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How to get around Germany on the Cheap

Dani and Jess in Germany

Even though Germany is compact, the main cities are flung right across it in all directions. On any given trip, you’ll likely have to take at least a couple of mid-length trips. Travel within Germany can be pricy – but only if you don’t plan in advance. As long as you know your travel dates and all your options, you can cut down your travel costs to a fraction of what they would be otherwise.

During the couple of months I spend in Germany every year, I have used every transportation option myself and have compiled them all here for you to know your options and to help you get the best prices on transportation to get around Germany.

german country road

Trains in Germany

You might dream of traveling Europe by train and nowhere is train travel more comfortable or efficient than Germany. But prices have skyrocketed in the last few years. There are still good deals to be had, but these usually are only valid for the slow regional trains, not the slick, ultramodern ICE trains, and involve changing trains at least once during your journey.

Either way, you need to book in advance. Show up at the train station today and try to book a train form Munich to Berlin, and you’ll have to fork out €125. If you book this journey two weeks in advance instead, you can get the same ticket for as low as €29, which is almost €100 cheaper!

The Deutsche Bahn website has a good English language section where you can check train times and prices, but you will still have to know the German names of the cities or you won’t be able to search, i.e. München instead of Munich, Köln instead of Cologne.

trains in germany
Trains in Germany

Look beyond the standard tickets it offers as well. If you’re planning a weekend getaway, you can buy a Weekend-Ticket for €42 which allows unlimited travel for up to five people on regional trains all weekend long! If you divide the ticket by 5 and take two trips, that comes to just €4.20 per person per ride, no matter how far you travel! A similar ticket is the Quer-durchs-Land ticket, which offers unlimited train travel on slow trains for 24 hours. The ticket is €50 for two people and €56 for three people, which breaks down to €18.60 per person and gets proportionally cheaper the more people share it.

Some cities also offer special ‘tourist cards’, like the Cologne WelcomeCard which is €9.00 and offers 24 hours of free travel on all trains, subways, buses and trams in Cologne, plus discounts of up to 50% on museums, tours and attractions.

germany dani & jessDeutsche Bahn offers Germany-only rail passes (as opposed to the popular European rail passes many use) but we find them to be pretty expensive compared to all the other ticket options, unless you plan to take the train often or are under 25.

Buses in Germany

The Deutsche Bahn effectively held a monopoly on public transportation until January 1, 2013, which is when German law allowed the creation of private companies to compete with the DB. Now several bus companies have popped up with much cheaper tickets compared to the train, making bus travel in Germany suddenly a very attractive option.

If you decide, with two days notice, to go from Frankfurt to Munich, the train starts at €69 ($92). Bus fares for the same journey start at €20 ($26).

summer in germanyBuses from Berlin to Leipzig are €8, Berlin to Hamburg €9, or €22 for a ticket all the way down to Munich. You can even go all the way to Innsbruck in Austria from Munich for as low as €8! Check out Flixbus or consider EuroLines for international routes. We compared bus prices for our routes using GoEuro.com The site has an overview of which buses cover which routes and compares costs of each company – the site is super easy to navigate and the comparison tool will save you so much money.

Just type in your date and your origin and destination, and it will show you a list of all your options and how much they cost. Then you can head straight to the website of the provider of your choice and book your trip there. It’s important to book your trips in advance, since similar to budget airlines, prices go up closer to the date of travel.

By the way: GoEuro doesn’t only compare bus prices, but it shows you all available options: buses, trains and flights. You can sort the results by cheapest, smartest and fastest, and sometimes there are flights that are nearly as cheap as the bus tickets (see screenshot below).

Carpooling

Around the same price as a bus, sometimes even cheaper and always cheaper than the train, are Germany’s many carpooling services. Carpooling is very popular in Germany – not surprisingly since it relies on a green mentality and is common sense. Drivers have extra seats in their car, you need to get to the same destination – why not split the cost of gas and drive together?

Drivers post their trip on a carpooling site, including departure time and per-passenger cost. People looking for rides along the same route call, text or get in touch via the website to book a seat. Most of these sites have an English version and even offer rides on European routes, like Berlin – Warsaw, Munich – Florence or Hamburg – Stockholm. Some of our favorite carpooling websites include BlaBlaCar, Flinc.org, Mitfahrangebot, Mifaz, Mfg-Buddy and Drive2day for all of Europe (all in English). If you speak German, you’ll benefit from an even wider variety, with services such as BesserMitfahren or Fahrgemeinschaft.de.

carpooling germany
Our comfy carpooling ride which we found on BlaBlaCar.

The advantage of carpooling over buses is that you can be very spontaneous – deciding to head from Frankfurt to Stuttgart tomorrow? No problem, you’ll definitely still find a ride at the same price as an advance bus ticket would cost.

Get a German SIM card for Carpooling, Hitchhiking and Wi-Fi

If you decide to carpool, you’ll need a cell phone to take calls and text about pick up points, etc. You can pick up a German SIM card for as little as €5 including credit (usually the card is free and comes with €5 credit) in the discount supermarkets such as Lidl or Aldi.

You just top up your card as needed, and since rates are very competitive, you probably won’t use more than €10 credit per month. SIM cards with data are a little bit more expensive, but make sense if you want to use the carpooling, train or bus apps during your travels. Fellow traveler Kash breaks down all SIM card options in Germany including data in this post. Another advantage to having a German SIM is that while there is free Wi-Fi almost everywhere, often times you need to have a code texted to your cell for access. No cell phone, no free Wi-Fi – so avoid that catch-22 and get a German SIM card!

Hitchhiking in Germany

Hitchhiking in Germany is way more widespread and socially accepted than in the U.S. and other countries. If you are on an extremely tight budget or just up for adventure, hitchhiking in Germany is possible, safe and a legitimate option. You can’t wait on the highway (Autobahn) itself, but you can wait at gas stations and at service areas along the highway. There are sometimes 10, 20, even more than 30 people at popular pick-up spots, so you might consider using websites like Hitchwiki or the iThumb App to find a ride before you even leave.

road to the bavarian alps

Car rentals in Germany

If you don’t want to trust the daredevil German drivers with your life and prefer driving your own car, check out the special weekend offers from the big car rental companies such as Hertz, or check out Expedia-owned CarRentals.com for the best deals across all car rental companies. We have taken advantage of deals for €14.99 per day from Friday to Monday and weekend flat rates as well. If you are driving a long distance, why not post your trip up on one of the carpooling websites and make your gas money back taking a few local Germans with you!

Smart &Zugspitze
Our rental car in Southern Germany

Car Sharing in Germany

Car sharing services have exploded in popularity over the years, but for the short-term visitor, this option is a bit more difficult to take advantage of. Essentially, car sharing involves being able to rent a car for an hour or half a day any time you want. Cars are usually in convenient locations around the cities, you don’t have to find a rental office and you can book at short notice for as low as €5 per hour via an app on your smartphone. The problem is that you have to register with the company of your choice.

The registration fee is usually around €29, so it makes more sense for longer stays in the country. Once you do have it, you can shop, get out to the countryside or take a quick morning trip anywhere at the drop of a hat. Some car sharing services worth checking out are: Car2Go (in seven German cities; famous for their fleet of Smart cars) Cambio (in 13 German cities), DriveNow (car sharing by BMW in Germany’s five largest cities), or Flinkster (the official car sharing service of Deutsche Bahn with cars in over 140 German cities (and if you have a Bahncard, there’s no registration fee!).

Flights

Flying usually doesn’t make much sense in Germany thanks to the country’s compact size, but if you want to save time and are traveling popular routes like Berlin – Stuttgart or Hamburg – Munich, it’s worth checking Germanwings for flights within Germany from €39.99 (booked around four weeks in advance, sometimes there are even cheaper deals). If you are planning to take trips from Germany to another destination in Europe, most cities are served by the major budget airlines, such as Easyjet, Ryanair or Germanwings.

airplane
Ryanair – we dislike it, but we use it.

Where to stay

If you are trying to travel for as little money as possible, check out the Couchsurfing scene in the cities you’re planning to visit. Germany’s got quite an active Couchsurfing community, and if you don’t get any responses to your requests, make them more personal. Germans don’t like getting swamped with generic requests – instead, they are looking to make real connections and meet like-minded people. Once a German offers you their couch though, you can consider him or her a friend for life.

A similarly authentic travel experience is Airbnb, which to me feels almost like Couchsurfing when I rent a room in somebody’s apartment (instead of the entire apartment). I’ve found that in Germany, private rooms in an Airbnb usually only cost a couple of Euros more than a bed in a hostel dorm bed – and even though I enjoy staying in hostels, sometimes I appreciate having my own room and not having to share a bathroom with a dozen other people.

If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, sign up through my referral link and get up to $40 off your first booking!

Both Couchsurfing and Airbnb have helped me make my travel experience more genuine and interesting and get a better idea of what life in the place I’m visiting is really like. In a hotel, you’ll never have your host randomly invite you to a party with locals, or to join them on a bar hopping tour. Even when my hosts don’t have time to take me out, they always give me great recommendations for places to check out which aren’t necessarily on the beaten tourist path.

Over the years, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find couches to sleep on, especially in popular destinations, which is why I now prefer renting a room in an Airbnb apartment, instead of renting the entire apartment. That way, I get the chance to connect with my host, and when I travel solo I don’t need an entire apartment to myself. I always want to meet new people though. And that’s what I also appreciate Couchsurfing for: their groups and meet-ups. So even if I don’t couchsurf with someone, I can still go to a meet-up and connect with other travelers.

Have you traveled in Germany? Can you add any tips to get around Germany on the cheap? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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7 Comments

  1. FWIW…I’ve taken a lot of the buses in Germany and Meinfernbus has been my favorite. Trains are the best option for getting around if you’ve got the money to spend. Curious to hear about your car rental deals! It’s in my plan for this year – to take some road trips around Germany. And while I don’t mind carsharing, I much prefer to be the one behind the wheel 🙂

    1. Definitely a brilliant idea 🙂 I can’t recommend it highly enough! Had another great car sharing experience here in Germany just a few weeks ago 🙂

  2. Wicked info! I’ve never heard about the car sharing – definitely going to be utilizing that in September when I head over to Germany.

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