Getting around the "center" of Europe.
February 27, 2008 12:22 PM   Subscribe

We are planning to go to central Europe -- Austria, Czech, Hungary. Has anyone taken the trains in this region?

How reliable and pleasurable were they? I would prefer to fly in light of the short trip but it seems that cheap airline craze I've heard so much about in Europe has, not, well a sort of cheaper part of Europe yet. Flights on Austria or Hungarian are running US$450 per segment! Thanks for any help. AskMe saved me a lot of $$$$ on our last vacation.
posted by skepticallypleased to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I took a train from Berlin to Vienna a few years ago, via Prague. It's a long way, about 700-800 kilometers, and it took a very long time, about 8 hours. Mostly slow going through Czech; old tracks and lots of security checks. The train cars themselves were very nice, the usual Deutsche Bahn thing.

It's probably better now, but if I were going that far again I'd look into flying. Vienna to Budapest is quite close, as is Vienna to Prague. I'd expect those lines to be pretty quick and comfortable and would take the train over flying.
posted by Nelson at 12:28 PM on February 27, 2008

I took trains from Paris to Vienna, Vienna to Prague and back and Vienna to Florence. All were very pleasurable. They weren't fancy at all (particularly the train to Prague) but romantic. I haven't thought about that in a long time. Such a great trip.

This was in 99. I don't know...flying doesn't have too much romance. I remember passing through this crazy forest in the Czech Republic, it was snowing and it seemed to go on for 100s of miles. So lonely and amazing at the same time.
posted by sully75 at 12:45 PM on February 27, 2008

I've recently taken trains from Italy to Budapest, Munich to Villach, Prague to Vienna, and all which ways around the countries you mentioned.

Overall, the trains are perfectly fine -- safe, clean, and relatively cheap. Austrian trains are super nice and super expensive (relatively), while Czech trains were the cheapest. I was never more than a few minutes late on any of them. This was in October of 2007.

Most of the trains in Czech and Hungary have 6-person compartments, so if you don't like sitting in a small box with random strangers, your level of pleasure will be determined on how many people you're traveling with. If you have 3 or 4 people in your party, you probably won't have to worry about strangers sitting in your compartment. If you're 1 or 2, you might. Even so, I'd say 80% of the time, my girlfriend and I always had a compartment alone. Austrian trains usually had normal, non-compartmentalized seating (like on a plane) which are generally more comfortable in my opinion. Even when we did share the compartment, we had a good time meeting the people and swapping stories.

However, cheap flights can still be had in this part of the continent. Thing is, you have to book pretty far in advance to get the good deals, just like in the U.S. is extremely helpful for a trip like this. It let's you select where you're from from and to, and it'll tell you which budget airlines operate out of those cities.

While flying might be quicker, you don't get to see all of the wonderful small towns like you would if you were taking a bus or a train. Some of my fondest memories of trips in Central Europe were stepping off at a random station in Whothefuckknows, Czech Republic, and sharing a cigarette and chat with a conductor or railroad worker.

Take the train, I say.
posted by nitsuj at 1:01 PM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your itinerary is very similar to my honeymoon trip. Trains are the only way to travel in central Europe. The trains are frequent, completely reliable, pleasureable only when going through scenic areas during daylight, and quite expensive. On your way from Paris to Vienna consider at least an overnight stop and trip through the Viktualenmarkt in the morning in Munich.

It can be a little overwhelming at first if you don't speak the language. Make a good, easily readable map of your trip plans and carry it with you to any ticket window. Pointing at a map gets you the ticket you need in any language.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 1:10 PM on February 27, 2008

Took a train from Vienna->Prague last summer. Clean, quick, not obnoxiously priced. This was an Austrian train. Prague's train station, as does all of its public transport, has a peculiar Kafkaesque air to them.

Took another train from Prague to Budejovice (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!!) and the next day, on to Linz. Czech trains. Reasonably on time, lots of interesting characters (with interesting liquor that they insisted we try!), kinda worn out. Sad. Massive trains. Gorgeous countryside.

I hate to sound all fanboy, but Budejovice is a great little city, even if it didn't also have the best damn beer in the world.
posted by notsnot at 1:11 PM on February 27, 2008

Took another train from Prague to Budejovice (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!!)

If you're taking the train to Budejovice, might as well head on down to Český Krumlov as well -- only about an hour-and-a-half train ride south. Such a beautiful, weird little town. When I was there, however, the track between Krumlov and Budejovice was under repair, so our train ride was actually a train-bus-train ride.
posted by nitsuj at 1:18 PM on February 27, 2008

Two summers ago we travelled throughout Europe, from France to Poland, all by train. It was fantastic. The trains in Germany were the sleekest and fanciest, and the trains in Slovakia and Poland were the least modern, but still clean and comfortable and, importantly, on time. I highly recommend taking the train.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:21 PM on February 27, 2008

I've taken the trains from Berlin to Prague to Budejovice to Vienna, plus more trains on either end. I loved it. It's scenic, peaceful, and a genuinely pleasant experience. Flying sounds like it'll be faster, but by the time you get to the airport, get through security, wait to board, etc., plus all the similar hassles at the other end, it really doesn't save you a whole lot of time. Plus, with flying you pretty much drop out of the sky at your destination. When you take the train, you've seen the countryside, maybe you've spoken with some people, and you have a good sense of where you are and how you got there. Trains were clean and generally on time. Plus it's fun to see all the train stations.

(And yes, go to Ceske Budejovice and Cesky Krumlov.)
posted by bassjump at 1:24 PM on February 27, 2008

several points:

-Are you sure that airfare is that expensive? Check , it searches all European airlines for flight info. Several European countries have their own low-cost airline service (Hungary's is WizzAir), the problem is trying to figure out if they go where you want and if it's affordable. I was able to book a last minute trip from Bucharest to Budapest for less than $150 last year, but the dollar is slightly worse now and this was "low" season.

-Train Experience: The only eastern European train I took was Budapest to Krakow. It wasn't bad, but I didn't find it romantic or that cheap ($120+) especially considering discounted airfare. but I traveled at night in a 3 person sleeper car which is pretty cramped an unromantic. And as Nelson says, old tracks, long ride, several security checks. I was going to get a train ticket for Bucharest to Budapest but it was over $100, took 12 hours, and heard bad stories from other tourists which is why I took the plane. Overall it wasn't bad, but if a flight was comparably priced I'd take that option.

-Just throwing this out there- have you looked at buses? I know that there's bus service between those cities and the travel times are (supposedly) close to the train. I've taken the bus from Paris to Amsterdam and also traveling within Portugal and it was cheap and very pleasant; but there's major differences between Eastern & Western Europe and cannot personally vouch for their service.

Warning: take my travel advice at your own risk:)
posted by Challahtronix at 1:32 PM on February 27, 2008

I've taken trains many times all over East/Central Europe without any problems. It's generally very comfortable, easy to navigate, on time, and there are express trains available if you're worried about the amount of time you spend getting from place to place. Also, it's cheap. Go for it. Train travel will probably add to the overall enjoyment of your trip.
posted by drycleanonly at 1:36 PM on February 27, 2008

I've taken trains from Vienna to Budapest ($52) , Budapest to Prague ($64) and Prague to Vienna ($42).

Taking them was an experience in itself (especially buying tickets.. make sure you buy them in originating country) . Prices are conversion from local currency in Feb 2005, so I'd probably almost double those prices now (maybe?).. still WAY cheaper than flights. I didn't take any sleepers or overnights. The checks on the borders for passports was pretty interesting.

Definitely take trains, they are clean enough, but you might need some patience (write down your destinations!) when getting to train stations in Budapest and even Prague.

I wrote these down in a 'blog' type format (you can ask me for the link)

Vienna to Budapest:
The three hour train ride to Budapest was through some of the most barren terrain I’ve seen—comparable to our Great Plains, but only blanketed by unending snow. I got some sleep, but was interrupted by these stern looking men yelling things in foreign tongues, until they settled on “passport.” For a second I thought I was gonna get thrown off the train and sent to a communist reform camp, but nah, I’m still ok.

Budapest to Prague:
The trip to Prague was easy enough: I left the hostel 45 minutes before the train was to leave, almost went to the wrong train station, ran up a 100 foot escalator that was stopped, and couldn’t find the ticket booth. Then on the train (it was a cool 7 hour train ride) the guy next to me was blasting heavy metal (with no lyrics!) the entire trip so I got no sleep. I also was coughing so hard (my inhaler had ran out, yes I’m asthmatic, whoa you didn’t know that? I hate you) that I threw up. Good times. At least Slovak republic was interesting. All the houses had boarded windows over their glass, I guess for insulation in the brutal winter.

On the trip from Prague to Vienna I think I was too hungover to make any comments.
posted by sandmanwv at 1:50 PM on February 27, 2008

It's easy. I recommend it. However, it's not always as cheap as you think. If you are traveling to or from the Czech Republic, find a Student Express office (bus line) because it's usually about 1/4 the price of the train and takes about the same time. The buses have attendants, movies, and bathrooms (though cramped).

I took a bus from Budapest to Bratislava, it was very nice, and a train from Bratislava to Prague. The train I thought was much more nerve wracking because we were both trying to sleep and trying to figure out when we had to get off and not miss our stop, which could have resulted in some fines or something and a long hassle getting to where we intended to go.

The sleeper train from Krakow to Budapest was expensive as someone noted above, but I thought very comfortable because the conductor came around to let us know when we were close to our destinations and make sure we were ready to go. It's tough sometimes to figure out where you are on a train when every stop is not listed on the ticket, and the ticket is in some arcane format that is not understandable if you don't speak whatever language it is in.

This time of year it is going to be empty on pretty much every train so you can always find an empty place to sit in, and lay across three seats if you want.
posted by zhivota at 2:01 PM on February 27, 2008

My wife and I took trains exclusively a few years ago during a Prague-Budapest-Krakow vacation. If I remember correctly, we used this pass to get around, and also booked our sleeper trains between each city from Rail Europe. We were on a trip for our first anniversary, so we paid for the 1st class pass and 1st class sleeper compartments, and overall the whole experience was pretty easy. We did get woken up at border stops and I had one issue with a conductor in the Czech Republic (on the way from Prague to Cesky Krumlov, a must as others have mentioned) who didn't get how the days of travel on the rail pass worked and insisted it wasn't valid. Finally another conductor came by and sorted everything out.
posted by sbrollins at 2:48 PM on February 27, 2008

It's still usually cheaper to fly than take a train as long as you plan in advance. WizzAir was mentioned above- the discount Hungarian airline. The Czech Republic has a discount airline too called Smart Wings. For cheap travel agencies there is Student Agency as was mentioned, but for flights I think GTS International is better.

I've taken trains all over and they're fine. The Euro city express trains are international and quite nice, if you take regional trains they'll be of varying quality.

Prices may seem a lot higher than what you heard or were expecting- that's because the US Dollar is now basically worthless. It probably isn't going to improve anytime soon either.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 3:39 PM on February 27, 2008

Last spring I was in Budapest and considered the train to see Poland and Slovak Republic. We decided to rent a car. With five of us it was far less than train tickets, was on our schedule and it gave us much more freedom as to where we wanted to go. It was not as difficult torent or drive as I anticipated. With two lane roads in many areas and farmers with horse pulled carts don't expect 60 MPH roads. It was essential to have a good map and someone to read it for you while you're driving.
posted by prjo at 3:53 PM on February 27, 2008

I think nitsuj has given the best advice so far regarding the train; flying directly between those specific cities is ridiculously expensive, probably because they're so popular. If you're willing or want to fly to an intermediate city for a day you can do it for significantly less. As an example Budapest to Prague or Vienna directly in April is ~$400 on several airlines. But if you hit up Brussels/Gothenburg*/etc... for a day you can get it for less than half that price, but that's still more than the cost of the train ticket.

*Budapest to Gothenburg - $10 flight including tax
posted by Challahtronix at 5:16 PM on February 27, 2008

Well, I did Vienna-Budapest and Budapest-Prague in 2003. Neither was particularly painful, and everything was basically on time or so. Definitely aim for an IC train rather than a local wherever possible.

In 2006, I did Vienna-Prague and it was also quite fine. The trains are not much different than elsewhere in Europe and are, in my thinking, more pleasant and easier than flying.
posted by JMOZ at 7:10 PM on February 27, 2008

The trains are fine is Eastern Europe as mentioned above. The only thing I'll add is that if you are purchasing tickets at a station in Eastern Europe you will want to leave enough time because it seems to take forever to get a ticket and it may be tricky finding someone who speaks English.
posted by dripdripdrop at 10:11 AM on February 28, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the responses. Sadly, it does seem that lowfare trips even inbetween Budapest and Vienna are not served by the lower fair planes. :( It seems the train is the most economical option. The dollar should really be preventing us from even going, but we are.....I hope this questions offers other MeFiers some good links for planning a trip to this area of Europe.
posted by skepticallypleased at 1:07 AM on February 29, 2008

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