How to travel through Berlin Brandenburg Airport stress-free
In light of recent events, my little guide on how negotiating the Berlin Brandenburg Airport stress-free. With your nerves and purse intact.
The autumn holidays have started in Berlin, and for the first time since its opening, the Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) sees anything near visitor numbers that the airport was planned for, resulting in… chaos. Newspaper reports state despite being early to the airport, travellers missed their flights, there were hour-long ques at check-in and security… in short, not the way you want to start or end your holiday.
I have used BER twice now, in June and recently. In June, due to the slow vaccine rollout and travel restrictions, there were barely any passengers, and still I found the BER experience uncomfortable and inconvenient. More recently, passenger numbers were definitely up but not high due to it being shoulder season, but we arrived an hour late into BER, only to wait over an hour for our luggage and to end up stranded in Berlin after missing our last train home.
So, the answer to using this airport without spending a ton of money or having frazzled nerves right at the beginning of your holiday? Be prepared. Here is what I recommend to use Berlin-Brandenburg Airport stress-free.
Instead of trying Berlin Brandenburg Airport stress-free: Try to avoid BER altogether
Frankfurt and Munich are established airports that appear to be way better organised. They mostly cater to intercontinental business travel, have been in operation for many years and although you are never safe from hiccups, it is unlikely that you will miss your flight there because there is just one person manning the check-in.
Therefore – if you fly long haul with Berlin as your final destination, consider flying to an airport that’s managed better. Coming from the US and Asia, many of the larger carriers will use Munich or Frankfurt as a hub. If this is the case, then consider stopping there and then go to Berlin by train. Even the much smaller Halle-Leipzig is a much better airport, and only a couple hours away on the train.
When you purchase long haul air tickets in Germany, they often incluse second class rail travel to the airport, which provides excellent value.
All airports mentioned have train stations, Frankfurt even has regular high-speed train (ICE) connections, making onwards travel on Germany’s reasonably decent rail network easy. The only problem is that tickets are very pricey, especially high-speed trains, unless purchased well in advance and tied to a certain connection. However, all cities mentioned are rewarding destinations in their own right, with enough to see for a stopover before travelling on to Berlin.
Another option is to skip the plane altogether. This is certainly the case when travelling within Germany – due to the good rail network, there ois absolutely no need for internal flights. Other capital cities connected to Berlin by good rail connections are Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, Prague and Warsaw – pretty much every capital in a neighbouring country has good rail connections to Berlin.
Arrive at least three hours before departure
And yes, I will say this again and again and again – BER is by far the airport where you should arrive at the very earliest. Even Ben Gurion Airport with its multiple security checks cannot take that trophy (and Ben Gurion is way better organised).
The airport is approximately 30km from the city centre, and normally, there are at least half-hourly dedicated rail connections (an Airport Train called FEX) which cost no more than 3,80 Euro and take you to the airport in half an hour.
Other trains also stop at the airport station and then, you have the slower suburban train (S Bahn) serving the airport. So, all is well if things work. But in Berlin, often they don’t. Signal failures, weather conditions, medical emergencies on train, strikes… they bring the public transport system to a standstill. Therefore, plan ahead and check the train situation regularly. Google Maps is not too bad on public transport updates although they do not always get it right, and there is a dedicated public transport app called “VBB App Bus und Bahn”. If the trains are on strike, which rather a lot lately, you can still get to the airport by underground and bus, as they are operated by the city and are more reliable. I that case you take the U-Bahn to Rudow then Bus 171 and plan even more time, because those in the know will be using it too.
If travelling by car, bear in mind that the motorway to the airport is part of the city motorway ring and if often congested if not totally blocked. Then, there is regular congestion at airport drop-off. So. Best to avoid thinking of going there by car (or taxi, for that matter) unless public transport is totally knackered.
Travel with hand luggage only
The general rule that you travel faster with hand luggage applies here if you want to travel through Berlin Brandenburg Airport stress-free in particular. Last time I queued for over an hour to check a small case with Ryanair, despite having checked in already at home. Despite a reduced flight schedule, the two short Ryanair desks were staffed at maybe 30% capacity, with masses curling through the queuing barriers.
Coming back from that particular trip, thanks to me insisting on loading up on shampoo and oil in Greece, we had checked luggage again, for which we waited… and waited. An hour, in the end. I do not even want to imagine what will happen if and wehen this airport is at capacity.
Bring Food and drink
Another sad thing. The old Berlin airports had some very German catering. TXL had a couple decent coffee shops and an actual baker. SXF, well… had glorified beer tent/ mountain hut in front of the terminal.
But BER? Well. There area few stalls and carts in the train station, a food court, and a “marketplace” after security control. Some operate very restrictive opening hours, some open early in the morning. Forget about gastronomic experiences or reasonably priced fast food once inside the airport. A cup of expresso, for example, will cost you 3.80 Euro last time I checked.
The only way is to bring your own food. Duty Free has reasonably priced mineral water for sale, and you can drink the tap water pretty much anywhere in Germany. If you find it, the Kamps Bakery in the train station has reasonably quality baked goods and decent coffee – unless they hiked their prices up, but that’s way before Check-in and Security.
Take comfy walking shoes
The record-breaking 28 metres from taxi to gate like in TXL is no longer – in fact, the planners of BER have done their best to go into the other extreme.
It all starts fairly well, if the escalators from the train station are working, The way to you security may be short if you travel with hand luggage or a 500m slog of you need to check some luggage.
Depending on which Gate you fly from, be prepared to walk upwards of 20min to reach your gate once you passed security control. You would think for these distances there may be travelators, but they are absent – at least in the parts of the airport I have been to. It probably wasn’t helping that my flights always left from a Terminal 2 Gate, which I suspect will be the cheapskate airline gate, but with Terminal 2 still being shut, the walk there was more like a hike through endless corridors and took way longer than indicated on the boards.
Even getting to the end of Terminal 1 Gates is a fast 10-minute hike in each direction, with not much to distract you food- or shopping-wise.
If you are even slightly reduced in mobility, I definitely recommend booking the free Mobility Service, as this airport is not foot passenger friendly at all.
Avoid early morning departures and late night arrivals
Because BER has a ban on night flights, the public transport schedule is quite strictly tied to the flight schedule. Which of course doesn’t take into account delays or waiting for luggage. Hence, you will be lucky to pick up any public transport after hours. Between midnight and 4am, the airport public transport is absolutely dead. save for an occasional night bus. If you want to get to the city centre, the 00:14 might be your very last chance without spending on a cab, but don’t expect to catch any further connections until about 4:30 from the centre, either.
Therefore, 7am or earlier departures or any arrivals after 9pm are tricky, very tricky, and you cannot rely on making it onto any onward public transport or to get there on time. Not that there are any reasonably priced hotels anywhere near the airport or the main train stations either. If you do get stranded, Hauptbahnhof is your best bet for hotels and/or taxis that will not charge you an arm and leg, but there is nowhere to sit and wait inside the station, and the station area is not the nicest area either. Waiting late at night/early mornings in the other airport train stops Gesundbrunnen or Ostkreuz is definitely not to be recommended.
If you do get stranded, there is a Steigenberger Hotel inside the Airport. The hotels around the airport don’t get great reviews and are not marginally cheaper. Steigenberger is German chain and quite upmarket – the building/hotel is brand new and you should have no nasty surprises, and prices, for a four-star- are reasonable (about 100Euro/night). If you make it to Hauptbahnhof, there is another really nice Steigenberger (a fancy one with a good reputation; use the back entrance to Washingtonplatz) as well as a some what cheaper and generally dependable Motel One directly opposite the Station on Invalidenstrasse.
So, it’s expensive stressful business using the BER! It is a great shame because Berlin is, on the whole, a greatcity that should fling its arms open to visitors, with so much to offer, its is a huge shame that one of its major gateways is such a disappointment and downright poorly thought out. I hope these tips will help you to travel through Berlin Brandenburg Airport stress-free.
The Small Print
Disclosure: I travelled to and from BER four times since it opened, travelling with Ryanair three times and with Easyjet once. This post is based on my personal experience using BER. All times given are approximate. In Berlin, if you want to be on the safe side, give it more time. This post contains some affiliate links to Booking.com, which means I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you book through these links. While I have not spent the night in either of these hotels, my friends stayed at one of the Steigenbergers and I visited them, so I can vouch for the quality, and I have stayed in other Motel One hotels.