International Railway tickets

 
 
 

At least not unless you have a quick $8,350 per person to drop on five nights in an antique railway sleeper berth (and you have to wonder why they don't show you any actual photos of the accommodations on their website (http://www.orient-express.com/web/vsoe/vsoe_a2a_home.jsp)...


That pastoral image of the guy by the window enjoying the scenery up there?  That's me trying desperately to escape our roomette on the night train from Budapest to Krakow in mid-summer in sweltering heat and non-existent train air conditioning.  All sleeping accommodations on trains are Lilliputian and I'm Gargantuan, so we'll leave that aside...the countryside is mostly along the lines of the flat farmland outside that window, fertile and productive but not especially uplifting to watch, especially with the gratifying mix of communist era tractors with the signs of modern colonialist agribusiness exploitation. 


And the border guards -- who mercifully have far less presence now that several of the countries one passes through are within the common European border -- all wear uniforms from Central Casting during WW II.  Of all the job incumbents in Central Europe border guards are the most assertively hostile to speaking any language other than their own.  Someone needs to point out to them that they generally work for the same Ministry that runs the tourism bureau.


But sometimes the train is the only game in town, or the fastest, or the cheapest, or, god help me, the most fun.  Here's my collected wisdom on the subject. 


The trains don't seem to fill up very far in advance; I've never heard of anyone having difficulty purchasing tickets even a day before their travel date, but even so I'd still buy my tickets a week or more in advance if I could.  Significantly discounted fares are not available very long before the trip.  They go on sale 30 days before your travel commences, and the discounts are substantial so it's worth waiting for them.  Children 14 and under travel at half price.  Student fares are typically not available for foreign student IDs.


Very few travel agencies can actually issue train tickets.  There is generally one in each major train station.  In the center of Budapest, just off Vörösmarty ter, on the Danube side of the Gerbeaud building, Carlson Wagon-Lit sells train tickets.  They are open M-Th 9:00am-17:00pm and Fridays 9:00-3:30, with 12:45-1:30 off for lunch.  The process of issuing tickets, especially on a multi-country itinerary (that's countries you pass through, each of which has a nominally different train-line even though sometimes the train doesn't even stop in the country) can take 30 minutes to an hour.


Although it is impossible to buy tickets online, finding the schedules is easy:


http://elvira.hu


Budapest has several train stations ... two in Buda (Déli and Kelenföld), two in Pest (Nyugati and Keleti)... that serve international travel.  Basically, if you have a choice, and you often do, pick a station in Buda if you will be staying in Buda, and in Pest if ... you get the idea.  But it's not a big deal if you ignore this advice; all of the stations are, predictably, well-served by public transit.


If you are headed to or from Vienna and are tempted to take the hydrofoil in season, make the decision at the last minute.  If the weather is dreary or worse, there's no point at all; if it's beautiful, it's pleasant enough but unless you're one of those savants capable of being endlessly riveted by going up and down in a waterway lock, you'll probably want to take the train -- which is an hour or so speedier -- in at least one of the two directions.


Eating on the trains typically affords slightly more variety and slightly better quality than do the Northeast Corridor trains in the USA (whose array of choices is, in turn, less interesting and less satisfying than the vending machines in the average high school cafeteria).  If you try not to think about it as eating, and if you can keep all of those old movie meals with fine dining in grand environs while rushing through romantic and mysterious tunnels out of your expectations, it's not a bad way to break up the ride.  Do it relatively early, so as not to spoil your willingness to have lunch or dinner in the destination city upon arrival...


 

Traveling by train in Central Europe should be romantic, relaxing, nostalgic, pastoral, and instructive.  In fact, it's mostly drab, long, undistinguished, modestly uncomfortable, prosaic, and disappointing.  And then there's the fact that it's almost impossible to get tickets, and utterly impossible to get reasonably priced tickets, online or outside Central Europe itself.  But it's often the best, and sometimes the only, way to get from where you are to where you want to be.

The Orient Express it Ain't...