You have the wrong BahnCard — that’ll be 75 euros!

Ron Selge didn’t have the right combination of train ticket and membership card on his recent trip to Germany. A conductor demanded an extra 75 euros, which he believes is punitive. Can I get a refund for this fare snafu?

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This is one of those cases where language, geography and time add an extra challenge to figuring out what happened. Maybe you can help me sort it out.

“This summer, we toured Europe for nine weeks on our self-arranged itinerary,” he says. “Our only snafu was a DB (Deutsche Bahn) train segment. When the conductor asked for BahnCard, we handed them the bank card used for the purchase, as other transportation companies often required this type of I.D. No go.”

The conductor said it wasn’t enough and demanded Selge’s group pay 75 euros for the correct card.

The BahnCard is a card that essentially entitles you to discounts. In other words, Selge had purchased a discounted ticket without validating it through the purchase of yet another card.

The circumstances surrounding this one are noteworthy. The rail operator’s website wouldn’t sell Selge six tickets at a time. Instead, he had to finish the transaction by phone, and they mailed the tickets to him.

“That put us at the mercy of the company representative to do it correctly,” he says.

I’ve seen Americans get tripped up by this on a German train, and it’s extremely frustrating. I can still remember the expression on a colleague’s face when she was told her fare had almost doubled because she didn’t have the right card.

But the BahnCard is particularly problematic for American visitors because it automatically renews. So, if you’re just visiting for the summer, you might find yourself paying even more than you thought.

Selge has tried all the steps. He sent an email to Deutsche Bahn (DB), the German rail operator, but it was returned because it exceeded the allowed file size. That’s annoying.

He notes that the DB confirmation is entirely in German, which he could not understand even with a year of college German. I wonder what language he was expecting a German ticket to be in? (But if it’s any consolation, I grew up in Austria, and I know native speakers who would probably have some trouble deciphering the Teutonic legalese. So Selge shouldn’t feel disadvantaged.)

The trick, of course, is proving that Selge wasn’t properly notified of the BahnCard requirement before he departed.

A better question is: Should DB sell these kinds of tickets to Americans? I mean, surely they know that people will not be able to read or understand their fine print. A conductor will almost surely stop them and demand more money. I’ve seen it myself.

This could shape up to be one of those classic confrontations between the “rules-are-rules” readers who will say:

✓ He should have read the terms and conditions.
✓ He should have used a travel agent.
✓ He should have read his confirmation.

And between the true blue advocates who will say:

✓ DB is using fine print to make more money.
✓ DB is preying on Americans who just don’t know any better.
✓ DB is ignoring legitimate complaints with a file-size limit on emails.

Well, you know which way my windmill tilts, don’t you? I think this is awful for someone like Selge, who faced an unexpected 75 euro surcharge.

Was the fee legit? I know it was. Is DB playing honest? Look, any time a company offers special membership cards instead of charging simple, easy-to-understand prices, I get suspicious. No one should have to spend more to save. If you think that’s a legitimate business practice, maybe you’re reading the wrong site.

Should I advocate for Ron Selge?

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42 thoughts on “You have the wrong BahnCard — that’ll be 75 euros!

  1. First of all, was it a travel agent who sold the tickets or not? Often, tickets are sold by another company in North America. Secondly, what is the amount of saving that this card would give him? If buying the card will give him retroactively the savings, it is the better deal.
    I’m thinking he got off light with only 75 euros.

    I’d say he is not entitled to it back.
    Disclosure: I don’t even have high school German and have purchased tickets to travel by rail in Germany many times. I know to watch for the discounts I do NOT qualify for.

  2. Having lived in Germany for a total of 11 years, it can be confusing to determine how these cards work – especially if you don’t know German.

    Based on my experience, German companies are not known for customer service and can be extremely frustrating to deal with. It would be interesting to see if Chris could successfully advocate this case.

    1. Translation sites don’t work perfectly. As a freelance editor, I have had to do major editing of manuscripts where the author “translated” the work from a foreign language into very imperfect English. And this is not a good option on the go.

  3. A lot of interesting issues in a good case. From the top… Selge is right in stating the 75€ charge was punitive. That is exactly what it was, a punishment for breaking the rules. Now, the question is can and should you help him.

    First off, throw out all the language issues. When you travel to a foreign country you are responsible for communicating to the residents, not the other way around.

    Next, I would strongly object to any country treating Americans differently than other foreigners. Really, are Americans that stupid?

    And, to understand Germany, you have to understand “order.” Germans are very orderly, everything in the right place at the right time. Order is commonly enforced by law (and not, as is commonly assumed, the other way around). Selge was simply out of order.

    Lastly, did he try reducing the image size he sent DB? It seems he just dropped that one when he tripped on the first hurdle. He should shrink and retry, and keep doing that until it gets through (Shrink = lower jpg quality and smaller image size.)

    So, the key question: Should Chris advocate. I’d say yes, after Sledge retries his email). Why. To get the details on why this failed and learn how others can avoid the mistake. I am not sure he will get any money, but really, it wasn’t much, 75 divided by how many people?

    Los Chris, du hast ‘was zu tun.

    1. It is not clear what card he purchased. But, most train cards offer something to make life easier or less expensive. Like a all day tram pass, or the Eurail Pass. This “BahnKarte” sounds like a single pass for travel anywhere on Germany, maybe for some age group, like seniors. These can be good deals or not depending on your travel needs. Since we do not know which card Selge bought it is hard to know what he was missing.

      While I am in favor of advocating this case, I also seriously doubt the DB is running a scam with the cards or their email server. In fact, most countries with good rail systems offer a range of discount options and they are usually quite confusing.

      1. It does not appear he purchased ANY Bahn Card.
        “When the conductor asked for BahnCard, we handed them the bank card used for the purchase”

        IF he would have had any Bahn Card, why would he play dumb and present his BANK Card?

          1. Hearing a German say these two words:

            Bahn
            Bahnk

            Easily discernible even for an American. 🙂

            IF someone took any German lessons, one of the first words learned is the German word for Bank, which is — Bank! (Which is also the German word for bench, but that’s another topic …)

            Putting “Card” after the first word does not confuse the sound of the two separate words. Germans say each letter of words very distinctly.

          2. Yet I remember from my first foreign trip many years ago that one year of high school French did not prevent me from an embaraassing mishearing of “cinq” for “cent.”

        1. Agreed. On first read I was being generous to the LW, probably too much so. It now appears the situation is exactly as you describe, and there is no damage at all, other than a slightly embarrassed LW who is out the cost of a German breakfast.

    2. 75€ for six people — only 15€ a piece –does not seem that punitive. It looks like the difference in fares.

  4. Yes, the 75€ was absolutely punitive. That said, it *looks* to me that the Bahn Card is for frequent travelers. Why you’d need one for a summer vacation escapes me a bit. But I don’t pretend to know…last time I rode the DB was in the early 1990s when there was no bahn card and you bought your ticket at the counter from an agent who could speak English. I’m not sure the DB will cooperate. They will likely say “Nein” and that’ll be that.

  5. I”m not sure how DB would be able to single out Americans for selling these tickets to? And if they did, would there be complaints about preventing folks from purchasing?

    The first step seems to ask Selge to resend an email. Why was there a file size problem? How about a simple text email?

    Sounds like a frustrating situation in which he ran afoul but I’m not sure where DB was being unfair to him.

    1. bahn.de has a pulldown menu for the user to indicate where they are located. USA is one of the options.

      Even without that, there are geo-IP services that can help indicate the location of someone reaching a web site.

      1. Yes. But both techniques lump all those currently in the US (Americans and non-Americans) in the same category. Hence a problem. There are ways around it but still would limit the options to consumers.

        1. Come on, even if it were technically feasible, it is an unworkable idea. I mean, the DB has to re-work their web-site just because Americans are presumed to be idiots?

          1. Richard, I think we’re in agreement. I’m arguing that there shouldn’t be a special website for Americans.

          2. Well, there is an english language website. But, that is also for non-German speakers who speak English as a 2nd language.

            What I was referring to above was a dumbed down interface and fewer options as had been proposed somewhere in the comments..

  6. I’m not sure here. On one hand, I absolutely hate pricing schemes like this one that make everything overly complicated and don’t make much sense. I’ve had more than one company try to trick me this way, but I can do math in my head faster than they expect. Here, I don’t necessarily think they were trying to trick him, but to follow the rules in place.

      1. Fixed! Remember that old E. F. Hutton TV commercial? Same thing here… “When Regina Litman talks, people listen.” 🙂

  7. Don’t waste your time on this. He paid 12.50euro extra per person. Who cares about that type of money on a European vacation for 6 people?
    He bought the wrong fare. The conductor charged him an extra fee which really was not that much. Move on.

  8. I clearly misread the article. I won’t bite on the “rules-are-rules” vs. “true blue advocate” issue, it is a , loaded statement. But, in this case, it doesn’t matter. As @tomg63:disqus points out, there was no fine, just the difference in the fare WITH BahnCard and WITHOUT BahnCard. There is no issue for Selge, he was not scammed, ripped off preyed upon or fined. There is nothing to advocate for. He just did not get the discount price he wanted because he did not buy the discount card (BahnCard) that was required for that fare. He just made a mistake, it happens to everyone.

    Now, if people think this system (of discount cards), that happens on railways all over the world, is a sales scam, c’mon just because we do not have a sophisticated rail system in the US doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to dumb their system down for us.

  9. I have traveled on the Deutsche Bahn many times since 1962 and have never had a problem. That is not to say others have not experienced problems. If you use the internet to purchase tickets on the DB website which, by the way, has an English version – http://www.bahn.com/i/view/USA/en/prices/index.shtml?dbkanal_034=1&dbkanal_001=L16_S02_D002_KSE0001_AdWInt_USA_LZ01&s_kwcid=AL!198!3!73339610124!b!!g!!german%20bahn%20train&ef_id=Vhh4cQAAAPugW-I1:20151026143947:s

    Or, if you Google Deutsche Bahn english, it comes up with its site in English. How hard is that? Failing that, use something like Google translator to translate the page(s). Failing that, you can telephone DB for help (not toll free): For questions regarding your online-ticket, please call the international phone number: +44 8718 80 80 66 (calls charged) or send an email to [email protected]. I telephoned to the above number for help with some tickets, paid for them, they were issued and e-mailed to me. Worked great! Also the cost for the phone call from here in the USA was only about three or four dollars.

    I have even purchased low fare tickets for travel between Zurich and Munich and paid less than half the normal fare; did not need a special card. There are really great deals in Spain if you purchase in advance and many other countries offer discounts, as well. You just have to read and understand what is on the website (if you use one). All the ones I have used have an English website available.
    Be a smart tourist when traveling. Take advantage of the good deals, but read and understand the rules on the companies websites before ordering.

  10. No tourist should ever buy a subscription ticket on a foreign transit system! These arrangements are subject to complex rules that, as the article states, are not easy to decipher even for speakers of the language. These deals are for locals, or at least visitors who come often enough to know the culture.

    As an exercise, go to your own city’s transit site and look through the section on discount and subscription passes. Now imagine yourself with one year of high-school English. Could you make the right purchase?

    1. last week I purchased online a day pass on our local train system. Unknown to me if you didn’t select a specific date, it defaulted to today. Next day when I presented the ticket I was told it wasn’t valid and I had to pay the onboard purchase premium. Oh well live and learn. At least I had the cash and avoided the credit card surcharge.

  11. Based on the votes here, it appears a lot of people, like me, misread the article and didn’t see what really happened. In fact, in the second paragraph, Chris wrote “… Maybe you can help me sort it out.” and the votes obviously took place before the sorting.

    However, now that this is sorted out and it appears this was just a case of the LW purchasing the wrong ticket, and having to pay the fare difference between what he paid, and proper fare. There does not appear to have been a fine, not even rudeness. There has been no evidence of any unscrupulous play on the part of DB, or intentional confusion to dupe unwary travelers.

    So, I’d really like to hear from those who voted yes, and would vote no, if they could. I’d also like to hear from those who would vote yes again, as to what they see as the problem and what Chris should be asking for?

  12. According to the article, the tickets were purchased from the “rail operator’s website” which would be DB. To get to see the Bahn Card discount prices on that web site, you have to manually select it from the “reductions” drop down menu. Accepting the default does show you whatever discount is available currently that requires no extra card. While you do not have to prove you have a Bahn Card at the time of reservation, it does state the card is required when using the tickets. A restriction is that you can only buy tickets for yourself online with the Bahn Card option which would explain why the transaction had to be completed by phone for all 6 tickets together, And the DB web site is completely in English if you select that language and even has helpful popups to describe the few German terms that do not translate. It is all very clear.

    It appears that the LW went looking for discount tickets and found the Bahn Card option and booked those. I believe the 75€ charge was simply the difference between the Bahn Card price and the lowest discount price available on that route for all 6 of the travelers. This was not a punitive fee. The punitive option would have been the 250€ fine for traveling on an invalid ticket per person, getting your ticket confiscated, and being ejected from the train at the next stop. I feel the conductor did them a favor by only upgrading their tickets to the lowest cost option they were entitled to have purchased.

    DB could do better by requiring proof of a Bahn Card before allowing the purchase of tickets at that rate. Simply assuming the purchaser will have one when traveling is a hole in the process that needs to be plugged. Regardless, I do not feel the LW should get anything back for this issue.

    1. Similarly, I have a “Carte Senior” (Senior discount card) on the French SNCF. Like on the DB, anyone can buy Senior tariff tickets online, but you have to show the card to the conductors when they validate your ticket.

      There is a fundamental difference between European cultures and the US culture. In Europe there is a far (far, far) greater assumption of individual responsibility. Based on that assumption, all kinds of social systems can be made to operate with greater simplicity – like assuming the user will buy the right ticket and the system does not have to check it. That is the way it has been. Maybe now as the world becomes increasingly automated, some of those controls will creep in… but I wouldn’t hold my breath — I think people here like the freedom and would not be too please to see their lives become more controlled.

    2. It seems pretty backward that they don’t require that you have the card when you make the discounted purchase. They may want to look into changing that. What’s so hard about that anyway? Just get the card, put the number in on the website, and it’ll get validated when you try to purchase. No card, no discount.

  13. “Look, any time a company offers special membership cards instead of charging simple, easy-to-understand prices, I get suspicious. No one should have to spend more to save. If you think that’s a legitimate business practice, maybe you’re reading the wrong site.”

    So, you don’t have a Costco, Sam’s Club, or BJ’s membership then? Or a member of a Co-Op of some sort that requires a membership fee (like REI, or any number of grocery co-op’s spread throughout the land.) While I agree DB should not actively sell those cards to one-time tourists, the concept is not that shocking.

    In any case, I don’t see the big deal. He had to pay an extra 12.50 EUR a person to get the correct ticket. It doesn’t sound like he was punished for the misunderstanding at all; that appears to me to sound like the regular price difference between the two types of tickets.

  14. This could shape up to be one of those classic confrontations between the “rules-are-rules” readers who will say:

    ✓ He should have read the terms and conditions.
    ✓ He should have used a travel agent.
    ✓ He should have read his confirmation.

    And between the (true blue advocates aka THOSE WHO BELIEVE READING DIRECTIONS IS A LAST RESORT AND SHOULD NOT APPLY TO ME) who will say:

    ✓ DB is using fine print to make more money.
    ✓ DB is preying on Americans who just don’t know any better.
    ✓ DB is ignoring legitimate complaints with a file-size limit on emails.

    Oops, I do not have my AAA number, but I want the hotel discount! make it so!
    Oops, I have never shopped at your grocery store before, but I want your valued customer discount, make it so!

    There, that is off my chest, (I hate how denigrated I feel at times for reading rules) and perhaps – possibly, there are grounds for some confusion since he was not able to finalize his tickets online and had to call in. But, is the bottom line ended up being he had to pay for a fare he was not qualified for?

  15. I don’t think it’s a good idea to buy something on the internet that arrives in a language you can’t read. It just makes no sense, because an employee can just do whatever he wants to you and you’re helpless. If you can get ALL the terms and conditions listed on a website in English and you adhere to all of them, maybe it’s a good idea to try for the discount. You’d still have to print them out, print them also in German, and take them with you to prove your point. It’s just not worth it. Pay what they charge and enjoy your trip. We travel to enjoy ourselves, not be frustrated and angry.

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