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In 28 years of travel to Germany, Austria and Switzerland to do research for my subscription travel newsletter, my wife, Liz, and I made a few bad choices. But one last-minute decision—checking two pieces of luggage on a December 1997 rail trip from St. Gallen, Switzerland, to Prague— stands above the rest.

It was to be a long trip, with a change in Munich, and we didn’t want to wrestle the bags. Entering the St. Gallen rail station that morning, we joined a line that included mostly air travelers checking bags for Swissair flights out of Zürich. After examining our passports and tickets, the Swiss Rail bag checker had us complete some paperwork (here we should have heard the warning sirens) and pay about $28 (more sirens). Assuming this was essentially the same transaction as checking luggage on an airline, we were surprised at the charge—checked baggage was free on airplanes in those days—but we paid the fee and kissed our gear goodbye.

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