Poland’s Flagship High-Speed Train – Gdańsk 🇵🇱 to Warsaw 🇵🇱 on the Express Intercity Premium

You’re spoilt for choice for trains between Gdańsk and Warsaw, with several departures a day connecting the northern Baltic coast city with the capital in Poland. These options are sorted into three train classifications, which is the case on long-distance routes across Poland.

The lowest prices can be found on the Twoje Linie Kolejowe (TLK) services, the mid-range are the InterCity (IC) services, and, the most expensive, fastest services are trains of the Express Intercity Premium (EIP) type. A journey on the latter classification from Gdańsk to Warsaw takes as little as two hours and thirty-four minutes, while the fastest TLK service take three hours and eleven minutes. There’s also an all day TLK option for the adventurous called the ‘Biebrza’ that takes eleven hours and thirty three minutes. This train is routed east, close to the Belarussian border – perhaps one for another day.

Looking to experience the best of Poland’s railways, I opted to take an EIP train between Gdańsk Główny and Warszawa Centralna (Warsaw Central), booking a ticket in First Class accommodation. The EIP trains serve the cities of Gdynia, Gdańsk, Warsaw, Wroclaw, Katowice and Krakow and are capable of running up to 200 km/h on Poland’s rails. European train travel aficionados might recognise these trains that part of the ‘New Pendolino’ family, identical to those in other countries in Europe and China. This includes those operated by the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) and Trenitalia, pictured on the right below, with the Polish variant pictured on the left. The Polish versions however do not tilt on corners as the other versions do, probably due to the mainly straight tracks in Poland.

Here is a map of the journey from Gdańsk to Warsaw:

Onboard the Express Intercity Premium

Our train arrived into Gdańsk Główny with a delay of two minutes arriving from the train’s starting point, Gdynia Główna. Once the very smart looking train had appeared we realised we were standing at the wrong end to where the single First Class carriage was located in carriage number one – right at the front of the train. The minor stress of having to jog was more than made up by the welcome from the Conductor and the dedicated First Class Host upon boarding the First Class carriage.

Seat reservations are compulsory on the EIP train in both of its classes, First Class and Second Class, and are provided automatically when booking the ticket. When booking online with the operator of the train, PKP InterCity, we were able to select our seats from a seat map – a neat feature.

First Class Accommodation

First Class seating on the EIP comes in a 2+1 configuration, with a choice of seating around tables with one, two and four seats. These comfortable seats all lined up with the windows, offered recline and a fold out table. There was also train running information on the rolling screens at each end of the carriage as well as TV monitors used for advertising.

As soon as we departed Gdańsk Główny, we were handed a menu card from our dedicated host. A complimentary light meal was provided within the cost of the ticket. I selected the salad with matured ham and blue cheese. As the train departed Tczew, the host passed by again with a trolley with tea, coffee, orange juice, apple juice, full-sugar Coca Cola and water. This was the only occasion where we would see the trolley on our journey, having asked if further drinks would be available, I was directed to the Dining Car in carriage number three. This didn’t stop customers joining the train at subsequent stops being offered the same food and drink offer, however.

Second Class Accommodation

The other type of accommodation on the train is 2nd Class, located across six coaches in carriage numbers two-seven. Seats are arranged in a 2+2 configuration with a mix of airline-style and tables of four. There are also a limited number of compartments with six seats in each. A complimentary bottle of water is provided.

WARS Bistro Car

Dining Cars in Poland are well renowned for their extensive menus provided by WARS, the hospitality and catering supplier of PKP InterCity trains. The menu in the Bistro Car on the EIP is no exception with hot, freshly prepared dishes along with salads, soups and desserts.

In search for something more substantial than our complimentary First Class light meal, we opted for the traditional pork chop dish and what I believe Poland is rightly most renowed for, the pierogis, or meat-stuffed dumplings. Something that you have to try!

There is one catch with the Bistro Car on the EIP train and that’s that there is no seating – though you can order the meal at your seat, however, we found it much easier to go to the Bistro Car than flag down the already rushed-off-her-feet First Class host. Standing up does take away some of the pleasure of dining on the move, however, it does mean that people don’t hang around for long meaning a highly efficient use of the only four tables.

There is another benefit of dining in the Bistro Car, and that is that you can purchase and consume alcohol. We were informed that you can only purchase alcohol in the Bistro Car, though there wasn’t much compliance with this as customers carried their beers through to the Second Class saloon.

Conclusion

The Express Intercity Premium train is very comfortable and modern, bringing rail travel up to date in Poland and serving the key cities.

The complimentary offer in First Class is a nice touch, but it’s likely it won’t fill you up if you’re travelling during breakfast, lunch or dinner times. It was great to have the Bistro Car on the EIP serving the same extensive menu available as the Dining Cars on the InterCity and some international trains in Poland, however, it’s a shame to not be able to sit down. Customers were able to order Bistro Car items at their seat in First Class though this was on takeaway boxes and wasn’t offered proactively.

Overall I would certainly recommend the EIP train and First Class accommodation is worth the upgrade, especially for the often reasonable price differential between Second Class and First Class.

Booking and Fares

Fares are available at the website of the PKP InterCity thirty days in advance for domestic travel (sixty days for international travel). Fares vary like air fares, so the earlier you book the lower the price.

Journey LegSecond ClassFirst Class
Gdańsk to Warsawfrom 118,30 Polish Zloty (~26€, £23, $28)from 181,30 Polish Zloty (~40€, £35, $43)

This article was first published in May 2023

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From Serbia 🇷🇸 to Bulgaria 🇧🇬 – the international train with only one carriage!

When I think of an international train, what springs to mind is a long train with at least two classes to choose from and a Dining or Café Car to assist with hunger on the trip. Most international trains in Europe are like this, however, there are some unique exceptions. The once per day train from Dimitrovgrad, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria, which was the only way to get from the capitals of Belgrade to Sofia from September to June (the winter season), was formed of a locomotive and only one Second Class carriage. They don’t lie when they say train travel isn’t popular in the Balkans!

I took a trip on this international Bulgarian Railways (BDZ) train in September 2019 as part of my trip from the United Kingdom to Türkiye exclusively by train. This particular train ran exclusively in the winter season as in the summer period the same train, except two carriages, started from Belgrade, completing its journey to Sofia in just over eleven hours.

Belgrade did happen to be our origin for this leg, however, as the direct train wasn’t available on our date – the only option was three trains from Belgrade to Niš, Niš to Dimitrovgrad and Dimitrovgrad to Sofia. All three journeys were possible to do in a day, though we opted to break the journey overnight in Niš and explore the fortress there (highly recommended!).

Surprisingly, having to take three different trains actually turned out to be a blessing as I explain below. At the time of booking this blessing was unknown as I tried to piece together timetables with the help of Mark Smith, the Man in Seat 61, to double check that I wouldn’t get stranded. Timetables have been known to not line up with connections. On the day I did witness the Niš to Dimitrovgrad train waiting for passengers connecting from the delayed Belgrade to Niš train, so it appears some people do make connecting journeys on this route, and this was known by the conductor on the train.

Unfortunately as of 2023 there is track work taking place on the Niš to Dimitrovgrad route with no replacement transport provided – there are public buses, however, they do not connect with the train as explained by the Man in Seat 61 here rendering Belgrade to Sofia in a day challenging if not impossible.

Here is a map of the journey from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia:

Departure from Dimitrovgrad

Dimitrovgrad is a town in the south-east of Serbia and was a peaceful place to enjoy a quick break from travelling. There wasn’t much going on at the station, however, I did find a kiosk that sold some cold drinks. These were very welcome as I glanced at a thermometer that confirmed that it was a hot day with the outside temperature of 32oC.

As we were connecting from the Serbian train from Niš, the platform change was a straightforward one – the Bulgarian train to Sofia, that departed fifty minutes later than the scheduled arrival into Dimitrovgrad, would depart from the same platform. We were running thirty-five minutes late, however, which meant that we would only have fifteen minutes in Dimitrovgrad before the only train that day to Sofia. It was hair-raising to see the Serbian train, that was our chariot for the last few hours, reverse out of the station almost straightaway after dropping us off. The reason immediately became apparent – the Bulgarian train that would take us to Sofia soon after, arrived on the same platform from a siding from the same direction.

They call it a small world and what happened next validated that. I never thought, at a small station in Serbia, I would meet a fellow traveller from the UK. Peter, who teaches at the University of Cambridge. had in fact followed us all the way from the UK by train, taking a similar route. We also met Alejandro from Spain who was en route to Kiev. We all made friends quickly and shared what was left from our food reserves for that day including a banana, a pack of apricots and biscuits to accompany our now lukewarm drinks.

Onboard the Bulgarian electric train

As we boarded the Second Class only Dimitrovgrad to Sofia train, we were immediately hit by how hot the carriage was inside – the train must have been sat in the sun for the whole day since its outward journey from Sofia. It was the first train on our journey from the UK without air conditioning and we had soon realised how spoilt we were on our previous trains. Myself and my new found friends wasted no time in opening all of the windows in the carriage for much needed respite. On departure, we were joined by three other passengers resulting in total occupancy of seven passengers.

The carriage, that was partitioned off into three compartments, had seats that were arranged in tables of four (without the table) as well as airline-style seating for two passengers. A toilet was available at the very rear of the carriage which I had the displeasure of using – it was very dark and not clean.

Very soon after departure from Dimitrovgrad, the train brakes were applied and we were stopped in a siding. This was for the Bulgarian Border Force to conduct passport checks to allow us to enter back into the European Union and Bulgaria. Passports were taken away for about thirty minutes and then returned to us before the train departed.

Once we were en route we sailed through to Sofia, having to close the windows at one point so the train didn’t lose its dark blue curtains in the draft, branded with the BDZ logo to match the seats. I noticed that the guard had a rather unusual cardboard pole that looked like a long cigar that he was using to signal to the driver to dispatch the train.

Scenery

The train from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia passes rural parts of northern Bulgaria with calls at some villages and towns en route.

Arrival into Sofia

We arrived on time into Sofia Central Station which is situated 1.7km from the centre of Sofia. The station was built originally in 1888 and rebuilt in a Brutalist style in 1974. It had extremely long platforms as you can see in the video below.

As we disembarked the train we noticed that this same carriage had been used for the direct summer only service from Belgrade Topčider to/from Sofia as shown on the carriage door and the plate on the side of the train.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed my Balkan trip and the train from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia was certainly a memorable experience.

Despite having to make three train changes to travel from Belgrade to Sofia, we concluded that this was the best way to do it in the hot weather to make the most of trains with air-conditioning. Travelling for some eleven hours in this carriage in this heat would have been a real challenge.

It’s a shame that the line from Niš to Dimitrovgrad is closed and no alternative transport is available. I hope that the service will resume soon to allow more seamless journeys from Belgrade to Sofia, two great capitals to explore.

Booking and Fares

I had used a free coupons issued to European rail staff for the full trip for both Serbian Railways (SV) and Bulgarian Railways (BDZ), though I think only the latter was necessary for this train. My travel companion had a Global InterRail Pass. The public price is available to buy only at the station prior to departure – it cannot be booked online.

While doing his ticket checks, our conductor was taking pictures of our passes. I don’t know why exactly, I’d like to think he was impressed we had travelled such a long way!

Journey LegFull Public PriceInterRailEuropean Rail Staff FIP Coupons
DImitrovgrad to Sofia10 Bulgarian LevIncludedFree

This article was first published in April 2023.

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Paris 🇫🇷 to Milan 🇮🇹 by train the Italian way – onboard the new Frecciarossa service!

For many years, the only direct way to travel between Paris and Milan at high-speed was by the French TGV, or Train de Grande Vitesse. Today, there is a new kid on the block that is disrupting the market – the Italian high-speed counterpart, the Frecciarossa. This is operated by Trenitalia France.

It’s not the first time that the Italians have had some market share on this mainline route across the Alps. Until recently, there was a sleeper train from Paris running through to Venice, also operated by Trenitalia France under the brand name Thello, which ran from 2011 to 2020 (see pictures below from 2016). Clearly, when Trenitalia France decided to terminate the service for good they had a plan up their sleeve as, in 2021, Frecciarossa trains were launched from Paris to Milan setting a new standard of service directly competing with the TGV.

Depending on the day of week, there are one or two Frecciarossa services per day that operate the route, one early morning departure and, on some days, a late afternoon departure. This is the case in both directions.

One Saturday back in November 2022, I took the first Frecciarossa of the day with a group of friends, the 07:26 departure from Paris Gare de Lyon to be exact, for its full journey to Milano Centrale, arriving at 14:07. This afternoon arrival into Milan is ideal for connecting trains to other places in Italy, including the sleeper train to Sicily that I have reviewed recently.

Departure from Paris Gare de Lyon

The train departs and arrives at the great cathedral-like Gare de Lyon in Paris, the same location as where the competing TGV services depart and arrive from. This important station can be confusing to navigate with the station comprising of three areas, or halls. The Frecciarossa services leave from Hall 1 in the original part of the station, however, if you access the station from the underground Hall 3 (where the RER trains feed into) then you must walk to Hall 2 before locating the signs to Hall 1. Thankfully I had used the station a few times in the past, so there was no last minute panic on where the train would leave from.

Also confusingly, the Trenitalia France tickets are not available from the SNCF ticket machines that are dotted all over the station or the ticket office. However, in Hall 1, there is a Trenitalia France ticket machine with its own ticket office to match to be able to purchase tickets. We bought our tickets online direct from the Trenitalia website, however, so we didn’t need to use these facilities. Online purchases come with an e-Ticket, with a barcode, so the ticket can be presented on your phone at the ticket barriers and onboard.

Onboard the Frecciarossa 1000

The Frecciarossa 1000 that serves the Paris to Milan route offers three classes of accommodation on this route – Standard, Business and Executive.

Those familiar with the Frecciarossa 1000’s operations within Italy will know that there are usually four classes of accommodation on these trains – so which class is missing?

Standard Class Accommodation

Standard Class Accommodation is available in five cars on the Frecciarossa. Seats are arranged in a 2+2 configuration, some airline style and others around tables. There are two types of ambiances to choose from based on the specific car selected – Allegro and Silenzio, i.e. the quiet coach. Catering is available from the Café Bar in car number three, available to all, to purchase drinks and snacks.

On the Paris to Milan route, the Premium accommodation is sold as Standard Class, which features exactly the same seat but in brown leather. This is exclusive to car number four,

Business Class Accommodation

We had booked Business Class for our trip to Milan. This accommodation has seats in a 2+1 configuration and, like Standard Class, two types of ambiances to choose from – Allegro and Silenzio. As we were a group and wanted to talk freely, we booked the Allegro coach which came with a large head with an expressive hand sticker on the windows – which did seem rather unnecessary.

Shortly after departure, as is the case with Frecciarossa services in Italy, passengers are entitled to one round of complimentary drinks and snacks onboard. I selected a coffee and orange juice as well as a madeleine cake and chocolate wafer. After this, for the remainder of the journey, you must visit the Café Bar for further refreshments irrespective of your journey length. Naturally as we were on the train for six hours we did make a trip or two to the Café-Bar for lunch and drinks where I enjoyed a charcuterie board and a Peroni beer.

Executive Class Accommodation

The most premium accommodation onboard the Frecciarossa, and a real treat, is the Executive Class. This comes with a large, wide reclining chair that rotates to face the direction of travel and a rather extravagant 1+1 configuration. There is also a meeting room within the carriage and complimentary drinks and food included. The only other train I can think of with a similar meeting room is the Thalys train which I reviewed here comparing with Eurostar.

Despite a top notch service on offer, there is a drawback to travelling in Executive Class on the Frecciarossa at present. Trenitalia have opted for external advertising on the carriage ends and this entirely covers the windows resulting in an obscured view from the Executive Class car and at the other end of the train in Standard Class. What on earth were they thinking?

As I was travelling in Business Class accommodation, the dedicated staff weren’t keen on letting customers in without a ticket for this accommodation hence the stock image from Omio of the seating.

Scenery

Shortly after departure from Paris the train takes the high-speed line travelling at up to speeds of 320 km per hour. The train then takes a slower route through the French Alps. I have captured the best moments of the scenery on offer in the video and photos below.

Arrival at Milano Centrale

A destination in its own right is the cathedral-like station of Milano Centrale, home to a various high-speed, sleeper trains and local services to destinations within Italy and abroad. On offer is a vast array of eateries, a ticket office, left luggage facilities and even a supermarket.

Booking and Fares

The Paris to Milan Frecciarossa is available to book up to six months in advance of the travel date and just like many long distance trains the prices are lower the early you book. We purchased our tickets in June 2022 for travel in November 2022 with the cost in Business Class being 45,00€ per person.

Journey LegStandard ClassBusiness ClassExecutive Class
Paris to MilanFrom 29,00€From 36,00€From 165,00€

Book with Omio.com

Omio.com makes booking train tickets easy, selling tickets for 1,000 travel companies operating across the world, and removes the complication of knowing which operator to book your international train tickets.

If you book via the below link with Omio, Rail-Away earns a small commission that helps to support the running costs of the site – this is greatly appreciated.

Conclusion

The Frecciarossa is certainly a solid contender to the TGV on the Paris to Milan route with accommodation to suit every budget and even then the price differentials between Standard and Business classes were very reasonable booking early in advance.

I very much enjoyed my time on this train in Business Class, the welcome drink and snack and the extra space that the seating in this carriage provides. If I had booked Executive Class I would’ve been disappointed about not being able to look out of the window – I really don’t know what Trenitalia was thinking.

This article was first published in March 2023.

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The Istanbul-Sofia Express 🇹🇷🇧🇬 overnight train – comfortable but exhausting!

Every evening, the Istanbul-Sofia Express sleeper train departs into the night connecting stations in the two countries of Bulgaria and Türkiye. This train is jointly operated by state operators in the countries it serves, the Turkish Railways (TCDD) and the Bulgarian Railways (BDZ), and is the only direct rail daily scheduled service available connecting the two countries. Believe it or not there is not a daytime option to travel between the two places, and the questioning as to why will be even more apparent as you read this Travel Report.

This journey was the final leg of my epic trip from the United Kingdom to Istanbul exclusively by train, taking place in 2019. This grand finale did bring plenty of excitement and a sense of achievement, but also tiredness as the journey ahead resulted in little relaxation.

Recently after a break during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Istanbul-Sofia Express has started running in 2023 again with some changes. The departure from Sofia is earlier, at 18:40, and thus the arrival into Halkali, a suburb in Istanbul, is now at 05:34, the following morning. The departure is now three hours earlier than in 2019.

Departure from Sofia Central Station

We arrived in good time at Sofia Central Station for our 21:45 departure – over an hour and half prior to this time. This meant that there was some waiting around required in the station and, to accommodate, the Sofia Central Station did have available plenty of places to sit in the warmth to admire its unique architecture.

Sofia Central Station is the main passenger station in Sofia and is located about one kilometre north of the city centre. The station in its current form is built in a Brutalist architectural style and dates back to 1971 where the station opened in 1974. It has more recently been renovated. Direct trains to/from Sofia serve four countries including the cities of Belgrade, Bucharest, Thessaloniki and Istanbul.

The notices and departure boards are in Bulgarian and English. Bulgaria is one of the few European countries to use the Cyrillic alphabet.

Onboard the Istanbul-Sofia Express

The Istanbul-Sofia Express came with a colourful mix of carriages – some old, covered in graffiti and rather dirty and others much newer looking and cleaner. Attached to the train was a variety of accommodation – sleeping cars, couchette cars and seated carriages, the former which are only available as far as the border where they are detached.

It is worth noting that there is no dining car or snacks to purchase on this train, nor any breakfast offering. Therefore, before departure we’re raided a supermarket in the centre of Sofia to arm ourselves with plenty of snacks and drinks for the journey.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

The sleeping cars on the Istanbul-Sofia Express are provided by the TCDD and make up all of the newer carriages built in the late nineties.

Armed with our reservation for car number 483, it took us a few moments to work out which car was ours as the coach number indicators weren’t in the usual place by the external doors as seen on other European train carriages. Hand-written on the side of the cars, in marker pen, were large three-digit numbers, one of which matched our reservation. The car numbers also happened to be marked on the destination plates, however, clearly these haven’t been obvious enough in the past to warrant the large scribble as well.

I’ve always wondered why many continental European trains have car numbers that are in the hundreds -if you know why please let me know in the comments section!

The sleeping car accommodation on the Istanbul-Sofia Express included the usual features of a sleeping car including air conditioning, a sink and curtains. It also had clean bedding, blankets sporting a tartan design (very cosy vibes indeed) and pillows provided. What really made this sleeping car compartment stand out compared to other European sleeper trains were a few features. Firstly, the compartments were the largest I’ve come across, and, secondly, there is also a fridge in the room that is stocked with some complimentary items including free bottled water, orange juice and cheese crackers.

Upon boarding, we found our sleeping car host who checked our travel documents briefly who then returned later to scrutinise them more after departure. Our compartment was initially set-up in ‘daytime mode’, which is that the beds that have been folded away to make way for two armchairs. When we were ready to sleep, we could fold the beds down to make up them ourselves.

There aren’t any en-suite compartments on the Istanbul-Sofia Express, with toilets at the end of each car. There was a choice between a western-style toilet at one end and a squat toilet onboard in each carriage. The western-style toilet, which also had toilet paper available, even had a bidet fitted to the toilet bowl. I can’t vouch for its success though!

Couchette Car and Seated Car

The Istanbul-Sofia Express also has a couchette car available for the full journey. At the time of the trip this was provided by the BDZ and it was quite a contrast to the cars provided by the TCDD with the carriage covered in graffiti and no air conditioning. Fast forward to today, this car has now been replaced with an upgraded air-conditioned TCDD Couchette Car improving the service offering.

Also on the train is seated accommodation available on the train as far as Svilengrad, on the Bulgarian side of the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Seated accommodation is not available, however, for the full trip unlike nearly all other sleeper trains in Europe.

Border Controls

As Bulgaria is in the EU and Türkiye is not, there are two border controls to go through on the trip once the train has arrived at the border stations of Svilengrad, on the Bulgarian side, and Kapikule, on the Turkish side. As this is a sleeper train unfortunately these controls fall during the night. Today, the eastbound train arrives at Svilengrad at 23:40, and in Kapikule at 01:45,

To keep things interesting the process required at each border station is different. At Svilengrad, the passports were collected by the sleeping car hosts and returned to us shortly before departure after checking by the police. Quite an easy process without the need to leave the compartment.

At Kapikule, the experience was entirely different. We had to disembark (with our luggage as is the case on eastbound trains) to go through passport control (showing my eVisa) and place our luggage through an x-ray machine, including our remaining items out of our compartment fridge! This took place in the main station building so we had to walk from the platform via the underpass. We were off the train for a pretty miserable hour, to be honest, and it was a chilly September night with only some stray cats to keep us company. Kapikule, like most border towns, didn’t exactly have a lot going on. One passenger was quite emotional, rushing to one cat’s defence, as one cat launched an attack at the smaller one. The authorities didn’t start the bag x-rays until after the last person has had their passport checked.

In 2019, when I made this journey, the train departed Sofia three hours later than today and not only that, the train picked up a delay of two hours within Bulgaria. This meant that we were finished with both borders at 05:00, which killed any hope of a good quality sleep. Not only that, the train was scheduled to arrive early in the morning, but we didn’t know how much time the train would make up in the early hours. Still we managed to get a few hours sleep and not miss our stop and end up in the train depot!

Arrival into Istanbul

Due to long-running engineering work, the sleeper train terminated in Halkali (and still does today) instead of the more central station of Sirkeci. Halkali is situated twenty-three kilometres from the centre of Istanbul. We were still able to finish our epic journey by rail, however, by using the Marmaray Metro direct from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.It was lovely to finish our trip at the beautiful station of Sirkeci which is where the Orient Express finished its journey from Paris between 1883-1977. The station has its own museum which is jam-packed with old TCDD merchandise and machinery – well worth a look and free to enter.

Conclusion

The Istanbul-Sofia Express was quite a memorable experience! The sleeper train itself was comfortable and well equipped. Unfortunately, the disrupted night with the delay and the border controls, especially having to pack our bags and disembark with our luggage at Kapikule, meant for a largely sleepless night. The sense of achievement travelling across Europe exclusively by train was well worth it in the end, however.

Booking and Fares

This train is well known for being complicated to book, especially from abroad, with tickets only available in person at the station booking offices or via a travel specialist. Tickets or reservations can’t be issued online. The train can book up quickly and at the time I was able to use a renowned travel agent in Belgrade, Serbia who issued us with a hand written reservation to go with our tickets (quite a rarity these days!). This appears to no longer an option – you can check the Man in Seat 61 for the latest booking options from abroad.

Passengers with Interrail Passes (and FIP Free Coupons for European rail staff) are required to only purchase the reservation fee outlined below for their journey.

Journey LegCouchette
(2nd Class Ticket + couchette supplement)
Sleeping Car – 2 berth
(2nd Class Ticket + sleeping car supplement)
Sleeping Car – Solo Occupancy
(1st Class Ticket + solo sleeping car supplement)
Sofia to Istanbul18,48€ (+ 10,00€)18,48€ (+ 15,00€)27,72€ (+ 35,00€)

This article was first published in March 2023.

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Milan 🇮🇹 to Geneva 🇨🇭 by tilting EuroCity train – scenic trip through the Alps!

Connecting Italy with Switzerland are the high-speed EuroCity services run jointly by the state-owned railway companies of the respective countries, Trenitalia and SBB CFF FFS. The central station in Milan is served with direct trains to Zürich, Basel and Geneva departing regularly throughout the day and served by the pointy-nosed “Astoro” pendolino trains that tilt on corners to reduce journey times – at least that was the case before the trains on the Milan to Zürich route were being replaced by newer “Giruno” trains.

Milan to Geneva retains its pointy-nosed train for now, more technically called the ETR610 in Italy and the RABe503 in Switzerland, and completes the journey in four hours.

Rather than one train with a mix of carriages owned by Trenitalia and SBB combined, like other EuroCity services in Europe, the set-up here is different – the Swiss and Italian operators both have their own identical train sets. So, whether you get a Swiss one or an Italian one for your journey will most likely be a surprise for the day.

I booked a ticket in First Class for a trip on the full route from Milano Centrale to Geneva armed with music and a good book to settle in for a relaxing ride with some nice scenery on offer throughout the journey – as promised from the map below where we’ll be passing two lakes and several mountains in the Alps.

Departure from Milano Centrale

A destination in its own right is the cathedral-like station of Milano Centrale, home to a various high-speed, sleeper trains and local services to destinations within Italy and abroad. On offer is a vast array of eateries, a ticket office, left luggage facilities and even a supermarket.

Today for my trip to Geneva, the train would be a silver Trenitalia Astoro, with the white and red SBB Astoro sitting in the platform opposite bound for Basel. The two trains can be seen together in the photo.

Onboard the EuroCity

These modern EuroCity Astoro trains offer two types of accommodation onboard, First Class and Second Class, as well as a Dining Car. Seat reservations are a must for international journeys to/from Italy and come with the ticket on purchase which can be selected on the Trenitalia app and website.

First Class Accommodation

First Class accommodation on these trains is exclusively in an open saloon with seats arranged in a 2+1 configuration. There is a variety of solo, tables for two and tables for four on offer with comfortable seats that recline. There is also ample legroom to make for a relaxing journey.

On the Trenitalia Astoro, the seats are upholstered with a smart brown leather while on the SBB Astoro, the same type of seats are upholstered in a stylish purple and blue cloth moquette. Both versions are pictured below.

First Class doesn’t come with any additional perks such as lounge access or food and drink delivered to your seat seen on some other European trains, so you’re paying extra for more elbow and legroom and quieter ambiance.

Second Class Accommodation

As per First Class, Second Class seats are also exclusively in an open saloon. Seating is less spacious, however, in a 2+2 configuration in a mix of airline style seating and tables for four – perfectly comfortable enough. The seats pictured below are the SBB Astoro, while the Trenitalia Astoro have the same seats in a brown moquette.

Dining Car

On both versions of the Astoro, trains have a Dining Car situated in the centre of the train between Second Class and First Class.

The two versions are identical, other than the menu on offer and the colour of the seating – the Trenitalia Astoro has yellow seats and the SBB Astoro has black seats. Both operators offer hot and cold drinks and cold food and snacks. Arguably, the best Dining Car is on the SBB Astoro where hot meals are also available and meals are served on china plates and drinks in glasses as opposed to paper cups.

Scenery

The scenery on this journey isn’t a quite as spectacular as some other alpine routes in Switzerland, but for a mainline railway it was nice, passing Lake Maggiore in Italy and Lake Geneva towards the end of the trip and scenery of the Alps, towns and vineyards in between. Both sides of the train had their highlights, however, overall, sitting on the right hand side of the train was the best for the views. I filmed a lot of the scenery on offer on the trip and below is a video showcasing this on YouTube.

Border Controls

Italy and Switzerland are both in the Schengen Area, however, Switzerland is not in the European Union and Italy is. Therefore, at the border station of Domodossola, Swiss border guards joined us on the train and travelled as far as Brig to perform customs checks. They asked me if I had any goods to declare and how much cash I had with me, and had a glance of my passport photo page. Quite content with me entering they thanked me and wished me a good day and moved on.

There was also a change of train crew at Domodossola from an Italian to a Swiss crew and ticket checks were repeated as a result. It was announced that the train was 27 minutes late arriving into Brig due to “an accident in another country”, a reason that wasn’t provided before crossing the border so remained a mystery for the remainder of the journey what the cause of the delay was.

Conclusion

The trip on the Trenitalia Astoro was very comfortable with nice scenery on offer on this route. The train was surprisingly quiet, quite the contrary to the route from Milan to Zürich that I’ve taken in the past and has been busy.

First Class on the Trenitalia Astoro had comfortable seats and a nice onboard ambiance, however, I would’ve probably have been just as happy travelling in Second Class on this train.

Booking and Fares

The fares on this route are dynamically priced according to demand, although I didn’t find the price escalated too much from booking until the week before departure, probably because this particular train had a low demand.

Journey LegFirst ClassSecond Class
Milan to Genevafrom 34,00€from 75,00€

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Alternatively the trip can be booked via the Trenitalia or the SBB websites and apps.

This article was first published in February 2023.

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Train across the Alps 🗻 – Zürich 🇨🇭 to Vienna 🇦🇹 via the scenic Arlberg Pass

It would certainly be quicker to fly for the 787 kilometre journey connecting Switzerland’s largest city with the capital of Austria, but there would be a lot to miss out on too. In April 2022, as restrictions were being lifted from the COVID-19 pandemic, I took a trip on one of the two hourly departures direct from the centre of Zürich to the centre of Vienna.

Most of these trains are operated by the RailJet, the modern flagship intercity train of the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) capable of travelling at 230 kilometres per hour (143mph) known for its three classes of travel and dining car – so I opted for one of these. More specifically I took the 12:40 departure that starts its journey in Zürich and is bound not just for Vienna, where I was headed to, but actually finishes its journey in Bratislava, Slovakia. One for another trip.

This seven hours and forty minute journey to Vienna crosses more borders than you might think – four in fact! Firstly the border from Switzerland into Liechenstein, which you wouldn’t realise unless you checked with no station stops here, then into Austria, then the RailJets opt for a brief crossing into Germany (also non-stop), before Austria once again for the final stretch. This had the potential to cause much confusion with a cocktail of COVID-19 restrictions and mask-wearing requirements at the time, where masks in Austria were required. However, for simplicity travel rules were subjected to Austria’s requirements east of Buchs St Gallen station, and there was a helpful announcement in German and English reminding customers to wear a mask for the rest of the journey from here.

If you’re flexible with timings, there is also the EuroCity Transalpin that takes in the same route as far as Wörgl Hbf and then a more scenic route towards Graz, with connections available to Vienna. It departs at 08:40 and offers one of the best travelling environments in Europe, the Swiss panorama car with its large windows, available for First Class ticket holders.

Onboard the ÖBB RailJet

The modern ÖBB RailJet boasts three types of accommodation on board – Economy, First and Business, with Business being more premium than First Class. There’s also a Dining Car onboard, called DoN’s, and hosts serving the Dining Car menu to tables in First and Business classes.

First Class Accommodation

For this journey I had booked First accommodation that has 2+1 seating in a variety of configurations (airline style and opposite seating at tables). A menu was provided soon after departure and shortly followed by the first of many ‘check-ins’ with the host to see if we wanted anything from the Dining Car menu. The service on our trip was second to none – the host was very attentive throughout the journey, which was impressive considering the length of his shift – he didn’t stop in the nearly eight hours. Safe to say he got a much deserved tip at the end.

Catering Options

As mentioned already there is a Dining Car on the RailJet train situated between Economy Class and First Class. This is open to all customers, however, there is little reason in moving to sit here from the comfort of a First Class or Business Class seat with the at-seat service provided. The menu isn’t the cheapest, but the food very enjoyable. I enjoyed a Wiener Schnitzel for mains, followed by Griesflammerie for dessert and all washed down with a very good bottle of Reisling – this set me back a total of 31,20€. Highlights from the menu are pictured below.

The Dining Car was first-come-first-served and did get busy at times. Otherwise meals can be taken back to your seat for customers in Economy Class.

Economy Class Accommodation

There are four carriages of Economy Class on a RailJet which is arranged in a 2+2 configuration and offers a mixture of airline style and table seating. There are power sockets available at each seat. WiFi is available throughout the train.

Business Class Accommodation

The most premium accommodation on the train is Business Class. For 15,00€ customers with a ticket for First Class accommodation can upgrade to a very comfortable Business Class, this includes a specific seat reservation if booked in advance. Not only that you are able to take advantage of a complimentary welcome drink of wine or fruit juice as well as being able to take advantage of the Dining Car menu from the host. This would’ve been a no-brainer for me travelling for such a long journey – however it was fully reserved for much of the journey.

Scenery

The dramatic scenery on this route was a feast for the eyes for most of the journey. On departure from Zürich, the train runs along two lakes, Zürichsee and Walensee, before starting the ascent to the stunning Arlberg Pass, reaching a modest 1,310 metres above sea level. To add to the magic, in April time there were snowy landscapes thrown in. The snow on the ground increased as the train reached the highest part of the line, then the train travels through the short Arlberg Tunnel before descending into Innsbruck, and eventually Salzburg and Vienna.

Booking and Fares

Booking this journey on my specific date in April would have actually cost more by purchasing a point-to-point ticket direct from Zürich to Vienna direct from the Austrian Railways (c.120,00€), subject to availability as fares change according to demand.

By purchasing a Frankfurt to Vienna and typing in “via Zurich” into the DB Bahn website the fare reduced to 60,90€. As it happens I was travelling from Frankfurt, but you could get away with needing to turn up for the first leg. A full day’s worth of travel for this price isn’t bad in First Class!

Alternatively it may be cheaper to book Zürich to Vienna direct depending on this availability.

Journey LegEconomy ClassFirst ClassBusiness Class
Frankfurt to Vienna via Zürich (bought from DB Bahn)from 37,90€from 49,90€First Class +15,00€ (upgrade bought from ÖBB or on train)
Vienna to Zürich (bought from ÖBB)from 39,90€from 54,90€from €69,90

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This article was first published in December 2022.

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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.

Booking and Fares

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.

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Trips 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.

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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.

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