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. The trip can be booked via the Trenitalia or the SBB websites and apps. I recommend using the former with a better interface and the option to select a seat from the seat map.

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

This article was first published in February 2023.

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!

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

This article was first published in December 2022

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

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 journeys across the border with Romania.

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 to have both. 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.