Train travel through Europe isn't always cheap or easy to figure out and it necessitates having small, easy to carry luggage. But you don't have to pay for a car rental, which, maybe, more than balances things.
Photography by the authors
May we name-drop? We have ridden the European trains in Austria, Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland and of course, Germany.
The Deutsche Bahn is not as good as it used to be, or so some of our German friends grumble and, to be honest, this year we missed two connections in Germany because our incoming train was late. But DB, the German rail service, is still streets (if we may mix our metaphors) better than anything you could ever compare it to and that goes for all of Europe and, to be sure, anything that exists or ever will exist in North America. Yet we were surprised to find many of the DB staff were elderly and not too comfortable in English. The Dutch and the Swedes, by far, spoke the best English.
But why be so Anglo-oriented; surely we should judge a rail system by all the factors that show competence. And given the legendary efficiency of the Germans, how could it not be polished and run like an expensive Swiss watch?
We have traveled often on Rail Europe passes but have started to wonder if point-to-point travel might not be cheaper. Unless Rail Europe is changing its style we feel a weakness in Eurail offerings is that not enough encouragement is given to compare point-to-point travel with longer passes. It’s a bit like all those European City Passes Americans see offered online. Tourists have to do their homework before they buy and preferably before they leave the United States. For example, a 24-hour museum pass gives admission to many, many museums but will visitors really be able to visit that many museums in one day? Would not a three-day pass make more sense?
The psychology of enjoying German train travel is getting it right from the beginning — as if “all’s well that starts well.” That might mean pouring over the details at the DB website, creating pseudo reservations online just to see how the system works so you are comfortable with the website, maybe playing around with Rail Europe’s site or even the one for Austria that has some very easily understood timetables to look at even for train travel that is not in Austria.
And when you’re actually there and about to travel on a DB train, get it right by going to the DB office at the railway station. Skip the machines that quickly yield a ticket for a local sophisticate. Instead look for the Information desk, pull out the ticket for the next in line and wait your turn.
When it is your turn ask the attendant if she speaks English; the younger ones even in former East Germany no longer learn Russian in school! Ask the attendant to help you with your choices and print out the combinations for you. Verify that your ticket doesn’t require an additional charge for a reservation. Confirm which platform you need and when you get there tell any people standing on the platform the end point for your trip today, raise your eyebrows and point so you know which direction your train will be coming from. Then look around at the various digital notice boards to check they agree with what you understand.
It’s important to accept that initially it will all be confusing. Americans don’t have much train sophistication unless they commute on the North East corridor. If you have come early for your first train trip so you’re not rushed, then it will allow you to be able to look around in relative comfort and think about how that compares to the stress of driving on foreign highways. You see more from the train. You may not smell the roses but you can surely see the fields of yellow mustard.
How often can you take your eyes off the road when driving? On the train you see castles, rivers and farmers’ fields; fences, white washed homes with red-roofed tiles. Such scenes tell you are in rural Germany.
The charm for us about DB trains is not just that you get to see the countryside but you get quick glimpses of small town Germany too. Furthermore, if your stop is a city you are so close to your hotel it’s almost always a walk. We recall in visiting about 25 German towns and cities only one instance where we needed a cab
Yet, we haven’t really learned the folly of two much luggage, mostly because our trips last so long. We had five travel bags in our last trip plus a camera bag. The statue of yesterday’s Stationmaster showed him traveling with one bag.
Sometimes we’ll see locals breaking the Golden Rule to travel light like the woman with three bags in our middle picture. At least her bags have left her hands free, and she would need them to hold the bannister rail in the typical German railway station as not all floors have elevators.
When you have too much luggage, stairs can horrify you and in Frankfurt we wanted to stow cases for a few hours’ convenience. Unfortunately, if they are large suitcases
and so large you need one locker for each — then you are equally horrified to find it costs 5 Euros for each small locker.
But you don’t have to pay for a car rental, which, maybe, more than balances things.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.