A friend, an astronomy colleague, and kind reader from the USA asked:
I was just trying to figure out the German train booking system for a trip I’m taking between Frankfurt am Main and Bonn this July and thought I’d ask you before doing something stupid. Would it be easier/better to buy ahead or should I just want until I’m in country and buy it at the airport.
An excellent question about Deutsche Bahn (DB) …
Buy a ticket before or after arrival?
If you can afford it, I would wait until you’re in country. A big reason is this: if you buy ahead, your ticket is tied to a specific train and time. If for any reason your plane is late arriving in Frankfurt, you may be stuck with buying a new ticket, as an advance ticket with savings will likely have restrictions which you should check if you decide to buy early.
If you decide to buy a ticket upon arrival, you have the benefit of not being rushed. At Frankfurt airport, follow the signs to Frankfurt am Main Flughafen Fernbahnhof (Frankfurt airport station for long-distance trains). When you enter the train station, you’ll find automated machines to buy your ticket. The machines allow you to change the language, and subsequent transactions allow cash, European EC cards, and major credit cards. Alternatively, you can enter a staffed DB-Reisezentrum (DB travel centre). Please note that this is not the same as a staffed information booth. At the DB travel centre, you’ll be in a controlled queue, take a ticket (with a number), and look at the overhead display to see your number called. Buying a ticket over the counter with the help of a member of the DB staff may incur a charge of a few extra Euros.
Have a look at Deutsche Bahn’s USA/English website. For example, enter “Frankfurt Airport” and “Bonn” for departure and arrival stations, respectively, as well as the appropriate date and time.
If you think you’re going to be on the train on 5 or more separate days, you might consider a RailEurope pass or a German Rail Pass. The savings are significant on long-distance trains with distances in excess of about 250 kilometres. I’ve written about how 5- and 10-day RailEurope passes in Germany have saved me money.
• Frankfurt airport railway stations: Regionalbahnhof, Fernbahnhof
• Rail connections from Frankfurt Airport to cities in Germany and beyond, PDF