Review: Deutsche Bahn ICE First Class

Filed Under: Travel

While I usually review flights, airport lounges, and hotels, I figure it’s sometimes useful to review other forms of transportation as well. Trains are increasingly replacing planes within Europe for short distances for (obvious) environmental reasons, so what’s Germany’s “premium” train experience like?

We’ve just spent several days in Düsseldorf (which we loved), and we decided to take the Deutsche Bahn Intercity Express (ICE) in first class. Winston even joined us, so I’ll share what it was like traveling with a dog. In a separate post I’ll review the Hyatt Regency Düsseldorf.

Booking Deutsche Bahn ICE first class

We were traveling from Berlin to Düsseldorf on Tuesday evening, a roughly 4hr20min journey. The entry level one-way first class pricing was 51.90 EUR, which I thought was quite reasonable.

Deutsche Bahn has several types of first class fares. The 51.90 EUR price is the absolute cheapest. If you want ticket flexibility and access to the DB Lounge, your ticket is going to cost at least three times as much. Unless they’re serving caviar and Krug in the DB Lounge, there’s simply no way that’s worth it if you don’t need the flexibility.

As a point of comparison, second class fares started at 35.90 EUR, so there’s a roughly 45% premium for first class over second class.

Note that Deutsche Bahn pricing is extremely dynamic. For example, that 51.90 EUR ticket close to departure could instead cost 131.90 EUR.

Booking tickets with dogs complicates things

Now, the above is how the booking experience is supposed to work. However, we were traveling with Winston. Dogs that aren’t going to be in a carrier and are “bigger than a house cat” need their own tickets, which cost the same as a ticket for a child (though oddly you’re not assigned a seat for a dog, unlike for a child).

Fair enough. Anyway, what’s strange is that there are two ways to book tickets for dogs:

  • You can buy them at a Deutsche Bahn station
  • You can book them online, but only if you choose to have your tickets delivered by mail, which requires a certain amount of advance booking
  • For whatever reason you can’t book a ticket online for a dog and then print out your own ticket or use a mobile phone ticket

I don’t know why that is, it doesn’t make sense to me — it’s not like the dog has to be present when you purchase the ticket. But in Germany “the rules are the rules,” so I went to the train station a couple of days before departure to purchase all of our tickets.

At that point I found out that I could have just purchased the “human” tickets in advance online, and then the ticket for Winston on the day of departure at the station.

Deutsche Bahn first class review

Let me share the bottom line upfront — ICE first class is like flying with a low cost carrier, except there’s a lot more space, and the (paid) catering is even worse. But that last part might also have been a function of coronavirus.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

We got to Berlin Hauptbahnhof at around 5PM for our 5:46PM departure. In retrospect that was way early, but we weren’t sure how busy the station would be, how hard it would be to find our track, etc. ICE tickets actually show the track number at the time you book, so that takes the guessing game out of it.

The main train station in Berlin is huge, as you’d expect.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof exterior

Berlin Hauptbahnhof interior

Our train was leaving from track 14, which was easy enough to find.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof tracks

Intercity Express departures board

Our train pulled in a few minutes before departure, and the ICE trains sure are sleek-looking. There were two parts to the train, as the train splits about halfway through the journey. We were in the A-D section.

Deutsche Bahn ICE train

Deutsche Bahn ICE train

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a train enthusiast, but I do love the variety of train spotting that was possible (if that’s a thing) from the modern ICE, to the more classic S-Bahn.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof trains

ICE first class cars & seating

Each ICE first class train has a total of 53 seats. The cars are in a 1-2 layout, compared to the 2-2 layout in second class.

ICE first class train car

There were a variety of seating options, including standard single seats and pairs of seats, both forward and rear facing. Each seat had both a power outlet and a tray table that could be lowered.

ICE first class seating

ICE first class seating

Then there were also two and four person conference tables. This train was rather empty, so we ended up reserving one of these, since we figured Winston would be happiest resting underneath a table.

ICE first class table seating

ICE first class table seating

I’m not sure they did a particularly good job cleaning trains, though…

ICE first class power outlets

ICE first class garbage bin… or something?

Each car also had a lavatory, which was surprisingly spacious, and better than what you’d typically find on a plane.

ICE first class bathroom

ICE dining car & cafe

ICE trains have dining cars, which are available to all passengers, including those in first and second class. In our case the dining car was just one back from where we were seated.

ICE dining car

The dining car had seven tables, including four that could seat four people, and three that could seat two people.

ICE dining car

ICE dining car

ICE dining car

If you didn’t want to sit in the dining car you could instead just pick up something at the cafe window. There was some L-shaped high-top seating across from that.

Intercity Express train cafe

Intercity Express dining car cafe

ICE free wifi

All Intercity Express trains have free wifi, and to my surprise speeds were really good, to the point that it was possible to stream. That was a pleasant surprise, since I was expecting to have to tether. It also made for a productive several hours.

Intercity Express free wifi

ICE first class service

As I said above, ICE first class is like flying a low cost carrier. Absolutely nothing is included, except they do sometimes hand out chocolates or cookies (they did on the outbound, but not on the return).

ICE first class chocolates & cookies

The one other difference seems to be that in first class they come from the dining car to ask if you want anything to eat or drink, and they’ll bring it to your seat. There’s not a trolley or anything, but rather they just run back and forth to see if you want anything.

They were much more proactive about this on our return journey compared to our outbound, though by the return we learned that we shouldn’t rely on Deutsche Bahn catering for anything.

ICE food & drink options

The dining experience on ICE was… not great. Apparently there’s a scaled back menu due to coronavirus, which is fair enough. That doesn’t explain why all the drinks were room temperature, though.

Here’s what the menu looked like:

I think the ordering process roughly sums up our dining experience (translated):

“Could we have two white wines?
“You really don’t want that.”
“It’s warm. Everything is warm.”
“Ummm. I know it’s not better, but let’s do one beer one and one wine.”
“You sure?”

The experience was similar with ordering food, where he more than once suggested not ordering anything because the food isn’t good. But we went against his advice, just to be able to review the dining experience, if nothing else. 😉

Suffice to say that on the return journey we just bought a pretzel at the train station and called it a day.

Intercity Express drinks

They weren’t for me, but aren’t those the saddest Rostbratwürstchen you’ve ever seen?

Intercity Express food

Taking a dog on Deutsche Bahn

Winston was a very good boy on our train journey, and he just slept most of the time. Dogs are technically supposed to wear muzzles onboard trains if they’re not in carriers (we were never informed of this, but I saw it on the DB website). I’d note that:

  • While he has never worn one before, we purchased one for this trip
  • I had talked to several people about how this requirements is enforced, and everyone (including the person at the pet store) said it’s rarely actually enforced, especially for smaller dogs

Our experience was that no one in either direction asked us to put a muzzle on him. We had one on us, though, and we were of course very careful and kept him far from the aisle, and for that matter there were no other dogs.

For anyone who was like me and was wondering how enforced this policy is, my very limited data points suggest that it’s not. Of course two data points aren’t conclusive, and Winston also doesn’t “look” very scary.

Winston enjoying the ICE experience

Would we take Intercity Express again?

There are three practical ways to get around Germany:

  • You can rent a car
  • You can take the train
  • You can fly

Personally we’re not flying within Germany because we have Winston and want to take him with us when we go places (he has anxiety, especially since he senses we’re transient right now), and also because flying within Germany doesn’t really save you much time.

That leaves the option between renting a car and taking the train. There are some advantages to renting a car:

  • You can rent some really nice cars in Germany for the same amount you’d pay for a very basic car in the US; in the past few months in Germany I’ve rented an S Class Mercedes and a BMW X3 M
  • I’m not going to lie, I love driving on the Autobahn, because it’s not often you can drive 150mph in the US
  • You have a lot more flexibility to leave when you want, and can also explore your destination more easily
  • German train tickets aren’t actually cheap, so in many cases it’s not more expensive to rent a car vs. taking a train, especially if multiple people are traveling, and you get free parking at hotels
  • If you’re traveling with a lot of stuff, it’s much easier to load it into a car, rather than lugging it to the train station at both ends of your journey
  • I’m not sure what air filtration is like on trains, but in general I would assume that a private car offers a bit more coronavirus protection than being on a train for hours, even if everyone is wearing a mask and the train isn’t full

But there are also advantages to taking the train:

  • I can work and be productive while on a train, which isn’t possible when driving
  • In many cases it’s faster; the Autobahn is great when there is no speed limit, no traffic, and no construction, but in my experience that’s only the case for a small percentage of the time
  • It’s better for the environment; I recognize that driving at high speeds isn’t great for the environment, and it’s my only driving vice, as we had an electric car in the US

Bottom line

Deutsche Bahn’s Intercity Express service is an easy way to get around Germany. The trains are quiet, punctual, and have free wifi.

I do think first class is worth the modest premium for the extra space (especially if traveling alone, given the ability to get a single seat), though don’t get excited about the onboard service. First class doesn’t include any food & drinks, but rather there’s just service from the dining cart.

Maybe the food and drinks were better in the pre-coronavirus era, though personally I’d plan on packing a snack and bringing your own drinks on ICE.

If you’ve taken ICE first class, what was your experience like?

  1. I’m a little concerned that you’ve been in Berlin any amount of time and you don’t know an S-Bahn when you see one!

  2. I’ve taken the ICE first class between Frankfurt and Basel, but could have sworn the drinks were complimentary. It was several years back and I’m probably misremembering, because just about everything else you describe is how I remember it.

  3. FWIW, dogs travel free on UK trains.

    You really should be able to identify an S-bahn train: public transport in Berlin is brilliant. In pre-1989 days, those trains operated international services as they criss-crossed the Berlin Wall.

  4. Even if you don’t think you’re a rail enthusiast Miniature Wunderland is worth the trip. There’s an airport too. Book in advance. I don’t think the air travel bloggers have done it yet? It’s a trip.

  5. First class in the ICE trains is a joke. The seats are covered in slippery leather, therefore you are sliding down the seat when you sit down an extended time.
    Meanwhile the fabric covered seats in 2nd class are much better.

    Of course first class has more space and less disturbance.

  6. @The nice Paul
    S-Bahn Berlin is horrible, old, unreliable small trains with bad maintenance, delays, cancellations, no air condition in summer, heating is not working in winter, strikes.

    There are other cities in Europe with much better local train services than Berlin.

  7. I took the ICE from Frankfurt to Paris in 1st a few years ago and loved the experience. Decent seating and fast internet, paired with a takeaway meal from the train station and a couple beers on board made for a fun travel day.

  8. As written in the beginning of the menu it said that „due to technical restrictions in our onboard kitchen we can only offer you a smaller version of our menu“, from my experience that basically just means that the kitchen appliances aren’t working. That probably also explains the warm drinks. If the kitchen works, their food is rather good. I like the Currywurst or the Chilli on DB. While not free in 1st Class either, in my opinion the food on ÖBB and ČD trains is better.

  9. If you are staying longer, I recommend to buy a BahnCard 100 First Class, which is essentially a train flatrate and which allows you unlimited train travel in Germany. It also gives you a lot flexibility, because you can just hop on whatever train you see without the need to print out a ticket.

  10. A very typical ICE-experience between Berlin and the western cities Cologne/Dusseldorf. Could you please write an report about your rental-cars in Germany? Did you rented with Sixt only or have you tried several companies?

  11. I love taking trains in Germany and I love first class ICE. Although the lack of lounge access seems new, but most of them really aren’t that special, except maybe a way to get out of the cold station and get some heat.

    I’ve never DB food eaten on a DB train. I just buy what I think of as ‘train food’ from those awesome bakeries in the train stations. Savory and sweet and a couple bottles of water. And some fruit.

    I buy first class often because I like the seating, and the ability to reserve a seat, etc. and, of course, DB gummi bears.

    I wouldn’t do it from Berlin to Frankfurt as the plane is much quicker, but from Berlin to Hamburg is a no brainer. Frankfurt to Munich is a pleasant 3 hours and gets you right into the middle of the city in around the same time as a total trip from Hauptbahnhof to airport to airport to Hauptbahnhof would, and a lot less stress.

    I enjoy it a lot. Buy train food and drink in the station and take it with you next time, your not on a plane, you can take stuff.

  12. Please write a trip report of Wiston’s experience flying from the US to Germany and how were his first day in Europe with jetlag and all. Id love to hear about it

  13. Great article about traveling on DB ICE. We have taken them on a number of occasions and enjoyed the trips taken.

    I am curious how you were able to enter Germany as they have shut their borders with the exception of several circumstances. We had to cancel our trip in September and most likely will have to cancel our trip as well in November due to their restrictions.

  14. @ Jonas — A good idea for a future post. So far I’ve only used Sixt, which has mostly been good, though has also come with its fair share of issues. Good topic for a post as well.

  15. @Lucky, I was supposed to travel on ICE in First Class earlier this year, which didn’t happen. But, based on my pre-trip research, I agree with you that it can be a good value over Second Class. The included seat reservation is worth €4, while the WiFi is supposedly significantly faster in First. Coupled with the extra space and emptier coach, it was a no-brainer for my (abandoned) 7-hour trip. My Sparpreis First ticket was <€50, while 2nd Class was ~€10-15 cheaper.

    I just read/saw a trip report which rated the F&B as acceptable with decent (for train) prices, so I guess things have worsened because of the pandemic…

  16. I feel like in Europe, first class in trains is 95% about the seat anyway. In France for instance, you get significantly more space in the TGV but that’s it – there’s no special food service or anything, and no one comes to your seat for service. So I think that coming with the right expectation is key and to your point, I’m usually happy to pay for the small premium for a comfier seat.

  17. So many transgressions here. Riding a train called ICE? No thanks, I’d rather support equality. Any where is Winston’s mask? The data and science says canine COVID transmission is a thing, and it’s actually on the rise. We would never let our pooch potentially expose others in public settings without a snug-fitting mask. Yet you’re worried about a muzzle? Geez…

  18. I grew up in Germany and have been on euro rail systems my fair share of times. First class rail has never been an ‘aspirational’ product in the least. It’s goal is primarily for businesspeople to have a quieter place to work on their travel between major german business centers. The best First class experience on continental euro lines (like Thalys) aren’t much better than ICE. It’s not meant to be exclusive. It’s meant to serve a particular purpose and that’s it: Get more work done between city centers as quickly as possible.

    I realize this blog is for english-speakers, but applying American expectations without doing any research on the German norms for this sort of travel is going to leave any reader with a negative impression.
    The food on the ICE has never been great. Not when I started riding them in the mid 90s. Not now. It’s a meal.
    Most Germans get their meals at the train stations – most of which have notably good dining options – particularly when compared to airports.

    So brief summary:
    Next time, grab a good meal from a restaurant at the station. Walk on board 3 minutes before the train leaves. Get work done in peace and quiet. Hop on the metro/u-bahn when you get to your destination.

  19. I lived in Frankfurt 7 years ago and was surprised to see the exact same menu as when I was traveling there. Sure the system is better than we could ever hope to have in the U.S., but it could still use a lot of work.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have sat near a pile of dishes with rotting food simply because they had an unexpected car change. The employees couldn’t be bothered to pick up the previous passengers dishes.

  20. Lucky I’m shock you haven’t mentioned the wonderful opportunities presented by BahnBonus Punkte loyalty programme. Travel all year and you could redeem for a steak knife.

    I do recommend a BahnCard 25, 25% off fares for a year (for a fee) but it only takes a couple of trips for it to pay off.

  21. The lounge access with Deutsche Bahn wasn’t available either when you buy a rail-pass, we bought a 1st class pass for a week in March and were denied access. Also have to +1 Max that the first class cabins, especially the seats, aren’t great. For long journeys its downright uncomfortable.

    Lastly, had one of the best Kebab’s in Berlin/on the trip oddly enough at the train station, Fatih Servet Döner.

  22. I’ve taken a long distance train a few times in Europe, and I’ve learnt to detest them. The environmental impact doesn’t have an effect on my decisions, so that’s not an issue. But the trains seem unreliable and filthy. And restless, with people coming and going all the time and the aisles full of wanderers, god knows where they’re going. This applies to Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. I avoid them whenever I can.

  23. About two months ago I travelled on Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa Executive Class.

    Pretty amazing experience, far better than the UK’s domestic trains, or Eurostar.

    Totally empty cabin, with semi flat recliners in Italian leather, that swivel too.

    Private meeting room.

    Antipasta, Pasta, Meat and Dessert options.

    3-4 Red and 3-4 White wines. Espresso Coffee.

    Porter service (small extra charge) at both ends.

    Lounges were a bit sad, I’d arrive just before the train next time.

    Used it Rome-Naples, and extended my trip because it was so good, using it Naples-Florence.

  24. @Ben:
    It makes sense that online tickets are not available for dogs because they do not have a valid photo ID.
    The online ticket has your name
    on it and only works with a valid photo ID in order to prevent fraud (e.g. printing out the ticket twice).
    Therefore, online tickets are also non transferable – not even before the journey. Paper tickets on the other hand do not have a name on it and can be transferred.

  25. @Ed there is exactly one reason I use that program. The 500 points for a free upgrade to first, I use that when I have a long section (above 4hrs) on a very busy ICE line (for me its always the Cologne-Berlin tickets). That gets me a free seat reservation even if I book the day of travel and away from the soccer fan hordes invading second class (I travel mostly on weekends). Its the only thing that makes that program worth anything.

  26. Ben, thank you for this review and for your hotel review from Dresden you wrote earlier. I hope you will find time (and have the travel experiences) to write more reviews of hotels and trains in Germany while you are there.

    I have travelled a fair amount on ICE (which stands for InterCity Express) trains. Earlier commenters are correct that first class in European trains mainly means simply more spacious seats and a quieter ambiance, though some railways offer a free newspaper (ÖBB in Austria), free tea and coffee (SJ in Sweden) or a free bottle of water (Czech and Slovak trains if I remember correctly).

    Deutsche Bahn have almost been too successful in increasing ridership, one of the results of this has been that the number of people with top status in their BahnBonus loyalty programme has grown. I believe this is the reason that lounge access has been restricted to only the expensive fully-flexible first class tickets and to status holders, as the status holders (BahnComfort status) also have lounge access and thus lounges were getting too crowded. (To be honest, lounge access in a train station is much less of an important perk than it is at an airport, as waiting and connection times are rarely long so you won’t spend much time in the lounge anyway.)

    Another effect of increasing ridership is that DB don’t have enough trains in reserve, which may be one reason why trains with defective kitchen equipment sometimes run. When the kitchen equipment works the savoury food is pretty decent and the tea (as usual in Germany) is excellent. (Ask someone else about the coffee….) When it comes to at-seat service in first class Ben is right: the service level varies from crew to crew. (I always tip when I get at-seat service so those crews who can’t be bothered are missing out on some easy money from me….)

    Like @Michael I can also strongly recommend Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, I am sure the airport will have you spellbound even if the train layouts don’t 😉 And for a trip from Berlin to Hamburg I recommend trying out the Eurocity (EC) trains rather than the ICE. All of these trains come from the Czech Republic (except for one from Hungary) and the Czech trains in particular have a very nice dining car. The food is better than on DB and is very reasonably priced. And the kitchen equipment has always been working every time I have travelled on one of these trains! (I don’t know if Covid-19 has changed the dining service though.)

  27. Although there is plenty to complain about with the Deutsche Bahn, you should go in with the right expectations. In the end it’s still a train – and not first class on an airline! 95% of all first class train products in Europe don’t have meals or anything else included – meaning you are only paying for the seat and space.

    Dining cars at Deutsche Bahn are indeed hit or miss. In 2 out of 3 of my last journeys it didn’t work as once the fridge/kitchen appliances were broken, while another time the staff didn’t have the right key with them to actually open the dining car! The third time however when it did work normally, the food was much better than you’d get with most airlines (especially in the US!) in first class. I certainly enjoyed the autumn special of lamb meatballs with potato and pumpkin mash a few weeks ago – washed away with a pint of Weizen beer.

    Having a proper sit-down meal, taking a walk around, seeing the scenery pass by – these are all things you don’t have in the air and are aspects which make train travel special. These definitely should be mentioned as well – just like you rightly mentioned the added benefits of taking your cute dog along and being able to be productive.

    As for food – others mentioned this as well: try out the Czech Railways (CD) trains once – you can also catch them from Berlin to either Dresden or Hamburg/Kiel and don’t necessarily need to go all the way to Prague for them. That’s really good stuff if you like Central European food!

  28. I presume that the train has lighted signs that show that it is the ABC part of the train of the DEF part of the train. If not, that is another reason that ICE should be abolished along with supporting BLM.

  29. Ben, congrats, you are one of just 238 lucky guys on an in-time experience with Deutsche Bahn per year. The rest of your trip seems as mediocre (read: crappy) as usual… No, there was no negative impact on your journey by COVID-19!
    Best advice: avoid this piece of s7&_!+(* called Deutsche Bahn whenever possible!

  30. Can anyone here give a bit of background as to why Germany hasn’t built out a true high speed rail system like France and Italy? You can go from Marseille to Paris (over 200 km farther than this trip) in 3 hours. It is twice as fast as driving, which makes it the obvious choice for longer trips like this. Is it just that Germany has been more car-oriented than France? Would love to understand the differences that drive these decisions.

  31. They look like Nuremberg brats. Another point: you can’t really take 90kg of luggage with you in the cabin on most LCCs that operate North of the Sahara. Nor are you allowed to self-serve alcohol. Pack your Krug and caviar and it’ll be cheaper anyway.
    The trains work, but IRROPS makes you want to fly. Supposedly, your discount ticket is only good for your routing, so when you miss a connection, you are supposed to get your ticket endorsed at the station, along with everyone else. And missed connections, late trains, happen all the time.

  32. My only negative comment about DB trains is the very limited lugage storage space. The rest they are fantastic.

  33. Deutsche Bahn has limited access to their First Class lounges to full fare First Class tickets only. Any discounted First Class ticket will not grant access. I agree the service on the trains is inconsistent. What the First Class tickets buys is a less crowded cabin. During non Covid times, 2nd class is usually crowded and unpleasant.

  34. @DCJoe: It‘s primarily because of Germany‘s federalistic, de-centralized structure, combined with a high population density. You’d simply skip too many big(ger) cities in between if you’d just link the biggest with a high-speed rail network.
    That‘s why you only have a few of true high-speed rail tracks – one of them is between Berlin an Munich, 4hrs for 620km, and for about 40% of that distance, trains can actually go up to 300km/h.

  35. I always thought if you travelled and used anything other than your US passport you could be in violation of the rules of US citizenship and it could be revoked? Maybe I am wrong. ICE is wonderful I have to admit.

  36. I lived in Stuttgart for nearly five years (left May 2020) and we used DB Bahn all the time – first class exclusively. We purchased the Bahn 25 discount card and it paid off nicely for us. In the year before COVID, DB has gone downhill. Trains are always running late, dirty and mechanical issues. The trains were overcrowded and the German media basically had these reasons. Lack of investment in new rolling stock, not hiring enough skilled mechanics and engineers and budget cuts. From 2016-2019 we loved the train. We went from Stuttgart to Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Rome etc. plus over Germany. The DB lounges are low quality but you get free soft drinks and beer and some offer food. But it is a train station, so what can you expect. DB prices on the lowest cost ticket down don’t include lounge access. The next higher fare was usually about 10€ and included lounge access. Nevertheless we always used the train for the speed of 300km per hour and convenience.

  37. another tip: download the DB Navigator app so you can purchase your ticket on the app directly and get notified of incoming train times and possible changes to connecting trains. Also vital information is the location of the carriage alone the track.

  38. It’s almost invariably the case that European railway stations have very good F&B outlets, both dine-in and take-out, making them the better choice than onboard dining. They’re far better than airports in that regard.

  39. Hah, “low-cost” is an understatement. I remember 2 Christmas’s age, I had a train attendant run back because he forgot to charge me for a packet of sauce!

  40. &DCJoe. ICE and TGV are both fast trains. The tracks in Germany aren’t always straight enough for high speed but often it also comes down to having to slow down the journey stopping at extra stations. When building a train line in Germany regional governments obtain agreements for trains to stop in their area to add economic value. So you see ICE stations like Jena on high speed routes. Munich – Berlin has improved and Munich – Paris will too.

  41. Love ICE, but have a trauma with them lol
    Did two backpack trips with them when 18 and 19. On the first which was FRA-DUS-AMS-HAM-BER-PRG lost the card in which I had bought the tickets in DUS at a NYE party. Was charged a hefty fee of 30EURish on 3 out of the 4 following legs. Some of the legs were just 19,99. On the other year a friend suffered with that too
    The tickets needed to be verified in the card machine, and not even a photocopy of the card was enough too some ticket mans.
    Do they still do that?

  42. @ Joe Chivas
    Honestly, does the name ICE in Germany really bother you?
    I have been taking the ICE trains since 1997 and the term preceded the current rage over iCE by decades.
    ICE trains in Germany have been descending in comfort and quality since generation 1, it still is a relaxing trip for this American resident when either jetlagged or between serious meetings.
    Yes, the cost of the trip can actually be eyewatering.

  43. I traveled on ICE a couple of times. Same experience – first class is basically the Big Front Seat. On a trip to Paris, the train does speed up to 300 kph once it gets on the French high-speed track network. One neat feature of some (I think older) models of ICE trains is that the cab doesn’t completely block the view forward from the first car – interesting experience at 300 kph. Of course, you could also get similar experience in your rented S-class 🙂

    Compared to TGV, interiors on ICE are more austere (as expected), but also feel more spacious since TGV trains on the same route (Paris – Stuttgart) are double deckers with pretty low ceilings.

  44. Great advice Jon.

    As for ICE, love them. So organised and prompt, and well planned.

    Wish public transport was as good as this elsewhere.

  45. I’ve ridden trains a ton of times on my visits in Germany although never in the Berlin area but frequently in places like Munich. I’ve never seen a whole lot of need for food buying on the train since most of the major train stations (at least in normal times) have wonderful sandwiches, pretzels and other food.

  46. I guess the most pathetic thing I have read in a mighty long time is that somebody is calling it a ‘transgression’ of you to travel on an ICE train. It’s probably written by somebody who would not find America on a world map. ICE stands for Inter City Express, and has been around since 1985, which is actually a lot longer than anything else associated with ‘ICE’. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was formed under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, following the events of September 11, 2001.

  47. Your experience with the catering disappointment is not just pandemic-related. When I took the ICE from Hamburg to Schwerin, Schwerin to Hamburg, and Hamburg to Berlin all in 10/19 the menu listed multiple options, yet nothing to eat was available on these rides other than M & M’s, other kinds of candy and some cheese, despite these being mid-day trips. First class was also woefully understaffed, with just one person to take drink/snack orders for multiple first class cars. By contrast, the French-Belgian Thalys train that I took from Amsterdam to Paris 4/19 in first class offered a choice of tasty meals and snacks throughout the journey and a nice beverage assortment, and all catering was complimentary in first class. There were also 2 attendants for each car who made frequent trips through the car to offer refills. The service on the Thalys train was also quite polished.

  48. @Alex

    Thanks, that is helpful, and makes sense. France seems to have a more “hierarchical” system- trunk routes between major stations, then slower trains that are tied into those to offer service to smaller stations. The German system seems to somewhat combine these into a single service. Does that sound mostly accurate?

  49. I would love to see more of this. I’ve taken SBB, DB, TGV, and Trenitalia, and having reviews of all these trains and routes would be really helpful for knowing when First is worth it (IIRC Trenitalia is totally worth it and the rest are pretty middling but the added space is nice), what are typical prices, things to look out for, etc.

  50. “replacing planes within Europe for short distances for (obvious) environmental reasons”

    Lucky virtue signaling by just repeating the mindless climate change drivel without even considering he’s traveling on a nearly empty train that has a much higher carbon footprint when it’s empty vs an airplane. Total lack of intellectual curiosity but we know that already, the dogma must be enforced!

  51. @Mitch

    The trains are more effective than the agency, although, the latter will hopefully improve and speed up the process. The only equality I support is making both ICE’s equally effective at their jobs.

    Winston is the star here. A beautiful dog.

    ICE trains are very functional. The Austrian Railjet has a superior seat and car for their first and business class (higher than first). ICE is simple and does its job well. I’m curious to see the next stage in seat and car design for these trains.

  52. We have been doing the ICE, OBB, Eurostar & TGV in Europe the past few years, prefer the OBB from Austria to all of them. worst is Eurostar. Austrian Stations are amazing.
    They have First Class Lounges at most of DB Stations, But for some reasons, if you Buy the DB First Class Tickets in US, you are not allowed in DB Lounges. wtf?
    By the way Munchen/Munich station has Good Food all around,skip the Train Food. and Don’t take the elevators at the Station, urine smell will overcome you.
    Thank you Ben for the review!

  53. Your first screenshot indicates that they were supposed to provide you with a free newspaper.

    I rode 1st class in Spain and they did include a free meal and drink (cava). The meal was super basic (ham and cheese sandwich) but it was handed out, and you could request a vegetarian option when booking.

    Usually 1st class is not worth it in Europe, but with corona, the extra space might be worth it. I only paid in Spain because it was a case where the dynamic price meant it was a very small price difference from 2nd class.

  54. Why doesn’t Germany have a dedicated high speed network like France? It’s also related to how people are spread around the country. In France 20% of people live in Paris and the other cities are spread out with quite low rural population density in between. Germany’s population is spread over many more cities and not dominated by one city like France (every TGV line goes to/from Paris). It would make no sense to build a network with all lines going to Berlin and the federal governments would not pay into this model anyway.

  55. Willy, you are an idiot, compare apples with apples. Trains and planes are empty right now because of the pandemic but in normal times the CO2 per passenger km is much lower for trains, even when account for load factor, which is generally pretty high for both modes.

  56. It’s sad to see how much DB dropped the ball on their premium services, especially now that the infrastructure is actually really good.

    In better times, I hope you’d get a chance to travel on ÖBB trains in Austria—their new sleeper services are launching within the next couple of years with all-new coaches. You might also enjoy the likes of RegioJet or Leo Express on domestic and international services from Prague (Bratislava, Vienna, Budapest). They actually offer a significant difference in terms hard product and there’s a welcome drink/food/barista-made coffee included.

  57. I’d agree with those pointing out some European operators are much better than others (I also think Austria’s OBB is one of the best, and it also runs a continent-wide network of overnight sleeper trains).

    So far no-one has mentioned the definitive review resource on the web — “the man in seat 61”. This gives you options and descriptions for pretty much any international rail journey you might want to take. A heroic independent resource.

    Someone asked why Germany doesn’t have as extensive (or fast) high speed network as France. Different countries have adopted different strategies: Spain has more HS track than anyone else (a big country with lots of empty spaces between cities); while the UK has almost no HS track (a small country with biggish towns and cities closely spaced together). But that’s only half the story: compare frequency — a typical Spanish HS train service runs at 2-hourly intervals; on the most intensive UK express routes (eg, London—Birmingham) there’s a train every ~20 minutes.

    As a crude generalisation, Germany, Austria and Switzerland have gone for medium-speed networks with higher frequency; France and Spain have gone for very HS networks with, outside a couple of trunk routes, much less frequency.

    The UK has stuck with its existing network but operates almost everything with service intervals that, to me, border on the bizarrely over-frequent. Onboard, UK trains are mostly very new but extraordinarily uncomfortable — almost everything is specified as if it’s a commuter service rather than a longhaul express. Eurostar, with its cross-Channel monopoly, has comfier seats but generally is a truly dismal service.

    Underneath all those high-ish speed European routes is a huge network of low-speed, regional and local trains. They vary hugely in quality: eg, generally, in Spain these are likely to be newer; in France they are likely to be old and neglected (all the money there is poured into the glamorous TGV HS network).

    Eating onboard food is a rooky error: many European stations have restaurants which are world class in their own right (try out Le Train Bleu at Paris Gare du Nord, for example). In the UK you’d be mad to eat onboard food; every main station has a choice of takeaway eating, but the best (for me) are the upmarket mini-supermarkets (M&S, Waitrose), that let you create your own picnic to take with you.

  58. Train fares in Europe almost always come unbundled. If you want some food, you buy it (there are some exceptions though). Personally, I don’t have an issue with that – it’s not like complimentary food/drinks aren’t included in price. This way I can choose whatever I want and only pay for that.

    The warm drinks were obviously a technical malfunction of some sort, which is why the steward warned you. I always enjoyed the cold wheat beer when I rode ICE.

    Food quality is indeed poor on ICE, as it doesn’t have a proper kitchen. It’s a pity you didn’t take EC train when you went to Dresden – most of them are operated with Czech rolling stock with proper dining car (not just a bistro) – excellent food and they even have a beer on tap.

  59. And regarding lounges – DB lounges are not worth anything, extremely poor experience. But OBB lounges on the other hand are perfect (and they are ALWAYS included in the first class ticket). If you ever travel from a major station in Austria, definitely stop by in one of them.

  60. ICE First Class is a good option because of the increased personal space.
    (German) newspapers should be free of charge.
    Service and food on board can be hit and miss.
    I recommend bakeries in the train stations (99% being very good/reasonably priced)

    If you have to travel (during non-COVID) on Friday in “economy” you probably value the additional space in first A LOT. It can be crowded in “economy”.

    The lounges are OK if you feel insecure (e.g. long wait at train stations) in stations like Frankfurt. Drinks in the lounge are free.

    Generally the advantage of the railway system is that you get from city centre to city centre. Getting with a car into Berlin/Frankfurt city center is a major pain and can take you some addl time.

    As for COVID in trains: DB addressed this during wave 1:
    they claim the AC is pushing any aerosols down and suck it into the filters. It “should” be pretty safe to !ride! an ICE in Germany. Obviously train stations and the boarding is another matter.

    As for rental card programs in Germany:
    depending on your airline status I recommend a search up front for status upgrades with the car companies (esp. Sixt is known for this). These status’ significantly increase your chances for luxury upgrades – in case you don’t want to shell out the money for a S-Class.

    My personal ranking for car rental companies:
    1. Sixt
    looong space of nothing
    2. Hertz (less stations)
    3. Europcar (less German luxury cars, beware of bad business practices)


  61. Ben thanks for sharing your trip on the German train ICE (which mean intercity express). As mentioned there is Thalys (French) and Eurostar (EU and UK). They are the high speed trains in Europe. Switzerland does not have any high speed trains.

    As mentioned by many other readers, things were great years ago. Now the German train system is working on pennies from the government as verfied by many German citizens we’ve sat across from.
    Schedules are very upset across the country. Connections that were sure before are now iffy. Drivers satisfaction is way down. (recall the train strikes in recent years).

    All is all, you now take the German train with a prayer. If going south say Frankfurt to Basel to Zurich, the train usually gets stuck in because the engine switch over is not fully managed to integrate. Expect a delay there.

    The German train was great. We enjoyed it before. Now we cannot say the same, regardless of which class one travels.

    We have driven as well. First time or two its exciting, but then it fades. Doing 100-110 in a rented BMW is exciting. But as you say, more gets done on the train.

    Thanks for sharing

  62. @Samo:
    There are two DB lounge types. If you spend more than 2000€ within a calendar year you can access the Frequent Traveller lounge called “DB Lounge”: Free coffee and free soft drinks. As long as you have the frequent Traveller Status you can access the lounge even without a valid ticket.
    This lounge is basic as the spending requirement is easy to reach – especially when you commute to work by train.

    The “DB 1. Klasse Lounge” is better: You can order small meals to your seat as well as beer and wine and soft drinks.
    With a valid 1st clas ticket you can access the lounge before and after your train ride – and even in between when you decide to get off the train.

  63. Nice review. Like the others have mentioned I think you should check out and review the Bahncard loyalty program. The points were very easy to redeem and can be redeemed at the last minute for outsized value. I redeemed a Frankfurt-Berlin Round trip last December the day before I traveled. It only cost 2000 points in second class, but at the time the round trip cost was over $200 so over 10 cents/pt :p

  64. @Jason:
    The Bahn.Bonus Programm is quickly explained: you sign up online. You earn 1 point for every Euro spent at Deutsche Bahn.

    Upgrade costs 500 points. Free Oneway ticket In 2nd class costs 1000 points.

    If you sign up now to Bahn.Bonus and subscribe to the newsletter you get 500 points which you can redeem for an upgrade which also gives you lounge access.

  65. @Klaus Schuetz – I’ve been to DB first class lounge but I found it underwhelming compared to what I’m used to with OBB.

  66. I have worked for the European railway industry (not in Germany) and European railway regulatory bodies for over 15 years (not in Germany) but have taken the ICE in Germany first class at least over 1,000 times. I would say the following:

    1) Your experience sounds typical for an ICE first-class experience. Sometimes the service personnel comes through, but you do have to pay for meals. The prices in comparison with other first-class services on other European railways are still quite reasonable, although slightly more expensive for German standards.

    2) A DB first class lounge, provided that you have a fully paid first class ticket is ‘ok’. You get free drinks including wine and beer, but unless you are travelling on business where you need a quiet place to work on your laptop, they are not worth it. There are normally two sections in a DB lounge – those with a type of Bahnplus status, and those with fully paid first class tickets. The Bahnplus sections do not offer food or alcoholic beverages.

    3) On board, first class seating is nicer, but the advantage is that you actually can get a seat and are not squashed in like sardines, especially on Friday and Sunday evenings.

    4) Regarding Covid – if the Board Bistro was closed this might be because of the virus, but your experience sounds like par for the course as mentioned. Especially your interaction with staff regarding food quality 🙂 sounds exactly like what I experience. They are quite often out of main courses, although your menu looks like a standard one.

    5) Punctuality is a problem historically with ICE trains in Germany, although the Deutsche Bahn will not admit it. Germany for European standards is a geographically large country with an extensive high-speed network, with closely connected nodes in the network. This means however that if something goes wrong with one part of the large national network, it has ripple effects for people connecting to other trains on the ICE (high-speed) network.

    6) If the restaurant is open hopefully post Covid, and you are in second class, it is a nice place to spend your journey. Second class on the ICE isn’t too bad, but can be as mentioned extremely overcrowded.

    7) Instead of the main cabin, at end of the line/service, for example Berlin – Hannover or Basel-Karlsruhe, sitting in a six-seat cabin, especially if travelling with a dog or cat etc, could be a little better as there is a high chance you will have your own private cabin.

    8) I can confirm the cleanliness of the plugs in first class, provided they work. I often have to change seats to find one which works and I am not sure what their maintenance is like.

    9) The DB gets you from A to B without the hassle of having to go to the airport (sorry I know this is an airline review blog), but just going to the station and just getting on the train and being in e.g. five hours between Berlin and Cologne or Düsseldorf is about the same as flying if you count in everything door to door.

    10) If the difference is €15 between first or second class, I would definitely go for first. I tend to order food and drinks (the food isn’t always so, so bad as your experience, but as mentioned I have had my moments) the first-class seats are good. I have spent between 8-10 hours, like a transatlantic flight, on an ICE many times before so if you are going for a very long time, definitely get first class, change into something comfortable out of your business suit, and enjoy watching the countryside go by.

    I hope this information helps!!!!!

  67. Suffice to say that on the return journey we just bought a pretzel at the train station and called it a day.

    And that’s where you DB rookies screwed up. In every big train station (and most small ones) there are a variety of pretty nice bakeries, sandwich shops and liquor stores. Buy what looks good in the train station and bring in on board with you rather than the mediocre DB Restaurant Car. You’ll save money, be much happier and have cold drinks.

  68. Jackson Henderson, I actually preferred Austrian Rail jet First Class to ICE, except their windows were so dirty, I hardly could see the beautiful landscape on my way to Vienna. Took Flixbus on the way back to Munich, upstairs front row, it was a like scenic movie, with a nice 45 min stop at Mondsee Restaurant.

  69. @Samo:
    ÖBB Lounges have no booze? They have no hot food service but a buffet with Gummi bears, peanuts and pretzels?

    Or have I been to the wrong lounges.

    Different topic:
    The ÖBB Railjet Train has three booking classes: in my opinion economy class on the Railjet is not as good as on the ICE. Their first classes are more or less the same but I find the ICE train nicer. The highest booking class is called Business and it has seats like domestic first class in the US.

  70. I see real glasses, at least. I took it last year FRA-Linz and got only plastic. Had a Thai curry, which was OK. Beer was cold. Lounge nothing to get excited about.

    Worst part was that I was confirmed in F but no seats were available for reservation. Fortunately found an empty one on boarding.

  71. Wait, I paid 35 EUR back in 2017 for the cheapest ICE 1st class from Stuttgart to FRA Airport and I am pretty sure I got to use the lounge with free wifi/drinks. No drinks/food onboard though with the short hop.

  72. As others have said, DB offer a solid, but not exceptional product. That said, the ICE trains are quick and typically punctual. Even at their best, the onboard food product is inferior to what you can get in most German train stations, so I always prefer to bring aboard my own food unless I’m doing an extremely long route like Munich-Hamburg, where I just genuinely welcome the opportunity to get up and sit down somewhere else for a few minutes.

    ÖBB offers a consistently superior product to DB on every criteria except speed, but where they really shine are on their Nightjet services and with their quite pricey Railjet Business Class product, which is above their First Class product.

  73. ICEs run on energy that comes 100% from renewables so how could even riding an empty train not be more sustainable than a plane, @Willy?

  74. @Anthony
    “the German train system is working on pennies from the government as verfied by many German citizens we’ve sat across from.”

    Those citizens are wrong.

    DB is a state enterprise which is carrying government-guaranteed debt of €25 BILLION. This year, they will receive further annual government aid of €5-7 billion (the exact amount is still be worked out, but it will be a minimum of €5.5 billion), and likely another increase in the ceiling of state-guaranteed debt.

    DB receives more state subsidy than almost any other European railway company. And it then buys franchises and contracts in foreign countries (part of the UK’s allegedly privatised railway system is operated by subsidiaries of a number nationalised European railway companies, including Germany, Netherlands and France. It’s difficult to work out which country’s tax-payers is subsidising which railway system).

    Anyway, the takeaway is that DB gets absolutely massive state subsidy. Certainly not “pennies”.

  75. Lucky sorry to disappoint you, the menu seems the same / simple – plain as my Frankfurt-Berlin in mid January
    Took Munich – FRA last month, surprisingly drinks were fine (cold).
    ICE First dinning has always being disappointing. Although handy to move around

  76. @Mike:
    Which would be the correct ÖBB lounges and what do they offer?
    I have been to the ones in Vienna only.

  77. @Mike:
    Thanks for the clarification. I have been to the Vienna Lounges and was not impressed about the Food.
    I also did some google search and read the reviews.
    The ÖBB Lounges may be less crowded but
    – unlike DB lounges – no hot food is offered. Alcoholic drinks available only after 6p.m..
    ÖBB only offers snacks (Gummi Bears, cake, Apples, crackers, pears, cookies).

  78. I am surprised you made such a rookie mistake if the 1st Class lounge in Berlin (Politician city) is anything like the one in Munich Hauptbahnhof.

    Taking the ICE from Munich to Paris in summer 2017 the ‘in advance’ 1st class fare was around 15 Euros more than the superspar 2nd class ticket.

    For those who have not travelled in Europe in summer – unless a 5 Star Hotel – most do not have airconditioning just heating for winter. The same with most train stations.

    Travelling 1st class provides free access to the DBahn lounges.

    On the day we were there the temperature inside the station was close to 40 Celsius. The Munich DBahn 1st Class lounge was at 21 Celsius. It had a variety of snacks available (hot & cold) as well as a made-to-order menu (all free), free cold alcoholic & soft drinks as well as made to order proper coffees.

    Knowing about this in advance we timed it to allow around 90 minutes after dropping off our hire car just outside the station.

    Comfortable chairs & couches, cool temperature, nice food & drinks – saw us not hungry on the long ICE journey to Paris but sleepy!

    Whilst the seats are only marginally better & more spacious – the price difference vs flying in economy cf business is a percentage not a multiple.

    What we ate & drank in the lounge (ok I tried one of every dish, & even two of some of the deserts) would have cost much more than our train tickets. Try as I might I cannot say the same for a business class flight for the same route – nor the time required from check-in to leaving at the other end.

    As with most things – advance research pays off handsomely.

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