Germany is a leader in city transit for efficiency, reliability, speed and up-to-date information. Cities or regions commonly use an integrated system of urban transit tickets designed to get travellers to destinations and back using multiple modes. In most German cities urban transit is far superior to the challenges driving presents to the visitor.
Generally activity will be coordinated among various transport providers by the city or regional transit authority (Verkehrsverbund).
Night networks (Nachtverkehr) or routes (Nachtlinien) between midnight and dawn will generally entail different services or different route numbers. Often there is substitution for U-Bahn or S-Bahn rail services between midnight and dawn by buses running similar routes, although in the biggest cities rail services are likely to run continuously from dawn Friday to late Sunday and during nights before public holidays.
The Verkehrsverbund will have a website (in bigger cities there will be an English version) where timetables can be called up, searches made in a journey planner, or information leaflets downloaded. PDFs of each timetable (Fahrplan) or colour-coded and numbered schematic maps of each network (Liniennetzplan or Linienplan) are easy to download and print from websites or are available as brochures from information kiosks in or around major rail stations and transport hubs or at tourist offices. Warnings about alterations or interruption of services are generally posted online.
The more complex maps integrate the tram or bus networks with rail. Google Maps that mark stations in large urban centres will display the services that use that station or stop with a left mouse-click. The green circled H on a yellow sign is for a bus or tram stop (Haltestelle), another German standard.
Buying tickets (variously Fahrkarten, Fahrausweise, Fahrscheine, sometimes even Tickets) for local services is possible online for customers with registered accounts but the usual method for tourists will be at ticket machines at stations, stops or on board. Ticketing is based on travel within or between marked zones (Tarifzonen), either concentrically arranged or covering areas according to which travellers pay for the number of zones crossed.
In Hamburg the two systems are to an extent mixed, which makes for some complexity for the visitor, but the bewildered can fall back on the system of keying in destinations on a ticket machine with the relevant ticket type to produce the correct fare.
Day tickets or other period tickets, multiple-trip tickets (some at discounted fares) or short single-journey (Kurzstrecke) tickets are available. The validity of these will be expressed in terms of stops (usually two to four, depending on the mode) and sometimes marked on route maps displayed at individual stops.
Tickets will most often need to be stamp-validated before use – but check if uncertain. Practice can differ but stamping machines positioned about waist-high on posts at the entrance to platforms are designed for the insertion of the ticket in the direction of the printed arrow. Sometimes a slot with the word ‘Entwerten’ will be on the purchase machine. Often tickets bought for a day or short terms come ready-stamped from the machine. Either way, a day or time of validation should appear on the ticket. Sometimes multiple-journey tickets will be strip tickets with numbered stripes needing to be validated accordingly by folding and stamping in the machine. Some tickets can be bought online (often at a discount) and some cities offer mobile phone purchase options. Ticket checks are occasionally carried out by transit inspectors.
Sometimes transport for up to three days in a German city is included in a city card along with admissions to major tourist attractions, or discounts for sightseeing tours or some venues. The value of these needs to be weighed up carefully, although the convenience factor for visitors using multi-modal transport is obvious. Sometimes it is difficult to get value from such cards in the time allotted and day transit tickets (especially for families in situations where children can travel free anyway and get discounted admissions at attractions) are the better all-round solution.
Buses are generally run by the city authority (Stadtwerke) and where trains and trams are dominant tend to fill gaps between other modes and provide coverage to outer areas. The next stop (or next few stops) will show on a digital panel inside the bus. Generally at least basic single-trip and day tickets can be purchased from bus drivers.
Sometimes local buses will share the central bus station (ZOB) with regional or international buses. The ZOB will often be adjacent to the Hauptbahnhof, but there are many exceptions.
Entry by the front door is mostly compulsory unless using a pushchair/stroller, pushing a bicycle (where allowed) or using a mobility device. There are often two gates, the left-hand one for passengers showing period passes or validating prepaid tickets and the right-hand for those needing to purchase tickets.
Most German metropolises have a tramway/streetcar (Straßenbahn) network – the chief exceptions are Cologne and Hamburg, which rely on close S-Bahn, U-Bahn and bus networks. Tram networks are important even in medium-sized cities such as Augsburg (population about 260,000) or Würzburg (130,000) and are the basis of inner urban transit in cities such as Bremen and Dresden. U-Bahn services (see Rail above) often operate similarly to tram services outside city centres.
Tram tickets can usually be bought for short trips, periods or a day, often from machines at stops, and sometimes from machines on board. But most common is the multi-modal integrated city transit ticket. Names of coming stops show on an overhead digital panel.
Each city centre's main rail station (Hauptbahnhof) is the focal point of all rail lines. The extent of the Schnellbahn (S-Bahn) rail networks in the biggest cities makes transit rapid and these can be combined with trams and buses. At times S-Bahn lines, which are operated by Deutsche Bahn but use the integrated metropolitan ticketing systems, reach far enough to link neighbouring cities (such as Berlin and Potsdam or Leipzig and Halle) or make a destination such as Meissen a comfortable afternoon excursion from Dresden. There may even be first-class areas on some S-Bahn trains. German Rail and international passes are valid on S-Bahns, but this could add a day's use to flexipasses.
S-Bahn stations tend to be further apart and their lines reach further than underground/metro/subway or U-Bahn networks. U-Bahns do not in fact always run underground, often climbing out of their tunnels a few stops from the centre of cities such as Cologne, Stuttgart and Nuremberg and operating basically as light-rail or tram systems. In Berlin and Hamburg the U-Bahn alternates between tunnels and lines elevated several metres above ground. In all cases services are frequent – in Berlin and other big cities five or 10 minutes is the usual interval – and the networks are interlinked through common stations and appear on the same maps, providing easy changes to and from each other or regional and international services. Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne, Nuremberg and Stuttgart all have U-Bahn networks.
The green 'S' and blue 'U' symbols are easily identifiable and standard through Germany and show up handily on many Google Maps and Here.com. Most lines cross cities from one side of the metropolitan area to the other and, though it is important to know before boarding which direction (Richtung) is correct, not all services on a line will be timetabled to reach the terminus.
Taxi cabs are not extremely expensive for short trips and service is good, particularly assistance with luggage (for which tips or rounding up of the tariff are appreciated). Cars are required to be a pale ivory colour similar to beige but there are variations in cities such as Lübeck. Taxi stands or ranks are at major rail and bus stations and other obvious points.
Local taxi telephone numbers are offered under the Transport headings for major Raven Guides destinations (for other options look under ‘Taxi’ in local telephone books). Metropolitan areas often use a central call number. Users with enough confidence in German can use the automated call line (tel 22456, mobile phone rate €0.69 per minute) in cities (and towns with population 5000 or more).
There is a starting tariff averaging about €3, but varying by city. In most places the subsequent charge per kilometre will be of the order of €1.40-2. Sometimes this rate is higher for the first 5km. In places such as Augsburg and Düsseldorf the flagfall charge is €5.50 or more but the Augsburg rates per kilometre are lower than in most other places at €1.20.
Sometimes idling time in traffic brings a small added charge. Fares can be charged at a slightly higher rate from late evening, or on Sundays.
Fares (for trips less than 50km) attract 7% tax, which is included in the meter charge. Longer trips are possible at negotiated prices (with a healthier tip), but the tax rate jumps to the full Umsatzsteuer level of 19%.
Cars entering the inner areas of many large German cities are required to meet basic emission standards, be certified as such, and display a windscreen sticker to prove it. A list of major German tourist destinations with environmental zones demanding emissions-certification through stickers includes: Augsburg, Berlin, Bonn, Bremen, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Erfurt, Frankfurt, Freiburg im Breisgau, Halle, Hannover, Heidelberg, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Mainz, Mannheim, Munich, Münster, Osnabrück, the Ruhr, Stuttgart, Ulm and Neu-Ulm and Wiesbaden.
In these cities only vehicles displaying green (in some green or yellow) environmental stickers (Umweltplakette or Feinstaubplakette) certifying maximum emissions may be used in the defined environment area (Umweltzone). These areas are sometimes defined broadly by S-Bahn or motorway rings around the city. Road signs displaying a red ring indicate the start of the Umweltzone, grey rings with black diagonal bars indicate its end. Fines of the order of €40 are typical for violations.
Green stickers (class 4) apply to unleaded petrol vehicles registered since 1993 and diesel vehicles registered since 2006. Yellow stickers (class 3) cover diesel vehicles registered between 2001 and 2005. The sticker must be fixed to the inside of the lower right corner of the windscreen. Most of the cities and areas listed above admit only class 4 vehicles moved to this standard during 2014.
Stickers can be purchased online at umwelt-plakette.de or www.environmental-badge.co.uk/en/environmental-badge.html, where there are maps of the environmental areas and the associated standards. Stickers are also available at the registration offices of the following organisations: DEKRA, TÜV Süd, TÜV Nord, GTÜ and at licensed vehicle garages. Travellers can also make inquiries with automobile clubs.
Bike path networks encourage the use of pedal power and most cities have developed at least their on-street networks. Bremen's trail network is well established and Berlin has more than 600km of trails. They vary from purpose-designed paths to divisions of pedestrian areas with relevant signs, where care must be exercised accordingly.
Often exclusive bicycle paths in Germany are painted (or paved in) red-brown, commonly so where on the same surface as footpaths. In other places they may be marked off at the streetside by solid white lines with occasional bicycle symbols. Bicycles will generally share pedestrian lights and crossings at road intersections (in some places a bike symbol is indicated on the lights). At other crossing points they will share white-striped pedestrian crossings.
Maps of urban paths and regional links are at www.bikemap.net/en/regional/Germany.
Hire points are often around or at rail stations or at hostels and pensions, but some close during winter months. Telephone book or online listings will be under 'Fahrradverleih' or 'Fahrradvermietung'. Expect day rates of the order of €10-12 (lower over several days). For details of a bike-sharing system at roughly half these daily rates, visit www.nextbike.net and consider signing up. Railway users can sign up for the Deutsche Bahn Call a Bike system, allowing easy pickup of bikes at certain stations using chips or mobile phone-transmitted codes. The website is www.callabike.de, but in spite of the name this is not in English. For explanation go to www.deutschebahn.com/en/group/im_blickpunkt/2504892/10_jahre_callabike.html.
Bicycle locks are advisable anywhere and users should carry their own, even if hiring on the road.
Bicycles can be carried on urban trains, generally at off-peak times, with local variations – space permitting. Berlin and Munich for instance require bicycle tickets for S-Bahn or U-Bahn travel but in Frankfurt bicycles – when there is room – are carried free. In Berlin bikes are allowed on trams and night buses as space permits. Folding seats near doors often provide the necessary space in trains but some cities require bicycle-marked carriages to be used.
For cyclists' viewpoints on negotiating other transport in Germany, visit www.cycletourer.co.uk or bicyclegermany.com.
Ferries are a necessary part of the urban transport network in cities such as Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden and are integrated into metropolitan ticketing.
Also scenic are trips on local varieties of rail including the Schwebebahn suspension rail network in Wuppertal near Düsseldorf and short Bergbahn and Schwebebahn lines in Dresden. Stuttgart offers two styles of hill railway.