Eurostar Business Premier 🔵 and Thalys Premium 🔴: how they compare

Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 are two international high speed train companies in Europe that were both launched in the 1990s and are owned by a consortium including SNCF Voyageurs – part of the national state-owned railway company in France. The two companies have their own identities, but they have more in common that you might think. Both companies serve cross-border services across four countries and have three classes of accommodation onboard, for example.

It was announced in 2022 that the companies would be merged into one and eventually the Thalys brand would disappear in favour of the Eurostar brand. It has been widely reported that this merger would mean improved scheduling, ticketing and the same loyalty programme.

But while these companies are separate from each other, what are the current service levels like in the most premium class on both trains? Having taken a trip recently in Eurostar Business Premier from London to Brussels and another trip in Thalys Premium from Brussels to Cologne, both journeys of around two hours, this is what I discovered.

Trains

Both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 have two types of trains in their fleet all capable of operating up to 300 kilometres per hour. The most common types of train for each company, and the newest, is the e320 for Eurostar and the PKBA for Thalys which are pictured below. These Eurostar trains have sixteen carriages, while these Thalys trains have eight carriages – with two sets sometimes coupled together to make sixteen carriages.

Routes

Eurostar 🔵 trains run through the Channel Tunnel, connecting the United Kingdom (UK) with France, Belgium and the Netherlands; while Thalys 🔴 trains connect France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The only market that is served by both Eurostar and Thalys is Brussels to Amsterdam, although availability is often limited / non-existent with Eurostar for this journey and no fares exist at all available for Business Premier – only for Standard and Standard Premier classes.

At the Station

Security

What is the security process like for each operator?

For Eurostar 🔵, Business Premier is only available for trips to and from the UK. Passengers travelling to/from the UK are required to go through luggage and passport control at the departure station. Ordinarily this means arriving to check-in at the station less no later than 30 minutes before departure, however, for Business Premier tickets customers are able to check-in up to 10 minutes before departure through its own dedicated check-in area.

This process was a complete breeze compared to when travelling in Standard and Standard Premier class check-in which is impacted by often long queues.

For Thalys 🔴 , irrespective of travel class there are the same checks in place at some stations. At Paris Gare du Nord baggage is scanned on the platform; while in Belgium, random baggage and personal security checks whilst entering the platform area in stations. On my journey from Brussels I was able to walk straight through to the platform.

Lounge Access

A perk of travelling in the most premium class of both operators is the complimentary lounge access at most of the Eurostar and Thalys stations.

Eurostar 🔵 offers its own lounge at London St Pancras, Bruxelles-Midi and Paris Gare du Nord stations following the check-in procedures, while offering access to the NS International lounge at Amsterdam Centraal and Rotterdam Centraal before check-in.

Pictured below is the lounge at London St Pancras, offering complimentary alcoholic and soft drinks and snacks, UK and French newspapers and magazines, and comfortable seating allowing for a space to relax and work prior to the journey. There are two floors with the stairs accessing the more relaxing, quieter upper floor, on the far left hand side on entry.

There was a good range of drinks on offer, but no meals – only snacks. It did appear that croissants were available upon request, however, on this visit it was a struggle to flag any staff down to ask as they were in the midst of changing shifts. We appeared to be too early for the cocktail bar that was closed as of 12pm when we accessed the lounge.

Thalys 🔴 offers its own lounge in Brussels and Paris, but a short walk from Bruxelles-Midi and Paris Gare du Nord station buildings in both cases. Pictured below is the lounge in Brussels. The Thalys Lounge & More is a quiet and warm place to wait or work for your train but really that’s it – the catering offering is very limited with only a coffee machine, tea and water available. I’m really not sure what they were thinking when they added “& more” to the end of its name.

Thalys customers are also able to access the NS International lounges at Amsterdam Centraal and Rotterdam Centraal.

Onboard

Seating

Seating in the most premium class on both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 trains is in a 2+1 configuration with a mixture of tables for one, two and four travellers available. Seat reclining is possible on both services and a table – specifically a seat back tray table on solo and this is a fixed table or tray table. Power sockets are available at every seat with complimentary WiFi. Thalys trains have more padded seating than Eurostar, which I did find more comfortable.

Both operators require customers to make a seat reservation which is automatically assigned at booking for no further charge. Eurostar has functionality online and in its app to select a specific seat online after booking which is very welcome if you would like to book a table for your party size. You are unable to select your own seat booking online with Thalys.

Food and Drink

Now for the most exciting part (for me anyway) – the onboard catering. Both operators provide catering straight to your seat, included in the ticket price, and in a similar form of an airline style tray meal.

On Eurostar 🔵 lunch and dinner services are those that depart after 10:15. On departure, a welcome drink is offered including champagne, wine, beer, a small range of spirits and soft drinks. Shortly after departure, the meal service commences where customers are provided with a cold starter, a bread roll, the option of a hot, cold or salad main course and dessert with bottled water and a second drink from the same trolley as previously. On departures after 17:15 a cheese course is also included.

Tea and coffee is then served with the option of a top-up. No further drinks were offered, but there is an opportunity to ask for another cold drink when the meal trays are cleared away which I’ve always found the staff to be happy to provide. Eurostar does cater for special dietary requirements (including gluten and dairy free) which needs to be ordered in advance via the Manage My Booking part of the website or app.

On Thalys 🔴 a similar tray meal is provided on trains designated as lunch and evening meal in the timetable. This includes wine, beer and soft drinks, a salad starter, a cold main course and dessert as pictured below. This is served with tea/coffee with an option of herbal teas. For services departing between meal times, the full meal is not served – only a complimentary snack is provided which is shown as ‘Café Gourmet’ in the timetable.

Both meals are pictured below. The presentation of both wasn’t amazing for a premium class of travel, but I found the taste to be good in both cases.

Tickets

The most premium class of travel on both operators includes flexibility – so you are able to amend or cancel free of charge right up to the last minute.

Eurostar 🔵 Business Premier fares are one fixed cost – they don’t vary in price according to demand as Standard and Standard Premier fares do.

Thalys 🔴 Premium fares do vary according to demand as per their Standard and Comfort classes.

Eurostar JourneysOne WayReturn
London to Paris£276 (93p per mile)
317,40€
£490 (82p per mile)
563,50€
London to Brussels£276 (£1.22 per mile)
317,40€
£490 (£1.08 per mile)
563,50€
London to Amsterdam (direct)£299 (91p per mile)
343,85€
£520 (79p per mile)
598,00€
Prices correct as of 28th October 2022 for one adult travelling in November 2022
Thalys JourneysOne WayReturn
Amsterdam to Parisfrom 145,00€ (40p per mile)from 290,00€ (40p per mile)
Amsterdam to Brusselsfrom 100,00€ (68p per mile)from 200,00€ (68p per mile)
Brussels to Colognefrom 72,00€ (45p per mile)from 142,00€ (45p per mile)
Prices correct as of 28th October 2022 for one adult travelling in November 2022

Assuming tickets are purchased online, both operators offer mobile ticketing for travel on their services producing a barcode that can be downloaded to your device such as an Apple Wallet. Otherwise there is the ability to print your ticket on an A4 piece of paper or collect at the station on departure. It is, however, not possible to print the online Thalys ticket at stations in Belgium, and print at stations in the Netherlands a fee is charged.

Conclusion

Both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 have a number of similarities in their service provisions including in the range of seating options, flexible ticketing and onboard catering appearance. The key differences where, I believe, Eurostar fairs better is in the booking experience and in lounge comforts but the ticket costs are higher by comparison. However, Thalys trains have more comfortable seating on the train and the availability of some cheaper fares that give pricing as low as 40p per mile. Between the two I would choose Eurostar.

When the merge is completed, and the two operators are standardised in their offerings, it will be interesting to see which are retained and what will be new. The potential to offer more destinations from the two portfolios can only be a good thing.

This article was first published in November 2022

Back after 8 years – Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina 🇧🇦 to Ploče, Croatia 🇭🇷 by train

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, has been cut off from the core European passenger rail network since its direct service to the Croatian capital, Zagreb, was axed in 2016. Similarly, the capital’s other international passenger service, the summer only direct train to Ploče in Croatia, has not run into Croatia since 2013 – due to track work and disagreements, with the Croatian Railways (Hrvatske željeznice Putnički prijevoz, HŽPP) citing the route was unprofitable.

Fast forward to 2022, and there is still no service to Zagreb yet. However, the full 194 km (121 mi) route from Sarajevo to Ploče route was restored for the summer from July until September on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays – in both directions. This enabled the new Talgo coaches purchased by the train operator, Railways of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Željeznice Federacije Bosne i Hercegovine, ŽFBH), to be put into international service to neighbouring Croatia.

Naturally with a planned visit to beautiful Sarajevo, I just had to experience this train route – with the first part of the train’s journey to Mostar being listed as a must-see tourist attraction for any visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina with its beautiful scenery. Below is the map of the places the train passes through.

Sarajevo Railway Station

Sarajevo main railway station (Glavna željeznička stanica u Sarajevu) is situated thirty minutes west by foot from the old town, with trams serving the main road nearby.

It was built originally in 1882 and rebuilt in 1949 following World War Two. Today the station showcases its brutalist architecture, with Coca Cola stepping in more recently to sponsor the walls at either side of the entrance hall. The booking office is situated at one end and notices are up asking you not to take pictures… I may have flouted that rule a few times.

Booking

A train trip from Sarajevo comes with a challenge: tickets aren’t available from anywhere other than the booking office at the station in Sarajevo. Not only that, but you also need to purchase them for this train at least one day in advance from the booking office – which is something to do with notifying the authorities with the international border crossing. This wasn’t a bad thing for us, as we wanted to spend some time visiting the beautiful city before departing.

The booking office was a unique experience that could give anyone flashbacks from the past, including hand-written tickets on carbon copy paper. It was like we were stepping back into the 1970s! Not only that but our names, date of birth, and passport details were written down on a scrap piece of paper – which didn’t convince us that data security was important here.

It was here that we asked about what accommodation was available on the train. The lady told us that there were only 2nd Class seats available to purchase and no seat reservations were possible.

Onboard the train

Bright and early on departure day, we arrived to the platform in enough time to board the train before its prompt departure at 07:15. There was a poster at the entrance door showcasing the timetable and the platform the train would depart from – Platform 2.

Boarding the sixteen-carriage train was entirely at one door on the train, in Coach number 7, despite the full train being destined for the same destination, Ploče. I don’t know if this was to show off the 2021 European Year of Rail branded door or if this was purely logistics. It did appear that the staff were having to manually open each door prior to arriving at each station.

Shortly after departure, our tickets were checked. Despite being asked to buy these prior to departure, there were people buying these on the train from the conductor onboard; however, this could have been permitted for domestic journeys – at Mostar half of the train emptied. These tickets were also hand-written, so it was taking some time to issue them.

Seating

The train was indeed formed of both Second Class and First Class seating, complete with power sockets, reading lights, and reclining at all seats.

First Class seating was fully occupied during the course of the trip, so this could well have been available to all. It was too late for us to benefit however and unfortunately I was only able to photographs of the Second Class seating.

Café Car

There was a Café Car open for the course of the trip, situated in the front portion of the train. No food was available, but full sugar Coca Cola, Fanta, water, orange juice, and coffee was on offer for purchase.

There were in fact two Café Cars available on the train, and typically I visited the wrong one first. Thanks to a kind member of the public who enlightened me that I wouldn’t get served there and had to move forward to the open Café.

Scenery

Soon after departure from Sarajevo the train window turns into a moving picture frame, gliding past some stunning green, mountainous scenery, and the Neretva river. The crew were kind enough to switch the lights off one hour and three quarters into the journey. The ultra-reflective windows of the Talgo coaches didn’t matter anymore at this point. Again I was asked not to taking pictures, when coming into a station by a passing crew member.

Border Crossings

The border crossings to exit Bosnia & Herzegovina and enter Croatia take place at Capljina and Metkovic stations respectively, with a locomotive change from a ŽFBH to a HŹPP one – both Class 441 locomotives from the Yugoslav Railways (JŽ).

All the border checks took place at the comfort of our seats, with the Bosnian police taking passports off the train to check, while the Croatian police opted to check on the train. We were also asked by the Croatian police if we had any alcohol or cigarettes with us.

Arrival into Ploče

We arrived in to Ploče around one hour after the scheduled arrival time. The station isn’t the most obvious or photogenic-looking, but the building is connected to the coach station, with easy connections for onward travel to destinations such as Dubrovnik and Split.

Fares

Journey LegAdult Fare
Sarajevo to Ploče25 BAM = £10.85 / 12,71€

Reservations are not available and thus no additional fees payable on top of the ticket price.

I tried to use my FIP card, issued to European rail staff for 50% off ŽFBH fares; however, the lady at the booking office shook her head – I wasn’t lucky enough to get a discount this time.

This article was first published in October 2022

Holidaying with the Hungarians – Adria InterCity sleeper train from Split 🇭🇷 to Budapest 🇭🇺

Hungary won’t be on your list when it comes to a seaside holiday, it is a landlocked country after all. The nearest to the seaside you’re going to get here is Lake Balaton that happens to be a popular destination for Hungarians wishing to escape the bustle of the capital and other cities.

For those wishing to go further afield, there is a convenient sleeper train that’s very popular with Hungarian families looking to get their seaside fix. The “Adria” InterCity runs direct from Budapest Keleti station to Split in Croatia on the Adriatic Coast during the summer time – operated by the Hungarian State Railway company MÁV-START. Taking 14 hours in total covering 789km, this train is one of MÁV’s most popular night train routes offering comfortable accommodation onboard and the delight that is a Dining Car.

Recently I experienced the joy of travelling on the, unfortunately named (for 2020 onwards anyway), Corona InterCity which had an excellent Dining Car with an array of menu options – so I knew I was in for a treat with this journey.

I booked onto the northbound Adria InterCity, departing Split at 18:27 and booked to arrive at 09:35 into Budapest Keleti the following morning. Below is the route map.

Split station

Conveniently located across the road from its harbour and Old Town is Split station, which on specific summer afternoons is a exciting hive of activity with three international trains bound for Budapest, Prague and Bratislava (via Vienna) and the occasional train bound for destinations in Croatia. The entrance to the station is somewhat hidden, with trees and shops aplenty lining the street in front. I wonder how many people visiting Split actually know that there is a station here?

Once I had found the booking hall, there was no need to look at the departure board for the specific platform. Clearly visible in the distance was the Adria InterCity in MÁV-START’s new eye-catching blue and white livery on most of the cars boasting three Sleeping Cars, three Couchette Cars and indeed the eagerly awaited Dining Car. The train would be hauled by this Croatian Railways (HŽPP) 2044 locomotive (pictured) as far as Ogulin, where another HŽPP locomotive would take over as far as the border with Hungary.

Onboard the Adria

Sleeping Car

For this trip I had booked a sleeping compartment in Car 421. Having located my car, I was greeted by my friendly Sleeping Car attendant on the platform who checked my ticket and I was then pointed in the direction of my booked compartment, Berth 51.

This is the most premium accommodation on the Adria InterCity. These air conditioned compartments include a made-up bed with clean linen, a towel and some complimentary refreshments. At the end of the car is two toilets shared with other passengers in the car. There are up to three bunk beds available in each compartment and at the point of booking you can choose whether to reserve a single, two-person or three-person compartment. Keep in mind if you would like private occupancy for one person you would need to book a single compartment, but this does give the option of sharing with others at a lower price.

MÁV-START has been in the process of refurbishing these cars with a stylish blue livery and striking blue and yellow interiors and installing power sockets. On this train specifically there were two refurbished Sleeping Cars with a third unrefurbished one sporting the original red and light pink walls, so it is a lottery which one you will get.

These compartments are roomy (as train compartments go) and I did have a very comfortable night. Pictured below are the newly refurbished cars.

Dining Car

A rarity in Europe these days on night trains, is a Dining Car. On the Adria InterCity, MÁV-START make a point of this train including an “elegant” one previously in service on government trains. It was certainly a delight to experience some former glamour, but the drawback was that it was very hot without air conditioning and a warm 26°C outside. Thankfully there was a window that opened wide, perfect for taking in the sea air while enjoying the views en route.

The heat was not helped by the menu offering mainly ‘warming’ dishes, more suited for a cold winter’s day. Still I went ‘all out’ and chose a delicious roast duck with cherry sauce served with mashed potatoes, washed down with some white wine and followed by honey cake for afters. Don’t be fooled by the cherry sauce served in a soup bowl, there’s no surprise soup on offer. This set me back 5990 Hungarian Forint (14,16 €).

The Dining Car was very popular, with all the tables soon occupied. It’s worth mentioning that reservations are not possible, so tables are available at a first-come-first-served basis and it’s worth heading there as soon as you can on boarding.

Couchette Car

Couchettes are the other type of accommodation on the Adria InterCity which have also been refurbished recently. Couchettes come with sheets and blankets to make up a bed yourself and come with a lighter breakfast in the morning. These are shared rooms with other passengers, up to four or six people in each and shared washrooms and toilets are at the end of the car. The train was fully booked, so I didn’t get a picture of a compartment in the couchette car. However below is pictured a similar one on the Corona InterCity.

Scenery

On departure from Split there is a feast for the eyes out of the window as the train heads for the Dinári Mountains with the railway ascending to almost 900 metres above sea level. Be sure to take a look at the view at the back of the train too. In the morning the journey promises views of Lake Balaton as the train glides across its long eastern shore.

Border Controls

At the time of writing Croatia is not in the Schengen area, however, this is likely to change in the near future. This means that border formalities took place by both the Croatian police, for exit, and the Hungarian police, for entry to the EU.

The good news is that both of these checks take place at the same station in Hungary, at Gyékényes, where the train arrives at 05:09 in the morning. This is early, but it could have been far earlier if the Croatian police checked at a station in Croatia, so I didn’t mind this.

Then it didn’t go to plan…

Entering Hungary was a breeze, however, at the border crossing we stood for longer than scheduled. My friendly carriage attendant came to share the news, in perfect English, that there was a problem up ahead which meant that the train couldn’t continue its journey after Nagykanizsa. He explained that I’d have to pack my things and board a replacement bus to Balatonszentgyörgy where a replacement train would be waiting.

This is where MÁV-START and the onboard rail hospitality provider, Utasellátó, really came into their own I thought.

A ticket for the Sleeping Car includes a complimentary breakfast, usually served in the onboard Dining Car. Unfortunately there would now not be time to visit with a twenty-five minute running time to Nagykanizsa. However, my Sleeping Car attendant proactively came to tell me that I could still claim my breakfast in a takeaway box by taking my voucher to the Dining Car. He was not wrong. I was handed two croissants and an Earl Grey tea with a smile to provide some much needed sustenance for what the rest of the journey had in store.

I alighted from the train at Nagykanizsa and followed all the other passengers to the station exit. We were greeted by a staff pointing us in the direction of the replacement bus and then again at Balatonszentgyörgy to get on the replacement train. The whole process was calm and well organised. There was a seat available for virtually everyone on the replacement bus I took and more than enough seats for everyone on the replacement train to enjoy the views of Lake Balaton.

In the end we arrived into Budapest Keleti station only one hour after our scheduled arrival time. Impressive. The replacement train stopped at all the stations the Adria InterCity would have called at.

Later on by translating the MÁV-START mobile app, I found the reason for the disruption was that there was a lightning strike the night before leading to fallen trees on the line. The fact that MÁV-START set-up these contingency travel arrangements for the arrival of the early morning Adria InterCity is a wonder.

Business Lounge

Included in the sleeper ticket is access to the Business Lounge at Budapest Keleti. This comfortable lounge has a number of complimentary items, including sandwiches as can be seen from the menu below, though I didn’t have time to sample anything – just as well I got my complimentary breakfast from the Dining Car.

Booking and Fares

In 2022 the summer only train ran from July to September, three nights a week. This train is so popular that when I looked to book online in early summer, there was very limited availability for the upcoming two months. I wasted no time in getting my ticket which can be purchased on the MÁV-START website that you can show on your device or print out at home. This allows for all sorts of discounts, including InterRail and even FIP for rail staff travel.

Journey LegAdult using FIP Reduced Rate Card (50% ticket price)
Split to Budapest Keleti39520 HUF = 104,00 €

This article was first published in October 2022

Around Mount Etna 🌋 and Vesuvius 🌋 by train 🇮🇹

Italy has twelve volcanoes. Two of them, which are some of the most active in the country, also have railways operating local passenger services around them. There is the Circumvesuviana circulating Mount Vesuvius on the Gulf of Naples and the Circumetnea around Mount Etna on Sicily. So why did Italy build them?

Both railways were built at the end of the 19th century, and their purpose is mutual – they exist to serve local villages situated around the volcanoes, connecting them to each other and to the nearby cities of Naples and Catania. These railways are a lifeline for the communities they serve, which is evident from the high numbers of locals who use these services every day.

The routes are not so much of a tourist attraction, with their fragmented timetables for completing the full circle and at least one change of train required on both routes. However, travelling around them does not just offer fantastic views, but it also constitutes a unique insight into local life. A truly unique experience.

Circumvesuviana – Naples

Route map of the Circumvesuviana
Route map of the Circumvesuviana.
Source – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circumvesuviana_maps.png
Journey LegBest Views
Barra to Barra (clockwise)Right Hand Side – views of Mount Vesuvius
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Porta Nolana to Barra

Firstly, around Vesuvius. I started my journey at the terminus of the Circumvesuviana at the station of Napoli Porta Nolana, opting to travel clockwise. I recommend to start here to avoid the crowds boarding at Napoli Garibaldi, the next station. As you can see on the map (above), there are two trains required to complete the full circle, with a change at Poggiomarino and a total travelling time of two hours (excluding the connection time at Poggiomarino).

The Circumvesuviana offers two types of rolling stock – the FE220 and the newer ETR221. The latter is far more comfortable, as you can probably tell from the photos (below), while the FE220 seats gave me past vibes of the chairs in my classroom at school.

It was certainly an experience travelling on these trains – one of the drivers activated the emergency brake at least twice en-route, resulting in passengers standing performing an impromptu run backwards down the carriage. Later on in the trip, the train happened to pass one of the ETR221s involved in an accident over 10 years ago in the sidings, looking worse for wear, which certainly serves as a stark reminder of the incident. Nevertheless, do not let this put you off this highly agreeable ride.

Circumetnea – Sicily

Journey LegViews
Catania Borgo to Riposto (clockwise)Left Hand Side – views from a-height (recommended)
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Giarre Riposto to Catania (southbound, clockwise)Left Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Catania to Giarre Riposto on the Circumetnea and a mainline journey from Giarre Riposto to Catania.

Mount Etna is the highest and largest active volcano in Europe, so it will not come as a surprise that this route takes all day to travel around. The varied landscapes and great view of the volcano make the journey worthwhile.

Starting at the beautiful terracotta Catania Borgo station, there are two departures per day to enable you to travel the full circle in a clockwise direction. Early birds can take the 08:05 departure, or for those who like a leisurely morning, the later 12:20 – both departures go through to Randazzo, where you must change trains. I opted for the lunch time departure, which also has the shortest connection time at Randazzo of 47 minutes between trains compared to 2 hours and 7 minutes for the 08:05 departure.

The next train departs from Randazzo at 12:10 or 15:06 respectively to Riposto, where you must change one final time to the nearby Giarre-Riposto station onto a Trenitalia ‘Intercity’ or ‘Regionale’ train back to Catania.

Logistics out of the way, what about the experience? Similarly to the Circumvesuviana, the route serves local communities, even though the experience itself is different. Firstly, the Circumetnea climbs up the volcano unlike its counterpart, so it is best to sit on the side away from the volcano for the best views this time.

The train ascends shortly after departure from Catania through the lava rocks and then fields with Bronte pistachios growing in abundance. This journey to Randazzo serves the most populated communities on the route, and has highly loaded trains to match especially between Paterno and S. M. Licodia Centrale stations, where we were accompanied by a large group of school children onboard. The crowding was only for a couple of stops thankfully.

Arriving at the medieval village of Randazzo, you have to alight and wait for the next train arriving on the same platform later. Two trains then arrived at the depot, one going back to Catania and the other onto Riposto. There did not seem to be an indication of which train was going where, so I checked with the staff, but the busiest one by far was the one going back to Catania. Surprisingly I was the only passenger for Riposto – the northern part of the route has the most picturesque scenery.

Fares

Circumvesuviana

Ticketing is priced according to scheduled journey duration. If you wish to travel the full circumference in one go, you can use a €4,90 ticket valid for 180 minutes, the journey time being 51 minutes from Napoli PN to Poggiomarino on the red-coloured route, and 59 minutes from Poggiomarino to Napoli PN on the green-coloured route. If you decide to break your journey to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum (both are highly recommended), you need to purchase additional tickets at stations en route; there is no ‘day’ or ‘network’ ticket (perhaps a missed opportunity!).

Journey LegFull Public Cost
Napoli Porta Nolana to Napoli Porta Nolanafrom €4,90 on the day (according to journey duration)
Cost based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Porta Nolana

Circumetnea

Pricing is by distance for the Circumetnea and tickets available on the day of travel. If you wish to travel the full circumference you can use a ticket covering 70km+. Another ticket is required for the Trenitalia leg that can also be purchased on the day.

Journey LegFull Public Cost
Catania Borgo to Riposto (Circumetnea)€6,80 on the day
Giarre Riposto to Catania (Trenitalia)€3,40 (Regionale) on the day
€8,50 (Intercity) on the day
Cost based on a clockwise journey from Catania Borgo to Catania via Randazzo and Riposto

This article was first published in July 2022 based on journeys in Autumn 2020.

Corona InterCity – Budapest 🇭🇺 to Brașov 🇷🇴 by Hungarian sleeper train

The concept of naming trains is somewhat rare in Western Europe nowadays – in the Eastern parts, however, there are plenty. As part of a trip from the UK to Romania by train, I had booked on the, unfortunately named (at least for 2020 onwards), “Corona” InterCity for its full journey from the Hungarian capital of Budapest to Brașov, in the heart of Transylvania.

There are a multitude of sleeper trains between Hungary and Romania each day, departing at different times, all with their own names to match. The best known ones are the “Ister” and “Dacia”, which connect the capitals of Budapest and Bucharest. These trains are exclusively formed of carriages by the Romanian State Railways (CFR Călători) for the end-to-end journey.

On the contrary, the Corona is unique as it is formed of carriages from the Hungarian State Railways (MÁV-START), with its own dining car to match – a rarity in the world of continental European sleeper trains. The train also takes a different route within Romania to serve towns, where Hungarian is widely spoken – for example Gheorgheni, Miercurea Ciuc and Brașov.

After enjoying a highly appropriate Kürtőskalác, or Chimney Cake, in Budapest (originally popular in the Hungarian-speaking regions of Romania) and the view from the Fisherman’s Bastion of the river Danube, we head to the station at what feels far too early in the day for a sleeper train in April – with no sign of the sun setting just yet.

One good reason for the 17:40 departure is the time that the train arrives at the Hungary-Romania border stations. Both countries are in the EU; however, Romania is not part of the Schengen agreement. This means we had our passports checked (and stamped) at both Biharkeresztes (Hungary) and Episcopia Bihor (Romania) stations. We were timetabled to arrive at 21:08 and 22:56 respectively, meaning no through-the-night disturbances. Romania is in Eastern European Summer Time (EEST), while Hungary is in Central European Summer Time (CEST), so the Romanian time includes the +1 hour time difference, as we cross the border. Another benefit is the 09:42 arrival in the morning, allowing for a full day to explore Brașov, known for its medieval Saxon walls and bastions.

Armed with plenty of fluids and emergency food supplies from nearby Spar, we headed to our platform around half an hour before departure. Here, our friendly Hungarian Sleeping Car Attendant greeted us, checked our reservation, and showed us to our compartment. The train conveyed one sleeping car, one couchette car, two seated carriages, as well as the recently re-opened dining car, following closure through the COVID-19 pandemic. We were in store for a highly memorable trip!

Booking

Booking a ticket from the UK for the Corona proved to be a challenge. Sleeping cars cannot currently be booked online at the, otherwise much improved, Hungarian Railways website. While these cars can be booked on the Romanian Railways website, no discounts can be applied if you already hold a valid ticket. My party of two had an InterRail Pass, and I can obtain a discount using FIP Coupons available to European railway staff.

Another drawback with the CFR website is that it only shows availability for the Corona when the Ister is not available – at least from my observation for a handful of upcoming dates.

Having consulted one UK Travel Agent, International Rail, who were able to book trains in western and most of central Europe, they were unable to book trains between Hungary and Romania. I tried another UK Travel Agent, Rail Canterbury, who saved the day being able to make our reservation for this train.

Onboard the Corona

Sleeping Car

Towards the rear of the five car train was Coach 435, the elderly sleeping car which would be our base for the next 15 hours. Although on some occasions there are refurbished air-conditioned sleepers on this route (as can be seen on VagonWEB), for us today, we would instead be in store for a trip of nostalgia. Not at all a bad thing.

In our comfortable compartment, our two beds were made up ready for us when we arrived, complete with clean bedding and towels. Air-conditioning would be supplied via an open window, and there was a black-out blind and red curtain. The train had clearly been baking in the warm 25°C April sun for the day, so after departure (window down fully) we were brought some very welcome bottled water, multi-vitamin juice, and chocolate wafers on the house.

There was a USB and conventional socket within the cupboard above the sink; however, as explained later, we were not able to use it.

Dining Car

A real treat was the Hungarian Dining Car on the Corona, situated at the centre of the train that stays with the train for the full journey, boasting an extensive menu. Taking full advantage of the early evening meal departure time, we did not waste any time in seeking it out.

Enjoying a substantial beef burger with a few Korona wines (yes, the wine was called that too!), before we knew it, the sun was setting, and we were approaching the Hungarian border. We settled the bill and headed back to the compartment, to be ready with our passports.

It is worth mentioning that as Sleeping Car passengers on the Corona, we were entitled to a free breakfast in the Dining Car in the morning. The Sleeping Car Attendant handed us a voucher with our tickets.

Powerless

Returning to the compartment nicely full, we were surprised to find the Sleeping Car plunged into darkness. Our Sleeping Car Attendant appears out of nowhere to try to tell us what is going on, but we struggle with a mutual language. It appeared that he was telling us that in a few stations we will have power – I assume that he was referring to one of the stations where the locomotive would be changed.

Hopeful our power will return, we sit tight, enjoy the unique experience of travelling in the dark, glancing up at the stars. Resourcefully, we use every opportunity at lit stations to search our luggage for what we need to settle down for the night.

Unfortunately, the power never arrived, with the exception of the corridor that miraculously lit up at the border stations. Following a restful sleep, we woke up to a freezing carriage and frost on the ground in Romania, so we were very glad to be returning to the Dining Car for some sustenance and much needed mobile phone charge.

Couchette Car

Following breakfast in the morning, in search of somewhere warm to sit and power, we head to the Couchette Car, which offered us both. This carriage has been refurbished recently too. Our Sleeping Car Attendant pops his head in to say hello and understandingly nods his head when we tell him we moved to get power.

Seated Car

On the Corona there are two compartment Seated Cars. One was a refurbished car, the other looking more tired but comfortable. Take your pick.

Scenery

It’s worth heading to the back of the train to see the sunset over the east of Hungary. In the morning, we were greeted to hilly views of Transylvania.

Arrival

We arrived on time after an overall pleasant trip. And, in case you were wondering, we did not catch Coronavirus from the Corona.

Fares

Journey LegFull Price Return*Global InterRail Pass
Budapest to Brașov123.73 LEI (25€) + Reservation FeeIncluded + Reservation Fee (80€ for two people sharing 2-berth sleeping compartment)

*pricing valid at the time of writing – May 2022.

If you work for the rail industry in a European country, as I do, you can take advantage of FIP free and discounted travel across Europe, which includes a trip on the Corona plus the one-off reservation fee for the whole journey in the chosen accommodation.

Journey LegUsing FIP Free Coupons
Budapest to BrașovMÁV FIP Free Coupon (Budapest to Biharkeresztes)
+ CFR FIP Free Coupon (Biharkeresztes to Brașov)
+ Reservation Fee (80€ for two people sharing 2-berth sleeping compartment)

This article was first published in May 2022

Interlaken 🇨🇭 to Jungfraujoch 🇨🇭 – The Top of Europe by train. What’s the journey like and is it worth the cost?

A trip to the Top of Europe sounds impressive, right? At an impressive 3,454 metres high, Jungfraujoch is Europe’s highest train station. As you might expect, this is a tourist attraction and not the cheapest train journey even by Swiss standards – but is it worth the cost?

The trip starts at Interlaken Ost, a resort town that is a core part of the Swiss rail network with direct trains to Bern, Lucerne and even international destinations to/from Germany.

It isn’t a case of jumping on one train to get to the Top of Europe – there are multiple changes required. There are also different route options – whether you want to go via Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald, whether you would like to go solely by railway or the faster cable car and train combination. You can also mix and match making tailoring the trip exactly how you’d like it – we opted for ascending exclusively by train via Lauterbrunnen and descending by cable car and train via Grindelwald.

In this blog I will explain these routes, however please consult jungfrau.ch for the latest information about each of the options and fares available.

Interlaken Ost to Lauterbrunnan (796 metres)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Interlaken Ost to Lauterbrunnan20 minsBerner Oberland-BahnRight Hand Side

First up, our chariot is the train of the Berner Oberland-Bahn taking us 229 metres up to Lauterbrunnan in 20 minutes.

Lauterbrunnan to Kleine Scheidegg (2,061 metres)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Lauterbrunnan to Kleine Scheidegg38 minsWengernalpbahnRight Hand Side

This next leg is where the spectacular scenery begins. It’s a steep ascent on the rack railway from Lauterbrunnan to Kleine Scheidegg. As soon as the train departs there is a beautiful view over Lauterbrunnan. Then a views down into the valley on the approach to Wengen station sitting at 1,247 metres followed by Allmen station at 1,509 metres. This is the point I realised how unique this journey is – you get a real sense of the height you’ve climbed. Look out for Swiss cows donning big bells around their necks and the first view of a glacier. I did notice how thin the air was getting off at Kleine Scheidegg. There is a water machine and taking slow steps is advised from here upwards.

Kleine Scheidegg to Eigergletscher (2,320 metres)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Kleine Scheidegg to Eigergletscher5 minsJungfraubahnRight Hand Side

Next up the rather comfortable, red, Jungfrau Railways train climbing up to Eigergletscher. This is a quick 5 minute trip. Unfortunately for us, this is where the mist came in obscuring our view across the valley.

Eigergletscher to Jungfraujoch (3,454 metres) – the Top of Europe

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Eigergletscher to Jungfraujoch26 minsJungfraubahnN/A

The final leg is on another red train by the Jungfrau railways. This journey is entirely in a tunnel, built in order to protect the railway line from snow and extreme weather. The train makes a stop at Eismeer, the second highest train station in Europe at 3,159 metres, stopping for 5 minutes to admire the panoramic view of Ischmeer glacier covered in thick snow. Impressive.

Finally everyone gets back on to travel for the final 300 metres to the Top of Europe, at Jungfraujoch.

The Top of Europe

We made it to the Top of Europe! There is a viewing platform here at Jungfraujoch however the mist never cleared in our experience. Despite this and much to our surprise, it turned out to be very easy to spend a few hours at the Top of Europe with an ice plateau outside, vast ice caves with ice scultptures, a museum, shops (including souvenir and the highest Lindt shop), Europe’s highest post office and a café.

Jungfraujoch to Eigergletscher (2,320 m)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Jungfraujoch to Eigergletscher24 minsJungfraubahnN/A

To begin our descent we retrace our steps and travel back through the tunnel on the same route, however it’s worth noting that that the train doesn’t stop at Eismeer in this direction – it’s direct to Eigergletscher. A family sat their child in the spare seat next to me, who fell asleep for the duration with his head on my shoulder…

Eigergletscher to Grindelwald (1,034 m)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Eigergletscher to Grindelwald15 minsEiger Express Cable CarFront

Spicing things up for the return leg, we opt for the route via Grindelwald this time instead of Lauterbrunnen and tried out the new Eiger Express Cable Car that opened in December 2020. With its 44 cabins, it glides down the 1,300 metres elegantly with stunning views from the front. Although you’re sat with the window to your back, you can turn around for an unobscured view. There is also a Wengernalpbahn train along the same route taking longer.

Grindelwald to Interlaken Ost (568 m)

Journey LegDurationOperatorViews
Grindelwald to Interlaken Ost35 minsBerner Oberland-BahnLeft Hand Side

This would be the final leg of our trip back to Interlaken. Grindelwald itself does have a vast array of shops, perfect for a travel break on the way back. Once ready to head back, the final leg to Interlaken Ost is by rack railway with river views on the left.

Overall despite the weather conditions, I thoroughly enjoyed my journey to the Top of Europe. No matter what the weather is at the top, you can still appreciate the scale of the railway and the effort required for those involved in building it. It’s a true engineering marvel. Getting on and off trains en route gives you the chance to experience stunning views while breathing fresh mountain air aplenty.

Route wise, both routes via Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald are spectacular and I recommend going up one and down the other.

In terms of buying tickets, I suggest waiting until the day of travel to purchase these so you can check for the weather conditions on the day – the pricing is the same no matter when you buy it and no reservations necessary. We found the staff at Interlaken Ost booking office to be very helpful, happily working out the cheapest price for us. There are webcams online and in hotel room TVs in Interlaken, so you can check the conditions before setting off.

Tickets

Ticketing isn’t the easiest to get your head around, though you can purchase a through ticket from Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch despite using three train operators services and the cable car, and all from the booking office at Interlaken Ost. There’s a cheaper Good Morning ticket available for the early bird departures and discounts for those with InterRail, FIP and Swiss Half Fare cards among others. More details can be found here.

Journey LegFull Price Return*InterRail Discounted Return
(valid, but no need to date)*
Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch (Return)Valid all day – 210.80 CHFValid all day – 177.20 CHF
Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch (Return)‘Good Morning’ ticket – 175.00 CHF
*pricing valid at the time of writing – December 2021.

If you work for the rail industry in a European country, as I do, you can take advantage of FIP free and discounted travel across Europe which includes a trip to the Top of Europe.

Journey LegUsing FIP Discount Card*
Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch (Return)Valid all day – 117.90 CHF
Good Morning Ticket – 95.00 CHF
*pricing valid at the time of writing – December 2021
Journey LegUsing FIP Free Coupons*
Interlaken Ost to LauterbrunnenFIP Free Coupon (SP)
Lauterbrunnen to Kleine ScheideggFIP Free Coupon (SP)
Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch via EigergletscherFIP Fare 39.00 CHF
Jungfraujoch to EigergletscherFIP Fare 37.50 CHF
Eigergletscher to Kleine Scheidegg (Cable Car)FIP Free Coupon (SP)
Kleine Scheidegg to Interlaken OstFIP Free Coupon (SP)
*pricing valid at the time of writing – December 2021

This article was first published in December 2021

Zürich🇨🇭 to Lucerne🇨🇭 by train 🚆- the fast or the slow option?

Lucerne and Zurich are two unique Swiss-German speaking cities that are highly likely to be on your itinerary as a visiting tourist to Switzerland. To travel between the two there is a fast, comfortable, direct train that serves the two cities operated by SBB in as little as 41 minutes.

Those who know this part of the world could well be asking “which slow option?”. Well this is very much an off-the-beaten-track route and one I’ve very much devised on my own, taking three trains instead. Why not just take the fast train you ask? I’ll show you why I think the slow option made for a more memorable experience and in my opinion is not worth missing if you can spare the time. But first, what’s the fast route like?

Fast Option – Direct

Journey LegDurationTrain TypeOperator
Zürich <> Lucerne41 minutes*InterRegio [IR]SBB
*based on a journey taken departing Zürich at 11:10 on 29th August 2021. Journey durations may vary slightly on different departure dates / times of day

The direct route from Zürich to Lucerne is well served with two trains per hour using comfortable, modern double-deck SBB InterRegio trains. The route travels via the aptly named town of Zug, though the name doesn’t refer to its railway heritage but its fishing past.

The route takes as little as 41 minutes on the fastest trains and up to 50 minutes on the slightly slower trains. The Swiss offer fantastic dining cars on many routes, but not this one – the journey is too short to offer such a luxury. Simply grab your morning coffee at the station beforehand.

If you’re looking for views then this route will most likely disappoint, especially if you’re used to Swiss standards. There is some token scenery in the form of two lakes en route to take in however.

Slow Option via Interlaken

Journey LegDurationTrain TypeOperator
Lucerne <> Interlaken Ost1 hour, 49 minutes*InterRegio [IR]Zentralbahn
Interlaken Ost <> Bern52 minutes*InterCity [IC]SBB
Bern <> Zürich HB56 minutes*InterCity [IC]SBB
*based on journey taken departing Lucern at 15:06 on 29th August 2021. Journey durations may vary slightly on different departure dates / times of day

Now for the scenic route I’ve devised from Lucerne to Zurich which goes via Interlaken and Bern – perfect if you’ve got some extra time and want to enjoy some spectacular Swiss scenery.

This route travels via Interlaken with hourly departures. It’s worth noting that there are three trains to catch instead of one on this route but you won’t find yourself waiting around in stations as the connections are short. If missed connections are a concern, we experienced first-hand a delay to our first train and much to our delight the second train waited for our arrival. Should the train not wait, there are certainly worse places to spend an hour in both Interlaken and Bern before continuing your journey on the next train.

It’s worth noting that the journey time for this route is considerably longer, taking 3 hours, 52 minutes in total however if you’re like me and love gazing out the window and dining on the move time will fly-by – all three of these trains had excellent Swiss dining cars. There’s no need to reserve these in advance – just show up whenever you feel like it. Here is a summary of each leg of the slow option. This journey can also be taken in the reverse direction with a similar journey time.

Leg 1: Lucerne <> Interlaken Ost

First up, from Lucerne to Interlaken via the jaw-dropping scenery of the Luzern-Interlaken Express by Die Zentralbahn. This route is full of character from start to finish with steep ascents, the magical Brünig mountain pass and no fewer than five lakes – all to enjoy at your seat through the window. Sitting on the right hand side departing Lucerne is recommended for the best scenery and staying on that side when the train reverses at Meiringen.

This is a regional train but with a bistro! Our train was formed of two trains coupled together, one without a bistro – so if you would like to take advantage of a cuppa on the move make sure you sit in the train set that has one.

Our train managed to rack-up a small delay of five minutes – which would have been enough to miss the connection at Interlaken Ost should the onward train have departed on time. Much to our surprise there were many customers switching trains and our next train was held back for our arrival despite being different operators – impressive work from the Swiss railway companies!

Leg 2: Interlaken Ost <> Bern

Next up, after the (rather unnecessary) drama of rushing to catch this InterCity train we were hungry. It was time to eat at the dining car for our 52 minute journey to Bern. The SBB InterCity trains on this route have a whole dedicated dining carriage with a mix of table sizes from sitting two people up to five with one host looking after what turned out to be a full carriage. He impressed us with his speed and managed to serve us a delicious warming Thai Green Curry and chilled wine within minutes of departure. They arrived just as we were passing the glorious Lake Thun on our right. Bliss. There’s something truly special about dining on the move.

Leg 3: Bern <> Zürich HB

We arrived into Bern a few minutes behind following our late start from Interlaken. No time to waste we headed straight over to catch our next SBB InterCity train to Zürich, this time a more modern double-decker variant for our final leg of the journey to Zürich.

We had room left for dessert so headed again straight to the dining car which is on the upper level. The train was busy, however we were able to share a table with a friendly Swiss couple playing a board game. Enjoying some more wine and a tasty Schweizer Apfelküchlein, the conductor checked our tickets. It was our last date of travel on our train passes and she commented sympathetically “last one” – our two weeks travelling on Swiss trains was drawing to a close and what a way to spend our last day in this beautiful country with our three-train adventure. We enjoyed every minute.

Tickets

There are whole host of ticketing options for train travel in Switzerland including point-to-point tickets for a one-off journey (more expensive per journey), to cheaper travel if you’re planning more journeys for example using the half-fare travelcard or InterRail tickets if you live in another European country. Reservations are not required to travel on non-tourist trains in Switzerland such as these journeys featured in this blog post.

As you can see in the table below if you’re planning the direct train from Zürich to Lucerne and not making any other journeys in Switzerland a point-to-point ticket might be cheaper for you. If you’re planning the trip via Interlaken, then a day pass might be cheaper for you (SBB Saver Day Pass or InterRail) or purchasing a half-fare railcard for point-to-point tickets from SBB. It all depends what else you have planned.

Ticket Type – Available to the PublicFull Price one wayPrice (half-fare travelcard) one wayReservation Fees
Zürich to Lucerne Point-to-Point (2nd Class)
– valid for one journey, bought in advance
from CHF 13.80from CHF 7.60Not Required
Zürich to Lucerne Point-to-Point via Interlaken (2nd Class)
– valid for one journey, bought in advance
from CHF 92.00from CHF 46.00Not Required
SBB Saver Day Pass
– valid throughout Switzerland, bought in advance
from CHF 52.00from CHF 29.00Not Required
Swiss InterRail Pass (e.g. 5 days in 1 month, 1 Adult)
– valid throughout Switzerland
€56,50 per dayN/ANot Required
Fares correct as of 30th October 2021

If you work for the rail industry in a European country, as I do, you can take advantage of FIP free and discounted travel across Europe – again no reservation fees for these journeys.

TrainJourney LegFIP Facilities UsedFIP Facilities Reservation Fees
InterRegio (SBB)Zürich HB to LucerneFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
InterRegio (Zentralbahn)Lucerne to Interlaken OstFIP Free Coupons (SP)Not Required
InterCity or EuroCity (SBB)Interlaken Ost to BernFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
InterCity (SBB)Bern to Zürich HBFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
Details correct as of 30th October 2021

This article was first published in October 2021

Italy’s Scenic Routes by Train 🇮🇹

Italy, which boasts a vast national rail network, is well known for its modern ‘Le Frecce’ high-speed services; but what about those people who like to take it slowly and enjoy the scenery that a train journey has to offer? The fastest journeys aren’t always the most picturesque. Here is a compilation of ten of the routes which offer splendid views across the country, that should not be missed.

1. Pisa 🇮🇹 to Florence 🇮🇹 (the slower route)

Onboard Trenitalia’s Regionale | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Pisa to LuccaRight Hand Side (recommended)
Lucca to FlorenceLeft Hand Side (recommended)
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Pisa Centrale to Firenze SMN via Lucca and Pistoia

Pisa to Florence is served by fast and frequent trains departing in each direction at least every half an hour with journey times that take anywhere between 51 minutes to 1 hour 21 minutes on the most direct route. However, departing four times a day, there are direct regional services with much less attractive journey times for the same end-to-end journey which most passengers probably avoid on this basis. Taking more than 2 hours, there is a route which offers a much more spectacular landscape to enjoy than the faster route that travels via Lucca and Pistoia offering green, mountainous terrain and picture perfect villages. A true investment of time.

2. Pisa 🇮🇹 to Genova 🇮🇹 via Cinque Terre (towards Côte d’Azur, France 🇫🇷)

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciabianca (ETR.460)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Pisa to GenovaRight Hand Side – Mountains and Villages of the Cinque Terre
Left Hand Side – Ligurian Sea
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Pisa Centrale to Genova Piazza Principe via La Spezia

This route is a real treat for scenery lovers. Trains glide past (and some call at) the five fishing and wine-making villages of the famous Cinque Terre, now home to much tourism. Think lush green mountainsides and steep-drop rocky coves on the Ligurian Sea glistening in the sunshine. Idyllic.

Please be aware that there are a number of tunnels on this route especially after La Spezia Centrale, so it’s a case of ‘blink and you miss it’ scenery and quite tricky to take shots with the camera, but fantastic when you do snap up a glimmer of sea or lush mountainous terrain.

If you’re doing the whole route, InterCity and Frecciabianca trains operate and are recommended, these offer greater comfort but don’t call at the all five villages of the Cinque Terre. There are regional trains available too with an easy change of train required at La Spezia Centrale.

3. Naples 🇮🇹 to Siracusa 🇮🇹 via the west coast

Onboard Trenitalia’s InterCity Notte (Deluxe)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Agropoli to Villa San GiovanniLeft Hand Side – Tyrrhenian Sea and Italian Villages (recommended)
Right Hand Side – Views of the Apennines and Countryside
Messina to SiracusaLeft Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Right Hand Side – Mount Etna
Recommendations based on a journey on the InterCity Notte from Milano Centrale to Sicily in the morning from Sapri and following the route to Sicily in daylight

Italy offers two impressive rail routes which spans the west and east coasts of the mainland from top to bottom. A particular scenic part of the west coast route (in addition to the Cinque Terre route mentioned above) is the leg south of Naples towards Villa San Giovanni – the town where passenger trains board a ferry to Sicily. This is a must-do trip in its own right. At the time of writing this is the only passenger train that boards a ferry as part of its scheduled journey in Europe.

Here is a link to a special trip report on the InterCity Notte from Milano Centrale to Siracusa which takes in the sights of this very route and the unique experience of boarding the ferry.

The route from Agropoli to Villa San Giovanni hugs the west coast and offers irresistible views to look at across the Tyrrhenian Sea as well as some moments of steep-sided mountains as well as towns and villages popping up en-route – all on the coast side of the train. Delightful.

After the ferry crossing and landing in Sicily, switch sides for more sea views – this time of the Ionian Sea. Alternatively stay put to marvel at the incredible active volcano of Mount Etna – that has a long history of destruction.

4. West-to-east: Naples 🇮🇹 to Foggia 🇮🇹

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciargento (ETR.485)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Journey LegViews
Naples to CasertaRight Hand Side – Mount Vesuvius
Caserta to FoggiaLeft Hand Side – mountainside
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Naples to Termoli via Caserta, Ariano Irpino and Foggia

One of Italy’s jaw-dropping cross-country routes. On this journey you pass Mount Vesuvius in the distance on your right and then cut through the Apennine mountain range with beautiful views. The fastest journey times are as little as 2 hours 30 minutes with a change of train required from a regional train at Caserta and a Frecciargento train from there to Foggia, but important to check before travel as some journey times are considerably longer and involve a bus.

5. Italy’s East Coast 🇮🇹

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciargento (ETR.700) | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Foggia to RiminiRight Hand Side – Adriatic Sea (recommended)
Left Hand Side – green fields, some hills
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Foggia to Bologna Centrale via Termoli and Rimini

Often favoured less compared to its west coast counterpart, Italy’s east coast should not be overlooked as it offers fantastic sea views of the Adriatic Sea for almost all of the journey from north to south. It is served by high speed, high comfort Frecciargento and Frecciabianca trains – ideal for relaxing in a large, comfortable seat, enjoying a glass of wine and getting lost in a good book.

6. Verona 🇮🇹 to Bolzano 🇮🇹 (towards Austria 🇦🇹) on the Brenner Railway

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa (ETR.500) and DB-ÖBB EuroCity | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Journey LegViews
Verona to BolzanoLeft Hand Side – mountains and most of the River Adige (recommended)
Right Hand Side – mountains
Recommendations based on a northbound journey from Verona Porta Nuova to Bolzano Boden

The advertising poster at Verona Porta Nuova station doesn’t need to try hard to sell this journey… simply stunning and my favourite Italian railway route to date. This route is the gateway from Italy to Austria and the excitement continues long past Bolzano, where it reaches the border of the two countries at the Brenner Pass. This is the steepest point on the Italian and Austrian standard gauge rail networks at an ear popping 1,371 metres.

Upon departure from Verona, the train soon becomes engulfed by spectacular mountain scenery on both sides. And if that wasn’t enough you can also be confident you are heading in the right direction as the route follows the River Adige for the entire journey to Bolzano.

Please find a link to a special video featuring this journey onboard the Frecciarossa 500 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

7. Milan 🇮🇹 to Domodossola 🇮🇹 (towards Switzerland 🇨🇭)

Onboard Trenitalia’s EuroCity (ETR.610) | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Milano to DomodossolaRight Hand Side – views of Lake Maggiore
Left Hand Side – mountains
Recommendations based on a northbound journey from Milano Centrale to Domodossola

One of two routes from Italy to Switzerland is this route via the border station of Domodossola. This is the most direct route across the border from Milan with trains travelling to the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva via the Simplon Tunnel and Brig. The full route is served by comfortable and modern looking pointy-nosed pendolino trains.

Soon after departure you’re spoiled for choice for views on both sides of the train, from views of Lake Maggiore on your right and mountains on your left of the Ossola Valley with views of the Italian Alps. Bring your own food and drink as the bar on the train doesn’t open until Switzerland.

8. Circumvesuviana 🇮🇹, Naples Circular around Mount Vesuvius

Onboard Ferrovia Circumvesuviana FE220 and ETR211 | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️✖️✖️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Barra to Barra (clockwise)Right Hand Side – views of Mount Vesuvius
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Garibaldi to Barra

Yes that’s right – this is one of two railways in Italy that travels around the full circumference of a volcano. An interesting, but a scary concept! This one is called the Circumvesuviana and with its metro style operation, it serves local communities around Mount Vesuvius.

The full route isn’t designed for tourists as such, but you can enjoy views of Mount Vesuvius by sitting on the right hand side when travelling clockwise and tie this in with a visit to Pompeii or Herculaneum, which both have nearby stations with a frequent service. You will need to change trains at Poggiomarino to complete the full circle.

Please be aware to complete the full circumference you can purchase a 180 minute ticket for €4,90, however if you break the journey to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum then separate tickets must be purchased – there is no ‘day’ ticket.

9. Circumetnea 🇮🇹, Catania Circular around Mount Etna

Onboard Ferrovia Circumetnea| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Catania to Giarre Riposto (clockwise)Left Hand Side – views from a-height (recommended)
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Giarre Riposto to Catania (southbound, clockwise)Left Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Catania to Giarre Riposto on the Circumetnea and a mainline journey from Giarre Riposto to Catania.

The second railway in Italy that circles a volcano is around Mount Etna in Sicily. This impressive narrow gauge railway, the Ferrovia Circumetnea, is one of those journeys where you’re rewarded for your patience, as the most scenic part of the journey is along the routes most northern point. You can travel clockwise or anti-clockwise on this route, but best to check times in advance as there is a change of train required at Randazzo and limited journey opportunities for travelling the full circle. There is also a required journey on the mainline from Riposto to Catania (separate ticket required), which also has scenic views of the Ionian Sea.

Few people use the route to travel the full circle, but if you do it’s probably the best €10,30 you will spend for 4 hours and 30 minutes of travel. I found it to be mainly locals travelling from A to B on the first section of the Ferrovia Circumetnea from Catania to Randazzo and I was the only customer travelling for the Randazzo to Riposto leg, the most scenic part. A fantastic experience.

10. Tirano 🇮🇹 to St Moritz 🇨🇭

It would be rude to exclude this spectacular railway journey across the Swiss Alps, the route designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This route is the more touristy route taking longer in journey time but with delightful scenery to match. Pictures will be coming soon (once I’ve been on the journey to take them!).

Have I missed any scenic railway routes in Italy? Let me know your recommendations!

This article was first published in January 2021.

Frecciarossa 500 🚆🇮🇹 in Business Class during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The world looks different across all industries in 2020 as we all adapt to the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic and this very much includes the railway sector worldwide.

In October 2020 I travelled to Italy for some train-sampling Trenitalia style. Here is a video showcasing travel in Business Class on Italy’s most premium high-speed rail service by the nationalised operator, the Frecciarossa. I travelled from Verona Porta Nuova to Bolzano Boden – a wonderfully scenic journey towards the border with Austria.

This article was first published in November 2020.

Japan 🇯🇵: an introduction by rail 🚆 – Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Niigata, Tokyo

This was my first time visiting Japan. A beautiful country with a welcoming culture and an inspiring transport network! The one thing I couldn’t wait to try was the Shinkansen, or bullet train, that Japan is so highly renowned for. Rest assured, there would be plenty of train trips planned in this jam-packed week-long visit.

My Japan premiere (and therefore this blog post) features:

  • Flying with LOT Airways London City Airport to/from Tokyo Narita Airport via Warsaw Chopin Airport
  • Tokyo Narita Airport to Central Tokyo onboard the Narita Express
  • Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen Hikari
  • Exploring Kyoto including Hozu-gawa river boat ride
  • Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura
  • Exploring Hiroshima and Miyajima
  • Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen Kodama and Limited Express Yakumo
  • Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train
  • Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen Max Toki

London City (LCY) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

Staying over at London City airport, we kicked things off early for our Premium Economy experience through to Tokyo with LOT Polish Airlines.

Our first leg departed London City at 8am sharp, taking two and half hours to Warsaw Chopin airport onboard an Embraer-190 plane. This had the same type of seats and legroom for all classes, which was a little cramped, however we were treated to our own private cabin with Business Class customers separated from the Economy cabin by a curtain drawn shortly after departure.

Peculiarly, myself and my friend Ed, sat in row five, were the only customers travelling in Premium Economy. In the front row, a gentleman was travelling Business Class to Israel.

Upon departure, our dedicated Cabin Crew member delivered us a welcome orange juice and much to our surprise, a cooked breakfast. This was the second breakfast of the day, having also ate at the airport, but naturally we were on holiday so felt zero guilt for eating this too. We expected only a snack for this leg.

We arrived into Warsaw airport with three hours to kill before our next flight direct to Tokyo. The airport wasn’t the most comfortable with the waiting areas being small and cramped. Premium Economy doesn’t come with business lounge access, but we were able to pay a 120 PLN (c.£23.16) supplement per person. We were able to relax in there enjoying even more food, wine, beer and soft drinks. It was a busy lounge, but it was well worth paying the supplement for the duration we were in Warsaw.

We then departed Warsaw at 14:40 on our 787-Dreamliner, travelling overnight and arriving at 09:20 Japan time. The total journey time of this leg was ten hours and 40 minutes.

The service with LOT on both flights was second-to-none with meals on the Dreamliner fusing European cuisine with Japanese, making for some interesting dishes. Also on the Dreamliner, there was a basket of goodies that was always available. Drinks were plentiful with a glass of bubbly being offered upon boarding, another drink offered shortly after (I had a G&T), then the first meal being served with wine then tea or coffee afterwards.

Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express train

We wasted no time before travelling on our first train. We travelled on the Narita Express straight into the heart of Tokyo. The train is non-stop and takes approximately 54 minutes. We visited the JR booking office where we exchanged our JR Pass Exchange Order for the real deal – the dated JR Pass. We opted for an Ordinary Class pass over the Green Car (Japan’s First Class equivalent), the difference in the service being the seat and 3+2 seating vs 2+2 seating. The pass gave us total freedom to go anywhere we wanted to in Japan! A great feeling.

We also obtained free seat reservations for the day including the compulsory reservation for the Narita Express.

Immediately while arriving at the train station, the efficiency of the Japan Railway became apparent. We found our platform and the inbound service from Tokyo arrived and we were asked not to board. A staff ‘squad’ boarded the train at different carriages and pulled a belt across the door behind them, why? Their mission was to go through the train as quickly as they could, wiping down tables, the floor and turn around every seat with a lever so it would face the direction of travel. It was a fine art and fascinating to watch.

We boarded the train and by the entrance doors were luggage racks. Not only was there plenty of room for cases of all sizes, there were wires to wrap around the suitcase handle where you self-set a number lock to ensure your case wouldn’t be stolen. I couldn’t imagine a theft for one minute in Japan, but it’s best to be safe and we were going to the capital city afterall. If you forgot your number there was a process – travel to the final station and speak to staff who will release it. They thought of everything.

Within the passenger saloon with its spacious, reclining seats there were screens detailing information about the train’s journey featuring pages about the various weather disruption incidents across the JR East network. Line closures due to typhoons and earthquakes popped up!