Taking the Train 101: Lesson One - Your First Trip
Newcomers to Europe quickly learn that public transportation is a way of life. People are more likely to take streetcars and buses to work rather than cars, and trains are often preferred for long-distance travel. We Americans may like our cars, but they aren’t as convenient on the old continent as at home - with high gas prices, limited parking, horrendous congestion in the cities, and ‘stau’s on the autobahns. By comparison, the train is very inexpensive and convenient. Often, the main station is in the heart of your destination!
‘But taking the train is so complicated’, says typical American wisdom. ‘All those massive yellow timetable charts posted in each station, varying rates, and you can’t take the train exactly when you want!’
That would be incorrect. By using the Internet and knowing just a few basics, planning train trips is easy. In this article, I describe a very simple process of planning a simple domestic train trip. In the other lessons in this series, I add degrees of complexity - international travel, night trains, etc. Having taken 30 trips to a dozen countries by train, I tell you it is really easy, especially once you’ve gotten a couple trips under your belt.
Tip #1. Plan it all On-Line
Simply put, don’t bother with the yellow charts you see posted in the train stations until you've learned to read them. There are better tools out there.
Deutsche Bahn, in conjunction with EurRail, provides a Europe-wide online service that allows you to plan train travel anywhere in Europe, not just Germany. The English-language webpage is http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/en. You need only enter the origin and destination, your desired departure date and time, and click “Search Connections”.
This website is very convenient and intelligent. It understands the various spellings of many locations (it recognizes both “Cologne” and “Köln”, for example). The resulting itineraries are reasonable and direct. Within Germany, it also includes many local transportation systems. Not only can you map a route from city-to-city, you can also get to a specific address or location. Obviously, some itineraries will be better than others. High-speed trains run regularly among the big cities, while the smaller towns will get limited service.
To help with your planning, you can request details on any itinerary - either just information on the connections or a full listing of all intermediate stops. Within Germany, connection information includes arrival and departure tracks, so you know precisely where you need to go in advance. Once you’ve decided on an itinerary, you should print this webpage out, along with the next two or three later itineraries. Why? It is good to have ready back-up plans in case either the train or you is late.
Tip #2. By the Tickets from the Counter - and don’t worry about them
The complexity of taking the train often comes from the multilayered fare system, where the fare is determined by the type of train you are riding. For your first trip, don’t let this bother you. The principle is simple.
There is a standard rate for going from point A to B on a regional train, there are surcharges if you take a long-distance train, and then there are premium trains which have special (meaning high) prices. Most train travel involves using regional and long-distance trains, so as long as you don’t board a premium train without a premium ticket, you will avoid being surprised with additional charges when the conductor comes by.
The train numbers will tell you the difference. For example, in Germany, the regional trains are coded with RB, RE, and IR. Long-distance trains are IC and EC, while premium trains are ICE. Each country uses different codes, but the almost universal symbol for long-distance trains is D.
Unless you are on a tight budget, the differences in price between basic and long-distance services is not worth worrying about (premium is another matter). Once you’ve figured out your ideal itinerary, just take a hardcopy of it to the ticket counter and let the agent take care of it. Everywhere I have been, the agents have been wonderful - they’ll explain everything to you, and many speak English. All you have to do is go to the track and board the train when it arrives!
This lesson was originally published on 23 May 2002 with a travelogue on my trip from Heidelberg to Leipzig, Germany.
(c) 2002 Tom Galvin