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Train Tips for European Traveling -- Chapter III

Bill Malchisky  April 22 2015 12:30:00 AM
This year I needed to travel from Zurich, Switzerland to Ghent, Belgium by rail. In contrasting the route through Paris two years ago, I decided to take a chance and transfer instead in Cologne, Germany.  This post describes the lessons learned and useful tips to make your next rail experience even better.

As I needed to work and needed to increase the chances for power, I chose first class end-to-end on this trip. The rates were reasonable enough that the service upgrade proved cost-effective on my route, which is quite unusual I learned. Note that information on previously reviewed trains --- two years ago --- included second class, which is in contrast to this year's experience and updates.


Route

1. SBB IC from Zurich to Basel
2. Transferred to the DB Bahn ICE through Germany via Cologne to Brussels
3. From Brussels to Ghent I transferred to the local Belgian rail line IC (express) for the last segment
This route proved excellent overall with fast and easy connections.


Swiss Rail -- SBB

The Swiss train chosen is different than last year's service to Thusis via Chur. The IC express to Basel in 53 minutes. Very nice trains, comfortable seats, and power on some of seats. The one-by-two seat configuration allowed groups of four to sit together facing each other or two people to share a table if sitting against the window on either side. Just wide and deep enough for a 15" laptop with the power brick to lay alongside. Comfortable and impeccably on-time.


German Rail -- DB Bahn ICE

I last utilized the DB Bahn during the 2006 World Cup, so it was interesting to see the changes in the past nine years.

To increase my changes to work unimpeded, I sat in the quiet car, which worked well for me. In speaking with German colleagues at my conference, I learned that all 2nd Class seats have power now on ICE, so that is a good tip and definitely saves money on rail fares.

The seven hour journey did not disappoint from a rail experience, but know that just because they offer a Boardrestaurant or Boardbistro does not mean you will get food. In my case, the first train lacked water in the food card, so they had no hot meals, just sandwiches on a mobile food cart with water, juice, coffee, and some spirits as I recall. The second trip (2.5h) lacked any food beyond meat-based sandwiches (fine for some, but not for vegetarians). The German diet is mostly meat based, so the lack of sandwich variety met my expectations--a perfect time to dive into my travel food bag.

If you require customer service when booking your tickets, know that e-mail is their preferred option and in my case took three business days (plus the weekend) to receive a response. Thus, before booking your tickets, double check every detail. Otherwise if you were to make a mistake when purchasing your ticket and unless you purchased well in advance, you might have to seek assistance upon arriving at the train station and wait on line there before boarding your first segment's train.

On-board WiFi

When looking at trains two years, ago, I commented in my first train tips post that DB Bahn wanted to include WiFi on their trains out of Frankfurt; as this trip routed via Cologne and did not travel to Frankfurt, I am unable to accurately comment on WiFi progress therein. But know that WiFi on my route was non-existent and remains today a problem in much of Europe with all trains. For this reason and my train experiences over the past three years, I must confidently state that the US' Amtrak Acela service and regional trains in the northeast are significantly better in this regard.

Train Station WiFi

As the Cologne's station's WiFi refused to send me an SMS access code for the free Internet--which meant no Internet access during my time there. If you lack a data card for your smart phone, you need to know that you might have problems getting the mobile rail ticket to display on your phone (app specific). As a hedge against a no ticket situation with a short transfer, pre-print your ticket before leaving so you have it on your person and no matter what happens, you can board safely.

Note:
In the Zurich and Basel rail stations, getting WiFi proved easy and reliable. As long as you have a cell phone to receive a text message (SMS), you can get online. This doesn't work with WiFi only tablets, so be warned that you need a cell phone to retrieve the code (which you can then enter on your tablet) in these stations too.

Transfer Times

If you see station with a four minute connection window, it is actually reasonable to make your connecting train, but best to get a map of the station first so you know where to go. Small transfer times can be managed easily in Germany and Switzerland. Belgium can require more walking, so it is best to check the map. As a goal, the transfer time is based upon what is reasonable for a local traveler to be able to accomplish sans rushing. How much luggage that includes remains unclear, but if you require red cap services (luggage porter) at each station, then look for a longer window.


Pricing and Payments

Swiss trains offer Super Saver fares on certain trains, for sub-14 day purchases, which are dramatically cheaper than the normal fares. If the desired train is expecting low to medium occupancy, wait. Caveat, ticket is pre-paid, and can not be changed. In this case, you need to  either buy another ticket or get a ride.

Belgium train tickets now accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa at the rail station. At the time of this writing, they still allow both micro-chip and magnetic strip cards, so if your credit card company has yet to replace your card with increased security, you are fine. The payment option expansion are a nice change since the 2013 trip.


Summary

Traveling via DB Bahn is hands-down easier to go from Switzerland to Belgium than via the TGV. The Cologne transfer over the Paris transfer alone (see Tip 4 below for the painful details) warrants due consideration for this route. The Belgian rail experience improved dramatically by removing the Belgian only bank card rule for non-cash payments. In Germany, even if you travel in first class does not mean that you get a meal on the German trains. And you can of course forget about WiFi on-board. I do enjoy traveling by rail and found this route and connections to be easy, efficient and cheaper than air travel. Looking forward to my next rail adventure. Overall, one of the better train travel days I had.

In a future post, I will contrast Acela to the European trains as a means to offer more tips for non-locals of the northeast United States, and way to incorporate it into your rail travel to reduce costs when flying to the US..
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Additional Tips

1. Read The Man in Seat 61 for specific tips on your chosen city pair. It is a lot of information to keep current, but overall, he is on-the-mark and provides an invaluable collection of rail knowledge. Mike Smith suggested that site two years ago, and it proved valuable on many levels.
2. Rick Steve's Travel Tips: Trains & Rail Passes
3. Train Tips for European Traveling - Part II (2014)
4. Train Tips for European Traveling (2013)
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