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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Navigating the incredibly complex European train system

First of all, if you're a tourist and are doing what I consider a business trip tour of Europe (if it's Tuesday, we must be in Paris), you're best off with the Eurail pass. They come with various number of travel days, along with a validation system that I haven't bothered to figure out.

If you're in Europe for a long stay, or your trip are widely spaced, or you're bringing a bicycle, then the Eurail pass is not for you and then you have to deal with the European train system directly. Each train system has it's own ticketing system with arcane rules and reservations, so I will only deal with the German system.

The big decision in Germany will be how frequently you travel. There are 3 Bahn-cards (or train cards) that give you discounts and or unlimited train travel. The Bahn-Card 25 gives you 25% off, the Bahn-Card 50 gives you 50% off, and the Bahn-Card 100 grants unlimited train travel. I am told that once upon a time, the German train system was owned fully by the government and so fare structures are simple and everyone could use trains. Now the Deutsche Bahn is about to be privatized, they have to dress up the numbers to make stock attractive to investors, so they've adopted the fare structure that the other successful transportation system has used so profitably --- that of the airlines.

So what happens is that the reservation system releases tickets 3 months in advance. What happens is that the lowest priced tickets are released at that time in limit numbers (those deals are accessible via the Deutsche Bahn website). As those tickets get sold, last minute travelers have to pay more. Furthermore, there are special fares that Bahn-Card 25 holders can get (and some of those fares work even if only one person out of a party has the Bahn-Card).

Complicating this is the difference between trains. The fast trains are the Inter-City and the Euro-City (international) trains. These trains don't stop often, and can go as fast as 300-400kph (unfortunately, those speeds are not achievable in Bavaria). These trains have limited bike capacity, and must be reserved in advance. The remaining trains are regional trains. This distinction is important, because there are two important types of tickets that you can use to your advantage: the Happy Weekend ticket (35 Euro), and the Regional ticket (in my case the Bayern Ticket --- 27 Euro). These tickets let you use the regional trains within the entire state (Bayern Ticket) or throughout Germany for one day for an unlimited amount of time, subject to time restrictions (later than 9am on weekdays, and unlimited for weekends). Up to 5 people can travel on this one ticket, so if you're traveling as a group for a relatively short distance, these the tickets to get. Neither tickets can have Bahn-Cards applied to them. Regional trains will take bikes without reservations, but if they run out of room you're stuck until the next one.

International trains are even more complicated. Some respect the Bahn-Card, some don't. Sometimes, you can get a special deal that makes things like Bahn-Cards useless. An interesting one, for instance, is the night train from Munich to Paris --- you can book bunk beds, get on it, go to bed, and wake up the next morning in the other city. With a special deal, the trip can cost about 75 Euros each way (the same as a flight), which sounds expensive until you realize that in your trip cost is included a free nights hotel, which you would have to pay if you flew to the other city. And the train is way more comfortable than even a first class plane ticket.

With all these choices, specials, and deals, I quickly gave up and found an agent in the form of Euraide. I got lucky and was there on a Saturday afternoon when the general manager, Alan Wissenberg was working overtime. In any case, I've been using their office for most of my train work. Note that while they are great people, they aren't cycling specialists, so they will not know what to do with bicycles on trains, and the special rules involved.

For instance, French long distance trains have chosen completely not to serve cyclists and bicycles unless they are packaged in a special fashion. So for our upcoming Tour of the Pyrenees trip, we bought one of the special priced night trains to Paris, and rented a car, since the time cost of getting the regional trains was so high that we were better off doing so.

On the way back, Roberto wanted to visit Lyon, where he was an exchange student. That's conveniently near Geneva, where we would escape the French train system onto the Swiss system. The Swiss system (and the German one, for that matter) are much more bike friendly, but don't allow for bike reservations from a German train station. But all through the last few years, I've traveled using the Swiss train system without needing a bike reservation at all, so I bought the passenger only special (112 Euros for 3 of us, from Geneva to Munich --- much cheaper than flying), and then booked a bike reservation for the part of the trip that was on the German train crossing international borders from St. Gallen to Munich. To bridge the distance from Perpignan to the Lyons region, we reserved a car, but at the last minute cancelled the reservation and hopped onto a local train instead.

One of my hopes on visiting Europe was that train travel would be much cheaper than driving, and more bike friendly than flying. The reality on the ground has proved to be rather disillusioning. This is a pity, because trains and bikes are the perfect combination, as anyone who's done so can attest. Nevertheless, in the US, renting the car would have been the only option for us, with all the attendant problems that come with it, so I'm glad that we managed to negotiate the system as is.

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