Category Archives for "Cheaper Tickets"

Flixtrain
Jun 11

Flixtrain: No Frills, Max Thrills

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets

TRANSPARENCY DISCLAIMER: I work for BahnTouristikExpress, the company that runs the Flixtrain between Hamburg and Cologne and Cologne and Berlin. More than half of the trains I work are Flixtrains. I love them very much and may be biased. This post is to help you understand the Flixtrain and use it. It also gives you inside knowledge so you can have a nice trip. 

Introducing the Flixtrain

You may have heard about the Flixtrain. The Flixtrain is a train service that is marketed by Flixbus, in competition with Deutsche Bahn.

​Maybe you've been wondering how to use them. ​It isn't straightforward, as the Flixtrains operate totally outside the normal rail ticketing systems.

This post is to clear all this up. When you have finished you will know everything you need to know about how to use Germany's Flixtrains (and buses).

Flixtrain engine

Flixtrain "Vectron" engine at Cologne depot

Who are Flixbus, anyway?

In 2013 the German government, clutching at straws to support Germany's bloated and obsolete motor industry, deregulated long-distance coach travel by scrapping a law from 1935 (a Nazi law) that had made it very difficult to run long-distance coach services. This law was in place to protect the national rail operator.

It worked: coach companies mushroomed and there was a surge in orders for coaches.

How to Use Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain at Hamburg-Altona railway station

Fast forward five years and the fastest and most furious start-up in the barrel has eaten up the competition and escaped: Flixbus. Now it is on a rampage across Europe and North America.

Flixbus see themselves as the Google of mass transit and only actually own one bus. They need it to call themselves a bus company. Flixbus work with subcontractors. Imagine Uber with buses. And now trains.

Enter the Flixtrain

Before the Flixtrains, some people had tried to start fast mainline services in competition with Deutsche Bahn: the Leipzig-Rostock Interconnex ended up under the buses in 2013, the Hamburg-Köln Express (HKX) withered and the Stuttgart-Berlin Locomore went bankrupt after five months. All failed at bums on seats.

Now if there is one thing Flixbus do really well, it's bums on seats. They have become the go-to address for super-cheap travel. It is where the thrifty turn first.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain couchette compartment in day mode. Notice the sockets underneath the rubbish bin

So Flixbus have breathed life into the HKX and Locomore timetable slots and the HKX and the Locomore have returned undead. They make the trains run, Flix make the people come. For the first time in Germany, there is significant competition in long-distance rail travel.

Where do the Flixtrains go?

Currently there are four Flixtrain lines.

Flixtrain Network

The Flixtrain network as of May 2019. Not shown is the occasional weekend summer Flixnight connection from Hamburg-Altona to Lörrach Autozug station next to Basel.

1. Stuttgart-Berlin: Run by Czech operator Leo Express. Top speed is 200 km/h (125 mph). Mostly refurbished carriages. The train has a kiosk with quite an extensive menu that includes toasted panini and organic fruit juices.

2. Hamburg-Cologne using the HKX slots, run by BahnTouristikExpress (BTE) using their own carriages. Top speed is 160 km/h (100 mph). Old East and West German carriages. Has a minibar with a basic selection of drinks and snacks.

3. Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight with one couchette, attached to BTE's Motorail service from Hamburg-Altona to Lörrach, on the German outskirts of Basel. Food and drink available from the BTE staff.

4. Berlin-Cologne since May 2019. Run by Rail Development Corporation Germany (shareholder in BTE) with its own carriages. Top speed is 200 km/h (125 mph). Mostly ex-DB couchettes in day mode. Has a minibar with a basic selection of drinks and snacks.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain seat compartment

Onbord services offered by Flixtrain

Though the trains differ depending on who operates them, Flix does demand and provide a certain standard.

Wireless Internet

Wireless internet is a Flixbus non-negotiable. When their buses started to run they were famous for it, and it is arguably Flixbus that forced Deutsche Bahn to get off its complacent arse and make free WiFi available on all ICE trains, even in second class - long after it was standard in such advanced places as Slovakia.

On a side note, something similar happened in Austria when the Westbahn went into service in 2011 - WiFi was their thang. Just a few months later, ÖBB discovered they could make WiFi work on their Railjets after all.

Flixtrain Review

Somewhere behind this Cold War era switchboard a 21st century WiFi router is humming away. When it was first used in East Germany, this carriage was pulled and heated by a steam engine

Well, Flixtrain have made WiFi work in Cold War carriages. They just did it. Truth be told, onbord WiFi is only as good as the surrounding 4G signal. Between Osnabrück and Hamburg it isn't up to much. In fact, these days Germany is infamous for its pisspoor mobile coverage.

Power for your devices

Another Flix-Must is sockets for charging your phone and laptop. Though the carriages are old, more and more are being equipped with 220V and USB power outlets.

Flixtrain Power Outlet

Newly installed power outlet on a Flixtrain

Until all coaches have their sockets, Flixtrain has high-performance power banks available for passengers to borrow.  You leave your identity card or passport with the kiosk-staff and they return it to you when you give back the power bank.

Flixtrain Power outlet

Newly installed power outlet in a Flixtrain couchette

Food and drink

All Flixtrains have some form of catering. On the Hamburg-Cologne line it is a minibar in one of the carriages. The Stuttgart-Berlin line, on the other hand, has a proper kiosk and an impressive selection of drinks and cold and hot snacks.

On the Flixnight service you can get a small selection of snacks from the BahnTouristikExpress staff.

Unexpected luxury

As I write this, the new Berlin-Cologne Flixtrain has the old bistro car from the Berlin-Warszawa Express running in it. The kiosk has moved in and everyone is very pleased with this unexpected luxury. Fingers crossed it lasts

Flixtrain Bistro car

The nicest seats on the Berlin-Cologne Flixtrain

Seat reservations

Though seating is generally a free-for-all on the Flixtrains, Flixtrain do offer seat reservations on all their day trains. Two carriages have reserved seating, while in the remaining cars it remains open season. 

I think this is brilliant. It is much more user-friendly than Deutsche Bahn's reservation system, in which wherever you are sitting someone can come along and say you are in their seat.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain's seat numbering system

Under the Flixtrain reservation system, as long as you are not in one of the reserved carriages, you can rest assured that your seat is yours.

Seat reservations are €3.49, or €3.99 if you want a window - the "panorama option".

Flixtrain's seat numbering system reflects their coach mentality. It organises the seats into rows with numbers and seats A, B and C, disregarding the seat numbers the carriages already have, and also the compartment layout.

I didn't like it at first, but now I'm, like, whatever works.

How to Use Flixtrains

​Couchette in day mode, as used on the Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight and the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

What are the Flixtrains like?

I go to great lengths for you, my readers. One of these lengths is to work on the Flixtrain.

Since June 2018 I have been working for BahnTouristikExpress, a small train company specialised in special and charter trains. BTE run the Flixtrains between Cologne and Hamburg and Cologne and Berlin. Therefore I spend a lot of time on Flixtrains.

Flixtrain Dog

Your correspondent looking after a lady's dog while she looks for something

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain is usually formed of ten coaches. Reserved seats are in coaches 1 and 2. In all other carriages it is a free for all.

Some of these are seated carriages, some are couchettes in day mode. Nearly all of them are with ten or eleven compartments that seat up to six people, though there are some combined compartment/saloon style carriages as well. There is a bicycle section and space for wheelchairs.

Flixtrain review

The corridor in a seated carriage on the Flixtrain

 

There is a fun disconnect about the Flixtrain: on the one hand compartments, windows you can open and carriages that could still be heated with steam from a steam engine.

On the other hand: WiFi, power outlets and Flix's paperless QR-code tickets. Here I stand with my Flixbus driver app and Bluetooth printer where once a Deutsche Reichsbahn guard meticulously issued hand-written paper tickets.

Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain timetable

The trains usually leave Hamburg-Altona once or twice a day. They depart Hamburg-Altona and call at Hamburg Central, Hamburg-Harburg, Osnabrück, Münster, Gelsenkirchen, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and reach Cologne a good four hours later. And vice versa.
How to Use Flixtrain

Picture taken out of the open window of the Flixtrain, just after leaving Hamburg-Altona

Depending on the day of the week there may be one, two or no Flixtrains. They are concentrated around the peak travel days of the weekends and peter out towards mid-week. The timetable is full of ifs* and buts {1} and rules+ and exceptions {1,2-4}. 

I suggest you simply head over to the Flixtrain website and see what is running when you want to travel

The Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain

As mentioned above, the Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain uses the coaches and the staff that ran in the short-lived Locomore service. Locomore went bankrupt and were bought up by Czech operator Leo Express. Leo Express run this train, Flixbus market it as a Flixtrain and sell the tickets.

New Flixtrain Carriage

Refurbished Flixtrain carriage

Usually formed of ten coaches. On this train, carriages 7 and 8 are with reservations, while all the others are free seating. 

The original Locomore coaches are partly compartment and partly saloon type, which Locomore had lovingly refitted and augmented with WiFi and sockets. The Locomore colours are still present on the inside. On the outside most of them are now covered with green Flixtrain foil.

How to Use Flixtrain

Seat in a compartment on the Stuttgart-Berlin Flixtrain, as refurbished by Locomore.

To cope with the increased demand, and the extra train now running on the Berlin-Stuttgart line, additional carriages have been martialled from various places. These are mostly combined compartment/saloon carriages with late 1980s interiors. 

More and more of these have sockets now. If you end up in one of the carriages without sockets, just fetch yourself a power bank from the minibar.

Berlin-Frankfurt-Stuttgart timetable

There is at least one Flixtrain from Berlin to Stuttgart every day. On some days there are two. Here is a direct link to their timetable.

Flixtrain Berlin Stuttgart Interregio

1980s interior of an unrefurbished Flixtrain carriage. Most of these now have USB and 220V. sockets.

The daily Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain departs Berlin-Lichtenberg at 14:29 and calls at Berlin Ostkreuz, Berlin East, Berlin Central, Berlin Zoo, Wolfsburg, Hanover Messe/Laatzen, Göttingen, Kassel, Fulda, Hanau, Frankfurt South, Darmstadt, Weinheim, Heidelberg, Vaihingen and Stuttgart. At the weekends there is an additional service that leaves Berlin-Lichtenberg at 06:29. 
In the other direction, the daily train leaves Stuttgart early in the morning. At the weekends there is an additional service leaving Stuttgart at 14:12.

Refurbished Flixtrain carriage

New: The Berlin-Cologne Flixtrain

On 23rd May 2019 another Flixtrain line started up. I was the train manager on the inaugural trip from Cologne to Berlin.

This Flixtrain consists mainly of ex-City-Night-Line couchettes in day mode and reaches a top speed of 200 km/h at some stages of its journey.

I digress: realistic timetables

What is great about this Flixtrain is that it has been realistically timetabled. The timetable assumes a top speed of 155 km/h, and little pockets of extra time abound.

If the train is late, it can go faster. It can also leave out the secret stops in the middle of nowhere.

Thus it is usually on time. In fact, several times I have reached Berlin Central ahead of schedule. 

Flixtrain 200km/h

Flixtrain on the high speed line from Berlin to Wolfsburg

By contrast, Deutsche Bahn times its ICE with no breathing space. Furthermore, it can't give up its ludicrous fantasy that nothing will go wrong. Of course, things constantly go wrong. The pervasive glitches and failures tear into punctuality, and so Deutsche Bahn's ICEs and ICs are so unreliable. But I digress.

On my last trip I left Cologne half an hour late and still got to Berlin 15 minutes early.

Berlin-Cologne-Berlin FLX 30 departure times

As of June 2019 there is a daily Flixtrain from Berlin to Cologne and vice versa. On some days there are two.

Flixtrain Berlin

Flixtrain waiting at Berlin Südkreuz

Every day there is an early departure at 08:11 from Berlin Südkreuz, calling at Berlin Central, Berlin Spandau, Wolfsburg, Hanover, Bielefeld, Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and reaching Cologne around 2 pm. On peak days there is also a late departure from Berlin Südkreuz at 16:11
Conversely, on peak days there is an early departure at 6:45 from Cologne in the other direction, and every day there is a late departure at 16:01. Both reach Berlin about 5 1/2 hours later.

Here is the actual timetable.

The Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight

This is something I never saw coming: Flixbus doing night trains.

It isn't, not really, not yet. The Flixnight is one couchette car that is sometimes attached to BahnTouristikExpress's AutoReiseZug (motorail) service that runs on weekends between Hamburg-Altona and Lörrach, on the outskirts of Basel on the German side of the border. 

How to Use Flixtrain

Bunk in the Flixnight 5-berth couchette in night mode

This is a train consisting of two sleeping cars, four to five couchettes and several car-carriages. The last of the couchettes is dedicated to Flixtrain foot passengers. Each compartment has five berths. No berth numbers are assigned, anyone can go anywhere within the Flixnight carriage.

Flixtrain Review

Flixnight carriage, in BTE livery, waiting to depart from Hamburg-Altona

​Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight departure times

​This is the hardest one. I can't find a timetable that spells out on which dates the ​Flixnight runs and on which it doesn't.

How to Use Flixtrains

Toilet on a Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

On almost all weekends most of the year there is at least one service in both directions. During the summer there are more. I can only recommend looking at the Flixtrain website, which automatically points you to when the service is running.

In both directions it calls at Hamburg Hbf, Hanover, Karlsruhe, Freiburg and Lörrach Autozug.

​Southbound, the service leaves Hamburg-Altona at 19:50, arriving Freiburg at 06:55 and Lörrach at 08:30.
Northbound, it departs Lörrach Autozug at 19:30 and Freiburg at 22:06, arriving Hamburg-Altona at 07:11.

​Great! So how can I get tickets?

How to use Flixtrains

1st step: enter your destination and travel date here

Flixtrain tickets are not sold by the usual railway ticket offices. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the Flixtrains operate completely outside the pan-European ticketing system. No DB tickets are valid on Flixtrains, no Schönes-Wochenende or Quer-Durchs-Land tickets, no Eurail or Interrail passes. 

The Flixtrain appears in DB Navigator and bahn.de searches. DB will even sell you tickets for itineraries that include the Flixtrain. BUT: No DB ticket is ever valid for the Flixtrain. Ever.

Buying Flixtrain tickets online

Flixtrain tickets are easiest bought online. 

How to Use Flixtrains

2nd step: select the service you want to travel on

Flixbus's ticketing system is wonderfully easy to use. You can buy tickets online on their website, or download the Flixtrain app from the Apple or Google Play store. You don't have to set up an account (though that does make future bookings easier) and Flix accepts all kinds of electronic payment.

How to Use Flixtrains

3rd step: get your credit card out...

You are issued with a QR code, either within the app, or as a ticket you can either print out or simply show on your mobile device. Having been on the inspecting end of this system, I have to hand it to Flixbus: it is a wonderful system, so easy to use. It is brilliant.

How to use Flixtrains

Enter all your details. You can take it from here, can't you? Reserve yourself a seat if you like.

What I particularly like is that Flixbus has gone to the trouble of having its system in 35 European languages, including Macedonian and Catalan. You can even pay in Ukrainian Hryvnyas if you so choose.

Right. Any way of getting Flixtrain tickets offline?

I'm glad you ask. You can get Flixtrain tickets at most major coach-stations (bear with me). 

However, there is an increasing number of kiosks, newsagents and tobacconists that sell Flixbus and Flixtrain tickets. Look out for the Flixbus sign.

Another offline sales point is at Penny Markt. Penny is a German supermarket chain with a dense network of shops. It is more convenient to go to Penny than to the coach station.

Penny Markt Flixtrain

At any Penny Markt, go to the service terminal. 1. Enter your travel data. 2. Retrieve voucher. 3. Take voucher to cash desk, pay for your ticket. It is issued on thermal paper AND by email.

​So how much do tickets cost?

It depends. Flixtrain adhere strictly to the dynamic pricing system. 

Tickets on start at €9.99 but rise quickly to €29.99 or €39.99. If you pay on the train, Hamburg-Cologne will set you back €65. Cologne-Berlin - €90.

I have seen people on the Flixtrain with tickets that cost €2.19 from Cologne to Hamburg - less than a single bus ticket in most cities in Germany.

Tickets for the Flixnight start at €19.99 and rise. A week beforehand in summer you can pay €59.99.

Flixtrain review

Seated compartment on the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain.

Is it really competition?

​This is what I think of Flixtrains:

​Carriages

​I ​love ​the carriages. Nearly all of them have windows you can open and compartments rather than saloons, which I prefer. However, people who ​like open-plan seating do have somewhere to go as well.

For the last twenty years Deutsche Bahn has been running a sustained assault on everything that people love to remember about trains, namely, windows you can open and wave out of, perhaps with a white handkerchief, compartments that get you into conversations with strangers and, yes, night trains.

Flixtrain Greenpeace

Flixtrains run on 100% renewable power

I'm not sure Flixtrain is big on romance. They just want to get as many people as possible from A to B at the lowest cost. It just so happens that the only trains they can get their agile little mitts on are these indestructible retro sets. While it lasts, Flixtrain is offering you a train ride like it was in the good old days, but with WiFi.

How to Use Flixtrains

Flixtrain at the Hamburg depot, awaiting next service

Why it is viable

Flixbus's concept offers something that no other privately-run train operator has been able to muster: a train service that is part of a greater network. 

Deutsche Bahn's ICEs and ICs are fed by regional trains and S-Bahns, and Deutsche Bahn can sell you a reasonably priced ticket for the whole journey. They can even rent a car out to you at ​your destination.

Flixtrains are fed by, and feed, Flixbuses. Together they form a network. Flixbus can sell you a ticket that begins on a bus, goes on to a train, then back onto another bus. Though Flixtrains run isolated from the other trains, they are closely knit into the Flixbus network. And this generates the critical mass of passengers needed to sustain a train service.

Flixtrain 200 RIC

Side panel of Flixtrain carriage. Note the marking "200", denoting the its maximum permissible speed. All European trains have these

The return of third class travel 

Deutsche Bahn's newest trains have soft LED-lighting that adjusts to the time of day even in the second class, fair trade coffee and organic salads. In doing so, they have left a huge market behind. 

Flixtrain is bringing back basic train travel, at a time when it is desperately needed. There is nothing wrong with that. In France, SNCF are doing the same with their OUIGO trains.

Lots of people welcome this - students, pensioners, even business travellers.

Flixtrain Sunrise

Flixtrain going forth towards the rising sun

Flixtrain gets its people from one place to another reasonably comfortably, at a reasonable speed and at a reasonable price.

For this reason, it is hard to see Flixtrain as competition for Deutsche Bahn because a sizeable amount of the Flixtrain customers never used Deutsche Bahn's trains in the first place. 

Flixtrain is opening train travel to people who never went by train, and that is fantastic

Click to Tweet

And I love the passengers. They are polite, they don't complain, they are happy to be going somewhere. When we arrive they get off and tell me what a nice trip it has been. 

Flixtrain review

Couchette compartment in day mode, with an open window

​Give it a try

Now we've reached the end of this post. I hope you have enjoyed it.

Flixtrain is one of the most exciting developments so far on the European fast-train market. In some countries like Austria, Italy and Czechia there is competition on the railways. I reviewed new Romanian operator Astra Trans Carpatic in another.

In Germany, so far, competition has failed. Germany, with its huge motor lobby, is a hostile environment for anyone wanting to run trains. Now Flixbus, of all people, have entered the train market with a singular focus on low prices, and combined with their extensive bus network it may work out this time.

It looks as if the Flixtrains have come to stay, at least for the next few years.

Flixtrain Nightjet

Flixtrain waiting at Cologne depot

In spite of their ambition and their mighty backers, Flixbus could pull out of the train business very quickly if they decide it's not working. So while they dabble in the train market, have a go on the Flixtrains. They are great fun.

Westbahn Salzburg
May 28

Westbahn – Austria’s Wifi-on-Trains Trailblazer

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets , Western Europe

Ooops.

"Not vellid on dis train", the girl in the blue peaked cap says, without emotion.

You sweat panic sweat.

"How can it not be valid? I just bought this ticket!"

"You heff ÖBB ticket. You take ÖBB train".

The smell of your panic sweat reaches your nose.

"Now what?"

"You pay. Or you get off et Vöcklabruck".

You get off at Vöcklabruck. 

Didn't see that coming? Welcome to the world of deregulated European railways. In some EU countries, there is now more than one operator running trains on the same line. They all sell their own tickets, and only their own tickets do they accept

You had a standard ÖBB ticket from Salzburg to Vienna and got on the first train towards Vienna. Unfortunately the first train towards Vienna was a Westbahn train.

What is Westbahn

The Westbahn is a private train company that runs fast trains between Vienna and Salzburg.

In 2011 it took up an hourly service between Vienna Westbahnhof and Salzburg, using smart double-deck trains. Its tickets were about half the price of what the national rail operator ÖBB charged, and the trains had free WiFi - something unheard of in those days. At least on trains.

Westbahn lines

Westbahn WestBlue WestGreen

The two Westbahn lines

Originally the Westbahn ran an hourly service between Vienna Westbahnhof (Western Station) and Salzburg. The journey takes about 2 1/2 hours.

However, recently, Westbahn upped this to a half-hourly service. You can download their timetable here.

The WESTgreen service runs from Salzburg to Vienna Westbahnhof and back. Meanwhile, the WESTblue service goes from Salzburg to Vienna Praterstern via Vienna Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). And back.

From Salzburg to Vienna, it doesn't really matter which line you use.

I prefer to arrive at Westbahnhof, because I'm set in my ways. So I usually use the green line.  But if you are changing onto onward trains, it is much better to arrive at Vienna Hauptbahnhof.

What the Westbahn trains are like

Westbahn trains are electric multiple units formed of six (or four) double deck coaches. They are made by Stadler in Switzerland and called KISS. Similar trains run in Swiss regional services, but also in Luxembourg, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Westbahn train Salzburg

Westbahn KISS train waiting at Salzburg

Good trains. I like them. Here is an interactive tour. 

Coach numbers are 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600. 

The Westbahn class system

Westbahn has two classes, but it doesn't call it that. Westbahn say that all their seats are first class.

Westbahn standard class

Westbahn Standard Class

Westbahn standard class

However, here is what you can expect:

Westbahn standard class has

  • nice leather chairs, 
  • power outlets for every seat 
  • carpeted floors
  • The seats line up with the windows
  • The "WESTsteward"
  • separate loos for ladies and gentlemen
  • Free WiFi that actually works
Westbahn Standard class

Seats in Westbahn standard class

This is much nicer than Economy on the ÖBB Railjet, with its frozen-spinach green seats and drab linoleum flooring. 

Westbahn Plush

However, there is also Westbahn Plus, in coach 600. You pay a surcharge to sit here, depending on how far you are going.

What do you get for it? Everything already mentioned, plus:

  • the seat next to you is also yours, so there is more room. On the second batch of Westbahn trains the Plus seats are wider
  • a free drink 
  • a free newspaper
  • and the "WESTsteward" at your beck and call. If you want something from the bar, they have to drop everything and fetch it for you.

Currently, the Westbahn Plus upgrade costs between €9.90 for the shortest hop and €22.90 for the full distance from Vienna to Salzburg, in addition to your Westbahn standard class ticket.

You can buy the Westbahn Plus upgrade in advance, or you can wait until you are on the train, sniff the air and upgrade only if you feel the need. Just sit down in coach 600 and pay the surcharge when the steward rolls up.

The advantage of buying in advance is that you know you've got your seat.

My trips on the Westbahn

I've been on the Westbahn several times. When travelling between Munich and Vienna I have always made an effort to use them.

My first trip was in 2012. As I still worked for a state railway operator, I first resisted the idea of going on a privately run train. But for scientific research purposes (as the Japanese whalers say) I went on the Westbahn anyway.

Westbahn Plus class

Westbahn Plus class

And I loved it. Getting the ticket was so easy, and in 2012 everything was so new and the staff were all so eager. After that I went out of my way to go on the Westbahn.

Setting off from Salzburg

It all starts with a sigh, as the breaks release. Then the train silently glides out of the gorgeously refurbished Salzburg station.

I digress again: after the 2008 financial crash, Germany subsidised every new car with €2500 and called it an environmental bonus. Talk about doublethink. Meanwhile, Austria started a huge programme in which almost every railway station was completely refurbished. Salzburg Hbf was transformed from a labyrinthine open sewer into a jewel of a station.

If you are on the top deck, it is quite jerky as the train picks its way over the points on its way out. Then a futuristic electric whirring sets in as the KISS gathers speed. For the first half hour or so you can see the mountains. Then they recede. After Vöcklabruck you are in the plain of the Danube, though you rarely see the river on the upgraded line.

Westbahn leaving Salzburg

Westbahn on its way out of Salzburg

Even at the top deck there are no more jerks as you whizz towards Vienna at 200 km/h. 

If you are on the top deck, you can see over the sound-barriers installed along vast swathes of the Salzburg-Vienna line.

The "WESTstewards"

As a trained railway worker I was doubtful about the Westbahn. 

The driver does all the safety stuff, like reading the signals and closing the doors, while the Westbahn stewards only do tickets and service. Like on a plane.

I thought the role of the WESTsteward had the hallmarks of a McJob. I thought you need properly trained guards looking after passengers, not clueless students who can't read signals. Their jeans and casual uniform didn't inspire confidence.

But honestly? I think it is great that the threshold for working on trains has been lowered and more people can do these great jobs. I've asked around, and the Westbahn stewards make decent wages. What's more, they have full Austrian railway emergency training, so you are in capable hands.

On every single trip I've had the stewards have been wonderful. Cheerful, polite and helpful. They do a great job.

The West Café

Every Westbahn train has a section with a coffee machine, a cold drinks machine and a snack machine. There are also some bar tables. It is a nice, cosy section where you can meet other travellers or reflect on things in silence. 

Westnbahn café

The café area on the Westbahn. There are no dedicated staff. You use the machines.

I'm going to come out with it. On a 2017 trip that took me from Munich all the way to Eastern Poland, the worst coffee I had was the Westbahn cappuccino. It was sour, watery and scalding hot. 

However the espresso was fine. Less can go wrong with it. 

Both at Salzburg and at Vienna the snack machine is refilled with freshly made sandwiches.

Westbahn café

Coffee machines on the Westbahn. Notice that they use creamer or milk powder. Avoid anything with milk in it.

For the 2 1/2 hour journey between Vienna and Salzburg, this is adequate. It's not much, and I love real dining cars, but it is much better than nothing at all.

10% off your coffee

Your Westbahn bank (see below for what that is) gets you money off your coffee. If you want to use your Westbahn bank to buy coffee or food, you have to get hold of one of the West stewards. They dock the money from your Westbahn bank by scanning it, then they override the money slot on the machine to retrieve your desired drink or light refreshment.

What are "light refreshments anyway"? Why do you only get them on trains and planes? I see myself eating a lemon-flavoured wet wipe.

No rubbish bins?!?

What surprised me was that there are no rubbish bins. At all.

At the mid-level sections between the upper and lower decks there are dispensers with small plastic rubbish bags. These you take with you for your waste.

 When you want it taken away, either give it to a steward, or go to where the dispensers are and hang your bag of waste on a hook that is there specially. 

Westbahn Plus class

Westbahn Plus class. Note elastic bands on the aisle seats indicating that they are reserved.

Westbahn tickets

To begin with, the Westbahn ticket system was wonderfully easy. Refreshingly simple it was. God, I loved it. No train you HAD to be on. None of this new-fangled airline-pricing yield-management shit. Just honest-to-God from here to there costs this and this much. 

As the realities of running trains at a profit have bitten, Westbahn have refined their ticketing system and it has become more complex. The good news is, there are much more special deals. You just have to know about them. 

Here we go.

WESTstandard - Normal Tickets

The simplest tickets are Westbahn's normal tickets. They go at the walk-up ticket price. You can simply buy them on the train, or online, or from tobacconists.

A WESTstandard ticket is good for any Westbahn train for one year from the day of purchase.

Even if your ticket says "WIEN-SALZBURG" or "WIEN-LINZ" you can use it in either direction.

Vienna-Salzburg at this rate is €33.50.

Westbahn ticket prices

The price matrix for WESTstandard tickets

Concessions

There are all sorts of boring and irrelevant Austrian membership and loyalty schemes that get you some money off the standard Westbahn ticket. I can't go into them here. I don't know what most of them are. I don't even want to know. Some sound scary.

What is interesting is that Westbahn give you a significant reduction if you have any European railway discount card. Thus Vienna-Salzburg is €25.50 as opposed to €33.50.

You can use your British Railcard to get money off your Westbahn ticket in Austria. Now that is cool.

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Westbahn Vienna Salzburg

Stairwell on a Westbahn train. All Westbahn trains are double deckers.

Children on the Westbahn

  • Babies and children from 0-5 go free on the Westbahn. From age six they need a ticket. 
  • Children from 6-14 years old pay €1 if travelling with a family member (usually a parent or grandparent) who has a proper Westbahn ticket. When buying your ticket, be sure to include your children in the details.
  • Unaccompanied children pay a reduced rate. Vienna-Salzburg is €16.80.
  • From age 15 children are considered adults as far is tickets are concerned, but they are entitled to schoolchild and student concessions.

WESTaktiv tickets - don't read this if you are under 60

Westbahn have a special off-peak offer for people over 60. You don't have to be a pensioner. Just over 60. A WESTaktiv ticket is valid for one year from the date you bought it.

You can use it on any Westbahn train from Monday to Thursday.

Vienna - Salzburg with a WESTaktiv ticket costs €19.99.

WESTspartage - off-peak semi-flexible tickets

An interesting hybrid between open and obligatory train tickets. WESTspartage are tickets that are valid on certain off-peak days or parts of a day. When you buy, you have to say which day,

Westbahn Bank

On old WESTspartage ticket of mine. The price has since risen.

Look at the calendars below. Blue days you can use a WESTspartage ticket at any time. Green days at any time before 12 pm and grey days any time after 12 pm. Simple. So you have a certain amount of wriggle-room on the day you travel. 

Vienna-Salzburg at the current spring WESTspartage rate is €25.99.

Sadly, you can't combine the promotional rate with a railcard.

Westbahn WESTspartage

Calendar showing the days on which WESTspartage tickets are valid all day and part of the day

The WESTspartage are a seasonal thing. Right now we are in the spring season. All WESTspartage tickets purchased have to be used up by the 30th of June 2019, or they expire.

After June, the WESTspartage summer promotion is sure to come with similar deals.

If you use a WESTspartage ticket on a different day than specified, you have to pay the difference between the promo ticket and the standard fare.

WESTsuperpreise - the specific train ticket

Eventually Westbahn succumbed to the new-fangled airline-pricing yield-management shit. If you travel at 5 AM of a Tuesday morning, your ticket is cheaper than if you go on Friday afternoon.

About yield management: It makes sense to spread people across as many trains as possible, so let's not grudge them. Some people have more time, some people have more money. Yield-management provides transport for both. It prevents empty trains and discourages full ones. This is good.

WESTsuperpreis tickets are valid for a particular train on a particular day. They come on sale 30 days in advance and are available up to one minute before departure.

However, the nice thing about them is this: if you change your plans, you can return your ticket. You get all your money back in the form of a Westbahn bank (see below) and can use it to buy other Westbahn tickets. These are MUCH better terms than offered for any other promo tickets by any other company.

Furthermore, the tickets are not personalised, so anyone can use them.

If you use a different train on the same day, you simply have to pay the difference between your cheap deal and the standard price.

Westbahn doesn't punish you for using a different train or day. They simply charge you the difference. I think that is fair.

Westbahn Bank - save yet more money

The Westbahn bank is a great thing. I love it. When I last had one I would get it out from time to time and look at it and think of my next trip to Vienna. 

My last Westbahn Bank - in 2016 the small Westbahn Bank was €90 for €100 credit.

Westbahn banks are pay-as-you go credit. You pay Westbahn €135 and get €150 of credit that you can blow on tickets, upgrades or food and drink. Pay €400 and you get €450 of credit.

Effectively that is 10-12% off anything you buy from Westbahn.

Your Westbahn Bank is issued as an A4 PDF with a barcode. You can print it out or just keep it on your phone or tablet. You can use it online or on the train to pay for anything you buy. 

Westbahn banks are valid for 30 years. I love that optimism.

If you are a passing visitor, I don't see what you would do with the big Westbahn Bank, but the little one is worth getting as soon as there are two of you going from Vienna to Munich.

Munich? You heard me. Read on...

Westbahn tickets beyond the Westbahn network

Westbahn quickly learned that the only way for it to survive long term is to cooperate with anything that moves. Anything that moves people, at least. Thus they have all sorts of deals going. 

I'm sticking to the partnerships involving trains now. That means Meridian in Bavaria and RegioJet in Czechia.

Westbahn Vienna Salzburg

Stairwell on Westbahn train

Towards Munich with Meridian

Westbahn and Meridian have been cooperating for quite some time. Their trains usually arrive at Salzburg on the same platform so you can change easily. Their timetables are also adapted to each other so that you don't have to wait too long.

This cooperation is intensifying this year. Westbahn and Meridian have two tickets on offer that get you from Vienna to Munich or vice versa.

The Guten Tag Ticket WEST

This combines Meridian's Guten Tag Ticket with a Westbahn ticket. The Guten Tag Ticket gets you onto all of Meridian's trains, plus the Bayerische Oberland-Bahn and Bayerische Regio-Bahn in the whole of Bavaria.

  • For one person it is €55, which is underwhelming. 
  • two people - €77
  • three people - €99
  • four people - €121
  • five people - €143
Good things about the Guten Tag Ticket WEST
  • You can buy it immediately before travelling
  • The more people travelling, the cheaper it gets
  • You could do an entire round-trip on one of these
  • It doesn't sell out
  • It's a nice, easy ticket with little worries.
Drawbacks of the Guten Tag Ticket WEST
  • Mon-Fri it is valid only from 9 AM - this is severely hampering
  • It locks you OUT of Westbahn's edgier promo tickets
  • It locks you IN to Meridian's underwhelming Guten Tag Ticket.
  • It locks you out of any other concessions to which you may be entitled
  • Exchange terms are bad. Even if you give it back before your travel date, you lose 25% of your money.
Westbahn at Vienna West

Westbahn at Vienna Westbahnhof awaiting passengers

WESTstandard ticket to Munich

This just in. Westbahn now offer a standard ticket for the whole distance between Munich and Vienna. It hasn't got one of their wizzy WESTnames yet, but I'm sure they'll come up with something. 

In the fullness of time, it may be integrated into their promo deals as well. As it stands,

Vienna-Munich costs €66.60. Or €53.60 with any European railcard.  Anytime.

For a fully flexible ticket that cannot sell out, this is a great price.
Benefits of this ticket:
  • It can't sell out
  • it is valid at any time of day
  • it is exchangeable
  • A Westbahn Plus upgrade gets you into the 1st class on the Meridian train to Munich

Westbahn directly to Munich

Last year Westbahn announced that they would be introducing direct services from Vienna to Munich. Three times per day, they plan to code-share with Bavarian local train operator Meridian and let their KISS trains run in Meridian's subsidised local train slots.

The start of this service has now been postponed twice. First it was meant to begin in April 2019, then June 2019 and now it is planned for the autumn of 2019. 

We'll see what the autumn brings. I personally don't think it is going to happen.

Towards Czechia with RegioJet

Czech operator RegioJet have started running trains from Prague via Brno to Vienna. It is now possible to buy combined tickets for Westbahn and RegioJet from RegioJet. This is seriously cool cooperation. I love it. It is the only way forward.

You can get yourself a ticket from Salzburg to Prague or Brno via Vienna. RegioJet is a beast of its own which I am going to have to review soon. 

RegioJet Westbahn Bratislava

RegioJet train at Bratislava hl. st. Courtesy of Martin Pavlík

What I can say here is that RegioJet have nice refurbished Austrian and Swiss coaches, plus some new ones built by Astra Vagoane in Romania - much like the seated coaches in my review of Astra Trans Carpatic. Though nominally first and second class coaches, RegioJet operate a four-class system, from basic to business. But even in basic you get free water.

Click here to investigate these combined tickets.

Where to buy

I usually buy my Westbahn tickets directly online

The website is brilliant and intuitive. I remember the first time I used it how relieving it was after navigating the big websites of DB and ÖBB. To be fair, it is simple because Westbahn is a small train company that sells tickets only for itself.

However, you can also get any Westbahn ticket from a tobacconist (look out for the ubiquitous sign saying "Tabak Trafik"). In addition, Westbahn have their own WESTshops at major stations they serve. Here you can pay in cash and remain nameless, if anonymity matters to you.

Tabak Trafik sign

Tabak Trafik sign in Austria. A user-friendly offline way to get Westbahn tickets and pay for them in cash.

Westbahn in the scheme of things

Westbahn started in 2011 and have been at it for 8 years now. After much growing pains, they have broken even, and I hope they shall be with us for a long time yet.

It was Westbahn who first ran trains in Austria with WiFi. Until then, the Austrian Railway state operator ÖBB had been banging on about how difficult it was to install WiFi and they couldn't do it, etc. etc. 

As soon as Westbahn rolled up with WiFi, ÖBB suddenly discovered that they could have WiFi after all. ÖBB also offered more special deals and even more frequent trains between Salzburg and Vienna.

Thus even people who never used Westbahn benefitted from Westbahn's entry on the Salzburg-Vienna line.

Westbahn vs ÖBB Railjet

Westbahn's greatest advantage is that they give you flexible travel at a reasonable price. For spontaneous trips between Salzburg and Vienna, you're most likely to get a better deal on Westbahn. 

If you have a pram or a wheelchair with you, the wide doors and low entrances are also more convenient than the high floor on, say, ÖBB's Railjet. The Railjet is the most hostile train I can think of for people with prams due to its high floors and restricted pram space. Want to go first class on the Railjet with your pram? You're out of luck. Pram space is at the other end of the train, deep inside the second class. 

The second class on the Westbahn is much nicer than the second class on the Railjet. On the Westbahn you get leather seats and carpeted floors, on the Railjet you have drab linoleum and depressing frozen-spinach green seats.

So the Westbahn is best for:

  1. Prams and wheelchairs
  2. short-notice trips
  3. comfortable and stylish second class ambience
  4. easy tickets

However, the Railjet is better for:

  1. Longer journeys (say, Munich-Budapest)
  2. Long distance promo deals (I got first class Budapest-Munich for €45 from the Hungarian Railways)
  3. People who value a proper dining car
  4. the Business Class. The business class on the Railjet is fabulous.

Surviving deregulated rail

The Westbahn in Austria is an example of competition making rail services better - better meaning more trains, better service, lower prices.

The downside is that we, the customers, have to do more thinking, researching and deciding. We also have to get onto the right train. No more sleepwalking.

I spent six months in Belarus, where there was only one state operator for everything except mobiles, where there were two. I loved how my life was devoid of irrelevant, meaningless decisions I had to make. I could turn my beautiful mind towards things that mattered.

However, we don't live in the red star's white dwarf. And if we don't know about the special deals out there from competing companies, we end up paying too much for bad service. And perhaps paying too much and ending up on the wrong train.

With this post, I hope I have helped you understand your options between Salzburg and Vienna, as well as beyond the two cities.

I heartily recommend giving Westbahn a try. I loved every single journey.

All the pictures were taken by my brother Hector, who is studying Art at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna. You are most welcome. Check out his Instagram profile: @ettoreschofield
Apr 06

Two Tweaks that can Slash your German Rail Fare by 50%

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets

Forget the BahnCard.

These two subtle, often overlooked tweaks are an effortless way to find cheaper German rail tickets when searching for connections on Deutsche Bahn's website www.bahn.de. 

The two blunt instruments for getting cheap fares are to book as far as possible in advance and to pick a day when fewer people are travelling. I like Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

But once you've done that, or if your date is non-negotiable, try these two tweaks which can halve your train fare.

How most people search

I've got a search here from Munich to St. Goar on the Rhine - a longish trip involving changes. St. Goar is where Loreley is. 

And this is what it comes up with:

Search result in standard search

So far, so underwhelming, no?

The first tweak for lower fares

The first thing to do is uncheck the box Prefer fast connections. Few people understand that this makes a difference. The search engine will now show you slightly slower, less direct connections which most people haven't found because they haven't noticed the box.

As Deutsche Bahn's long-distance pricing varies depending on how full a given ICE or IC train is, you will automatically be shown emptier and thus cheaper trains. 

While the improvement in this case is not huge, it does give you more choice. But this is only the first step on our way to 

The second tweak for lower fares

The second tweak is to chuck out ICE trains. On many lines in Germany the ICEs go no faster than other trains. The Munich-Paris TGV service, capable of 200 mph in France, hobbles from Ulm to Stuttgart at 70 mph because the tracks allow no faster.

The only connections where this severely lengthens your journey are where you cover great distances on high-speed tracks.

Once you have taken out the ICE trains you get quite different results, as ICEs are the backbone of German long-distance rail travel. This brings up the Intercitys, which many people are not aware of as a cheaper alternative - one that often is hardly slower.

Much cheaper tickets, and only a slightly longer journey

I always try these simple tweaks when searching for tickets. There are many variables, and depending on where you are going these tricks can yield both better and worse results than the ones we have achieved here.

By unticking two little boxes on bahn.de you can cut your rail fare by 50%.

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I hope this helps you on your next trip to Germany. Let me know in the comments how much you saved!

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