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Review: Deutsche Bahn ICE First Class

While I usually check flights, airport lounges, and hotels, I think it is sometimes useful to check other modes of transport as well. For (obvious) environmental reasons, trains are increasingly replacing aircraft within Europe for short distances. So what does Germany’s “premium” train experience look like?

We have just spent a few days in Düsseldorf (which we really liked) and decided to take the Deutsche Bahn Intercity Express (ICE) in first class. Winston even joined us, so I’ll share what it was like to travel with a dog.

Booking Deutsche Bahn ICE First Class

We traveled from Berlin to Düsseldorf on Tuesday evening, about a 4 hour 20 minute drive. The starting price for one-way first-class courses was EUR 51.90, which I thought was reasonable.

Deutsche Bahn offers different types of first-class tariffs. The price of 51.90 EUR is absolutely the cheapest. If you want ticket flexibility and access to the DB Lounge, your ticket costs at least three times as much. If they don’t serve caviar and jug in the DB Lounge, it’s definitely not worth it if you don’t need the flexibility.

For comparison: the tariffs for the second class started at EUR 35.90, so that the premium for the first class is around 45% compared to the second class.

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

Booking tickets with dogs makes things difficult

The following describes how the booking experience should work. However, we were traveling with Winston. Dogs that are not on a transport company and are “bigger than a house cat” need their own tickets, which cost the same as a ticket for a child (although, oddly, unlike a dog, they are not assigned a seat for a child).

Fair enough. What is strange is that there are two ways to book tickets for dogs:

  • You can buy them at a Deutsche Bahn train station
  • You can book them online, but only if you would like your tickets to be delivered by post, which requires some advance booking
  • For some reason, you can’t book a ticket for a dog online and then print your own ticket or use a cellphone ticket

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

It was then that I found out that I could have bought the “human” tickets online in advance and then bought the Winston ticket at the train station on the day of departure.

Deutsche Bahn first class rating

Let me share the bottom line in advance – ICE First Class is like flying on a low-cost airline, only there is a lot more space and the (paid) catering is even worse. This last part could also have been a function of the coronavirus.

Berlin main station

We arrived at Berlin Central Station around 5 p.m. to leave at 5:46 p.m. In retrospect, this was way too early but we weren’t sure how busy the train station would be, how difficult it would be to find our route, etc. ICE tickets actually show the route number at the time of your booking, so that’s the guesswork game out is required.

As expected, the main train station in Berlin is huge.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof exterior

Berlin Hauptbahnhof interior

Our train departed from platform 14, which was easy to find.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof tracks

Intercity Express departure board

Our train pulled in a few minutes before departure, and the ICE trains definitely look elegant. The train consisted of two parts as the train splits about halfway through the journey. We were in the AD section.

Deutsche Bahn ICE train

Deutsche Bahn ICE train

I wouldn’t call myself a train enthusiast, but I like the variety of train identifications that were possible from the modern ICE to the more classic S-Bahn (if that’s one thing).

Berlin Hauptbahnhof trains

ICE First Class Cars & Seating

Each ICE First Class train has a total of 53 seats. The cars have a 1-2 layout compared to the 2-2 layout in the second class.

ICE First Class train car

There was a variety of seating options, including standard single seats and pairs of seats, both forward and rear facing. Each seat had both an electrical outlet and a storage table that could be lowered.

ICE First Class seats

ICE First Class seats

Then there were also conference tables for two and four people. That train was pretty empty so we reserved one as we thought Winston would be happiest resting under a table.

ICE first class table seating

ICE first class table seating

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

ICE first class sockets

ICE first class garbage can … or something?

Every car also had a toilet that was surprisingly spacious and better than what you normally find on an airplane.

ICE first class bathroom

ICE dining car & cafe

ICE trains have dining cars that are available to all passengers, including first and second class. In our case, the dining car was only one way from our seat.

ICE dining car

The dining car had seven tables, including four for four and three for two.

ICE dining car

ICE dining car

ICE dining car

If you don’t want to sit in the dining car, you can simply pick something up from the cafe window instead. There was some L-shaped seating opposite.

Intercity Express train café

Intercity Express dining car café

ICE free WiFi

All Intercity Express trains have free wifi and to my surprise the speeds were so good that it was possible to stream. That was a pleasant surprise as I expected to have to tie myself down. It also made productive for several hours.

Intercity Express free WiFi

ICE first class service

As I said above, ICE First Class is like flying a low-cost airline. There is absolutely nothing in it, except that they sometimes hand out chocolates or biscuits (this happened on departure but not on return).

ICE first class chocolates & biscuits

The other difference seems to be that in first class they come out of the dining car to ask if there is something to eat or drink and they will take it to your seat. There’s no car or anything, they just run back and forth to see if you want something.

They were much more proactive on our return journey than on our return journey, although on return we learned that we shouldn’t rely on Deutsche Bahn for anything.

ICE food & drink options

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

This is what the menu looked like:

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

“Could we have two white wines?
“You really don’t want that.”
“It’s warm. Everything is warm.”
“Um. I know it’s no better, but let’s have a beer and a wine. “
“Are you sure?”

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

Suffice it to say that on the way back we just bought a pretzel at the train station and named it a day.

Intercity Express drinks

They weren’t for me, but aren’t they the saddest grilled sausages you’ve ever seen?

Intercity Express Essen

Take a dog with Deutsche Bahn

Winston was a very good boy on our train journey and he just slept most of the time. Dogs should technically wear muzzles on trains when not on transport companies (we were never informed of this, but I saw it on the DB website). I would note this:

  • Although he’s never worn one, we bought one for this trip
  • I had spoken to several people about how these requirements are enforced and everyone (including the person in the pet store) said that they are rarely actually enforced, especially for smaller dogs

Our experience was that no one in either direction asked us to put a snout at him. We did have one with us, however, and of course we were very careful and kept it out of the aisle, and there were no other dogs either.

For anyone who was like me and was wondering how enforced this policy is, my very limited data points suggest that this is not the case. Of course, two data points are inconclusive, and Winston doesn’t look very scary either.

Winston enjoys 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 don’t fly within Germany because we have Winston and want to take him with us when we visit places (he is afraid, especially because he senses that we are transient), and also because flying within Germany is not real You save a lot of time.

This leaves the option of renting a car and taking the train. Renting a car has several advantages:

  • You can rent some really nice cars in Germany for the same amount that you would pay for a very basic car in the US. In the last few months I have rented an S-Class Mercedes and a BMW X3 M in Germany
  • I’m not going to lie, I love driving the freeway because you can’t go 150 miles an hour often in the US
  • You have a lot more flexibility to go when you want and you can also explore your destination more easily
  • German train tickets are actually not cheap, so in many cases renting a car is no more expensive than taking a train, especially when several people are traveling and you can park for free in hotels
  • When you’re traveling with a lot of stuff, it’s a lot easier to load it into a car than lugging it to the train station at both ends of your journey
  • I’m not sure what air filtration looks like on trains, but in general I would assume that a private car offers a little more coronavirus protection than being on a train for hours, even if everyone is wearing a mask and the train isn’t full

But the train also has advantages:

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

Bottom line

Deutsche Bahn’s Intercity Express is an easy way to get around Germany. The trains are quiet, on time and have free WiFi.

I think First Class is worth the modest premium for the extra space (especially if you are traveling alone as you can get a single seat) but don’t enjoy the onboard service. In the first class there is no food and drink, only service from the dining car.

Perhaps the food and drinks were better in the pre-coronavirus era, although I personally plan to grab a snack and bring your own drinks on ICE.

How was your experience with ICE First Class?

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