Traveling by Train

Public transportation in Germany, as well as most of Europe, is far advanced of anything available in the US.  You can get almost anywhere, frequently faster and with less effort than driving.  Of course it helps if you know the system.  This guide should give you all of the information that you will need to know.

Public transportation is laid out in a well organized network of interconnecting trains and buses.  Here are the various classes of transportation that you may encounter, listed from the faster national and international trains down to the slower local buses.

ICE (Intercity Express)
Bullet-nosed high-speed trains that go between major cities.  They stop infrequently and only at the larger cities.  The speed of these trains varies greatly based on the conditions of the track.  On the new high-speed track, they reach speeds of 300 kph (190 mph).  On other sections, they are limited to speeds from 250 kph to less than half of this.
IC (Intercity)
Similar to the ICE trains except their top speeds are lower and they make more intermediary stops.
EC (Eurocity)
Similar to the ICE, or more frequently the IC trains, except that they connect to a city that is outside of the country.
RE (Regional Express)
Trains that connect cities within a region.  These trains don’t stop at all towns on the route.
R (Regional)
Similar to the RE trains, but making more stops.
S-bahn (Schnellbahn)
The rail system serving a large city and its suburban areas.
The traditional subway system in a larger city.
Street cars
The final link.  Bus routes emanate, from the train stations and serve areas and towns not covered by the train system.

ICE, IC and EC trains are predominately white with a red stripe.  RE, R and S-bahn trains are red with a white stripe.  There’s no consistent color scheme for the other trains and buses.

The ICE, IC, and EC trains will have dining cars where you can get drinks and at least something light to each (BordBistro).  Some serve full meals (BordRestaurant).  If you are traveling in first class, a porter will come through selling drinks and snacks.  Otherwise, you’ll have to walk to the dining car and either eat there, or bring it back to your seat.

Buying Tickets

OK, so you’ve decided to try your hand at train travel.  The first thing you’re going to need is a ticket.  One of the nice things about the public transportation system is that you normally only need to buy a single ticket.  You purchase that ticket from your starting point to your destination point, and it doesn’t matter how many trains or buses it takes to get there.

National Network

There are several ways to buy tickets on the national train network run by the semi-public Deutsche Bahn company (ICE, IC, EC, RE and R trains):

From the ticket counter.
All train stations have a staffed ticket counter where you can purchase tickets, although at the smaller stations, they may not be staffed on all days or at all hours that the trains run.
From ticket machines.
All stations have automated ticket machines.  You can select to see instructions in English and you can pay by cash or credit card.  Frequently, there will be two types of ticket machines - one for the longer distance trains, and one for the local network (S-bahn, U-bahn, bus, etc.).  The longer distance machines are frequently red and have touchscreen monitor displays.
On the Internet.
The Deutsche Bahn provides extensive web services.  In addition to schedules, you can actually buy your tickets online.  You will need to register as a DB user in order to purchase tickets.  Tickets can be mailed to you or you can select an option in your profile that will allow you to print your own ticket.  This is very convenient, but there is one caveat.  When you purchase the ticket, you have to specify a credit card that will be used to identify you on the train (usually the same card that you use to pay for the tickets).  You must present that card to the train conductor along with your printed ticket.
On the phone.
The Deutsche Bahn’s call center can be reached at 49 1805 996633.
From the conductor.
On ICE, IC and EC trains, tickets can be purchased directly from the conductor (cash or credit card), although there is a small extra charge for doing so.  On regional and metro trains, you must purchase your tickets in advance.

Regardless of the method you choose to purchase your tickets, you’ll need to know where you are traveling from, where you are traveling to, and whether you want to travel in first or second class (erste or zweite Class).  First class will get you more comfortable seats on the larger trains.  On regional and local trains, a first class ticket will usually ensure that you get a seat, even when the train is running full.

Deutsche Bahn has adopted a little of the airline’s complicated fare structures.  On the ICE, IC and EC trains, you can get full price tickets or tickets that are 25% or 50% off.  Full price tickets are good on any train traveling to your destination in a single day.  They are also fully refundable before the day of travel.  The discounted tickets are good for a round trip travel on specific trains, and have penalties (€15) for schedule changes or cancellation.  There are also advanced purchase and length of stay requirements.  These discounted fares are also capacity controlled, so you typically have to book well in advance to get one.  In all cases, the first traveller can book half price tickets for as many as four more passengers traveling on the same itinerary.  On the regional and metro trains, single tickets are not discounted.

A ticket for a train does not guarantee you a seat.  You can reserve seats on ICE, IC and EC trains, but it is an additional step.  There is a small fee for a reservation made at a ticket counter.  You can make a reservation for free or for a reduced fee on the Internet.  More often than not, you can find a seat on a train without having a reservation.á It becomes more important if you are traveling with a larger group, or if you are traveling on Friday or Sunday, which tend to be busier.  As might be expected, trains are also more crowded around the beginning and ends of public holidays.

Metro Network

Tickets for big city metro transportation (S-bahn, U-bahn, street cars and buses) can be purchased either at ticket counters (not available at all stops) or at automated machines.  Ticket prices are based on the distance, or number of zones, that you travel.  As mentioned above, the metro ticket machines are different than the intercity machines.  In the Stuttgart area, the machines have lists of all of the stops in the network.  Find your stop and punch the number associated with that stop into the keypad.  The display will show you the price.  Unfortunately, except for a special cash card that most visitors don’t have, these machine do not take credit cards so you’ll need to pay in cash.  If you intend to take more than two trips in a day, or you have more than one person traveling, it’s likely to be cheaper to buy a transportation day pass.  This entitles you to unlimited travel on the metro network (e.g. anywhere north of Bondorf) for an entire day.  There are a couple of columns of buttons below the display.  Look for the button the says ‘Tageskarte’  When you press it, the display will give you four options.  The first two are for ticket that apply if you are traveling within two zones - typically not practical when traveling from Bondorf.  Option three is a day card for one person.  Option four is a day card for up to five people traveling together. 

Once you have selected your ticket, insert your money.  The machine takes coins and bills.  You ticket will be printed and delivered along with your change in the bin at the bottom.  Many machines have a button to the left of the display that you can press to change the language.  There is a picture and an excellent description of ticket vending machine operations at the Stuttgart metro transit authority website

Getting on the Trains

After you’ve gotten to the train station and have your tickets, you’ll need to find the track on which your train will be arriving.  Larger train stations, such as the one in Stuttgart, have large displays in the entrance halls and elsewhere that show the upcoming train schedule.  On this display will be the track (Gleis) number.  Then look for signs directing you to that track.  Smaller stations also have some kind of signs, sometime permanent ones, that help direct you to your train.  On the platforms, and at other points in the station, there will be large posters that describe the complete arrival and departure schedule for the day.  These signs will show you the arrival and departure times, the major stops on the way and the track number.

If you have a reservation for travel on an ICE, IC or EC train, look for special posters mounted on signboards on the platform once you get there.  These signs have diagrams of the layouts of the trains.  Check your reservation to find out which car (Wagen) your seat is in, then find the diagram that corresponds to your departure time on the sign.  Across the top of the sign are the loading zones, typically A through F.  Find your car number and go up to see what zone that car will be in.  Above the platform will be blue signs indicating the loading zones.  Walk down and wait in your zone for the train.  The zone diagrams aren’t perfect, so look on the side of the trains as they come in.  The car number will be displayed on an LED display on the side of each car, or painted on the car in large numbers.  If you don’t manage to get on the right car, that’s OK.  The cars are interconnected, so you can walk through them to get to your car once you board.  Many of the ICE trains are composed of two trains that connect in the middle.  It is important to at least get on the correct half of these trains, as there is no way to walk between the two halves inside.

Once on the train, if you have a reservation, just find your seat number.  It’s possible once you get there that there will be someone sitting in your seat.  If so, just politely tell them that you have the seat reserved.  If you don’t have a reservation, don’t panic.  You can take any empty seat.  The reservation status of the seat will be displayed above the seats, or if your seat is in a compartment, by the compartment door.  On newer ICE trains, there will be an LED display.  On older model ICE, as well as IC and EC trains, there will be paper tickets in special plastic holders.  The display or ticket will show you on which segment the seat is reserved.  Look first for seats where the display is blank or there is no paper ticket.  It’s also good if the seat is reserved on a segment before you got on or after you plan to depart.  For example, if you are travelling from Frankfurt to Stuttgart and the display/ticket says Stuttgart-München (Munich), then you’re probably OK.  It’s possible, however, that you could get bumped from a seat that appears to be free if someone makes a last minute reservation.  Look also for seats that are labeled with a BahnComfort sign.  These seats are never directly reserved.  Members of Deutsche Bahn’s frequent traveller program have priority and can bump you, although this happens infrequently.  If you still haven’t found a seat, go ahead and sit in one that appears to be reserved.  It’s not unusual for a traveller to change plans, therefore some reservations may never be used.  Just be prepared to vacate the seat if someone does come to claim it.  If all else fails, and you’re stuck standing in the aisles, is probably only until the next stop, typically a half hour away.  At that point, enough seats will likely free up from the people getting off the train to allow those standing to sit.  Note: If you are traveling without a seat reservation with a second class ticket, make sure that you don’t try to sit in a first class seat.  On the ICE, IC, EC and some RE and R trains, whole cars are first class.  In the other RE and R trains, as well as the S-bahns, a section of a car is reserved for first class passengers.  Look for large numbers (1 or 2) painted on the side of the cars.  The class will also normally be on the door of the entrance to the section or train car.

Once on the train, sit back and relax.  On the ICE, IC and EC trains, the conductor will be around after a while to check your tickets.  It will be pretty obvious what’s going on.  On the rest of the trains, you probably won’t be asked for a ticket.  Ticket enforcement on these trains is generally done by spot checks.  The staff on ICE and EC trains almost assuredly speak English.  That’s not necessarily true on other trains.

Common Itineraries

The Bondorf train station is conveniently located a 5-10 minute walk from our house.  To get to the station:

To get to our house from the train station:

Bondorf to Stuttgart

It really doesn’t make sense to try to drive into Stuttgart, or any big city for that matter.  Traffic is heavy, navigation is difficult and parking is hard to find and expensive.  This is the ideal time to hop on a train that will take you right into the city center.

Trains arrive and depart from Stuttgart’s central train station on three levels.  Regional, national and international trains arrive on the ground level.  Several U-bahn lines run through the station from underground platforms.  All six of the S-bahn lines also serve the train station from two tracks that are even further underground.  U-bahn stops are identified by square blue signs with a white ‘U’ in them.  S-bahn stops are identified by circular green signs with a white ‘S’ in them.

Regional Express trains leave Bondorf heading to Stuttgart at 3 or 4 minutes after the hour.  These trains make only three stops between Bondorf and the central train station in Stuttgart.  They return from the north a few minutes before each hour.  On weekdays, there are usually trains that also leave and arrive around the half hour mark.  These trains start and end about 10 km north in Herrenberg.  Sometimes these trains come to Bondorf from Herrenberg, then turn around and go back, in which case they arrive and leave on track 1; the track closest to the station.  In all other cases, northbound trains to Stuttgart or Herrenberg leave from track 2 (the middle track) and southbound trains arrive on track 3.

Take the train from Bondorf marked as heading towards Stuttgart or Herrenberg.  If you catch the train on the half hour (weekdays only), you will need to change to the S1 (S-bahn) train in Herrenberg.  You will arrive on track 101.  You’ll need to go down the stairs to the pedestrian underpass, turn left and follow the signs to track 2.  The regional trains arrive at Stuttgart’s central train station (Hauptbahnhof or Hbf) platforms at ground level.  The S1 arrives underground.  If you are going to the center city and are arriving on the S1, you can also get off one stop before the central train station at Stadtmitte.

When you return from Stuttgart, the simplest way is to catch the RE destined to Singen or Rottweil at 17 minutes after the hour.  This will take you directly to Bondorf.  These trains usually leave somewhere around track 5.  Alternatively, you can take the S1 marked to Herrenberg at 5 or 35 after the hour.  If you reach Herrenberg about a quarter till the hour, go to track 4 and catch the regional train going to Rottweil or Singen.  If you reach Herrenberg about a quarter after the hour, go to track 101 and catch the regional train to Horb.  The latter train does not run on weekends or holidays.  You’ll either have to wait half an hour, or take a cab to Bondorf from the Herrenberg train station.

Note: The train information listed above is correct about 90% of the time.  However, at some times of the day, a train doesn’t run, or leaves from a different track.  It is always best to check the departure schedules located on the train platform.  You can also get train schedule information online.  The Stuttgart regional transportation authority has a wealth of information (in English) on their website.  In particular, you can print a personal schedule between two endpoints that shows all of the possible connections for the entire day.  Be forewarned, however, that these schedules use a 2 digit identifier (e.g. R7) for the regional trains that doesn’t appear on any schedule or sign in the train stations.

Frankfurt Airport to Bondorf

Train travel to and from the Frankfurt Airport (Flughafen) is very convenient, as there is an ICE train station right at the airport.  There is train service at least once an hour that will get you to Bondorf in two hours.  This means that it is almost always faster to fly into Frankfurt and take the train, rather than to add an extra leg to your journey to fly into Stuttgart.

Most flights arrive in Terminal 1.  If you are arriving here, look for signs to the train stations (Bahnhöfe) after you exit customs.  These will eventually lead you down an escalator to a lower level containing shops and restaurants (there’s a McDonalds here if you are already feeling homesick).  There is a ticket office down here if you need to purchase train tickets.  Now look for signs to the long distance trains (Fernbahnhof) and/or tracks (Gleis) 4-7.  The signs down here are a little misleading.  If you go past the last row of shops and restaurants, you’re headed toward the parking lots and have gone too far.  What you are looking for is an escalator around the corner to your right.  After going up two flights of escalators, the signs to the train station will lead you to the right.  After a walk down a corridor, you will reach the station.  Large signboards here will tell you the upcoming train schedule, including the track number.  Two flights of escalators will take you down to the tracks.  Use the near escalators for tracks 4 and 5, the far ones for tracks 6 and 7.  You will find the train layout diagrams, showing you where your car will be positioned, on signboards in the center of the platforms.

If you arrive at Terminal 2, follow the signs to Terminal 1 and then look for signs to the trains.  You will need to take a tram or a bus to transfer between terminals.

Every other train going in your direction (usually every other hour) goes to Munich (München).  These trains will take you to directly to Stuttgart with only one stop in Mannheim.  The other half of the trains go to Basel (Switzerland).  On these trains, you will have to transfer in Mannheim to the Munich train.  Only three minutes is scheduled for the transfer in Mannheim, but this is usually sufficient because the other train will be on the track that is directly across the platform.  If you have a reasonable choice, go for the direct train.  Both trains take the same amount of time to get to Stuttgart, but you don’t run the risk of missing your connection due to a late train (rare) and you don’t have to deal with dragging your bags on and off the train an extra time, which can be a hassle.  If there is one downside to traveling on the ICE trains, it is that there is insufficient room for bags if the trains are running at all full.  Carry-on and medium size suitcases are manageable, but larger suitcases can be inconvenient.

The trains usually arrive in Stuttgart down around track 15.  This is on the opposite side of the station from where the RE train to Bondorf leaves.  There is typically an eight minute layover.  This is normally sufficient, but can be rather harrowing if your train is five minutes late.  Unless you are near the front of the train, it will be shorter for you to take the steps part way down the platform down to the pedestrian underpass rather than walk all the way down the platform to the station.  From there you can walk to your connecting track.  If for some reason you miss your train, the S1 leaves from the underground station about 15 minutes later.

To get to the Frankfurt train station from Bondorf, everything works in reverse.  Take the RE to the Stuttgart station and transfer to the ICE.  Depending on which train you meet, you will either go directly to the airport with a stop in Mannheim, or you will need to transfer in Mannheim.  Again, if you have to transfer in Mannheim, the connection time is short and your connecting train will be directly across the platform.  Once you get off the train at the airport, follow the signs to the planes.  There will be a baggage check-in point as you leave the station, but it doesn’t apply to you.  Instead go directly to the airline check-in counters.

The Frankfurt airport has two separate terminals, divided into 5 sub-terminals.  Sub-terminals A, B and C are in Terminal 1, while sub-terminals D and E are in Terminal 2.  At the end of the corridor leading from the train station, and at other points in the airport, you will find signs listing all airlines and where they are located.  Once in the terminals, look overhead for the large boards listing all of the upcoming departures.  In addition to the departure time and gate, it will tell you the number, or range of numbers, of the check-in counter(s) for your flight.