When we recently spent five week overseas in Vienna, Budapest, Slovenia and Croatia, we did a lot of our long distance travelling by train – we’d originally planned to do all of it by train but events conspired against us.
I’ve previously written about the ease of booking tickets online – and it’s true it was easy. The only problem was that our tickets from Ljubljana to Salzburg were mail order, rather than online, meaning that they were put in the mail and sent to us.
They never arrived. And no, they weren’t in our mailbox when they got home either. Somewhere, in some foreign mail centre, is a lonely brown envelope with two now useless outdated Slovenian international rail tickets…
Getting the money back from Deutsche Bahn, who’d handled the booking for us, was a hassle, really because the idea of the tickets not arriving was something outside their concept of how things should work. Fortunately, I’d paid for them with my Visa card, and I was able to reclaim the cost that way.
That gave us dilemma – we could buy new tickets, in person this time, or cancel our connecting train from Salzburg to Frankfurt airport and fly direct to Frankfurt.
As there was a series of train driver’s strikes in Germany while we were in Europe, we chose the latter option and and cancelled our Salzburg-Frankfurt train tickets. And I can report that cancelling was easy, straightforward and efficient.
As were the trains themselves (mostly).
The train from Frankfurt to Vienna arrived on time, our seats were there and we had a pretty good journey staring out the window and marvelling at the sheer number of solar farms in Germany, that and the numbers of hare and deer to be seen. On board catering was not wonderful – the restaurant car was really a buffet car that would microwave things, but they did have decent sandwiches – rye bread, salad and wurst.
Needless to say our online print at home tickets worked perfectly, with the train guards having these neat little scanners attached to their tablets.
From Vienna we were going to Budapest and then back via Vienna to Ljubljana where we going to pick up a car, and drive around Croatia and Slovenia. (There is a train from Budapest to Ljubljana, but we eventually discovered they were digging up the tracks somewhere in the middle of Hungary to upgrade them, which meant transferring to a bus for part of the journey. The upside of going the long way round is we got a trip through the Alps.)
OBB – Austrian Railways – have this order and collect system whereby they give you a code and you print your ticket using the code at a machine not unlike a self service airline checkin terminal. I couldn’t find an online guide to using the machines, so rather than trust in my O level German and the availability of an English language option I chickened out and went to travel office in Vienna Hauptbahnhof where the staff would print them for you, which they did.
One little problem was that when I did this, quite rightly, the clerk asked for a passport or id card to confirm my identity.
It of course was the day I’d left my passport in the safe in our rented holiday apartment, and being Australian, I don’t have an identity card. I do of course have a driver’s license, and when I explained that we don’t have id cards in Australia but use driver’s licenses as a surrogate id card they were happy to accept it in place of an identity card.
The train from Vienna to Budapest was a bit of a trial – somewhere just before the border it stopped in a field for forty minutes for some totally unexplained reason, making us late.
Budapest station was a controlled anarchy of taxi touts, hotel touts and the like, and looked on the inside like an old French or Spanish main line station in the seventies – and smelt like one as well, even if the toilets were rather better than the old Gare du Nord.
When I was booking our Budapest – Vienna- Ljubljana journey OBB had been unable to book the Budapest Vienna leg and had advised me to book it separately with Hungarian railways, which after several battles with their website I did successfully.
Like OBB, MAV-Start (Hungarian Railways),use an order online and print at the station model rather than a print at home model.
Perhaps it was prejudice on my part but after my problems with their website I had doubts about how well their print and collect machines would work. At the same time one glance at the ticket hall convinced me that help would be difficult to obtain. However Seat61 has this excellent guide to both MAV-Start’s website and ticket collection machines. I’m please to report that the blue print and collect machine just worked, producing the tickets with a sibilant hiss and a clunk.
On the way back the train was on time, leaving us plenty of time for our connection to the Villach train. The journey across Austria was fine, rolling past romantically ruined castles and letting us see a bit of Alp as well.
We were also taken with the slightly oddly named Henry am Zug on board catering service and their serve at seat coffee service, which consisted of a trolley with a Nespresso machine, which was plugged into the laptop power socket under your seat – left field, but better than most serve at seat coffee.
At Villach we had to change to the Ljubljana train. This was a tight change (only seven minutes) and we only just made it. It was supposed to be a Eurocity train, and it may well have been one on paper but this particular Sunday evening it consisted of three old OBB corridor coaches, no seat reservations to be seen, and none of the promised catering. If it hadn’t been for the train number and destination sticker on the door I’d have thought it was a local train. The fact its first stop was Faak-am-See seemed entirely appropriate.
However, on it rolled, through an impressively long tunnel to emerge in Slovenia at Jesenice, where they changed the engine for a Slovenian one, which at least caused the air conditioning to burst into life, bringing welcome relief to what had been a hot and stuffy ride.
From there the train rattled on to Ljubljana to arrive on time – the main station being impressively graffitied and grubby – a complete contrast to Austria’s near surgical cleanliness.
So, would I use the trains again ?
Most definitely, but next time I think we’d pace ourselves a little more. Frankfurt to Vienna was seven hours, which was just about our (jet lagged) limit. If it hadn’t been for the breakdown, Vienna to Budapest in just over two and a half hours would be fine. Our marathon from Budapest to Ljubljana was fine but took us nine hours – which is a little too long, and having a tight change at Villach was in retrospect not a good idea, but given the choice of seven minutes or two hours seven minutes seemed the better choice.