Riding the Rails from London to Berlin
|Prague's communist-era main train station may be ugly, but it's also the city's most convenient launch pad for reaching Berlin.|
By Alan Wissenberg
Whether you're a first-time visitor or railroad veteran, the train services in Europe offer a variety of overnight connections and sleeper options between major cities. My goal when advising travelers is to match your plans with the most up-to-date train schedules to maximize comfort and minimize cost.
For an example, let's consider one of my favorite routes: Beginning in London, then on to Paris, Nice, Rome, Florence, Venice, Prague, and Dresden before ending in Berlin. There's a bewildering variety of railpass options that could be used for this trip, but the most economical plan is a 5-day Eurail Selectpass covering three countries (Austria, France, and Italy). Fill in the gaps by buying point-to-point tickets in the Czech Republic and Germany.
There's no need for a night train between London and Paris, which are connected by the speedy Eurostar train that zooms through the "Chunnel" (2.5 hours, discounted rate of $75 one-way with Eurailpass does not use up a day of your pass). Likewise for Paris to Nice — while you can make this journey overnight, I recommend the daytime high-speed TGV train (5/day direct, 5.75 hrs, covered by Day 1 of your railpass plus a mandatory €3 reservation fee).
The only direct train from Nice to Rome takes 9.5 hours and travels overnight (covered by Day 2 of your railpass). You can decide whether to splurge for a private double (€75 per person) or economize with a bunk in a six-bed couchette compartment (€25 per person). My own privacy level tends to favor doubles, when available.
There are two options for speedy daytime travel between Roma (Termini station) and Florence, either of which is covered by Day 3 of your railpass (plus noted reservation fees): it takes less than two hours on a Eurostar Italia (mandatory €12-15 reservation fee) and less than three hours on an IC train (some departures require a €3-5 reservation fee). Similar options (but a slightly longer travel time) exist between Florence and Venice (covered by Day 4 of your railpass).
After several years without a direct overnight train, it is once again possible to leave Venice at 20:44 and arrive the next day in Prague at 10:57. The train travels through Italy, Austria, and the Czech Republic (covered by Day 5 of your railpass, but you'll need to buy a ticket to cover the segment from the Austrian-Czech border into Prague). Although this train leaves Venice with private sleeper compartments (destined for Vienna), the train segment to Prague offers just four-bed (€35 per person) and six-bed (€25 per person) couchettes. I generally opt for a bunk in the four-bed compartment (and the promise of a warm shower at my hotel in Prague).
Travel from Prague to Dresden takes less than three hours (since you've already used up your railpass, buy point-to-point tickets from here on out). Dresden is made to order for seeing en route to Berlin — you can simply toss your bag in a locker, spend a few hours sightseeing, then take the evening train to Berlin (2 hours). Or spend the night, then take the morning train.
Train schedules on the Internet (such as http://bahn.hafas.de/bin/query.exe/en) provide lots of information, but understanding the finer points can make a big difference. Naturally, I prefer to leave from the train station closest to my hotel in the city center — even if it means spending a little more time on the train. Therefore, I would want to know that the morning EuroCity trains to Dresden (and on to Berlin) all leave from Prague's main station (called "Praha hl. n.") at 7:22, 9:22 and 11:22. Since an Internet timetable can't know which station is most convenient for you, it'll simply suggest the station that offers the shortest trip between the two stations (in this case, Prague's suburban Holešovice station, which is more time-consuming to reach from the city center).
While all these little details can be confusing, it's worth thinking carefully through your itinerary to ensure a smooth and successful trip.
Alan Wissenberg is president and general manager of EurAide (www.euraide.com), a rail-oriented travel service with offices in the Munich and Berlin train stations. For a one-time fee of $45, EurAide will process your reservations (for the same price you'd pay if you stood in line at the Munich train station) and deliver them to your door in the United States. You can call EurAide's Florida office at 781/828-2488.