Sprawling under the streets of the city is the u-bahn and the 170 stations that it comprises of, you’ll know when you’re near one as the air takes on a dusty stillness and an unmistakable smell will lodge itself deep in your nasal cavities.
Beginning operation in 1902 it has had a history as colourful and interesting as Berlin itself. The u-bahn is much like veins of Berlin transporting over 1 million commuters, tourists and buskers every day.
On the face of it, it can be a little bewildering however with a few tips you’ll find yourself a competent navigator. You may, dare I say enjoy your journeys because despite the stuffy stations and being grossed out by gripping onto the support bars that are still hot a sweaty from the last passenger it’s a interesting part of Berlin.
Stations are marked with a large blue U, the logo for the u-bahn,
Berlin is spilt up in to three travel zones A,B and finally C. Maps of the zones are shown on the station platforms and on the many free maps you can pick up. A is the central areas of the city whereas C is the surrounding areas, much like many transit systems around the world.
Unlike many transit systems around Berlin is barrier free. Yep no turnstiles to check the validity of your ticket before allowing you to the platform.
It has been described as an “honour system”, riding without a ticket is known as riding black and it’s a contentious issue between some.
So why should I buy a day ticket for a tad under 7€, that buys me a currywurst and a beer with enough left over for more stereotypical food stuffs?
Well, plain clothed staff do conduct random checks and lack of a valid ticket results in a red face and a 60€ fine.
When I say random, I mean random. If I take the last three months I’ve been checked around 4 times twice was in the same day. When you take into account the frequency of my travel on the u-bahn and the amount of different lines I take that’s not a lot of checking of little white tickets.
But still if I was you I’d purchase a ticket so you don’t have to eye everyone up who enters the carriage to see if they look mean enough to be a conductor and because despite the many faults it’s a good transport system.
You’ve decided to buy a ticket? Well done! It’s pretty simple but there is a pitfall or two.
You can buy tickets at machines at most stations on the network these are usually yellow/white but sometimes red/blue at large stations, shops and from station kiosks. You may be approached by someone offering to sell you a ticket, it goes with(out) saying but don’t buy tickets from people who approach you. It’s amazing the amount of people I’ve seen buy tickets this way, it’s most probably an old ticket that has been rubbed to removed the old validation stamp. Possession of an altered ticket is a whole other headache generally treated more seriously than no ticket at all.
The machines are nice and simple to use, and menus offered in multiple languages.
Your tickets and change will be thrown out of the bottom on the machine, ticket in hand you’re ready go! Well nearly, the next stop is simple but it’s also been a costly 60€ oversight of many a poor soul.
Almost every ticket will need to be validated, tickets for longer periods such as monthly tickets are exempt from a validation stamp.
To validate your ticket you will need to insert it into a small box that will stamp the date, time and location on your ticket.
The validation machines are often located on the platforms, near ticket machines and the entrances to stations.
Pop the top of the ticket into the machine and ping, bang and you’re on your way.
Buy your ticket and validate it with these machines.
Phewww you haven’t even boarded the train yet and there’s so much to take in!
You’ve got a ticket and a destination now you need to know the connecty bit in the middle the point between A und B.
The u-bahn network spans across 10 lines serving 170 stations and growing. Fortunately it’s nice and simple to navigate. Yet a few tidbits of information and a few tips will make you hopping on and off easier, quicker and more relaxed.
If we take a typical station it will have one platform serving one route with a track on the left and one on the right, in the middle with be a small kiosk selling knives, nudie mags and other items that make for a great Tuesday night in.
Each track will run the same route in each direction. Information is shown on the electronic boards above the track which will display the time, route number and end station of that direction.
You’ll need to know which direction of the line you require, a quick and easy way to do this is to look for the white rectangular signs that are displayed around the platform area.
These signs show where you are marked in bold text and a list of all the stops between your location and the end station.
So if we take the picture above we are at Alexanderplatz the route U8 will run in two different directions from the station we’re currently at. One will run to Wittenau and the other Hermannstraße. So if we want to go to Pankstraße we would take the train heading to Wittenau. Now that is simple but believe me it’s easy to miss, with that under your cap it’s time to delve deeper in to the signs around the station we will stay with the rectangular chap.
Next to many of the stations there’s information which shows us what connections the various stations have. We can see further u-bahn connections such as the U2 at Kottbusser Tor or the U7 at Hermannpplatz.
Connections to Buses are marked with a purple circle, S bahn with a green circle containing an “S”, Trams with a red square and orange squares mark the Metro tram. Even connections to airports are listed TXL being Tegel and SFX Schönefeld.
Another lesser known tidbit is the numbers on the right side these tell you how many minutes it will take from your location to the listed station. So from Alexanderplatz to Pankstraße should take around 9 minutes.
With that you hop courageously onto the train and begin your journey. After a sweaty, eventful few minutes you need to leave the station but which exit do you take….the one with the escalator looks tempting but the other has a döner stall that smells tempting and the stairs leading to it relinquishes you of the guilt of a 700 calorie snack.
Well some cleaver chappy has made it easy, simply look at the sign bearing the station name. Each exit tells you what awaits you when on each side. So if i wanted to take my new found confidence further I could get a connecting train on the U2 line then i’d take a right. However if i wanted instead to see the famous Fernsehturm (TV tower) I’d take a left. It also has a WC which is handy after all that Fanta, it really does taste different in Germany.
Maps, signs and communication with people!? Not for me you say, flashing your smart phone. Yes, yes smartphones are good, excellent in fact at getting you around but the old fashioned methods are worth knowing in case your battery runs out after taking all those selfies.
So apps, as you’d imagine there are lots of apps on all platforms to help you navigate your way around the whole transport network. I’ve used a number of these but now I only really use two on a daily basis. Both are free, come on I actually paid for my tickets.
The first is one is useful for tourists because it can function without using expensive data but remember to turn data off for the app otherwise it will use data and the video adverts will become costly.
It’s called “Berlin Subway BVG Map and Route Planner by mxData Limited. It has everything you need to navigate the S and U-bahn including an interactive map and routing it’s on the Apple App Store.
Next is the official BVG app again from the Apple App Store or Google Play store,
I’ve only used the iOS version but I’m assuming both platforms are similar.
Now this a little different it does require a internet connection in order for you to properly use the app.
The BVG app offers routing across the whole transport network of Berlin as sometimes it might be quicker to a bus and a tram rather than one u-bahn train for example. Also it will inform you of delays and important information that could hold you up.
Apart from excellent routing it offers maps, timetables and even allows you buy tickets.
The app stores of all major platforms have a whole host of apps that can help you get yourself around but just remember that data can be expensive so those with offline routing and maps could save yourself a few £€$’s.
Safety is important wherever you are and like the rest of Berlin, the u-bahn is a pretty safe place. I’ve never felt treated or had my moth eaten wallet picked from my trousers.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere Berlin does have some nasty people, nasty people who wouldn’t mind that wallet that’s sticking out of you pocket.
Buses, trains and the u-bahn do get busy and you might have people bump into you as you clammer on your way, the perfect cover for a pick pocket! Keep valuables tucked away in a zip pocket if possible. Take what you need for the day, leave excess cash, cards and passports safely at home or in a hotel safe.
Hold or wear bags in front of you in busy areas to avoid it becoming lighter. Stations do have CCTV and security personal or police are often visible in large stations to help stop things being stolen but common sense and being aware of your valuables are just as useful.
Now that was a journey in itself eh? Like the u-bahn it may have been a confusing even sweaty read but I’m sure that the time spent reading this will save you much more when you hit those mean old streets.
I’ll be covering more on getting around Berlin and other topics that I’m sure will be helpful and maybe even interesting. Meanwhile check me out on instagram and twitter and feel free to ask questions.