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  • jochengielen

Short trip to Berlin in March ... by train!

Updated: Apr 16

Sometimes an interesting offer comes along and you don't have much time to prepare for it, this happened to me in March. I would need about half a day to do a photography assignment in Berlin (Germany) … and the budget wasn't very high … but the assignment was very good, so I decided to go for it.


Day 1 … Cheap travel in Europe!


To keep things cheap I went out to the supermarket to buy some food and drinks that I could need on the way and prepared a small insulated bag, a frozen bottle of water and my backpack with photography equipment (including my new gimbal as my old one broke down).

I went to my local station to get a train to Brussels (Brussel-Zuid or Bruxelles-Midi international station), Belgian trains have improved a lot over the last few years and both the trains I had to take were comfortable and had tables and power sockets, you just have to look where they are located, in my first train it was above my head below the bagage rack and in the second train it was just under my seat. Since this was a weekend, it wasn't very crowded and the total train took just slightly less than 2 hours to get there. The tickets are easy to book online or just buy at the ticket-machine in your local station as very few stations still have manned desks. The total amount for a return ticket was about 36 EUR.



Trains in Europe!

There are many different national and international trains all over Europe, being from Belgium and having good friends in the Netherlands and England I have a lot of experience taking trains to get to my destinations for a low price. Local trains are bound to the country that you are in and usually the service is good and reliable as far as my experience goes in Belgium, France, England and Italy. International trains are a very good alternative fro; driving in some cases, especially when you visit just one city or destination.


My experiences with international trains are that they are reliable and fast, depending on the service you choose, however … they are not as cheap as some people think so checking and comparing fares will benefit you in the long run. Some of the best known international trains are:

  • TGV: Probably the first high-speed train in Europe was the French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), operated by the French state railways SNCF. During the years this train has set record speeds and has expanded into neighbouring countries as well. I took this train once from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Brussels and that was probably one of the easiest ways to get from a Paris airport to Brussels, these trains travel at speeds up to 320 km per hour.

  • Eurostar: Another one of the best known trains in Europe, this train was created especially for travel between mainland Europe and London when the newly opened Channel Tunnel started operations in 1994, the train travels at incredible speeds of up to 320 km per hour and is well known for the easy way to get from Brussels to London. Initially the end station in London was London Waterloo but since 2007 the newly refurbished London St. Pancras international station is the new destination for Eurostar. I took this train recently from Brussels to London and back.

  • Thalys – now taken over by Eurostar and rebranded as well under this name: Thalys started life as a competitor for TGV and travelled mainly between Brussels and Paris, later adding Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Antwerp to the route. These are operated by the same type of trains as TGV, giving the Thalys a great speed of up to 300 km per hour, getting you quickly and comfortable to Paris. Now the company has been taken over by Eurostar and the route network of Thalys and Eurostar are combined, giving people even more options … an extra bonus is that Eurostar and Accor hotel group have teamed up and their loyalty programs are interchangeable, a great benefit when you use both these companies for travel as I do.

  • Le Shuttle: Another train that goes from mainland Europe to England, however … this train has only one fixed route, from Calais at a specially built station to Folkestone, also arriving at a specially built station. This is because unlike normal trains, this is a train without seating spaces, taking only cars and trucks with their respective drivers and passengers, a truly unique experience in Europe. I have taken this train many times and it is easy because you drive to the station and once you have passed trough the ferry-like check-in lanes, you can wait in the shop and restaurant area before going to the boarding platform where you drive your own car onto a train and you can stay in your car during the ride as there are no major facilities apart from a toilet onboard the train. The train takes just 35 minutes to bring you through the Channel Tunnel to England.

  • OBB Nightjet: Although Europe is full of high-speed trains, there are also other possibilities to consider. One of these is the OBB Nightjet. This is a sleeper train for long distances and it has a broad network all over central Europe. The train offers 3 basic possibilities, a dedicated seat booking as the cheapest ticket, a second possibility is the sleeper car for couchette cabins and the most expensive option is the sleeper car with comfortable beds. Extra selections are male or female traveller and you can opt for private cabins or choose to be located in 4 or 6 passenger cabins. I chose the cheapest option which is the dedicated seating space in a six passenger cabin for a total of about 70 EUR return fare between Brussels and Berlin.


Before you go!

As always, it's best to prepare properly for the type of travel you are about to undertake. Usually I travel by car within Europe, so size of luggage and weight doesn't really matter that much, but if the distance is long, I always take my travel mattress with a pillow and blanket with me so I can have a nap or even a night in the car, the only thing I need to prepare for is overnight parking at my destination. International travel by train is totally different as you have to carry all your belongings yourself and there is no such thing as checked luggage like on flights.


Day 1 … continue …


Upon arrival in Brussels I had about an hour to spare so I decided to relax at Starbucks with a hot chocolate, Starbucks also offers power sockets while you sit and wait for your train, a handy feature in this digital age. Brussel-Zuid station is really bad at giving directions and each time I 'm in this station, I have to ask how to get to the proper terminal, something that NMBS could do a lot better and I will probably make a formal complaint about this in the near future!


About 17.30 I went to platform 6 where the OBB Nightjet to Berlin was waiting at 6B, immediately there was some confusion as the train would be split in two as one would go to Berlin and the other to Vienna (Austria) but it was soon cleared up that my car number 335 was going to Berlin. After this minor issue I found my cabin to still be empty and tested out the seats so I would know what to do when I wanted to go to sleep … by now I was settling in and hoping not too many other people would be booked in the same cabin … let's wait and see!



Overall the cabin seats maximum 6 people and is pretty straightforward with only the 2 window seats having a folding out table and 2 power sockets. We departed Brussels on time at 17.50 and I was still alone with very few passengers in other cabins, this is of course a low season for tourism as the Easter holidays haven't even started yet. The train doesn't have any signage so I relied on the information found online as the OBB app doesn't help much either. I found the menu, the Nightjet offers some basic snacks, drinks and some frozen meals that they prepare and bring to your cabin, the frozen meal is certainly not the best in the world, but for a train it's good enough. One downside of this train is that it doesn't offer any Wifi so you have to rely on your own 4G devices, luckily I was prepared for this.


By 20.00 we arrived in Liège and one other passenger joined me in the cabin, so far so good. The evening consisted of me keeping busy on my laptop to pass the time. In Köln at 21.50, another passenger arrived in my cabin so we were 3 now and that's how it remained for the rest of the trip, so all 3 of us could lie down and get some decent sleep, I was the only one to go all the way to Berlin though.


Day 2 … Berlin!



By 08.35 I was out of the train and looking for directions in the famous Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the first thing I found was the lockers, for 6 euro you can store your luggage for up to 24 hours, once my slightly larger bag was stored, I went for breakfast in one of the many food outlets in this huge station and then it was time for a walk.

From the station you can easily walk to the Brandenburger Tor and the interesting views of the city, however … if you prefer to go from spot to spot, there are plenty of public trains leaving from Hauptbahnhof and they are easy to navigate, I suggest anyone coming into Berlin to get a 24 hour daycard for only 9.90 euro and to buy a map of the city with the subway map on it as well. Berlin has some different subway and train services but the main systems within the city are the U-bahn and the S-bahn, they work like any other subway system in any other major city in the world.

I had a good walk and photography tour of the main things that interested me in Berlin and went to Grand Hostel Berlin where I had booked a bed for one night for only 20 euro, that's what cheap travel can be in Europe! Of course this is a way of travel where you don't get any privacy but that didn't bother me for this short trip.



In the early afternoon I had a meeting in the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin on how we would go about business tomorrow and afterwards I was so tired that I only went out for dinner at Taverna Athene and shopping for some supplies before going to bed.


Day 3 … the assignment.


Early morning I went immediately to the Deutscheds Technikmuseum Berlin where the assignment started, I was hired to photograph all details of the pieces and cabin-mockup of the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor … anyone interested in Aviation history can read all about this aircraft on Wikipedia and find out more on Google, I have to say that this is a very interesting German aircraft!


As these were only some small pieces of a wrecked aircraft, we went to the old Tempelhof airport next, where they have been rebuilding another wrecked aircraft of this type and it is now almost completely finished for display, my job was to also photograph this aircraft in full detail with every single detail recorded. It was located in hangar 6 and alongside were also a C-54 Skymaster and an Ilyushin IL14, both of these are also very interesting aircraft for anyone interested.



Once the job was done, I made my way to the U-bahn station nearby and went back to Berlin Hauptbahnhof where I spent the rest of my time having dinner and getting some supplies for the way back home. By 18.30 I was waiting for the nightjet train to arrive and once onboard in my cabin, the train departed Berlin at 18.43 as scheduled, one other passenger was with me in the cabin so for now, the ride was relaxing and was preparing to settle in for the night.


Day 4 … back home.


Waking up after another night in the train, I ate some of my supplies and due to a delay, we arrived later than expected in Brussels, that meant that I didn't have to wait long for my next regional train that would take me home, so I arrived home around noon as scheduled.


THE END

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