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

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

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

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

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

Onboard the Express Intercity Premium

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

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

First Class Accommodation

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

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

Second Class Accommodation

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

WARS Bistro Car

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Booking and Fares

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

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

This article was first published in May 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Departure from Dimitrovgrad

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

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

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

Onboard the Bulgarian electric train

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

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

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

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

Scenery

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

Arrival into Sofia

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Booking and Fares

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

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

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

This article was first published in April 2023.

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

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

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

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

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

Departure from Paris Gare de Lyon

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

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

Onboard the Frecciarossa 1000

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

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

Standard Class Accommodation

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

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

Business Class Accommodation

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

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

Executive Class Accommodation

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

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

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

Scenery

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

Arrival at Milano Centrale

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

Booking and Fares

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

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

Book with Omio.com

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

This article was first published in March 2023.

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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

Book with Omio.com

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

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

Make sure if you’re looking for the Coast Starlight that you choose Train 11 Coast Starlight as there are other trains available for the same journey.

This article was first published in January 2023.

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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

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This article was first published in January 2023.

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

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

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

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

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

Onboard the ÖBB RailJet

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

First Class Accommodation

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

Catering Options

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

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

Economy Class Accommodation

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

Business Class Accommodation

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

Scenery

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

Booking and Fares

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

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

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

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

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This article was first published in December 2022.

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

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

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

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

Trains

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

Routes

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

At the Station

Security

What is the security process like for each operator?

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

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

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

Lounge Access

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onboard

Seating

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

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

Food and Drink

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

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

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

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

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

Booking and Fares

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

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

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

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

Assuming tickets are purchased online, both operators offer mobile ticketing for travel on their services producing a barcode that can be downloaded to your device such as an Apple Wallet. Otherwise there is the ability to print your ticket on an A4 piece of paper or collect at the station on departure. It is, howeve