Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mit dem Zug - Booking train travel in Germany

As planning continues for my upcoming trip to Germany, I actually broke down and consulted a travel agent for a bit of assistance.

As much as I prefer to do things on my own when it comes to travel – including wandering around a city on my own instead of taking a guided tour – I found myself a bit confused by the RailEurope site and had to seek professional intervention.

Fortunately, thanks to other business-related travel, I have a travel agent I trust, so I called her for help. Being unfamiliar with international travel, she connected me with a colleague who then helped me negotiate the site.

Understand that the site at RailEurope.com offers service in a variety of languages, so it wasn’t a linguistic barrier; it was more the fact that facets of tickets and travel were not explained thoroughly before making a purchase, which makes me uneasy. Though my agent put me at ease and helped me better understand the system’s quirks, I actually completed the selection and purchase process independently. Here’s what I learned.

One of the quirks involved the use of a travel pass.

Being the “shoulder season,” there were some great deals to be had on passes – up to 40% off in some cases. As such, a three- or four-day pass would have cost about the same as the round-trip ticket I ultimately booked from Frankfurt to München, but the instructions about using a pass left me a bit perplexed.

The web site uses the was the phrase, “Reservations when possible are separate and an additional cost.” That means one has to buy the pass first, then make reservations for the train(s) one wishes to take.

“What happens,” I thought to myself, “if I buy the pass, then find that the trains when and where I want to go are full?”

It seemed like a fair question, but it disregarded the fact that European trains run frequently, so it might be a matter of leaving an hour earlier or later than planned. Not a horrible inconvenience.

As it turns out, the same holds true for those who choose tickets over passes: one has to buy passage, then buy the reservations themselves (when possible), which cost an additional $12 each way in second class.

InterCity Express train in München
Ultimately, I decided on a point-to-point “return” (round-trip) ticket on the ICE train (Inter-City Express), not because of my earlier concerns about using the pass but because my trip will be relatively short – less than a week – and I didn’t want to be tempted to spend too much time on trains going from here to there, then not actually leaving enough time to explore whatever “there” I chose to see. I know myself, and I’d want to use a multi-day pass as much as I could.

One other point was less than clear and, because I’m planning a trip that is only a few weeks – not a few months -- away, made me a bit uneasy. Unlike so many travel options these days, RailEurope has not gone ticketless or to electronic tickets; they actually send you hard-copy tickets, which takes time.

Not to worry. Booking on line includes 2-3 day shipping as standard for $18, or overnight shipping for a bit more. Because of the time difference between the West Coast of the U.S. and Germany, I submitted my order after the close of business in Germany, so the tickets actually arrived four days after I’d ordered them, but no matter. The point was they came quickly; not like the vase we purchased when visiting Murano, Italy some years ago that took eight weeks to make it to our home in the U.S., which was my concern.

One final point: while I have made no secret of the fact that I prefer to travel first class when possible, second class on German and Swiss trains is more than adequate, though it is well worth the extra money to travel first class when traveling on Italian trains.

During our last trip to the region, I noted that trains were configured with single seats for solo travelers on one side of the aisle and two seats for couples and families traveling together on the other. Often, the trains had power outlets near the seats so one could plug in a laptop or recharge a phone, and the food available for purchase on board was several notches above anything on Amtrak in the U.S. So I have booked two rather leisurely trips through Germany's countryside and will report on my experiences in due course.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photo by Carl Dombek
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