A Rail Europe ticket: your key to the country
By Marilyn Heimburger
Photos by Don Heimburger
Trains in Germany are fast, clean and on time. The comprehensive system that includes high speed trains, regional express trains, local trains, street cars and even buses, is so convenient that in the almost two dozen trips I’ve taken to Germany and bordering countries, I’ve never rented a car to get where I needed to be. But I have picked up some tips to make your train travel much easier.
For maximum flexibility in rail travel, a rail pass from Rail Europe is the way to go. Passes can be purchased for the number of days you need to travel over the course of a determined period of time. You must purchase your pass before leaving your country of origin.
On a recent two-week trip, which included a week-long river cruise in central Germany, I traveled by train before and after the boat trip. So my rail pass was for exactly five days of train travel (any days I chose) over the course of one month, starting on the day the pass is validated. Before boarding the train, fill in the date, have your passport with you on the train, and your ticket is valid for travel all day, on as many trains as you like. Some express trains may require an additional reservation fee; ask an agent if you’re unsure.
FIVE DAYS OF TRAIN TRAVEL
After landing in Frankfurt, I used the first of my five days of train travel to go from the airport to the main Frankfurt train station. Trains leave from the airport to the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof every few minutes. From the train station I could walk to my hotel. Since the main train stations of major European cities are usually in the historic town centers, you can usually walk to most of the “must see” historic destinations. The historical centre of Hamburg, which is North of Frankfurt, is situated between the Main Station and Gansemarkt and there’s a variety of hotels available if heading that route. Sometimes bicycles are also available for rent from Deutsch Bahn train stations.
The next morning I again filled in the date on my rail pass for the day’s travel, which included an S Bahn train to Mainz, a regional express train to Saarbrucken, a Regionalbahn train to Merzig, and finally, a bus to Remich, Luxembourg, where the river cruise began.
The following local trains are available in Germany:
The RegionalExpress connects cities and offers travel in comfortable modern trains. It leaves at regular intervals and links local to long-distance trains.
The Regionalbahn offers a basic service from all local stations. It provides the connection between the regions and city centers. It also connects to the RegionalExpress.
The S Bahn services high-density areas, leaving in quick, regular intervals. Some S Bahn stations have access to longer distance regional trains, making travel within the city and between cities easier.
How do you find the right train? The very large train stations will have electronic signboards listing train destinations, the track (Gleis), and time of departure. If your train isn’t listed, wait a few minutes, and check again. The board is constantly updated as trains come and go. It will also list delays and cancellations. At smaller stations, a list of daily arrivals and departures is printed on signage on the platform. Go to the correct track number, and check the sign on the platform to make sure your destination is listed. Then keep an eye on the clock (there’s usually one on the platform at most midsize and major train stations) and watch your train arrive, usually right on time.
Help desks are located in many major train stations.
If your rail pass is for first class travel, as the train arrives, look for the cars with a number “1” on the side, indicating first class seating. While even second class sections are comfortable, first class is usually more luxurious, air-conditioned and roomier. Layover time at a station is often short, so it’s important to board quickly. You can move to the first class seating area once you’re on board, but it’s harder if you have a lot of bulky luggage.
Look for the signs inside the train to learn your next stop.
When you’ve found a seat, look for the automated sign inside the car that indicates the next stop, and be ready to exit when your destination approaches. Not all trains have this, so having a pre-printed schedule in your hand prior to boarding is helpful. You can print these out from the Rail Europe website before you leave home. To find your next connection at the next station if you need to, check the station train board for the time and track number. If the layover is long enough, stop for a coffee or a snack, or get a sandwich and drink to enjoy on the train at one of the many food shops located in the larger train stations.
The last leg of my day’s travel was by bus to Remich, where the cruise ship was waiting. Since my pass was for travel in Germany only, it was not valid for the bus to Remich. However, the bus ticket was easily purchased from the driver after boarding. Bus stations are usually right next to the train stations, and schedules between trains and busses are coordinated for easy connections.
After disembarking the cruise at Nuremburg, I made my way to the main train station by cab, checked the large signboard, and found the track for my next destination: Dresden. Once again, I wrote the date for my third day of travel in the appropriate square on the rail pass before boarding. You must write in this date prior to each day’s trip.
This inter-regional express train, one-fifth of which was devoted to first class seating, had some cars designated to leave the train at Bayreuth. Look for the signs on the sides and front of each car to be sure the car you’re riding is going all the way to your destination, since some cars may be transferred to other towns en route.
Even though this was a regional train, it traveled at upwards of 90 miles per hour, past farmland, forests, streams and rolling hills and through tunnels, often on super-elevated tracks, and in areas where double tracks allowed for quick, through traffic. The first-class seating area had a table at which I could comfortably eat the sandwiches I bought along. If you don’t have a chance to purchase food at the station, usually a snack cart on long-haul trains is wheeled through periodically, offering coffee, drinks and snacks.
After four days in Dresden, I filled in the fourth travel date on my pass for the trip from Dresden to Frankfurt. In the Dresden Hauptbahnhof, I again bought food to eat on board while waiting for the signboard to list the train to Frankfurt. This trip would be on an ICE (InterCityExpress), one of the premier luxury trains on the Deutsch Bahn rail system. Once on the track platform, I looked for the chart listing the train equipment on this route. Waiting areas on the platform are designated “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”. Check this chart to find where the first class cars are in the train’s consist, and note where they line up in the ABCD waiting areas. You now know where the car you want will be as the train pulls into the station, allowing for quicker boarding.
RESERVATIONS MAY BE NEEED
Reserving a seat is recommended on some heavily-traveled routes, even if you have a first class reservation. Making a reservation costs a small amount and is easily accomplished at a Deutsch Bahn service counter at main train stations. The lines move quickly, most agents speak English and will efficiently take care of your request.
With a reservation you are assigned a specific seat in a specific car. The seat will have a sign above it designating it as “reserved,” and is reserved solely for you. Sometimes seats are reserved for a segment of the route beginning at a station down the line, and these seats must also be kept free for the passenger who reserved them, even if they are empty for the first part of the trip. Sometimes reservations on busy routes fill up quickly, so decide early if you want to be sure to have a seat. I didn’t bother with reservations on another trip from Vienna to Venice once, and ended up clutching my first class ticket while sitting on my suitcase the entire way in the vestibule of the standing-room only car.
Since Dresden was the starting point for this train, the equipment was already at the station ready for boarding when I arrived. I had plenty of time to check the “consist” at the platform, and found the car number and seat that was on the reservation. While I came prepared with sandwiches and snacks, dining car menus in first class offer coffee, tea, soft drinks, beer, wine, hot and cold sandwiches, soup, salads and pastries, which can be ordered and brought to your seat or purchased in the dining car. The menu changes monthly.
The ICE train is truly an express train. Super-elevated tracks allow for fast curves and a smooth ride, often at speeds of 100 to 120 miles per hour. The only stops were at main train stations along the route. As the beautiful German countryside sped by, I could see Wartburg Castle near Eisenach, and noted the exact location where the border and guard towers had at one time divided Germany into East and West.
Upon arrival (right on time) in Frankfurt, I walked to the hotel, and enjoyed another evening of exploring the city center on foot. The next morning I filled in the last date on the rail pass for the trip from Frankfurt’s main train station to the airport. Train travel through central Germany was easy and actually fun. I enjoyed the ride, taking it easy, and leaving the driving to someone else. These iron rails can be such a delight!