Saving money is the ultimate prize for any traveler. Certainly transportation in most any country can be one of the largest expenses of travel, and Germany is no exception. That’s why it’s important to know a few never-fail, simple tips to save money on train travel in Germany.
We almost always choose train travel when traveling in Europe, especially in Germany where the train lines are so extensive. You can get to just about any little village on the train while watching the scenery go by instead of fretting about speed demons on the autobahn or deciphering signs in a foreign language.
Here are six insider tips to help you save money on train travel in Germany:
1. Probe BahnCard
If you are going to be in Germany for two or three months and intend to use the train system (“Deutsche Bahn”) relatively frequently, consider what is called a “Probe BahnCard” since it can save you a good amount of money. The word “Probe” means “trial,” and that is what this is: a three-month trial version of the German train system’s subscription-based annual “BahnCards” that give discounts to regular users.
The trick is, however, this short trial version is only listed on the German language version of the Deutsche Bahn website! So you need to go to the German version of the Probe Card page to order it. You will need a little help from your favorite website translation engine to work your way through the pages (or perhaps a good friend), but the savings are worth it. Once you choose the card that best suits you (1st or 2nd class, 25 percent or 50 percent off), you can choose how you want to pay and even have it sent to you in the United States. There is also a BahnCard 100, which gets you free travel (i.e. 100% off!) for three months. It comes with a large price tag but if you are on the move a LOT, it may be worth it. Not a subscription service, and does not extend automatically but ends on the last day, thus more like a German rail pass.)
If you are going to be traveling in Germany for more than three months, or visiting frequently over a year-long period, then consider the full-fledged BahnCard. The card is good for a year, but since as stated above the card is subscription based, you will need to ensure you submit your cancelation in writing no later than six weeks prior to your renewal date. We have had the BahnCard for years now, and even a few lengthier or even not so lengthy train trips during a couple of visits in the country can mean paying for the card and saving money.
Another advantage of the BahnCards are discounts available when you travel between other countries that don’t necessarily even include Germany (i.e. you cross borders). You just have to book them on the Deutsche Bahn train website. This program is called RailPlus and at this time includes Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Montenegro, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland for all travelers. You’ll need do sort your way through the country lists here.
3. Advance booking
Even if you do not get a BahnCard, it’s not brain surgery to save money on German trains. You just need to plan a bit in advance. Advance purchase fares can be SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper, and I do mean huge, like as little as about 20 Euros when a regular one day-of could be many, many times that. Just like with other modes of transport, the price changes based on availability so the sooner you can pin down your travel dates, the better. But take heed: Do it before three days before your departure. Even then you can get some discount but on the third day? Full fare, baby. If there is availability. You can still change or cancel for a 19 Euro fee (worth it if your journey was to be a longer one), just do it 24 hours or more in advance. Be sure also to know your rights: I once asked to get a refund on a fare I had to cancel and the agent told me it was too late. I didn’t think she was right, but shrugged and left. But it gnawed at me and I checked the small print, and indeed I was right. So I had to go into a train station and argue my point – luckily, I speak German and luckily the agent I spoke with trusted me and granted me the refund.
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4. Saver Fares (“Sparpreis”)
Available all the time, based on offers and availability. Just go to the Saver Fare Finder and input your dates. You can also book fares starting OUTSIDE Germany to Germany and save money on train travel by using the German website. Just click the box that you are starting your trip outside of the country and choose your departure country from the drop-down menu.
5. Regional/special offers
The German Bahn has additional special regional offers that can be a steal if they fit your German train travel needs. For example, there is Day Ticket for the entire country (“Quer-Durchs-Land”), a Weekend Ticket for the entire country (“Schönes Wochenende” ticket), and Regional Tickets by state (“Länder-Tickets”). For example, if your party has more than one person and up to five, the Weekend Ticket is an incredible deal since it only tacks on an additional small amount for each person over the first. Note, though, that these deals are only available on regional and local trains so if your goal is just to get somewhere fast, they are not for you. And there are other travel time limitations so read the small print. Sometimes if you just plan a shorter day excursion, a Day or Regional ticket may still be cheaper than a traditional ticket. You will find that most agents are very good at directing you to the least expensive option.
German laws are quite strict about how and when you can get refunds so know your rights by reading this information from the Deutsche Bahn. In sum, if a train is 60 minutes or more late, you get a 25% refund, with that amount increasing as the delay increases. In addition, if the train is not functioning correctly — e.g. the AC or heater isn’t working — you will also have a right to some refund. I once had a seat reservation in January on a car where the heater did not function. I had to move to a different car and earned a refund for my seat reservation. Additional information about passenger rights is detailed on the German version. Download your passenger rights form on the German train website, and follow all directions explicitly, and get it sent along sooner rather than later, preferably before you leave the country even. Although the Deutsche Bahn knows precisely what trains are delayed and how long, I like to get a form from a conductor on the delayed train with his or her signature and stamp for safekeeping.