“Man muss”: Train Tickets, Seat Reservations and the Deutsche Bahn

When people hear that I’m living in Germany, Deutsche Bahn is among one of the first things that comes up. “Oh, the train system!” they cry, their eyes lighting up. “You must love it. Isn’t it just so easy to travel wherever you want?”

Riding Deutsche Bahn: Not nearly as much fun as this guy is having. (photo courtesy of Jim the Photographer via Flickr)

Well, the term “easy” is always relative here in Deutschland. It’s a great system, in that it exists. In comparison, the train system in the U.S. is the stuff of broken dreams. Here, you really can hop on a train and head pretty much anywhere. What’s less obvious to the uninitiated is the fact that it’s going to cost you a pretty penny, and you could end up running sprinting to catch one of multiple connections, and be left without a seat.

There’s always a lot to discuss with Deutsche Bahn, so I’ll just share one of the more important things that we learned through trial and error: when you’re buying tickets online and the system asks you if you want a seat reservation, don’t just skip over that part. We started out taking short day trips on the regional trains, and seating was never really an issue there. We planned a Friday morning venture to Berlin in December, however, and that was a much different story.

We ended up crammed on the floor between suitcases for the 2.5 hour ride from Bielefeld to Berlin because there were no seats available. This made me more than a little cranky. I would guess we paid somewhere close to 70 euros for our tickets, but what we didn’t know was that if we had paid an extra 4 euros each for a “reservation,” we would have had a guaranteed seat on one of the busiest possible train routes just before a weekend.

The most irritating part of the situation was that we would grab free seats as we saw them, only to be told after settling in that that they were reserved. How did people know this? One woman kindly explained the system to me in German: there is a digital readout over each seat. It tells you between which stops the seats are reserved, and after a few stops, it goes blank (with the logic that you’re either there or you’re not to claim your seat, so it doesn’t need to be ‘reserved’ any more). The problem comes when you think you’ve finally snagged an empty seat – but it turns out that the digital readout is wrong, or has changed since you’ve sat down, and you have someone coming to gently push you out of your slumber, and your seat (“Entschuldigen Sie…”).

It’s an awkward system, at best. If you know you’re going to travel between large hub cities and on a busy time of day, get a seat reservation. We also sat on the floor between Mannheim and Cologne in January, pressed up against the doors to the icy outside, and after a few days of almost no sleep in Paris – well, it was less than fun. If you don’t have a seat reservation, you can ask one of the train employees “Gibt es freie Plätze?” Reserved seats are often clustered in specific cars, so they may be able to direct you to a car with free seats. Alternately, they may tell you that there are no free seats – which means you can find yourself a cozy spot on the floor and settle in for the ride.

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10 responses to ““Man muss”: Train Tickets, Seat Reservations and the Deutsche Bahn

  1. That makes me feel a bit better 🙂 But it also makes me wonder even more why this system is the way it is, if even Germans don’t get it!

  2. If you can’t get a seat try the Bordbistro! It’s warm in there and as long as you buy one drink when you first get on they’ll pretty much let you stay there. (You have to go for the Bistro bit – in the restaurant bit with the proper tables they will ask you to leave once you’ve eaten)

  3. My favourite part is when they change the order of the wagons, then your reservation isn’t valid anymore, and you end up without a seat despite the money spent.
    And then those constant problems with air condition / heating… Sometimes a bikini seems to be the perfect travel attire.
    I agree, there is a lot of room for improvement!

    • We have not yet had our reservation invalidated – I’ve heard that you can get your money back if you file a complaint, but it is only the 4 euros, and that doesn’t fix the fact that you didn’t have anywhere to sit on the train! And on our most recent trip back from the airport, going on 24 hours of no sleep, when it was about 95F (30 C) in Germany, we were in lovely, reserved seats – in a little box without air conditioning!

  4. Hi Sam,
    There’s something else about reservations which might be confusing: the different pricings you might get for the same train. You’ll be able to get quite cheap fares, but then for exactly the train you booked the tickets for. They might be used on a different train, but only at a stiff upgrade price. But still, if you’re sure which train you will use, this is the way. If you don’t exactly know, you buy a kind of a “general” ticket, that gives you access – within a certain, but generous, time frame – to any train to your destination. But these are (much) more expensive. And then, if you’re travelling long distance a few times per year, there’s the so-called “Bahncard”. You purchase this [they’re availbale as “Bahncard 25”, giving you 25% reduction on tickets, and “Bahncard 50” for 50%] and then you get that reduction on any ticket. Sometimes it’s already a bargain if you only go on 3 long-distance trips. But beware: I ordered one once and overlooked that it was a subscription. Thus the next year, when I spent most of my time here in the US, I still got that Bahncard automatically and was stuck with it – which ate up more than the profits I had made the previous year.
    Best regards,
    Pit

  5. Lots of people have warned us about the self-renewing subscription, Pit! And that business about train-specific tickets being cheaper can be very confusing at first. We always stick with the cheaper, train-specific tickets, even if we know it could mean waiting a couple of hours between arriving at the airport and getting on that particular train. re: discounts, the good thing for students is that there are lots of discounts – at least, I believe that if you are a student at the Uni Bielefeld, you can travel anywhere in NRW for free. Bad news for us is – neither of us is a student 🙂

    • Hi Sam,
      Couldn’t you just enroll as a student? The fees should be negnigible, if I’m correct. I remember that for quite some time after my final exams, and while I was already working in my job, I was still enrolled, just for the benefits.
      Talking of flying: when I booked my fights to Germany and back for later this year, I found out that the Lufthansa train from Farnkfurt to Cologne is for free! At least, the price for my tickets was the same if I flew San Antonio – Houston – Frankfurt – Cologne [the last leg on the train] or if my flight ended in Frankfurt.
      Take care, and have a good one,
      Pit.

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