Review – No Frills, Max Thrills: How to Use Germany’s Flixtrains

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets

Jul 20

No Frills, Max Thrills: How to use Flixtrain

You may have heard about the Flixtrain.

​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).

Who are Flix, 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 (yes, 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.

Fast forward five years and the fastest and most furious rat in the barrel has eaten up the competition and escaped: Flixbus. Now it is on a rampage.

Flix 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.

How to Use Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain at Hamburg-Altona railway station

Introducing Flixtrains

Before the Flixtrains, some people had tried to start ​fast-train 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 Flix do really well, it's bums on seats. Flixbus have become the go-to address for super-cheap travel. It is where the destitute and the thrifty turn first.

So Flix 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?

As of July 2018 there are three lines that Flix serves by train. More are expected to start after the December 2018 timetable change. 

1. ​Stuttgart-Berlin-Stuttgart: Run by Leo Express using Locomore's slots and carriages plus extra cars rented from elsewhere. 

2. Hamburg-Cologne-Hamburg using the HKX slots, run by BahnTouristikExpress using their own carriages.

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

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain's network as of 2018. Not shown is the Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight service

What are the Flixtrains like?

I go to great lengths for you, my readers. One of these lengths is to join BahnTouristikExpress to be at the forefront of this development. Having now worked on both the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain and on the Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight, I can give you some intel.

How to use Flixtrain

Yours truly in a Flixshirt in front of his Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain is usually formed of ten coaches belonging to BahnTouristikExpress, a company whose main business is charter trains.

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.

Flixtrain review

The corridor in a seated carriage on the Flixtrain

Though the carriages are quite old and only partly refurbished, all of them have WiFi, and most have power outlets. Some don't - here passengers can borrow high-performance power banks from the kiosk in the middle of the train.

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 Flixapp and Bluetooth printer where once a Deutsche Reichsbahn guard meticulously issued hand-written paper tickets

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, Flix market it as a Flixtrain and sell the tickets.

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 very much present on the inside. On the outside the Locomore orange has been covered up with green Flixfoil.

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. Instead of sockets, power banks are offered, as on the Hamburg-Cologne line.

The Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight

​This is something ​I never saw coming: Flix 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 Flixtrains

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

​This is a train consisting of two sleeping cars, one restaurant car and four to five couchettes and several car-carrying 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.

How to Use Flixtrain

Bunk in the Flixnight 5-berth couchette in night mode

​OK, and when do they run?

​This is where it gets tricky.

Depending on the day of the week there may be one, two or no Flixtrains running your way. The Flixtrains are concentrated around the peak travel days of the weekends and peter out towards mid-week. Their timetable is full of ifs* and buts {1} and rules+ and exceptions {1,2-4}. ​I​t makes my brain hurt. 

I find it easiest just to head over to ​their website and see what is going on when I want to travel.

Hamburg-Cologne-Hamburg FLX 20 departure times:

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain ​runs on most days and takes ​a good four hours from Hamburg to Cologne or vice-versa. ​Here is a day-by-day break-down​ ​of when the trains go. Note that nation-wide bank holidays can lead to further exceptions. Here is a link directly to their timetable.

​Hamburg-Altona -> Cologne Hbf

The trains leave Hamburg-Altona and call at Hamburg Hbf, Hamburg-Harburg, Osnabrück, Münster, Gelsenkirchen, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and Cologne, taking around four hours and twenty minutes.

​Monday: ​08:49 and 16:36, whereby the 08:49 starts at Hamburg Hbf
Tuesday: NO FLIXTRAIN
Wednesday: 16:36
Thursday: 08:49 and 16:36, whereby the 08:49 starts at Hamburg Hbf
Friday: 08:49 and 16:36, whereby the 08:49 starts at Hamburg Hbf
Saturday: 08:49, from Hamburg Hbf
Sunday: 12:36 and 16:36

How to Use Flixtrain

​Cologne Hbf -> Hamburg-Altona

​The trains leave Cologne Hbf and call at Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Münster, Osnabrück, Hamburg-Harburg, Hamburg Hbf and Hamburg-Altona, taking around four hours and twenty minutes.

​Monday: 7:01 and 15:01
Tuesday: 11:01
Wednesday: NO FLIXTRAIN
​Thursday: 11:01 and 15:01
Friday: 11:01 and 16:38
Saturday: 7:01
Sunday: 11:01 and 19:01​​​

I don't find this very user-friendly. At the same time, if you just use their website, you don't have to remember. If there's a train, there's a train, and if there isn't, then there isn't.

I sincerely hope that Flix come up with a less unwieldy timetable in the future. But perhaps I'm being old-fashioned.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain seat compartment

​Stuttgart-Berlin-Stuttgart FLX 10 departure times

​In contrast to the Hamburg-Cologne line, passengers between Stuttgart and Berlin have the luxury of a daily Flixtrain at the same time every day. This I like. On some days, there is a second service​. Here is a direct link to their timetable.

​Stuttgart Hbf -> Berlin Lichtenberg

​The train leaves Stuttgart Hbf and calls at Vaihingen, Heidelberg, Weinheim, Darmstadt, Frankfurt Süd, Hanau, Fulda, Kassel Wilhelmshöhe, Göttingen, Hanover Messe/Laatzen, Lehrte, Wolfsburg, Berlin Zoo, Berlin Hbf, Berlin Ostbahnhof, Berlin Ostkreuz and Berlin Lichtenberg. The journey takes about seven hours.

​Monday: 06:21 and 14:12
​Tuesday: 06:21
Wednesday: 06:21
Thursday: 06:21 and 14:12
Friday: 06:21 and 14:12
Saturday: 06:39 and 14:12
Sunday: 06:39 and 14:12
​Berlin Lichtenberg -> Stuttgart Hbf

​The train leaves Berlin Lichtenberg and calls at Berlin Ostkreuz, Berlin Ostbahnhof, Berlin Hbf, Berlin Zoo, Wolfsburg, Lehrte, Hanover Messe/Laatzen, Göttingen, Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe, Fulda, Hanau, Frankfurt Süd, Darmstadt, Weinheim, Heidelberg, Vaihingen and Stuttgart Hbf. As above, the journey takes about seven hours.

​Monday: 06:29 and 14:28
Tuesday: 14:28
Wednesday: 14:28
Thursday: 06:29 and 14:28
Friday: 06:29 and 14:28
Saturday: 06:29 and 14:28
Sunday: 06:29 and 14:28

​This schedule is much easier to remember than the Hamburg-Cologne timetable. I hope that future Flixtrains adhere to this model.

How to Use Flixtrains

Toilet on a Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

​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.

On ​almost all weekends throughout 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 Hbf, 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.
Flixtrain Review

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

​Onbord services offered by Flix

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

​WiFi

​Wireless internet is a Flix non-negotiable. When their buses started to run they were famous for it, and it is arguably Flix 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 most Eastern European countries.

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.​​​

Well, Flix ​have made WiFi work in Cold War era ​carriages​. They just did it. Truth be told, onbord WiFi is only as good as the surrounding LTE signal. Between Osnabrück and Hamburg it isn't up to much.

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

​Electricity for your phone

​Another Flix non-negotiable is sockets. Some of the more recently refurbished carriages have them, but the old ones don't.

To make up for this, Flix 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. Simple.

Flixtrain review

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

​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 same goes for the Stuttgart-Berlin line​, which also has a small kiosk selling drinks and light refreshments.

​However, the Flixnight gives you access to BTE's lovely full-size restaurant car serving ​proper meals and hot and cold drinks into the small hours. Only very few trains still have this. Though be warned that it is easy to spend more in the restaurant car than you did on your Flix ticket.

​Seat reservations

​Though seating is generally a free-for-all on the Flixtrains, in July Flix ​started offering seat reservations on both their trains. On both day-services, two carriages have reserved seating, while in the remaining cars it ​remains open season. 

Bizarrely, they have introduced an a​irline-esque numbering system that clashes with the standard continental European seat numbering system and which I find hard to swallow.

Flixtrain review

Flix's new seat numbering system

​Flix treats the carriage like a bus or plane and imposes row numbers that ignore the compartment layout, and within these row numbers seats are A, B or C. ​At the same time, the seats still have their "natural" standard numbers, which is confusing.

A seat reservation costs €3.49 on top of your ticket, €3.99 if you want a window - the "panorama" option.

Flixtrain review

Seated compartment on the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain. Notice the two seat-numbering systems. Brrrrr.

​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. 

How to Use Flixtrains

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

However, Flix'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 it 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 Flix: 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 Flix 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.

Nice touch with English denoted by a European flag, too.

​So how much do tickets cost?

​It depends. Flix adhere strictly to the dynamic pricing system. 

Tickets on the Hamburg-Cologne and Stuttgart-Berlin trains 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.

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

So unless you get a super-cheap ticket in advance and use one of Flix's promo codes, they aren't always cheaper than Deutsche Bahn.

​Tips from your boots on the ground

​As I said further above, Flix is very good at bums on seats. So good in fact that sometimes it's bums in corridor. ​Having been on both the Hamburg-Cologne and the Hamburg-Lörrach services, here are ​my tips to help you have the best possible trip. 

1. Try and get on at the first station. The trains are usually quite full. When leaving from Hamburg or Berlin, it is best to get on at Hamburg-Altona and Berlin-Lichtenberg respectively. Most of the passengers get on at the Hauptbahnhof. If you are on first, you have ten minutes to hole up in a really nice seat before the stampede sets in. 

​Departing Cologne or Stuttgart you don't have this advantage.

How to Use Flixtrains

Flixnight couchette at Hamburg-Altona

2. On the Flixnight, get on at Hamburg-Altona. ​For one thing, again, you are ahead of the bulk of the passengers. But more importantly, ​​​the BTE AutoReiseZug which carries the Flixnight is prone to 1-2 hour delays leaving Hamburg-Altona, as loading the cars onto the motorail carriages tends to take longer than planned.

Passengers getting on at Hamburg Hbf end up standing around waiting. Not fun. But if you are on at Altona you can relax in your compartment. Incidentally, the BTE train has a very generous slot which allows it to catch up even a three-hour delay out of Altona.

3. If using the Flixnight from Lörrach to Hamburg, ​understand that the train doesn't leave from Lörrach Hbf, but from Lörrach Autozug Terminal, which is five minutes walk up the line. Walk out of Lörrach Hbf station, turn right and follow the tracks. Then you can't miss it. ​​​

​4. Bring back your power bank in plenty of time. ​You don't want to be without your ID card or passport, and you don't want to miss your stop. Bring back the power bank at the latest 10 minutes before you get off, ​​​

​Conclusion: 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. Grudgingly they have accepted that they can't ditch restaurant cars, but that doesn't mean they'll be serving food. Deutsche Bahn wants to transport you in ​laboratory conditions in sterile silence and solitude.

I'm not sure Flix 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

​Service

​Flix's service is greatest before and during the purchase of your ticket. ​Their website and their apps are very easy to use and they make it very easy to pay. It is much less demanding than Deutsche Bahn's online ticketing system and app. 

​On the road, or the rails, you are in the hands of their sub-contractors. ​Some are better than others, but anyone who falls below Flix's standards will lose their contract and thus a steady stream of income. So there is an incentive for them to treat you well.

​Concept

​Flix'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. Flix 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 Flix's bus system. And this generates the critical mass of passengers needed to make a train service viable.

​Flixtrain in the Scheme of Things

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. People are going to hate me for saying this, but Flix is re-introducing third-class travel. Lots of people welcome this - students, pensioners, even business travellers.

But in the Germany of 2018 there is also a vast demographic of people who have been left behind, whose livelihoods have been out-sourced and who couldn't care less about ethically sourced coffee and 2300 Kelvin lighting. It is possible to pay for Flix's ridiculously low ticket prices in installments with the Ratepay service. 

Flix 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 Flix customers have never used Deutsche Bahn's trains. Flix is opening train travel to people who never ​went by train, and that is a good thing.

And I like ​the Flix people. They are polite, they don't ​complain, they are happy to be going somewhere. When you arrive they get off and tell you 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. Please forgive the moments in which I descended into rants. 

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 Romanian operator Astra Trans Carpatic in my last post.

In Germany, so far, ​competition has failed. Germany, with its huge motor lobby, is a very hostile environment for anyone wanting to run trains. Now Flix, 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.

How to Use Flixtrain

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

It looks as if the Flixtrains have come to stay, at least for the next few years. They had a job announcement recently looking for someone to plan their European train network. I applied for this job, ​hoping to get in on the wacky ticket, but they turned me down. It's a shame for them, I don't see how anyone could have been better for the job. But there you go.

​In spite of their ambition and their mighty backers, Flix 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.

About the Author

After crisscrossing Europe for 6 years as a train conductor, I guide intrepid travellers roaming Europe by rail.

  • David Rodriguez says:

    Nice article
    How is it possible they are so check with regard to Deutsche Bahn?

    I always thought what I pay for a train ticket is like half of its real value (with the government paying the other half).

    Will they open more lines?

    cheers,

    PS: offtopic: it is important to know where the food comes from and people have decent jobs

    • Edward says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks so much for reading and for your comment. I totally agree with you that it is important to know where the food comes from and that people have decent jobs.

      In the spring of 2019 I know there is going to be a Flixtrain between Berlin and Cologne. That is all I can confirm, because my company will be running it.

      Flixtrain tickets are cheap because Flixtrains eliminate all unnecessary luxuries and get people from A to B. Our trains are old, but functional. The only frill they have is Wifi and power outlets.

      I hope to see you one day on one of my trains.

      Cheers

      Edward

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