Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Amazing Race 20, Episode 5

Turin (Italy) - Ehrwald (Austria) - Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany) - Hohenschwangau (Germany) - Füssen (Germany) - Schwangau-Horn (Germany)



Slovenian train leaving for Ljubljana from Meidling station, Vienna (Austria)

Despite a visit to Mad Ludwig's castle at Neuschwanstein -- the best place in Bavaria to find long lines and crowds of other foreign tourists -- this week's episode of The Amazing Race 20 featured an especially bizarre variety of tasks for the racers unrelated to anything normal travellers would find themselves doing, or wanting to do, in the region.

Yes, there is curling in Germany, as there is in the USA. (My only first-hand experience of the sport was at a rink in New Hampshire many years ago. For what it's worth, I found it a surprisingly interesting and subtle game of strategy as well as physical skill.) But curling is really only a significant feature of local sporting culture in Canada. It's not a characteristically German, much less particularly Bavarian, sport. To make matters worse, the racers had to use product-placement statues of an advertiser's mascot (I won't give them more advertising by mentioning the name, but you can probably guess what it might be) instead of the proper granite curling stones that are an essential part of the real sport.

There was also a beard styling competition. I like long beards as much as the next man, even if I've cut mine much shorter the last few years after it started to get thinner and go gray. About the only real note of "local color" in this challenge, however, came from one of the bearded kibitzers who told the racers, "You are in Bavaria. You must drink beer!" (But the racers didn't, at least not on camera.)

Anyway, the most interesting travel challenge for the racers was glossed over quickly at the start of the episode, when they had to make their way by train from Turin (italy) to Ehrwald (Austria).

That's a fairly ordinary sort of point-to-point European train journey, with the typical set of complications. It requires at least three changes of trains at intermediate points that probably wouldn't be obvious, at least without careful study of timetables (such as the Thomas Cook European Timetable) or a good special-purpose rail route map. And it involves trains operated by multiple railroads in different countries: Italy, Austria, and also Germany for most routings.

The racers' task serves as an excellent case study of the problems I've written about before of booking point-to-point European train journeys.

There is excellent operational integration of European trains, and of course no border formalities within the Schengen zone. Timetables, fairs, and ticketing for through international journeys, especially where there is no single through train for the whole trip, are another story. Many travellers pay more for a railpass than point-to-point tickets would cost, just to avoid the ticketing hassles of the latter.

Most likely the racers bought their tickets from a clerk at the station in Turin. There's nothing wrong with that, and in fact it's usually the way to find the most convenient set of connecting trains.

Most European railways have shifted to airline-like pricing, though, so buying a ticket at the window at train time can involve some pretty severe, and unnecessary, sticker shock. And of course, it doesn't help you plan your trip in advance or budget for how much time or money the journey will take.

A couple of Web sites targeting international travellers have pan-European train timetables and ticket prices. Unfortunately, they tend to include only the larger cities and the major express trains.

RailEurope.com, for example, responds to a search for train times or ticket prices from Turin to Ehrwald with, "Our online rail system can't find tickets and schedules for this trip."

Perhaps that's just as well, since Rail Europe generally shows only "full" unrestricted fares (i.e., the highest prices). On recent European rail journeys, I've travelled between major cities, on trains found in Rail Europe's system, on capacity controlled, advance-purchase discounted tickets for as little as 20% of the price shown on RailEurope.com. Not always, but not infrequently.

Railpass.com, which uses the Wandrian schedule and pricing back end, craps out on this inquiry as well. Every time over several days that I tried to search for train schedules or ticket prices from Turin to Ehrwald, I got the error message, "We are experiencing technical difficulties processing your request. Please try again later." That's worse than useless, since the failure seemed to be permanent rather than transitory, and trying again later didn't help.

For a journey starting from Italy, another obvious choice would be the Web site of the Italian government railway, Trenitalia. That poses some minor navigational challenges, especially if you don't read Italian. There's a Union Jack on the Trenitalia.com home page to guide you to the English-language version of the Web site, but even on the English site the city and station names are still in Italian and each station is listed separately. With multiple mainline train stations in many major and even some minor European cities, it can be a considerable annoyance to have to try each combination of origin and destination stations to find out which ones (if any) are served by trains between the cities you are interested in.

The problems with Trenitalia.com are worse than that, however. Even once you figure out that the proper choice for "Turin (all stations)" is "Torino (Tutte Le Stazione)", any attempt to search for trains to Ehrwald gives an unhelpful, "Invalid Arrival Station".

You could waste considerable time trying to figure out whether there's a different Italian name for the Austrian town, or maybe you've spelled it wrong, before giving up and concluding that Ehrwald simply isn't one of the few destinations outside Italy that Trenitalia includes in its Web user interface.

It might seem counterintuitive, since you are trying to travel to Austria rather than from Austria, but the next logical place to look for schedule and price information is the Austrian railway, OBB.at ("Osterreichische Bundesbahnen").

In general, if you have time, it's worth checking the Web site of any European railroad likely to be involved in your journey, either at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. Without actually checking, there's no telling which one may have the best schedule information or lowest price for a particular through train or set of connections.

OBB figures out which of the Turin stations you need to leave from, without your having to tell it. More importantly, it finds both a variety of daytime and overnight rail connections to Ehrwald:

"Unfortunately, no online tickets can be issued for this route." OBB's web site can't or won't even say how much tickets might cost, so you can plan your budget.

That doesn't mean that you've reached the end of the line, or that you'll have to wait until you get to Europe to buy our train tickets. The solution? Pick up the phone, and call the railroad.

Don't panic at the thought of making an international call, even if you've never done it before. You might get gouged for $2 a minute if you call from your home phone, but international calls made from your computer using Skype or any of other Internet phone services won't cost more than about 10 U.S. cents a minute to landlines anywhere in Europe or much of the rest of the world. Once you get through voicemail hell in a foreign language to reach a human operator (try either remaining silent or pressing "0" repeatedly), most tourism and travel businesses will figure out that you are speaking English, and can probably find someone to deal with you in international-tourist-pidgin English (or better).

As part of a trip across Europe last fall, I had to get from Brussels to Berlin to Vienna to Ljubljana. I didn't have enough time to take trains for the first two legs, so i ended up flying from Brussels to Berlin on easyJet (adequate if decidedly no-frills) and from Berlin to Vienna on Air Berlin (one of the best low-fare airlines I've yet been on, and one I would definitely choose again over most "full fare" airlines). But I had a full day to get form Vienna to Ljubljana, and figured (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be an interesting trip by train.

As in the examples above, the OBB Web site showed me the appropriate schedules. It even figured out and alerted me that on account of track and station construction I would need to start my mainline journey from Weidling station on the outskirts of Vienna -- not normally a long-haul terminus. That's something I would never have guessed or known to enter in a search form that required specific stations.

In my case, OBB's Web site gave me a price, but failed without explanation after I had entered all my information and clicked on "Buy". I couldn't tell if my credit card had been charged, or if a ticket had been issued.

With some trepidation, I called OBB in Austria (See The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World for tips on figuring out what numbers to dial from the U.S. to reach a phone number in another country that's specified in their local format.) The first person I spoke with immediately switched to perfect, barely-accented English, and apologized for my difficulty. (Imagine what, if any, apology would be given to someone having difficulty buying a ticket in German from a typical U.S. Web site!) The OBB clerk couldn't immediately figure out what had happened, but he promised to call me back, in the U.S., in a few minutes -- and did so.

The problem, not surprisingly, turned out to be that OBB's automated credit-card processing system wasn't set up to deal with U.S.-issued cards that lack the "chip and PIN" used instead of a mag stripe and signature to authentic credit cards in Europe and much of the rest of the world. Fortunately, the OBB ticket agent I reached by phone was able to process the charge manually. Having had this difficulty paying for my ticket, I was able to anticipate that I would have the same problem picking up my ticket without a chip-and-PIN card, and allowed enough extra time at Meidling station to wait in line and collect my ticket from one of the few human agents, rather than the automated kiosks, before boarding my train.

If you were able to get a price for the through journey from OBB, it would still be worth pricing the Italian, Austrian, and if necessary German segments of the journey separately with the respective national railways. Because many domestic discounts are not combinable with international fares, it's not unusual to get a substantially better price by using separate tickets for different portions of a European train trip. Sometimes this means using separate tickets for each of a set of connecting trains. But it can even mean using separate tickets for different portions of the journey on the same through international train! It's a nuisance to have to buy tickets that way, and even more of a nuisance if you have to change your plans, but it can sometimes save you 100 Euros or more per person on a single trip.

All aboard!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 18 March 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

via Twitter. @mgrabois:

http://twitter.com/mgrabois/status/184512768530071552

I had a rail pass last fall so pricing wasn't an option, but oebb.at and bahn.de were best at giving full route transfer info

Posted by: Michael Grabois, 27 March 2012, 07:14 ( 7:14 AM)
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