All Posts by Edward

About the Author

After crisscrossing Europe for 6 years as a train conductor, I guide intrepid travellers roaming Europe by rail.

Flixtrain
Jun 11

Flixtrain: No Frills, Max Thrills

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets

TRANSPARENCY DISCLAIMER: I work for BahnTouristikExpress, the company that runs the Flixtrain between Hamburg and Cologne and Cologne and Berlin. More than half of the trains I work are Flixtrains. I love them very much and may be biased. This post is to help you understand the Flixtrain and use it. It also gives you inside knowledge so you can have a nice trip. 

Introducing the Flixtrain

You may have heard about the Flixtrain. The Flixtrain is a train service that is marketed by Flixbus, in competition with Deutsche Bahn.

​Maybe you've been wondering how to use them. ​It isn't straightforward, as the Flixtrains operate totally outside the normal rail ticketing systems.

This post is to clear all this up. When you have finished you will know everything you need to know about how to use Germany's Flixtrains (and buses).

Flixtrain engine

Flixtrain "Vectron" engine at Cologne depot

Who are Flixbus, anyway?

In 2013 the German government, clutching at straws to support Germany's bloated and obsolete motor industry, deregulated long-distance coach travel by scrapping a law from 1935 (a Nazi law) that had made it very difficult to run long-distance coach services. This law was in place to protect the national rail operator.

It worked: coach companies mushroomed and there was a surge in orders for coaches.

How to Use Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain at Hamburg-Altona railway station

Fast forward five years and the fastest and most furious start-up in the barrel has eaten up the competition and escaped: Flixbus. Now it is on a rampage across Europe and North America.

Flixbus see themselves as the Google of mass transit and only actually own one bus. They need it to call themselves a bus company. Flixbus work with subcontractors. Imagine Uber with buses. And now trains.

Enter the Flixtrain

Before the Flixtrains, some people had tried to start fast mainline services in competition with Deutsche Bahn: the Leipzig-Rostock Interconnex ended up under the buses in 2013, the Hamburg-Köln Express (HKX) withered and the Stuttgart-Berlin Locomore went bankrupt after five months. All failed at bums on seats.

Now if there is one thing Flixbus do really well, it's bums on seats. They have become the go-to address for super-cheap travel. It is where the thrifty turn first.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain couchette compartment in day mode. Notice the sockets underneath the rubbish bin

So Flixbus have breathed life into the HKX and Locomore timetable slots and the HKX and the Locomore have returned undead. They make the trains run, Flix make the people come. For the first time in Germany, there is significant competition in long-distance rail travel.

Where do the Flixtrains go?

Currently there are four Flixtrain lines.

Flixtrain Network

The Flixtrain network as of May 2019. Not shown is the occasional weekend summer Flixnight connection from Hamburg-Altona to Lörrach Autozug station next to Basel.

1. Stuttgart-Berlin: Run by Czech operator Leo Express. Top speed is 200 km/h (125 mph). Mostly refurbished carriages. The train has a kiosk with quite an extensive menu that includes toasted panini and organic fruit juices.

2. Hamburg-Cologne using the HKX slots, run by BahnTouristikExpress (BTE) using their own carriages. Top speed is 160 km/h (100 mph). Old East and West German carriages. Has a minibar with a basic selection of drinks and snacks.

3. Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight with one couchette, attached to BTE's Motorail service from Hamburg-Altona to Lörrach, on the German outskirts of Basel. Food and drink available from the BTE staff.

4. Berlin-Cologne since May 2019. Run by Rail Development Corporation Germany (shareholder in BTE) with its own carriages. Top speed is 200 km/h (125 mph). Mostly ex-DB couchettes in day mode. Has a minibar with a basic selection of drinks and snacks.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain seat compartment

Onbord services offered by Flixtrain

Though the trains differ depending on who operates them, Flix does demand and provide a certain standard.

Wireless Internet

Wireless internet is a Flixbus non-negotiable. When their buses started to run they were famous for it, and it is arguably Flixbus that forced Deutsche Bahn to get off its complacent arse and make free WiFi available on all ICE trains, even in second class - long after it was standard in such advanced places as Slovakia.

On a side note, something similar happened in Austria when the Westbahn went into service in 2011 - WiFi was their thang. Just a few months later, ÖBB discovered they could make WiFi work on their Railjets after all.

Flixtrain Review

Somewhere behind this Cold War era switchboard a 21st century WiFi router is humming away. When it was first used in East Germany, this carriage was pulled and heated by a steam engine

Well, Flixtrain have made WiFi work in Cold War carriages. They just did it. Truth be told, onbord WiFi is only as good as the surrounding 4G signal. Between Osnabrück and Hamburg it isn't up to much. In fact, these days Germany is infamous for its pisspoor mobile coverage.

Power for your devices

Another Flix-Must is sockets for charging your phone and laptop. Though the carriages are old, more and more are being equipped with 220V and USB power outlets.

Flixtrain Power Outlet

Newly installed power outlet on a Flixtrain

Until all coaches have their sockets, Flixtrain has high-performance power banks available for passengers to borrow.  You leave your identity card or passport with the kiosk-staff and they return it to you when you give back the power bank.

Flixtrain Power outlet

Newly installed power outlet in a Flixtrain couchette

Food and drink

All Flixtrains have some form of catering. On the Hamburg-Cologne line it is a minibar in one of the carriages. The Stuttgart-Berlin line, on the other hand, has a proper kiosk and an impressive selection of drinks and cold and hot snacks.

On the Flixnight service you can get a small selection of snacks from the BahnTouristikExpress staff.

Unexpected luxury

As I write this, the new Berlin-Cologne Flixtrain has the old bistro car from the Berlin-Warszawa Express running in it. The kiosk has moved in and everyone is very pleased with this unexpected luxury. Fingers crossed it lasts

Flixtrain Bistro car

The nicest seats on the Berlin-Cologne Flixtrain

Seat reservations

Though seating is generally a free-for-all on the Flixtrains, Flixtrain do offer seat reservations on all their day trains. Two carriages have reserved seating, while in the remaining cars it remains open season. 

I think this is brilliant. It is much more user-friendly than Deutsche Bahn's reservation system, in which wherever you are sitting someone can come along and say you are in their seat.

Flixtrain review

Flixtrain's seat numbering system

Under the Flixtrain reservation system, as long as you are not in one of the reserved carriages, you can rest assured that your seat is yours.

Seat reservations are €3.49, or €3.99 if you want a window - the "panorama option".

Flixtrain's seat numbering system reflects their coach mentality. It organises the seats into rows with numbers and seats A, B and C, disregarding the seat numbers the carriages already have, and also the compartment layout.

I didn't like it at first, but now I'm, like, whatever works.

How to Use Flixtrains

​Couchette in day mode, as used on the Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight and the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

What are the Flixtrains like?

I go to great lengths for you, my readers. One of these lengths is to work on the Flixtrain.

Since June 2018 I have been working for BahnTouristikExpress, a small train company specialised in special and charter trains. BTE run the Flixtrains between Cologne and Hamburg and Cologne and Berlin. Therefore I spend a lot of time on Flixtrains.

Flixtrain Dog

Your correspondent looking after a lady's dog while she looks for something

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

The Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain is usually formed of ten coaches. Reserved seats are in coaches 1 and 2. In all other carriages it is a free for all.

Some of these are seated carriages, some are couchettes in day mode. Nearly all of them are with ten or eleven compartments that seat up to six people, though there are some combined compartment/saloon style carriages as well. There is a bicycle section and space for wheelchairs.

Flixtrain review

The corridor in a seated carriage on the Flixtrain

 

There is a fun disconnect about the Flixtrain: on the one hand compartments, windows you can open and carriages that could still be heated with steam from a steam engine.

On the other hand: WiFi, power outlets and Flix's paperless QR-code tickets. Here I stand with my Flixbus driver app and Bluetooth printer where once a Deutsche Reichsbahn guard meticulously issued hand-written paper tickets.

Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain timetable

The trains usually leave Hamburg-Altona once or twice a day. They depart Hamburg-Altona and call at Hamburg Central, Hamburg-Harburg, Osnabrück, Münster, Gelsenkirchen, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and reach Cologne a good four hours later. And vice versa.
How to Use Flixtrain

Picture taken out of the open window of the Flixtrain, just after leaving Hamburg-Altona

Depending on the day of the week there may be one, two or no Flixtrains. They are concentrated around the peak travel days of the weekends and peter out towards mid-week. The timetable is full of ifs* and buts {1} and rules+ and exceptions {1,2-4}. 

I suggest you simply head over to the Flixtrain website and see what is running when you want to travel

The Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain

As mentioned above, the Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain uses the coaches and the staff that ran in the short-lived Locomore service. Locomore went bankrupt and were bought up by Czech operator Leo Express. Leo Express run this train, Flixbus market it as a Flixtrain and sell the tickets.

New Flixtrain Carriage

Refurbished Flixtrain carriage

Usually formed of ten coaches. On this train, carriages 7 and 8 are with reservations, while all the others are free seating. 

The original Locomore coaches are partly compartment and partly saloon type, which Locomore had lovingly refitted and augmented with WiFi and sockets. The Locomore colours are still present on the inside. On the outside most of them are now covered with green Flixtrain foil.

How to Use Flixtrain

Seat in a compartment on the Stuttgart-Berlin Flixtrain, as refurbished by Locomore.

To cope with the increased demand, and the extra train now running on the Berlin-Stuttgart line, additional carriages have been martialled from various places. These are mostly combined compartment/saloon carriages with late 1980s interiors. 

More and more of these have sockets now. If you end up in one of the carriages without sockets, just fetch yourself a power bank from the minibar.

Berlin-Frankfurt-Stuttgart timetable

There is at least one Flixtrain from Berlin to Stuttgart every day. On some days there are two. Here is a direct link to their timetable.

Flixtrain Berlin Stuttgart Interregio

1980s interior of an unrefurbished Flixtrain carriage. Most of these now have USB and 220V. sockets.

The daily Berlin-Stuttgart Flixtrain departs Berlin-Lichtenberg at 14:29 and calls at Berlin Ostkreuz, Berlin East, Berlin Central, Berlin Zoo, Wolfsburg, Hanover Messe/Laatzen, Göttingen, Kassel, Fulda, Hanau, Frankfurt South, Darmstadt, Weinheim, Heidelberg, Vaihingen and Stuttgart. At the weekends there is an additional service that leaves Berlin-Lichtenberg at 06:29. 
In the other direction, the daily train leaves Stuttgart early in the morning. At the weekends there is an additional service leaving Stuttgart at 14:12.

Refurbished Flixtrain carriage

New: The Berlin-Cologne Flixtrain

On 23rd May 2019 another Flixtrain line started up. I was the train manager on the inaugural trip from Cologne to Berlin.

This Flixtrain consists mainly of ex-City-Night-Line couchettes in day mode and reaches a top speed of 200 km/h at some stages of its journey.

I digress: realistic timetables

What is great about this Flixtrain is that it has been realistically timetabled. The timetable assumes a top speed of 155 km/h, and little pockets of extra time abound.

If the train is late, it can go faster. It can also leave out the secret stops in the middle of nowhere.

Thus it is usually on time. In fact, several times I have reached Berlin Central ahead of schedule. 

Flixtrain 200km/h

Flixtrain on the high speed line from Berlin to Wolfsburg

By contrast, Deutsche Bahn times its ICE with no breathing space. Furthermore, it can't give up its ludicrous fantasy that nothing will go wrong. Of course, things constantly go wrong. The pervasive glitches and failures tear into punctuality, and so Deutsche Bahn's ICEs and ICs are so unreliable. But I digress.

On my last trip I left Cologne half an hour late and still got to Berlin 15 minutes early.

Berlin-Cologne-Berlin FLX 30 departure times

As of June 2019 there is a daily Flixtrain from Berlin to Cologne and vice versa. On some days there are two.

Flixtrain Berlin

Flixtrain waiting at Berlin Südkreuz

Every day there is an early departure at 08:11 from Berlin Südkreuz, calling at Berlin Central, Berlin Spandau, Wolfsburg, Hanover, Bielefeld, Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and reaching Cologne around 2 pm. On peak days there is also a late departure from Berlin Südkreuz at 16:11
Conversely, on peak days there is an early departure at 6:45 from Cologne in the other direction, and every day there is a late departure at 16:01. Both reach Berlin about 5 1/2 hours later.

Here is the actual timetable.

The Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight

This is something I never saw coming: Flixbus doing night trains.

It isn't, not really, not yet. The Flixnight is one couchette car that is sometimes attached to BahnTouristikExpress's AutoReiseZug (motorail) service that runs on weekends between Hamburg-Altona and Lörrach, on the outskirts of Basel on the German side of the border. 

How to Use Flixtrain

Bunk in the Flixnight 5-berth couchette in night mode

This is a train consisting of two sleeping cars, four to five couchettes and several car-carriages. The last of the couchettes is dedicated to Flixtrain foot passengers. Each compartment has five berths. No berth numbers are assigned, anyone can go anywhere within the Flixnight carriage.

Flixtrain Review

Flixnight carriage, in BTE livery, waiting to depart from Hamburg-Altona

​Hamburg-Lörrach Flixnight departure times

​This is the hardest one. I can't find a timetable that spells out on which dates the ​Flixnight runs and on which it doesn't.

How to Use Flixtrains

Toilet on a Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain

On almost all weekends most of the year there is at least one service in both directions. During the summer there are more. I can only recommend looking at the Flixtrain website, which automatically points you to when the service is running.

In both directions it calls at Hamburg Hbf, Hanover, Karlsruhe, Freiburg and Lörrach Autozug.

​Southbound, the service leaves Hamburg-Altona at 19:50, arriving Freiburg at 06:55 and Lörrach at 08:30.
Northbound, it departs Lörrach Autozug at 19:30 and Freiburg at 22:06, arriving Hamburg-Altona at 07:11.

​Great! So how can I get tickets?

How to use Flixtrains

1st step: enter your destination and travel date here

Flixtrain tickets are not sold by the usual railway ticket offices. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the Flixtrains operate completely outside the pan-European ticketing system. No DB tickets are valid on Flixtrains, no Schönes-Wochenende or Quer-Durchs-Land tickets, no Eurail or Interrail passes. 

The Flixtrain appears in DB Navigator and bahn.de searches. DB will even sell you tickets for itineraries that include the Flixtrain. BUT: No DB ticket is ever valid for the Flixtrain. Ever.

Buying Flixtrain tickets online

Flixtrain tickets are easiest bought online. 

How to Use Flixtrains

2nd step: select the service you want to travel on

Flixbus's ticketing system is wonderfully easy to use. You can buy tickets online on their website, or download the Flixtrain app from the Apple or Google Play store. You don't have to set up an account (though that does make future bookings easier) and Flix accepts all kinds of electronic payment.

How to Use Flixtrains

3rd step: get your credit card out...

You are issued with a QR code, either within the app, or as a ticket you can either print out or simply show on your mobile device. Having been on the inspecting end of this system, I have to hand it to Flixbus: it is a wonderful system, so easy to use. It is brilliant.

How to use Flixtrains

Enter all your details. You can take it from here, can't you? Reserve yourself a seat if you like.

What I particularly like is that Flixbus has gone to the trouble of having its system in 35 European languages, including Macedonian and Catalan. You can even pay in Ukrainian Hryvnyas if you so choose.

Right. Any way of getting Flixtrain tickets offline?

I'm glad you ask. You can get Flixtrain tickets at most major coach-stations (bear with me). 

However, there is an increasing number of kiosks, newsagents and tobacconists that sell Flixbus and Flixtrain tickets. Look out for the Flixbus sign.

Another offline sales point is at Penny Markt. Penny is a German supermarket chain with a dense network of shops. It is more convenient to go to Penny than to the coach station.

Penny Markt Flixtrain

At any Penny Markt, go to the service terminal. 1. Enter your travel data. 2. Retrieve voucher. 3. Take voucher to cash desk, pay for your ticket. It is issued on thermal paper AND by email.

​So how much do tickets cost?

It depends. Flixtrain adhere strictly to the dynamic pricing system. 

Tickets on start at €9.99 but rise quickly to €29.99 or €39.99. If you pay on the train, Hamburg-Cologne will set you back €65. Cologne-Berlin - €90.

I have seen people on the Flixtrain with tickets that cost €2.19 from Cologne to Hamburg - less than a single bus ticket in most cities in Germany.

Tickets for the Flixnight start at €19.99 and rise. A week beforehand in summer you can pay €59.99.

Flixtrain review

Seated compartment on the Hamburg-Cologne Flixtrain.

Is it really competition?

​This is what I think of Flixtrains:

​Carriages

​I ​love ​the carriages. Nearly all of them have windows you can open and compartments rather than saloons, which I prefer. However, people who ​like open-plan seating do have somewhere to go as well.

For the last twenty years Deutsche Bahn has been running a sustained assault on everything that people love to remember about trains, namely, windows you can open and wave out of, perhaps with a white handkerchief, compartments that get you into conversations with strangers and, yes, night trains.

Flixtrain Greenpeace

Flixtrains run on 100% renewable power

I'm not sure Flixtrain is big on romance. They just want to get as many people as possible from A to B at the lowest cost. It just so happens that the only trains they can get their agile little mitts on are these indestructible retro sets. While it lasts, Flixtrain is offering you a train ride like it was in the good old days, but with WiFi.

How to Use Flixtrains

Flixtrain at the Hamburg depot, awaiting next service

Why it is viable

Flixbus's concept offers something that no other privately-run train operator has been able to muster: a train service that is part of a greater network. 

Deutsche Bahn's ICEs and ICs are fed by regional trains and S-Bahns, and Deutsche Bahn can sell you a reasonably priced ticket for the whole journey. They can even rent a car out to you at ​your destination.

Flixtrains are fed by, and feed, Flixbuses. Together they form a network. Flixbus can sell you a ticket that begins on a bus, goes on to a train, then back onto another bus. Though Flixtrains run isolated from the other trains, they are closely knit into the Flixbus network. And this generates the critical mass of passengers needed to sustain a train service.

Flixtrain 200 RIC

Side panel of Flixtrain carriage. Note the marking "200", denoting the its maximum permissible speed. All European trains have these

The return of third class travel 

Deutsche Bahn's newest trains have soft LED-lighting that adjusts to the time of day even in the second class, fair trade coffee and organic salads. In doing so, they have left a huge market behind. 

Flixtrain is bringing back basic train travel, at a time when it is desperately needed. There is nothing wrong with that. In France, SNCF are doing the same with their OUIGO trains.

Lots of people welcome this - students, pensioners, even business travellers.

Flixtrain Sunrise

Flixtrain going forth towards the rising sun

Flixtrain gets its people from one place to another reasonably comfortably, at a reasonable speed and at a reasonable price.

For this reason, it is hard to see Flixtrain as competition for Deutsche Bahn because a sizeable amount of the Flixtrain customers never used Deutsche Bahn's trains in the first place. 

Flixtrain is opening train travel to people who never went by train, and that is fantastic

Click to Tweet

And I love the passengers. They are polite, they don't complain, they are happy to be going somewhere. When we arrive they get off and tell me what a nice trip it has been. 

Flixtrain review

Couchette compartment in day mode, with an open window

​Give it a try

Now we've reached the end of this post. I hope you have enjoyed it.

Flixtrain is one of the most exciting developments so far on the European fast-train market. In some countries like Austria, Italy and Czechia there is competition on the railways. I reviewed new Romanian operator Astra Trans Carpatic in another.

In Germany, so far, competition has failed. Germany, with its huge motor lobby, is a hostile environment for anyone wanting to run trains. Now Flixbus, of all people, have entered the train market with a singular focus on low prices, and combined with their extensive bus network it may work out this time.

It looks as if the Flixtrains have come to stay, at least for the next few years.

Flixtrain Nightjet

Flixtrain waiting at Cologne depot

In spite of their ambition and their mighty backers, Flixbus could pull out of the train business very quickly if they decide it's not working. So while they dabble in the train market, have a go on the Flixtrains. They are great fun.

Westbahn Salzburg
May 28

Westbahn – Austria’s Wifi-on-Trains Trailblazer

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets , Western Europe

Ooops.

"Not vellid on dis train", the girl in the blue peaked cap says, without emotion.

You sweat panic sweat.

"How can it not be valid? I just bought this ticket!"

"You heff ÖBB ticket. You take ÖBB train".

The smell of your panic sweat reaches your nose.

"Now what?"

"You pay. Or you get off et Vöcklabruck".

You get off at Vöcklabruck. 

Didn't see that coming? Welcome to the world of deregulated European railways. In some EU countries, there is now more than one operator running trains on the same line. They all sell their own tickets, and only their own tickets do they accept

You had a standard ÖBB ticket from Salzburg to Vienna and got on the first train towards Vienna. Unfortunately the first train towards Vienna was a Westbahn train.

What is Westbahn

The Westbahn is a private train company that runs fast trains between Vienna and Salzburg.

In 2011 it took up an hourly service between Vienna Westbahnhof and Salzburg, using smart double-deck trains. Its tickets were about half the price of what the national rail operator ÖBB charged, and the trains had free WiFi - something unheard of in those days. At least on trains.

Westbahn lines

Westbahn WestBlue WestGreen

The two Westbahn lines

Originally the Westbahn ran an hourly service between Vienna Westbahnhof (Western Station) and Salzburg. The journey takes about 2 1/2 hours.

However, recently, Westbahn upped this to a half-hourly service. You can download their timetable here.

The WESTgreen service runs from Salzburg to Vienna Westbahnhof and back. Meanwhile, the WESTblue service goes from Salzburg to Vienna Praterstern via Vienna Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). And back.

From Salzburg to Vienna, it doesn't really matter which line you use.

I prefer to arrive at Westbahnhof, because I'm set in my ways. So I usually use the green line.  But if you are changing onto onward trains, it is much better to arrive at Vienna Hauptbahnhof.

What the Westbahn trains are like

Westbahn trains are electric multiple units formed of six (or four) double deck coaches. They are made by Stadler in Switzerland and called KISS. Similar trains run in Swiss regional services, but also in Luxembourg, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Westbahn train Salzburg

Westbahn KISS train waiting at Salzburg

Good trains. I like them. Here is an interactive tour. 

Coach numbers are 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600. 

The Westbahn class system

Westbahn has two classes, but it doesn't call it that. Westbahn say that all their seats are first class.

Westbahn standard class

Westbahn Standard Class

Westbahn standard class

However, here is what you can expect:

Westbahn standard class has

  • nice leather chairs, 
  • power outlets for every seat 
  • carpeted floors
  • The seats line up with the windows
  • The "WESTsteward"
  • separate loos for ladies and gentlemen
  • Free WiFi that actually works
Westbahn Standard class

Seats in Westbahn standard class

This is much nicer than Economy on the ÖBB Railjet, with its frozen-spinach green seats and drab linoleum flooring. 

Westbahn Plush

However, there is also Westbahn Plus, in coach 600. You pay a surcharge to sit here, depending on how far you are going.

What do you get for it? Everything already mentioned, plus:

  • the seat next to you is also yours, so there is more room. On the second batch of Westbahn trains the Plus seats are wider
  • a free drink 
  • a free newspaper
  • and the "WESTsteward" at your beck and call. If you want something from the bar, they have to drop everything and fetch it for you.

Currently, the Westbahn Plus upgrade costs between €9.90 for the shortest hop and €22.90 for the full distance from Vienna to Salzburg, in addition to your Westbahn standard class ticket.

You can buy the Westbahn Plus upgrade in advance, or you can wait until you are on the train, sniff the air and upgrade only if you feel the need. Just sit down in coach 600 and pay the surcharge when the steward rolls up.

The advantage of buying in advance is that you know you've got your seat.

My trips on the Westbahn

I've been on the Westbahn several times. When travelling between Munich and Vienna I have always made an effort to use them.

My first trip was in 2012. As I still worked for a state railway operator, I first resisted the idea of going on a privately run train. But for scientific research purposes (as the Japanese whalers say) I went on the Westbahn anyway.

Westbahn Plus class

Westbahn Plus class

And I loved it. Getting the ticket was so easy, and in 2012 everything was so new and the staff were all so eager. After that I went out of my way to go on the Westbahn.

Setting off from Salzburg

It all starts with a sigh, as the breaks release. Then the train silently glides out of the gorgeously refurbished Salzburg station.

I digress again: after the 2008 financial crash, Germany subsidised every new car with €2500 and called it an environmental bonus. Talk about doublethink. Meanwhile, Austria started a huge programme in which almost every railway station was completely refurbished. Salzburg Hbf was transformed from a labyrinthine open sewer into a jewel of a station.

If you are on the top deck, it is quite jerky as the train picks its way over the points on its way out. Then a futuristic electric whirring sets in as the KISS gathers speed. For the first half hour or so you can see the mountains. Then they recede. After Vöcklabruck you are in the plain of the Danube, though you rarely see the river on the upgraded line.

Westbahn leaving Salzburg

Westbahn on its way out of Salzburg

Even at the top deck there are no more jerks as you whizz towards Vienna at 200 km/h. 

If you are on the top deck, you can see over the sound-barriers installed along vast swathes of the Salzburg-Vienna line.

The "WESTstewards"

As a trained railway worker I was doubtful about the Westbahn. 

The driver does all the safety stuff, like reading the signals and closing the doors, while the Westbahn stewards only do tickets and service. Like on a plane.

I thought the role of the WESTsteward had the hallmarks of a McJob. I thought you need properly trained guards looking after passengers, not clueless students who can't read signals. Their jeans and casual uniform didn't inspire confidence.

But honestly? I think it is great that the threshold for working on trains has been lowered and more people can do these great jobs. I've asked around, and the Westbahn stewards make decent wages. What's more, they have full Austrian railway emergency training, so you are in capable hands.

On every single trip I've had the stewards have been wonderful. Cheerful, polite and helpful. They do a great job.

The West Café

Every Westbahn train has a section with a coffee machine, a cold drinks machine and a snack machine. There are also some bar tables. It is a nice, cosy section where you can meet other travellers or reflect on things in silence. 

Westnbahn café

The café area on the Westbahn. There are no dedicated staff. You use the machines.

I'm going to come out with it. On a 2017 trip that took me from Munich all the way to Eastern Poland, the worst coffee I had was the Westbahn cappuccino. It was sour, watery and scalding hot. 

However the espresso was fine. Less can go wrong with it. 

Both at Salzburg and at Vienna the snack machine is refilled with freshly made sandwiches.

Westbahn café

Coffee machines on the Westbahn. Notice that they use creamer or milk powder. Avoid anything with milk in it.

For the 2 1/2 hour journey between Vienna and Salzburg, this is adequate. It's not much, and I love real dining cars, but it is much better than nothing at all.

10% off your coffee

Your Westbahn bank (see below for what that is) gets you money off your coffee. If you want to use your Westbahn bank to buy coffee or food, you have to get hold of one of the West stewards. They dock the money from your Westbahn bank by scanning it, then they override the money slot on the machine to retrieve your desired drink or light refreshment.

What are "light refreshments anyway"? Why do you only get them on trains and planes? I see myself eating a lemon-flavoured wet wipe.

No rubbish bins?!?

What surprised me was that there are no rubbish bins. At all.

At the mid-level sections between the upper and lower decks there are dispensers with small plastic rubbish bags. These you take with you for your waste.

 When you want it taken away, either give it to a steward, or go to where the dispensers are and hang your bag of waste on a hook that is there specially. 

Westbahn Plus class

Westbahn Plus class. Note elastic bands on the aisle seats indicating that they are reserved.

Westbahn tickets

To begin with, the Westbahn ticket system was wonderfully easy. Refreshingly simple it was. God, I loved it. No train you HAD to be on. None of this new-fangled airline-pricing yield-management shit. Just honest-to-God from here to there costs this and this much. 

As the realities of running trains at a profit have bitten, Westbahn have refined their ticketing system and it has become more complex. The good news is, there are much more special deals. You just have to know about them. 

Here we go.

WESTstandard - Normal Tickets

The simplest tickets are Westbahn's normal tickets. They go at the walk-up ticket price. You can simply buy them on the train, or online, or from tobacconists.

A WESTstandard ticket is good for any Westbahn train for one year from the day of purchase.

Even if your ticket says "WIEN-SALZBURG" or "WIEN-LINZ" you can use it in either direction.

Vienna-Salzburg at this rate is €33.50.

Westbahn ticket prices

The price matrix for WESTstandard tickets

Concessions

There are all sorts of boring and irrelevant Austrian membership and loyalty schemes that get you some money off the standard Westbahn ticket. I can't go into them here. I don't know what most of them are. I don't even want to know. Some sound scary.

What is interesting is that Westbahn give you a significant reduction if you have any European railway discount card. Thus Vienna-Salzburg is €25.50 as opposed to €33.50.

You can use your British Railcard to get money off your Westbahn ticket in Austria. Now that is cool.

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Westbahn Vienna Salzburg

Stairwell on a Westbahn train. All Westbahn trains are double deckers.

Children on the Westbahn

  • Babies and children from 0-5 go free on the Westbahn. From age six they need a ticket. 
  • Children from 6-14 years old pay €1 if travelling with a family member (usually a parent or grandparent) who has a proper Westbahn ticket. When buying your ticket, be sure to include your children in the details.
  • Unaccompanied children pay a reduced rate. Vienna-Salzburg is €16.80.
  • From age 15 children are considered adults as far is tickets are concerned, but they are entitled to schoolchild and student concessions.

WESTaktiv tickets - don't read this if you are under 60

Westbahn have a special off-peak offer for people over 60. You don't have to be a pensioner. Just over 60. A WESTaktiv ticket is valid for one year from the date you bought it.

You can use it on any Westbahn train from Monday to Thursday.

Vienna - Salzburg with a WESTaktiv ticket costs €19.99.

WESTspartage - off-peak semi-flexible tickets

An interesting hybrid between open and obligatory train tickets. WESTspartage are tickets that are valid on certain off-peak days or parts of a day. When you buy, you have to say which day,

Westbahn Bank

On old WESTspartage ticket of mine. The price has since risen.

Look at the calendars below. Blue days you can use a WESTspartage ticket at any time. Green days at any time before 12 pm and grey days any time after 12 pm. Simple. So you have a certain amount of wriggle-room on the day you travel. 

Vienna-Salzburg at the current spring WESTspartage rate is €25.99.

Sadly, you can't combine the promotional rate with a railcard.

Westbahn WESTspartage

Calendar showing the days on which WESTspartage tickets are valid all day and part of the day

The WESTspartage are a seasonal thing. Right now we are in the spring season. All WESTspartage tickets purchased have to be used up by the 30th of June 2019, or they expire.

After June, the WESTspartage summer promotion is sure to come with similar deals.

If you use a WESTspartage ticket on a different day than specified, you have to pay the difference between the promo ticket and the standard fare.

WESTsuperpreise - the specific train ticket

Eventually Westbahn succumbed to the new-fangled airline-pricing yield-management shit. If you travel at 5 AM of a Tuesday morning, your ticket is cheaper than if you go on Friday afternoon.

About yield management: It makes sense to spread people across as many trains as possible, so let's not grudge them. Some people have more time, some people have more money. Yield-management provides transport for both. It prevents empty trains and discourages full ones. This is good.

WESTsuperpreis tickets are valid for a particular train on a particular day. They come on sale 30 days in advance and are available up to one minute before departure.

However, the nice thing about them is this: if you change your plans, you can return your ticket. You get all your money back in the form of a Westbahn bank (see below) and can use it to buy other Westbahn tickets. These are MUCH better terms than offered for any other promo tickets by any other company.

Furthermore, the tickets are not personalised, so anyone can use them.

If you use a different train on the same day, you simply have to pay the difference between your cheap deal and the standard price.

Westbahn doesn't punish you for using a different train or day. They simply charge you the difference. I think that is fair.

Westbahn Bank - save yet more money

The Westbahn bank is a great thing. I love it. When I last had one I would get it out from time to time and look at it and think of my next trip to Vienna. 

My last Westbahn Bank - in 2016 the small Westbahn Bank was €90 for €100 credit.

Westbahn banks are pay-as-you go credit. You pay Westbahn €135 and get €150 of credit that you can blow on tickets, upgrades or food and drink. Pay €400 and you get €450 of credit.

Effectively that is 10-12% off anything you buy from Westbahn.

Your Westbahn Bank is issued as an A4 PDF with a barcode. You can print it out or just keep it on your phone or tablet. You can use it online or on the train to pay for anything you buy. 

Westbahn banks are valid for 30 years. I love that optimism.

If you are a passing visitor, I don't see what you would do with the big Westbahn Bank, but the little one is worth getting as soon as there are two of you going from Vienna to Munich.

Munich? You heard me. Read on...

Westbahn tickets beyond the Westbahn network

Westbahn quickly learned that the only way for it to survive long term is to cooperate with anything that moves. Anything that moves people, at least. Thus they have all sorts of deals going. 

I'm sticking to the partnerships involving trains now. That means Meridian in Bavaria and RegioJet in Czechia.

Westbahn Vienna Salzburg

Stairwell on Westbahn train

Towards Munich with Meridian

Westbahn and Meridian have been cooperating for quite some time. Their trains usually arrive at Salzburg on the same platform so you can change easily. Their timetables are also adapted to each other so that you don't have to wait too long.

This cooperation is intensifying this year. Westbahn and Meridian have two tickets on offer that get you from Vienna to Munich or vice versa.

The Guten Tag Ticket WEST

This combines Meridian's Guten Tag Ticket with a Westbahn ticket. The Guten Tag Ticket gets you onto all of Meridian's trains, plus the Bayerische Oberland-Bahn and Bayerische Regio-Bahn in the whole of Bavaria.

  • For one person it is €55, which is underwhelming. 
  • two people - €77
  • three people - €99
  • four people - €121
  • five people - €143
Good things about the Guten Tag Ticket WEST
  • You can buy it immediately before travelling
  • The more people travelling, the cheaper it gets
  • You could do an entire round-trip on one of these
  • It doesn't sell out
  • It's a nice, easy ticket with little worries.
Drawbacks of the Guten Tag Ticket WEST
  • Mon-Fri it is valid only from 9 AM - this is severely hampering
  • It locks you OUT of Westbahn's edgier promo tickets
  • It locks you IN to Meridian's underwhelming Guten Tag Ticket.
  • It locks you out of any other concessions to which you may be entitled
  • Exchange terms are bad. Even if you give it back before your travel date, you lose 25% of your money.
Westbahn at Vienna West

Westbahn at Vienna Westbahnhof awaiting passengers

WESTstandard ticket to Munich

This just in. Westbahn now offer a standard ticket for the whole distance between Munich and Vienna. It hasn't got one of their wizzy WESTnames yet, but I'm sure they'll come up with something. 

In the fullness of time, it may be integrated into their promo deals as well. As it stands,

Vienna-Munich costs €66.60. Or €53.60 with any European railcard.  Anytime.

For a fully flexible ticket that cannot sell out, this is a great price.
Benefits of this ticket:
  • It can't sell out
  • it is valid at any time of day
  • it is exchangeable
  • A Westbahn Plus upgrade gets you into the 1st class on the Meridian train to Munich

Westbahn directly to Munich

Last year Westbahn announced that they would be introducing direct services from Vienna to Munich. Three times per day, they plan to code-share with Bavarian local train operator Meridian and let their KISS trains run in Meridian's subsidised local train slots.

The start of this service has now been postponed twice. First it was meant to begin in April 2019, then June 2019 and now it is planned for the autumn of 2019. 

We'll see what the autumn brings. I personally don't think it is going to happen.

Towards Czechia with RegioJet

Czech operator RegioJet have started running trains from Prague via Brno to Vienna. It is now possible to buy combined tickets for Westbahn and RegioJet from RegioJet. This is seriously cool cooperation. I love it. It is the only way forward.

You can get yourself a ticket from Salzburg to Prague or Brno via Vienna. RegioJet is a beast of its own which I am going to have to review soon. 

RegioJet Westbahn Bratislava

RegioJet train at Bratislava hl. st. Courtesy of Martin Pavlík

What I can say here is that RegioJet have nice refurbished Austrian and Swiss coaches, plus some new ones built by Astra Vagoane in Romania - much like the seated coaches in my review of Astra Trans Carpatic. Though nominally first and second class coaches, RegioJet operate a four-class system, from basic to business. But even in basic you get free water.

Click here to investigate these combined tickets.

Where to buy

I usually buy my Westbahn tickets directly online

The website is brilliant and intuitive. I remember the first time I used it how relieving it was after navigating the big websites of DB and ÖBB. To be fair, it is simple because Westbahn is a small train company that sells tickets only for itself.

However, you can also get any Westbahn ticket from a tobacconist (look out for the ubiquitous sign saying "Tabak Trafik"). In addition, Westbahn have their own WESTshops at major stations they serve. Here you can pay in cash and remain nameless, if anonymity matters to you.

Tabak Trafik sign

Tabak Trafik sign in Austria. A user-friendly offline way to get Westbahn tickets and pay for them in cash.

Westbahn in the scheme of things

Westbahn started in 2011 and have been at it for 8 years now. After much growing pains, they have broken even, and I hope they shall be with us for a long time yet.

It was Westbahn who first ran trains in Austria with WiFi. Until then, the Austrian Railway state operator ÖBB had been banging on about how difficult it was to install WiFi and they couldn't do it, etc. etc. 

As soon as Westbahn rolled up with WiFi, ÖBB suddenly discovered that they could have WiFi after all. ÖBB also offered more special deals and even more frequent trains between Salzburg and Vienna.

Thus even people who never used Westbahn benefitted from Westbahn's entry on the Salzburg-Vienna line.

Westbahn vs ÖBB Railjet

Westbahn's greatest advantage is that they give you flexible travel at a reasonable price. For spontaneous trips between Salzburg and Vienna, you're most likely to get a better deal on Westbahn. 

If you have a pram or a wheelchair with you, the wide doors and low entrances are also more convenient than the high floor on, say, ÖBB's Railjet. The Railjet is the most hostile train I can think of for people with prams due to its high floors and restricted pram space. Want to go first class on the Railjet with your pram? You're out of luck. Pram space is at the other end of the train, deep inside the second class. 

The second class on the Westbahn is much nicer than the second class on the Railjet. On the Westbahn you get leather seats and carpeted floors, on the Railjet you have drab linoleum and depressing frozen-spinach green seats.

So the Westbahn is best for:

  1. Prams and wheelchairs
  2. short-notice trips
  3. comfortable and stylish second class ambience
  4. easy tickets

However, the Railjet is better for:

  1. Longer journeys (say, Munich-Budapest)
  2. Long distance promo deals (I got first class Budapest-Munich for €45 from the Hungarian Railways)
  3. People who value a proper dining car
  4. the Business Class. The business class on the Railjet is fabulous.

Surviving deregulated rail

The Westbahn in Austria is an example of competition making rail services better - better meaning more trains, better service, lower prices.

The downside is that we, the customers, have to do more thinking, researching and deciding. We also have to get onto the right train. No more sleepwalking.

I spent six months in Belarus, where there was only one state operator for everything except mobiles, where there were two. I loved how my life was devoid of irrelevant, meaningless decisions I had to make. I could turn my beautiful mind towards things that mattered.

However, we don't live in the red star's white dwarf. And if we don't know about the special deals out there from competing companies, we end up paying too much for bad service. And perhaps paying too much and ending up on the wrong train.

With this post, I hope I have helped you understand your options between Salzburg and Vienna, as well as beyond the two cities.

I heartily recommend giving Westbahn a try. I loved every single journey.

All the pictures were taken by my brother Hector, who is studying Art at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna. You are most welcome. Check out his Instagram profile: @ettoreschofield
Kraków Główny secret entrance
Apr 11

Kraków Głowny Station Guide

By Edward | Eastern Europe , Stations

Kraków Główny Escape Plan - or How not to Get Trapped in Cracow’s Main Station.


I see you. Yeah, you. I see you. Standing in front of those luggage lockers at Kraków Główny station. Yes, they DO only take Polish money. Coins, ffs.

Of course you haven't got any Polish money on you, much less 12 zloties in coins.

Kraków Główny Luggage lockers

The luggage lockers at Kraków Głównyonly take Coins. Polish coins.

That was me in September 2014, the first time I ended up at Cracow's new station, so I know the feeling. What happened then I don't want to describe. Let's just say when I returned in November 2014, I was prepared.

As you will be after reading this post and downloading my free e-guide.

Escape plan for Cracow Station?

You heard me.

When you arrive at a strange station, in a strange country, it can all be a bit much. It takes you time to find your bearings, time in which you get lost and waste money.

Kraków Główny train station

Kraków Główny? Almost. This is the shopping centre you have to pass through to reach the trains.

This guide is to help you find your feet before you arrive at Cracow station. When you have read this guide you will know:

Everything you need to know when arriving at Kraków Główny

  • where to get money (and where you mustn't!),
  • where you can have a cup of tea and a think,
  • how the luggage lockers work,
  • how to find your way out,
  • what tram ticket to buy. If indeed you need one.

I've also got your back if you are leaving Kraków Główny

  • How to find your way in,
  • where to buy provisions,
  • where you can get souvenirs,
  • where to get tickets, if you haven’t got them yet,

History - Built by the Austrians

Krakow Glowny railway station is in the centre of Krakow on the edge of the old town. It is ten minutes walk from the Rynek, or market square.

Cracow had a nice, classic station building, built by the Austrians in the 19th century. A station building, in front of it the platforms, a tunnel connecting them. Simple.

Kraków Główny old station

Kraków Główny's old station building, as used up until 2014. It now stands empty.

Layout - the biggest station you can’t see

This closed in 2014, and Cracow’s new station came online. All the station stuff - the halls, waiting rooms, ticket offices - is now underground. Underneath the platforms, which have remained above ground.

Immediately underneath the platforms is a wide underpass with shops and cafés. This underpass is open on one side and lets you into the cavernous station hall with all the necessities: ticket offices, luggage lockers, loos etc. The whole complex is 100 metres left of the old station.

On the west (Old Town) side Kraków Główny is flanked by the Galeria Krakowska shopping centre. On the east side you’ve got Krakow Bus station. Coaches go from here in all directions across Europe.

Welcome to Poland

First things first: do you want to jettison your luggage? OK. Have you got cash?

You can pay for everything with a card at Cracow station. Except the the luggage lockers and the loos. 

There is also a left luggage office, but this also only takes cash. Means: if you want to leave your luggage, you need Polish money.

Bureau de Change at Kraków Główny

The only bureau de change at Kraków Główny. Next to it is the privately run left luggage office. 


Changing Money at Kraków Główny

One way to get Polish cash is to exchange a small amount at the Kantor near the main Galeria Krakowska exit. Don’t look any further, it is the only bureau de change in that area.

The exchange rate is bad, which is why you should only change enough for your immediate needs. Don’t change with someone hanging around in front of the Kantor offering a better rate. The rate may be better, but that is useless if they exchange your hard cash for old Belarusian roubles.

Kraków Główny: the best ATMs 

AVOID the Euronet ATMs that infest Cracow station. These are not bank machines, they are unsuspecting-tourist-self-scamming machines. You might as well go out into the street and give your cash to one of the fake money changers.

Kraków Główny Euronet ATM

Unsuspecting Tourist Self-Scamming Machine

Here is a great video about the Euronet ATMs in Prague.


You need a bank machine from a real bank. The closest real ATM is at the threshold between the Galeria Krakowska and the station. It belongs to mBank. Or walk straight on, keeping left, and you’ll find an ING bank.

Both will give you money at a normal exchange rate. I usually take out 150-200 zlotys to get started.

The machine will ask you if you want your account debited in PLN (Zlotys) or your home currency - EUR, GBP, USD. Always ask for PLN.
Krakow station ATM

ING bank is in the Galeria Krakowska shopping centre.

That way, you get the open-market exchange rate. This is better than the “fixed” exchange rate which they will use to debit your account in euros or dollars. The ATM will go: “are you sure? Most people take the fixed rate”.

This is because most people don’t understand the difference. Decline the conversion.

Now you can take your money and head back to the station. Time for a treat. Or go straight to the section on How to get the feck out of here.

Your next move

If you are not in a hurry, you might as well sit down, connect to the FREE WIFI and plan your next move. If you want a cup of tea and a think, here are the places I recommend:

Krakow Glowny station

Grycan is a good Polish ice cream parlour and café.

Keep the wolf from the door at Grycan

THE Polish ice cream chain (their slogan is “ice cream since generations”). Strong coffee, succulent cakes, luscious ice cream. For something traditional, try the “rurka z bitą smietaną” (say: ROOrkah zBEEtong shmyeTAnnong). This is a waffle filled with fresh whipped cream.

Krakow Glowny coffee

Rurka z bita smietana. A lovely light Polish snack.

Have a square meal at Polskie Smaki

Decent Polish food at decent prices. The Polish breakfast will set you up for the day ahead.

Pierogi are also nice - dumplings filled with potato and cheese, meat, or strawberries. Or try the sour rye soupurek). On early mornings after drinking the night away with the Australians in your couchette, you'll need Żurek. It is tart and has an egg floating in it. And lots of sausage.

Now you've fortified yourself - let's get the feck out of here.

Kraków Główny luggage lockers

Now you are armed with zloties you can use the luggage lockers. There are lots of them. You can find the luggage lockers underneath almost every platform, at the lower of the two levels that make up the station hall.

Krakow Glowny Luggage Lockers

There are lots and lots of these luggage lockers

Then there are two left luggage offices with staff.

  • One is underneath platform five and takes 15zł/piece. It is station- run and staffed with grumpy men reading newspapers.
  • The other one is next to the Kantor and costs 13zł/piece. It is privately run and staffed with grumpy student girls bent over smartphones.
Krakow Glowny Left Luggage

Left Luggage Office at Kraków Główny, underneath platform 5. © Martin Pavlík

Kraków Główny: How to get the feck out

After the new station opened, people were quick to point out that it is hard to find your way out of the station. And just as hard to find your way in.

Kraków Główny exit

The easiest way out of Kraków Głowny

The biggest western exit leads you straight into the heart of the Galeria Krakowska. The next western exit also gets you into the Galeria. Only one western exit, at the south-western corner of the station comes out into the open.

A consumerist labyrinth

On the eastern side you come out at the two-deck bus station. The sight is not pretty, and definitely not what you came for.

Kraków Bus Station

If you need to get to Slovakia fast, don't tell anyone I told you it is quickest by bus. It just is. There are no daily train services from Kraków to Slovakia


Lets say you are in the underpass between the platforms.

If you want to go into the Old Town, make for the exit “Galeria Krakowska” and “Stare Miasto” and keep left. This will get you to the “secret” exit that saves you having to go through the shopping centre

Krakow Glowny exit

Kraków Główny underpass, facing the Galeria Krakowska. Bear left for the secret exit.

By Public Transport

Much depends on where you are staying. All I can do here is tell you which lines go where and what ticket you had best buy.

If you are staying in, say, Kazimierz, you wil want to go by tram.

Ditto if you are going to my favourite part of Cracow, Nowa Huta.

There are 20 minute, 40 minute, 60 minute tickets, two journey tickets and day tickets. For Kazimierz, a 20 minute ticket is fine. The same goes for Nowa Huta.

Departing Cracow - The easiest ways into the station

Getting in - through the mall or through the secret entrance

The intuitive way into the station is through the shopping centre. Walk into the Galeria Krakowska and follow the signs “Dworzec PKP”.

Krakow Glowny Galeria Krakowska

Follow the signs into the station section of this huge shopping centre

The direct entrance is hard to see unless you know how to look for it. Walk towards the old station building and keep left. Walk along the left wing of the old station building. You will find a colonnade that takes you to a flight of stairs that descend straight into the station.

Kraków Główny secret entrance

Secret entrance into Kraków Główny

Food for your journey and to take home

Carrefour

If you need provisions for your journey (let’s admit it, provisions are part of the fun) you have two supermarkets:

  • Firstly, Carrefour, just inside Galeria Krakowska at the exit into the station.
  • Secondly, Biedronka, which is in the station itself. I prefer Carrefour.
Krakow Glowny Galeria Krakowska

This Carrefour is just on the Galeria Krakowska side of the main threshold between the Galeria and the actual station

For water, if you like it still, go for Żywiec Zdrój. If you like it sparkling, go for Kryniczanka or Muszynianka.

Don’t waste time choosing beer. Stick to Żywiec or Tyskie, or try Perła if you want something more bitter. I've tried all the other Polish stuff, nothing is as good.

For chocolate, what is delicious is the Wawel Kasztankibar. This also makes a great souvenir.

Krakowski Kredens

Walk out of Carrefour and head straight ahead through the mall. Within a minute you’ll see a shop called Krakowski Kredens on the right hand side. Krakowski Kredens affects to be traditional and does it quite well.

You can get very good sausage and ham here. Also smoked and unsmoked platted Polish cheese strings (“Warkocz” - say VARkotch). These are perfect on a train, as very easy to handle. Krakowski Kredens have lovely bread as well.

Krakow Glowny Krakowski Kredens

Krakowski Kredens sells traditional Polish food in small packets. Not that cheap, but very good.

This shop sells other long lasting, transportable Polish goodies.

Organic food? Vegan in Poland?

If you want organic food, right next to Krakowski Kredens is an organic shop. I’ve got delicious kabanosy there. Also very nice is the Ciechan organic beer. Unpasteurised and very rich.

If you are vegan you will have noticed that the only vegan products in Poland are beer and cigarettes. But here you’ve got a bigger selection of stuff without anything animal in it.

The great thing about having a station in a mall

Of course it is ludicrous and distasteful planning the city's central station as the afterthought of YET ANOTHER SHOPPING CENTRE, but... You might as well benefit. You've got everything on hand for souvenirs


Polish books and music

When you enter Galeria Krakowska from the station square and descend the escalator, behind you will be a big shop called Empik. Empik has everything media, including CDs, books, magazines and posters. They also have postcards and pens.

Polish Fashion

In the 19th and early 20th century, Poland was famous for its fashion. Now it is returning. For lovely women’s fashion, look out for Wólczanka (not an affiliate). I got beautiful blouses for my wife there. For men’s clothing, look into Vistula (again, not an affiliate). I’m wearing my Vistula suit in my Nightjet goodie bag unboxing video.

Got your tickets yet?

For international tickets, especially for night trains, don't join the normal queue. Go straight to the COK - the centrum obsługi klienta, aka the passenger service centre. This office will also sell you tickets for the EIP pendolino trains, Polish Rail's premium train.

Krakow Glowny Pendolino Tickets

Go here for international and Express Intercity Premium tickets

For standard tickets within Poland, join the main queue. It is served by multiple windows. I've never had to wait long. 

Poland has been through a catastrophic railway-deregulation. The state operator PKP has been dismantled and only does intercity trains - PKP Intercity. The local trains have been split up into regional companies that are owned by the various Polish regions. The windows can sell you tickets for most operators, but not all.

If at some point in the future the Poles manage to sell you an entire itinerary with multiple operators on one ticket, it will be hailed as a miracle of IT and progress. In fact this was normal until Poland's car-crazy government screwed up the trains.

Krakow Glowny Ticket office

The main ticket queue for normal tickets within Poland

There are also ticket machines. I admit that I have never used one, simply because I've never bothered. These should also be able to give you tickets for most destinations in Poland. Here is a picture of one, as seen at Kraków Główny.

Krakow Glowny Ticket Machine

If you can't face the queue (or the Polish ticket window), have a go on one of these machines


Understanding the Polish platform numbering system

• Kraków Główny has five platforms (“Peron” in Polish)

• Each platform has two tracks (“Tor” in Polish”)

• Each track is divided into sectors. These are not usually relevant.

• Trains are announced “arriving on track x at platform y”.

When you read the departure board, you will see which peron your train is leaving from. And always pay attention to what it says on the train before you get on.

Download the e-guide with all the maps

I've put all this information into a nifty 20-page e-guide with lots of pictures and maps, so you can find your way more easily. You can download it and have it at your disposal always, without having to rely on the internet. If you join my free Rail Guide Europe club, you get the password for my free e-guide library.

Free Rail Guide Europe club

Join 260 other rail travellers in my free Rail Guide Europe club. You get:


  1. Money saving emails about how to get the cheapest tickets
  2. Inside information from someone who works on trains
  3. The password to my ever-expanding free e-guide library with useful stuff you can download
  4. Alerts when I publish a new post
  5. My email address and Telegram handle, so you can ask me anything, anytime
Krakow Glowny

Train ready to leave Kraków Główny. © Martin Pavlík

Nightjet; Night Train; EuroNight
Mar 16

Nightjet: 17 Lines of Night Train Awesomeness

By Edward | Reviews , Western Europe

Have you heard of the Nightjet? 

The Nightjet is an overnight train service.

Night trains differ all over the world. This post is about a particular brand of night trains in Europe, the Nightjet. What they are like, where they go and how to get tickets.

I hesitated for a long time about putting you through my take on the Nightjet.

Why? Because I’m too involved in night trains. I worked on them for six years. Night trains are my thang. I know so much that it is insanely hard to keep it short.

And the temptation is huge to descend into endless tales of my adventures.

Endless tales of my adventures

  • The time in Venice I drank two litres of Tocai on the hotel roof and the alarm clock fairy set my alarm for me.
  • My Milan-Munich couchette with 50 Albanians from the same village.
  • The time the Austrian police arrested a refugee family off my couchette. They wouldn't let the little boy keep his balloon.
  • The time at Stuttgart at 2 AM the police brought me a man and his 5 year old daughter. The man was so drunk he couldn't get onto the train. The girl had her little orange bucket and pink spade from that day's Bodensee outing.
  • Meeting my wife on platform 3 at Roma Termini.
  • Taking her to Milan with me in the guard’s van, just because I could.

But I digress.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train

Nightjet Sleeping Car

Night Train Basics

First, some absolute basics.

Night trains are not just trains that run at night. Any train can run at night. Night trains are trains that cover vast distances over night, with beds and bunks in which you can sleep.  

There is also an attendant who ensures your safety.

Most continental European night trains have three types of carriage

  • seated cars, like on day trains. These are the cheapest, least comfortable option for a long journey over night. Fine if you have a compartment to yourself. Not fine if it is you and five other smelly people.
  • couchettes (say: cooSHET). From the French "to lie down". Carriages with four or six bunks per compartment in which you can take your trip lying down. Think hostel on wheels. Cheap, but you do get to sleep.
  • sleeping cars. Your hotel on wheels. One, two or three proper beds stacked over each other in one compartment. The compartment has a wash basin or even an en-suite bathroom.
Nightjet; Night Train; EuroNight

Nightjet Couchette Car

Enter the Nightjets

The Nightjets are trains like this. Here is a link to their website with 360° views of all types of carriage. The Nightjet is a network of overnight train services run by the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB - Österreichische Bundesbahnen) in Central Europe.

It has its hub in Austria. The Nightjets go to the most glamourous cities in Europe: Vienna, Berlin, and Hamburg as well as Rome, Venice and Milan. They also serve Zürich, Düsseldorf and Cologne.

What is the difference between Nightjets and EuroNights?

Very little. EuroNights are international night express trains that have a high service level. Great comfort, few stops, high(-ish) speed. EuroNight isn’t a brand, it is a service standard. “Make your train like this, then you can call it a EuroNight”. They used to run all over continental Europe, but there are fewer of them these days.

The Nightjet is a better EuroNight. 

In some countries it crosses, the departure boards display it as a EuroNight. The difference is that the Austrian Railways have branded “their” EuroNights. They have special livery, extensive marketing and a higher service level.  All coaches are air-conditioned and the attendants have Sound-of-Music uniforms.

Nightjet Destinations

Here is a map of all the Nightjet services. As you can see, its hub is in Austria.

Nightjet review Euronight

The Nightjet network as of 2019. The thin grey lines are other companies' night services.

Nightjet: How to get the best tickets

These are the easiest ways to get Nightjet tickets:

  • You can buy Nightjet tickets online. I favour nightjet.com and oebb.at. They are the same booking engine, run by ÖBB directly. I’ve always got the best deal from them.
  • Or download the ÖBB app. You can buy your ticket within the app. Then you can show your attendant a QR code.
  • The 1890s way to get tickets. Buy them at a ticket office or a licensed agent. However, not all of them can get you special promo deals. Thus you may end up paying more than necessary. Of course, nothing beats a real paper ticket to treasure as a memento.
  • Here is the full breakdown of everywhere you can get tickets.

You can get your ticket up to six months in advance. The earlier you buy them, the cheaper they'll be.

...and how much Nightjet tickets cost

The Nightjet has a dynamic pricing system. Below you will find the cheapest rates for all categories. I can't book six months in advance because I don't plan my journeys that far ahead. But if you do, you can get your berth for one of these prices.

The cheapest prices on the Nightjet

The cheapest Nightjet prices

I booked my last sleeper about two weeks in advance and paid €204 for a single deluxe sleeper. 

As you can see, going by Nightjet is more expensive than going on a day train. But it is more work to run a night train. I gladly paid €204 so as not to use up a precious day of leave trapped in an overfilled, late ICE train with a toddler.

Nightjet with a Eurail or Interrail pass

The Eurail and Interrail pass is accepted on the Nightjet.

However:

You need to reserve a berth on the Nightjet. Either do it at a ticket office, or over the phone under +43 5 1717-3. You can’t get Pass holder reservations online. Here is what you have to pay for these supplements:

Nightjet Eurail Interrail

What you pay on the Nightjet if you have a Eurail or Interrail pass

Newrest Wagons-Lits: Inventors of the Orient Express

Now about the staff in the Sound-of-Music uniforms:

The people working on the service are not Austrian Railways' staff. They work for the subcontractor the Austrians have retained to run these trains.

I haven't got a single decent picture of the Sound-of-Music uniform. You'll have to see for yourself.

So far, so sleazy, right?

No!

Free water on the Nightjet

The free water you get on the Nightjet couchette and sleeper

In fact Newrest Wagons-Lits is the original night train company. In 1872 their founder, the Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, introduced the first sleeping car in Europe. He founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) and went on to invent the Orient Express.

Wash room on Nightjet

A wash room at the end of the corridor on a Nightjet couchette

In its heyday CIWL owned sleeping- and dining cars that travelled from Lisbon to Saint Petersburg and from London to Constantinople.

This is how famous they are.

After World War II the company declined and was bought and sold several times, losing its own carriages along the way.

Power outlet on Nightjet couchette

Socket in Nightjet couchette

Although Newrest Wagons-Lits may only be a white dwarf after the star that was CIWL, they still trace their lineage back to the very zenith of the Grand European Expresses. They are the real thing.

I think it is fantastic that the Nightjets hark back to such a glorious past.

Sitting up or lying down?

The Nightjet has three main types of carriage. There is only one type of seating car I know of, two types of couchette, and two models of sleeper carriage. Here come descriptions of the coaches used on most lines.

A happy and cheap way to travel

In Europe, compartments in seated carriages are disappearing. It's saloon everywhere. However, not so on the Nightjet. On the Nightjet the compartment rules.

When I was little an air trip was something so rare you got dressed up for it. The norm was to go by train and boat.

Seated Car on European Night Train

Nightjet Seated Car Interior

So when I was four my mother and I went to England by train to Oostende and jet-foil to Ramsgate.

I remember the orange seats on the train and that we pulled them out a long way. This gave us a huge surface to lie on. That was how we spent the night.

A huge communal mattress

And this is a great thing. The Nightjet seated carriages still have these seats you can pull out. And this gets you a mattress that takes up the entire compartment.

Seated Car on European Night train

The communal mattress in action

This is most comfortable if there are two or three of you. And less so if you are six, as you have to lie like sardines with your feet in each other's faces. Perhaps your Interrail-feet.

ÖBB allow you to book an entire seated compartment for yourself, even if it is just two or three of you. This is a fantastic idea. Your compartment is marked with a big notice "private compartment" in German, English and Italian.

Until the 11th of April 2019 you can book a private compartment for up to three people for €99. After that, the price starts at €174
Seat Car on European Night Train

More communal mattress. Notice the sockets above the rubbish bin

In Italy, the Nightjets to Rome and Milan are part of Trenitalia's Intercity network - that means that commuters and other internal passengers get into the seated cars. 

If you haven't booked a private compartment, expect to find your seat occupied. Be ready to insist on the occupant moving. This is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Just say: Scusi, è il mio posto. (SCOOzy, eh il MEEo POsto).
European Night Train Seated Car

The seated car from the outside

There is no breakfast included in the seated car, so bring something with you or buy something from the staff.

Good couchettes and bad couchettes

Couchettes are a good thing. A couchette is the minimum level of comfort you should go for. They are cheap, and you get to sleep.

NIghtjet EuroNight Night Train Europe

Lower bunk in Nightjet couchette

But.

It is possible that the younger you are, the better you will sleep in them. 

NIghtjet EuroNight Night Train Europe

Upper berth on a Nightjet couchette

On my recent couchette trips on the Nightjet, I found the bunk very hard. I also hated the way it sloped towards the wall.

Fortunately, they are going to be phased out, starting 2021. ÖBB are working on new couchettes. They  allow more privacy and comfort. Here is what these are going to look like.

Nightjet couchette

Nightjet six-couchette setup

The Nightjet also has some old German couchettes with blue bunks. ÖBB snaffled these after DB took down its night network. These are softer and flatter. They usually run on the Vienna-Zurich and Zurich-Berlin lines. I've always slept well on those.

What I can say is this: on every one of my trips, the couchettes were pristine. Everything clean and fragrant and working.​​​​

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly wiped floors in a Nightjet couchette

And believe me, it is hard work keeping trains clean and working.

Again, ÖBB allow you to book yourself a whole compartment for a flat fee. Even in Italy this will definitely be yours all the way. I have done this before and it is a great idea.

The feeling is wonderful to look forward to your trip and know that you won't have a stinker or a snorer in your compartment.

On Nightjet couchettes breakfast is included. Coffee or tea, two rolls, butter (NOT margarine!) and jam. Most definitely the best couchette breakfast there is.

Sleeper

I know the Nightjet sleepers because I worked on this equipment for six years.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly made bed in Nightjet sleeper

Before they ran for the Nightjet, the carriages belonged to Deutsche Bahn. As a Deutsche Bahn night train manager, I got to know them well. In 2016, Deutsche Bahn closed down its night trains and sold the cars to ÖBB.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Freshly made bed on Nightjet sleeper

Every time I worked as an attendant in a sleeping car, I drew a little line in a secret place - so that I would know how often I had had this car. Now these carriages roam Europe without me, but my marks are still there.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

Yet another freshly made Nightjet sleeper bed

The Nightjet sleeping cars are only about 15 years old - new by rail standards.

Each carriage has twelve compartments with three beds. Nine compartments are standard, with a wash basin. Three compartments are "deluxe" with an en-suite loo and shower.

As I wrote in my viral tweet:

When booking the Nightjet sleeper, always book Deluxe (berths 32-36, 42-46, 52-56) if possible. If not, ask for 31-35, 41-45 or 51-55. These compartments have more space. Avoid 11-15 (next to loo) and 62-66 (next to kitchen - keys jangling, attendants cursing).

Click to Tweet

It only costs a tiny bit more for the deluxe option: between €10 and €20 per berth, but it is SO worth it. Because: 

  • You have more space. 
  • If you wake up at 3:37 AM and sort of feel you might need a pee, you just go to your en-suite loo. 
  • No obsessing about whether to get dressed and go to the loo at the end of the corridor or trying to sleep against your bladder.
  • Showers are also a good thing
Bed on Nightjet sleeping car

Another Nightjet sleeper bed

The carriages have pneumatic suspension (the car body lies on air cushions, rather than springs), and this makes for a smooth and silent ride. 

They are awesome.

An extensive breakfast is included, which I shall elaborate below.

Want to use the Nightjet in your wheelchair?

Nearly all Nightjets have a compartment for people in wheelchairs, with walking frames or who have other special needs, such as sleep apnoea.

Wheelchair Nightjet PRM

The Nightjet wheelchair compartment

This is a lovely, spacious compartment with two beds in it - one for you and one for whoever is accompanying you. The wheelchair-accessible loo is next door. 

Wheelchair accessible compartment

The two beds in the wheelchair-accessible compartment

There is only one of these per trainset, so it is best to book it as far in advance as possible, but at least 48 hrs beforehand. By the following means:

A trip worth every cent of €204

I go to great lengths for you, my reader. One of these lengths is to book myself a single deluxe sleeper and travel in it. For added difficulty, I took my baby daughter with me. With a buggy.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train

Oh this again 


All so I could report back to you what it is like to go on the Nightjet, and what the service is like. After all, I have worked on trains like this, so I should know, right? Well, maybe.

Getting on

We managed to get on. Somehow. In spite of all my experience, I managed to fluff getting onto the train with a buggy. Buggies and prams cause absolute mayhem on trains. I hate them. This isn't ÖBB's fault.

Sidetrack: since going to Bulgaria and back by train with a pram, I've come to love low-entry, wide-door trains. From Bucharest to Ruse I had one of those and it was such a relief not having to dismantle the pram. 

Prams shouldn't be anywhere near trains. As a train manager, one of my worst Flixtrain nightmares is the Eurocopter/SUV-style pram stuck in the corridor, with a throng of people trapped behind it.

Going to bed

The attendant had everything ready, including a small bottle of Prosecco.

I found a goodie bag which I liked so much I took it home untouched (apart from the prosecco. I guzzled that immediately). I took it home untouched and decided to do an unboxing video for you. Here it is. Don't laugh, and please don't cry, either.

Nightjet Goodie Bag Unboxing Video


There are all sorts of lovely little things in the goodie bag that make you feel pampered.

  • Slippers
  • a nice Nightjet towel
  • ear plugs
  • a refreshing wipe
  • little pretzels to go with your drink
  • a squeezy fruit thing

The breakfast interrogation

When I worked on sleepers, asking 30 people what they wanted for breakfast was tedious and took ages. 

After getting on to the sleeper, I found the following questionnaire, which I duly filled out. A very clever idea.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

This leaflet is in German, English and Italian. Tick whatever you want. Brilliant.

I ticked all the stuff I liked and that I thought a toddler can eat and handed the form to the attendant. Then we were left to ourselves.

By now we were whooshing through the Rhine valley. By day, the Rhine valley railway is a wonderful trip. At night it is even more beautiful. The moon and the lights from the opposite embankment reflecting on the waves, the dark hills drifting under the stars.
Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

She loved the night light. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On.

I needed all of the space of the deluxe compartment. It isn't huge. Furthermore, baby stuff spreads out so quickly. I jammed the collapsed buggy and luggage into the nook behind the en-suite bathroom.

In the sleepers, luggage can go underneath the bottom bed, or in the baggage racks. These are high up. Try and have as little luggage with you as possible. In the smaller of the standard compartments (11-15, 12-16, 21-25, 22-26, 61-65 and 62-66) a big suitcase won't fit anywhere. It ends up blocking the floor.

Nightjet Euronight Night Train Europe

She slept all night in this bed

Getting up and out

As always when I am on a night train, we were bang on time. I was woken up with a knock 45 minutes before we arrived.

The Nightjets have lots of extra time in their timetables. Firstly, so that you don't arrive at 4 AM, and secondly so that if the train is delayed it can catch up again. For this reason, the Nightjet stands about in sidings in the middle of the night quite a bit. If you notice you're not moving, don't worry. Everything is probably fine.

My breakfast pictures didn't turn out. However, my good friend from Twitter, @_DiningCar, helped me out and sent me this lovely picture:

Breakfast on the Nightjet

Breakfast on the Nightjet, photographed by my friend @_DiningCar. Check out his wonderful channel on Twitter

What I think of breakfast in sleepers

I've already written this in my post on Astra Trans Carpatic: I think breakfast is a waste of time, money and food. I've seen so much thrown away. I favour the Slovak model of weapons-grade instant coffee and Tatranký waffle bar.

However: The Nightjet breakfast is nice. The selection is staggering, and all the food is above-average quality. Even fussy people can find something on the breakfast menu. I think Newrest Wagons-Lits (the people working on the Nightjets, in case you skipped the Newrest chapter) have made a huge effort. It has paid off and they deserve credit for it.

The breakfast I served on the CityNightLine (Deutsche Bahn's moribund night train network) was not nearly as nice. Lucky passengers.

What I think of the Nightjets

For two decades since the 1990s, the night trains in Europe have taken one beating after another. Railway company after railway company abandoned them. The Swiss, everybody's darling when it comes to rail travel, were among the first. Then in 2016 Deutsche Bahn finally axed its own CityNightLine network, after sabotaging it for years.

The Austrian Railways picked up the pieces of the CityNightLine and put it together with their own EuroNight network.

But not just that: they did much more. They devised a vibrant new brand, a fuck-off marketing strategy and lots of new ideas to accommodate 21st century tastes (e.g. the private compartments). In its very first year, the Nightjet network made money for ÖBB. 

Nightjet Advert on Tram

Fuck-off marketing strategy: Nightjet advert on entire tram car in Bratislava - well within Vienna Hbf's catchment area. Courtesy of my friend Martin Pavlík

The Austrians have proven that it is possible to run exciting, modern night trains as a sustainable, profitable business. 

Excitement and Indulgence

The Nightjet gives you that feeling of excitement and indulgence so lacking on most modern trains. From the moment you buy your ticket to the end of your journey you feel the tingle of European overnight adventure, even if it is from one boring German city to another.

This is why it is worth going on the Nightjet at every possible opportunity.

Have another look at Nightjet.com and see when it next fits your plans.

Swiss Dining Car SBB Elvetino Restaurant Car
Jan 10

Review: The Restaurant Car on Swiss Trains

By Edward | Reviews

Before I begin: I digress

Before I get going on the Swiss railways' restaurant car, have I told you about the Edward Scale?

No, I haven't. The Edward Scale is my way of ranking restaurants.

How to rank restaurants on the Edward Scale

It is simple: a restaurant’s food should be better than its furnishings.

Good food is always good. Bad pizza does not become good pizza if you screw a Vespa to the wall and drape Italian flags everywhere.

A restaurant with a contrived interior doth protest too much. It is fur coat and no knickers.

Swiss restaurant car review

This restaurant doth protest too much

You give points from 1-10 for food, 10 being the best, and points from 1-10 for the interior - furnishing, decorating etc, 1 being the most basic, 10 being the most elaborate. Then you subtract the interior points from the food points to get your result on the Edward Scale. 

The best possible score is +10, the worst score is -10. Any restaurant that scores more than zero on the Edward Scale is worth visiting. Even zero on the Edward Scale is OK. Anything below zero, avoid.

The best-ranking restaurant on the Edward Scale

For a long time the place with the best result on the Edward Scale was a small Russian dumpling stand, Pelmeni Welt, in the square outside Berlin Ostbahnhof. 

Pelmeni Welt got a whopping 9 points on the Edward Scale: 9 points for its food (I grudgingly had to deduct one point because of the microwave) - minus 0 points for the interior.

Swiss Dining Car review

Pelmeni Welt at Berlin Ostbahnhof

It simply has no interior. Pelmeni Welt is a sort of shack, odd bits of wood nailed together and covered with a tarpaulin. There is a gas burner heating it and toddlers’ scribblings on the wall, possibly by the great-grandchildren of the 85 year old Latvian proprietor, Vladimir Egozov.

Every time I make it to Berlin Ostbahnhof I pray that Vladimir is still alive and that the muddy early-90s post-communist reserve outside Berlin Ostbahnhof in which Pelmeni Welt stands hasn’t been bulldozed.

As my train pulls into Berlin Ostbahnhof I tremble as I open the train door. Then I dash down the stairs and out the north exit and into the square overlooked by what was once a Centrum Warenhaus, East Germany’s department store chain.

Five minutes later I sit hunched over a steaming, mismatched, chipped bowl of Pelmeni doused in broth and piled with fresh herbs, adjika (a hot, Georgian tomato-pepper sauce) and sour cream, as Vladimir tries to talk me into opening a franchise in Munich.

Swiss dining car restaurant car review

Pelmeni at Pelmeni Welt

The food is absolutely mind-blowing. The shack creaks in the wind and an old CRT television blares Russian music videos.

OK, OK, I’m digressing, but I want you to know about the Edward scale so that you can follow my future food reviews.

Meet the Swiss Restaurant Car

So this post is about the Swiss restaurant car usually found in international Swiss rail services and about Elvetino, the people who run it. Elvetino is the catering company owned by SBB for servicing their trains with food.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

The Swiss restaurant car

In my case, I was on EuroCity 8, which runs from Zürich HB to Hamburg-Altona. Though most of its journey is in Germany, this service is run with nice SBB coaches.

To go on a Swiss train is to enter a world in which rail travel gets the devotion it deserves. Everything works. Especially the loos. There are power outlets. Everything is clean.

Me, I’m a compartment gal. I resent that all the SBB have to offer is saloon seating. Especially after dark, when the lighting comes on and you can’t see out the windows due to the bright strip lighting.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

Fine during the day, but depressing at night: saloon seating in SBB Eurocity coaches. Is like a morgue. Best go to the restaurant car...

Ambience

What is gorgeous, though, is the SBB restaurant car, even at night. Especially at night.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

Heavy black leather chairs, white table cloths, red walls. Same theme as the SBB livery

The overall atmosphere is restrained, elegant and discreet. It has heavy black, leather, movable chairs and plain white table cloths. Crockery and cutlery are china and metal respectively, and they feel opulent.

Warm, emmolient spotlights instead of the cold, morgue striplighting everywhere else on the train. All the tables are aligned with the windows. 

Everyone talks in murmurs. The waitress glides about like a vestal virgin, nodding her head at whispered orders. Germans come and are in awe. In such awe in fact that they pay €5.00 for a tin of insipid Feldschlösschen beer without complaining.

Menu

The menu is equally restrained and elegant, and surprisingly unpretentious. There is choice, but not too much.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

The main courses on the menu in the Swiss restaurant car

All classic, salt-of-the-earth Swiss food, with meat, without, and even vegan. Not the ostentatious seitan vegan, where the worse it tastes the holier it makes you. Just food that happens to be vegan.

Some appetizers and salads, some main courses, some puddings. Some hot and cold drinks, and that is it.

My actual meal

I spent almost six hours in the SBB dining car. I got on at Koblenz, where I live at the moment, and stayed all the way to Hamburg.

Drink! Drink! Drink!

I kicked things off with some fancy beer from Ticino. Craft, artigianale and all that. Read: expensive. Apart from the permanent selection of beers Elvetino have a constantly changing offer of regional Swiss special beers. This is what I went for.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

The Rhine as seem from my vantage point in the Swiss restaurant car

I had had this beer a couple of weeks before, had wanted to hate it but loved it. Afterwards I had opened the Ukrainian Obolon’ Zhihulivs’ke beer that I had brought with me - which I had wanted to love but hated. My days of drinking warm beer from 1 liter plastic bottles are over.

The standard beer in the SBB restaurant is Feldschlösschen from a 0.5l tin. Feldschlösschen tastes like Swedish supermarket beer - weak and bland. Better to pay a tiny bit more for much better beer.

I drank it slowly and soaked up the atmosphere as the train twisted along the Rhine. The sun was already setting, and it bathed the tables in shimmering orange light. Just before Cologne I decided to stay and have something to eat. I promised myself I would write a review for it on the blog, to justify the indulgence.

Swiss restaurant car review

The Swiss restaurant car

As a main course I ordered the Polenta with Ratatouille and another Ticino beer. The Vestal Virgin had made me pay straight away for my first bottle (which I resented), but now she saw I meant business and brought everything else I ordered and merely added it to my bill.

Hot through 

The Polenta took reassuringly long to come. I didn’t dare look to see if there was a microwave. Obviously, this stuff is cooked off the premises. It is not food, it is catering. But it is good. Most probably it was warmed up in a steamer. It was properly hot through and showed no tell-tale signs of having been microwaved. Fantastic.

Swiss Rail Dining Car Restaurant Car Review Elvetino

My polenta looking great

It tasted great. The polenta was nice and maizey, soft but grainy, and the Ratatouille was sweet and tomatoey. The whole thing was well balanced and very satisfying. The beer went very well with it.

I lose control

I don’t remember what happened then, but what I do know is that I must have read the menu again and ordered the “panna cotta with raspberry coulis”.

Somehow, the Swiss manage to use French without sounding pretentious.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist it. I had an espresso to go with it and it came in a proper china cup and was also just right. Strong and smokey and not at all bitter.

Swiss Restaurant car review SBB Elvetino

Panna cotta and raspberry coulis and espresso

By now it was past 9 PM and the waitress had shut up shop. So I still sat in the empty dining car and watched the darkness whirl past the window.

Cheaper than a psychologist

Well, it was hardly going to be cheap, was it? I hear you already:  Yeah, Eddie, tell us, what was the damage?

Swiss Restaurant Car review SBB Elvetino

What I paid

Well, I blew all 30 of my Swiss franks and then parted with some euros as well. But if you compare it with real restaurants in Switzerland, the price is OK. It isn’t cheap, but it is exquisite, so on balance, you get your money’s worth. I think.

Expect to pay between €30-€50 per person for food, drink, pudding and coffee.

Verdict

First, the Edward Scale. The Swiss restaurant car gets 4 points on the Edward Scale.

The food gets seven points. Remember this is not freshly cooked, it is warmed up. But it is the best warmed up food I've ever had on a train.

SBB Swiss Restaurant Car Review Elvetino

The interior gets three points - it is tables, chairs, table cloths and cutlery. Only the necessities, but Elvetino don't skimp. They have the best necessities. Otherwise the decorations are restricted to red panelling and vague mountain scenery.

So we subtract three interior points from seven food points to get four points on the Edward Scale.

Overall experience

Imagine this: you spend one or two hours (in my case five or six) in a sumptuous atmosphere, sitting very comfortably and watching the scenery flit by. Everyone is nice to everyone else, no one is in a hurry. It is so civilised

A visit to the Swiss restaurant car is like a little holiday - a holiday from austerity. It is like a sojourn to some older Europe in which the small things still matter and haven't been sacrificed to efficiency and the bottom line. 

Swiss Restaurant Car review SBB Elvetino


I left feeling mellow, relaxed and civilised. I had been feeling depressed about the impending five days away from home, battling with broken heatings and loos on the Flixtrain. This made me feel better than any psychologist could have done.

As I wrote in my rapturous tweet, you feel like you are in a more glamorous, exciting version of your own life. 

So, next time on a Swiss train, plan for the restaurant car. Factor it in to your budget.

Have a look at their current menu right here.

It may not be cheap, but it is worth it. 

ICE 4 Review
Oct 24

Review: You call this a Window Seat?!? Deutsche Bahn’s new ICE 4

By Edward | Reviews

​My first encounter with​ the ICE 4

​Imagine this.


You are at Munich station picking someone up from a train about to arrive. Perhaps your wife and baby. Behind you, a brand new ICE 4, the smell of new train wafting out the doors. A futuristic bleeping sets in, the doors close in a flurry of flashing LED lights .

​So this is the future, and I'm in it. Wow. With a subtle, soothing sigh the breaks release and the train noiselessly sets itself in motion, gliding majestically out into the sunlight.

You scratch your armpit and adjust your shopping bag. They should be here any moment.

ICE 4 review

View from the entrance into an ICE 4 carriage

​Suddenly. a text message


​Suddenly, a text message:

we can't get into our platform. It is blocked by a broken down train.


You look up from your phone, up the line, and there you see it: that vision of things to come, the ICE4, speadeagled across the points of four platforms, grinning like an oblivious python. 45 minutes later it draws back to the platform it left and expels its passengers. It only made it 100 yards towards Hamburg.


You take your wife and baby home an hour late to a lunch of warm beer and cold chicken.

​The Story of the ICE 4

The ICE 4s are the biggest order ever placed by Deutsche Bahn. For more than €5 bn they ordered 130 of these trains, with a contract in place for 300. This train is set to become the backbone of German fast rail transport.

​A present for German Industry


As Deutsche Bahn is owned by the German state, it was important that German manufacturers got a slice of this lovely cake. In this case it was Siemens and Bombardier.

ICE 4 review

The Fliegende Hamburger came from the same factory as today's ICE 4 coaches - Görlitz

The carriages are made by Bombardier in Görlitz, a city that has been making trains for 160 years, while all the electrical stuff is supplied by Siemens from all over its engineering empire.

OK, I get it. Enough background.

​Enough Background. What ​is the ICE 4 like?

After the unfortunate first meeting, things got much better. I've been on the ICE 4 several times and can now tell you what it is like.

On my first trip I got on at 5:55 AM and saw the LED-lighting in action. Apparently it adjusts to the time of day in all sorts of colours. All I saw was orange in the morning and white as the day progressed. I loved the orange light.

Since then all I've seen is white - presumably it is controlled manually and whoever controls it forgets about it. It would be interesting if there was a light setting for crowd control, for calming down mutinous passengers on an overcrowded, delayed ICE.

ICE 4 Review

Soothing orange light early in the morning

The ICE 4: General Description

The ICE 4 is formed of twelve extra-long coaches. It is painted in the usual white with a red line along its side. The train has three first class carriages, a restaurant car that has some first class seating as well as the compartment for parents with toddlers, and nine second class carriages.

The carriage numbers are painted on - Deutsche Bahn has learnt the hard way that nothing beats good old analogue.

ICE 4 review

Outside of an ICE 4 carriage. Notice the painted on carriage number in addition to the LED display

All of the carriages are open plan seating. The only actual ​compartment is the one for parents with toddlers​​​.

Its top speed is 250km/h. Though not as fast as the first generation ICE (280km/h) or the ICE 3 (330 km/h), this is ample. On a network plagued by engineering (or the lack of it), trains rarely attain their top speed. A faster train would have cost more with no benefit whatsoever.

As the carriages are very long, they have to be correspondingly narrow to remain within the German loading gauge. The reduced diameter is noticeable. This is also why the ICE 4 has little gangways that roll out to bridge the yawning gap between the train and the platform.

Second class on the ICE 4

​The second class comes with standard 2+2 seating (that is, two seats each side of the aisle).

​Though some of the ​chairs are arranged in blocs of four grouped around a table, most are arranged two-by-two behind each other, always facing the middle of the carriage. 

Thus whichever direction the train is travelling, half of the seats are facing backwards, half forwards.

ICE 4 review

Second class on the ICE 4

What is wise of DB is to have generous, easily accessible luggage racks.

ICE 4 review

Generous baggage rack on the ICE 4

All in all this is a fairly pleasant second class experience, much nicer and more spaceous than the rather cramped second class on the ÖBB Railjet with its frozen-spinach coloured seats and linoleum floor or, God help us, the smartie-coloured man-trap that is SNCF's TGV Duplex.

The infamous ICE 4 seats: I think they are great.

There have been many complaints, in fact mass hysteria about the new model of seats Deutsche Bahn has installed in the ICE 4. People have been saying they are torture chairs from hell.

ICE 4 review

Second class seats on the ICE 4. The head rests are very comfortable

Perhaps there is something wrong with my back (I did do ballroom dancing for ten years) but I find them superbly comfortable.

They have a nice high head and proper ears that support your head nicely as you snooze. They do not recline, instead the bottom bit slips forward, pulling the back rest after it. The benefit is that a reclining seat doesn't invade your space, thus preventing aircraft-style brawls.

I also like the little displays on the head-rests, showing from where to where the seat is reserved. This is easy to see and to read.

ICE 4 review

See yourself on the map - Georgian Railways already had this ten years ago

The free Wifi works well enough wherever there is a decent LTE signal. This isn't everywhere, but that is hardly Deutsche Bahn's fault. In the second class each device is allowed 200MB of data volume

First class

The first class comes with 2+1 seating and leather chairs. Apart from being made of leather and spaced a bit further apart, they follow the same design pattern as those in the second class. They aren't more comfortable.

ICE 4 review

First class seating on the ICE 4. The seats are the same, just leather and spaced further apart

The carpet is the same and so is the Wifi signal. The only difference here is unlimited data volume per device.

Why go first class? It's breathing space and elbow room more than the seats that make first class more pleasant on the ICE 4.

Travelling with a baby?

Have you got a baby? I have, these days, and I love that Deutsche Bahn has a nice separate compartment in which you can let it run around. Or breastfeed.

ICE 4 review

Seats in the toddler's compartment on the ICE 4

Sometimes people with nowhere to sit will find their way into the toddler's compartment, but they cannot complain. And if you roll up with a baby, you can make them move.

This is something Deutsche Bahn has solved very well: the toddler's compartment is next to the guard's van, so there is always someone to help you, the restaurant car is next door, and there is a nice toilet with a changing mat. It is all very well done, on all ICE and Intercity trains.

The bicycle section

Until the ICE 4 was introduced, it was dogma that no bicycles are allowed on ICEs. The German bicycle club never stopped lobbying for this to be changed.

Now that many Intercities are being replaced with ICEs, DB has grudgingly accepted that the ICE 4 has to transport bicycles. So it has a small section with eight slots for bikes. These have to be reserved at the cost of €9. 

ICE 4 review

Bicycle section in carriage 1 on the ICE 4

Some smart people think that if they have their bicycle in a bag or a cardboard box it can go free as baggage.

Wrong. The other day on my Flixtrain, running at full capacity, I found a man blocking six seats with his bicycle in a nylon holdall. I went mad. I made him put it where it belonged and charged him the full bicycle price - the alternative being he pay for six seats.

The only bikes that can go free are the truly collapsable ones that fold into a small carrier bag.

Anyway, I haven't tried to load a bicycle into the ICE 4, but the set up looks usable. Just remember: carriage 1 is for bicycles and you need a reservation. As many older ICEs don't take bikes, it is wise to book as far in advance as you can.

You call this a Window Seat?!?

Now for my one big complaint. A preposterous amount of seats on this train have no window, or a tiny sliver of one. Since trains have started to be measured in price per seat and kilometre travelled, window seats have gone out the window. This is one of many symptoms of the bottom-line doing the designing on the ICE 4.

ICE 4 review

This isn't even one of the worst examples. And it is in the first class.

Now, when booking a seat on an ICE, if the train you are dealing with is an ICE 4, you are likely to specify a window seat and find yourself next to the wall. At the same time, the spacious and desperately needed baggage racks afford your suitcase a fantastic view right next to the window.

This is just really cack-handed design, an example of DB's bean counters shitting on us passengers. It could have been avoided, but all that mattered was cost. Bizarrely, the first class is just as bad as the second class.

The things I do for you

I go to great lengths for you, my readers. One of these lengths is to walk from end to end on the ICE 4 with a furrowed brow, muttering to myself, writing stuff down. I even had to explain myself to the guard.

I have compiled a list of all the seats that have no window. And believe me, it is long. You can find the list of all the unwindow-seats as a handy download in the e-guide library. If you subscribe to my email list you have free, life-long access to my e-guide-library - even if you unsubscribe.


I digress: Business Administrators

ICE 4 review

When I went to university,  nearly everyone I met was starting a degree in Business Administration (me, I enrolled in Russian Linguistics). Wherever I went, everyone was studying this thing. They still are. "Why?" I asked. "Well," they said, "you can do anything afterwards, and work for anyone".

ICE 4 review

Bean counters downsizing window seats

Business Administration is neither a science nor a humanity. It is an ideology. As a university subject it is as divorced from science as Marxism-Leninism was in East Germany. Business Administration's central premise is scarcity. There is never enough of anything, especially money, so it has to be saved. You have to cut costs and close your factories. 

ICE 4 review

What about some more seats here?

Now this vast army of Business Administrators has been let loose on the world and is saving money everywhere, meaning that everyone has less and works more.

The brightest Business Administrators work for PwC, Accenture and Roland Berger, the Angels of Downsizing. The dull, stupid ones end up working for Deutsche Bahn, laying waste to everything they can cross out with their red pencils. Night trains, for instance.

Business Administrators shift the focus from making quality products to making money. They have destroyed Cadbury's, they have smashed Wedgwood, and they've got their teeth deep into Marks and Spencer's.

At Deutsche Bahn their influence is ever more noticeable, and the ICE 4 is a good example.

ICE 4 review

But I digress.

Restaurant car

The restaurant car is very nice, with both a bar area and a proper seated restaurant section. They have nice Bitburger beer on tap and an astounding variety of quite tasty, reasonably priced food.

ICE 4 review

The restaurant car on the ICE 4

Of course it is all warmed up, but real food has long disappeared from Western trains, and as it goes, this is quite good. It is much better than the hospital food DON serves on the Railjet these days, but it cannot compare with a Polish or Slovak restaurant car, where your food is still cooked to order.

Unfortunately even in the restaurant car the windows and seating are not on speaking terms. Sip your coffee and admire the beam between the windows.

The secret section: the best seats on the ICE 4

At the very front and at the very rear (carriages 1 and 14), if you get on through the door nearest to the driving cab and then turn towards the driving cab, you enter a small section of eight seats in second class or six seats in first class which feels nicely closed off from the rest of the train and where the seats are perfectly aligned with the windows.

ICE 4 review

My favourite seats on the ICE 4

It is a dead end, so you don't get any confused people barrelling backwards and forwards bellowing the place down. Only drivers pass through. Though open to anyone, people seem to avoid it.

Sadly, you can't see into the driving cab, since you ask. DB has done away with that.

How to use this train

I have tried to put myself into the shoes of various travellers and work out where I can recommend who sits. Here is what I have come up with:

Solo travellers / couples

You are fine almost everywhere. Most of the seats are two-by-two. Consider going first-class if there is a good deal. If you want to ensure you have a window, download my guide to the un-window seats on the ICE 4 and reserve yourself something nice. I would probably get myself something not too far from the restaurant car.

ICE 4 review

Two toilets at the end of nearly every carriage

Groups

As a group between four and eight people I would try and snaffle the secret area in carriage No. 1, about which I waxed lyrical earlier. Bring your own food and drink and forget about the distant restaurant car. 

Whenever I've tried to reserve a seat in the secret area outright it has been unreservable, yet when I got on the train, nothing was reserved. It is possible that these seats are always unreserved.

Families

Book yourself the toddler's compartment if you can - you have to be travelling with a child under six to get it. 

I cannot emphasise enough how great the toddlers' compartment is. The so-called "family area" is just the same as everywhere else, only that it is noisy and smells of sausage and hard-boiled eggs.

ICE 4 review

Toddler's compartment on the ICE 4

If you cannot get the toddler's compartment, try and get yourself somewhere else, anywhere else, with a table, or the secret section in carriage No. 1. If travelling with a baby and there is no space in the toddler's compartment, make for the secret section, as it is peaceful.

Interrailers and Eurailers

Germany is one of the rail-pass friendly countries. There are no compulsory reservations on any DB trains. So you can use all ICE trains without paying a penny extra.

If you are in a group, the same advice applies as for any other group. If your are tired and want to sleep, make for the secret section in carriage No. 1. 

ICE 4 review

These seats have at least half a window

If you want to spread out on the floor and picnic, again, carriage No. 1 is best for you, provided the bicycle area is empty.

Big warning: on one of my trips, the WiFi signal barely reached the secret section. If you value WiFi, best go somewhere else.

What I like about the ICE 4

Having been on the ICE 4 several times I have discovered that I like the infamous seats. They are comfortable and have the best headrests I know of in German rail.

I like the toddler's compartment and I think the restaurant is a very pleasant place to be with its new, discreet colour scheme and its bar area.

What I really like is the two secret, quiet compartments at the front and the back of the train. Another good thing is that they seem to have installed lots of toilets that are easy to find.

Also well done is the ample space for luggage. I resent that it blocks windows, but the benefit is you can have your luggage near where you are sitting.

ICE 4 review

Baggage rack on the ICE 4

What I don't like about the ICE 4

What is really bad is the window/seat situation. This never used to be a problem, why does technical progress mean window seats with no windows?  It is just sloppy can't-be-fuckedness.

When I go to the restaurant car from my lair in carriage 1, I have to go through nine or ten coaches that look exactly the same, and are very long and rather narrow.

After the third carriage this gets rather unsettling. As most people are wearing their DB-faces they all look the same as well. I lose track of where I am as I stumble through winter upon winter of discontent.

Conclusion

The first ICE was devised at the end of the 1980s to reclaim the elites for rail travel. It was a luxury train from the start. No expense was spared.

No redesign has been able to banish the feeling of comfort and luxury from the ICE 1. If an arm-chair could be a train, this would be it.

ICE 4 review

The world from which the ICE 1 hails

The ICE 4 is from a world light-years away - a clinical, hyper-optimised, homogenised dystopia. The elusive "elite", even elite Deutsche Bahn staff, goes everywhere by air, even within Germany - this is not their train.

ICE 4 review

The world for which the ICE 4 is made

From its very inception the ICE 4 was supposed to be cheap and to transport as many homogenised consumers as possible, ensconced unspeaking in their virtual realities, plugs in ears, eyes on screens. Maybe this is why they haven't troubled to align the windows with the seats. Our windows are on our screens.

Don't let this happen. Travel, don't be transported. A train trip is something to be experienced and savoured. Looking out the window, with the landscape drifting by, lost in thoughts you might not have had otherwise. It is possible, even on this train. 

I hope now you know how.

Astra Transcarpatic Review
Jul 09

Review: Astra Trans Carpatic’s Overnight Service

By Edward | Eastern Europe

​Astra Trans Carpatic: a New Night Train in Europe

​I know what you’re thinking, and no:

I paid for my ticket and travelled as a normal passenger.

Astra Trans Carpatic didn’t know I was coming, and if they ​did, so what? I’m not a famous blogger or influencer. I’m just a weirdo dragging his wife and baby across Eastern Europe by train, because train bloggers don’t go by plane ever.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic is a Romanian train operator that belongs to Astra Vagoane, who make trains. In February 2017 they started running an overnight service between Arad on Romania’s western border and Bucharest, using their own carriages.

In the summer months the ​service is extended from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of ​Constanța, making it possible to traverse the whole of Romania - from the Puszta through the Carpathians to the ​shores of the Black Sea - in thirteen hours.

The ​tidings of a new overnight service in Europe reached me ​between sobs in the office I had ​washed up in after Deutsche Bahn axed its ​CityNightLines and with them my ​job. After decades of night trains being ​closed down, this was a lovely bit of good news and I have ​wanted to pay Astra Trans Carpatic a visit ever since.

Astra Trans Carpatic review

Astra Trans Carpatic, ready to leave Arad

​Astra Trans Carpatic's Timetable

​As mentioned above, the Astra Trans Carpatic ​traverses Romania from East to West and West to East over night and over the Carpathians. Here is their eastbound timetable, as of summer 2018:

Astra Trans Carpatic Timetable

Astra Trans Carpatic's route and timetable, eastbound

​05:​28 is not a nice time to wake up and ​arrive at Bucharest Gara de Nord, but everything is open and you can have breakfast at McDonald's. What is wonderful is to watch the rest of Bucharest stir and come to life.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Rays of the morning sun creeping down the facade of Bucharest Gara de Nord

But 08:35 is a very civilised time to arrive at ​Constanța.

Here is the westward timetable, as of summer 2018:

Astra Trans Carpatic Timetable

Astra Trans Carpatic route and timetable, westbound

​The westbound service has perfect timing in every way.

What are the carriages like?

​The carriages are built to standard European specifications (for the nerds: UIC-Z, essentially Eurofima from the 1970s and 1980s), meaning they can be used almost anywhere on the Continent - good for when Astra Trans Carpatic goes international, or if they give up and sell the coaches.

They are painted in a wonderfully cheerful yellow-green livery which makes them immediately recognisable.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

The yellow-green livery of Astra Trans Carpatic

​Seated coach

Astra Transcarpatic Review

The seated coach on the Astra Trans Carpatic

Last time I travelled overnight sitting up (from Košice to Bratislava, about seven years ago) my companions were a group of ​gypsies munching bread and sausage​ in the dark and scowling at me, followed by a friendly drunk who looked like Asterix in a communist polyester suit ​and ended up embracing and kissing me and giving me slivovitz.

Also, since working on the night trains and regularly seeing what ​goes on in seated cars at night, I've come to avoid ​them. But if I had to, Astra Trans Carpatic's car is one I could imagine travelling in.

​Astra’s 2nd class seated car is probably one of the nicest in Romania - it is ​worlds ​better than the 2nd class on the ICE or the Railjet, simply because Astra has taken the trouble to align the seats with the windows. On newer Deutsche Bahn trains you may ask for a window seat and find yourself ​staring at a wall.

Carpeted floor, 2+2 seating, leather seats, functioning air conditioning, sockets for every seat - Astra has done well. Some seats are arranged in sets of four around a decently-sized table.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Leather seats, a decent fold-out table, sockets underneath

​The Couchettes

​Astra only does 4-berth couchettes. This is a good thing. 4-berth is much more civilised than 6-berth, better for air-quality and space to move.

The bunks have proper mattresses, a big pillow and a real duvet. You make your bed yourself with linen provided. Thus, though sold as a couchette, it is more like a 4-berth sleeper. Each berth has a power outlet next to the night light. There is a shower at the end of the corridor.

Astra Transcarpatic Review Couchette

An upper couchette bunk on the Astra Trans Carpatic

​One of the nicest couchettes I’ve ever seen, on par with the Russian 4-berth sleeper running on the Moscow-Nice and Moscow-Paris services.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic Couchette

​The Sleeping Cars

​Now for the sleepers. Each sleeper carriage has ten compartments with two berths each - Astra doesn’t do T3 berths. Two is the maximum amount of people in a compartment.

This is much higher welfare than the CityNightLine and Nightjet Comfortline carriages that squeeze two more compartments with three berths into the same ​26.4 meters of length.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic sleeping car

​The compartment is carpeted and the walls are clad with faux-walnut. Anything not in faux-walnut is painted a similar ochre colour. The duvets are nice and long, so your feet are covered, and the pillows are a decent size.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Interior of Astra Transcarpatic sleeper compartment

​Three of the compartments have a futuristic en-suite bathroom with a loo, a shower and a sink. Mine was spotless. Here’s one fun Eastern European hack Astra has done: Install an upside-down handdryer as a hairdryer​.

The shower was fabulous. Both hot and cold water at decent pressure, cool lighting, no funny smells. Obviously the equipment is new, but I hope they manage to ​maintain this standard.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic deluxe sleeper compartment with en-suite bathroom door ajar

​What I particularly like is the lighting. There is an array of switches over the door that controls them. Next to your pillow there are also light switches.

If you turn all the lights off you have true darkness, which is great - in most sleepers you are still left with some sort of LED shining in your face. The Nightjet sleeper has a little white button I feel compelled to cover, and PKP's new and refurbished sleepers have an appalling blue LED blaring all night.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Clever: the hair dryer in the Astra Trans Carpatic shower

​How Astra Trans Carpatic treats you

​Having described the train itself, we shall now have a look at the service concept on Astra Trans Carpatic.

Astra Trans Carpatic review

Corridor on the Astra Trans Carpatic Sleeper

​In the Evening

​After the train sets off the attendant knocks and wants to see your ticket. In my case it was a QR code on my smartphone. All the attendant did was look at it cursorily. No scanning, nothing. Of course, if you are in your compartment and no one else lays claim to it, and they have you on their list, there is no reason to go scanning QRs or looking at ID cards.

One thing I missed on both my trips was complementary water. I think a bottle of water should definitely be included in the price of one's berth.

​On both my trips there were no towels ready in the compartment, but when I asked for them (​proSOP, vâ rog)​ the attendant gave me some straight away.​

Astra Trans Carpatic shower

The shower in a deluxe compartment on the Astra Trans Carpatic

​In the Morning

​In the morning ​they wake you with a knock on the door. On my arrival in Bucharest there was no breakfast - maybe because it was impossibly early (05:28 AM) or maybe because the attendant had forgotten.

On my arrival at Arad, on my return journey, there was ​weapons-grade instant coffee and a plastic-wrapped submarine sandwich with chicken and red pepper in it. I don't know what it tasted like.

​I digress

​As ​a sleeping car attendant who has made thousands of night train breakfasts and thrown away almost as many, I think breakfasts are a waste of workers' time, the punters' money and precious food. 

What people need is a hot drink and a small, energising snack to ​keep the wolf from the door as they drag themselves home or to the next bar. ​Wagon Slovakia, who do the night trains in Slovakia, get it right with their cup of coffee and waffle bar. No fuss, you drink your coffee lying down and eat or don't eat your waffle bar, or you take it with you for later.

​Sleeping car people can afford not only to go in the sleeping car. They can also afford food allergies and paleo diets. Then there are vegans. There is no lowest common food denominator a rail company can fall back to, so it is better to keep breakfast as low-key as possible. The Russians don't do it at all.

On my ​CityNightLines ​so much food was wasted. ​And it went everywhere as people ​​​​​​scrabbled about getting their mobile phones, neck cushions and babies' favourite blankets together.​​​

​But I digress.

Breakfast on the Astra Trans Carpatic

Breakfast on the Astra Trans Carpatic

The ​Minibar

​The train is not long - only four carriages - and so it doesn’t have the length to support a restaurant car, sadly.

There is a minibar with all the usual stuff on sale - "drinks and light refreshments" is the technical term, I believe. I'd brought my own, so I didn't use it. Once I tried to get water, but couldn't chase down the attendant and lost interest.

Astra Trans Carpatic Corridor

My daughter tries to escape

​Lost Property

​As a blogger in the service of my readers I am prepared to go to extraordinary lengths. One of these lengths is to forget ​a mobile phone, a neck cushion and a baby’s favourite blanket on the train.

A shunter found me wandering around the sidings of Arad station. I explained in my ​best Romanian that I had lost my phone. He made some phone calls and asked my to wait by the ​casa de bilete.

Half an hour later an Astra Trans Carpatic worker appeared with all of the things I'd left. ​

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

The sink in the en-suite bathroom on the Astra Trans Carpatic Sleeper

​Why use this train?

​On the whole, most people on their way to ​Romania will opt for the Euronight 473 ​Ister ​from Budapest to Bucharest, or the Euronight 347 ​Dacia ​from Vienna to Bucharest.​​​​​​

​My reasons for going on Astra Trans Carpatic were as follows:

1. I wanted to ​review it for the blog

2. Unlike the Euronights, it got me to Bucharest with ample spare time to change onto my onward train to Varna at 12:45 PM - to be precise, at 05:​​28. The ​Dacia ​arrives at 15:05, which ​is too late, and the ​Ister ​at 12:05 PM. Only ​mad dogs and bahn.de think 40 minutes are enough ​to change onto a once-daily service

3. It was easy to book online.

Astra Transcarpatic Review

The shuttered art nouveau casino on the Constanța sea front

​​Pros of using this train

​1. It is the only overnight train from the West that gets you to Bucharest with enough time to change onto the southbound 12:45 PM ​​Romania ​service to Bulgaria and Turkey​​​

2. ​​Astra Trans Carpatic is a new, open-access operator, and like on Italo in Italy and Westbahn in Austria, ​it shows with the staff: they are exceptionally polite and motivated

3. It has brand-new, luxurious carriages

4. It is competitively priced

​5. As mentioned above, it gets you all the way from the Puszta to the Black Sea without changing. Get on at Arad at 19:08, arrive Constanța at 08:35 the next morning.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

CFR Steam Engine in front of Arad station

​Cons of using this train

​1. You have to get yourself to Arad first. Currently, the latest train that gets you from Budapest to Arad in time for the Astra Trans Carpatic is the IC 75 ​Transylvania, ​leaving Budapest at 09:10 and arriving at Arad at 14:34

2. You then spend four hours waiting at Arad. However, I found time passed quickly. Lunch, a walk along the river and a small shop. People who like trams: Arad has ​second-hand trams from all over Europe ​plying its huge tram network. It's like a tram zoo out there.

Also, the time is well spent getting acclimatised to Romania, Romanian and Romania's plastic ​bank notes.

3. You can't use Interrail or Eurail on Astra Trans Carpatic, or indeed any long distance international train tickets.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Arad is ideal for acclimatising oneself to Romania

​How to work the Astra Trans Carpatic into your itinerary​, eastwards and westwards

​Eastbound

​Going east towards Bucharest, you'll want to join the Astra Trans Carpatic either at Arad, like I did, or at ​​Timișoara, the next station up the line. ​​Timișoara is a bigger town with more ​for ​the tourist to see. There are no more trains from Belgrade to ​​Timișoara, so one must always come from Hungary.

I have played around with the timetables and always end up with the IC 75 ​Transsylvania​ that leaves Budapest at 09:10 and Szolnok at 10:32.​ ​​​It reaches Arad at 14:34, and if you want to wait at ​​Timișoara you change here onto the 14:44 R 2606 for ​​Timișoara. Wherever you decide to wait, it will be four hours.

When you reach Bucharest the next morning at 05:28, you can get any number of onward trains​.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Outside Arad station is this building belonging to Astra Vagoane with a communist mosaic on it, celebrating Romanian-Soviet friendship - these are rare in Romania, due to ​​Conducător Nicolae Ceau​șescu's fitful relationship with the USSR.

​Westbound

​Coming from Bucharest on your way west you have two options:

1. Get off at 07:13 at ​​Timișoara and ​catch the IC 78 ​Körös, ​departing ​​Timișoara at 07:30. For me, that is ​too narrow a squeak, but anyone in a hurry could consider ​risking this. The Astra Trans Carpatic is let out of ​​Timișoara ​after ​the ​Körös ​but arrives at ​​Timișoara before it leaves, so there is a window in the timetable at ​​Timișoara that the lucky and well-organised can slip through.​​​​​​ I had a pram to assemble​, so I watched the ​Körös ​leave from my bang-on-time Astra.​​​

2. Get off at 08:25 at Arad and get the IC 74 ​Transsylvania ​from Arad at 14:20​​​. ​There is a posh shopping centre next to Arad station in which ​you can hole up in a ​café, or ​​​you can go into town.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

IC 75 "Transsylvania" at the Romanian border station of Curtici, waiting to depart for Arad


​Yeah, great, but where do I get my tickets from?

​You can only get the tickets from Astra Trans Carpatic. Normal ticket offices run by Deutsche Bahn or ÖBB​ do not sell them (to say nothing of SNCF). In fact, ​Astra Trans Carpatic doesn't even appear on Deutsche Bahn's bahn.de online timetables, though it ​is ​mentioned in the European Rail Timetable.​​​​​​

At Arad and at Bucharest Gara de Nord Astra Trans Carpatic has its own ticket offices (casa de bilete). You can also just buy your ticket on the train with no surcharge.

I got my tickets online in advance. Unfortunately the ticket buying section is in Romanian only. Fortunately Romanian is one of the easier languages ​for winging it, especially if you know some French and Italian. Also, if you use the Google Chrome browser, you can have it translate everything quite accurately.

If you need help getting Astra Trans Carpatic tickets online​ subscribe to my blog to reach me by email or on Telegram, then I can talk you through it.

How much do​es it cost?

Astra Trans Carpatic has a very simple pricing system. Your fare consists of kilometers travelled plus the class of accomodation you want. Tickets always cost the same whenever you buy them.

Pricing is in the Romanian currency, the leu (RON), which at the time of writing (July 2018) exchanges at €1 = 4.66 RON, £1 = 5.27 RON and $1 = 3.96 RON.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review

Astra Trans Carpatic's pricing system is refreshingly simple

Thus Arad-Bucharest in a seat or couchette is 600km second class (88 lei / €18) plus 3.60 lei (​80 cents) for a seat or 45 lei (€10) for a couchette - so altogether €19 sitting up or €28 lying down in a couchette, all the way from Arad to Bucharest.

In a sleeper its is 600 km first class​ plus the ​supplement for a double or single sleeper or a double or single sleeper deluxe (with the en-suite bathroom)​​​. That is 136 lei (€29) for the distance plus 60 lei (€12) for a double, 80 lei (€17) for a double deluxe, 120 lei (€24) for a single or 160 lei (€34) for a single deluxe.

I paid 432 lei (€92) for the double deluxe for my wife and me. The baby went free of charge. I think that is a fantastic deal. My wife said it was the best train she had ever been on.

​So what's the ride like?

​I'm glad you ask.

​It was great. The train goes quite slowly, first across the plains to ​Timișoara, then up into the South Carpathian mountains and through Wallachia.

I didn't see much, to be honest, as it was dark and I slept. But ​at times I awoke and peered out the window ​into nameless ​ravines clanking underneath bridges we were ​crossing, before drifting off again to the clatter of the wheels.

Astra Trans Carpatic Review


The attendant had switched off the air conditioning for the night, so I opened the window and in rushed lush Carpathian air.

Much of Romania's tracks are still screwed rather than welded together, so you spend ​much of the journey immersed in this hypnoti​c ​haze of metallic rumbling that is great for sleeping.

​Conclusion

​Astra Trans Carpatic have done something brave in starting up a night train service in this age of budget airlines and ​coaches. The European Union is still very much in love with planes, global warming be damned.

That is why it is so fantastic that there are people setting out to make money with trains, and indeed overnight trains.

Astra Trans Carpatic have a service that is very nice, reasonably priced and well thought out. I ​love their higher-welfare couchettes and sleepers with only four and two berths respectively.

People on their way to Romania from abroad are more likely to use the established Euronights simply because they are more convenient, but those who make the effort to get to Arad are rewarded with a great train service.

There is talk of extending the service to Budapest or even Vienna and I hope ​Astra Trans Carpatic ​take that plunge.​​​

Astra Transcarpatic Review

The Astra Transcarpatic ready to leave Bucharest Gara de Nord

Nightjet; Night Train; EuroNight
Jun 01

10 Exciting European Night trains and How to Use Them like a Pro @Amateur Traveler Podcast

By Edward | Uncategorized

10 Exciting European Night trains and How to Use Them like a Pro – Inside Tips from a Night Train Worker

 

A whole day up in smoke

Is this you?

You’re on a eurotrip. You’ve been up since 4 AM to get this plane, having only just caught it because a taxi happened along. You’ve coughed up three times your air fare to take your suitcase with you. 

Now it turns out that this airport “Munich West” is very far west of Munich indeed – more than 70 miles. 

Thank God there’s a coach service, for which you duly pay twice your air fare. At 2 PM you finally reach your hotel and flop down and go to sleep. 

At 6 PM you’re finally on the Marienplatz, waiting to watch the clock dancers twirling. One day almost wasted.

It doesn’t have to be like this. 

Click here to read the full post on Amateur Traveler Podcast.

The Ultimate Guide to Russian Trains
Apr 06

The Ultimate Guide to Russian Trains @Misstourist.com

By Edward | Eastern Europe

Imagine this.

You have been on this train for ten hours and still have twelve hours to go. You’ve never been on a train this long.

Your coach is swaying and clanking through forests teeming with nameless streams under the expanse of the Russian sky. Just now you passed through a city with golden domes glittering in the sun.

Time is somewhere else. You are beyond the realm of time. You are drinking your thirteenth glass of tea and discussing fate and eternity with strangers – even though you can’t speak Russian.

A train journey is a must-do in Russia, like going on a gondola in Venice – except for the price of half an hour of Venetian gondola you get seven time-zones of Russian train.

The train is the cheapest, safest and most comfortable way to travel Russia. When you’ve finished this guide, you shall know all you need to know to make the most of your Russian train journey…

Click here to read the my guest post on Miss Tourist’s blog.

Apr 06

Two Tweaks that can Slash your German Rail Fare by 50%

By Edward | Cheaper Tickets

Forget the BahnCard.

These two subtle, often overlooked tweaks are an effortless way to find cheaper German rail tickets when searching for connections on Deutsche Bahn's website www.bahn.de. 

The two blunt instruments for getting cheap fares are to book as far as possible in advance and to pick a day when fewer people are travelling. I like Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

But once you've done that, or if your date is non-negotiable, try these two tweaks which can halve your train fare.

How most people search

I've got a search here from Munich to St. Goar on the Rhine - a longish trip involving changes. St. Goar is where Loreley is. 

And this is what it comes up with:

Search result in standard search

So far, so underwhelming, no?

The first tweak for lower fares

The first thing to do is uncheck the box Prefer fast connections. Few people understand that this makes a difference. The search engine will now show you slightly slower, less direct connections which most people haven't found because they haven't noticed the box.

As Deutsche Bahn's long-distance pricing varies depending on how full a given ICE or IC train is, you will automatically be shown emptier and thus cheaper trains. 

While the improvement in this case is not huge, it does give you more choice. But this is only the first step on our way to 

The second tweak for lower fares

The second tweak is to chuck out ICE trains. On many lines in Germany the ICEs go no faster than other trains. The Munich-Paris TGV service, capable of 200 mph in France, hobbles from Ulm to Stuttgart at 70 mph because the tracks allow no faster.

The only connections where this severely lengthens your journey are where you cover great distances on high-speed tracks.

Once you have taken out the ICE trains you get quite different results, as ICEs are the backbone of German long-distance rail travel. This brings up the Intercitys, which many people are not aware of as a cheaper alternative - one that often is hardly slower.

Much cheaper tickets, and only a slightly longer journey

I always try these simple tweaks when searching for tickets. There are many variables, and depending on where you are going these tricks can yield both better and worse results than the ones we have achieved here.

By unticking two little boxes on bahn.de you can cut your rail fare by 50%.

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I hope this helps you on your next trip to Germany. Let me know in the comments how much you saved!

Want more of this regularly? Sign up ​for my newsletter and gain FREE access to my ​resource library, the Eurotripper's War Chest - full of useful e-guides.

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