Railways Provide East Inexpensive Way to Travel the Country

Reed Travel Features

KRAKOW -- After spending five days touring Poland by bus, I was more than ready for a different mode of transportation.

It might only have been a two-and-a-half-hour ride to Warsaw, but I was excited to try Poland's trains -- even though, admittedly, I was somewhat apprehensive after hearing stories from other Americans and reading warnings in guide books about gangs of thieves taking over the tracks.

Because I had purchased my ticket ahead of time, the only thing to do on the morning of my departure was to get on the right train.

I do not speak Polish, so that turned out to be a bit of a task.

It was only after exchanging hand gestures with station personnel and other travelers and lugging my bag up and down several flights of stairs in search of the right platform that I realized it would have been a good idea to have all my travel information written down in Polish before arriving at the station.

At least I was able to inspect the train station, Krakow Glowny, much more thoroughly than I had planned and found it to be well lighted and clean, although not as modern as stations in western Europe.

I was traveling on one of the Inter-city trains, also known as Express trains, which are run by the Polish State Railways.

Travelers on a tight schedule should be careful to book an Inter-city train whenever possible because their other option, the inaptly named Fast trains, sometimes make all local stops.

There are 12 Inter-city routes that can cut travel time in half. For example, a ride between Krakow and Warsaw can take as long as five hours on a Fast train or two-and-a-half hours on an Inter-city train, depending on the route.

Traveling by train is not only convenient (see story this page), it also is affordable.

When I traveled in November, a one-way ticket from Warsaw to Krakow or Gdansk cost about $15 for a standard ticket and $30 for a first class ticket; however, prices are subject to change at a moment's notice.

At those prices, travelers should consider booking first class, which features enclosed compartments with wide, comfortable seats.

Standard class is not as comfortable and can be crowded, but as long as clients keep an eye on their belongings it is suitable enough, especially for shorter trips.

I did not have any problem with pickpockets or people attempting to take my belongings, however, it does happen. A few other Americans traveling on the same train said they almost had some of their luggage "walk away" when they arrived in Warsaw.

Although I think the stories about gangs of roving thieves are exaggerated (I left my bag unattended in my compartment as I roamed the train), clients should be warned not to flaunt their possessions and try to avoid attracting attention to themselves.

All the Inter-city trains have a buffet car and light refreshments on an overnight journey.

In larger cities, it is advisable to buy tickets in advance.

Tickets also can be purchased at Orbis offices; visitors from North America can opt for the Polrail Pass, available from Orbis Polish Travel Bureau in New York at (800) 223-6037 or (212) 867-5011 or American Travel Abroad (also in New York) at (800) 228-0877 before leaving home.

The pass covers any period from eight days to a month.

An eight-day pass costs $60 for second class and $80 for first class; one-month passes cost from $100 to $140.

Visitors to Poland looking for a total rail experience can ride the country's historical narrow-gauge railways.

The majority of the narrow-gauge railways, which were built in the late 1800s, function as tourist attractions, and while some of them keep to timetables fixed by the Polish State Railways, others are put into operation only on request of groups.

There also are many museums that tell the story of these trains.

A brochure highlighting many of these trains and museums is available from the Polish National Tourist Office in New York.

The information in the brochure is sketchy, but it does give examples of the trains and itineraries available and is a good place to start before contacting an operator that specializes in Poland or the tourist office for further assistance.

Some of the more popular routes listed in the brochure are Znin-Wenecja-Biskupin-Gasawa; Przeworsk-Dynow, and Hajnowka-Osada Topilo.

Agents with clients interested in taking one of these trains can contact one of several operators that can assist in booking details.

Some companies that can be contacted include: General Tours at (800) 221-2216 or (603) 357-4548; Isram World of Travel at (800) 223-7460 or (212) 661-1193; Orbis Polish Travel Bureau at (800) 223-6037 or (212) 867-5011, and American Travel Abroad at (800) 228-0877 or (212) 586-5230.

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