(CNN) — Walking from Brühl's town center to the train station, I passed a UNESCO World Heritage site. The 18th-century Augustusburg Palace -- one of Germany's earliest examples of Rococo architecture -- draws visitors from all over the world. Brühl itself, 11 miles south of Cologne, has a pretty pedestrianized main street, acres of parkland and the Max Ernst Museum -- the artist was born here.
I never meant to go to Brühl. I hadn't even meant to do any sightseeing in Germany. I had an overnight connecting flight through Düsseldorf and planned to get some work done at my hotel, and then walk around the city.
But then, on the advice of a member of staff at Düsseldorf airport, I changed my mind. I was about to buy a train ticket into the city -- 3 euros -- when he suggested I get the 9 euro (about $9) option. "You could go somewhere," he said.
The writer went on a whim to the Augustusburg castle in Brühl.
Rick Neves/Adobe Stock
So I bought it, dropped my belongings at my hotel, and went straight back to the train station. The plan was to go to Cologne, just to see its cathedral -- because why not, when it's free? But then I remembered that almost 100 years ago, my family had lived nearby, in Brühl. So after half an hour on the train, instead walking out of the station at Cologne, I changed platforms and got on another. About 15 minutes later, I was in Brühl. It was a completely spontaneous trip that allowed me to see my family's old home.
A Düsseldorf to Brühl trip would have cost 9 euros one way -- for that price I got a return trip and two airport runs, instead of the "real" total of 24 euros. But this wasn't just about saving 15 euros -- for me, the 9 euro ticket gave me an idea of what Germany had to offer. Even in less than a day. I'm now looking forward to going back. One Rococo palace isn't enough.
I'm not the only one. Germany's decision this summer to offer unlimited regional travel for 9 euros per month -- which comes to an end a week from today, on August 31 -- has been a barnstorming success.
Nearly 60 million tickets had been sold by the beginning of August, according to VDV, the Association of German Transporters -- in other words, covering June and July.
That includes 10 million subscribers per month, who automatically received the ticket, 21 million tickets for June and 17 million for July.
UK travel blogger Alexei Gaynanov had already planned an 11-day trip to Germany when the 9 euro ticket was announced. He'd bought an Interrail card, allowing for unlimited train travel -- but says the 9 euro ticket "opened up the rest of the network for us -- the subway, trams and buses.
"That made it very easy to get around and took away any stress of figuring out what ticket to get. It saved us a lot of money even in the 11 days we spent in the country," he says.
Better air quality
Air quality in Germany improved by 6% while the 9 euro ticket was on sale.
Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images
And it hasn't just resulted in happy customers. A study of air quality over the summer for the University of Potsdam's Center for Economic Policy Analysis showed a "substantial fall in the air quality index of more than 6%."
Author Niklas Gohl told CNN that the effect was "most pronounced in urban agglomerations and areas with a strong public transport network." And he said it bodes well for the future.
"Our paper documents that a public transport subsidy such as the 9 euro ticket, at least in the short run, has the potential to promote more sustainable means of transportation and reduce air pollution."
The project ends at the end of the month, but it has sparked a move for more affordable, and greener, public transport. From September until the end of the year, much of Spain's regional train travel will be completely free.
And Germany itself -- having seen its predictions of 30 million tickets sold per month -- is now mulling a 69 euro-a-month ticket.
The ticket was heavily subsidized, but another unlimited travel ticket, costing more, is an option.
Arne Dedert/dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images
That would be equivalent to 824 euros per year -- less than the 1,095-euro annual Klimatiket in Austria, which allows public transport for a year.
Oliver Wolff, VDV's CEO, says that the "momentum" of the 9 euro ticket has "created a situation that we can no longer go back on."
He wrote in a statement that the 9 euro price was only ever affordable for three months, and suggested a new monthly ticket be introduced for 69 euros.
"The market research commissioned by the government... and other findings paint a clear picture of the possibilities and limitations of a nationwide public transport climate ticket as a connection solution," he said.
"We propose a nationwide ÖPNV-Klimaticket (public transport climate ticket) for 69 euros per month as a one-way second-class travel entitlement."
A spokesperson for the German Ministry for Digital and Transport told CNN that the ticket was a "relief measure" to deal with the rise in energy and fuel prices. "The coalition must decide to what extent such relief measures are now to be continued. The question of financing will be crucial," they said.
They added that Volker Wissing, federal minister for digital and transport, set up a working group when he took office in December 2021 "to work together for an expansion and modernization pact that will be discussed by the transport ministers' conference in the autumn.
"This gives us the opportunity to make public transport much more convenient and attractive for all citizens," they said.
Niklas Gohl, author of the air pollution paper, says that in the long term, the extent of the subsidy would have to be calculated.
Packed trains, but fewer tourists
Trains were often crowded as people rushed to enjoy close-to-free transport.
Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images
The 9 euro ticket hasn't always been fun. Travelers have complained of packed trains at peak times, and Gaynanov saw this a lot. "The transport network wasn't able to cope with the demand in what is already a busy summer period," he says.
"Every train we took was busy but popular day trip destinations had trains that were almost completely full, with no seats available.
"We literally couldn't board one train -- it was one where the first four carriages go to one place and the last four to another. We had to get on a carriage that wasn't full and change our destination as a result."
"Many services across the DB network were running with delays due to shortage of staff. The solution for me would be to have something similar but possibly outside the busy summer months."
Even I had a taster, on my one day of using it. Connecting via Cologne on my way back from Brühl at rush hour, there were two security guards at the top of the stairs to the platform advising people where to stand. The train was so packed that some passengers, unable to stand, sat in first class.
Whether these extra travelers were locals, domestic sightseers or international visitors attracted by cheap public transport in a summer where air chaos reigns and car hire prices are sky high, has yet to be seen.
Figures released in August by Germany's Federal Statistics Office, Destatis, showed that overnight stays in Germany increased by 60% in June 2022, compared to the previous year. However that figure includes domestic tourists -- an analysis of foreign visitors won't be available until December -- and booking sites for foreigners tell a slightly different story. Trips to Germany on both Lastminute.com and Germany specialist Enchanting Travels were down 25% this summer compared to 2019.
"While there's still a hangover from Covid-19, demand is certainly developing," said Parik Laxminarayan, CEO of Enchanting Travels and USTO, who predicts that 2023 will see "equal to or higher" numbers than 2019.
"While measures such as the 9 euro ticket have undoubtedly led to an increase in domestic travel within Germany, it hasn't had an effect on our business. A low-cost ticket for public transport can be great for locals, but it isn't a selling point for a US guest buying a tailor-made trip to Europe," he said.
Wherever those extra visitors were coming from, Wolff says that upping the price to 69 euro is the golden ratio -- affordable enough to persuade drivers out of their cars, but not so cheap that millions of randoms (like me) clog up trains with spur-of-the-minute trips. That scheme would cost around 2 billion euros, he says.
The Falkenlust castle in Brühl was an unexpected delight for CNN's writer.
Boris Breytman/Adobe Stock
And although he was hoping the new scheme could be in place for September 1, when the current one finishes, so far here's been nothing announced -- and a spokesperson for VDV said there's no longer time to implement a new ticket in time for September.
On August 2, the government called for proposals to make local transport more joined up. And one week before the 9 euro ticket's demise, there's been a new environmentally friendly announcement of hydrogen-powered trains for a 60-mile track in Lower Saxony.
So will Germany join Austria and introduce a Klimatiket? So far, there's no confirmation.
But with the climate crisis getting increasingly intense, and Europe rivers drying up this summer, the success of the 9 euro ticket will undoubtedly be at the front of politicians' minds this fall.