I once wrote that Germany should be “off limits” to economy travelers because of its high costs. No longer — German hotel and restaurant prices compare favorably with costs in its European neighbors, and Germany has always provided plenty of reasons to visit, from scenic rivers to forests to dynamic cities. Of course, there’s its great national cuisine. And there’s also a dense, modern, and swift rail system that can take you about anywhere you’re likely to want to see.
This report actually starts with Amsterdam, which is as close to Germany as my frequent flyer promotional deal could take me. And it had the added attraction of allowing me to get into the season’s ending of Keukenhof, the Netherlands’ fantastic tulip extravaganza. There is no rail stop for Keukenhof, but nonstop buses operate from various points around Amsterdam, including the airport, the main station and several satellite stations. A combined round-trip bus and garden entry ticket costs 26 euros.
For schedule planning, I relied on the excellent Deutsche Bahn website which many savvy travelers rely on not only for Germany but also for many European rail trips outside Germany. Rather than risk machine-selected seat assignments, I relied on railstation offices where the agents arranged the seats I wanted.
For my long-haul rail trips, I bought a sale-priced Benelux-Germany Eurailpass shortly before that product was phased out in favor of a much more flexible version of the all-countries Eurailpass. My first class pass was priced at a relatively low premium over the second-class pass. Even at a good price, however, I’m not sure that first class is really worth the extra. The differences in hard product are inconsistent.
On my train from Amsterdam to Berlin, the single first class car was outfitted with compartments rather than the open plan with one seat on one side of the aisle and two on the other. Each compartment features facing three-seat sets, and the middle seat is like a middle seat in an economy plane. I would much rather be in second class than one of those seats. I also noticed some second-class compartments on some trains. What are they thinking? These are relatively new and modern cars; don’t they do any market research? The upshot of this is that, in either class, you need to arrange an advance seating reservation to avoid getting stuffed into a compartment middle seat.
This route did not cover any high-speed track, so it was loco-hauled with conventional cars. It did, however, regularly hit well above 200 kph (125 mph) on well-maintained conventional tracks.
Getting around in Berlin is easy, with its integrated system of surface rail, subway, tram and bus lines. Fares are 2.80 euros for an individual one-way ticket for travel within central zones A and B, enough for most visitors, or 7 euros for an unlimited-ride 24-hour ticket. You can buy rail tickets from machines in stations, with coins or credit card, and onboard trams with coins only. Signs at rail and tram stops announce times and destinations for the next several services and are easy to follow. And no, the new airport still isn’t opened — although it has at least started assigning space to individual airlines. When it opens, direct rail access to the city transport system is already in place — a big improvement compared with today’s poor ground service to Tegel airport.
On my next leg, Berlin to Frankfurt, my first-class car was outfitted with the 1-2 arrangement that is highly desirable — especially for a solo traveler who enjoys those solo seats on the single-seat side of the aisle. Although only a small portion of the itinerary used dedicated high-speed track, the train was an ICE, which dutifully hit 300 kph on the high-speed stretch, and loafed along at 200-250 the rest of the trip.
My final destination that day was Boppard, a colorful tourist village in the most scenic part of the Rhine Gorge. I made the connection from the ICE to a regional train at Frankfurt hauptbahnhof — which, even though nominally a local, zipped along at a very good clip between stations.
The primary scenic portion of the Rhine lies between Frankfurt and Cologne — actually, between Mainz and Koblenz — where Deutsche Bahn maintains double-track lines on both sides of the Rhine that pretty much hug the riverbank and offer great views. Although the through traffic on the high-density Frankfurt-Cologne city pair has been diverted to a dedicated high-speed line well away from the river, regional frequencies on both sides are adequate; better on the southwest bank than the northeast, but fine for anyone who wants to do an out-and-back from either end of the Rhine Gorge.
Hotels in Boppard and nearby towns offer a great gimmick to foreign visitors: a card providing free local transport, including both bus and rail, within a large area of the Rheinland. I used it for an excursion on the Hunsrück Railway, Germany’s steepest adhesion rail line at 6.1%. It was originally built as a steam-operated cog railway, but diesel DMUs do the job quite nicely without cogs. It that passes through some pleasant forest areas. Hotels in Basel, Switzerland, also issue such cards; I have no idea how many other places do, as well, but they can be useful for day excursions.
My final trip, Boppard-Cologne on the regional connecting to Cologne-Amsterdam on an intercity express, went just as the earlier trips: comfortable accommodations, speeds that would shame Amtrak, and keeping pretty much to schedule.
All in all, you can’t beat rail for getting around Germany — especially if you want to hit the big cities. As usual, individual point-to-point tickets can be a really good deal if you buy early and don’t mind nonrefundability. Otherwise, a Eurailpass is always a live option.
Ed Perkins, editor
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