One of the things we like most about bicycle touring in these countries is the excellent network of long distance and regional train lines, and the ease of bringing a bicycle along (even a tandem!). Bicycles are welcome on most regional trains, but it can be difficult (and impossible with a tandem) on some long-distance trains (ICE and EC). While the regional trains are slower, they are much easier to deal with when you have a bicycle. And, they are cheaper. If you want to go fast, why are you bicycle touring? Bikes are also welcome on the rail lines (S-bahn and U-bahn) of most cities, but generally not during rush hour.
It's beyond the scope of this page to teach you how to use the railway systems in Europe. There are numerous good books on the subject (and see the end of this document for links to some useful Web sites). We'll concern ourselves mainly with the challenges of getting you and your bicycle on a train and to your destination.
Note that more general information about traveling in Germany and Austria, including hints on finding lodging, guidebook recommendations, etc., can be found on the "resources" page in my Tauern bike route trip report.
Many Deutsche Bahn (DB), Austrian Federal Railways (OBB) and Czech Railways (CD) trains will either have a dedicated baggage or bicycle area (either an entire car, or, more likely, a portion of a car), or a section of the seating area designed with fold-up seats to allow bicycles to be accommodated. In Germany and Austria, look for a bicycle symbol on the side of a train car. In the Czech Republic, baggage cars are usually signified by a "K" symbol on the car or in a window (see photo, below).
Train schedules in Germany and Austria will feature a small bicycle symbol next to a train listing to show that it has facilities for carrying bicycles. In general, most regional trains accept bicycles. Bringing the tandem on trains is occasionally difficult, given its size. On a couple of occasions over the years it's been a challenge to get it on the train. But, we've never been left behind. Just smile a lot and let the conductor do his/her thing.
The Deutsche Bahn Web site is perhaps the best resource for researching trains and connections for western Europe. When searching for a train, be sure to click the box marked "carriage of bicycles required." This will automatically search only for trains that will allow you to bring your bicycle along. Pretty neat! When we're doing our advance planning for a trip I often will search out schedules and connections using the DB Web site. I don't book ahead of time, as that usually isn't necessary. But it's nice to have some idea of how to get where you want to go ahead of time. Make certain that the schedule you select includes only trains, as the schedule may show bus connections or other alternate transportation modes.
The only time we've had difficulty getting on a train without a reservation was in 2004, when we were trying to get from Linz to Salzburg. It was the beginning of a long holiday weekend, and it seemed like the entire city of Vienna was riding the rails to get somewhere else (the train through Linz originates in Vienna). There were passenger seats, but all the bicycle spaces were filled. We still got where we needed to go, but it wasn't until the third train showed up that we were able to get on (and we still had to sit on the floor of the baggage car for about a half hour, along with several other bikers). But, we got on. Note, though, that we never travel during the high season of July and August.
Deutsche Bahn offers several excellent special-offer tickets that can potentially save you a lot of money, especially if you are traveling with several people. For example, the "Schones Wochenende" ("Happy Weekend") ticket allows five people to travel anywhere in Germany on a weekend day for one low price (currently 33 Euros if you buy it from a machine, 35 Euros if you buy it at a ticket counter). Our Day 1 narrative on our Czech bike tour report talks about this in more detail. This ticket also allows travel into certain areas of neighboring countries (to Salzburg, Austria, and Pilsen, Czech Republic, for example), making it a very good value. Note that as of 2005 you must immediately sign your Schones Wochenende ticket and note the number of passengers using it for it to be valid. There are also a number of regional tickets (called "Länder-Tickets" -- we usually use the "Bayern Ticket") that allow unlimited travel for several people in a defined region (whereas the Schones Wochenende ticket is good throughout Germany). One nice thing is that both ticket schemes allow travel on most city trains, including the subway (U-bahn) and the S-bahn.
Train tickets are easily bought at the DB service counter in just about every station (although the window may be closed on holidays, Sundays, and after hours in smaller stations). Usually, but not always, the agent will speak at least some English. If not, just write down your destination on a scrap of paper and show it to the agent. Ticket agents can also provide a custom print-out of your itinerary ("reiseplan") if you ask, including the track numbers for any transfers. This is really handy to have, and I highly recommend asking for one. Most stations also have automated ticket machines that will accept coins, cash, or credit cards. Finally, if all else fails (or you are in a hurry), you can purchase your ticket on the train from the conductor. However, there may be a surcharge.
If possible, make your life easier by trying to plan your trip so it requires as few train transfers as possible. Sometimes you can ride an extra few miles to get to a different station where you can catch a direct train. Most good European maps will show rail routes, and you can use these to help plan your route. For example, if you are trying to get from the Munich airport to the Passau, Germany, train station (where many people start riding the Danube route), you can a) take the S-bahn into the Munich central station and transfer to the train to Passau, or b) ride 15 minutes from the airport to the station in the nearby town of Freising (through beautiful farmlands), and then catch the very same train (direct to Passau) outbound from the Munich main station. You've saved yourself probably an hour of train travel, some Euros, and you've eliminated hauling your bike and bags through a train station and up and down stairs.
One word of caution: when planning an itinerary that includes transfers, always be sure to allow yourself enough time between trains. While it's possible to make a quick dash between trains, more likely you'll need to haul yourself, your bicycle, and your bags down and up at least two staircases (most stations have underground tunnels to allow transfers between the tracks). Some stations that are popular with bikers (like Passau) will have ramps alongside the stairs to allow you to easily wheel your bicycle up the stairs. Some will even have automated conveyor belts to help with luggage. Most stations also have an elevator, which makes things a bit easier (it can be very difficult to fit a tandem in the elevator, but a fully loaded single bicycle usually will fit... barely). If you need to, don't be shy about wheeling your bicycle right through the center of the train station building. As long as you don't run anyone over, nobody will care.
If you aren't used to it, getting yourself, your bike(s), and your bags on the train before it leaves can be pretty stressful. In an ideal world, you'd be getting on the train at the originating station. This makes life a lot easier, as you have more time in which to find your train, find the baggage/bicycle car, load everything, etc. More realistically, you'll be getting on the train at an intermediate stop and you'll only have a few minutes to get everything on. First, confirm what track ("gleis") or platform ("bahnsteig") the train will arrive at (note that gleis and bahnsteig essentially mean the same thing: it's where your train will arrive). If possible, we try to find out where the baggage car will stop (often the stationmaster will know) and position ourselves on the platform appropriately. At larger stations there may be a board called a "Wagenstandanzeiger" with a graphic display of where each car on the train is located (first class, second class, baggage, etc.). This is pretty handy, as a quick glance will tell you where the baggage cars are located. Often the bicycle car is at the beginning or end of the train. One tip: look for the locals with bicycles and note where they are standing. On more than one occasion, though, we've had to sprint down the platform to get to the baggage car (it's very hard to sprint while pushing a tandem and trying to balance a bunch of bike bags hanging over your shoulder!).
On my very first bicycle tour in Europe (a solo ride along the Danube bike path), I stood on the platform in Freising, Germany, and watched as the train I wanted pulled into, and then out of, the station... without me on it. I simply had no idea where to go with my bicycle, or how to buy a ticket. I guess jet lag didn't help, as I had just gotten off an overnight international flight a few hours previous. Thankfully, there was another train in an hour, and a helpful German showed me what to do. This Web page is a small way of helping to ensure that no one else has to share that feeling of helplessness!
We take all the bags off the bike and clip them together with shoulder straps (it's important to remove the bags, as the conductor often will not take the bicycle on the train with the bags still attached). My wife loads herself up with the bags and I'm in charge of getting the bicycle on the train. (Hint: bring along a elastic cord or two to secure the bicycle in the storage area.) When the train arrives my wife hops on and finds a seat/ compartment while I work on getting the bike on (we usually try to sit as close to the bicycle area as possible). This can occasionally lead to stressful moments if she isn't sure if I made it on the train or not (never a problem so far). Sometimes the conductor will want to load the bike for you, more often you are responsible for loading it yourself. If there are a lot of other bikers trying to get their bicycles onboard, it's polite to lend a hand. Usually you'll find a sort of impromptu work gang forming, with everyone focused on getting their bicycles on board and the train out of the station on time. Don't hold them up, unless you don't mind angry glares... in Germanic countries, efficiency rules!
Be aware, too, that if you are using a baggage car the conductor may ask where you are getting off. This helps him plan ahead for getting your bicycle off at the station and keeping the train on time. If the conductor asks you a question when loading your bike that you don't understand, he's likely either 1) asking to see your bicycle ticket, or 2) asking you where you are headed. (You might be asked "Wo gehen Sie," "Wie weit fahren Sie," or "Wo fahren Sie," all of which essentially mean "Where are you getting off?") Cover your bases by handing him your bicycle ticket and at the same time announcing your destination.
Once you are on the train, pay attention to where you are along the route. It's always good to learn what the name of the station before your stop is. As you get close to your stop (the "reiseplan" discussed above helps a lot with this, or you can estimate based on your arrival time), make your way to the bicycle/baggage car and prepare your bicycle for unloading (unstrap or unlock it, etc.). Also, gather your bags and get them ready for unloading, too. Most trains stop for only a minute or so, and you most likely will have to unload your bike and bags yourself.
You're likely to run into several different accommodations for bicycles on trains in Germany and Austria (in most every instance a bicycle car will be marked on the outside of the train car by a bicycle symbol):
Railway = "bahn" / local (commuter) train = "S-bahn" / Subway (underground) train = "U-bahn" / train = "zug" (pronounced "zoog") / train station = bahnhof / main train station = hauptbahnhof / track = gleis (pronounced "glice") e.g., track #3 = "gleis 3" / train platform = bahnsteig / train car = wagen (pronounced "vah-gen") / baggage car = "gepaeckwagen" (pronounced "geh-peck-vahgen") / bicycle car = "fahrradwagen" (pronounced "far-rahd-vahgen") / itinerary = "reiseplan" (pronounced "rise-ah-plahn") / departure = "abfahrt" / arrival = "ankunft"
Czech Railways operates much like those in Germany and Austria, except that you'll find that their rolling stock (cars) tend to be a bit older. The conductors we came in contact with were uniformly businesslike and helpful, and we had no problems despite the significant language barrier. Most conductors seemed to know at least a bit of German, and, in fact, we were always mistaken for German bike tourists and addressed in German. With one exception, we were able to find a ticket agent that spoke either English or German in the main train stations ("Hlvani nadrazi") in Pilzen, Prague and Tabor. In the very small border town station of Horni Dvoriste this was not the case, but some writing and stick figures on a piece of paper managed to get our needs across. You'll find the train fares in the Czech Republic to be very reasonable.
Like both Germany and Austria, Czech trains require the purchase of a bicycle fare in order to transport your bicycle. The conductor will ask to see your ticket when loading your bicycle in the baggage area. He will take the ticket and affix a two-part claim check to it. You'll get one part of the claim check back, and the other will go on your bike. To retrieve your bicycle from the baggage car you must show the claim check. This is a good way to ensure your bike doesn't get claimed by someone else at an intermediate stop. However, whenever I travel with a bike on a train (in any country) I'm always paranoid and keep a close eye on the baggage car at each stop to make certain nobody wheels our bike off by accident (or on purpose).
As mentioned previously, Czech baggage cars are usually signified by a "K" symbol on the car or in a window (see photo). We did not notice any train cars that had bicycle-specific facilities, but this is not a problem as there is usually plenty of room in the baggage car. One exception to this was the train we took from Regensburg, Germany, to Pilzen, Czech Republic. Although it was listed as accepting bicycles, when it arrived it had no baggage car or other area in which to store our tandem. Thankfully, the conductor allowed us to store the tandem at the very end of one of the cars, lengthwise across the entry vestibule (it barely fit). Note also that both the German and Austrian railways seem to run their older cars/trains on the routes that serve the Czech Republic, so you may not find the bicycle accommodations to be as up to date as on their mainline routes.
If you are transiting to the Czech Republic from Germany, note that if you use the Schones Wochenende ticket (see the discussion above), you can use the ticket to travel to Czech towns/cities close to the border (actually, as far as Pilsen, Czech Republic). On our 2004 bike tour, we traveled by train from the Munich airport to Prague (via Pilsen) using a combination of the Schones Wochenende ticket and local fares in the Czech Republic. Total cost for the two of us, including the bicycle ticket for our tandem, was less than $50 US (a lot cheaper than buying a point-to-point ticket). Note that your German bicycle ticket is only good as far as the border, and you'll have to pay a bicycle fee to the Czech conductor when you cross into the Czech Republic.
Czech Railways has recently made their own version of the "Happy Weekend" ticket available. Called the "SONE+" ticket, it can be used on a Saturday or Sunday is good for train travel anywhere in the Czech Republic for one day (unlike the German variant, the SONE+ is not available for travel on holidays). It can also be used to travel to certain neighboring areas in Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia. Up to five people can travel on the SONE+ ticket, but only a maximum of two can be adults. Even if you are a single, depending where you are traveling it may pay for itself and give you more flexibility, too. The ticket is available in two varieties: the first has a price of 160CZK for 2nd-class travel on ordinary trains (designated "Os"), the other type is 360 CZK and is valid for 2nd class on all trains except EC and IC trains.
Fares in the Czech Republic are based on kilometers traveled. If you have a rough idea of how far you are traveling, you can estimate your fare using their online fare chart.
A new feature being offered by Czech Railways is a bike hire service. You can rent a bike at one station and drop it off at another station. I haven't used (or even seen) this service myself, but it sounds like it could be useful if you want to do a short tour without the hassles of bringing your own bike.
Still have questions? Feel free to e-mail me.
Page updated Dec. 1, 2007
© 2005-2007 by Brian Wasson