Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/18 posted by hidden europe on

Hidden europe reviews options for purchasing rail tickets for travelling in Europe. We selected a basket of five hypothetical European rail journeys, specifying precise dates, routes and class of travel. Then we cast around on the Internet, and made a host of phone calls, just to compare how much agents in the UK and USA would charge for those five itineraries. And for comparison we checked out the cheapest price then available on the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) website for the same five trips. The results make for a frightening read.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Just take a look at the promotional blurb of a major US-based retailer of European rail tickets:

"Traveling by train will enhance your entire European experience: no airport hassles or wasted time, and more leisurely gourmet dining as you gaze through panoramic windows…. Make sure you book in advance to get the best prices."

Well we are certainly great fans of restaurant cars on trains, but they are few and far between. Less than one European train in a thousand has a restaurant car. And we are not sure that we would ever board a train in search of gourmet dining. Lunch or dinner on a train can surely be fun, but it is scarcely gourmet dining. Did God not invent restaurants for that purpose?

But we take on board that US company's advice about advance booking. Yes, fares do tumble on many routes if you can book a month or two in advance. But where you buy your train tickets can also hugely influence the price you pay. And opting to buy dollar denominated fares from a US-based retailer may often mean paying a hefty premium over the promotional prices offered by rail company websites in Europe. Sterling denominated fares sold in the UK can also include big mark-ups.

Last Friday, we selected a basket of five hypothetical European rail journeys, specifying precise dates, routes and class of travel. Then we cast around on the Internet, and made a host of phone calls, just to compare how much agents in the UK and USA would charge for those five itineraries. And for comparison we checked out the cheapest price then available on the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) website for the same five trips. The results make for a frightening read, with agents sometimes offering us tickets that cost more than ten times as much as one might pay to book precisely the same journey on the Deutsche Bahn website.

And, in case you were wondering, we were paid not a penny by the Deutsche Bahn to publish this. You can check the full table of results by going to our website.

The slow train

We had an Adlestrop moment last week. Do you remember Adlestrop? The Cotswold village where Edward Thomas' train paused one sunny afternoon on the eve of the First World War, encouraging Thomas to pen one of the most famous poems in the English language. Our Adlestrop was not in England but in the empty countryside south of Berlin. The slow train from the German capital towards Saxony is not one of those sleek air conditioned expresses that feature in advertisements for rail travel in Germany. It is, on the contrary, old and creaking. The journey south is punctuated by brief stops at country towns and wayside halts. We stopped at a station that seemed to be in the very middle of nowhere. A butterfly, full of purpose, flew in through the open carriage window. And, on the spur of the moment, we decided to alight. To give Baruth a chance to come to life.

Of Baruth we knew nothing. A place where, for no very evident reason, the slow train stops. Did not Wordsworth once write of the cliffs of Baruth? But surely not this Baruth, so far from any sea.

There are no station staff at Baruth, but merely a crumbling concrete shelter that has seen better days. Does not the station name sound almost biblical? Not at all like a railway station on the line to Dresden. We remember Sur, Seyde and Baruth from old maps of the Mediterranean. Our Baruth was unsung, undiscovered - even a little unkempt, and all the better for that. We lingered for a happy hour in the summer sunshine before continuing our journey.

Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.