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.

Amtrak Coast Starlight – San Francisco 🇺🇸 to Los Angeles 🇺🇸 by train – the most scenic route in the US?

Across the world, the Coast Starlight will ring a bell with many and evoke scenes of travelling long distance on the rails in America. After-all, the route has existed in its current form since 1974, when it was formed from an amalgamation of two former Southern Pacific routes: the Coast Daylight and the Starlight.

The full route of the modern day Coast Starlight begins in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, running down the West Coast of America to Los Angeles in Southern California, making calls in the cities of Portland, Sacaramento, Emeryville and Santa Barbara. The full duration of the train trip is in excess of thirty-five hours for the impressive 1,377 mile journey.

For me, I opted to take it for the southern daytime part of the journey, only travelling from Emeryville to Los Angeles, taking in excess of twelve hours – still an all-day commitment. However, is this route and the Amtrak experience really what it lives up to be, and is it worth taking the Coast Starlight over flying? Let’s find out, as I bought a ticket for Amtrak’s cheapest accommodation option in Coach Class.

Departure from Emeryville

As there isn’t an Amtrak railway connection from San Francisco, the first part of the journey is by coach to Emeryville station, where the Coast Starlight would take us directly to the City of Angels. When booking with Amtrak it is possible to book a through journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which includes both the leg on the Amtrak Thruway Bus to Emeryville and the train to Los Angeles in one go.

The bus departed San Francisco promptly at an early 06:55 in the morning, arriving at Emeryville station soon after at 07:14. This arrived in plenty of time to wait for the train in Emeryville, which is scheduled to depart at 08:39.

Part of the reason for the early departure of the bus is that you can take advantage of the complimentary baggage check-in on the train. This is only possible up to forty-five minutes prior to the train’s departure time and must be done at the railway station (Emeryville in this case). It’s not the end of the world if you do miss the baggage check-in time as you can take the bag onto the train with you – as I found out on my trip on the Capitol Limited.

Facilities were limited at Emeryville station, though there was a waiting room with comfortable chairs, vending machines, an ATM, a café, which opened at 08:00, and toilet facilities.

The platform was announced shortly before departure and the train rolled in, albeit on a different platform than what was announced. This led to a mass sprawl of passengers, once the penny dropped that the train arriving was indeed the Coast Starlight. Having located the Coach Class car indicated on the side by the entrance, our car attendant appeared at the door. There was some confusion and giggling amongst passengers as the door was not on the platform, but the car attendant soon whisked out a yellow step to solve the problem.

Onboard the Coast Starlight

Coach Class Accommodation

Coach Class on the Coast Starlight entitled me to my own reserved reclining seat for the duration of the journey, in addition to access to the Sightseer Lounge and the Café Car on the train – more details of these areas below. This is more than enough to get by for the duration of the journey, especially if you’re travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which is exclusively during the daytime. For those joining at the train’s origin in Seattle, this may be a different story, depending on preferences, as the train proceeds to travel through the night before its arrival into Emeryville.

Amtrak provides seat reservations on this route; however, unusually for the train provider world, you don’t find out what your specific seat is until the train has arrived into the platform. The specific seat number is scribbled down on a coloured piece of cardboard and handed to you by the car attendant. The same as my trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, customers are grouped together according to their destination.

By chance I was handed seat 61, which was an honour, as it would be for all of those who follow The Man in Seat 61 and his helpful DIY train travel website. I headed upstairs to locate my seat, which turned out to be a good one, of course, with a window view.

The seating in Coach Class is in a 2+2 configuration, so, if you’re a solo traveller, as I was on this trip, you’ll be seated next to another passenger going to the same destination. My seat-mate had disappeared soon after departure before we had a chance to say hello, which I tried not to take personally. As it happened, I only spent about 10% of the journey seated in Coach Class accommodation as soon after departure I decided to take a walk down the train and just like my seat-mate, we both had the same idea…

Sightseer Lounge

The Coast Starlight is one of the selected Amtrak routes to have a Sightseer Lounge – a good indication of what sights are on offer on the trip. This car is available for all customers and is the place to enjoy the scenery on offer with its panoramic windows. It’s also one of the best places to meet fellow passengers and has handy nearby access to the Café on the lower deck of the same car. The car has a variety of seating configurations, including seats facing the windows on each side as well as tables for four – perfect for admiring the views on offer on this trip.

This is where I ended up spending the remainder of the journey (90% of it) and sat on the right hand side in the direction of travel for the best scenery. This car became the hub of activity on the train; every so often new people would drop by to sit and chat, people from all walks of life, residing in all types of accommodation on the train – from a retired couple returning from a cruise in Alaska about to head to dinner to a local gentleman who seemed to know every landmark we were passing. The Sightseer Lounge is available to everyone after all and it was a great place to be.

Business Class Accommodation

There is a second type of seated accommodation on the Coast Starlight: Business Class. I was very glad that I hadn’t chosen to upgrade my Coach Class ticket to this class since the car was identical to Coach Class, other than a rather dull brown leather upholstery on the seats. There is very little to differentiate between the two classes in terms of service offering too, with the only perk being free bottled water provided at a station in the centre of the car. The Business Class car was only about 50% occupied during the trip, unlike Coach Class, which was fully booked; so that could be a hidden benefit.

Dining Car and Café Car

A trip on the Coast Starlight is a long one, so being able to purchase food and drink throughout the journey is important. Situated downstairs in the Sightseer Lounge is the Café Car, which was open, for most of the trip, for all passengers and closed only for staff breaks and to cash up at the end of the journey. On offer were some hot selections, sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Passengers with sleeping car tickets (for Superliner Roomettes and Bedrooms) have their meals included in the cost of the ticket and provided in the Dining Car on the train. This serves Amtrak’s Traditional Dining menu. However, since I was travelling in Coach Class, I only had access to the Café Car. I hope to review the Traditional Dining menu in the future.

In the Café Car I developed a love-hate relationship with the characterful lady serving in there. My first encounter of the trip with her was when she came upstairs to the Sightseer Lounge. She yelled down the carriage instructing us to use the trash boxes for rubbish – we were being too messy and leaving rubbish lying around! She then proceeded to splash me with a half cup of coffee she was clearing away after her rant with no apology, just an “oops”.

I allowed her some time to cool down and then walked downstairs to order something to eat. She thanked me for my order, wondered where I got my crisp $10.00 notes from and said that I talk funny (yes I have a north-east England accent that many Americans struggled to understand). She wished me an enjoyable trip and jokingly told me to “don’t get too fat on American food”.

Later on, there was a casualty on the trip (not a human one thankfully) but I did manage to lose my wireless headphones case. In the hope of locating it, I went down to my friend to see if anyone had handed it in. It’s not there, so the same lady told me it’s highly unusual for anyone to steal anything, and so she happily put an announcement out to the train for me: “please, have a good look around, the young man is in tears”. I proceeded back upstairs and became the subject of the trip. People said “was it you?”, “were you really in tears?”, “did you find them?”. I didn’t, but I admired the Cafe Car Lady’s sense of humour.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

As the Coast Starlight runs overnight in the northern part of the route, there is a choice of sleeping car accommodation which is also available for the day part of the journey, these are Superliner Roomettes and Bedrooms. Photographs of the same Superliner Roomettes can be found in my Amtrak Capitol Limited post.

Scenery

Quite contrary to the expectations, for the first seven hours of the journey there is no coastline visible from the train at all. But this isn’t all bad as the views are sublime of the passing hills and countryside. Think of a crop and it’s likely to be there right next to the railway line as the train will pass fields of lettuces, grapes, avocados, onions and strawberries – to name a few. Not only that, but you’ll pass through what are the garlic and artichoke capitals of the world at Gilroy and Castroville and you can catch a whiff of garlic as you pass Gilroy.

At San Luis Obispo, the southbound Coast Starlight met its northbound counterpart and soon after the train would join the coast. The timing of the trip was perfect for seeing the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Arrival in Los Angeles

After twelve hours and thirty two minutes the Coast Starlight arrived into Los Angeles on time at 21:11. As we approached, there was an amusing announcement to ask “can all staff please ensure they take their items out of the fridge”. Baggage was soon available after arrival from the Baggage Reclaim section of the station.

Conclusion

I had a great time on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. The trip offered a highly memorable experience with great views throughout – and surprisingly only coastal views towards the end of the trip. There was a friendly ambiance onboard with passengers from all walks of life to pass the time with. For me, purchasing a Coach Class ticket for this trip was more than enough and I was happy that I chose not to upgrade to Business Class.

Booking and Fares

Booking the Coast Starlight isn’t a complicated affair as fares are available online at Amtrak.com.

Journey LegCoach ClassBusiness ClassSuperliner RoometteBedroom
San Francisco to Los Angeles (including Amtrak Thruway Coach)from $54.00from
$94.00
from
$257.00
from $378.00

This article was first published in January 2023.

Amtrak Capitol Limited – Washington D.C. 🇺🇸 to Chicago 🇺🇸 by sleeper train – and how I saved on the Superliner Roomette fare

Excited to explore a new continent by train I booked a ticket on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, the most direct train that connects the two major cities in the United States of America, Washington D.C. and Chicago. The journey takes seventeen hours and forty minutes and runs overnight, usually departing Washington Union Station at 16:05 and arriving in Chicago Union Station for 08:45 the following morning. The train departs every day in each direction and travels via the Alleghany Mountains.

A long distance journey on Amtrak like this really puts into perspective how vast the area of the United States is. Like many long distance train trips here, this isn’t a fast journey with an average speed of 93 miles per hour. This would be enough put most travellers off booking, however, once you’re onboard watching the world go by and making friends in the dining car, the speed becomes unimportant. You see more of where you travel and experience a feeling of relaxation to rival any other mode of transport.

Amtrak offers a range of accommodation options on the Capitol Limited, three types in fact. This varies from a reclining seat to a family bedroom. Reclining seats are often very good value on Amtrak, especially on overnight trains, but for those wanting to travel in more comfort, with a private compartment and a place to lie down, Amtrak will charge you handsomely for it. For this journey I found a way to have the best of both worlds – a reasonable price and the same accommodation that would allow me to get a restful sleep, as I will explain.

Washington Union Station

My journey started at the grand Washington Union Station, built originally in 1907. Today it is a true hub station housing not just Amtrak long distance services but also connections with the metro, buses and suburban rail connections. Amtrak services from here include the Capitol Corridor served by America’s fastest train, the Acela Express, that whisks you away up to Boston in seven hours, several times a day.

It is always recommended to turn up in good time for an Amtrak train, official guidance is thirty minutes prior to departure. While you can ‘turn up and go’ for most trains in Europe, Amtrak does have a more formal boarding procedure. Your train is called on the main concourse and you are filed onto the train through a departure gate. It’s not the best passenger experience, but one of many examples where Amtrak models itself as an airline and adopts elements of it that it really doesn’t need to.

One of the better policies adopted from the airline industry is the optional baggage check-in facility, where you drop your bag off before boarding the train. The bag is stored in a dedicated baggage car on the train and then turns up at the Baggage Reclaim at your destination. It was my intention to check-in a suitcase for this trip, however, I fell foul to not checking the dedicated page on the Amtrak website. In the general guidance at the time there was only mention of turning up thirty minutes prior to departure. I soon learned that the deadline for baggage check-in was actually forty-five minutes before travel, so having missed the deadline I would need to take my case with me onto the train.

Onboard the Capitol Limited

Seated Accommodation

There is one type of seated accommodation on the Capitol Limited and that is Coach Class arranged in a 2+2 configuration on both the upper and lower decks of the car. This features a comfortable seat that reclines and one of the best seats for legroom on the rails in the world.

Amtrak doesn’t allow you to reserve a specific seat in advance in Coach Class on the Capitol Limited. On the platform there is a queue for boarding. In the queue, you are handed a coloured cardboard slip by the car attendant that contains your seat number. This is nothing fancy though – this seat number is scribbled on in marker pen and the slip has been torn from larger piece of cardboard. This specific seat becomes your base for the rest of the journey and you are expected to remain there, even if you don’t like your seat neighbour.

The attendant groups customers going to the same destination together and the staff are very clear that there may be seats free elsewhere on the train, but you must remain in your specified seat. There is method in the madness here, this is a train not a plane and there will be people, and groups of people, getting on and off the train as the train stops at stations through the night. This method at least allows them to sit together.

There are often very good value fares for travel in Coach Class, especially on these overnight trips. For many (and myself), however, sleeping in any seat would be a challenge and this one would be no exception.

Amtrak is in the process of refurbishing these coaches, so you may have a mixture of old, dark blue fabric seating, and the new, light grey leather seating for your journey.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

The cheapest of the sleeping car type accommodation is the Superliner Roomette (pictured below). The size of these are compact, but it can accommodate up to two people in each one. On arrival the room is set-up in daytime mode, which is two comfortable seats facing each other. These two seats convert to form a single bed for the night for one person and there is an upper bunk that folds down to accommodate the second person. Bedding is provided and the room set-up for sleeping by the car attendant at a time of your choosing. Shared toilets are available with one on the upper floor and more downstairs along with shared showers (including towels and soap), more roomettes and an accessible bedroom. The facilities were kept clean by the attendant throughout the journey.

The third type of accommodation on the Capitol Limited is the Family Bedroom, which are double the size of a Superliner Roomette. These rooms also have en-suite bathrooms with showers and can sleep up to four passengers – up to two people accommodated on a lower bunk and up to two on an upper bunk. I wasn’t able to get a picture of this class unfortunately but hope to review this in the future.

Reservations for any of these accommodations also come with complimentary coffee in the morning at the end of the car as well as complimentary lounge access at the departure and arrival stations.

Dining and Café Car

There is catering available to all customers onboard the train irrespective of the class you’re travelling in. The difference is which part of the Dining and Café Car you are able to sit in and whether your meals are complimentary or not. One half of the car is designated for sleeping car passengers who receive complimentary meals included with their tickets. The second half is empty tables where you queue up, order from the host and pay and take your food to your table, or your seat if you’d prefer.

Complimentary meals are available to all sleeping car passengers. Amtrak recently launched a controversial “Flexible Dining” menu on some eastern routes allowing sleeping car passengers to eat when they please. This comes with a downside, however, in that they are microwaved meals served on a plastic tray. Amtrak’s longer train routes in the western part of the country do retain the “Traditional Dining” menu which I hope to sample in the future. Pictured below is the substantial complimentary evening meal and breakfast for sleeping car passengers on the Capitol Limited. I was shocked when I asked for milk to go with my coffee that I was given a half pint.

Scenery

The Capitol Limited route does have some very scenic moments as the route travels via the Allegheny Mountains. A particular highlight was going through Harper’s Ferry in the evening as the sun was setting. In the morning, the city can be seen in the distance with its tall buildings and riding alongside Lake Michigan is a treat.

What was my experience and how did I save $100 on the sleeping car fare?

Originally I was all set to travel in Coach Class for the trip on the Capitol Limited – the price for the full journey was a bargain $84.00. At the time of booking, 11 months in advance, the Superliner Roomette fare was $450.00 – a huge differential between the two classes.

Amtrak does have a “Bid-Up” programme where you can bid for an upgrade from your booked accommodation. I went for a fair bid of $250, however, I learned the night before travel that I was unsuccessful and presumably ‘out-bid’ by another traveller.

Following this news and me not being too keen on the reclining seat for the night time part of the journey, I decided to take another look at the Amtrak app to see what fares were being offered. The same fare was available for the full journey for the Superliner Roomette. I did some more searching and much to my delight I found the same accommodation covering the night part of the journey from Cumberland to Chicago for only $266.00.

My plan was to spend the first three hours of the trip in the Coach Class accommodation and then at 19:24, when the train would arrive at Cumberland station, I would move through to the Superliner Roomette. This would still allow me to benefit from the complimentary meal in the Dining Car available to all sleeping car passengers, would give me a bed for the night, breakfast in the morning and lounge access at Chicago Union Station – not a bad deal.

I sent a message to Amtrak on Twitter to confirm that my plan would work out ok before booking. As I wasn’t able to check-in my bag with my original ticket from Washington D.C. to Chicago, I decided to ask my roomette attendant before boarding if I could leave my suitcase in the sleeping car so I wouldn’t need to walk through the train with my suitcase before arriving at Cumberland. This was no problem at all.

I checked-in to the Coach Class accommodation with my original ticket. As the train reached Cumberland I moved through to the Dining Car where I chatted to the host and showed him my Superliner Roomette reservation from Cumberland and he was happy to serve me just before my station. My Superliner Roomette attendant came through to the Dining Car and asked what time I’d like my bed to be made up (any time before 22:00) so I opted for 21:30.

So all-in-all booking Coach Class for the day part of the journey and the Superliner Roomette for the evening part of the journey worked a treat for me on the Capitol Limited. I could’ve saved an extra $30 if I’d booked only Coach Class from Washington D.C. to Cumberland instead of Chicago. Naturally all prices are demand managed on Amtrak and it won’t always be cheaper to split accommodation mid-way through the journey, even on the Capitol Limited. But it’s always worth checking and I was very glad to have the roomette for the night.

Chicago Union Station & Metropolitan Lounge

The arrival into Chicago Union Station isn’t the most welcoming the same as the platform area at Washington Union Station on departure the day before. The platforms are underground and are poorly lit. This could be so as you spend as little time down there, but it does feel like an area you shouldn’t be in.

Once you’re on the concourse of the station, the environment is much nicer with a grand entrance hall. Chicago Union Station is the main hub of Amtrak and it’s certainly exciting seeing some of the great long distance trains being listed on the departure boards here including the California Zephyr, Empire Builder and South West Chief.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, it is certainly a competitive way to travel between Washington D.C. and Chicago being time effective travelling through the night and a journey experience in its own right – you don’t get views like that on an aeroplane that’s for sure. The Coach Class seat was surprisingly comfortable and the privacy and comfort of the Superliner Roomette bed was very welcome when it came to going to sleep. The food onboard wasn’t much to write home about in terms of presentation, but I did find it tasty.

Fares

Journey LegCoach ClassSuperliner Roomette
Washington D.C. to Chicagofrom $84.00from $450.00
Washington D.C. to Cumberlandfrom $54.00
Cumberland to Chicagofrom $265.00

This article was first published in January 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

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.