The tricks of EU cross-border rail – Berlin-Bruxelles-St Gallen-Berlin

I have just completed the booking of the tickets for a rail trip in April, just under 3 months ahead of my departure. Booking the trip required so many tricks and odd tactics that I’m writing this blog about it, in the hope that others can learn from it, and perhaps politicians could act to help solve the chaos? Anyway, I’m not holding my breath on the latter, but if you’re keen on the former, here goes.

My itinerary:
1. Berlin – Brussels, any time on Friday 10th April 2015
2. Brussels – St Gallen, any time on Wednesday 15th April 2015
3. St Gallen – Berlin, departing after 1400 on Thursday 16th April 2015
Cheap tickets in Germany are available 92 days ahead of travel, and in France 3 or 4 months. So this timing is good to be able to get low cost tickets.

My criteria:
Only trains. No buses. Tickets as cheap as possible, and tickets that cannot be exchanged or refunded are OK. Willing to take a slightly longer journey, or change more times, if it saves money. Reservations on all trains except in Switzerland (where I’ve never had to stand, and hence never reserve).

My cards:
A Deutsche Bahn BahnCard 25 (saves 25% on any DB ticket, has RailPlus for 25% savings internationally (although this didn’t help here), and gives free local transport sometimes in Germany (see below) – card costs €62 / year, and allows collection of points with bahn.bonus comfort), and a Thalys TheCard loyalty card (no saving on ticket – earns points).

1. Berlin – Brussels
berlinbruxelles
There are essentially three ways to do this trip.
a. Berlin – Köln DB ICE, and Köln – Bruxelles DB ICE
b. Berlin – Essen DB ICE, and Essen – Bruxelles Thalys (or the same, changing in Köln rather than Essen)
c. Berlin – Düsseldorf DB ICE or IC, and Düsseldorf – Bruxelles in a DB IC Bus
Option a. is the easiest to book – it can be done end to end with DB on DB’s website, but for 10th April the cheapest ticket is €59,20 single (€79 without a BahnCard), departing at 0647. You need to add €4,50 for a seat reservation, and €2.25 (1/4 of a 4-Fahrten-Karte) for a BVG ticket to get to Berlin Hbf to the price of this ticket, giving a total price of €65,95.

Option b., with a change in Essen, does not even show up on DB’s website, and Thalys tickets cannot be booked on DB’s website at all, although Thalys trains are still listed in DB’s timetable. Doing a search for each leg of the trip gives me a 0647 departure from Berlin, arriving Essen at 1034, and leaving at 1124 on a Thalys and arriving at Bruxelles-Midi at 1432 – note this trip is just less than an hour longer than with the DB ICE option a. However the Berlin-Essen ticket is just €21,75 (+€4,50 reservation), and this includes a free connection in the Berlin public transport to get me to the station with the CityTicket option. This is really silly – a Berlin-Essen ticket has CityTicket included, but a Berlin-Brussels ticket does not. The Essen-Bruxelles Thalys ticket was only €19, booked from Thalys TheCard website so I earn points. Total price: €45,25 – this is the one I booked.

If I’d followed DB’s suggestion and changed in Köln onto the Thalys instead, the cost would have been €56,25 + €4,50 for Berlin-Köln (0746 departure from Berlin), and €19 for the Thalys from Köln to Brussels – €79,75 in total.

Option c. I eliminated as I refuse to take buses, but it is the cheapest – just €29,15 for the ticket, €4,50 for a reservation, and €2,25 to get to Berlin station with the BVG – €35,90 total.

Right, so that’s part 1 of the trip complete – booked for a low price, but with two separate tickets off two separate websites, and using a connection that is not even listed in DB’s timetable.

2. Brussels – St Gallen
bruxellesstgallen
Here the routing is easier, because there is essentially only one way to do this trip – Bruxelles-Paris with Thalys, Paris-Zürich with TGV Lyria, and Zürich-St Gallen with SBB/CFF. The problem however is the trip is in three countries, one of them not in the European Union. Oh, and the Swiss Franc has just appreciated 20% this week…

Searching DB’s timetable throws up an immediate problem. Thalys arrives at Paris Gare du Nord, and the TGV departs from Gare de Lyon – 2 stops on the RER. But DB adds 70 minutes for this transfer – too much. So I took matters in my own hands, and found a Thalys that arrives 45 minutes before the TGV leaves. So my route is: Thalys Bruxelles-Midi 1013 – Paris Nord 1138, Paris Lyon 1223 – Zürich HB 1626, Zürich HB 1639 – St Gallen 1753.

The question then is how to book all of this. Neither Thalys nor Capitaine Train (dedicated French rail booking site) could give a combined price even Bruxelles-Paris-Zürich, let alone as far as St Gallen. Loco2 could give a price for the whole trip but this price – £66,50 (roughly €87,00) seemed high. SBB could give a price for Paris-St Gallen, but this too – CHF 59,00 (or approx €59,00) was costly. It turns out that both SBB and Loco2 were suffering because of the price for only the Zürich-St Gallen part, and were using a standard price of CHF 30,00 for this – more than the price for Paris-Zürich!

So undeterred I set out to find prices for each leg separately – €22,00 for Bruxelles-Paris on the Thalys TheCard site, €25,00 for Paris-Zürich with Capitaine Train (sorry Loco2 – here your £25.00 had a very uncompetitive exchange rate!), and – best of all – €14,20 for Zürich HB-St Gallen with Deutsche Bahn. Here I used by DB rail trick (fully documented here) to book Zürich HB-St Gallen-Kempten (Allgäu) (first station to which SparPreis works – doesn’t work at Lindau Hbf), with an interim stop of 80 mins in St Gallen to make sure it booked me on the 1639 departure from Zürich. This gives a total price of €61,20, and I simply will not take the St Gallen-Kempten(Allgäu) part.

Note also that none of these connections contains the Paris Gare du Nord – Paris Gare de Lyon transit ticket. I have some old carnet tickets left over from a previous trip to Paris – so €1,41 for that trip (1/10 of a carnet), giving me a complete cost of €62,61.

So that’s part 2 complete. Part 3 should be easy…?

3. St Gallen – Berlin
stgallenberlin
This part is easier than the other two as it can all be booked, in all cases, off the DB website. But the question then arises: what route to take in order to get the cheapest ticket – remember also leaving after 1400. DB gives two main options – departing at 1419 and changing at Buchloe, Augsburg and Göttingen, with a journey time of 9 hours 7 minutes, and a price of €29,20 (+ €4,50 reservation), or two changes at Memmingen and Ulm and a longer journey time of 10 hours 12 minutes, but for €89,20 (+ €4,50 reservation)! Plus both of these routes have tight connections onto RegionalExpress trains, that aren’t super comfortable services either.

This is where DB’s “Zwischenhaltestelle” (interim stop) option comes in. I’d noticed the destination of the train from St Gallen was München, so I put München Hbf as the interim stop and, hey presto, 2 changes, 10 hours 12 minutes journey time, no regional trains involved, and €29,20 (+ €4,50 reservation) for the whole lot. Add the €2,25 BVG ticket when arriving in Berlin and it makes €35,95.

So there you go – Berlin – Brussels – St Gallen – Berlin, with comfortable trains, for €143,81. With 6 tickets requiring 6 separate bookings on 3 websites (3 DB, 2 Thalys TheCard, 1 Capitaine Train), and 3 local public transport tickets.

The value of a BahnCard 25
For this trip, my BahnCard saved me money as follows:
€2,25 for the trip with the BVG to Berlin Hbf from home
€29 (standard) – €21,25 (reduced) = €7,25 for Berlin-Essen
€19 (standard) – €14,20 (reduced) = €4,80 for Zürich-St Gallen
€39 (standard) – €29,20 (reduced) = €9,80 for St Gallen-München
That’s a saving of €24,10, and 74 bahn.bonus points earned towards further benefits. Make 3 long trips a year somewhere in Germany and the BahnCard 25 pays for itself.

Caveats
These prices do not cover local transport to my final destinations in either Brussels or St Gallen – I do not know these yet, so cannot calculate them. In Brussels the cost of a single on the STIB network is €1,25 (1/10 of a 10 journey pass on a MOBIB card).

If something goes wrong (the Bruxelles-Paris is delayed, meaning I miss my Paris-Zürich train), I am not sure how I am covered – although both of those tickets are separately covered by CIV.

Creative Commons Images from Flickr
ICE2 by kaffeeeinstein, taken July 31 2009
Thalys by Lars Steffens, taken May 30 2013
Thalys PBKA by Darkroom Daze, taken April 2 2013
TGV Lyria 206 by Nik Morris, taken September 2 2013
Re 460 by Gerard – Nicolas Mannes, taken June 2 2011
EuroCity München by netzroot, taken April 26 2014
ICE 2 by TrainPhotography.de, taken on February 8 2014
ICE Göttingen by Michael Day, taken on June 20 2008

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11 comments

  1. Flo

    Would be great, though, if things weren’t so complicated. I wished we still lived in a day and age that you could JUST GO TO A COUNTER AT THE TRAIN STATION and have things figured out by THE PERSON WHO GETS PAID TO FIGURE IT OUT. Sorry for the caps, but I, having to travel quite a bit, and having to endure many legs of an essentially linear trip, am so exasperated with time-devouring online fiddling, I’ve started taking the more expensive option purely in order to have less stress. But I’d love to invest the money I’d save if thing were more straightforward and spend it on good organic food or something. Truly, I would. Love to, and actually do it.

    It is the outrage of our times that booking a plane ticket is the easiest (and, alas, cheapest) thing in the world, while it takes a degree and a big wallet to get a train. Wished there was a more concerted EU-effort for focussed funding of the train network…Don’t know, maybe there is? Doesn’t strike me as such, though.

    Anyway, thanks for the posts, useful, in spite of it all. Maybe I will fiddle a bit more now, to try and get that cheaper option…

  2. klsjglkjagkls

    It’s silly that you can use the DB trick that you used for one of the tickets. I sometimes use it when travelling between Stockholm and Copenhagen. You can include two stops of up to 48 hours at two different Danish stations, and the price only depends on the demand for tickets from the Danish/German border to Flensburg or Puttgarden. Very customer-unfriendly as it is hard for people to find out that the trick can be used.

  3. Jeffrey

    I’m a DB agent. Generally, if you book a ticket to a specific station in Berlin (example: a “Europa-Spezial” ticket from Praha Hl. n. to Berlin Hbf.), you will get two cards:

    *a seat reservation for the specific origin/destination: Praha hl. n. and Berlin Hbf.

    *a ticket between the city pairs Praha => Berlin (without specification of a specific station).

    On said ticket you can travel onward within the Berlin AB zone on DB services (S-bahn and DB Regio) to your destination.

  4. Michael

    @Jon, re the Bruxelles-Lux-Strasbourg-Basel train: yeah, as said, I was rather ironic about that one. But if the connections had sensible pricing and didn’t regularly get stuck somewhere in Luxembourg or Northern France (and, you know, laptop sockets, a cafe/restaurant on board, and some other ingredients of modern train travel), then it’d actually be a quite nice alternative – including some scenic views. But of course, instead of investing in it, they’ll probably just scrap it. (There’s a multilateral convention, as far as I’ve read, which obliges SBB/SNCF/CFL/SNCB to run it until 2017, but after that it’ll probably go…)

  5. Jon

    @Jeffrey – I *think* you have to put the Berlin S-Bahn station into the search when you book. I’ve just tested it – a St Gallen – Berlin Landsberger Allee search works, and is bookable, but a connection to my station on the BVG-run U7 U-Bahn line does not work. I have never managed to book a ticket that just has “Berlin” as the destination – it always has either an individual station, or Berlin+City using the CityTicket option (explained above).

  6. Jeffrey

    You mention buying a BVG ticket for Berlin. Keep in mind that if you are arriving on a DB ticket, it will most likely have the destination simply as “Berlin”. In such a case, it is valid for travel on the Berlin S-Bahn, too. If your final destination is on the S-Bahn, you wouldn’t need a BVG ticket.

  7. Jon

    @Michael / @Simon – the Basel-Strasbourg train is too expensive, and too slow. Just the part in France would cost me more than the TGV from Paris… 🙁 And yes, it’ll be axed eventually AFAIK.

    @Simon – I’m so bored of Brussels-Köln that I’ll avoid that whenever I can! Journey times are also longer around that way (although some very cheap tickets with Belgien Spezial / Schweiz Spezial should be doable).

    @Tristram / @Simon – Loco2 gives a 45 min cross-Paris connection “only use this if you know what you’re doing” warning, but allows it to be booked. Surely it also ought to depend on what stations you’re using? Nord to Lyon is OK as it’s 1 RER. I’d not leave that little time for Austerlitz or Montparnasse.

    @Hans – you’re right re. Rail Plus and the Zürich-St Gallen leg, but to get the reduction I’d need to go as far as Lindau I think? I must say I’ve never fully worked out how Rail Plus actually works (although I’ve got reductions using it when booking Italy – Switzerland with SBB).

    @Tristram – re. Thalys TheCard – good! And thanks for the example!

  8. Tristram

    Indeed all this travel is still a huge pain on the booking part, and thanks for showing it with an actual example.

    I have however a few remarks :
    1/ You can use Thalys the Card on Capitaine Train and collect your points (https://blog.capitainetrain.com/4896-the-unknown-benefits-of-thalys-thecard) ; at least one less website
    2/ The transfer in Paris for Bruxelles→Zürich has a minimum duration set by the SNCF. That is why you will not find it on Capitaine Train or Loco2. If you have a metro problem I wonder if they will accept the « Railteam hop on the next train » given the little time you choose
    3/ Yup, Capitaine Train has no access to Swiss trains. This won’t probably change unless they come into the EU 😉
    4/ The via trick is missing on capitaine train. We are wondering how to make it automatically, and not only for power users. A huge topic, I can’t say what and when we’ll do something about it

    Here is an example of the whole journey booked on Capitaine Train. Only the Zürich→Gallen is missing, and the fastest solution is chosen for Gallen→Berlin.
    I hope you forgive me for changing slightly the times… Yield management can be terribly aggressive, and I wanted to show that you get the same prices.
    http://vrac.tristramg.eu/eu_booking.png

    Capitaine Train’s offices are 10 min by foot from Gare du Nord, you should pay us a visit.

  9. Michael

    On your second leg, you’re missing out on the rare chance to take the super-comfortable and fast Brussels-Zurich direct train! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vauban_%28train%29)

    (That’s irony. I’m actually surprised that they still haven’t cut it down into pieces. But it is convenient if you need to go to BXL from Switzerland with a lot of heavy luggage you don’t want to carry through Paris or Frankfurt, ample time to spend, and you bring your own picnic for the entire day…)

  10. Hans

    Good luck in case of train delays! I am not sure how the different operators would interprete the CIV and EU rules about passenger rights.

    In theory your Bahncard 25 would also give you a Railplus discount at the Zürich – St. Gallen leg of your journey, because as it is part of an international journey. The problem is that you cannot book that on line and it even may not possible to buy that inside Switzerland, as the 25 % off are calculated from the international tariff. So you’d have to go to a DB ticket window.

  11. Simon Field

    Nice trick with Kempten and note you have no Zugbinding outside Germany anyway.

    Am surprised you didn’t consider the Brussels – Köln – Basel – St. Gallen route, although this too has to be done with two tickets. I would suggest Brussels – Freiburg and Freiburg – St. G.

    Am less surprised you didn’t go for the option via Luxembourg, as it has no special offers, no laptop sockets all/part the way* and has been steadily worsened over the years. But it’s affordable if you use some sort of Belgian offer (Go Pass perhaps), the CFL day ticket (€4), a normal ticket to Basel and then the Kempten trick.

    Personally I would allow more than 45 mins to cross Paris by RER or Metro. I believe the minimum permitted by the SNCF journey planner is 55 mins, so good luck with that!

    * http://www.beluxtrains.net/indexen.php?page=belgium-files/2015_1/2015-97
    * http://www.beluxtrains.net/indexen.php?page=belgium-files/2015_1/2015-91