german-train1I recently took my family on a 12-day trip throughout Germany over the winter holiday. Our goal was to use as much train travel as possible, eliminating high cost taxis and car hires. There were two main reasons for this. One, so much of the scenery is missed when you’re driving or navigating, and two, you’ll be hard pressed to find a taxi that will take five people…they are regulated.

Of course you can find the one in fifteen driver who will take your family of five (as we did try this once), but it wasn’t worth the hassle or the fare. Train travel seemed be the best option for our family and the purpose of our trip…enjoying as much of Germany as possible and forcing our selves into the way of the locals.

Buying Tickets

german-train2Deutsche Bahn operates train transportation throughout Germany, this much I knew. However, I didn’t know the best, most cost effective ways of buying tickets, let alone, planning the trip. Luckily, I came across a site called German Rail Pass. The site has all the information you need for planning your time in Germany, including timetables, maps and a great support section. The greatest part about traveling by train throughout Germany is that children under six are FREE! The child rate includes ages 6-11, the youth price includes those aged 12-25, and then adults over 25. Who doesn’t love getting some pretty good discounts for the kids and teens?

The first thing you’ll want to do is look at a map and think about how many days you’ll be traveling by train extensively. By this I mean, from one city to another and then maybe some within city subways all on the same day while you start your sightseeing. This will get you the most bang for your euro. You can buy day passes for trains individually along your trip, as you need a ticket for every train you board, but this will add up quickly, especially if you plan on more than three days of extensive train travel.

We chose the five-day passes, two child and two adults (our four year old was free). We were visiting four different cities, which meant four longer days of travel, plus within city train travel for sightseeing on those same days. The fifth day of travel we used to visit Dachau the day we were leaving, plus the train we needed from Munich city centre to the airport (a 45 minute ride).

1st or 2nd class? In reality, 2nd class is fine, as some of the trains don’t even have a 1st class. If there is 1st class on your train (like the ICE trains), advantages are more seating room, more luggage room, the possibility of Wi-Fi and drink/food service. Our trip from Berlin to Cologne was long, and I really did appreciate the face that we had 1st class tickets for that one especially. The extra room for the kids was nice.

Lastly, you’ll choose your ticket delivery option and you’re ready to go!

Train Stations and Taking the Train

german-train4I’ll be the first to admit, I fell in love with the Hauptbahnhof train stations around Germany. When making a reservation for your German Rail Pass, you’ll visit the Deutsche Bahn timetable page and select your departing and arrival stations. I highly recommend arriving and departing from Hauptbahnhof (Hbf). These are the central stations of the cities, often located in city centres, providing you with a wealth of eateries, information booths, Deutsche Bahn personnel, luggage storage, taxi lines and easy walking distance to nearby sights. They are like mini malls. You’ll also select whether you are 1st or 2nd class, and if available, what type of seating arrangement you’d like. For our long journeys on the ICE trains, we chose the compartments, which included six seats facing each other, a table and a sliding glass door for sound privacy, allowing our kids to sleep.

When using your German Rail Pass for the first time, you’ll need to get it validated within the Deutsche Bahn office at the train station. They will write in the first and last travel dates and stamp, or validate, your passes. After that, on each travel day you’ll need to write in the date before you hand it to the train attendant on-board. You will then use the monitors in the train station to locate your train platform and train number, much like an airport monitor where you would locate your flight number and gate. Arrive to the platform early enough to make sure you’re one of the first people on the train if you are traveling with a lot of luggage. It’s first come, first serve with the limited “baggage room” space, and the overheads don’t always fit larger luggage.

german-train3The classes of train cars will be on the outside, designated by a 1 or a 2. Some of the stations also have monitors showing a diagram of the train and where to stand on the platform for your class, which is often helpful when navigating long platforms. If you made a reservation, there will usually be a digitized message above your seat number, or a piece of paper, notifying others that the seat is reserved. If you do not have a reserved seat, then make sure you are not sitting in a reserved seat. Once you’re seated and the train has begun the journey, someone will come around asking for your tickets and possibly your passport. They will stamp your ticket for that travel day and you’re done.

Entertaining the Kids

I think the kids entertained themselves for the most part. Just the Hbf train stations themselves are full of incredible sights for the children, from the architecture to the trains. On the trains, they were excited to watch the towns go by, see the castles visible on hills, point out the bridges and rivers and enjoy the beauty of the countryside overall. Of course with our itinerary and being on the go, naps were most welcome. Being small, they could curl up in their own seats, but it was nice that many seats reclined. For back up, we always travel with a backpack full of games, colouring books, reading books and iPods. After the first few trains, they had the system down and knew just want to do when it came to finding and boarding a train.

Look for my other posts regarding our trip to Germany soon, including hotel choices, sightseeing and Christmas markets.

Heather is a freelance travel writer, encouraging her family and others to become internationally minded. You can find her on twitter.

Tickets for two adults were provided. No other compensation was received. All opinions are my own.