It’s another travel catch-up, from September 2016!
Two years on, September 2016, and I felt Berlin calling to me again. It was time to repeat the experience in the other direction. The sleeper is no more, but there are still plenty of high speed trains zooming across the Continent. It was time to sample some of that action.
European train travel offers a myriad of high speed train options, each with their own fare structure. Sorting out your ICEs from your Thalyses can be a tricky business. Fortunately I was armed with knowledge from the Man in Seat 61, a one-man treasure trove of information about such things. His website should be the first stop for anyone planning a similar voyage.
For travel to Germany, however, booking is quite simple. Just go to DB’s website, Bahn.com, and enter your journey details. The 10.58 Eurostar gives a convenient connection at Brussels, and is also a good departure time for people like me, who need to travel from the provinces.
The undoubted disadvantage of train travel compared to airlines is speed. For shorter journeys, such as London to Paris, the railway is competitive – any speed advantage of planes is cancelled out by the time spent travelling to and from the airport, and then hanging around at the terminal. For longer journeys, however, the plane is the clear winner.
For example, EasyJet fly directly from Liverpool to Berlin, taking about two hours (or ten hours, if you’re really unlucky). By contrast, London to Berlin can take anything up to eleven hours, involving three trains. Add in the two-and-a-bit hours on a Virgin train from Liverpool, plus transfer and check in time at St Pancras, and you I was looking at a full day of travelling on trains. It’s a gruelling itinerary, even for someone like me, who can happily ride the rails all day long.
This is where I employed an extra little trick, courtesy of that Man in Seat 61 again. Hidden on Deutsche Bahn’s website is an option to specify a stopover, which means you can extend your journey to include a day or two in an intermediate city. I needed to change trains in Cologne anyway, so rather than simply hop on the next connection 20 minutes later, I asked for 36 hours. This broke up my journey into two more manageable chunks, and gave me a chance to enjoy a couple of nights in Cologne.
Deutsche Bahn offer Sparpreis Europa tickets from London to any city in Germany. These are effectively equivalent to UK Advance tickets – low price fares, book ahead, travel only on the specified trains. For journeys from London, they include travel by Eurostar to Brussels, then onward travel to anywhere in Germany by DB InterCity Express train. Availability is limited – there are only four or five ICE trains from Brussels each day, and if the train you want has sold out of Sparpreis tickets, you’re out of luck.
Prices start at €59 but, unless you’re very quick and get the tickets as soon as they go on sale, don’t expect to get them for that price – I have seen them offered for anything up to €169. Just as with UK trains, it is always worth checking out first class fares as they can sometimes be cheaper. I got a first class fare from London to Berlin via Brussels and Cologne for a not-too-unreasonable €129.
For comparison, my return flight from Berlin to Liverpool with EasyJet was about €40, plus a little extra to get a priority seat. The plane is a clear winner, again. Of course, cost and speed were not primary considerations for me.
A PDF ticket landed in my inbox a few minutes later. These print-at-home tickets are the most convenient option, but you do need some form of ID, which for non-Germans probably means a credit card (which does NOT have to be the one you booked with). At the time I travelled, passports were not accepted as identification for these tickets, but that might have changed. DB also offer mobile tickets, but I don’t think they can be used for Eurostar journeys yet.
I managed to get a cheap Virgin 1st Advance ticket to get me to London. I have a lot of issues with Virgin Trains, especially their “oh aren’t we wacky?!?!?!” brand image that’s funny for about two minutes, then becomes tiresome. There’s no denying, however, that their breakfast is rather good, if you can get into 1st to enjoy it. Also, it’s always fun to see suited and booted businessman types eyeing me, dressed in jeans and t-shirt, with suspicion.
Arrival into Euston was bang on time, and a short walk down Euston Road later I was entering St Pancras International. One minor thing to mention is that I couldn’t use the automated check-in gates at St Pancras: the DB ticket had a QR code on it, but it didn’t work the gates. I had to go to the staffed desk instead, where a disinterested clerk tapped some computer keys before letting me through. I wasn’t too concerned by such things – getting on a train to another country remains an exciting process for me.
It’s worth mentioning that a First Class DB ticket doesn’t get you into First Class proper on Eurostar. You end up in Standard Premier instead, which is fine as far as things go, but their brunch offering was a bit… underwhelming. Yes, I know, #firstworldproblems and all that.
Eurostar brunch isn't good enough for Instagram. ? pic.twitter.com/aZfEsEKl2u
— Robert Hampton (@Hampo) September 21, 2016
The Eurostar magazine warned of security checks at Brussels Midi but there were none. However, the “connections” shortcut – an escalator which takes you directly to the ICE/Thalys platforms – was closed, so I had to navigate my way through the main concourse. I had a tight connection, so the longer walk was not welcome (I believe the shortcut has now reopened).
Over on platform 4, train ICE17 was waiting for me to climb aboard. My first time ever on a German ICE train. They have a formidable reputation, but would they live up to the hype?
First impressions of First Class on the ICE 3: it is very comfortable — big seats with oodles of leg room to stretch out and move about. Sadly, DB seems to have imported some British train designers, as some seats had a big blank wall next to them instead of a window view. Fortunately mine was not one of them.
The main glitch of the journey was that the promised free Wi-fi didn’t appear to be working. I was able to fall back on my international roaming (thank you Three Feel at Home) but it was irritating. Yes, I know, #firstworldproblems again.
An attentive first class host wandered up and down the train taking orders. Like every German person I’ve ever encountered, he spoke excellent English, so I did not have to inflict my mangled sub-GCSE German on him. There’s an extensive menu, but having already had two on-train meals that day, I settled for a drink. Note that while there is an at-seat service in First Class, there are no freebies. Everything ordered gets fetched from the Bistro car and you pay for it when it arrives.
Thanks to the European Union, border crossings these days are largely invisible. The only noticeable signs that I had crossed into Germany were the beeping of my phone as it roamed onto a German network, and a slight change in architecture. Two hours after leaving Brussels, we were arriving in Cologne’s bustling main station.
After a couple of nights in Cologne (which will be covered in a separate blog post) I was back at Köln Hauptbahnhof for my onward connection to Berlin. While waiting for my train I was amused to see a very British company operating the local S-Bahn franchise. The National Express train was even sporting a GREAT Britain advert, part of our Government’s attempt to boost trade – although I’d be more convinced if our wonderful leaders weren’t actively shunning our closest trading partners.
I was slightly anxious as departure time approached and there was no sign of my train on the platform. It finally pulled in just a couple of minutes before the scheduled departure time. This time it was an ICE 1, one of the original trains which inaugurated the ICE network back in 1991. I found my coach and climbed aboard – at least, I THINK it was my coach, because the electronic reservation system had completely failed, to the point where even coach numbers were not being shown. The on-board crew had hastily improvised, scribbling “37” in biro on a sheet of A4 paper in the vestibule, but it was hardly ideal. Years of travelling on Virgin Trains have prepared me for arguments caused by non-working reservation labels, but I got to my seat early and no-one else tried to claim it – phew! At least the Wi-fi was working this time.
This time I did avail myself of a ham and cheese sandwich, and also a cup of coffee which came in a lovely DB mug. When I got home I tried to find one to buy, but even though DB have an online shop, they don’t appear to sell these. Boo.
One thing that advocates of train travel always say is that the view is better from the train than from a plane. That’s true, but it has to be said, north Germany isn’t exactly the most interesting, scenery-wise. Flat countryside punctuated by the occasional town, and for some parts of the journey there were giant noise walls blocking the view even more. There were three highlights – rumbling over the magnificent Hohenzollern Bridge as we departed Cologne; stopping in Wuppertal, where I was tempted to get off and ride the Schwebebahn; and racing past the the giant Volkswagen plant at Wolfsburg at 250 kph – too fast to get a photo.
The journey took about four and a half hours, but it passed by fairly quickly. Sighting of the red and yellow S-Bahn trains running parallel to our tracks signalled that I was nearing my destination. Sure enough we were soon plunged into the tunnel leading to the lower level of Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the palatial central station of Germany’s capital city. An uneventful, but enjoyable trip.
Overall, I can say that a journey on the InterCity Express is a real treat. I definitely recommend paying the extra for first class if you can – the extra legroom, at seat service and free wi-fi are worth it. I certainly arrived at my destinations feeling much more relaxed and refreshed than I ever have after a long flight.
Would I do a long trip across the continent like this again? There are lots of places in Germany I still want to see – Munich, Frankfurt, and Dresden to name just a few – so maybe I’ll be back aboard the ICE soon.