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I want to take a train of the Deutsche Bahn from Cologne to Frankfurt. Do I need to book and order a ticket in advance (e.g. from their website: https://www.bahn.com/en/ ), or can I buy it at the train station when I arrive there?

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You need to buy the train ticket before entering the train (the option to buy it online is switched off around departure; and only on some trains you are allowed to buy the ticket onboard against an extra fee).

For local trains, there is no particular reason to buy tickets before reaching the train station (except maybe convenience).

For long distance trains, buying tickets at least a few days ahead of time lets you get the "Sparpreis" reduced fare. These advance tickets are bound to a particular connection, so only do this when you know exactly when you'll be travelling. Depending on demand and how far ahead you book, the Sparpreis can be significantly cheaper (I think I got a Sparpreis for 20ish Euro once, where the full price would have been close to 100), or just a minor discount.

Another advantage of buying ahead of time is that this increases your chance of reserving a seat. A busy connection will probably have no option anymore to reserve a seat a few minutes before departure. You'll then have to either hope to get one of the unreservable seats, or stand. It is possible, but very rare, that you won't be allowed on the train at all. You can't reserve seats on most local trains.

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  • FYI: You usually wanna purchase tickets in advance when an increase in fares are announced, but the date of your journey will be when the new fares are in effect. For Deutshe Bahn this usually means to watch out for the second Sunday of December, the annual (major) timetable change. Jun 23, 2023 at 17:12
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    "the option to buy it online is switched off around departure" - I doubt this applies to tickets that are not specific to any particular train. Jun 23, 2023 at 20:54
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Do I need to book and order a ticket in advance

In Germany, train fares are usually fixed for a specific train (for ICE especially) (they're called Flexpreis) and will not go either up or down, and you can buy them at the station with no issues.

This is except the discounted Sparpreis and Super Sparpreis tickets. Those are cheaper than Flexpreis, are less flexible (of course), but they sell out and the further in advance you book, the cheaper it will be.

For example :

The Sprinter (faster), service from Frankfurt to Köln at 10:30 on Saturday, 24th is :

  • 59,90 € in Super Sparpreis (no changes at all allowed)
  • 68,90 € in Sparpreis (limited changes allowed)
  • 73,50 € in Flexpreis (Free cancellation, you can take all trains of the day)

On July, 22nd :

  • 33,90 € in Super Sparpreis
  • 40,90 € in Sparpreis
  • 76,60 € in Flexpreis
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    The answer should perhaps be extended re buying a ticket from the conductor, which used to be possible but got discontinued.
    – o.m.
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:56
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    "train fares are usually fixed for a specific train (for ICE especially) " is a bit confusing and at odds with the rest of the question, which clearly indicates that ICE has multiple prices. On the contrary, local trains do have fixed prices
    – njzk2
    Jun 22, 2023 at 21:31
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    Why are the two Flexpreis values different if they are supposed to be fixed?
    – GoodDeeds
    Jun 23, 2023 at 6:48
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    @GoodDeeds They're fixed per individual service, not per route like regionals Jun 23, 2023 at 6:49
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    @o.m. No, I think not: Kann ich noch im Zug ein Ticket kaufen? - DB Fernverkehr AG: Since January 1st, 2022 it is no longer possible to buy tickets from the train attendants on long-distance trains. Jun 23, 2023 at 8:32
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As other answers have pointed out, for most DB trains, advance booking is recommended but not mandatory.

There exist some international DB trains where reservations are mandatory. In 2023, reservations on the Amsterdam-Oberhausen(-Frankfurt) and Amsterdam-Mönchengladbach lines are mandatory between 17 June and 18 August. Trains to France, Italy, and Poland may also have mandatory reservations. If you turn up just before the train departs on those lines this summer, you will have a high risk that the train is sold out and that you cannot buy a ticket for the train.

For Köln-Frankfurt you should be fine, because even if the train might originate from Amsterdam, mandatory reservations only apply for the part Amsterdam-Oberhausen.

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    "a very high risk that the train is sold out" - I think this should be put into relation: It depends very much on the time and route whether that might possibly happen. In particular, note that a train ticket for DB usually does not automatically imply you will have a seat, so the maximum number of passengers assumed for a train is quite a bit higher than even the combined number of seats on that train. Jun 23, 2023 at 21:01
  • @O.R.Mapper It's true for the routes and times where reservations are mandatory, and this is no coincidence — they've become mandatory because of worries of extremely crowded trains. A train ticket for the routes where reservations are mandatory does imply you will have a seat. I've edited my answer to qualify the statement and remove "very".
    – gerrit
    Jun 25, 2023 at 21:30

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