Quick hit: things I've learned about German trains

On our trip to Italy in 2015, I reserved all our train tickets in advance, thinking by analogy to airline tickets and hotel rooms that I was locking in the best prices ahead of time. That turned out to be totally unnecessary, as Italian train tickets seemed to cost the same whether you book 6 months in advance or just walk up to the ticket counter on the day of travel.

Having learned from that experience, on last month's trip to Europe I didn't book any of our train tickets in advance, planning to maintain flexibility in case we wanted to spend more or less time in a particular city. That worked great until we got to Germany.

Buy at least a day in advance

Unlike the Hungarian and Slovak trains we took, the German national railway service Deutsche Bahn offers multiple fare types on many of their trains. The price differences aren't always very large, but if you don't know about them you might find yourself overpaying. Here are the fare options for a non-stop train from Vienna to Berlin:

Here's the train we actually took from Vienna to Regensburg to visit my partner's relatives in Bavaria:

And here's the train we took from Schwandorf to Berlin:

While the fares are reasonably close, the fixed-date and fixed-routing tickets purchased in advance would save 36.50 Euro per ticket on our routing, or 28.50 Euro per ticket on the nonstop routing.

So if it's at all possible, buy German Deutsche Bahn train tickets in advance!

Reserved seats

Like coach class tickets on Amtrak, second class tickets on Deutsche Bahn do not come with assigned seats. However, for an extremely modest charge (4.50 Euro on a sample trip), you can request a reserved seat.

You can decide whether or not this is confusing (we were extremely confused), but reserved seats on Deutsche Bahn trains are indicated by a pair of cities listed above each pair of seats. For example, seat 65 on this train is reserved by someone boarding in Leipzig and leaving the train in Hamburg:

In other words, if you are departing the train before Leipzig, or boarding after Hamburg, you're free to sit there. If you are sitting there between Leipzig and Hamburg, you'll have an irate German standing by your seat angrily gesturing at his ticket and at the digital panel above your seat.

Quick hits: Turkish Airlines, IST, Budapest

Hello from the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel in Bratislava!

It's been a hectic few days, so I'm taking it slow today and thought I'd check in with some thoughts on the first leg of our trip.

Turkish Airlines is very nice

Thursday night, I flew from Chicago to Istanbul on TK6 in the economy cabin. The seats were pretty comfortable but there was not quite enough legroom for me to ever get comfortable enough to sleep for more than a few minutes. Next time: business class (famous last words).

Fortunately, there was a wide selection of movies available on the large seat-back screens, so I got caught up on some movies I'd missed this year. I particularly enjoyed this bizarre Indian television show "Great World Hotels," which follows sultry hostess Elisha Kriis as she coos over fresh fruit and in-room swimming pools at Amansara.

I also enjoyed watching our tiny Turkish flight attendants free-pour cocktails from novelty over-sized bottles of liquor.

Istanbul is a pretty easy place to connect internationally

It's become fashionable in certain circles to lament that US airports are collapsing into rubble around us while international airports are sleek hyper-modern affairs. Not Istanbul!

Istanbul Ataturk Airport still features the teeming mass of humanity and rundown facilities that makes you proud to be an American. I don't think I've ever seen an airport with more toilet facilities, or an airport where such a high percentage of the facilities were closed for "cleaning." It's also been a long time since I've seen someone casually smoking a cigarette in a public restroom!

Travel is fatal to prejudice, as people are fond of remarking in their social media profiles.

Anyway, connecting in Istanbul to our Budapest flight was a cinch, although a mobility-impaired person might struggle with the long walk between gates, and our bags were checked all the way through to Budapest without issue.

Budapest is lovely, and cheap

I had a three-night reservation at the Radisson Blu Hotel Beke, which is a fairly basic business hotel, and like all Club Carlson properties featured a range of confusing amenities:

  • Treadmills and other workout equipment were placed poolside in the basement athletic center;
  • The health center prominently advertised massages, but when I inquired about a massage with the attendant, he explained that his colleague used to provide the massages, but he doesn't work there anymore;
  • Our room featured a real king-size bed, but with two twin comforters;
  • When our room was made up, the housekeeper didn't replace the coffee — but did artfully rearrange the empty plastic packets we'd already used.

We spent a few days exploring Budapest, and visited the Széchenyi bathing complex, which was a very interesting experience. I've never seen so many pools with such slight differences in temperature before. Pro tip: either bring your own towel, or bring cash to rent one. You'll pay 3,000 Hungarian forints and receive a towel, then get 2,000 forints back once you return it.

Speaking of forints, Hungary still hasn't adopted the Euro, and at this rate it seems unlikely to ever do so, making visiting Budapest ludicrously cheap. Over 3 days in the city, I spent $308 total, including our pre-arranged (i.e., overpriced) cab to the hotel, train tickets to Bratislava, and some pretty thorough minibar-raiding at the hotel, and I don't think I could have spent any more money if I were trying to.

That's it for now; I'm off to see what I can see in Bratislava!

Portland is a city where young people go to retire

I go to Portland, Oregon, three or four times a year. I think it's a little slice of paradise, so I thought I'd share some of the things that make it so special for me.

How to get there

  • Amtrak. Take the Empire Builder west from Chicago or the Coast Starlight north from Los Angeles. The first costs 40,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points in a bedroom (or family bedroom), and the second costs 25,000 points in a bedroom until January 24, 2016. A single redemption includes tickets for up to the maximum occupancy of the room, e.g. 2 adults and 2 children in a family bedroom.
  • Portland International Airport. PDX has flights operated by the big 3 US carriers and Alaska Airlines, as well as Southwest. From PDX the MAX light rail will take you downtown in about 40 minutes for just $2.50 ($5 for a day pass).

Where to stay

  • Downtown. I usually stay at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower (30,000 HHonors points November-March, 40,000 HHonors points April-October), although they sometimes play games with award availability. If you're a Gold or Diamond HHonors member, you can use your continental breakfast voucher for about $12 off anything on the breakfast menu, which I recommend since the continental breakfast is terrible. If you have Starwood Preferred Guest points, The Nines is a very fine hotel, and Urban Farmer is one of the best restaurants in Portland, located on the 8th floor of The Nines. Other than that, Marriott dominates the downtown hotel scene, and their properties are overpriced, unless you're able to get an especially good deal using Priceline.
  • AirBNB. AirBNB offers two advantages over staying at hotels: you'll often pay much less than you would staying at a downtown hotel, and you can stay in the neighborhoods, which are one of the things that make Portland so great. Three fantastic neighborhoods to check out are Northeast Alberta, between perhaps 9th and 33rd Streets; Southeast Hawthorne almost anywhere East of Grand St; and North of Burnside in the Pearl District or what's charmingly called "Nob Hill."

What to do

  • The 4T Trail. Do a loop around Portland taking the MAX light rail train, the trails between the Portland Zoo and the Oregon Health & Science University, the aerial tram down to the river and the Portland Streetcar Trolley back downtown. You can do the loop in either direction, but the aerial tram is only free going downhill. Warning: bring a printout of the trail segment, or you might get very, very lost (not that I'm speaking from experience or anything).
  • ZooLights. Speaking of the Portland Zoo, every winter the Zoo is open late and lit up with holiday lights. Fun for all ages.
  • Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade. Classic arcade games from your youth and your parents' youth, plus new additions like Killer Queen, the world's first 10-player arcade game. There's a huge selection of classic and new pinball games, as well.
  • Dante's Sinferno Caberet. Sundays at 11 pm until the wee hours of the morning, a mixture of nudity, profanity, and feats of strength. The pizza joint in the corner is now operated by Lonesome's Pizza, which is excellent.
  • Clinton Street Theater's Rocky Horror Picture Show. One of the longest-running screenings in the country, doors open at 11:30 pm on Saturday nights.
  • Laurelhurst Theater and Pub. $3-4 second run movies and classics, cheap beer and great pizza. Each seat has bar space to place your pitchers, pizzas, and salads, so you don't have to juggle your dishes.
  • Look for inspiration. Part of what makes Portland so magical is that you don't need a plan to have a good time. You can walk around, make friends, check out the local alternative weekly, and wait for inspiration to strike.

Where to eat

  • Pine State Biscuits. Three locations, always lines at all 3, but always worth the wait. Go at weird times for shorter waits, go during brunch for hour-plus waits.
  • Pacific Pie Co. Two locations. Great meat and vegetarian savory pies, sweet pies, and craft beer. Save money by going during happy hour, Monday-Friday 3-6 pm.
  • Bunk Sandwiches. Five locations. The Marinated Garbonzo Beans sandwich at Bunk Downtown is way, way spicier than it has any right to be.
  • Food carts. Portland food carts are clustered into groups called "pods." Make a food cart pod the beginning or end of a walk around town and you're guaranteed to find something delicious.
  • Anywhere. Portland bars are generally required to serve hot food, and it tends to be fantastic, or at least greasy, which can be almost the same thing.

Where to drink

  • Distillery Row. Portland's craft distilleries are clustered in Southeast Portland. Visit any one to try a flight of craft liquors, or buy a Passport and drink many flights of craft liquors.
  • Swift Lounge. Craft cocktails served in large or very-large mason jars. Great food.
  • Binks. Great cocktails made with house-infused spirits.
  • Ash Street Saloon. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
  • Craft breweries and brewpubs. There are a lot of them, including nationally known breweries and brewpubs like Widmer Brothers, Hopworks Urban Brewery, Full Sail, and Deschutes.

Conclusion

Remember, the dream of the 90's is alive in Portland.