Six great reasons to travel Germany by train

Posted by Brandon de Kock on 4 December 2014

There was a time before low-cost airlines when ‘Amtrak’ and ‘Eurorail’ were standard fare for SA travellers abroad – and I’ve never quite gotten the clickety-clack out of my system. So when the chance came around for a month-long trip to the land of Wurst and Weissbier, I opted to hop on and off iron horses rather than sweat it out in cattle-class.

Thanks to the modern day ‘Rail Europe tourist pass’, pocketing an ‘open’ ticket has never been easier. It’s not the first time I’ve done it – and it won’t be the last, but in Germany in particular, the über-efficient Deutshe Bahn service is a very cool way of getting about. Here are my top six reasons why.

 
View of the Black Forest from a moving train

 

1. Tick, tock…

I’m sure that Germans who live near railway lines set their clocks by the passing trains: Teutonic types are crazy consistent when it comes to nailing scheduled times. The main ‘arrival/departure’ boards are always comprehensive and easy to decipher. And once you’ve found your platform, look out for the digital signboards signaling what the next train is and when it’s coming – i.e. ‘Frankfurt-Stuttgart ICE 127 14h34’. If you arrive at the platform at 14h37, in good old Saffa tardiness, don’t be surprised if you’ve missed it!

 

2. Do you know how to get to [X]?

If you’ve tried to catch a rail-snake here in SA, you’ll know that train travel = hassle (unless it’s Blue or Rovos, ma’am). But in Europe, major stations are awesome places to arrive at – mostly with easy access to busses, subways, taxis et al. In Berlin in particular, the Hauptbahnhof is an intergalactic gateway to Europe’s resurgent rock star city – and now that it’s practically English-speaking, you’ll feel comfortable asking questions of people behind glass knowing that they won’t treat you like a captured British army officer in ’42.

 

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Berlin Central Station).

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Berlin Central Station).

 

3. As the world turns

In some countries, you might not want to sit and watch the world slide past, but in the luscious evergreen landscape of Germany, particularly in the mountain regions down South, you’ll feel like an extra in a Nat Geo special. A Rail Europe pass also includes almost all of the scenic routes the country has to offer – specifically the Black Forest rail and about 20 minutes of breathtaking action. Heidi would go there to retire. I did it in summer (visited, not retired), but by all accounts the winter version is truly spectacular.

 

Germany's Black Forest as see from the train.

Germany’s Black Forest as see from the train.

 

4. Flexi time

A big selling point. If you buy, say, a five-day pass, you don’t have to use it on five consecutive days, just five days within a 30 day period. And on the days you do use it, the ticket is valid on just about every train system, so you can literally hop on and off all day at will. I did Berlin to Stuttgart, for example, on a fancy high-speed ICE (Intercity-Express) train, then switched to a decidedly regional two-carriage choo-choo for the trip to Nürtingen (hardly, er, a tourist mecca) without having to buy any sort of ticket. Even for local tram-trains around the Black Forest, the pass is all you need.

 

4.1. Psssst… discount shopping !

The next stop after Nürtingen is Metzingen aka ‘Outlet City’ – a town built around one big open-air mall with discount stores for brands from Adidas and Burberry to Jimmy Choo and Boss. And here’s the good news: before you start browsing, show your German Rail Pass at the Tourist Info kiosk when you pick up your map and they will issue you with a special shopping pass listing the discounts (from 10 percent to 10 Euros to free coffee and chocolates) available to you at each participating store. Bonus!

 

5. You can leave your hat on

And your belt. It’s only when you stay on the ground that you realize just how oppressive air travel has become. Even in a refined country like Germany, you feel guilty just walking into a damn airport – and then prepare to be violated by x-ray scanners, air-puffers and large mustachioed men feeling up your armpits because the scanner doesn’t like the density of your sneaker soles. Hrmmff. It’s a stark contrast to the relaxed stroll to the platform, baggage rolling gently beside you, the hum and ping and ding-dong of announcements and passing trains – and the anticipation of an altogether more dignified way of getting from A to B. And if you do get stuffy, you can open a window. Try that at 10 000 feet.

 

6. Please DON’T turn off electrical devices!

Train travel also means solid laptop time: no stop-start of waiting at the gate, or boarding, or waiting until it’s safe to unfasten your seatbelt. And it’s roomy, so you don’t have to worry about the inconsiderate twit in the seat in front reclining to maximum for the whole flight, making you bend your neck at a weird angle to see your screen. There are normally power points to the side of each seat but to work in maximum comfort, pre-book a seat with a fixed table (this you can do at the station or online). PS: On the new trains, you’ll know if a seat is pre-booked if there’s a little digital LED screen showing the details on panel on the baggage rack. Most ICE trains also offer WiFi hotspots (not for free though).

 

How to book your ticket

Go to raileurope.co.za to check out all the options – and remember, you have to buy the rail pass here in SA before you travel. There are multiple kinds and combinations available, but a bog-standard 5-day first class German rail pass valid for travel with a 30 day period will set you back R4 450 – second class is cheaper (but on longer journeys you may prefer not to take a chance on chewing gum under the seats) and check the website for regular deals.

For more information, email [email protected] or tel 011 628 2319. www.raileurope.co.za

PS: Is first class worth it?

There’s less of a difference between first and second class in a first world country like Germany but there are some perks. First class is usually quiet and less populated and friendly stewardesses offer trays of chocolate bonbons and coffee (even Weissbier!), brought to your seat. A first class ticket also offers access to first class lounges in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, which have free Internet connection.

 
Also read: 10 reasons to travel Europe by train

 
Read more about the my trip to Germany with Nikki Werner on page 87 of Getaway’s December issue, on sale now!

December 2014