“Desire to travel” is hardly an adequate translation of Wanderlust. The splendid German word resonates with roving and roaming (in a non-telephonic sense) where your heart takes you. And this summer Wanderlust is powered by the best bargain in railway history.
Thanks to the benevolence of Germany’s hard-working taxpayers, you can wander where your moods and dreams lead around the heart of Europe for a flat fare of €9 – a single ticket covering each of the months of June, July and August.
The “9-Euro-Ticket” (as it is termed by German Railways) covers all but the fastest trains, plus U-Bahn and S-Bahn networks in the cities, as well as trams, most buses and even River Elbe ferry services in Hamburg.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, editors of Europe by Rail, sum up the opportunities crisply: “Criss-cross Germany at will, discover rural byways and explore distant cities.”
You are unlikely to wander lonely as a cloud on the rails of the federal republic this summer, though. The ticket went on sale last month. I boarded a suburban train in Cologne shortly after midnight on 1 June, the initial day of the deal, along with 100 others. Over the first couple of days I watched the crowds grow as I progressed through Dusseldorf and Dortmund to Hamburg and onwards to lovely Flensburg on the Danish border.
“It’s certainly been popular,” says Mark Smith, the international rail guru known as The Man In Seat 61 – adding: “There have been a few grumbles with overcrowding.”
Weekends have proved especially busy, and German Railways now warns passengers: “If you are returning home after a trip, do not wait until the last train as it is likely to be very busy.”
Five weeks on, though, things are settling down. Many people are using the €9 ticket as an alternative for journeys they would otherwise have made by car – the fundamental aim of the ticket.
A smaller number of determined, budget-minded travellers are covering long distances. Any cross-country journey is perfectly feasible using a series of “Regional Express” trains.
I realised early on, though, that investing in an express or two can improve your journey: €29 (£25) may have been more than three times the cost of the original ticket, but it was well spent on a 2h 20m trip with the private operator Flixtrain from Münster in Westfalia to Hamburg, when the alternative for the 175-mile journey was to change trains twice and double the journey time.
(Incidentally, in a complex corner of the €9 ticket rules, you learn that if your chosen train is running more than 20 minutes late you can buy a ticket on an express and submit it to the passenger rights service centre for a full refund.)
Wonderfully, the incontrovertible experts on European rail, Nicky and Susanne, have even set out how you can travel into all nine countries that border Germany without having to pay a cent extra.
From the fine Swiss city of Basel you could cross to Salzburg in Austria using German Rail trains; visit the Czech Republic and Poland thanks to some corrugated frontiers; make a side trip to Tønder in Denmark; delve into the Netherlands and Belgium on buses from Aachen; and breeze into eastern France using trains to Sarrguemines or Wissembourg.
The ninth? Luxembourg, the nation that created its own public transport revolution in 2020 when fares on trains, buses and trams were scrapped. Germany is around 135 times larger, and completely free transport is surely several generations away.
The €9 ticket is highly unlikely to be extended beyond 11.59pm on 31 August (when I fully intend to be on a train in Germany). After that I can revert to the Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket – the €42 (£36) day ticket that covers the same transport. But I hope that the summer of Wanderlust may trigger a permanent lower-price option to continue our love affair with the Bahn.
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