Going on bike trips around Bonn is not so much fun. The roads near the Rhine river are too small for pedestrians and cyclists going both ways. In the city the bike infrastructure feels like a timid afterthought. During a vacation to Zeeland in the Netherlands a couple of years ago we had amazing bike trips. At some point I wanted to do a longer bike trip in the Netherlands, and I just did the first one of them in the region of Utrecht and Holland. I took my bike in the train to Utrecht, rode it from city to city and took it back home in the train from Rotterdam.
You can jump to any part of the trip with the table of contents. The following map shows my general route:
The numbers indicate the days of the trip. The red markers are trips to and from a city, the orange ones are day trips on which I returned to the same hostel for a second night. I have linked the GPS recordings on Strava within the text.
Booking the train
Getting an international train ticket with Deutsche Bahn is not hard in general, one can just book online on their website. I read about complications when traveling with a bike. Though I could add a bike to the search and found connections, I could not book the bike ticket. The error page informed me that it would not be possible if part of the journey would be outside of Germany or there was no more space for bike left. I had to either book it via telephone or at the travel agency at the station.
Taking my headset out of the drawer in the expectation of a long call, I dialed their number and navigated through their automated system until I talked to a person. From the website I already knew the exact connection that I wanted to get, it was only a matter of transmitting all my billing details through the phone to the agent. After around fifteen minutes into the call it just dropped. I don't know whether it was their fault or my cell phone signal, but I then tried again.
One cannot skip their voice menu by entering the digits at the beginning, it only saved half a minute. The next agent researched my journey and started typing my details into their system. I got to choose a PIN such that for future bookings I just had to give the name and my number. Once she had all the details, she put me into the waiting loop while she prepared the booking. After a few minutes a different agent greeted me and there was a bit of confusion on what had happened. I was happy that I have agreed to record the call for training purposes, maybe they will find the issue in their system.
The third agent was able to pick up my details using the PIN but could not see anything booked. We went through the exact details of the trip again and then I got everything booked. The interesting thing is that in Germany you have to reserve a bike space on an IC train. In the Netherlands you cannot reserve, just bring your bike and see whether it fits. The later is done in Germany for regional trains. Are the Dutch just less organized or do they just have more bike space in their trains?
My tickets could not be sent to me via email, I had to print them out at a ticket machine. For a service surcharge I could have had them mailed to me. The telephone agent told me that I just had to enter my credit card into the machine and could print all tickets. This sounded like a decent option, so I took it.
Days later at the station it turned out that my card could not be read by the machine. In the travel agency at the main station they managed to give me my tickets. I had a plethora of papers then:
- Ticket from Bonn to Utrecht
- Seat reservation from Bonn to Düsseldorf
- International bike ticket from Bonn to Utrecht
- QR code to leave a Dutch train station
- Another QR code
- Ticket from Rotterdam to Bonn
- Seat reservation from Düsseldorf to Bonn
- International bike ticket from Rotterdam to Bonn
- Another QR code
- And one more QR code
- Receipt for the credit card payment
- Handwritten note with the booking number
At that point I could not bend my wallet easily any more.
Train ride to Utrecht
I have had very mixed experiences with Deutsche Bahn. Some trips were really smooth, others were pretty rough. This one started with the announcement of delays even before I left my home. I can recommend their mobile application for tracking your journey. It turned out to be five minutes delay at departure in Bonn and ten minutes at arrival in Düsseldorf.
At the train station I needed to take the elevator for the first time as far as I can remember. Taking the one down was fine with the bike, it was a perfect fit. Taking the second elevator up was a problem: it was too small for the bike. So I ended up holding the bike vertically in the elevator.
The order of the train cars was reversed, yet car number 5 was not between cars 6 and 4. Of course I had my seat an bike reservation in exactly that one. So all I could do is to stand near the doors in the hallway. When we were close to Düsseldorf, one employee asked if I was getting off the train soon and did not even ask for my ticket. When I asked where car number 5 was, he told me that it should be the next one. He told me to not make him nervous and he would check later. He wasn't informed that it is missing, so it likely is between cars 6 and 7. From other travelers that I met in Venlo I learned that car 5 was at the very end of the train. This would have not been possible to find out when I boarded the train. Calling the Deutsche Bahn hotline later gave me a 5 EUR coupon for my next journey. This way I would not have to pay for a then useless reservation at least; though I have to use it within a year, otherwise it will be void.
The elevators in Düsseldorf were also too small, but now I have a technique: push the bike in in reverse, hold the rear wheel with your foot and raise the front wheel and rest it next to the elevator wall. This way it does not fall over and you do not block the door. I later discovered that my rear mudguard has broken. So the first attempts to put the bike into the elevator with the baggage loaded on it damaged it such that I need to replace it. This is unfortunate and just makes the elevator situation even worse.
The 10 minute delay in the arrival at Düsseldorf was compensated by a delay in the departure with the connecting train from Düsseldorf to Venlo. It was announced being 10 minutes, then 15, then 20, then again 15.
In order to get some more of the unexpected into the trip, there was a change in platforms. The train changed from platform 4 to 6, these are not adjacent. I thought about taking the elevator down but several families with perambulators were faster. Since the elevatorss are agonizing slow I just decided to take the stairs. With all the baggage on the bike this was not much fun. To make things worse the elevator back up to platform 6 was out of order, so I carried the bike back up.
The train itself was a short train, and the bike area was of course quickly filled with people without bikes. I friendly asked the people to vacate and make room for the bikes. Reluctantly they moved, which was better than usual. Apparently there was a soccer game on this day such that the train was rather crowded.
When we arrived at Venlo, the last station of the train, the whole platform was already full of people. Other passengers and I were joking about the people who will likely not wait until everyone got off the train. I was the last one to get out of the train and there was a very narrow channel of impatient people to get through. My handlebars were wider than this gap, so I had to stop every step and ask people to step away. Once the rear of my bike had cleared the doors, people began moving into the car. I almost got pushed over by the crowd. I screamed "Hey!" and the pressure eased a bit so I could find my balance again. From there on I went with a wider stance and started to just pushing people away to make room for myself.
At Venlo I needed to take the elevator to get to another platform. And they were large enough to easily fit the bike. I guess the engineers have just tested it with a bike whereas in Germany bikes are an afterthought in the railway system. Take for instance the ICE trains where only the fourth generation has some bike storage.
While going to the next platform I picked up a US-American business traveler who was asking for the train to Utrecht. He just joined me and we chatted for a while. Interestingly he told me that I had a really clear English. I bet if you ask somebody from the West Coast or Britain they would call out a county accent.
The train ride to Utrecht was in a train called IC but it was very similar to German RE trains. There was enough space for the bikes. Compared to German IC and RE this train was rather old and did not look very clean. However it was the only train on time that day. And if you wanted to know, their toilet dumps onto the tracks.
Segments of the journey
Because there are so many parts, I have detached the parts about the individual cities into their own blog posts. You can find them all here:
And then you can read the conclusion of the trip.