A Business Travel to Vienna by Train – Part I: the Purchase Process

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For quite a few years in a row, I have been attending to a TourMIS workshop of which the main themes are tourism statistics and trends. This summer I began to ponder, if I should do this trip by train, mainly traveling by land. As the theme of my PhD project is Interrail travel in the 1970s and 1980s and as I deal with different tourism themes and trends in my everyday work, I thought I should try traveling by land myself, too. In addition, the company I am working in, TAK Research, said that it is okay for them if I choose to travel by land, I decided to give it a go.

Purchase process – the First Steps

Being used to buying a flight to some destination it may come as a surprise that buying a train trip consisting of multiple legs isn’t quite easy. The borders of the nation state are much stronger in the railway traffic than they seem to be in the everyday life. For example, on my travel to Vienna part of the connections could be reserved and bought as transnational packages ( Sweden-Denmark; Denmark-Germany and Germany-Austria) but the common picture still seems to be that national reservation systems rule.

Deutsche Bahn (from now on DB) luckily offers quite an handy tool for finding out schedules for different routes. In my case, it offered me a possibility to check the options for a route from Stockholm to Vienna. The first part of my trip, getting from Tampere (Finland) to Stockholm had to be dealt separately. My seminar was to be held in the mid-September (12th and 13th) in Vienna, so I first started to check the route options in middle of the July. DB offered one quite handy schedule, but I couldn’t buy it at once: I had to make a price request. And after that just wait. Which was something that I did.

However, as I hadn’t heard anything from DB in a week – which I considered as a maximum time in today’s travel business – I sent them another messages kindly asking whether my request had arrived and was under some kind of scrutiny. To this message I got a quick (48 hours) response, which stated that “our agents process the requests in an orderly manner after the travel date. You will receive a quote as soon as possible”(italics by me). Okay. In the Finnish Facebook group “Traveling by Land” I was adviced clearly and quickly – thank you for that – that I should buy the different legs of the route separately as the response from the DB might take some time. I followed the advice and started to buy the tickets separately.

Succesful Purchase Process and One Bad Example (by me)

I was pondering a while, whether I should take a turboprop ATR-72 plane from Helsinki to Stockholm Bromma or take a ferry Turku-Stockholm. After checking the Finnish database Lipasto and going through some discussions about the comparison of CO2 emissions of the ferries and the turboprop planes, I decided to choose the airplane to Stockholm Bromma.

After having initially checked the train schedules and flight timetables I bought the flights to mark the boundaries for my train adventures. I would arrive Stockholm on Tuesday afternoon and would leave Stockholm on Sunday afternoon. That was the time window all the train connections should fit. The workshop would start on Thursday so I had to start moving from Stockholm on Tuesday. The idea was to get as quickly as possible to Vienna where I could, before the workshop, rest one night on a comfortable hotel bed. Therefore I wouldn’t mind some heavy traveling on the route.

So, I bought following tickets: IC (dep. 9.07) from Tampere to Helsinki-Vantaa airport (HEL), from HEL a flight (12.45) to Stockholm Bromma where I would be about at the same time due to the time zone difference. At Stockholm, I would have a couple of hours flaneuring around the city and I would take the 16.24 train to Copenhagen. The train should arrive in Copenhagen H at 21.31. There I would have time to eat something and well-nourished depart at 23.00 towards Hamburg.

The DSB train should arrive in Hamburg at 5.40 so I would have time to get some breakfast and continue to Wien aboard the 7.24 train. I would reach Vienna at 16.45 and rest a bit before the workshop next day. This rest at a hotel bed would be much needed as there wouldn’t be any sleeping wagon or couchette place during the trip itself.

The schedule as a table would be as follows:

CityTime of ArrivalTime of Departure
Tampere9.07
Helsinki-Vantaa (HEL)11.1512.45 (EET)
Stockholm12.55 (CET)16.45
Copenhagen21.3123.00
Hamburg5.40 (+1 d)7.29
Vienna16.45

 

The different reservation systems needed for the booking were the following: the schedule as total from DB, the flight from Finnair, Stockholm-Copenhagen from the SJ, Copenhagen-Hamburg from DB and Hamburg-Vienna from Austrian ÖBB. That makes it four different system. (edit. At the time I didn’t know about the existence of Loco2.com which would have eased my pain. I learned about the service only after writing this and I was given the hint at the Finnish Traveling by Land Facebook group by Ilari Heiska.)

So I had bought the tickets for the outward journey and it was time to consider the return journey as well. I thought of allowing some luxury for myself and bought a ticket to a ÖBB Nightjet from Vienna to Hamburg. The departure would be after eight o’clock and I’d arrive in Hamburg in time to catch the train to Copenhagen. Then from Copenhagen I’d take an afternoon train to Stockholm and staying a night in a hotel before catching the turboprop flight from Bromma to Helsinki as there wouldn’t be any turboprop flights for Saturday evening. Taking a jet plane was out of the question for this kind of journey.

So I just bought the tickets and everyone was happy. Except me the next day, when I (for some intuitive reason) started to go through my connections. I had bought a Nightjet ticket for Thursday instead of Friday evening. I may have said a couple of words not suitable for writing. For a reason or another, I had probably sorted the departures based on a day of arrival instead of departure and made the purchase not checking the dates. Totally my own fault and I thought of just biting the bullet (worth 129 EUR) and buying another ticket for the Friday evening. Nice plan but not doable. Why? The Nightjet from Vienna to Hamburg arrives perfectly in time to catch the Copenhagen train on weekdays, but not on Saturday morning when the trip takes about 2 hours more and I’d miss the next train. Luckily there was a replacing connection but with an ordinary train. So apologies go to all my gluteus muscles. Two hour stay at Frankfurt in the middle of the night wasn’t the most appealing choice either, but what could I do.

The schedule for the return journey would be as follows:

CityTime of ArrivalTime of Departure
Vienna17.15
Frankfurt (M)23.402.13
Hamburg7.509.28
Rødby12.1312.23 (bus->)
Copenhagen14.4016.23
Stockholm21.3913.25 (+1d)
Helsinki-Vantaa15.35 (EET)later
Tamperesome time in the evening

Purchase Process – Observations and Calculations

Buying a train ticket for a multiple leg journey is – at least for now – a more arduous process than buying flights. Of course, there are different apps and route guides where to check the routes and the schedules. The basic problem, though, remains: managing the purchase process (e.g. prices, timetables and suitable connecting trains) is more challenging in the train travel as compared to traveling by plane. Of course, there could be different solutions of which I am not aware of, so the following paragraphs are written as a novice (long-distance) train traveler. (However, written as a person who has purchased a lot of different travels, used to different IT-systems and working in the field of tourism research.)

To manage the purchase process, I opened several tabs in my browser in order to check different route options and prices and when I finally managed to calculate the total price AND a compatible schedule I made the purchases in the open tabs. In some cases, it is possible to purchase the entire journey at the same place, but I wasn’t that lucky this time. The problem with this kind of approach was highlighted by the unfortunate mistake of buying one leg on a wrong day: you are responsible of getting all legs correct.

It’s quite natural to compare this with the reservation systems of the flights: there you simply put the point of departure and arrival (+ the possible stops) and the system finds the cheapest or fastest routes for you, depending on your preferences. As a customer you get connections which are guaranteed – of course you can still miss a flight but normally you get a replacing one if the lost connection was due to the airline actions. On a train journey, if you have many different connections bought separately, no one is responsible for the whole journey but you. Of course, you can claim/get compensation of the delayed leg but, as far as I know, not of the whole journey.

As the purchase process is a bit tricky I don’t wonder that some specialized travel agencies for example in Sweden – like Centralens Resebutik i Kalmar have been working hard to satisfy all the demand. It is actually funny when this is put in the general tourism context where the role of travel agencies has been diminishing in favor of the independent travel. Of course, travel agencies, especially the smaller ones, have been specializing in order to keep themselves in the market.

However, I am quite sure that in the near future the situation will improve as different APIs are developed and national railway companies are generally opening their data. Also the harmonization process of the railway traffic on the EU level is very important. The demand for cross-border railway travel and for a transnational reservation system is already existing.

It is not my intention here to whine about how difficult reserving a train journey is but only to compare it to other options such as flying. (At it is not difficult as such but only on ‘several leg journeys’) Of course, if the traveling by land is the only option due to a conviction or by choice then the easiness of a flight reservation (or difficulties in train travel) doesn’t make a difference. However, for an average Jane or Joe Doe, the process of purchasing a train travel would need improvements in order to get people change their flight travel to train travel. Of course, the services like Loco2 (soon Rail Europe) can make a difference but the liability/compensation issue remains. For business trips, the ease of purchase is even more crucial.

Of course, there a many other factors, in addition to the reservation system, influencing the compatibility of the railway systems such as electrification and rail gauge. But for a consumer planning a journey crossing internal EU borders the lack of a compatible reservation system appears as the most irritating issue, however complex the question might be to solve.

As a result the flight reservation systems beats the train reservation systems 1-0 (or should it be between organizations, then IATA-UIC 1-0).

Price

The price for my trip was made out of the following elements (not calculating my own mistake in the form of the additional Wien-Hamburg Nightjet cost…):

Flights HEL-BMA-HEL 98.83 EUR
Stockholm-Copenhagen 465 SEK (43.28 EUR)
Copenhagen-Hamburg 29.90 EUR
Hamburg-Vienna 69.90 EUR
Vienna-Hamburg 89.90 EUR
Hamburg-Copenhagen 49.90 EUR
Copenhagen-Stockholm 235 SEK (21.87 EUR)
In total 403.58 EUR (+ the hotel in Stockholm)

The price is actually lower than a straight flight would have been from Helsinki to Vienna and back on Wednesday-Friday (over 600 EUR). Staying an extra night in Vienna would have lowered the flight price to about 300 EUR (+ the costs of the additional night).

So the price competition between a train and a flight is, in this case, a draw 1-1. I was a bit surprised of this as it is often told that traveling by land is significantly more expensive than flying. Of course, in this case, too, the flying would have been cheaper staying a day longer, but the price difference is still marginal.

Here are some thoughts about the purchase process with my stupid mistakes included. Next part will be about the observations I made during the journey.

P.S. I finally got the response from DB price inquiry I sent 19th of July. The response came 30th of August. Either there is very much demand or not enough customer service personnel. Over a month is a bit harsh waiting time in 2019.

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