Mitteleuropa Trains & Taxis

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
The End of the Tracks – Berlin

For the European leg of our round-the-world trip, I wanted to take my husband to see some of the great sights in Central and Eastern Europe. We were committed to doing as much as we could by train. Our trusty Eurail flexipass was a great purchase, and we definitely got our money’s worth.

Starting out in Budapest, we took the train to Vienna on an Austrian express train. The Austrians, like their German cousins, know trains. Fast, clean, and efficient. Other than a few industrial wasteland blips, this is a beautiful train trip, passing through some nice countryside.

From Vienna, we took the train to Krakow. Poland is where everything starts to fall apart on train trips in this part of the world. In its post-Communist boom, Poland has unfortunately invested in building shiny new airports rather than improving their antiquated train systems. This makes train journeys requiring any changes really confusing and nearly all trips really damn long. A nice Polish girl from Gdansk who worked in Krakow confessed that she didn’t see her family in Gdansk that often since the train trip took up to 16 hours if things didn’t work according to plan. She astutely pointed out that things involving Polish rail never work according to plan.  

I concur. Just plan on being stuck in the unpleasant, dark, coal-stained train station in Katowice for a while if you’re trying to train around this lovely, must-see region of Poland. At the Katowice station, you will be in good company as the Poles seem equally confused by the inaccurate departure boards and equally outraged when the random announcements requiring you to sprint across the station also turn out to be incorrect. I’ve done this trip twice, and this exact experience has happened to me twice. (Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.)

Furhermore, each time I have taken the trip to Krakow (once from Berlin, this last time from Vienna), I have traversed much of the countryside at night. Curiously, each time, I have seen hundreds of large unattended fires burning in the fields around the train tracks. I mean hundreds of fires. So many fires, in fact, that on the night train from Berlin, my normally calm college buddy became mildly alarmed. It looked like we were taking the train right into the set of some old spooky 1930’s black and white horror movie where the villagers burn monsters and witches.

When I inquired about what agricultural practice this may have been related to, my Polish interlocutors shrugged. Either the fires are not related to agricultural practices or their rationale is known only to those dwelling in the fields near the train tracks. (If anyone has a clue, please let me know.)  

Though all these cautionary tales may scare you off taking the train around Poland, you definitely want to get to Krakow somehow. If you do take the train, on arrival, you find yourself in a busy station in the midst of one of Europe’s busiest shopping malls. It’s supremely confusing. (Note: Somewhat counter-intuitively, even though you aren’t underground when you arrive, you go up to catch a taxi.) However, the nice folks at the tourist office in the train station are really helpful, offering you guidance on how to find taxis, how to get to your hotel, and where to eat their favorite kielbasa and pierogi.

After a few wonderful days in Krakow, we left for Prague very early in the morning. Because it was daylight and because there weren’t hundreds of unattended fires burning spookily beside the tracks, this was a more pleasant train trip than our journey to Krakow. Some Communist-era blight is definitely visible, but its an interesting juxtaposition with the lovely countryside.

On arrival in Prague, the station made sense, and we easily navigated the station’s signs pointing us to the taxi rank. These taxi signs are official. They are made of plastic, mounted in an illuminated box, with very substantial screws anchoring them to the train station ceiling. They look like any other official taxi sign you see in any other city in the world.

Except this is a taxi rank like no other. It is actually a queue of criminals in cars looking for their next mark. Which is you.

We entered the taxi, telling the thick-necked, mustachioed driver the name of our hotel while also showing him the address. The driver proffered a dirty map of Prague over his faux-leather jacketed shoulder, grunting “20 Euros.” As it had been a long time since I had traveled to Prague by train, I assumed I had arrived at the station on the outskirts of town and agreed to the fare.

Precisely two minutes later, after leaving the circular station exit, we arrived at our hotel, which was across the street from the Central Station. The driver cheerily demanded his 20 Euro fare for taking us approximately 50 feet.

My husband, quite understandably, went berserk. As I attempted to place myself between my raging Jesus-lookalike life partner and the shouting thuggish brute of a taxi driver, the kindly (and blessedly strapping) porter of our very nice hotel approached.

After a few words of fairly pointed delivery in Czech from the porter, the mustachioed taxi driver looked sheepishly at his feet, still growling slightly, but clearly broken. Though the man had tried to bilk us out of $30 in a failure that was both professional (taxi drivers should be experts at showing you their towns) and personal (any human should give honest directions to any other human), I felt bad for him as he had clearly been shamed by the porter’s words.

In spite of this minor tinge of pity, I was still fairly angry myself, so threw 5 Euros on the ground in front of the dejected taxi driver. (It probably sounds strange that I paid any money at all, but I like to remove ammo from any cheat’s complaint arsenal about Americans who don’t pay their way, etc.) My husband and I grabbed our suitcases and entered our hotel, leaving the driver to pick up his “hard-earned” cash and wheel briskly away.

On asking the porter what had transpired, he shook his head, shamefaced. In a confessional tone, the porter advised us that the majority of Prague’s taxi drivers are not reputable. He advised us that we should only take a taxi when it had been arranged by the hotel or by the establishment we were trying to leave. When I asked whether this was true of the official cabs, he accurately pointed out that it was an official cab that had just tried to cheat us.

Then, I asked him what he said to the taxi driver to get results so quickly. Apparently, the porter pointed out that, were the taxi driver ever lucky enough to visit America, the porter doubted that anyone in America would shame the nation by cheating its guests.  

Though I informed the porter that this might be an over-estimation of American hospitality and honesty, I had to admit that it was hard to envision such egregious abuse of tourists back in the States. I’ve had American cabs try to take me the long way to add a buck or two to the fare, but I’ve never had any other cab in the world try to charge me 20 Euros for 50 feet.

Though this incident constituted my husband’s first hour in Prague and was thus not a great first impression for him, we had a lovely time in the city and met some amazing Czech people in one of the world’s best beer bars, the illustrious Golden Tiger. On departure, we drove toward the station on the outskirts of Prague where a shiny German train would take us across some lovely countryside to Berlin. We left our hotel in a town car arranged by the kindly porter, of course.

Greece & Istanbul by Train

Cerulean Waters & Sky on the Ferry to Corfu, Greece
Rusty Ferry to Corfu, but Great View

When my husband and I embarked on our trip around the world in 2009, one of our goals for the European leg of our trip was to get from Ireland to Istanbul without taking an airplane. Some countries made achieving this goal easier than others.

Greece was not one of them. Admittedly, we were traveling in the off-season. However, in some respects, traveling via ferry and train around Greece may always constitute an off season, particularly if you’re headed to places slightly off the beaten path. NB: Most places outside of Athens are “off the beaten path” when it comes to Greek public transport.

Getting to Greece from Italy, however, is easy and enjoyable. Superfast Ferries from Italy to Greece are really great. The boat we took from Bari to Igoumenitsa was like a nice cruise ship. (If you have a Eurail pass valid in both Italy and Greece, this passage is free. With our Eurail pass, my husband and I got a discount for booking a private cabin which I strongly recommend if you are over 20 and undertaking this route.)

Our cabin allowed us to sleep peacefully in blissful quiet, versus trying to grab some shut-eye amidst the cacophony made by drunk, card-playing Russian sailors in the ferry’s public area. As a result, we were able to arrive in Greece somewhat rested. Having our wits about us on arrival was important since getting the ferry to Corfu from Igoumenitsa at dawn was none too easy, and involved a long walk to a separate ferry terminal amidst speeding semi-trucks on a ferry loading dock, a short yet intensely scary chase by feral dogs, and a complete lack of signage about which rust bucket local ferry was going where.

With peeling sheets of rust, an inordinate amount of grinding noises, and an unwholesome amount of smoke coming from the motor, many of the smaller ferries operating within Greece appear to be of questionable seaworthiness. Many of the ferries operating between islands or to/from the mainland also smell like over-used bathrooms and the sanitizer used to cover that aroma, particularly boats plying the route to Patra. 

The ferries shuttling passengers around the Greek isles and to the Greek mainland claim to operate on strict seasonal schedules, often outlined in colorful glossy brochures or on semi-official looking flyers. Don’t be fooled. These schedules are ignored 50% of the time as the off-season approaches, and 80% of the time during the actual off-season.

In Greece, the best place to find a current schedule for ferries is by going to a ferry company’s portside office and reading the hours that a well-meaning employee has scratched on a napkin taped to the door. If there is no napkin bearing a revised schedule, merely camp out for hours or days at the ferry port until a ship comes. Get on the ship if it’s even remotely going in your desired direction. It may be the last boat visiting the port you’re at for some time. The crew could be stuck on a Greek train, after all.

Greek trains make the British train system look amazingly efficient. (Remember: the UK is a country where trains are frequently delayed due to “leaves on the rail.”) Greek citizens will nervously ask you, the non-Greek speaking tourist, where and when trains are going. I don’t blame them. There are no destination signs in stations or on trains. Clocks in Greek train stations do not tell time. Most Greek trains will make you miss the ferry bathroom smell, as the train cars seem to reek of a dying or long-since-dead-and-now-quite-rotten old goat.  

Even if, after my Cassandra-like warnings about Greek transport, you are as obsessed as we were about taking the train to Istanbul from Greece, first take the train from Athens to Thessaloniki. At Athens Central, a station so small that we wondered if our taxi driver took us to the right place, we encountered a kind, hilarious station agent who had once lived in California. When we told him of our plans to take the train to Istanbul, he asked in all seriousness, “Why take the train when you can fly?”

Aside from the phantom stench of long-dead farm animals that wafted into our first class car, the trip from Athens to Thessaloniki was one of the most beautiful train trips we took in Europe. Thessaloniki also merits a few days’ visit. A magnificent cosmopolitan and cultured port city with a lively cafe and nightlife culture, Thessaloniki was our favorite spot on mainland Greece.

Once you get to Thessaloniki, a day or two in advance in the off-season (much longer if it’s summer), be sure to make your reservations for a sleeper on the overnight train to Turkey at the Thessaloniki station. The Thessaloniki station desk is used to booking this route, so you shouldn’t have any difficulty. (If you have a Eurail pass valid in Greece, there’s only a small supplement for the Turkish portion of the trip.)

Before leaving Thessaloniki, buy things to eat and drink. Dining cars are an uncertain feature. A jolly conductor did cook something in a flimsy hot pot-type contraption full of scalding water and charged people for this, but I don’t think this culinary effort was approved by the rail company. The same man also sold ouzo shots to passengers, but this also may have been a one-time-only entrepreneurial initiative. Before boarding the train, be sure to stock up on lots of water to hydrate and beer or wine to knock yourself out. The raucous late-night celebrations emanating from the ouzo-loving conductors can keep you awake if you don’t have your own alcohol.

Our night train from Thessaloniki to Istanbul seemed to be the exact same SNCF train I took overnight in France in 1989. It also appeared that it hadn’t been cleaned since then. All the signs were still in French, which was a blessing, as I can read French but not Greek. Being able to understand the instructions about operating the emergency brake seemed to be a good idea, in the event a drunk conductor or two fell off the train. (On the bright side, since the hard-partying conductors needed a strong start in the morning, the Greek coffee they made and sold as dawn broke was sublime.)

Should you ultimately decide to undertake the voyage over sea and land, crossing Greece to Istanbul, you will see only other travelers like you, peeping out from their bunks to avoid the smell of their own old socks, living the romance of life on the rails.

You will not see any Greeks or Turks. They are smart enough to fly this route instead.

Eurotrains When Backpacking Has Passed You By

In 2009, my husband and I embarked on a trip around the world. Our goal for the European leg was to travel from Ireland to Istanbul solely over land and sea. No airplanes. Because we had backpacked before, we knew to turn to Eurail for some train passes, which would also cover some ferry travel.

Unlike the last time we backpacked around Europe 15 years ago, we were no longer under the age of 26. Thus, the 15-day flexi-passes cost about $1000 each. <<Gulp.>> It should be noted that the higher priced passes for those of us in advanced age (a.k.a. anyone over the age of 26) are for first class, rather than second class. Though this may sound like good news, my husband and I became mildly concerned that we would we be too grubby for the high class trains we’d be taking.

Our concerns were for nought. We didn’t look any grubbier than other first class passengers, and even if we did, we didn’t care. We were too busy enjoying all the first class amenities. In France, we were served an excellent meal with fine wine on one beautiful train trip through the Alps. All over Germany, we were constantly given free snacks and drinks and English language newspapers. In Italy, we luxuriated in the only car where people weren’t illicitly smoking. In Greece, we rode in the only car that didn’t smell like a very old, dying goat. In short, it was a stupendous experience, though now my only fear is that I will never be able to afford first class rail travel again.  

If you’re thinking about training around Europe, even if you’re visiting only two countries or a single country, visit 
Eurail has passes that offer substantial savings to people of all ages for a variety of European destinations. Passholders are eligible for discounts on local attractions, lodging, and other transport. For example, even though the UK isn’t covered by your Eurail pass, you can get a 30% discount on a ferry from Belfast to Scotland.

If you’d like to stop and visit a few of the places you’re training through, but don’t want to live on trains for a month or more, the Global Flexipass may offer you the best value. With a Flexipass, you get 10 or 15 days of rail travel which you can take at your leisure over 2 months in nearly all the Eurail countries.

After getting from Ireland to Istanbul over land and sea in just under 2 months, here are some general lessons learned during our European train adventure:

1. Buy a ticket and a seat. This is something that’s hard for Americans to understand, but in European countries, you have to buy a ticket and a seat reservation if you want to secure a specific place to rest your posterior. Because I didn’t understand this distinction, during one very hot summer, I once had to ride eight hours on a hard plastic pull-down seat in the stifling space between train cars from Paris to Marseilles.

Some fancy high speed trains, like many TGV routes in France, require reservations. Although some trains don’t, if you know you’ll want to sit down, make sure you’re buying a seat with your ticket.  Even if you have a Eurail pass (which is a ticket), you will still need to make reservations for certain trains and/or specific seats. The Eurail staff at most major train stations are very helpful with this.

2. Make triple-sure you understand what your tickets say. When you keep moving around a lot, it’s hard to keep track of every country’s train ticket and what everything means. 

In looking at the wrong box on my Italian train ticket, I read the carriage number for the time of departure. (I can neither confirm nor deny that there was a small amount of wine involved in this mishap.) Needless to say, we missed our train from Naples and didn’t get to Bari until much later in the evening than we had planned. 

3. Remember that, in Europe, how dates and times are displayed differs from the U.S. For example, “April 1, 2011,” is written as 4/1/11 in the U.S. In Europe, the same date is written 1/4/11. Clearly, this reversal of months and days could have serious ramifications for a train reservation.

Train times in Europe are also displayed differently, with less reliance on A.M. and P.M. to indicate morning or evening. Train times are shown on the 24-hour clock, so that 1:15 p.m. is displayed as 13:15 in Europe. (Subtract 12 to get the time.) In Europe, if a train table says 1:15, you’d probably prefer being in a bar or in bed.

Of course, there are a few location-specific lessons that may be of use to you if you’re planning on riding the rails around Europe. Some, we learned the hard way. Hopefully you won’t have to:

To Agent or Internet for RTW Airfares?

Back in 1994, I wanted to pull a Gauguin, heading to Tahiti to leave behind the “rat race” of that weary time between college and grad school, when you’ve sent off your applications and live in miserable fear of rejection until you and a school determine whether you can do the education thing together. (Yes, when you’re 22, that time does seem like the rat race. Little did I know.) 

Because the Worldwide Interweb had yet to emerge on the scene, my only option was to walk into my local college travel agency and tell them my plan: Tahiti or bust, with a stop in Paris for a few months to smoke excessively and wear berets while taking trains and ferries around Europe.

When the trusty, knowledgeable agent told me that I could go around the entire world for less than a trip to Paris and Tahiti, I worked with her on an itinerary. She issued me paper tickets. The tickets were very flexible in terms of date changes, but not departure point or directional changes. The itinerary cost approximately $2000 and went like this: 

Chicago>>Paris>>Singapore>>Jakarta>>Denpasar (Bali)>>
Darwin (Oz>> Cairns>>Sydney>>Auckland>>
Rarotonga (Cook Islands)>>Tahiti>>L.A.>>Vegas>>Chicago

I flew Air France until Bali, then Garuda Indonesia to Australia. In Australia, I flew Qantas. From Sydney, with stops across the Pacific to L.A., I flew Air New Zealand. My American leg, L.A. to Chicago via Vegas, was on America West.

That first trip around the world lasted from August 1994 to March 1995. It was an experience so wonderful that I vowed to repeat it every decade I’m alive for the rest of my life.

On my 37th birthday in 2009, I realized that, after having spent almost 10 years helping transform a start-up into a bonafide company, I was dangerously close to not keeping my round-the-world promise to myself. So, I decided to quit my job and circle the globe once more. 

I called a specialist in around-the-world travel. This time, I had more specific destinations in mind for my trip, and discussed these with the travel specialist. I wanted to: 

1. Leave from somewhere on the East Coast of  the U.S. to see friends in NYC & Washington D.C.;
2. Be in Ireland to celebrate the 15th anniversary of meeting my husband there;
3. Visit South Africa;
4. Celebrate the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong and Japan;
5. Chill for a while in Bali;
6. Spend time experiencing Aboriginal culture and natural wonders in Australia’s Northern Territory & Far North Queensland, see friends in Sydney, and visit one of Australia’s wine regions;
7. Visit New Zealand to make up for the first time I was there, when I was too sick from Dengue Fever (contracted in Far North Queensland) to see anything at all;
8. Close the trip in a new Polynesian paradise; and
9. Finish the round-the-world circle in San Francisco, with a stay in L.A. to see family and friends.

The travel specialist told me he would work on it, and within a week, sent me back an initial estimate, which totaled approximately $7000 per person.

Gulp. I was aware that things would be more expensive than in 1994, but the quoted price seemed really high. Particularly since half the airlines the travel outfit wanted me to take were financially insolvent. (I could very clearly hear the CNN headline, “Bankrupt Greek national airline flight from South Africa crashes over Indian Ocean; no survivors; 2 Americans presumed dead.”) 

By working with the specialist, I eventually got the itinerary down to about $5900 by tweaking some dates and departure points. The specialist suggested that I omit Japan to lower the cost even more, but I was determined to show my husband around Japan and see the snow monkeys in Nagano. Because I still felt that there were better deals on better airlines, I hit the Internet on my own.

I started poking around on sites like Orbitz and the airlines’ own sites, focusing on one-way fares on my preferred airlines (where I have frequent flyer points and/or which are known for service and safety). It took me two days on the Internet in July 2009 to book the following itinerary for approximately $3900:

Denver>>Chicago>>NYC (JFK)>>Dublin//London>>South Africa>>London>>Hong Kong>>Tokyo//Osaka>>
Kuala Lumpur>>Denpasar (Bali)>>Darwin>> Cairns>>Sydney>> Auckland>>Fiji>>L.A.>>San Francisco

I flew American Airlines from Denver to NYC with a stop in Chicago, and Aer Lingus from NYC to Dublin. I took Virgin Atlantic from London to Cape Town on an affordable round-trip flight. I flew Lufthansa to Hong Kong from London via Frankfurt, JAL to Tokyo, and Malaysia Airlines to Denpasar (via Kuala Lumpur).  For Bali to Australia and flying within Australia, I got some amazingly low fares on JetStar. For the travel from Sydney to L.A., with stops in Auckland and Fiji, I booked on Air New Zealand. For the last leg, I flew Virgin America from LAX to SFO.

That second trip around the world lasted from September 2009 to May 2010. It was, again, an experience so amazing, I’ll definitely be circling the globe again in my 40s.

The Verdict: If you’re fairly agnostic to most of the destinations and dates along your route, as I was for my first RTW trip, buying from an agent specializing in round-the-world travel is probably the best option for you. RTW specialists have many standard routes for very low prices.

However, if you have very specific locations and dates in mind, doing it yourself may suit your needs better and be much cheaper. If you’re a maniac for miles on your preferred carrier, doing it yourself will also probably work better for you.

Many agents try to accomodate your airline requests, but some of the best fares available to an agent may not be on your preferred airline or even on a financially solvent airline. If you do go with an agent, be sure to give him/her all your frequent flyer info so s/he can try to select airlines based on your preferences.

Should you decide on booking your round-the-world trip yourself, here are some tips that will help make your planning easier:

1. Book in advance. For both my trips, my earliest flight was 2 months away from my booking date. Some of the fares I booked were nearly 7 months out, and those were some of my cheapest, like the $50 fare I snagged on Jetstar from Bali to Australia.
2. In leaving from the U.S. to Europe, flexibility in departure points is the key to saving money. For example, it was a lot cheaper flying from Dulles outside of D.C.
3. For Europe, be open to arriving in places like Dublin or Brussels, which can be a lot cheaper than cities like London or Paris.
4. Flying to Japan is pricey, so unless it’s a dream of yours, check out other Asian destinations. (The one-way from Hong Kong to Japan was one of the most expensive tickets of my trip, though well worth it since I really wanted to go there.)
5.  One-ways aren’t always cheaper, particularly if you’re traveling during high season. If you don’t mind taking a round-trip, be sure to consider those fares as well.
6. Use your miles if possible. You may be able to upgrade on a flight, which is always nice. Miles + money options on carriers can yield lower cost flights, though these are generally round-trip only. (We did this for our trip to South Africa on Virgin Atlantic.) Some airlines now offer one-way tickets using mileage.
7. Check out multi-city fares, which often allow long stopovers. For example, I wanted to end up in NYC, but I also wanted to stop in Chicago. Buying two separate one-ways would have been much more expensive than the $150 multi-city ticket I purchased on American from Denver to NYC with a 2-week stop in Chicago.
8. Have a world map at your side as you start booking. Often, an airline will propose a stop-over in a place unfamiliar to you, and you’ll need to assess whether the destination is a good place to visit or one that takes you well out of your way.