Okay, we’ve said it before, but we’ll gladly say it again. Have Cheapos realised just how much rail fares in Europe can vary according to where you purchase your tickets?
We took a day out from our regular work with magazine last week and conjured up a tempting palette of trips criss-crossing the continent. And then we compared the ticket prices on a national rail website (that of the Deutsche Bahn) with the prices offered for those journeys by rail ticketing agents based in Britain and North America. We took care to ensure that the tickets we purchased were in every case for exactly the same trains.
So a straight comparison, comparing like-with-like. Same class of travel, same comfy seat, same scenery slipping by outside the window – for all five routes in our basket of European rail trips.
The five routes we tested
1. Berlin to London single (by day, depart after 9:00 AM, any route) on September 3: one adult, 2nd class.
2. Amsterdam to Salzburg single (by day, no more than one change of train) on July 14: one adult, 1st class.
3. London to Cologne via Brussels single (depart at 8:00 AM or later) on September 10: one adult, 2nd class.
4. Berlin to Zagreb single via Hamburg (2 night stop) and Munich (2 night stop) on August 20: one adult, any class.
5. Nuremberg to Dresden same day return (direct trains only) on June 20 for a family of five, 2nd class.
Then we turned to agents selling rail tickets in North America and Britain to get quotes for precisely the same journeys. This was done first by online research, often followed up by telephone calls to check precise details.
And guess what? The leading agencies specializing in European rail tickets always charged at least twice as much as would the Deutsche Bahn for exactly the same journey.
The key point here is that in most of Europe, rail operators have a whole raft of special promotional fares that massively undercut the regular tariffs (often with discount of more than 80% on the standard fare). But agents rarely offer those discounted fares, preferring to safeguard their hefty commission fees by selling only the full fare.
Comparing the fares
Now take a look at how those fares compared. Listed below are the Deutsche Bahn (DB) fares that were available for purchase around midday of Friday, June 12, 2009 followed by the cheapest fare quoted the same day by a leading North American or British agent (all sterling and dollar fares have been converted to euros just to make things clearer).
1. Berlin to London (2nd class) DB: €49 / Agent Fare: €209
2. Amsterdam to Salzburg (1st class) DB: €79 / Agent Fare: €255
3. London to Cologne (2nd class) DB: €49 / Agent Fare: €106
4. Berlin to Zagreb with stops in Hamburg and Munich (2nd class) DB: €29 / Agent Fare: €322
5. Nuremberg to Dresden day return for family of 5 (2nd class) DB: €37 / Agent Fare: €705
We found one leading British agent who was extremely helpful on the phone, going to some lengths to suggest that for certain routes it might be wiser to get the tickets from a German source (but declining to give the specific name of the company or website).
A well-known North American agent emphasized that their dollar fares on offer would undercut anything we might purchase in Europe – a claim which is patently undermined by the results of our survey. The North American agent suggested that a rail pass might be a better bet for some of our journeys, and hinted that we would encounter a range of problems if we attempted to purchase directly from the Deutsche Bahn website.
Booking tickets in advance
The reality is that booking train tickets on is pretty easy, even without a knowledge of German. The site has a decent English language interface, though in some instances you will find additional functionality on the German language website.
Also, it really helps to have a good knowledge of European patterns of service and railway geography. A good place to start is by studying the latest edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and the same company’s Rail Map of Europe.
Booking well in advance is often the key to finding cheap fares, but our research found that plenty of discounted promotional fares are still available for travel this summer. And we did not cast around trying to dig up the cheapest possible travel dates, having fixed our palette of routes and travel dates before embarking on our research. If you would like the see the full results of our survey, just click here.