By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author
As I usually do, before making reservations for any European trip, I study a map to see where I’d like to go. Sometimes I am not aware of towns or attractions near where I’m traveling to, so a map can help identify those in short order.
The European map came in handy again recently when I booked a flight between Chicago and Munich, the first of what was to be a two-part air journey between Chicago and Budapest. When I discovered the Munich to Budapest air fare would be about as much as the Chicago to Munich fare ($746.00), I quickly gave second thoughts to how I would travel there. And who wouldn’t.
I didn’t want to drive through three countries (Germany-Austria-Hungary) because of gas prices, and my unfamiliarity with the laws and the roads. A bus would take too long, but a train, despite a journey of some seven hours, 22 minutes, would be economical and fun. And I had not ridden those rails before. In fact, Hungary was an altogether new adventure for me.
RAIL COST WAS NOMINAL
A check at www.raileurope.com‘s new website quickly showed that a one-way trip to Budapest’s Keleti Station would cost only $171 U.S. dollars 2nd class ($269.00 first class), and once on board I could sleep or relax from my Atlantic crossing. With the new Rail Europe website, all I had to do was key in my departure and arrival cities, and up popped the cost for the date I wished to travel.
I would arrive Munich via Lufthansa at 5:55 a.m. and have plenty of time to travel on the S Bahn (covered by my Rail Europe ticket) from Munich Airport to the main Munich train station (Hauptbahnhof) to catch Train #63 at 9:27 a.m. to Budapest.
The flight over was uneventful, and the plane landed a few minutes early. Not having been in Germany since the spring, I was craving a croissant made the way the Germans make it, so I waited at an airport restaurant, indulging in coffee and croissants, until 7 a.m. and a Deutsche Bahn office opened to have my train ticket validated (you must validate tickets purchased in the U.S. prior to boarding a train in Europe).
I made a small deposit to reserve an assigned seat in first-class just to be sure. If the agent tells you the route can become crowded with passengers, paying a little extra for a reserved first-class seat can save you from transferring to second class if all the first class seats are taken.
LARGE MUNICH STATION DEPARTURE BOARD
The large train departure board in Munich’s station is fascinating to watch, as new train numbers with boarding tracks pop up every few minutes, and people rush to that platform to board. My train’s notice appears on the board, I see my train roll into the station, and I board car #262 and settle into a comfortable, high-backed leather seat. The train, headed by an electric locomotive, the locomotive of choice in Europe, grabbed onto our string of passenger cars and eased us out of the station on time. Nothing new there—Europe’s trains are almost always on time.
Outside of Munich proper, I look out the window and guess we’re traveling between 95 and 100 miles per hour. I’m likely accurate on this, as European trains can move. A short time later the conductor confirms the train speed at 160 kilometers or 100 miles an hour. One reason trains can travel so fast is that the European track system is much stronger and can hold up much better at high speed. European rail lines have been investing heavily in their train tracks and facilities for years and years, and this is the payoff.
After a while, I note that the heat in the car is a bit excessive, but the conductor enters the car soon enough and announces the heat will be adjusted; it was. By 10 a.m. a porter with a trolley of beer, sandwiches, candy, rolls and chips arrives in the car to ward off any hunger pangs of the passengers.
As we near Salzburg, I can start seeing the snowed-covered Alps that I’ve come to be fond of; I see the Festung on the top of the hill in Salzburg, but only for a moment as the train rolls on. We’ve changed conductors since entering Austria. By the time we arrive at Linz the train is 8 minutes late, and continues to be behind schedule for a while.
TRAIN IS NEARLY FULL
Looking around at the seats and the various cars, I found that 90% of the train was full, and all but about 10 first-class seats had been reserved. If the seat is reserved in the first-class section, a small stub will be attached to the seat with the person’s name on it as well as their boarding and departure stations.
Walking up through the train to the Bord Restaurant, I found it not crowded, and serving Hungarian-style food, including goulash and Hungarian beers. The service was fast and the price was very reasonable.
We roll through St. Polten 10 minutes late, and by Vienna we are 17 minutes late and running into fog. I don’t remember if we arrived late in Budapest, but we were nearly on time nevertheless. The Budapest train station was massive, with a large arching trainshed, similar to many large city trainsheds in Europe.
Budapest’s Keleti Station
The trip was as advertised, it allowed me to catch up on my sleep from the flight over, and it allowed me to get into the “European mood” for my travels for the next two weeks. I also saved a lot of money. And in this current rough economy, that’s a good thing.