Taking the Train 101: Lesson Four -- Taking the Trains in Eastern Europe
Up to this point, this series has covered train trips, short and long, within the European Union and Switzerland. All of western Europe is now open to you by rail…but not just western Europe. Many of the former Warsaw Pact nations have extensive rail networks and passenger services as well, and are inviting western tourists to come visit by train.
In fact westerners, especially hostel-hopping youths, flock to eastern Europe by the thousands each week to visit Ljubljana, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Krakow, and just about every town and hamlet in between.
The train offers a tremendous advantage over the automobile for going to eastern Europe. The roads are not as good. Traffic laws are unevenly enforced. Traffic in the cities is out of control. Roadside services are hardly robust. The quality and prices of gasoline are poor. And four countries (Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria) have an allowable blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.0. Meanwhile, the train is convenient, safe, and reliable, taking you direct to your destination.
The following tips will help you plan that trip out East you’ve always wanted to do.
Tip #1. Plan Your Trip to a Major Destination, Satellite from There
There are a small number of Eastern European destinations that have direct long-distance service to EU cities: Berlin to Warsaw, Krakow, and Prague; Vienna to Budapest and Bratislava; Munich to Budapest, Ljubljana, and Zagreb. These long-distance runs are highly reliable and normally have plenty of seats available. Also, these locations have numerous tourist facilities available, especially hotels that can be booked via the Internet.
Once you are in a major city, it is easy to use regional services to visit remote locations. For example, when I visited Budapest, I used regional trains to pop over to lesser-known tourist havens like Szentendre and Eger (both of which I highly recommend next time you go to Hungary).
Why is this important, well…
Tip #2. Regional Service is Much Lower Quality
In western Europe, the regional trains are reasonably reliable and comfortable, and service is not noticeably lower in quality than long-distance trains. Not the case in Eastern Europe, some of the regional service can be quite bad. I encountered old beat-up diesel trains that chugged loudly down the tracks and offered bumpy rides without air conditioning. Timeliness was not a guarantee. There was little chance that the conductor spoke English.
The good news was that regional service was dirt cheap, just a couple bucks got me a round-trip across the country. Don’t let concerns of quality dissuade you, the trains are perfectly safe, and buying tickets, etc., in eastern Europe isn’t much different from Germany or Italy.
But it’s worth knowing where the differences are…
Tip #3. Each Country is Different
The following are some peculiarities I’ve found from personal experience. Your mileage may vary, but forewarned is forearmed:
This lesson was originally published on 13 June 2002 with a travelogue on my trip from Heidelberg, Germany to Ljubljana and Bled, Slovenia.
(c) 2002 Tom Galvin