All of the travel between the 20 destinations on my Grand Tour in central Europe was by train – from London through Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland. There were 35 rail journeys altogether, full details of which are listed on the Timetable page, which includes train numbers and notes on punctuality. Initially I had the romantic notion that I might wander as a free spirit from one destination to the next, moving on when I felt the time was right. Of course it doesn't work like that, and in the event I planned in advance the exact time of almost every train, apart from a few local connections – and even then I had a list of options.
I started the Grand Tour on the 06:00 Monday morning Eurostar from London to Brussels, after a night in a typically miserable hotel near St Pancras International station, then on by Thalys high-speed train from Brussels to Cologne [Köln]. These (plus the Eurostar home) were the only trains I booked in advance, and both are compulsory reservations anyway. From Cologne the short journey on to Bonn by regional train (RB) for my first night's stop. Most routes after Bonn were on the top quality InterCity (IC), EuroCity (EC) or Intercity-Express (ICE) trains, even for some quite short journeys.
For the final leg I'd planned to take the sleeper from Berlin to Paris – a treat for the final leg of my 5-week journey – followed by the Eurostar back to London, but at the last minute the night train was cancelled due to a strike in Belgium. So an extra unscheduled night in Berlin and an unpleasant and disjointed journey home the next night (details below). The problems were compounded by the ongoing effects of a fire in the Channel Tunnel two weeks after I'd passed though on the way out.
But despite the problems in the last couple of days, the rail travel experience overall was excellent, interesting and very enjoyable.
A mine of information about rail travel and passes in Europe; and now Asia, Africa, America and Australasia
Tickets or InterRail Pass?
I had two ticketing options: either buy a ticket for each individual journey, or use an InterRail pass. The pass works like a typical city travel card, allowing unlimited travel on most trains over several days. This was my choice for the Grand Tour, although the choice is not quite the no-brainer it seems: first, the passes are now fairly expensive – unless you're under 26 – while at the same time there are some remarkable bargain ticket fares available for individual journeys through the DB and ÖBB websites.
The cheap fares do have to be booked on-line though, and are for specific trains; as far as I know they're not available at the ticket office. Being on the move, Internet ordering wasn't really an option for me, and I didn't want to tie myself down, even though I knew my most likely trains before I set out. I worked out in advance, using the German, Austrian, Czech and Polish rail sites, that overall there was not much difference in cost either way between tickets and InterRail pass, but the big advantage of the pass for me was the convenience of being able to get onto virtually any train at any time, whether for local or long distance journeys, and not having to queue for tickets.
Choosing a Rail Pass: European residents can travel on the InterRail Pass, which covers travel on 30 European country's rail systems, though not in their own country (i.e. I couldn't use mine in the UK). Visitors from outside Europe use the Eurail Pass, which works in much the same way. 'Global' passes cover all the countries, but individual Country passes (which are not always cheaper per day) are also available. The Global Pass is available for continuous periods of either 22 days or one month (travelling on any or every day); or for 5 travel days in a 10-day period; or for 10 travel days in a 22-day period.
It worked out that I'd planned nine travel days in my first 21, up to and including the journey from Prague to Dresden; possibly travelling on 10 days in that period if I used the train rather than the Post Bus for the day trip from Vienna to Eisenstadt (which in the event I did). After that I had eight planned travel days in the rest of the Tour (in fact I travelled on nine days). So I bought two 10-in-22 passes, with the start date (which has to be specified at the time of ordering) of the second pass set to Day 21 of the Tour, giving me a 1-day overlap in case of emergency.
Using the InterRail Pass: InterRail Continuous passes can be used on any day between their start and finish dates. The 10-in-22 and 5-in-10 passes have 10 and 5 spaces, respectively, into which you must write today's date before boarding the train, otherwise you are deemed not to have a ticket. Just a little routine, which I tried to remember to do the night before travelling while sorting out other things such as luggage.
They also have a long sheet of paper attached, onto which you should write the actual train number and departure time of each journey – I believe this is for statistical and charging purposes. In practice the whole thing is a bit flimsy, and I made sure I kept my pass in a sealed polythene bag to prevent it getting wet or (even worse!) sweaty. After the trip you're meant to send the completed part of the sheet back to InterRail, for which they (at that time anyway) reward you with a small USB memory stick. It's good form to do so, and I did.
Before leaving I was apprehensive that the InterRail pass might not be recognised by ticket inspectors on the trains (ticket inspections were quite frequent, except on some regional trains). But both inspectors and ticket offices turned out to be comfortingly familiar with them. The pass did provoke comment on a couple of occasions though: on the train from Vienna to Eisenstadt, the ticket inspector took a very long look at my InterRail pass, and as I was beginning to think there was a problem, a smile spread over his face, and he just said slowly: "United Kingdom. Hmm... That's OK". Quite friendly, and I'm not sure of the significance! The other (friendly) comment concerned my age, as DOB is printed on the pass...
As I was travelling on an InterRail Pass I didn't need to buy any train tickets, but I did make seat reservations for some of the longer journeys to ensure that I wouldn't have to stand for a couple of hours. Sometimes it turned out to be entirely unnecessary and I would have a compartment to myself, at other times I was glad to have done so. Reservations are no longer compulsory on IC/ICE trains in Germany and Austria, except on sleepers, but are strongly recommended on certain routes at busy times – shown with an 'R' on the timetable.
On most trains, the start and end stations of the reservation are shown on an electronic display on the luggage rack over the seat, or on the corridor window of a coach with compartments. This makes it very easy to see if a seat is free for the required part of the journey if you don't have a reservation. It also means that a seat can be booked, I believe, as late as half an hour before the train departure time, as all the reservations on the train are updated electronically at the last minute – a stark contrast to the UK system of having someone walk the length of the train sticking pieces of paper into slots in the seat backs.
Booking the reservation at ticket offices was straightforward, and all of them recognised the InterRail pass. Carrying the printout of the timetable for each journey, with the date and time of my chosen train highlighted, avoided any errors due to language difficulties: "Ich möchte ein Reservierung fur dieser Zug, bitte." The charge is €3 in Germany and €4 in Austria, on regular trains.
The supplements for my night train couchette reservations were €20 on the Berlin-Warsaw train, and €25 on Berlin-Paris – in 4-berth compartments in both cases (6-berth compartments are slightly cheaper). I booked them a month ahead at the useful English-speaking EurAide office at Munich Hauptbahnhof – in a tiny office behind the DB Reisezentrum (travel centre) – which was manned, when I called, by an energetic and very helpful American and his assistant. There's another EurAide office in the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (in the DB Reisezentrum on the lower level).
My other compulsory reservation (but I would have booked it anyway) was the train from Brno to Prague, in the Czech Republic, which I was able to book in Vienna as the train starts from there. The supplement was €7. The train turned out to be a tilting Pendolino, three seats across (2+1), but apparently with no space for large luggage. It was fully-booked (in my coach anyway).
Lifts and Escalators: I noted that virtually every station on DB and ÖBB – even small ones when they have two levels – has a lift for the use of passengers. Just a regular lift, like in a hotel or a shopping centre, with no need to call for (non-existent) station staff to operate it as we do in the UK (even if there is one). The bigger stations have escalators. In some stations there was also a narrow conveyor belt running alongside the steps up to each platform, on which you can put luggage and have it carried up (or down) while you walk beside it on the steps. Travelling with a heavy suitcase I tended to pick up on these things!
Compare this with London's St Pancras International station for example – the rail gateway to the UK – where there are several flights of stairs between the Underground and the main line station; and that in a station that has recently been completely rebuilt. I found a somewhat similar situation as I was leaving Prague: I travelled on Metro A to Muzeum station, where I had to change to Metro C. I took a lift [good] signed 'Metro C', but found myself outside in the street, and then had to go down 120+ steps with the case! Then at Holesovice, the exit to the mainline station (typically for people with cases, right?) is up 33 stairs – there was a lift marked for prams and disabled people, but I guessed there might be a rule against others using it.
Left-Luggage: I made good use of station left-luggage lockers [Gepäckaufbewahrung] – especially in Germany – when I was travelling with the heavy suitcase from one destination to the next but wanted to stop for a while en route: Cologne, Mannheim, Brno (Czech Republic) Halle and Berlin. The only station that didn't have lockers when I needed one was Wittenberg. In most places you put the case in the locker, insert coins to the value shown (€4 for a large locker), lock the door and take the key. In Cologne I found a brilliant automated system: several quite small islands, each containing four 'lockers'. Insert coins (€4), the shutter opens and you put the luggage in. Press 'OK', the shutter closes, and the machine produces a magnetic-stripe card, while whisking the luggage away to underground storage. When you come back, you put the card in the slot and in less than 40 seconds (much quicker in practice) the luggage reappears.
In Berlin Hauptbahnhof the lockers are now closed for security reasons, and left-luggage is a manual system. Hand in the case over the counter, where it goes through X-ray, and you are given a ticket. To claim the case back, insert the ticket in a pay-machine, insert coins or notes (€4 per day), and take the ticket back to the counter. I used it to leave my case for two days while I travelled light to Warsaw. The system works well, although on one of the several occasions I was in the station there was a huge and very slow-moving queue.
Platform Information: Virtually all stations of any significance on DB and ÖBB have a train plan showing all the long distance trains due to stop at each platform [the rather poor photo on the right is from Bonn]. Usually the plan is printed, but in the ÖBB station in Klagenfurt I found an electronic display. Each coach on the train is numbered (not necessarily 1, 2, 3...), and if you have a seat reservation the train plan shows whereabouts along the platform (region A, B, C...) your coach will stop, plus the location of the restaurant car.
Without the plan, and with a heavy case, the platform feels very long: DB had added two extra coaches on one of my trains to accommodate anticipated extra demand (UK rail companies please note), and my reservation was in one of them. They were not on the plan, of course, and I had a run along the platform to get to my coach at the front of the train.
Waiting Around: Waiting at stations wasn't normally a problem. If I was early for the train I spent the time writing the diary, or eating my sandwiches, or whatever. But in Berlin I had hours to wait! For my first visit to the city, I'd arrived far too early for my night train to Warsaw, mainly to be sure that nothing went wrong before this fairly critical journey. [Diary: "I should have stayed much longer in Wittenberg – I could have visited the museums I missed and still had time to kill; although whether I could have absorbed any more information at this stage of the Tour is open to question. Plus I was dragging my heavy suitcase around as there's no left-luggage at the station. But it would have been worth a try"].
After checking my case into left-luggage at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, I left the station to try to find somewhere nice to sit and eat. But the new and otherwise splendid seven-level building, on the site of the old Lehrter S-Bahn station and with its own selection of fast-food outlets, is not yet supported by neighbourhood restaurants and bars as it might one day be. And at that stage I didn't want to travel elsewhere in a city I didn't know. Eventually I found a pizzeria and had a not-very-good pizza (from frozen) with languid service.
Walking back to the station – and anxious to feel that I was making progress – I decided to go straight to Berlin Lichtenburg, the station in the east of the city which is used by the Warsaw trains. Bad mistake! There were only a couple of benches to sit on, one normally occupied by the resident and rather aggressive drunk (I explained to someone near me that as an auslander I couldn't understand what the drunk was shouting, and my neighbour thought this was a good thing). I should have stayed as late as possible at the Hauptbahnhof.
My train was not due to leave Berlin Lichtenburg until 21:38. I went out to wander the streets at 19:45 and found an internet cafe nearby. A German keyboard, of course, with Y and Z transposed compared to the English layout, but also with nearly all the characters worn off the keys, and very dim lighting, which made for interesting typing. But I found a family email, which was great. Back to the station at 20:30, still with an hour to wait... This was my only major planning cock-up so far – too keen to get to Berlin and make sure that everything was OK for the night train.
And finally... I noted in my diary at the end of the 4-hour journey from Klagenfurt to Vienna: "the loo is still working and is clean – you don't get that on the East Coast main line."
Grand Tour Travel Problems
Mostly, everything ran like clockwork. Not all the trains ran on time (see the Timetable page) – contrary to the UK perception of German and Austrian railways – but only one train was late enough to cause a significant problem (see below). The worst delays were 15, 21, 30 and 45 minutes. But there were three main rail problems: one potentially dangerous, which I survived; the others due to cancellations and late running, which cost me at least a day, a few more grey hairs, and quite a lot of money.
How Far to Sochaczew? On the regional train from Warsaw to Sochaczew – the station for the bus to Chopin's house at Zelazowa Wola – I checked with the ticket inspector, when he came to the compartment, that I was OK for Sochaczew, as I hadn't been able to find it on the timetable. I asked what time it would arrive; he consulted a big timetable and appeared to indicate 08:15 on his watch. Half an hour to go. So I relaxed and settled back to write the diary. But as the train slowed for a station, I glanced up to see 'Sochaczew' on the name board.
I grab everything – rucksack, jacket, pen, diary, reading glasses – and run along the corridor. But I can't open the door! Trains only stop for a few seconds. Two local girls also want to get out and can't make the door work either. As I'm about to try kicking it, one of the girls rushes to the other side and – despite the protests of her friend – opens that door. We jump down onto the track; I'm last out, and as I jump the train starts to move. I try to reach up to push the door shut as it moves away... The three of us cross the track, jump up to the other platform, and walk out through the station building as if nothing unusual has happened.
An Extra Night in Berlin: A few days later I was in the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin, waiting for the 21:26 Sunday night train to Paris. But when the train came up on the departure board at 20:30, it said 'zug fällt aus', which looked pretty bad to me [literally, 'the train drops out']. I checked with DB information, who said the train had been cancelled due to a strike in Belgium. So I went to the ticket office, where a nice lady spent over an hour trying to find a different route to get me to my Eurostar the following day without going through Belgium. There were only one or two trains, and none with seats available, even in First Class. I asked if she could book Eurostar (yes), and if so could she get me onto a different Eurostar on either Monday or Tuesday. There was nothing at all through Paris.
Eventually she found me a route home using the same 21:26 train the following night. BUT: getting off at Frankfurt Süd at 4:00am, transferring to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, waiting for the 07:00 to Brussels, then a seat on the 11:59 Brussels-St Pancras Eurostar. Not a very attractive journey! And I would miss Paris and be home a day late. But it got me a Eurostar seat – my original train had been cancelled due to the Channel Tunnel fire – and I had no choice but to book: €105, which I hoped would be OK to claim on insurance [in the event I didn't]; luckily I had a spare day on my InterRail pass or the cost would have been €350+. I phoned the hotel I'd been staying at in Berlin and got back into a single room; I walked back there towing the suitcase and arrived at 22:30 feeling somewhat despondent.
A Long Journey to London: The following night I was back at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof in good time, trying not to add up how many hours I'd spent there in the last few days. The train will run! But we have to wait yet another 15 minutes due to a technical problem. In fact the train made it up on the journey and arrived at Frankfurt Süd on time at 4:00am – not the best time of day for me. Then a long 70 minute wait, sitting on my suitcase as there are no seats in the station, for the first regional train of the day and the five minute journey across the city to Frankfurt's main station. At least the coffee stall was just opening...
Then another 70 minute wait at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof for the 07:28 ICE 226; very few seats here at the main station either, unless you're travelling first class, but I got a seat on the train easily. Normally it splits at Cologne [Köln] into the ICE 226 to Amsterdam and the ICE 16 to Brussels, but today there are fewer coaches and ICE 16 will start from Cologne – "Just walk across the platform", said the lady at the Info Point in Frankfurt. But as we arrive in Cologne, there's an announcement that the Brussels train will depart 40 minutes late – that means it will arrive in Brussels just as the Eurostar leaves.
The Cologne-Brussels train is very crowded. It looks as if I have no chance of a seat, but as we move off I take a reserved seat and no-one claims it – I suspect there are many no-shows following the chaos yesterday. Reserved seats must be claimed within 20 minutes of departure on Deutsche Bahn trains. We arrive Brussels Midi at 11:45, 45 minutes late and just 14 minutes before the Eurostar departure. A large group of us runs, towing our cases, to the Eurostar check-in. But they won't let us in as we are after the 20 minute limit. Actually I suspect the train is already full of people affected by yesterday's problems. There is much anger and raised voices: there are about 200 of us.
Eventually they start issuing new seat stickers for the 14:53 Eurostar (yet another 3-hour wait) with check-in from 13:30. I walk out of the station in search of a cafe, but it's an urban desert. Eventually to the check-in to find a huge scrum and queue, even though it's not yet open. Finally we creep slowly forward. I go through OK with the new green sticker on my ticket, but people with valid original tickets for this train have to go to another desk to be reallocated to different seats. It's a complete mess.
Then passport control, X-ray, UK passport control, and into the departure lounge at 14:00. Onto the train at last at 14:40. Eurostar feels very cramped compared to the IC, ICE, and even to the regional trains that I've grown used to in the last few weeks. Arrive at London, St Pancras, at 15:50 – five trains and over 18 hours after leaving Berlin. I realise I've had about 4 hours fitful sleep in the last 36 hours.