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TRAIN TRAVEL

‘Something always goes wrong’: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Travelling from Sweden to the UK and back by train via stops in Denmark, Germany, Belgium and France is no easy feat. But The Local's Richard Orange and his two kids managed to do it. Here's his advice for other travellers hoping to avoid the planes.

'Something always goes wrong': What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids
Finn Orange (front) and Eira Orange (back), during the family's first father-and-children rail odyssey back in 2017. Photo: Richard Orange

When I stepped bleary-eyed off the train in southern Sweden on Tuesday morning, it marked the end of 24 hours of non-stop train travel through six countries. 

Together with my long-suffering children, Eira, aged 10, and Finn, aged 8, we’d had to deal with two train cancellations, several missed connections, and our sleeper train back to Malmö breaking down in Berlin, forcing us to quickly make other arrangements. 

This marked the third time I’ve done the return trip to the UK by rail, since deciding five years ago that avoiding flights if possible was the easiest way to make a small personal contribution to battling climate change (I still haven’t managed to go veggie). 

So what have I learnt? 

Richard Orange sets off with Eira (10) and Finn (8) on his way back to Sweden from the UK on Monday. Photo: Richard Orange

1. Something almost always goes wrong 

When you are taking four or five long intercity, and often international, train journeys, you can be pretty certain that at least one of your trains will either be delayed or cancelled, leading to a domino effect of missed connections. 

On the way out to the UK, our ICE was delayed, meaning we would miss our Thalys train from Brussels to Paris. (We got around it by taking another Thalys direct from Cologne to Paris, despite lacking a ticket for part of the journey).

And on the way back to Sweden, our ICE from Brussels to Cologne was cancelled, with the guards then sending us off on a series of regional trains, before we gave up and forked out €140 for the Thalys from Liège. 

You can reduce the risk of a domino effect by allowing a comfortable transfer time (at least 30 minutes) between trains. 

On the Deutsche Bahn (DB) website, you can set a minimum transfer time when researching your journey. One of our fellow passengers on Monday said he always allow enough time at each stop to take the next available train and still get his connection (about two hours). 

Screenshot from DB website. Image: Richard Orange

But you also need to be psychologically prepared for the possibility that you won’t make it, that you might need to spend the night somewhere like Cologne, Liège, or Osnabrück, and continue your journey the next day, and is that really so bad?

A German ICE train in Stuttgart, southern Germany. Photo: Thomas Kienzle/AFP

2. Consider getting an Interrail ticket (even for a single round-trip) 

If you order about three months in advance, it is possible to get long-distance Deutsche Bahn tickets quite cheaply, with a one-way ticket from Malmö to Brussels going for about €50. You can then (if you are lucky and booking at least three months in advance) get a Eurostar to London for around €45. This means you can do the round trip for under €200. 

However, getting tickets this cheaply means being both flexible and carefully watching Deutsche Bahn’s website. Children aged 6 to 14 travel for free in Germany if accompanying their own parents or grandparents. 

For €246, you can get an Interrail ticket allowing you to travel four days in one month, or for €335, seven days in one month. And If you order an Interrail ticket for one adult, you can get Interrail tickets for two children for free. 

The advantage of travelling on an Interrail ticket is that if something goes wrong, you can hop on the next train without needing to talk to any rail staff or visit a ticket office.

The new Railplanner app, once you’ve got the hang of it, is also very convenient, allowing you to just show a QR code at the guard on most trains, and even at the gates at stations. The only drawback is that if you want to or need to reserve seats, you still have to do that on the interrail.eu website. 

If like me, you intend to travel around quite a lot in your destination country, it almost certainly pays for itself. 

3. You need to improvise 

When the trains across Europe are a real mess, as they seem to be at the moment, I have found train guards quite tolerant of people jumping on trains without having exactly the right ticket if they need to make a connection. Particularly if you have another ticket from DB, they often let you travel. 

If you’ve got an Interrail ticket, you’ve got even more flexibility, although it can be hard to book seat reservations on the Thalys (necessary) and some ICE trains (normally not necessary) at late notice. 

The Thalys often seems to sell out of reservations that can be used with an Interrail pass, meaning you need to pay full price. Having said this, on my way out to the UK, I saw people jump on the Thalys with no reservation or ticket at all, and none were made to pay. The staff even gave them advice on making the Eurostar to the UK. 

When things go awry, you will probably find yourself linking up with other long-distance train travellers in the same situation, all trying to solve the same puzzle. It’s worth identifying who knows what they’re talking about and listening to their advice. 

The DB Navigator app kept well up to date on which trains are on time and which are delayed, meaning you can often second-guess the guards, who I’m afraid don’t always know what they’re talking about. 

4. Get help from rail staff and staff in the ticket office 

The excellent Seat61 website, managed by the former British Rail station manager Mark Smith, recommends that if your train is delayed, you should first get your ticket endorsed by staff on the delayed train or at the interchange station when you arrive, and then approach staff working for the operator of the next train you want to get. 

Under the International Convention for the transportation of Passengers (CIV), if you have a through ticket all the way to your final destination, if a delayed or cancelled train means you miss your connections, you have the right to free tickets on later trains. This, however, doesn’t always apply if your ticket is split between more than one company (for example with two DB ICE trains and one Thalys train). 

If the delay or cancellation means you can’t get to your destination that day, the rail company involved (in my case normally DB) is also supposed to arrange a hotel for you close to the last station you end up in. 

5. Don’t expect decent internet 

One of the things that makes replacing flights with trains for long journeys across Europe bearable, or even enjoyable, is the internet. When you have a good internet connection, you can get as much work done in a day’s travelling as you would in the office. 

The only problem is that on Europe’s trains, you rarely do get a good connection. I have found the on-board wifi too slow on trains to be able to work effectively. On the train at home in Sweden, so long as there’s mobile phone coverage, there’s usually no problem. In Germany, though, the mobile internet is often so ropy that you can’t use that either. 

This also means that if you are planning on keeping children entertained by hooking them up to a laptop, tablet or phone, you might run into problems. So it’s worth downloading some films or cartoons at home before you leave so that they can be played offline. 

6. Pack as lightly as possible

As you are quite likely to end up sprinting between platforms and up and down station stairs to get a connection, you really don’t want to be heaving around a heavy suitcase, so if at all possible, limit yourself either to a rucksack or backpack or to the smaller type of wheeled luggage. 

7. Consider splashing out on a proper meal in the ICE restaurant 

The restaurant cars in some of the ICE trains are extremely civilised, with starched white table cloths, proper cutlery, decent wines, and food you’d be happy to get in a mid-range German restaurant. At €15 to €20 for a main course, it’s not particularly cheap, but it’s a lot better value than the junk food you’ll be able to grab rushing through stations during your transfers.   

Eira and Finn Orange asleep on the DSB train to Copenhagen. Photo: Richard Orange

8. Children are surprisingly resilient (at least mine are) 

Before I started putting my children through a gruelling 24-hour journey at least once a year, almost invariably involving a succession of stressful mishaps, I would have expected tantrums and breakdowns.

Mine do grumble, saying things like, “Dad, we should have gone on a plane,” or, “this is so boring”, but they also appreciate the unlimited screen time.

And as we wandered around Hamburg station at close to midnight on Monday searching for somewhere open to buy food and dodging the homeless drug addicts, they almost seemed to be enjoying themselves.

It’s quite rare to spend that amount of time so close to your children, and even to find time for the occasional round of Uno. I suspect that the memories of our trips back to the UK are something we’ll all treasure. 

Member comments

  1. I guess the difference between us is that i would love to take the train, and i will when some form of competence is in place. What other form of travel would cancel passage, and then leave it completely up to you to figure out a recovery plan. NO other form of transport would survive with such poor service, yet people continue to support the trains. Fix it and then they will come

  2. All good advice based on my experience of having to travel around Europe for work. You can count on one mishap during any journey, which is sometime small and other times colossal. And the key to overcoming the obstacle is to always remain flexible. You can prevent some problems by never getting on (or off) a train by verifying with other passengers that it’s the right train or station.

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TRAVEL NEWS

What happens to Germany’s €9 ticket at the end of August?

Germany's €9 ticket runs out at the end of August, but many people are eager for it to be extended, or for a similar ticket to be introduced. We look at what politicians and experts are saying, and the effect of the ticket on the population.

What happens to Germany's €9 ticket at the end of August?

It’s fair to say that the €9 monthly ticket experiment has made its mark on Germany. After it launched in June, millions of people took advantage of the heavily-reduced transport offer. 

It allows people to travel on all public transport throughout the whole of Germany – including regional trains – for just €9 per month. That adds up to €27 in total for three months. Regular monthly tickets vary across the country, but typically cost around €80 to €100. 

But has it persuaded people to switch from their cars to public transport? And what’s the political appetite for an extension, or a similar ticket after the offer expires at the end of the month? Here’s a look at the latest.

READ ALSO: €9 for 90: Everything you need to know about Germany’s cheap travel deal

What do politicians say about a €9 ticket follow-up?

Germany’s coalition government – made up of the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats – are split on the future of low-cost travel tickets. 

The climate-friendly Greens are pushing for a successor to come into force as soon as possible after the €9 offer ends. The ticket is an “inspiration” that shouldn’t be allowed to fade out, said Stefan Gelbhaar, Transport Expert of the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

“We could find an interim solution for autumn,” he said, adding that this would give experts and politicians time to analyse exactly what a permanent ticket could look like.

But for this to happen, the Transport Ministry and the federal states would have to come to an agreement – and as quickly as possible.

Transport Minister Volker Wissing, of the Free Democrats (FDP), has repeatedly called the ticket a “success”, but stalls when it comes to the crucial question of financing.

Wissing points to the states taking on more of the costs. The Länder say they are interested in a follow-up ticket, but see it as the federal government’s turn to increase funding.

Meanwhile, the Finance Minister Christian Lindner, also of the FDP, has repeatedly ruled out a €9 ticket follow-up, saying the budget is not there. 

“The fuel rebate and the €9 ticket are coming to an end,” Lindner told Bild am Sonntag. “There will be no follow-up regulation.”

But experts, like Philipp Kosok of the think tank Agora Verkehrswende, say both sides “belong at the same table”.

“The Transport Minister should not be allowed to get off lightly, and neither should the federal states,” he added.

READ ALSO: Germany’s €9 ticket should be extended by two months, say travel chiefs

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

So the ticket is popular in politics, and is helping people in the face of rising inflation (while also apparently helping stabilise inflation) – but no one wants to figure out how it could be funded in future. 

Wissing recently said he wants to wait for studies to analyse the effect of the ticket before a possible follow-up offer is introduced either at the end of this year or next year.

What effect has the ticket had so far anyway?

In the beginning, the €9 ticket was primarily a socio-political instrument: a gift to the people in Germany amid the rising cost of living (although it is funded with tax revenues).

But it is perhaps not quite reaching one of the main goals of getting people out of theirs cars, initial studies suggest.

“We have very little shift effect,” said Christian Böttger, professor of transport at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences.

“So the idea of people switching from cars doesn’t seem to work.”

That is shown by mobile phone data, which can be used to evaluate the routes people take. Instead, customers who use public transport anyway are now using it even more thanks to the ticket.

However, Dresden mobility researcher Jan Schlüter is more positive. In his survey, seven percent of car drivers said they would now try public transport. 

“Seven percent is a huge number, because it is only a limited period of time,” he said. “How many (more) people will just change their habits?”

READ MORE:

How much could a permanent ticket cost?

Even though some are calling for the €9 ticket to be extended for a limited time, most people believe that is not sustainable in the long-term.

“For the three months it was a super bargain offer,” said Stefan Gelbhaar from the Green Party. “But everyone knows that mobility costs money. People are willing to spend that.”

The idea that it doesn’t have to be super cheap is supported by initial survey data: depending on where they live, people are willing to pay significantly more. In the cities, for instance, transport customers are willing to pay around €60, says Schlüter, who is based at the TU Dresden.

“In rural areas it goes towards €100 or even more.”

The Association of German Transport Companies has proposed a ticket for €69 per month. But even that price would mean it would need subsidies of €2 billion. There have also been calls for a €365 annual ticket, and a €29 monthly ticket. 

Discussions have also taken place about socially differentiated prices rather than one ticket for all. The Greens, for example, can imagine this particularly during the energy crisis. But others say that simplicity is the key, and that small-scale tariff could have a deterrent effect.

READ MORE: 

Will different regions go there on way?

At the weekend, the Lower Saxony transport ministry said it considered a regional ticket possible that would apply to northern German states. 

“If a nationwide ticket is not feasible, the five northern German states could also set something up as an alternative,” the Lower Saxony Ministry of Transport said.

But the state’s transport minister Bernd Althusmann (CDU) said a follow-up solution would only be possible with a significant increase in federal funding. “It can’t be the case that the federal government initiates the ticket, leaves the implementation to the states, lets itself be celebrated for the success and then doesn’t want to take responsibility for a follow-up solution,” he said. 

Once again, it is the funding of the ticket that is preventing anyone from finding a solution on the future of low-cost transport in Germany. 

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