When people hear that I’m living in Germany, Deutsche Bahn is among one of the first things that comes up. “Oh, the train system!” they cry, their eyes lighting up. “You must love it. Isn’t it just so easy to travel wherever you want?”
Well, the term “easy” is always relative here in Deutschland. It’s a great system, in that it exists. In comparison, the train system in the U.S. is the stuff of broken dreams. Here, you really can hop on a train and head pretty much anywhere. What’s less obvious to the uninitiated is the fact that it’s going to cost you a pretty penny, and you could end up
running sprinting to catch one of multiple connections, and be left without a seat.
There’s always a lot to discuss with Deutsche Bahn, so I’ll just share one of the more important things that we learned through trial and error: when you’re buying tickets online and the system asks you if you want a seat reservation, don’t just skip over that part. We started out taking short day trips on the regional trains, and seating was never really an issue there. We planned a Friday morning venture to Berlin in December, however, and that was a much different story.
We ended up crammed on the floor between suitcases for the 2.5 hour ride from Bielefeld to Berlin because there were no seats available. This made me more than a little cranky. I would guess we paid somewhere close to 70 euros for our tickets, but what we didn’t know was that if we had paid an extra 4 euros each for a “reservation,” we would have had a guaranteed seat on one of the busiest possible train routes just before a weekend.
The most irritating part of the situation was that we would grab free seats as we saw them, only to be told after settling in that that they were reserved. How did people know this? One woman kindly explained the system to me in German: there is a digital readout over each seat. It tells you between which stops the seats are reserved, and after a few stops, it goes blank (with the logic that you’re either there or you’re not to claim your seat, so it doesn’t need to be ‘reserved’ any more). The problem comes when you think you’ve finally snagged an empty seat – but it turns out that the digital readout is wrong, or has changed since you’ve sat down, and you have someone coming to gently push you out of your slumber, and your seat (“Entschuldigen Sie…”).
It’s an awkward system, at best. If you know you’re going to travel between large hub cities and on a busy time of day, get a seat reservation. We also sat on the floor between Mannheim and Cologne in January, pressed up against the doors to the icy outside, and after a few days of almost no sleep in Paris – well, it was less than fun. If you don’t have a seat reservation, you can ask one of the train employees “Gibt es freie Plätze?” Reserved seats are often clustered in specific cars, so they may be able to direct you to a car with free seats. Alternately, they may tell you that there are no free seats – which means you can find yourself a cozy spot on the floor and settle in for the ride.