A Beginner’s Guide to Germany with Eurail
As the economic powerhouse of Europe, Germany is a favored destination for Eurail travelers. This is thanks to its central location at the heart of the Old World, as well as its first-choice attractions and plenty of easy-access (and extremely scenic) train routes. They can whisk you from a dynamic, up-all-night metropolis like Berlin to a quietly gorgeous Gothic town like Bamberg in a matter of hours. German rail travel is really a must-do.
In Germany, the preference for rail travel is so strong that train stations are almost always located at the very center of town, making it extremely easy (and fast) to move from place to place, and easy to check into a centrally located hotel or hostel once you get there. That means less time wasted and more time enjoying all the world-class museums, restaurants, cafés and nightlife that Germany has to offer.
German rail travel: Reservations
Germany is one of the easiest European countries in which to make train reservations. The simplest way is to ask at the ticket window at any of Germany’s 5,000-plus train stations, many of which now have new, self-service ticket machines at which you can also easily make reservations.
Online, you can reserve seats at the Deutsche Bahn website, www.bahn.com, where you can select “Reservation for seat only” to accompany your Eurail Pass.
The final option is by phone to the Deutsche Bahn call center (Tel. +49 1806 996 633). They can mail reservations to you anywhere in the world, or leave them for you to pick up in any German train station.
Reservations are required for sleeping accommodation on night trains, as well as on the ICE Sprinter commuter trains that move between big cities at rush hour. Other trains, including the deluxe, high-speed ICE lines, do not require reservations. However, reservations are recommended during weekends, on public holidays, and on popular travel routes.
Advantages of taking regional trains
Germany’s luxurious ICE (Intercity-Express) trains are outrageously fast, hitting speeds up to 300 kilometers per hour (over 185 miles per hour). For getting from one big city to another, they’re ideal. But to discover many of Germany’s off-the-beaten path attractions, you’ll want to take smaller, regional trains for at least part of the route.
With a Eurail Pass, it’s easy to switch from an ICE train at Ingolstadt, for example, to a regional train that will take you out to the romantic Bavarian town of Regensburg. To get to the historic university town of Heidelberg — Germany’s version of Oxford — you can take a fast train to Mannheim. Here you’ll switch to a regional train for the final leg. Or to visit a unique cultural event like the opera festival in beautiful Bayreuth (founded by Richard Wagner himself!), you can take a regional express there from a bigger city like Nuremberg or Hof. With a Eurail Pass, it’s easy to take trains anywhere you want. It’s no problem if you want to change plans and reschedule on your own terms.
Getting to other countries
Following the eastward expansion of the European Union, Germany has moved from the edge of Europe to its very center. This makes it an ideal starting point for journeys just about anywhere. High-speed trains connect Germany and its western neighbours France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. There are also both rail and ferry connections to Denmark in the north. Direct trains enter Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Switzerland. Both trains and nonstop bus lines connect Munich and Nuremberg in Germany’s southern state of Bavaria with the Czech capital of Prague.
Three popular train routes through Germany
1. The Rhine Valley
Germany is beer country. But fantastic wines also come from the beautiful Rhine Valley, between the great party town, Cologne, and Mainz. You’ll travel along the broad Rhine river, passing sculpted, deep green vineyards that seem to tumble down the hillside toward the water. Above, stone châteaux, ancient churches and craggy rocks dot the hills. Trains travel between Cologne and Mainz about once an hour, taking about two hours. For an even better view, take advantage of a nice bonus: your Eurail Pass is also valid on boats operated by the Köln-Düsseldorfer Rheinschiffahrt between Cologne and Mainz.
2. The Black Forest
The Schwarzwald, or Black Forest, is one of the great natural attractions of southwest Germany. Across it travels the Black Forest Railway, a 150-kilometer (90-mile) train route that passes through spectacular scenery — deep woodlands, rolling hills and jutting rocks — best enjoyed from the upper deck of the train’s twin-level passenger cars. Start the route in Offenberg, heading toward Singen, about two hours away. To make a day of it, stop for a lunch of Black Forest ham and Black Forest cake at the scenic town of Donaueschingen, about halfway through your voyage.
3. The Bavarian Alps
The highest mountains in the Alps lie in Switzerland. But some of the most scenic settings in the Alps — including Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for Disneyland — are actually across the border in the German state of Bavaria. For the best views, take a regional train from Munich towards Garmisch-Partenkirchen, just over an hour away, home to the 1936 Winter Olympics. To get to Neuschwanstein Castle, head by train to the town of Füssen, from which you can take a bus to the base of the castle hill.
- Fit in some quality shopping time between trains. Many German train stations function like malls, with boutiques and shops just a few steps from the platforms. The high point is Leipzig’s recently renewed Hauptbahnhof. It’s the largest train station in the world in terms of floor space, with over 140 different shops and stores.
- If you don’t have time to pick up snacks before a long trip, don’t worry. Many ICE trains have an on-board bistro or a restaurant car with hot meals and drinks at reasonable prices. An added bonus to traveling on a first-class Eurail Pass? The conductor just might come by with a platter of complimentary gummy bears.
- Remember, your Eurail Pass is valid for more than just rail travel. In addition to free transportation on Rhine and Moselle river boats, your Eurail Pass will get you a reduced fare on the nonstop DB Expressbus lines from Nuremberg and Munich to Prague in the Czech Republic. You also get a 50% discount for steamboats on beautiful Lake Constance.
- There’s no need to rent a car, ever. Most German cities have amazing public transportation. Don’t forget that your Eurail Pass is also valid on the S-Bahn commuter trains in Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Hanover, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Cologne, and elsewhere. This makes it easy to get just about anywhere once you get there.