the national rail service, as well as the S-Bahn. Long distance travel can be booked through a Bahn office using a VAT tax form, or online without a VAT form (the tax on train tickets is now 7%). DB operates several levels of rail service ranging from local commuter trains to express trains that cross the country in a matter of hours.

S-Bahn trains connect Stuttgart to closer outlying areas, with more stops and greater frequency closer to the city center. An S-Bahn train is a no-frills commuter train without toilets or concessions. A regional train (usually red) reaches further within a region and can be very cost effective. This type of train has toilets and often two levels of seating.

The white IC (InterCity) and ICE (InterCity Express) trains are for long distances, to include neighboring countries. IC and ICE train seats may be reserved, including specifics like having a window seat with a table or a quieter compartment. Most ICs and all ICEs will have a bistro or dining car, and ICEs will have WiFi connectivity.

Purchasing tickets

Buying tickets can be done at stations or online. Online options can be found through various mobile apps, such as the SSB Move, VVS Mobil, or DB Navigator. Accounts can be set up with payment information so tickets can be purchased on the go. Once a ticket is purchased online, the app stores a bar code which can be shown to ticket checkers by request as proof of purchase. Once the ticket is downloaded to your phone, you will not need a data connection to retrieve it; just be sure to keep your phone charged while you’re in transit.

Ticket machines are available at each station to purchase a paper ticket. These machines also offer information about schedules, delays and services available. While many have a touch screen interface, some older platform machines have codes to enter in to determine your zone and ticket type (more on navigating zones below). All machines have an English language option, but they don’t all accept credit cards, so it is always recommended to carry euros when traveling.

ticket stamp machine

Passengers with multiple-use paper tickets must stamp their ticket on the bus or U-Bahn, or at the station platform or entrance to the train station when taking S-Bahn or regional trains.

German rail and public transit effectively operates on the honor system. Travelers purchase tickets and step onto the train without a gate or an attendant checking the ticket upon entry. Conductors periodically check for tickets and the fines for riding without one can be hefty. It is important for travelers to make sure they have valid tickets for each trip, no matter how short.

Occasionally ticket machines may be inoperable, so aside from using the mobile app, you can buy a few four-pass paper tickets to keep on hand, especially when visitors are in town.  They are good unstamped for one year and transferable to anyone.

Not all tickets are created equal. The key to rail adventures is knowing your options and how to get local deals.

  • A 4-pass paper ticket is available at machines. This ticket is good for four journeys (you will choose the number of zones desired). Unstamped tickets are good for one year.
  • A short-trip ticket is for passengers traveling within three bus or U-Bahn stops, or one stop in the S-Bahn (up to 5km).
  • A day ticket, available on all local transit within a selected zone(s), is good all day.
  • A group day ticket is good for up to 5 people in the selected zones.

Though it sounds easy enough, simply buying a ticket, when combined with the language barrier and the not-so-consistent ticket machines can be overwhelming. When all else fails, ask someone to help you.

The Bahn office is located at the Stuttgart main station downtown, and also in the stations in Vaihingen (near Patch Barracks) and Böblingen (near Panzer Kaserne). Agents there can help you find the best fares for travel. You can also purchase weekly, monthly and yearly local transit passes. The Bahn offices accept VAT forms, which are best used when booking costly or multiple trips. There is a two-euro fee for purchasing in-person, but it is a small price to pay when you consider the potential savings of a VAT form.

BahnCards

BahnCards can be a great deal for travelers who use the train frequently and might even pay for themselves on the first purchase. Before purchasing a ticket to travel outside of Stuttgart, ask about how getting a BahnCard 25 or 50 would affect the price. Note that they must be canceled in writing at least six weeks before the renewal date, or they will be automatically renewed with payment due (and without VAT savings). Cancellation can be as easy as submitting a form letter to the DB website, and it can be done as early as desired. Providing this notice simply advises DB not to renew the card; it will still be valid through the expiry date.

With a BahnCard 25, travelers get 25 percent off all “Flexpreis” and “Sparpreis” fares. Flexpreis tickets are not bound to a specific train or itinerary, while “Sparpreis” tickets do have these restrictions and offer greater savings at the cost of flex-ibility. Booking earlier offers lower-priced Sparpreis tickets.

With a BahnCard 50, travelers receive 50 percent off all regular fare purchases and 25 percent off saver fares. As the BC50 doesn’t offer any additional savings on the saver fare tickets, this card is best for travelers who prefer flexible tickets or who travel more spontaneously.

DB often publishes trial offers, like a card that is valid for three months (or similar promotions you can use to test out) if buying a card for the year is worth it to you. Remember to cancel any trial card on time.

Although there’s no substitute for good advance planning, many of the standing ticket offers through Deutsche Bahn provide flexibility for the spontaneous traveler. Taking the train offers several benefits and can even be a viable, inexpensive option when traveling in a group.

Baden-Württemberg Regional Ticket

BW tickets apply to regional transit, not IC or ICE trains, and usage must begin after 9 a.m. on weekdays; it is valid all day on weekends and German holidays. This ticket is perfect for day trips on regional trains and the S-Bahn/local transit for solo travel or with a group of friends within Baden-Württemberg (going outside the VVS service area). The official DB Navigator app has an option to route your journey only through regional transit to ensure that you only use services that are included.