Understanding a city’s public transportation, is one of the biggest steps before feeling comfortable there. In some cases, it’s very simple. Take Athens, for example: Just a few metro lines, some overground lines, one ticket (with a time limit) for everything – and you’re done!
But, in some other cases, like Berlin, the transportation system has some intricacies. While it isn’t that much difficult, it demands a visitor’s (or new citizen’s) attention. And sometimes, important information can only be found in German.
Keep in mind that this guide will only try to explain the basic things one needs to know to easily get around the city. But I will try to update it in the future with any missing info or tips.
About the Tickets.
During your first encounter with a ticketing machine in Berlin, you will probably feel confused. There are so many choices for ticket types, and also tariff zones.
So, the first thing one needs to understand, are Tariff Zones:
A map of the S + U Bahn lines and ticket zones in Berlin. Image by VBB.
The city of Berlin, spread out as it is, is divided into three Tarif Ζones: A, B and C.
“A” is whatever is located inside the so-called S-Bahn Ring. The “Ring”, is a certain line of the S-Bahn train (going to explain that later) that goes around what’s considered the general center of the city. So, if you are inside that ring, you are (mostly) in the center.
Outside this ring, and up to the limits of the city, the zone is B.
Generally, if you are a tourist in Berlin, 99% of the things that you’ll want to see, will be in zone A, and almost never in B. The only exception to that, will be when your trip includes the Schönefeld Airport, which resides just on the beginning of zone “C”. Tegel, the other airport, north of Berlin, is in zone B.
The good thing is that the cheapest possible ticket is for the “A” and “B” zones together (“AB” ticket).
So, if you are dealing with the Schönefeld airport, buy the ABC ticket. Otherwise, buy the AB.
Buying a ticket.
There are lots of ways to buy a ticket:
- Using the machines inside every U-Bahn or S-Bahn station. Don’t forget to Validate the ticket before boarding.
- Using the machine on the Tram, or from the driver (yes, the driver) on the bus. Remember: These tickets are pre-validated.
- Using the BVG app on your smartphone. This way, you pay with your debit card and have the ticket available on your phone. But you need internet connection to do it, of course.
- From BVG (the company that handles Berlin’s transportation) Sales Outlets, wherever you find one.
Generally, the easiest way is to use one of the machines inside the stations. Have in mind, that some of these machines also take cards, but since this is Germany, there’s a big possibility that your foreign-issued card won’t work.
There are three types of tickets that you should generally care about.
First, the One-Trip ticket (also called Einzelfahrausweiss). These are valid for a single trip, with any pauses between the start and the destination, for a total time of up to two hours. But no traveling backwards.
That means, if you take a train from your home to Alexanderplatz (a very central station of Berlin) and then want to go back home, you can’t use the same ticket.
When you validate the ticket, the starting station is printed on it. And, yes, if you try to use the same ticket to go back to where you came from, and they check you, you will be fined.
Secondly, there are the Short-Trip Tickets (Kurztrecke). These are tickets of reduced price, for very short trips – specifically, up to 3 stations on the metro (U-Bahn) or urban rail (S-Bahn) (with transfers permitted) or up to 6 stops on the bus or tram –(with transfers not permitted). On ExpressBus lines, the stops which the bus passes without stopping are also included. Those Germans think of everything…
These Short-Trip Tickets are very convenient for distances that you could otherwise walk, but you aren’t in the mood to (or you need to be fast).
And lastly, there is the Day Ticket, single or multiple. These may prove cost-effective when you will be using the public transportation a lot for a specific number of days.
Since a normal trip in the AB zone (return included) will cost you 5.60 €, anything more than that will make the Day ticket (at 7 €) worth it.
Also, both the One-Trip tickets and the Short-Trip ones, can be bought in packs of four. This way, you’ll buy them at a small, but welcome, discount.
Validating the tickets.
All of the tickets (except, of course, the multiple-day ones) must be validated in the validating machines present in the platforms of the stations, just before you get on-board. You have to validate any ticket – otherwise, it’ll be the same as not having one on you.
On trams, you can both buy and validate tickets on board. On buses, you can buy a ticket from the driver when you get on board.
Types of Trains.
Berlin provides multiple means of transportation. The system is highly integrated and everything uses the same ticket.
First, and most commonly used in the center, is the U-Bahn, which is the (mostly) underground train system, and is comprised of 10 lines.
Then, it’s the S-Bahn, an over-the-ground railway, that expands even more in the outer limits of the city, and is oriented towards bigger distances (the distance between each of its stations is bigger than the U-Bahn’s).
After that, the Tram. Most of the tram lines are situated in the area that used to be East Berlin. The Tram provides an easy way to get around in the city, similar to that of the buses, but much faster.
And lastly, the Buses. Coming from Greece (Thessaloniki, to be specific), I feel certain aversion to them. But, I have to say, Berlin’s buses are spotless and, outside rush hours, totally comfortable. I can say that, except if you are in a hurry, a bus can be one of the best, and most interesting ways, to quickly see many parts of the city.
How to find your route.
Knowing how the Train System works, and knowing how to get from one specific place to another, are two different things. The second one, is mostly a matter of experience. The more you use the trains, the more you will get a feeling of the lines and their connections.
Of course, if you are in Berlin just for a few days, you won’t have time for that.
The solution is simply to have a smartphone and an internet connection. If you are a European citizen, you can probably use your internet package from back home, so problem solved. Otherwise, just buy a prepaid SIM card.
I believe that it’s just very hard to find your way without a smartphone. There are maps in every station, and you can always ask a BVG employee, but it will be much more complex this way – or maybe you like adventures.
If you have a smartphone and internet then you should have two apps installed:
Secondly, the BVG Fahrinfo Plus app (Android – iPhone): Google Maps has all the timetable data, but the BVG app is more up-to-date, especially when there are disturbances in the train system. You can just select a station in the app, and it will show you the exact time of the next arrivals and departures.
Using these two, you will never get lost in Berlin.
About inspectors and fines.
So, Germans have a word for riding without a ticket: it’s “Schwarzfahren“. Black riding, if directly translated. I find German words, like this one, very funny.
But, to be caught by an inspector is not funny at all. First of all, they will show no mercy. This ain’t no mediterranean-type “hey buddy, I’m sorry but…” situation.
If they catch you without a ticket, you will have to show ID and pay. Otherwise…
The fine is 60 €. It’s not worth it, so better not Schwarzfahren.
The other thing you should know is that, in Berlin, you can’t discern the inspectors.
Believe me. They’re the most unassuming among the people in the U-Bahn. You are more suspicious than them. You may ride for one week without a single inspection, and then, just as you think if inspections really happen, you will see that sleepy, working-class man in front of you, abruptly stand up and join three others, asking for your “Fahrkarten”.
They’re Germans. They know their job.
This post will be often updated with other useful info.