But just how big a bargain can it really be - and is it feasible to make it there and back in a day for less than the price of a mid-range ticket in the Premier League?
I headed to the match between Cologne and Mainz on Saturday, November 21 to investigate. Here is my day...
0700 GMT: Check-in, Stansted Airport. A snake of bleary-eyed passengers beep through security. Maybe it’s too early for fans to show their colours, but I ought not to be alone: Cologne even have an unofficial English fan club. Its organiser Brian Shotton says: “I usually get to more than 14 games each season. I tried it once and fell in love with it. The whole experience is so much more geared to the supporter than anywhere else.”
0740 GMT: Boarding. Flight FR2814 struggles up out of a Stansted snow-storm, a bargain at £30.99 return. Admittedly, it is far from an exact science: identical return flights to Cologne’s next home game against Augsburg a fortnight later cost almost £100 more. Still, hunting down the real bargains in the wildly fluctuating world of budget airlines is surely half the fun.
0905 GMT: Land under a bright sky at Koln-Bonn Airport. With no bags, I whisk straight out through security and out to the adjacent railway station. There’s still five-and-a-half hours to kick-off. I’m in Bundesliga-land before most supporters back home will have got out of bed.
0930 GMT: Train to city centre. Here’s another bargain of the Bundesliga experience: the match ticket - of which more later - permits free travel on all local transport pre- and post-match. A similar initiative is rolled out across most top-flight German clubs. “It’s win-win for both sides,” a Cologne club spokesman explains. “We make it easier for our fans to get to the match, and the local authority ensures a greater proportion of supporters will travel by train.” Imagine London clubs lobbing out free tickets to the Circle Line: unlikely to happen any time soon.
1000 GMT: Tourist time. Cologne is a beautiful city, split by the imposing Rhine River and nestled beneath the mighty Kolner Dom. Who I am kidding? Fully committed to relaying a wholly authentic representation of what it means to be a football supporter in Germany, I follow the purposeful stride of a bunch of away fans through the crowds, and am swept through an unimposing black door. It could be...
1010 GMT: ... a bierkeller, of course. Its slim frontage gives way to a cavernous array of rooms, covering at least three downward storeys, all packed with home and away fans in equal measure. They clink frothing pint glasses and sporadically burst into song. Waiters scuttle between tables juggling plates of bockwurst and sauerkraut. Save lederhosen and an oompah-band, you could hardly get more stereotyped if you tried. In the finest tradition of investigative journalism, a pint - costing barely more than a euro - is swiftly imbibed. And another, just to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke.
1130 GMT: Outside the city’s main railway station, supporters congregate around crates of beer, clearly shipping in specially for the matchday occasion, and swig happily while police keep a relaxed distance - their presence seemingly more related to the recent, heightened terrorism threat than any hint of trouble. At around midday, an exodus of scarved supporters back to the S-Bahn prompts me to follow suit.
1215 GMT: After another free train trip, I trace the steps of the majority of my fellow passengers and exit into what looks like a suburban housing estate. During the saunter to the stadium, most fans pause to buy bottles of alcohol from street corner kiosk. No alcohol restrictions here. After a half-hour walk, the muscular architecture of the RheinEnergie Stadion looms.
1330 GMT: A further indication of the Bundesliga’s relaxed attitude to alcohol is the line of trolleys placed around the stadium’s perimeter for fans to dispose of any empty bottles of booze they brought with them. Two hours from kick-off, the area around the stadium is lively with souvenir tents and - inevitably - bockwurst stalls. Woolly club hats start at around five euros. It would be rude not to. By this stage, I almost feel like a local.
1430 GMT: Into the stadium. My ticket cost 29 euros - effectively the cheapest available to non-members, as the 16 euro standing tickets are all bought up in advance. The comparisons are favourable: The GoEuro Football Price Index ranks the Bundesliga the best value league in Europe; Cologne’s cheapest season ticket - at 165 euros - does not cost a whole lot more than the most expensive individual match ticket at Arsenal. That fans get such a good deal is rooted in the Bundesliga’s “50+1” by-law which guarantees club members own the majority of the club - unless a single company’s support stretches over 20 years. A Bundesliga spokesperson tells me: “It is something that is rooted in the whole league and the whole of German football - the ticket prices, the standing terraces. The fans themselves decide how much they should be charged, so they ensure they can get good value.”
1500 GMT: A simple scan through the turnstile and it’s time to check out the refreshment hut. Beer and bockwurst comes in at round about a fiver. I’ve reached my Bundesliga seat for the grand total of £55.99 - bierkeller not included.
1530 GMT: Kick-off. As you would expect for the cheapest seat, I’m sat in a corner, directly adjacent to the away supporters. But it’s a fine, unimpeded view. The stadium is almost full, which is impressive for what is ostensibly a mid-table affair. Both standing areas - particularly the home section behind the far goal - is packed with flags and banners, and the noise reaches an impressive crescendo as the teams reach the pitch. Frankly, it’s an atmosphere which puts the majority of the Premier League to shame.
1615 GMT: Half-time. 0-0. Critics might claim this is where the Bundesliga model falls flat: fan-owned inevitably means no Lionel Messi’s of this world are likely to drop in any time soon, and one might say it shows. The game is nothing special, by any standards. But the liberal flow of booze - Bundesliga fans can drink beer in their seats, as opposed to the Premier League, in which it is banned within sight of the pitch - eases frustrations.
1715 GMT: Full-time, 0-0. Okay, so my luck ran out after the flight price. But it should be pointed out that five other Bundesliga games played that day summoned 21 goals between them. So the low-key affair at Cologne can hardly be taken as representative.
1900 GMT: Inadvertently, of course, I find myself swept back to the bierkeller, where I perch opposite a pair of fans tucking into plates of cold black pudding and raw onions. I neglect to garner their opinion on the day’s events. Their hungry smiles say it all.
2100 GMT: Back to the airport - for free, of course. Just time to pop in to duty free for a box of marzipan chocolates before the 2140 flight back to Stansted.
2210 GMT: My 15-hour, Bundesliga day trip comes to an end as I touch back down in Stansted, any tiredness mitigated by a comfy bobble hat and the aforementioned box of marzipan chocolates. The whole day - that is, travel, match ticket and the survey staple of the matchday pie and pint - totalled £55.99. There are any number of comparisons one could make, but perhaps the most pertinent is that the whole experience cost just over twenty quid more than the average price of this season’s cheapest matchday ticket in the Premier League. It’s not hard to see why so many UK-based fans make the Bundesliga pilgrimage on a monthly or even merely annual basis. And just how much English clubs could learn from a culture in which giving fans value for money is no mere tired cliche, but a commitment protected within its constitution.