Taking the train in Germany

Train travel in Europe is a pleasant, convenient, and often economical option for inter-city travel, but there are some things you should know to make your travels more comfortable and ensure there are fewer surprises.

Just back from a trip to Germany to visit Christkindlmarkts in four cities, my wife and I took several train rides on both the DB (Deutsche Bahn) ICE (Inter-City Express) and the local to regional RMV (Rhine-Main-Verkhersverbund) trains. I have also taken the DB trains during prior trips to Germany, and my experiences have been consistently positive.

Inter-City Express train

Overall, European trains are quiet, generally comfortable, and quite fast. During my 2013 trip on the DB ICE between Frankfurt and München, the speed shown on the display between cars reached at least 172 km/hr, or a shade over 100 mph. Trains with shorter distances between stops won't reach the same speeds but are pretty quick nonetheless.

There are no security lines to go through prior to boarding, meaning you can get to the train station only a few minutes before your train is scheduled to depart instead of a few hours ahead of time. But don’t cut it too close; the trains can be long – sometimes nearing a half mile – and if your car is at the far end of the train, you’ll want plenty of time to reach your car and settle in to your seat.

First or second class?

A few years ago, a travel agent recommended traveling first class on Italian trains but opined that second class was just fine in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Having experienced all three train lines and both classes of service, I generally agree with her assessment, though there are some important caveats to that advice.

Book a seat as well as a ticket

In second class on the DB trains, tickets for passage and reserved seats are two separate transactions. Buying only a ticket will get you "open seating" which may mean you won't even have a seat at all and could conceivably not even be able to take the train of your choice. If you're only traveling an hour or so away, it might not be an issue to spend that hour standing at the bar in the Bistro car, but for longer trips, you'll also want to reserve a seat. For our most recent trip, the seat reservations were an additional €9 in each direction for the two of us.

Although DB trains have lighted signs above the seats indicating when they are reserved -- Frankfurt to Würzburg, for example - one downside of the seating arrangement is that you may find your seats occupied and, as a result, have to ask people to move. It's not uncommon and most regular pasengers understand how the system works, but it occasionally results in minor push-back. In one instance, the person occupying our seat responded to our request by saying, "I think there are seats farther back." Our response - that the ones they were occupying were the seats we'd reserved - was enough.

Booking first-class passage will avoid that scenario. First class fare includes a seat reservation so there will be no need to ask people to move, nor will there be people who don't have seats standing in the aisle next to you.

Choose you seat carefully

For my trip from Frankfurt to München in 2013, I reserved a seat at a table in second class so that I could work en route. Shortly after boarding the train on the Saturday morning of my outbound trip, I realized I should have reserved a different seat, a seat in a “quiet car” or “quiet section” or paid the additional €65 for seat in first class.

Traveling second class, particularly on weekends (which effectively start mid-morning on Friday) or a holiday, means lots of families with kids who – no surprise – are sometimes noisy, and couples, parents and grandparents who often have rather animated conversations. In my case, it also meant four of us with two laptops between us trying to share a table that was less than 20 inches wide. The woman sitting across from me had her laptop spread open wide but spent her time on her smartphone while her idle laptop took up well more than half the width of the table. Lack of consideration for others is apparently not exclusive to Americans.

In addition, the close proximity to my fellow passengers made the alcohol on the breath of my seatmate – on our 10 a.m. train - especially noticeable.

In desperation, I abandoned my seat and made for the café car, only to find it too was completely full. I started working on this article sitting on the floor between cars – not exactly what I expected after having paid US$328 for the tickets, seat reservation and shipping.

In second class, seats are two-by-two and arranged either in pairs, or in groups of four with two rows facing each other. Some groups of four have tables, while others do not. In my case, I should have opted for a two-by-two seat, ideally in a quiet car or quiet section, as I wanted to get some writing in during the 3-1/2 hour trip.

Not that I would have had much more privacy. The seats were less than 18 inches wide with the armrest between them extended, making them as cramped as any airliner. That made it a challenge to get any work done, and absolutely impossible to write anything without someone looking over my shoulder.

Consider a discount card

This is one area where it pays to speak to an agent. A helpful DB agent at the Frankfurt Flughoff Hauptbahnhoff (Hbf) station did the math for two trips we'd be taking and showed me how much buying the discount ticket would save.

Pay attention to your travel dates

As you might expect, trains are busiest during the weekends and holidays. However, for the most part, Europe observes different holidays than the U.S. Certainly, we have Christmas and New Year's in common but May Day (May 1) in Europe is a big deal; 4th of July, not so much. Check on-line, with a travel agent, or some other resource to determine whether you're inadvertently choosing to travel on a busy holiday weekend. If you are and have no option, the advice to reserve a seat becomes especially important.

Book in advance

Before we left the U.S. on our most recent trip, I had seen first class passage between Frankfurt Airport and Nürnberg offered on the DB site, www.bahn.com, for as little as €78 for two Sparpreis tickets. Such a ticket restricts travelers to a specific train for each leg of the journey but represents a substantial savings over the unrestricted ticket price of €194. Importantly, however, a second-class ticket on the same trains with reserved seats would have cost €57, so traveling first class would have meant spending only an additional €11.

However, we waited until we were in Germany to reserve our train tickets and by then, the advance purchase fare I had seen was no longer available, so it was second class for us.

Consider First Class

While it is definitely more expensive, the length of your trip, the reason for it, and what you intend to do during your journey may make the price difference worthwhile During my 2013 trip, I decided to upgrade to First Class for my return from München to Frankfurt so I could compare and contrast.

The first thing obvious about a first class ticket is access to the DB Lounge at the Hbf, or main train station. DB has 15 such lounges across Germany where coffee and snacks are offered and free Internet access is provided. Further, as with airline lounges, the DB Lounge provides a sanctuary from the craziness of the main terminal.

As one might expect, things are far less cramped in first class than in second class. Seats are about 21 inches wide – about three inches wider than second class – and there is more leg room as well. Power ports are between the sets of two seats, as they are in second class, but first class seats are three abreast instead of four, arranged with pairs of two seats on one side of the aisle, and solo seats on the other.

Service is also fairly good with on-board agents who are generally helpful. An attendant from the café car came through second class periodically, offering coffee and cappuccino, saving many people a rocking, swaying walk through four cars back to the Bistro car. In first class, attendants also fetched beer, wine or other items for their guests.

On the down side, space to store larger pieces of luggage is in short supply, so aisles near the exits are often crowded with bags, even in first class.

My advice is this: No matter when or where you are traveling, be sure you are able to reserve a seat. Open seating can be problematic, especially Fridays through Sundays or on holidays. I strongly recommend reserving a seat that is one of the two-by-two configuration instead of at a table or two seats facing two unless there are four of you traveling together. Sharing such a small space with people you don’t know can be unproductive at best and unpleasant at worst.

If you are planning to work, perching a laptop or tablet on the individual pull-down tables at the side-by-side seats in second class will provide more room than trying to share a table with others and their laptops. Of course, first class provides more space and more options no matter when you’re traveling, though at a higher price. Wi-Fi is often available at a modest charge in both first and second class.

Unless your work (or personal habits) requires you to be on your mobile phone, consider reserving a seat in a “quiet section” or a “quiet car.” These are places where phone calls are prohibited and where conversations should be whispered, are more conductive to getting something done, and more comfortable when it comes time to rest.

Oh, and enjoy the scenery! It’s definitely something you won’t see from 35,000 feet.

Originally written in 2013, this article was updated to include information current as of December 2016.

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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