*Click here for an updated (30 March 2010) version of this article on OutsidePrague.com.*
Every country has its own way of doing things, and this article is about what to expect when it comes time to organize your travels by train in the Czech Republic.
Routes and timetables
The online timetables are the first place you should visit when planning your train travel. It’s the best way to find out what time trains run to your destination, how long they will take, and whether you have to change trains during your journey.
It’s as simple as typing in your starting point, your destination and approximately when you intend to depart. Then just hit 'Search' and wait for the results. A typical timetable search result looks something like this:What this tells us is that a train departs from Prague’s Masaryk Station at 9.46 and arrives at Kutná Hora almost two hours later for a cost of 109Kč (unless you have the Z-card, which we’ll talk about under ‘discounts’). You might notice that at 9.47 a faster, more direct and cheaper train leaves from Prague’s main station (hl.n stands for hlavní nádraží = main station). I’d take that one.
The train at 10.38 involves changing trains at Kolin. The Hradišťan is an express that heads to the Moravské Slovacko region, home of the Ride of the Kings. To get to Kutná Hora, you’d need to alight at Kolín main station at 11.29, then jump on a local train five minutes later to cover the last few kilometres across to your destination.
Most of the symbols on the timetables are self explanatory, but if you’re using Internet Explorer, you can hover over them for a more detailed explanation.
How much will it cost?
The online timetables will give you more or less accurate prices for journeys within the Czech borders. For international tickets, however, it’s best to use jizdenka.cz.
Make sure you’ve selected International at the top, and then you should just be able to fill in your starting point, your destination and get an accurate price in both Euros and Crowns. This site works best if you choose your destinations from the list that pops up when you begin typing. This is how my search for an Olomouc-Krakow ticket turned out:
Standard International tickets look like this. This one’s an Olomouc-Krakow return. You may be able to see that it’s valid for two months and costs much less than two one-way tickets. (We’ll talk more about that under ‘discounts’). The '01 Erwachsener' at the top means one adult and the class of carriage is indicated in the 'Tř/cl/kl' box below. The price is self explanatory and the rest of it you don’t need to worry about too much.
The only way you can really get caught out with one of these tickets is if you accidentally get on a service that takes a roundabout route. For example the afternoon train from Olomouc to Krakow is direct and covers the 250km in 4 hrs 20mins, crossing the border at Zebrzydowice. However, the morning services go all the way up to Katowice, where you have to change to a local Polish train to get across to Krakow. This makes the trip longer by 36km. Because the prices are worked out by the kilometre, the conductor may ask you to top up your fare or even pay a small fine. See ‘seat reservations’ below for one possible way to avoid the chance of this happening.
Domestic tickets This is an ordinary domestic train ticket. Osob indicates the number of passengers, Třída is the class, and the group discount (see below) is indicated as Sleva pro skupiny. Jednoduchá means one way. If it was a return ticket, the word Zpateční would be printed instead. 231Kč each for 250km is pretty good value-cheaper even than the bus.
Train tickets aren’t usually issued for a specific service. Notice that the tickets above have no train numbers or departure times printed on them. Domestic tickets are usually valid for any train on the day of purchase and the following day, and ordinary international tickets are valid for two months.
If you want to be assured of a seat on a specific train, you need to also purchase a místenka or seat reservation. There’s an extra fee for this but it guarantees you a specific seat in a specific carriage on a specific train. I usually don’t bother and just walk along until I find an empty seat. The cabins with reserved seats are often full and you have no choice whether to sit by the window or face forwards or backwards. In almost ten years of travelling without seat reservations on Czech trains, I’ve only had to stand in the aisle a couple of times, and even then not for the entire journey.
Reserving in advance online
If you really want a seat reservation, it’s usually enough to go in to the station a day or two before your journey and buy your ticket. If you’d like to plan even further ahead than that (maybe you’re travelling on the eve of a major public holiday?) you can even reserve online. The catch is that you need to then visit a Czech train station (it need not be the one you’re departing from) within a week, to pay for and pick up your seat reservation. Don’t forget to take along the printout with your reference number –it will look something like this:
Obviously visiting a Czech train station is not very convenient if you’re in, say, Chicago. Please believe me though that the trains are rarely full and it’s almost always enough to book, for example, your Wednesday ticket out of Plzeň when you arrive in town on the Monday.
There are several ways to save money on Czech train tickets. The best are the 3-year 'In-Karta' (formerly Z-Karta) passes, which cost 600Kč. For the purposes of this article though, I’ll stick to those discounts that might be useful for short term visitors to the country.
The simplest is the group discount. When two or more people travel together, they’re entitled to a group discount which is 25% off the normal 2nd class ticket price. When three or four or more people travel together the discount is even higher. To get the group discount, just be sure to buy one ticket for two (or more) people, not two (or more) individual tickets. You should get the discount automatically but if you want to be certain, the name of the discount is Sleva pro skupiny (discount for groups). When you check your travel times on the online timetables, there are two prices listed; the first is the full price, the second is the Z-Card price, and is what you can expect to pay with a group discount. In the case of our Kutná Hora trip above, each person in your group would pay 82Kč on the first train and 72Kč on the second.
Return tickets are a good way to save money on a daytrip. And if you’re a small group, you’ll get the return discount, plus the group discount! Domestic return tickets are valid on the day of purchase and the day after. International return tickets are valid for 2 months.
The normal youth pass (for under 26 year olds) is valid for 3 years and costs 600Kč, so is not usually suitable for short term visitors to the country. Another version though is the Youth Summer pass. It costs just 100Kč, is valid from the 21st of June until the 20th of September, and entitles its holder to the same discount as if she were part of a group. If you’re not travelling alone, don’t bother buying the youth pass because you already qualify for the discount by being a small group.
The ‘SONE+’ weekend tickets can be good value in the right circumstances. There are two types of SONE+ ticket. The first is valid for slow ‘O’ or ‘Os’ trains only and costs 130Kč. It entitles two adults to ride the Os trains as far as they like on the day of purchase, which must be either a Saturday or a Sunday. The more expensive SONE+ goes for 390Kč but allows its holders to travel also on the express and intercity trains. SONE+ tickets also allow up to 3 children (up to 15 years of age) to travel along with the two adults at no extra cost. The ticket is also valid for some towns in the border regions of neighbouring countries. Probably the most useful of those for international travellers are the services to Dresden in Germany and Cieszyn in Poland.
At the station
At larger train stations domestic and international tickets are usually sold from different places. Vnitřostatní (Domestic) and Mezinárodní (International) are the words to look out for. You may find that the international tickets are sold from an office tucked away somewhere to the side of the station’s main hall. The same office might also issue travel passes and change foreign currency.
When checking the departures board to find out which platform your train leaves from, make sure you’re looking at the departures (odjezdy) board. Příjezdy are arrivals. The boards are fairly self explanatory, but if you’re getting off at a minor station, you’ll need to know the number or end destination of your train. For example, if want to catch the 10.38 express to get to Kutná Hora, the board will say 10.38 R707 HRADIŠŤAN Pardubice, Olomouc, Uherské Hradišťe, LUHAČOVICE. There will also be a number on the departures board under ‘Nást’, or nástupiště. That’s your platform. If there’s a number in the 'Zpoz' or zpozdění column, it means your train is delayed by that number of minutes.
On the train
If you reserved a seat, you'll find it most easily if you get on the correct carriage. Either in the station or on the platform, there will be a sign showing the arrangement of carriages on the express and Intercity trains. Once on board, it's just a matter of walking along the carriage, checking for your numbered seat. If you haven't reserved a seat, be aware of the slips of paper in the numbered racks outside each cabin. They're reservations and that lovely empty windowside seat may not be available after all.
So that's what I can tell you about train travel in the Czech lands. I decided to write this article because lots of people were stumbling across the blog by searching for this kind of information, and I thought that to collect it all together might be helpful. I'll be posting an article about bus travel in the coming weeks, but if you can think of anything I might have missed or not explained properly about trains, please let me know in the comments below. And please don't be afraid to comment if you're a first-time visitor to the blog. Everybody was a first-time traveller once and nobody will think your questions are silly.