"Make sure to stamp your train ticket."
"Big fines for unstamped train tickets..."
What does all that mean? We nearly found out the very hard way after our first full night in Munich. We both grew up in small cities without large public transport systems, making us mild metro noobs. Not that we've never used a large public transit system. All three of us (Sara, our friend Emily, and myself) had used buses, trains, and trams in the States and in Europe before, but we ran into a bit of a wrinkle in Germany...
In Munich, we were hoping to catch an early train to Dachau to visit the concentration camp. The cheaper-than-can-be-believed Partner Ticket was our best and cheapest option, so we purchased the ticket at one of the many handy automated kiosks. Our Rick Steves guidebook instructed us to get the ticket validated, but we misunderstood that page in our scan of the book, as we were distracted by...
Construction at the station. The train station that served the overland (S-Bahn) and underground (U-Bahn) trains was under renovation and some signage and track labeling were incorrect. We were waiting on a platform for our Dachau train for 25 minutes, and no train of our number arrived. We kept seeing the same line served over and over. Finally, we asked for help and were directed to another platform on the other end of the station.
We arrived just in time for the train to arrive. Relieved, I whipped out our travel book again and reread the instructions to validate our ticket. Confusingly, some tickets need to be validated and others do not. We are cheap, so of course we purchased an out-of-date book, no fault of the book, but we needed to figure out what to do... and fast.
Our train was at the platform and boarding. I grabbed a total stranger to ask about the ticket. He said (in his best English, God bless him!) that we indeed would have to validate the ticket. Unfortunately, he didn't know where the closest stamping machine might be. He directed us back downstairs, telling us to run as fast as we could.
What is validating a ticket? Also sometimes called canceling, this puts a time and date stamp on the ticket before use. It was confusing to us, because we purchased a day-long ticket with the date printed clearly on the ticket itself. Clearly if any ticket would not need an additional time and date stamp, it would be this one.
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Still a bit baffling to us, apparently this system of ticket validation limits misuse of tickets. Trains in Munich don't have turnstiles or gates. Riders purchase tickets, validate them, and carry them onto the train. Passengers are checked randomly on the trains by plainclothes transport agents, who issue stiff fines for anyone with no ticket- or with a legitimate ticket that hasn't been validated. According to the book, the touristy, "I didn't know!" means nothing to the rail operators.
So off we ran in search of a ticket puncher, not entirely sure if we would know one if we saw one. Before we had gone very far, Sara spotted an unmarked blue box with what looked like a ticket slot. We were unsure of what this box would do. If we put the ticket in the slot, would it be stamped as hoped, or would it suck in the ticket for some unknown purpose, leaving us bereft, out the cash, and waiting for the next train?
Boldly, Sara grabbed the ticket, pushed it into the slot, and prayed. The high-pitched squeal of a dot-matrix printer told us all we needed to know. The ticket came out correctly stamped, and it was a footrace to beat the closing doors of the train.
We dove into the train just before the conductor locked the doors for departure. An unfortunate person just a few beats behind us got to door just a moment too late, and pushed the open button to no avail.
There we were, after a taxing and harrowing ordeal, on a train bound for our main site for the day, Dachau concentration camp. For the record, we were not randomly checked on the train, but at least we were riding with peace of mind.