Using public transportation in Central Europe

05 Jun

While my trip is fresh in memory and even though it’s off-topic for this blog, I thought I’d share some public transportation tips for future travelers. Keep in mind that my husband and I live in an area with limited options (the Detroit People Mover doesn’t really count), so public transportation isn’t part of our everyday lives. My tips will no doubt elicit a big “duh!” from some of you. We relied on trains and local systems in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and an overnight stay in Slovakia. By the end of the trip I was stressed about planning routes, but really, everything was easy to navigate, convenient, and not very expensive.

Interior wall of Malostranská metro station in Prague

Prague metro stations look like they’re upholstered in Dalek skin


Local Transportation

If the local transport system has an app, use it. It’s much easier than trying to correlate paper maps and timetables, and while it’s possible to use Google Maps for route planning (set up the start and end point for directions, then choose the train icon for public transport options), it doesn’t include all systems or have up-to-date information. The local apps in Berlin and Munich were much more useful.

One place where Google Maps excels is that it will tell you the walking time required for each route. For example, it might say that you need to take the S2 S-bahn and Bus 152, and there will be 12 minutes of walking. For someone with mobility issues, traveling with children, or dragging luggage, walking time can be a deciding factor.

Speaking of mobility issues, our experience overall was that Central Europe would be happy if disabled folks would go somewhere else, thankyouverymuch. There was not always an audible announcement of stops or arriving trains for the visually impaired. Many stations had stairs and no elevators. Escalators in stations were often broken — I think every escalator in the Munich Hauptbahnhof was simultaneously out of service. Austria was better than the other countries we visited, but it was still touch and go.

When buying local transportation tickets at a machine in a combined train station, you might need to go to the very top menu and then choose the local system. I made this mistake the first time I tried to navigate the machines at the Munich main train station; I had to go up a menu to find the options for the MVV instead of those that also included DB.

Waiting for the U-Bahn in Berlin, I tentatively translated a notice that the upcoming train would be short. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that meant. We soon found out as we jogged down the platform after the receding end of the tiny train. I later noticed a mark on the wall next to the track that clearly indicated where a short train would end. Ohhhhh. It’s hard to notice all the little details when you’re overwhelmed with a different culture and language.

We found it useful to buy tickets that allowed the use of any public transportation — bus, tram, S-bahn, U-bahn/metro — for a specified amount of time rather than individual tickets. We bought tourist cards (which include all public transport and some discounts/free admissions to local attractions) in Berlin and Prague, where we spent enough time to make the price worthwhile. In Vienna we bought 48 hour passes. Munich was the worst: the day tickets expire around 6:00 am the following morning, no matter when you buy them, but can still be cost effective.

Validate your ticket if necessary. This isn’t true for every system, so it’s important to do a little research ahead of time, but in many places, buying your ticket isn’t enough. You also need to have it date stamped by a machine you can find in the station (or on the bus/tram). In the Czech Republic, you must do this before you go down to the metro platform or you can be hit with a significant fine. To make things even more fun, in areas where validation is mandatory, some tickets don’t require it. Hahaha! In all of our rides, we only encountered a ticket inspector on a bus in Salzburg, but he checked each ticket to be sure it was stamped. Side note: you don’t need to show your ticket every time you get on. Keep it tucked away somewhere convenient.

Buses may or may not pause at every stop. In Berlin, if nobody was waiting and nobody had pressed the Stop button, the driver just kept going. Efficient perhaps, but not user friendly if you can’t hear the announcement of the next possible stop (don’t count on it, and sometimes the interior signs don’t work). In Vienna, vehicles paused at every stop. I suppose the advice is to pay attention and if there is a stop button, push it before your stop even if it might not be necessary. Also, sometimes you will have to push a button to open the door; they don’t all open automatically.

Watch the locals. In Germany, people get up before their stop and stand near the doors, ready to impatiently push the button and burst out. If you don’t stand until after the bus has stopped, you might find the door closed in your face and the bus underway again before you can exit. The Czech were much more relaxed and Austria was a mix. Once you get used to the local rhythms and customs, it’s easy.

Long Distance Transportation

Buying tickets ahead of time is easy and often cheaper. The Deutsche Bahn website is good and their app is excellent for booking long distance trains; you can even buy “Handy” (mobile phone) tickets that have a QR code to show to the inspector, eliminating the need for a printer or stop at the ticket office/machine. Before the  trip, I wasn’t able to get the ÖBB (Austrian railway) website to accept my credit card, so I bought some tickets at the train station in Dresden. It was a lot like the DMV (motor vehicle department), with a long line and employees who reeked of exasperation and annoyance.

Second class on long distance trains is just fine. It’s a hell of a lot nicer than Amtrak, but I’d recommend paying to reserve your seat, especially if hauling luggage or traveling with others. Social and backpacking? Then go ahead and save some Euros; you’ll just have to look around to find an available unreserved seat. I liked first class and it was still less expensive than US train travel, but the advantages varied by route and type of train. Sometimes there was free WiFi. Once we were given bottles of water. Other times, first class simply offered a more comfortable seat with a power outlet and a reserved place included in the price. Some trains also offer a quiet car if you want to avoid people having loud mobile phone conversations in nearby seats.

There is a lot of information on the platforms, but much of it gets lost in visual overload. On long distance trains, you might have a reserved ticket that says you’re in Wagon 273, Seat 32. Fantastic… but then this long train pulls into the station and you only have a couple minutes to find the right car, and you feel like an idiot running down the platform with your suitcase bumping behind you. Maybe that’s just me. The screens above the platform that announce the trains will often say “ABC” or “ABCD”, etc. Those correlate to signs above the platform and give you an idea where the train will be positioned. Sometimes, a sign will tell you which order the cars will be in, such as 1st, 1st, Dining, 2nd, 2nd 2nd. Even better, sometimes you can find a sign like the one below from Mannheim. This is such great UI that I’m embarrassed to say I never noticed something like it until the end of my trip; maybe they are standard. Not only does it list the trains by departure time, number, and major stops, it shows you which direction they will go, the car schema, and the vertical red yarn marker shows the location of that sign compared to where the train will stop. This was invaluable for making sure I was standing near the right car and didn’t have to haul my bag down the length of the train after it was underway.


Seriously, watch your bags in the train station. While waiting in the station at Bratislava, my husband and I watched the pickpockets and scammers work the crowd. There was an elderly beggar who seemed innocuous until we noticed his partner exchanging signals with him across the room. A woman sitting and chatting on a side wall was silently communicating with someone else. We couldn’t find the partner of the girl selling magazines, but since she vanished — along with the rest — just before the police walked through, we’re sure she was part of a crew. Their eyes slid over our luggage locks and Pacsafe bags (love them) and they ignored us. Most places outside of the former Czechoslovakia felt safer and there’s no need to be paranoid, but be alert.

Main train stations in some cities are essentially malls with trains that run through them. Berlin’s Hbf is incredible and the new Vienna Hbf is great too. I already miss the train station bakery and sandwich shops. One of my summer projects is to try to duplicate the mango curry sauce that Le Crobag uses on their chicken baguettes; my heavens, it’s good!

All in all, taking public transportation during our trip was fantastic. I wish that it were possible to have a useful train system in the US, and local transit planners should have to spend a couple weeks navigating systems in Europe to help them avoid harebrained plans like monorails to nowhere and dead end light rail lines. I spent the last two weeks of my trip driving everywhere, which was also nice (the best roads in Michigan are infinitely crappier than the worst roads in Bavaria, where even winding mountain trails were as smooth as a freshly paved NASCAR track), but sometimes I missed just hopping on a tram.

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Posted by on June 5, 2015 in Culture, Side Topics


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