Is it essential that you spend as little on transport as possible?
If yes: Consider booking long haul buses with companies like Flixbus. They are considerably cheaper than the train, clean, and usually have wifi. For shorter trips, check out BlaBlaCar, a ride sharing service. Drivers range from the professional minibus to business people who are happy for a bit of company while on a trip for work. Prices vary, but average about €5 per 100km.
No, but I don’t want to throw money away: Then read on to find out which rail pass is right for you.
No, and I want to make it rain: Just buy tickets on the train with cash or a credit card.
Are you a permanent resident of Europe?
If yes: You need an Interrail pass.
How a German rail pass works
For travellers 12–26 years old: Choose from three, four, five, seven, 10, or 15 consecutive days, or three, four, five, seven, 10, or 15 days in 30 days.
Travel with a buddy and get 25 percent off the price of two German rail passes. Valid for one month after activation. Travelers must travel together. Choose from three, four, five, seven, 10, or 15 consecutive days, or three, four, five, seven, 10, or 15 days in 30 days.
For everyone else: There is no discount for seniors. Choose from three, four, five, seven, 10, or 15 consecutive days, or three, four, five, seven, 10, or 15 days in 30 days.
Traveling with children
Two children aged 6–11 can travel on each adult rail pass. A twin pass will cover two adults and four children. If the child is between 12–26, they need their own Youth Rail Pass.
Calculate your fare
Sometimes rail passes are a good deal, sometimes not so much. In order to determine if you need a rail pass, think about how much flexibility you really need, if it would add or relieve stress to buy tickets ahead of time, and how essential it is to save every single euro.
Children up to age 15 travel free on any train as long as an adult has paid for a fare. If they are traveling alone, they pay a half fare.
The Deutsche Bahn website will tell you about any train in Europe even if it doesn’t originate in Germany. It is available in English and it is worth registering for a free account, as it makes online booking much more straightforward.
The Deutsche Bahn app is also very handy and not just for booking. It also has real time information about delayed trains and can store your e-ticket so the conductor can easily scan it.
German rail passes also include the following, so be sure to check carefully if you’re considering a multi-country pass. It may not be necessary.
Belgium: ICE trains to/from Brussels Nord station (but not Thalys trains) and direct DB InterCity buses between Düsseldorf and Antwerp or Brussels.
Prague, Czech Republic: DB InterCity bus (not train) services to/from Munich, Nürnberg, and Mannheim (requires paid seat reservation).
Austria: EC trains to/from Innsbruck via Kufstein, and direct DB InterCity buses between Munich and Klagenfurt.
Italy: EC trains to/from Bolzano, Verona, Bologna or Venice (not night trains or trains via Villach)
Poland: DB InterCity bus (not train) between Berlin and Kraków, Katowice or Wrocław (requires paid seat reservation).
Copenhagen, Denmark: DB InterCity buses to/from Warnemünde.
Ljubljana, Slovenia: DB InterCity buses to/from Munich.
About Sparpreis fares
You’ll probably notice when you’re checking prices that there are two listed. The Sparpreis, which start as low as €19 and the Flexpreis, which is often enough to make your eyes water. Very few people in Germany pay full fare. Booking ahead means you can access the cheaper Sparpreis fares, but it should be noted that they are only valid on the specific train you booked. Flexpreis fares are valid for any train on that route that day.
Sample itinerary: Flying into Frankfurt, heading to Munich and Berlin before returning to Frankfurt.
Total cost with Flexpreis tickets: €380
Total cost with cheapest Sparpreis ticket: €60
Total cost with Sparpreis ticket booked one month in advance: €220
Total cost with three-day adult rail pass: €198
Rail pass rule of thumb
If you are planning to travel on more than two ruinously expensive, long-distance, high-speed journeys (some combination of Cologne, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Munich, Berlin or Hamburg), the pass is generally worth it.
Questions about the Deutsche Bahn?
The Man in Seat 61 has everything you could ever want to know about German trains and much, much more on his excellent site.