ICE, ICE, Baby! (A Beginner’s Guide To The Deutsche Bahn)

I love trains.

One of my favorite things about living in Regensburg is that we’re situated on a major rail line. From here, there are direct lines to Munich, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Prague. That’s just without changing trains. If you don’t mind changing trains once or twice, you can go nearly anywhere on the continent. It’s a great way to travel.

Step One: Book Your Trip

appWhile you can get your train tickets from automated machines in the train station, or from a Deutsche Bahn counter, it’s generally advisable to do this ahead of time. The DB has a very excellent website in multiple languages, as well as a series of great apps to serve this purpose. It’s not much different than arranging air travel at this point- You can search with criteria like arrival or departure time, number of connections, and so forth.

The Website has also recently added a seat selection option to the booking process. The brown bars in the screen capture below are tables, so you’ll be sitting facing someone else. The boxed off sections toward the right are compartments with a door between you and the aisle. Click for a bigger view.

seatselector

Step One Point Five: Choose Your Type Of Train

rb-alexWhile you book your trip, you should bear in mind that there are a number of different types of trains in use on Deutsche Bahn rail lines.

  • There are a few non-DB carriers that operate on German rail lines, like the Alex trains pictured on the right, and Agilis just below that. I’m not going to get into the specifics of them in this post, but I’ve used Alex trains for trips to Prague and Munich. The Prague trip was horrible, but the Munich run was smooth as glass. The Agilis trains tend to be run on local routes. For example, the one pictured here runs between Ingolstadt and Regensburg, on an almost hourly schedule.
    Agilis train
  • Regio-DB or RB (Regional Bahn) tend to be highly localized. These trains are usually painted red.
  • RE (Regional Express) lines are for slightly longer distances than the RB. For example, there are RE lines between Regensburg and Munich. You can travel throughout the entire country using only RE lines, but it will take you a while. RE trains are also painted red.
  • IC (Inter City) trains.  IC trains are the middle step between the RE and ICE trains.  They are typically mostly white with red stripes, like the ICE trains, and they are generally faster than the RE trains.
  • ICE (Inter City Express) lines are my personal favorite. These are the trains that look like monorails. ICE trains are always pronounced Eye See Eee, never like the word ‘ice’ despite my bad joke in the subject line of this post. ICE trains are painted white with a red stripe, and they’re fantastic.
  • When your trip moves you between countries, sometimes you’ll wind up on the rail network from another country. For example, the train below is Railjet, a high speed Austrian line. This train was going to Vienna.
    austrianrailjet

In the picture below, you can see four different DB train types. The trains are, from left to right, an ICE type one, an ICE type two, an RE, a RB, and an ICE type three. The type three is the newest and fastest type.

ice-123-3types-munich

I’m a huge fan of the ICE trains. Here’s two more pictures of them. First, an ICE-T train. The T stands for ‘Tilt.’ All the newer models do this, actually. The upper portion of the train is designed to tilt to allow for high speed navigation, even on curves. The practical result of this for me is that my trips to and from the bathroom on an ICE train while the body of the train is tilting back and forth are often high comedy.

icet

Here’s another close picture of an ICE type three, because they’re amazing.

ice3

Why do I think they’re amazing? Well, they’re quiet, they’re comfortable, they have power plugs on the seats, and they’re fast. On newer, straighter sections of track, they can do this-

ice-zoom

You read that right- that’s 300 Kilometers per hour. That’s 186 Mph. And they can go even faster, if the track is straight and smooth.

One more thing that’s kind of interesting to me- in the picture of the ICE Type 3 above, the coupling is covered by a white shell. However, sometimes you see them uncovered, like so:ice-coupling1

That’s because ICE trains can be coupled together for longer hauls, making the single train double the length of a normal train. This is particularly useful when both trains share half a route, then get uncoupled at a major station before going to separate destinations. Here’s what they look like coupled together:

ice-coupling2

Step Two: Go To The Station

The main train station in any city is called a Bahnhof. In cities that are large enough to have more than one station, the main station is called a Hauptbahnhof. Bahnhofs always have clocks on them, for some reason I haven’t been able to learn. Here’s the front of the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof:

frankfurt-hbf

Step Three: Find Your Platform

Every Bahnhof has display signs which tell you information about upcoming departures, including the Gleis (track or platform), destination, and departure time. There’s a big departures board inside the Bahnhof, and once you get to the actual platform, there are usually smaller signs to provide more information, like this one:

platform-digital

In the picture above, you have the following information:

  • This is Gleis 4.
  • This train is going to München (Munich). This train also has stops in Köln (Cologne), Frankfurt Flughafen (airport), and Nürnberg (Nuremberg).
  • The train’s identification is ICE 629.
  • This train will stop at stations A through E on the platform. On the left side of the picture, you can see the letter C- this is useful for shorter trains, as it allows you to see roughly where the beginning and end of the train will stop.
  • The train is departing this station at 12:38.

If there are any announcements or indications that your train is late, they’ll generally be notated on the boards. In the picture below, the scrolling text with the white background tells us that the train to Dortmund is actually running five minutes late.

trainbelate

Sometimes, you luck into an older station with the charming flip-board version of this sign. While they don’t have as much information, I think they’re really nifty and I quite like seeing them.

platform-flipstyle

Step Four: Find Your Seat

On RE and RB trains, you can’t reserve seats. On those trains, you just have to make sure that you don’t wander into a First Class car with a Second Class ticket. The cars are clearly marked with very large 1 and 2 signs, so that’s pretty straight forward. Some of the RE trains use double-decker cars with a lot of seating, like this next picture.

rb-interior

For ICE trains, however, you can usually get reserved seating- this is especially nice on crowded routes. When you have an ICE reservation, your ticket will specify a Wagon and a Seat. That’s where these signs come in handy. It’s difficult to capture this in a clear picture, but the car itself tells you that this is Wagon 23, on ICE 29 between Frankfurt and Wien (Vienna). The giant 2 to the right of that display tells you that this is a second class car.

ice-trains4

Once inside you’ll need to find your seat. If you do have a reservation, the seats will be marked by a small electronic displays somewhere above each pair of seats. If the display is blank, there’s no active reservation. The reservation display pictured below shows you that the window seat, #46, is reserved from Bochum to Nürnberg, and the aisle seat, #48, is reserved from Köln to München. Hypothetically, if you were planning on getting off the train before Köln, you could use seat #48 without much of a problem since that reservation starts with someone boarding the train in Köln.

ice-reservations

Once you’ve got your seat sorted out, you can try to stash your luggage. Most of the trains have some form of overhead storage, but it’s not always big enough for a regular suitcase. The pictures below are four different views of ICE train interiors.

ice-cabin-1 ice-cabin-2ice-interior1 ice-interior2

Step Five: Enjoy The Ride!

There’s not much else to add, really. DB trains are generally very smooth. Sure, yes, sometimes delays happen and weird things make travel a little more complicated. For the most part, though, this is a great way to travel. You can get from Regensburg to Frankfurt in three or four hours while reading on your Kindle, or you can stare out the window at the countryside passing by.

If you get hungry, most ICE trains have either a Bordbistro or a Bordrestaurant, and even the RE trains often have a snack cart passing by periodically so you can get something to eat while in motion. The Bordrestaurants often have hot food available, in a small fixed menu. You can see a few options in the photo below- when this picture was taken, chili, a rice dish, currywurst, a simple salad, and even some desserts were available.

bordbistro1

So there you have it- a beginner’s guide to riding (and enjoying) the Deutsche Bahn. I could go on a great deal longer about this topic, because I love riding the rails I think this is a good place to stop, though- this post should cover the basics. Now go forth and ride! Travel somewhere this weekend! Gute reise!

Which do you prefer- trains, planes, or automobiles? Have you traveled by Deutsche Bahn?

84 thoughts on “ICE, ICE, Baby! (A Beginner’s Guide To The Deutsche Bahn)

  1. Most excellent! I also enjoy taking the train. In fact all things being equal, I’d prefer the train to a plane. And if you miss a connection you can leave your luggage at the station and explore the town your in for a bit. No security checks, passport controls, etc. Really enjoyed your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Two minor things…

    1) In your Munich photo the time is actually 12:35. The train is scheduled to leave at 12:38. You should probably also explain that delays and other important information (e.g. if the train is running backwards; but you also omitted the sign that shows where the train wagons theoretically stop on the platform (A/B/C/etc… you got part of it)) are on that display.

    2) You completely omitted IC trains. Maybe you don’t have them in Regensburg, but they are a major component of the network. Personally I find them incredibly uncomfortable.

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  3. Kathrin

    “I love trains.” made me giggle. I had Sheldon’s voice in my head.
    By the way, I would never say “Eye See Eee” I always pronounce the letters according to the German alphabet and I don’t know any other Germans who would prononce them the English way.

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    1. It’s kind of an honor to be Sheldoned.

      I get what you mean about the pronunciation, but I tend to default to the English version for some odd reason… I think I write toward an American audience without thinking about it. Hmm.

      Like

  4. Giovanni

    Only the ICE-T can tilt – and those are limited to only 230km/h.
    All other ICE-trains can’t tilt, this includes the recently ordered ICE-trains too.

    There is a Diesel ICE running at 200km/h betwenn Hamburg/Berlin and Danmark. Those were able to tilt, but aren’t able/allowed anymore.

    All(!) ICE trains have restaurant or bistro, but in rare cases it is closed during night hours.
    Most IC trains have restaurand or bistro (but not all)

    Only some (not most) RE-trains offer catering. Most of them are running up to 160km/h and there are some tilting RE in some areas (e.g. Nürnberg to Dresden).

    What went wrong on your Prague trip? From Furth i Wald to Prague it’s an EX by Czech Railways.

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    1. The Prague trip was supposed to be a nonstop single train. We had to change trains halfway through with little warning.

      Additionally, the train was so incredibly overbooked that people were sitting in the aisles and the doorway areas, and nobody could really move for the entire trip. Then when we changed trains, it was to a train that had no seats at all- I have a picture of a whole lot of us standing up in a line for the last hour of the trip, like cattle. Just a miserable experience. We kept expecting them to change us to a horse drawn carriage next.

      By the way, where do you get your information on the trains? Everything I read said that most of the newer varieties of ICE could do the tilt functions, particularly the Velaros that are used for type threes.

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    1. Thanks! I could have gone on and on and on and on- there’s so much to talk about on this topic. And it’s probably pretty obvious that I love talking about it. 🙂

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      1. I think he meant this:

        Letties und Chentlemon, in affew minutes vee arrive et Regensburg Hauptbahnhof. Senkyu for treffling vis Deutsche Bahn.

        Here are some links, just from googling “thank you for traveling with deutsche bahn”:

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  5. I always have to watch myself in class when talking about trains, because usually I call them “ice” and people get confused. Also that’s always an interesting conversation to have with Germans, because while I totally agree with you that the trains here are awesome, most of my students have had a very different opinion. Usually there is a lot of griping about how expensive it is, trains always being late, etc. etc. Personally I don’t think a 5-minute delay is the end of the world, but I also usually try to schedule my journeys to include at least a 10 or 15-minute switch time if I need to make a connection. Either way, nothing I’ve experienced in Germany (which include delays, being yelled at when I sat in someone else’s seat, and standing/sitting on the floor for extended periods of time) can even come close to the horrors that I’ve seen other places. (Czech Republic and POLAND, I’m looking at you.)

    Bottom line, I’m totally with you. Trains are sehr cool. And this is a wicked thorough overview. 🙂

    Like

      1. T

        What’s about Ukraine? Long-distance trains are generally reservation only, ridiculously cheap (as in: less than 1€/100km, and that includes the seat/bunk bed), and run on Russian engines that don’t get all scared by a few snow flakes.

        And you can actually choose your exact wagon/seat while booking online, something that DB has just introduced for a limited number of trains and with, well, mixed results …

        By the way, Steven, if you ever want to get out of that well-known Western Culture, I can definitely recommend Ukraine.

        Like

        1. When I lived there you needed a passport and extra cash just to get a ticket. 150 km took 4 hours (with 2 stops in-between). People got on the trains without tickets to sell you something, or take something. Doors to the toilet were locked at all stops. Sometimes not re-opened unless you found your carriage master. In 2nd class 8 people sat in an area designed for 3-4, or 5-6 pygmies. Other than that it was great. All-aboard!

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    1. Thanks, Heather!

      I’ve had similar experiences with native Germans talking down about their train experiences, but compared to planes for travel, I think it’s just delightful. And I agree, five or ten minutes delay isn’t going to kill me.

      Like

      1. @Michael: I was so scarred by Poland that I’m not planning on any train travel further east. Plus I had a Peace Corps friend in Ukraine and his stories did not help.

        @Steven: Maybe if we both live here longer, 5-10 minutes will start to make us crazy. I think that’s one of the signs of becoming more Germanized. That and asking to meet at weird times like, 11:48 or something.

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      2. I’ve obviously been in Germany too long and am starting to go native. I think Deutsche Bahn sucks rocks. 🙂 The problem is probably structural… they’re a state-owned enterprise trying to make a profit, so they end up being the worst of both worlds. And if you’ve ever been stuck in an ICE on a hot day, you’ve experienced first-hand how they’ve skimped on investment on things like air conditioning.

        As for delays, I’d be happy if they were only 10 or 15 minutes. Hamburg-Berlin is scheduled 90 minutes, but can get to 3 or 4 hours if anything goes wrong along the way. (It doesn’t help their on-time record that throwing one’s self in front of a train is the favorite German method of suicide… back when I commuted I bet I was held up a dozen times by “police operation on the tracks”.)

        At least here up north, most regional and local routes are not Deutsche Bahn anymore. The bids have gone to competitors, and the service has improved immensely.

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  8. Wesley Wyatt

    I see icons that both look like beds on the City Night Line from Berlin to München, along with two bicycles. So, that is my main question. Thanks

    Like

    1. I really don’t know. If I was at a normal computer, I would take a look, but I’m traveling and answering from a phone.

      Have you considered calling Deutsche Bahn and asking? They staff English speaking agents in their call center.

      I should mention that I don’t work for the DB, and I have no affiliation with them other than frequent traveler.

      Like

  9. I totally agree with your article and with many of the comments. My wife and me have replaced our cars with two BahCard100, what is a flat rate ticket for whole Germany, all kinds of DB trains and many others are included, also public transport in almost all major (and some not so major) cities.

    We are blogging all our trips (we only leave out the daily trip to work, unless somethjing special happens), and in now more than five years of doing so we must admit, the DB is much better than its reputation 🙂

    A time ago I linked your article in my blog (http://dk5ras.dyndns.org/www/bc/?p=4348) and also showed it to some DB officials who really like it!

    Right now we are cruising on board an ICE with 300 km/h towards Frankfurt 🙂

    Ralph.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the link! I had seen your blog post previously because I get a few clicks coming from your post to mine almost every day in the stats.

      Cheers!

      Like

  10. d.l.kefford@gmail.com

    Here I am stranded in a small Bavarian town by floods. DB bahn has NOTHING on their website with information as to which lines are closed and for what likely duration. Some are — I have heard from local rumour. In Australia we are more used to natural disasters and it is easy and quick to get details of cancellations and closures in flood, fire and tempest.The fulsome praise of DB above needs to be qualified by a brickbat for their communication with users.

    Like

    1. Have you complained to the Deutsche Bahn staff? They add new functionality to their site often, so perhaps a well placed missive would convince them to add a status page to their website.

      Where are you stranded by flooding? I took the rail yesterday and today without incident, but I’ve heard things are pretty bad in Passau today.

      Like

      1. And one thing must not be forgotten – in such a situation the workload explodes, and keeping the remaining trains running has topmost priority. It is no help if the focus is on telling everyone that no trains are running instead of trying to keep them running 🙂

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  12. Thank you so much for your very informative post. I am so relieved regarding so many points. It has greatly helped me!
    I am from India and moving to Germany for 2 years and I am quite freaked out about how I am going to navigate the station with my 50 kg luggage. Can you give me any information about luggage carts/porters and their charges respectively which are available at the station and how and where can I find them?

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    1. This all depends on which station- there are literally hundreds of train stations in Germany, although only a half dozen or so are near major airports. Still, you should ask the Deutsche Bahn directly for this information. I don’t work for the Deutsche Bahn, so I can’t really tell you much.

      Like

  13. Tina

    Thanks for your post it’s very helpful. Is there much difference between 1st class and 2nd class on the ICE trains? We are a family of four (two teenagers) traveling from Denmark to Freiburg, then Italy.

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    1. That all depends- how much more expensive is first class? When is the trip?

      Certain routes get very crowded, especially on weekends or holidays, and people without reservations can wind up just standing or sitting in aisles. Being able to get into the first class cabin where it’s less crowded can be a very nice thing in those situations.

      That’s the exception though, not the rule. Using a regular second class ticket with a reserved seat is just as good for most trips- it’s a personal taste issue, I think.

      Like

      1. Ryan1

        thanks Steven. Yeah it’s a Monday morning at 9am from Dusseldorf to Amsterdam. It’s 39 Euro for 2people vs. 98 Euro for 2 people in 1st. No idea if that 39 Euro is reserved. I doubt it.

        Like

        1. Is this special booked through the Deutsche Bahn, through RailDude, or through some other means? Through the DB, seat reservations are typically just an extra €4,50 per ticket, so that shouldn’t break you.

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          1. Ryan1

            Through the Bahn website. Yeah so it sounds like at that time and that length just go reserved 2nd class right? ThAnks! Great site!

            Like

  15. Gucko

    Thank you so much! This was very useful. I’ve been living in Germany for 1.5 years and I wasn’t able to understand most of the signs. However there is still one thing I don’t understand, which is how to find the Wagon on the reservation once you are inside the ICE. I took the ICE train many times and I always couldn’t find it!!! I couldn’t find any signs to help me!

    Like

    1. The wagon numbers are marked on the outside of the train in the LED displays, and they’re also on the video screens by the doors- when in doubt, ask the DB staff to help.

      Like

  16. Robert C Watson

    I used a 1st class 7 day DB rail pass the first week in March. I took day trips out of Munich. I was a bit disappointed with DB 1st class. UK 1st class trains serve complimentary coffee and biscuits but not so with DB. On a trip from Munich to Frankfurt on a 1st class DB ICE, a DB train staff member did however put a whole basket of complimentary candies in front of me. I took two packages and I was promptly told by the 1st class DB staff member that I could only have one package and I was told to put one of the complimentary packages back in the basket. I thought that was very very unclassy for a 1st class train service. It would be one thing if there was a rule about taking only one package out of the basket that was announced before hand. But to insult a 1st class passenger with this surprise attack is just dreadful! I won’t be spending $568 on a first class DB 7 day rail pass ever again!!

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    1. Honestly, I don’t see the point of first class on most DB trains, unless the route is so busy that it’s the only place you can find a seat. The first class rail in the UK was much nicer, down to the service level and the nice sandwiches en route.

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  18. Peter

    This information was really useful thanks. We are planning a trip in July and will be taking an ICE train from Frankfurt airport to Munich. We are looking at booking through the Bahn website. Is there any way of working out what direction the train will be travelling in so that we can book seats facing forward? I noticed that this is possible booking the train from London to Paris. Thanks.

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    1. When booking an ICE train, there’s a ‘show seats’ feature that will allow you to select your seat. This view has an icon indicating train direction.

      Caveat: If your train stops in Munich, Frankfurt, Leipzig, or any other terminus station, your train’s direction will reverse at that point in the journey.

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      1. I am looking at a seatmap as I write this, and I don’t see any indication asto direction of train travel. What am I missing? (Looking at a Berlin–>Munich seat)

        I am assuming that the top-down view of the seatmap: “left” is the nose of the train, and “right” is the rear of the train. Is this correct??

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        1. Also: I am seriously considering a first class seat with table (just trying to figure out if this seat is forward-facing or rear-facing. I want forward, LOL!).

          I’ve read somewhere that only table-seats on ICE trains have power outlets. Is this true? ALso: if that wasn’t a consideration: is it better to have a normal seat or a table seat?

          Thanks!

          Like

          1. The ICE trains generally have one power plug for every two seats, even if not at a table. The plug is at about knee height, and it’s between the two seats. Normal seat vs table seat depends on you- when I travel alone, I don’t care whether I have a table or not. If you’re traveling in a group, however, then a table is excellent because it allows you to converse face to face, play cards, or dine together to pass the time.

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                1. I haven’t been in first class, so I can’t be sure, but I don’t get the sense that they offer freebies. I have seen service from the Bordbistro go into the first class cabin though- perhaps they get coffee or something; I’m not sure. When in doubt, ask the Deutsche Bahn. (Reminder: I don’t work for them, I’m just a frequent traveler.)

                  As for the wifi- some of the routes (but not all) have wifi, but it isn’t free. If you have a Telecom/T-Mobile account, you should be able to hop online using that set of credentials.

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                2. In the 1st class the only free thing are newspapers, and sometimes some candies. They serve drinks and light meals to your seat, for a slightly higher price, compared to the train restaurant. WiFi has to be paid, there should be vouchers available at the service staff or in the restaurant, and note that only the mid to high cost Telekom accounts offer this service for free, the prepaid and low cost contracts usually do not include it. At least more and more relations are serviced with WiFi, and in most cases speed and availability is quite good.

                  Ralph, also frequent traveller, and member of Deutsche Bahns customer advisory board.

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                3. Wow; thanks Steven and Ralph! So glad I stumbled upon this site! This info is really helping me to flesh-out what to expect on an ICE line from Berlin to Munich.

                  Do different ICE routes have different luggage allowances/limitations/room? I’ll have a backpack and a medium sized roller suitcase with me. Someone who I know who lives in Munich and has taken ICE lines before has told me that they’re all the same. But I thought I’d ask you two—especially Ralph, since he is on the Deutsche Bahns customer advisory board!

                  Oh, and about the wifi: how much would it cost for a Berlin->Munich ICE train ride?

                  Like

        2. I haven’t seen much consistency on the direction-of-travel indicator, frankly. It’s there sometimes, but not all the time. It’s normally a small square icon that looks like a tiny train, just going in one direction or the other. I think the DB still considers the seat selector a “beta” feature, though, so your mileage may vary.

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          1. You know Steven: after reading this, I since returned to the itinerary I’m interested in, clicked on the seat-map, and for literally a milisecond I can see that icon with “direction of travel” text, but not long enough to discern the direction of the icon! Then it disappears,and is nowhere to be found on the seatmap pop-up. I’ve even tried different web-browser. So not sure if it’s because the train will indeed change direction, or whether it’s a fault of the website.

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        3. I didn’t see the second part of your question- you cannot assume that left is the nose and right is the rear- these trains are bi-directional. What’s more, if they hit a Terminus station (Munich, Frankfurt, etc) then the train will leave that station going in the opposite direction from when it arrived.

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      1. A warm thank you from myself as well, Steven I just returned from my virginal trip to Europe, and my Berlin-to-Munich commute on the bullet train proved an overwhelming success. It was a little more than six hours, and I didn’t want it to end. (I flew a total of eight times over the course of three weeks, and with flying comes stress! It was nice to just relax on the train, pay for a beer, and just relax!)

        I’m glad I splurged and paid for my first class seat, but you and Ralph are very much correct: just German language (mais oui!) and some chocolates come with the fare. I also paid extra for wifi, but don’t regret it for a second. No voucher: just paid for it online with my VISA card. I believe it cost 5 Euro.

        Thanks again, Steven. This is an excellent site. Highly recommended. Will point others to it whenever I can.

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  20. Brad Morse

    You have created a really superb website for DB. I come to Germany each year & always travel by train, but I still learned lots from your site. What I missed though was a discussion of the EC & S trains. You might add info to clarify their status too.

    Like

    1. S-Bahn trains are typically inside a city or connecting a city to a nearby rural area. That’s local transport, and not really in the scope of this post. Besides which, there are two important things to remember here:

      1) I write what I’ve experienced. I rarely use S-Bahn because my city doesn’t have them, and I don’t ever see EC trains.
      2) I don’t work for the DB. I have no affiliation other than as a frequent traveler. I’m happy to help to inform people where I can, but questions that aren’t covered in my original post should really and truly be directed to the DB directly.

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  21. rafael

    I did a booking for me and my wife at CE train(dresden -prage) but in the end of sale process 2 seats were chosen at compartment section.
    Has compartment seats place for luggage storage?if not, do you know if is possible to change the seats to open saloon? I bought a promotional 2class ticket.(19 euros)

    thanks !

    Like

    1. Alex trains (designated ALX on the ticketing site) have shelves above the seats inside compartments which are suitable for luggage that isn’t too heavy. As for the other questions, I have no idea. I don’t work for the DB or for Alex. Please direct your ticketing questions to them.

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