Arriving in Berlin by Air: An Easy Berlin Airport Guide
Berlin is currently the third most popular European city trip, after London and Paris. But its airports are still firmly stuck in the 1980’s. Sure, there is a what was a state-of-the-art airport in 2010 waiting to be put into service, but until then (2020? several years?) visitors to Berlin will have to deal with Socialist Realism in Schoenefeld (SXF) far our south east and cool retro design of Tegel (TXL) in the northern city centre. This is where this Berlin airport guide comes in.
While everything is waiting with baited breath if and when the new city airport BER is going to open, very little is invested into he two airports which are scheduled for closure. It’s a weird situation – capital city of one of the most economically successful countries in the world, stone-age airports – a relic from Berlin’s division up until 1990, and disastrous communal and federal politics of the city’s government plus issues in commissioning and building a new airport which is so riddled with security issues that they have been unable to open it for nearly ten years now.
Having lived close to either airport, and feeling sorry for the people arriving and ending up in the dump that currently is SXF train station, I compiled a short Berlin airport guide to the city’s two airports.
Berlin-Schoenefeld (SXF): Welcome to Berlin, Capital City of the German Democratic Republic
Apart from different marques of car and advertising hoardings for Easyjet, it sometimes feels like very little has changed at the exterior of SXF since the 1980’s. They’ve tacked a few prefab extensions to the sand and copper coloured Main Terminal. This is mainly to deal with the onslaught of low-cost carriers, but that seems pretty much it. If you arrive on a low-cost carrier or Aeroflot, chances are you will arrive in SXF. In this case, bring time and nerves. I fly on a low-cost carrier at least twice a year – my last trips were to Florence and before that, Tel Aviv – so I got to know SXF pretty well.
Arriving in SXF
Just follow the arrival herd, the airport is not difficult to negotiate. Everything is a bit basic but there are toilets, and a tourist information in Hall A. It says they sell public transport tickets. You could pitch up there and request a public transport pass for the duration of your stay (more on types of tickets later). If you arrive from non-Schengen, there will almost inevitably be a queue in passport control, but luggage is normally delivered super-quick.
If you have no EURO, better get some. There is a well-hidden ATM in the middle of Terminal A and one in Terminal D. Theoretically, ticket vending machines should take cards but often they don’t. Be warned. Make sure you got some smaller notes.
Just walk outside. If Arriving in Terminal A or B, you will find taxis and a bus stop right in front of you. From Terminal D, turn right and walk 100m to Terminal A. All taxis are metered and a single ride should cost approximately 45EURO, depending on traffic. Of course, rideshare exists in Berlin. But why fork out the cash when public transport is pretty easy once you found it? I always prefer public transport when available – much more environmentally friendly, cheap, and in this case, also faster!
SXF to City Centre
This is where I feel a Berlin airport guide comes in useful. Most times I visited from the UK, I had a few visitors tag along with me as far as Alexanderplatz because the airport station is so off-putting.
The buses from the terminal are not too useful. Take the train. Look for a covered walkway to your left and walk the 300m into the underpass that is now the airport train station. Yes, totally representative of the buzzing metropole. But hey, Berlin always had a bit of a grunge factor about it, so why not start at the airport? Don’t worry, you are in the right place. There may not be anything but a tunnel and some ticket vending machines, but you are in the capital of Germany airport train station. A couple years ago, someone had the foresight to fix the lighting and put up some more ticket machines. There are now so many that there should never be queues. Just buy a ticket from the machine and go upstairs to the tracks.
If you have internet, the Berlin Public Transport System has a good website for trip planning. They also have an app which is highly recommended if you spend more than a couple of days. Berlin has an excellent public transport system. I highly recommend you use it unless you stay out in the sticks AKA Zone C away from a S-Bahn or U-Bahnstation or beyond.
Use the train and the S-Bahn
The S-Bahn (commuter trains stopping everywhere) leaves from from its own platform, indicated by a white “S” in a green circle. The most useful Line is the S9, which goes to Spandau via the city centre. Depending on time of day, it runs about very 20min. You can also take the S45. You either take it for three stops, then change onto another S Bahn (same platform) to take you to Ostkreuz. From where you take escalators down to your left then any train running from there will go to the city centre. Or you take the S45 to Suedkreuz, another transport hub (heaving in rush hour) where the S2 and S29 will take you to the centre. Okay okay. S9 is more straightforward.
The city centre is also served by trains. Look out for the RE7 fast local train (direction Dessau) and RB14 local train (direction Nauen) – there will be one at least every half hour.
Your journey to the city centre will take 30-45 minutes.
I do not recommend the bus to Rudow, then changing into the U-Bahn – firstly, the bus stops are often moved around, secondly, lets’s say you’ll have to change in less cosy parts of town which may be perfectly fine in the day but maybe not such fun when you arrive with luggage and not much German.
The routings changed recently so many graphic network maps you may find online are now incorrect. It’s the S9 you want, and this will now take you to the city centre along its main railway spine Ostbahnhof-Alex-Friedrichsstrasse-Hauptbahnhof-Zoo.
Leaving from SXF
Now you know public transport well, it should all be a breeze! SXF is a terminus for the S-Bahn. On the RE7, direction is Wuensdorf-Waldstadt, or Schoenefeld on the RB14. Arrive early enough if you have check-in luggage as queues can be horrendous. This summer, queues were so bad, customers were emailed by airlines telling them to be at the airport three and a half hours early. But with hand luggage, you can use any terminal! Check out the hand-luggage-only Terminal C first. If there is a queue coming out of the building, try Terminal B (far left). It is often under-used. I was through security in main holiday season in five minutes this summer, using Terminal B.
Once air side, a large corridor connects all terminals anyway, and there is very little to do or shop once air side. The Duty Free is okay but not exactly nicely presented or great value. All other shops are rather overpriced. Catering inside the airport is all run by one company (Marche) – I’ve had a coffee there once and did not return. You find no charging points and very little seating, so be prepared to be bored and uncomfortable. This is not an airport you want to hang out in. At least there is some free WiFi. Bon voyage.
Berlin-Tegel (TXL): a throwback to the 1960s
Of TXL, only the hexagonal Terminal A (and the tiny appendix Terminal B is fun / has decent facilities. The other two have minimal seating/catering/shopping. TXL used to be mostly scheduled full-service airlines, but now AirBerlin has vacated a large number of slots, it’s a muddle between low-cost and full service carriers. I recently flew AirBaltic to Tbilisi via Riga from Terminal A – all good, but let’s not talk about Riga Airport.
Arriving in TXL
At least, it is a much easier airport to get into town from. Just walk to Terminal A. You will also find a ticket vending machine and a helpful small booth of the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG) there where an actual person will sell you a ticket. Please be kind to the ticket seller and fellow travellers by knowing what you want and buying it swiftly. This is not the place for public transport counselling or tour booking. Feel free to admire the brutalist airport architecture if you got a minute. They don’t make airports like this any more, not even small ones.
From outside Terminal A, the TXL Express Bus to Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) or Alexanderplatz via Central Station leaves every six minutes and is great! Except, they can get incredibly crowded, and if you have a lot of luggage, you’ll struggle as these buses are not really geared up for a lot of luggage. Better option could be to take Bus X9, get off at Jungfernheide, from where you have access to the ring S-Bahn (going round Berlin clockwise and anticlockwise)
A cab ride will only set you back about 35 EURO.
Leaving from TXL
If you leave from Terminal A/B, you get some decent though pricey cafes and a few neat and partially high-end shops in the Terminal to while away your time. On the first floor of Terminal A are a Starbucks and a small Lufthansa Lounge (it’s okay but not great – just a quiet space with WiFi and but decent food). From Terminal A/B, your security check should be swift due to the outdated system that security check takes place at the gate. From C and D, brace yourself for a potential queue, especially during German school holiday season. Do your shopping in town as Duty Free is even tinier than in SXF.
And that’s my little guide to Berlin’s imperfect airports! BER Airport is scheduled to open in 2020 now, but since it was build, the opening has been rescheduled at least ten times. I’m not holding my breath. But don’t let that put you off visiting Berlin!
Berlin Public Transport Network – one of the best!
You may not guess it from the grumpy and sometimes downright verbally abusive bus driver,s but the Berlin public transport network is one of the tightest, cheapest and sometimes even reliable. I highly recommend using public transport in Berlin. There are a plethora of ticket types. If you do two and a half journeys a day, you will be better off with a pass, so I recommend that you buy one of these. Firstly, you will never have to bother buying a new ticket every time. Secondly, they present excellent value. Thirdly, do not even think of bumming it and riding without a ticket – checks are frequent and merciless. Fourthly… ticket machines in stations are often buggered and will not work. A swipe card system is nowhere to be seen yet. Get a paper ticket for several days.
You arrive in SXF, you need a ticket covering Zones A to C. For TXL, Zones A-B will suffice. Airport Bus fare is included in standard BVG tickets, and so are local and local express trains within Berlin (not Intercity and Intercity Express). If you plan trips to Potsdam or the outposts of Bernau (some Bauhaus architecture in the forest), Oranienburg (Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial), and other places in Brandenburg State, you will also need a ticket covering Zone C.
If you just want public transport and visit the odd museum, opt for a day ticket for AB – it will cost 4.70 EURO only, and you can buy it from all vending machines (in all stations except bus stops) and sometimes small ticket booths in major stations (and online).
For rather modest discounts on attractions like the TV Tower, you can buy a Berlin Welcome Card – it will cost about 20 EURO for 48 hours steps up to 42.50 EURO for 6 days. There are all sorts of different (and confusing) tariff cards to include Museum Island, a city tour and more… I would not bother. The saving is rather small.
If your bad on foot, and you want to see a lot fast, you could take a city tour. Not a secret anymore: Bus 100 / 200 from Bahnhof Zoo to Alexanderplatz will take you to a lot of attractions in the centre for the price of a regular transport ticket. Bus M29 will take you from fancy Grunewald to sometimes-alternative Kreuzberg in an hour. Get on just outside the KaDeWe Department Store or on Anhalter Bahnhof. Bus M85 will take you from Central Station South to Steglitz (and the Botanical Garden) via the Government Offices, Reichstag and Tiergarten.
Here is an overview of tickets. You can also buy tickets online here and print them at home.
Would you like more Berlin-related posts, and accommodation tips? Bear in mind I’m not gonna send you to the circus that is Checkpoint Charlie or the madhouse of Simon-Dach-Kiez. You get historically-sensitive, culturally appropriate and tons of decent food and coffee ‘n cake for little money. Let me know!