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Getting Around Germany: Planes, Trains and More

ice train cologne germanyWith so many cities, landscapes and attractions to explore in Germany, you'll want to pack as much as you can into your visit. Luckily, frequent air service from the U.S. and one of Europe's most efficient transportation systems make it easy to see a lot, even in a short time. High-speed trains and excellent highways cover the country, and scenic routes are available via riverboat, bus and bike, as well as by car.

Flying to and Around Germany
Lufthansa offers the most flights to Germany with regular service from 22 U.S. cities. If you fly Lufthansa to Frankfurt, its central hub, you'll find quick connections to other cities via air or train directly from the airport. Frequent Lufthansa service is also available to Munich, a convenient destination for southern Bavaria and the Alps, and to Dusseldorf, a business center. See Lufthansa.com.

If Berlin is your destination, Air Berlin offers flights from the U.S. and serves Dusseldorf as well. American, Delta, United and US Airways also fly to German cities including Berlin and Hamburg. With so many options, it pays to compare fares carefully.

Once you arrive, Air Berlin has domestic service between all major German cities, as do budget airlines such as Germanwings and TUIfly. If you are arriving from other cities in Europe, you may find attractive fares from these lines as well as European budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair. A good source for comparing costs is WhichBudget.com.

12 Unforgettable Germany Experiences

Renting a Car in Germany
If you plan to spend most of your time in cities, think twice about renting a car, as it can prove to be more hindrance than help. Parking rules are strict, spaces may be scarce and hotel parking is quite expensive. You will find excellent public transportation available in town, and trains are the quickest way between cities. Even scenic byways and highways often can be enjoyed via bus or boat (see below) while you sit back and let someone else do the steering.

Another thing to consider is cost. Car rentals are expensive, gasoline can be double or triple the price at home, and insurance, which is required by law, is costly.

However, if you are traveling with several people, you love to drive or you want to explore the countryside on your own, a car may make sense. Hertz, Avis, Sixt and Europcar are a few of the most popular rental agencies. Rates are cheaper if you reserve in advance before your trip. If you can drive a manual transmission, that will save you money too. U.S. licenses are accepted, but you might be more comfortable with an International Driving Permit, available from any AAA office in the U.S.

Driving in Germany is not for the faint of heart, especially on the Autobahn super highways, where some sections have no official speed limit. If you do drive the Autobahn, the best advice is to stay firmly in the right lane. The Bundesstrassen, two-lane highways, are calmer, but finding your way in a strange country still can be stressful, especially on narrow winding rural roads.

Should you want to do some driving with someone else at the wheel, your travel agent or your hotel should be able to recommend reliable companies for renting a private car for touring with an English-speaking driver. This is an expensive option but can be a very pleasant way to travel.

Whether you rent a car or hire a driver, Germany offers several exceptional drives. You can do all or part depending on your location and time schedule. Here are some of our favorite options.

rothenburg ob der tauber germanyThe Romantic Road: About 220 miles from Wurzburg to Fussen; takes in charming medieval villages.

The Burgenstrasse or Castle Road: About 193 miles from Mannheim to Bayreuth (for a longer trip you can continue to Prague); passes dozens of castles and palaces.

The Weinsgrassse: About 50 miles through vineyard country near the French border; exquisite in fall.

The Alpenstrasse: Nearly 300 miles; offers dramatic scenery along the Bavarian Alps.

The Maerchenstrasse or Fairy Tale Road: 370 miles from Hanau to Bremen; links regions and tourist attractions related to the Brothers Grimm.

International Car Rental Tips

Germany by Train
Deutsche Bahn (DB), the German rail service, is reliable and speedy. InterCity Express (ICE) high-speed trains are among Europe's fastest, whizzing along at nearly 199 m.p.h. InterCity (IC) trains run between major cities, with schedules as frequent as every hour between popular destinations. Eurocity (EC) trains connect German cities with destinations in neighboring countries. See Bahn.com for more information.

A German Rail Pass, good for three to 10 days of non-consecutive travel within a month or five to 15 consecutive days of travel, may be a good value if you are spending more than a few days in Germany and plan to travel long distances by train. The days do not have to be consecutive. Discounts are available for more than one person traveling together and for travelers under age 26. Children age 6 - 11 ride free (limit: two children with each adult). The pass comes with some nice bonuses such as reduced-price boat rides, hotel and hostel discounts, reduced rates on buses and more.

One good idea may be to combine train and car travel with the Rail 'n Drive package, which allows for two to four days of train travel plus a two-day car rental within 30 days. Various multi-country rail passes are also valid in Germany. All passes must be purchased in before you leave home. See RailEurope.com.

If you are traveling a fair distance, from Berlin to Munich for example, a City Night Line (CNL) train with sleeper accommodations can save time and a night's charge at a hotel. Special Schones-Wochenende Tickets (Nice Weekend Tickets) are another money saver, offered for one day (24 hours) of travel for up to five people on a Saturday or Sunday.

Rail passes do not reserve your seat; you must pay an additional fee for a reserved seat. Reservations are less expensive if you make them when you purchase your pass, but they can be made online up to 10 minutes before departure.

You will pay as much as 50 percent more for first-class tickets that provide luxuries like extra legroom and meals delivered to your seat, so be aware that second-class seats are perfectly comfortable too. Book in advance to avoid a surcharge for buying tickets onboard the train.

Major cities have good local transportation via bus, tram, electric railway (S-bahn) or subway (U-bahn). U-bahn tickets are purchased from vending machines in the station or from clerks in larger cities. You'll find route maps posted in every station, and printed maps are usually available where there is a ticket office. Multi-ticket strips or day passes are less expensive per ride than single fares. They should be stamped when you first board to be valid.

Photos: The World's Most Spectacular Train Trips

Traveling by Bus
Bus service is slower than trains, but may be more economical. Eurolines Touring has service between many German cities and runs the EuropaBus from April to October, a very convenient way to travel the Romantic Road. Buses depart from the main international gateways, Frankfurt and Munich, and allow you not only to hop on and hop off wherever you want, but also to stay over and take a bus another day. See Eurolines.de for details.

Within large cities like Munich, Berlin or Frankfurt, "hop-on, hop-off" bus tours are a good way to cover a lot of ground when your time is limited. With fleets that operate every hour or half-hour, they provide an overall city tour and allow you to get off and stay as long as you like at sites that interest you, then pick up the next bus. The local tourist office or your hotel can help you find these services. Senior discounts may be available; be sure to ask.

Traveling by Bicycle
If you like to bicycle, do join the Germans, who absolutely love to bike. There are more than 40,000 miles of bike trails in cities and the countryside, and many scenic rides along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, through vineyard country and around Lake Constance, near the Austrian border. BicycleGermany.com has a long list of bicycle rental firms by city, with address and contact information.

bicycle bavaria germanyWithin cities, bike sharing programs allow you to borrow a bike inexpensively for a short time. Germany has two programs. Call a Bike, operated by a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, operates in Munich, Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt from spring to fall. The bikes can be picked up at the nearest designated area and returned at the most convenient site. More info is at CallaBike.de (German language only).

The Next Bike program is found in various German cities. Again, you can return your bike at any convenient official location, including many railroad stations. To participate, you must have a working cell phone. For details on how to register and use the system, see NextBike.de.

Traveling by Boat
The castle-studded Rhine and Mosel Rivers are among Europe's most famous. KD Rhine offers day trips along both rivers. Many companies, including Viking, Grand Circle, Uniworld, AMA Waterways and Avalon offer cruises of several days that include the German portion of the Rhine. Viking and Grand Circle also offer rewarding cruises on the Elbe River in East Germany.

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    --written by Eleanor Berman
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