European Rail Tickets: Deutsche Bahn fares better than rail agents

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A Deutsche Bahn train in Berlin's main station. Photo by hidden europe.
A Deutsche Bahn train in Berlin's main station. Photo by hidden europe.

Okay, we’ve said it before, but we’ll gladly say it again. Have Cheapos realised just how much rail fares in Europe can vary according to where you purchase your tickets?

We took a day out from our regular work with hidden europe magazine last week and conjured up a tempting palette of trips criss-crossing the continent. And then we compared the ticket prices on a national rail website (that of the Deutsche Bahn) with the prices offered for those journeys by rail ticketing agents based in Britain and North America. We took care to ensure that the tickets we purchased were in every case for exactly the same trains.

So a straight comparison, comparing like-with-like. Same class of travel, same comfy seat, same scenery slipping by outside the window – for all five routes in our basket of European rail trips.

The five routes we tested
1. Berlin to London single (by day, depart after 9:00 AM, any route) on September 3: one adult, 2nd class.
2. Amsterdam to Salzburg single (by day, no more than one change of train) on July 14: one adult, 1st class.
3. London to Cologne via Brussels single (depart at 8:00 AM or later) on September 10: one adult, 2nd class.
4. Berlin to Zagreb single via Hamburg (2 night stop) and Munich (2 night stop) on August 20: one adult, any class.
5. Nuremberg to Dresden same day return (direct trains only) on June 20 for a family of five, 2nd class.

For each of these five journeys, we thought that the German Railways (viz. Deutsche Bahn) website at www.bahn.de would offer some reasonable fare advice, and so it did. Indeed, all five journeys could be booked online through their website.

Then we turned to agents selling rail tickets in North America and Britain to get quotes for precisely the same journeys. This was done first by online research, often followed up by telephone calls to check precise details.

The results

And guess what? The leading agencies specializing in European rail tickets always charged at least twice as much as would the Deutsche Bahn for exactly the same journey.

The key point here is that in most of Europe, rail operators have a whole raft of special promotional fares that massively undercut the regular tariffs (often with discount of more than 80% on the standard fare). But agents rarely offer those discounted fares, preferring to safeguard their hefty commission fees by selling only the full fare.

Comparing the fares

Now take a look at how those fares compared. Listed below are the Deutsche Bahn (DB) fares that were available for purchase around midday of Friday, June 12, 2009 followed by the cheapest fare quoted the same day by a leading North American or British agent (all sterling and dollar fares have been converted to euros just to make things clearer).

1. Berlin to London (2nd class) DB: €49 / Agent Fare: €209
2. Amsterdam to Salzburg (1st class) DB: €79 / Agent Fare: €255
3. London to Cologne (2nd class) DB: €49 / Agent Fare: €106
4. Berlin to Zagreb with stops in Hamburg and Munich (2nd class) DB: €29 / Agent Fare: €322
5. Nuremberg to Dresden day return for family of 5 (2nd class) DB: €37 / Agent Fare: €705

Helpful advice?

We found one leading British agent who was extremely helpful on the phone, going to some lengths to suggest that for certain routes it might be wiser to get the tickets from a German source (but declining to give the specific name of the company or website).

A well-known North American agent emphasized that their dollar fares on offer would undercut anything we might purchase in Europe – a claim which is patently undermined by the results of our survey. The North American agent suggested that a rail pass might be a better bet for some of our journeys, and hinted that we would encounter a range of problems if we attempted to purchase directly from the Deutsche Bahn website.

Booking tickets in advance

The reality is that booking train tickets on www.bahn.de is pretty easy, even without a knowledge of German. The site has a decent English language interface, though in some instances you will find additional functionality on the German language website.

Also, it really helps to have a good knowledge of European patterns of service and railway geography. A good place to start is by studying the latest edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and the same company’s Rail Map of Europe.

Booking well in advance is often the key to finding cheap fares, but our research found that plenty of discounted promotional fares are still available for travel this summer. And we did not cast around trying to dig up the cheapest possible travel dates, having fixed our palette of routes and travel dates before embarking on our research. If you would like the see the full results of our survey, just click here.

And, oh yes, just in case you were wondering, we were paid not a cent by the Deutsche Bahn to publish this!

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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61 thoughts on “European Rail Tickets: Deutsche Bahn fares better than rail agents”

  1. Hi

    I have read in many places that it is cheaper to book direct on the DB Bahn website rather than with agents. However, doing a search for a 2 people in a standard (economy) Double Sleeper carriage, 14th March 2013, overnight on the CNL from Paris to Berlin via DB Bahn and Rail Europe, I seem to get offered 158 euro on Rail Europe (plus 12 euro ticket delivery charge), and 208 Euro on DB Bahn.

    Am I missing something, or does it seem correct that Rail Europe looks to be cheaper?

    Reply
    1. For Claire…..
      This is a case where you should not be using the DB website since your travel begins in Paris. For this you should use the SNCF boutique website to purchase your ticket. Probably the reason you’re getting a higher fare from DB is that you’re using multiple railroads through multiple countries.

      In your case, you won’t be able to use an e-ticket and if you bought the ticket from DB you’d have to pick it up in person at a DB office, which is most likely only in Germany. If you buy it from the SNCF, you’ll still pick it up at their ticket windows at the Gare d’Est in Paris. You show your credit card used for purchase and they give you a paper ticket.

      The situation where online website ticketing saves money is when you’re using the same railroad for the entire ticket. If you’re going, say Cologne to Berlin, you’d get a special online fare because it’s all the same railroad and country.

      See my comment above about multiple railroad ticketing problems.

      Reply
  2. I encountered a problem with rail e-tickets issued by the SNCF but boarding in Germany. I bought a cheap ticket online from Stuttgart to Strasbourg using the SNCF site as the train was a TGV operated by the SNCF. I expected to get a paper ticket in Stuttgart from a kiosk or a station agent. To my surprise the SNCF had no representation in Stuttgart and the DB agent I spoke with threw his hands up and said you’ll just have to show them this printout that you have. Upon departure the DB conductor came to the seat and I showed her what I had and of course she would not accept it. I asked if there was a SNCF manager aboard and he came by. After much discussion he begrudgingly agreed to take it.

    What’s odd about all this is that European railroads don’t use an interline ticket “lift” system as do airlines. If you have a paper ticket the conductor just looks at it and punches it. There is no pulling of coupons for presentation to the issuing railroad for reimbursement, so it strikes me as odd that they are so picky about e-ticket printouts.

    This occured in 2009 and I have since been careful to buy tickets only from the originating railroad, ie the one that you ride at the beginning of the journey.

    I am wary of the advice to buy all tickets for international rail travel from one railroad for this reason. Has anything changed to make this more user-friendly? Are the European railroads going to a universal e-ticket system as have the airlines since day 1 of e-ticketing?

    Reply
  3. For Jon R and Kaitlin (above)

    Jon R:
    The article was researched on Friday 12 June 2009, five days before it was published. We say that very clearly in the article, so cannot quite understand why you are so sure it was researched much earlier.

    Kaitlin:
    The DB Europa-Spezial fares do not come and go. They have been a regular part of the DB offering for some years now and the DB Europa-Spezial-Kroatien has been very much a mainstay. It books up very quickly. So the issue is merely to book well in advance.

    We have repeated the exercise on a number of occasions since the original 2009 research. For for of the five routes cited above, the lead-in fare is unchanged. The exception is the Europa-Spezial Kroatien fare where the lead-in fare has gone up from €29 to €39.

    We have just taken a look again, and the DB online booking system still shows Berlin to Zagreb available for €39 on many dates in the 4-week period which we examined, viz. in September and October. To book it, enter Berlin Hbf and Zagreb Gavni Kolod under “von” and “nach” respectively. The best routing is via München, so under “Zwischenhalt” enter München Hbf. For the timing choose 21:00 as “Ankunftszeit” (that’s just after the EC113 / 213 day train from Munich arrives in Zagreb). Under “Verkehrsmittel” select Direktverbindungen (in place of Umsteige zulassen) in the second sector (ie. Munich to Zagreb).

    And, hey presto…. up come the fares. It’s a long day trip, Berlin to Zagreb, but do-able with just that one change in Munich.

    The full fare for this routing is over €200, but looking just now there are still cheap tickets every day in the 4-week spell we examined. And the €39 fare is available on 12 of those 28 days.

    There has been no reduction in the number of direct trains to Zagreb in the last six months. all still there, and waiting to be booked. Of course there are plentiful other routings and options (including overnight trains). It would just take a while to explain them all here. And we have written extensively about this sort of booking in our various publications.

    Hope this helps.
    Nicky and Susanne
    editors
    Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers
    (Thomas Cook Publishing)

    Reply
  4. Hi, Kaitlyn — Special fares obtainable through Deutsche Bahn come and go. Yes, from time to time they have Europa Spezial fares, and it’s my guess that this reflects what DB offered at the time the article was published, over three years ago. Also, my impression is that the research for the article and its fares was done at least several weeks before its June 2009 publication. In the spring one can frequently see a number of bargain fares (with limited seats) on country-specific national rail sites, such as DB. Now that it’s mid-summer and getting to be the height of the travel season, there’s no need for DB to offer bargain fares. And when they do during this time, available seats will likely sell out quickly.

    In the six months or so there has been a reduction of direct trains to Slovenia and Croatia, with one formerly direct train now requiring an across platform quick change of trains in Villach, Austria. And DB’s website can rarely display fares of any kind for foreign journeys from Germany that involve one and especially more than one change of trains.

    The significance of the article was that agencies, such as Rail Europe, essentially never have fares that are as good as the ones shown on national rail sites and are usually much higher. But the agencies’ advertising is geared toward those, especially from outside Europe, who don’t venture in to the national rail sites. And sometimes those national rail sites can be a little tricky to navigate, or they might have a hard time accepting foreign credit cards, or their bargain fares can be non-refundable.

    What I might suggest for this journey, Berlin to Zagreb, is to break it down into its constituent parts, checking to see if DB has a good fare for the leg going in to Austria, then checking the Austrian Federal Railway’s site for on in to Slovenia or even all the way to Zagreb. And it wouldn’t hurt to check the Slovenian site too. That’s what I would do myself.

    I hope this helps!

    Reply
  5. Hello,

    I was reading the above post about buying a train ticket from Berlin to Zagreb via bahn.de costing 29 Euro. Every time i try and search for a ticket on their site, it says pricing not available. Was there a certain time of the year it was only 29 euro? Or how can i see the prices?

    If you do know, I’d love help,

    Thank you,
    Kaitlyn

    Reply
  6. .
    No discounts for seniors, sadly, on this route. You have three options:

    1. Pay the full fare which is €51 single or €102 return per person. So, for four of you, a total of €408 return. Totally flexible. Travel on any train.

    2. Book now online and take advantage of the DB Europa-Spezial tariff. For the fastest direct trains, branded EuroCity, the lead-in one-way fare is €19 or €38 return. So, for the four of you, €156 return. This fare is still available on selected trains on your preferred travel dates. For example out from Munich on July 20 at 08.27 and back from Bad Gastein on July 28 at 18.17 (possibly others, but those were the ones we checked). Not flexible. You MUST travel on the train you book.

    3. There is a great cheapo alternative that preserves flexibility. All five of you could travel Munich to Salzburg with a Bayern Ticket (using the Regional Express service). This costs €29, so €7.25 per person one way. Then in Salzburg just buy a regular onward ticket to Bad Gastein. This is €17.60 per person valid on any train. This brings the one-way fare from Munich (or indeed anywhere else in Bavaria) to Bad Gastein down to €24.85 per person. No need to pre-book and totally flexible. For all four of you, the return fare will be under €200, so saving over 50% on the full price. There are two things to bear in mind. With this ticket combination, you MUST use the Regional Express to Salzburg and only there change on to the fast train. Because of this need to change in Salzburg, you’d leave Munich a little earlier and this increases the overall journey time by 45 minutes. But it’s a great deal and the option we’d choose. Why not break your journey in Salzburg, leaves you bags in the left luggage lockers and have lunch in Salzburg? It’s a chance to make an occasion out of a slightly slower journey and the enforced change of train.

    Have fun. Why not report back here on what you decide? Please say if we can help further.

    Nicky and Susanne
    editors of hidden europe magazine

    Reply
  7. We are a family of 3 adults and 1 seniot age 87 2nd class, traveling round trip Munich to Bad Gastein July 20,2012 and return July 28, 2012. Would it be cheaper to buy the ticketst at the Munich BH the day before or should I order them now? What is the cost on DB>

    Reply

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