Train travel with bicycles in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic / © 2005 by Brian Wasson

   

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Last updated Dec. 1, 2007

Overview

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).

The bicycle car on the DB train from Passau to Munich. Note the bicycle symbol on the side of
the car.
How do you open the closed door on the train? Push the button! The green "auf" means open, while the red "zu" means close.
Our Czech Railways train from Prague to Tabor. Note the "K" designation in the window, signifying a baggage car with room for bicycles.
Kind of hard to miss this bicycle car! On some of the very popular biking routes (like the Danube) you'll find these dedicated bicycle boxcars.

Train schedules/buying tickets

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.

A sample departure schedule at the Zell am See, Austria, station. Trains are listed by hour, and those that take bicycles will have a bicycle symbol next to the listing.
In both Germany and Austria you will need to pay a surcharge for your bicycle (a "bicycle ticket"). The charge on most local trains is 3 Euros per bicycle. And, yes, a tandem will cost the same as two bicycles (6 Euros). In some regions, bicycles are free on local trains (most common in touristy regions).

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.

Transfers and connections

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.

Elevator down to the S-bahn in the Darmstadt, Germany, train station. Photo by Sondra Spencer.
Stairside baggage conveyor belt in a German train
station. Photo by Moni Neville.

Getting you and your bicycle on and off the train

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!

Handing our tandem to the baggage attendant in a dedicated bicycle boxcar on the Vienna-Passau "biker train."
Loading through the baggage door on an Austrian local train from Grein to Melk.

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.

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Types of bicycle facilities on trains

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):

  • On Austrian routes that are very popular with bikers, there may be one or multiple dedicated bicycle boxcars (you'll see this on the Vienna-Passau "biker train," the Pinzgaubahn, and a few other routes); these are usually very obvious blue boxcars with big bicycle symbols painted on the sides. Wheel your bike up to the boxcar and let the attendant load it for you. On the very popular Danube bicycle route, you'll be amazed to see 5-10 boxcars on the train devoted just to bicycles! (See photo at top of page.)
  • Some newer trains may have a dual-purpose area that is designated for bicycles, but with fold-up seats (allowing the area to be used for seating or bicycle storage). This is common on S-bahn trains, too (see photo, below right). Occasionally you may find the bicycle area occupied by passengers. This can be a problem if there is no other place to put your bike. If there are other, empty seats available, it's perfectly acceptable to ask the person to move so you can put your bicycle where it's supposed to go (usually people will move without you even asking). On very crowded trains it can be impossible to get your bike on this type of car. You are responsible for loading the bike yourself.
  • More common is a dedicated storage area for bicycles, featuring racks (see photo, below left) from which you can hang your bike. Although they are designed for single bikes, they will usually work for tandems, too. These areas are usually part of a sort of hybrid train car, with seating in one half and the bicycle area in the other. There may also be a few fold-up seats against the wall in the bicycle area. You must load the bicycle yourself.
  • On local trains you may find a dedicated baggage/freight car, or a baggage area in a passenger car. Occasionally there may be hooks hanging from the ceiling for bicycles (but not always). This type of car provides plenty of room, but you may need the conductor's help to gain access to the baggage area (or to open the big, outside baggage door). Theoretically, the baggage car attendant or conductor will help you load your bike; more realistically, you'll end up loading it yourself. Usually you'll have to lift your bike several feet to the level of the train car floor (see photo, above).
Touring bikes loaded on an Austrian Inter-city
train from Vienna to Linz.
Tandem secured against folded-up seats on
a German regional train.
Our tandem on the DB train from Passau to Munich. This is the dedicated bicycle area in one half of a train car.
The S-bahn train from Munich airport to the main station. Note the folded-up seats making a nice bike storage area.

German train-related words to know

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"

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Information about using trains in the Czech Republic

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.

More information about bicycles and trains in the Czech Republic can be found in the narrative on pages 1, 2, 4 and 7 of my Czech Republic bike tour report

For more information

  • More general information about traveling in these countries may be found on the "resources" page in my Tauern bike tour report. Information about finding a place to spend the night is available on my "lodging" page.
  • Chris Timm has an excellent resource on taking bikes and tandems on German trains.
  • George Farnsworth's "Travel with Bicycles" site offers advice on using trains, airplanes, and other conveyances to move you and your bike around.
  • Need info about bikes on French trains? Check out Q. May's site.
  • BicycleGermany.com also has a good page devoted to bikes on trains.
  • Germany Tourism's site on "Discovering Germany by Bike"offers some advice on bike on trains, as well as general biking info.
  • The train section of John Bermont's "How To Europe" Web site is a one of the best general resources I've seen for learning how to navigate European railways (not specific to any one country).
  • "Brian's guide to getting around Germany" is another very useful resource focused specifically on riding the rails in Germany. (And, we share the same name!)
  • "The German Way" Web site has a some good "Train travel tips."
  • The Deutsche Bahn (German railways) site is hands-down the best trip-planning resource for train travel in Europe. When searching the schedule, be sure to select "transport of bicycles required" to ensure that you find a train that can take both you and your bike.
  • Austrian railways
  • Pinzgaubahn
  • Czech Railways

Still have questions? Feel free to e-mail me.

Page updated Dec. 1, 2007

© 2005-2007 by Brian Wasson

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