Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Amazing Race 14, Episode 3

Salzburg (Austria) - Munich (Germany) - Bucharest (Romania) - Brasov (Romania) - Bran (Romania)

Why are we still in Europe, still making our way only slowly East, three weeks into the season of The Amazing Race 14 ? We'll tackle that question next week. But for now, let's look at how we got to where we are at "Dracula's Castle" near Bran, Romania.

From Salzburg (western Austria, on the German border), the racers were told to take a train to the nearest major airport in Munich, and then fly to Bucharest. Easier said than done: The first team's flight had mechanical problems en route and returned to Munich. Other teams tried to catch the last flights of the day, which risks an even longer delay if anything goes wrong. When their connecting flight was late and then Schiphol Airport was shut down by fog, one of the teams was stuck in Amsterdam for the night.

The racers were told to do it this way (train to Munich, then plane to Bucharest). But would there have been a better way? Let's see what we can find, using the tools and techniques we've been talking about in the previous two installments:

As reader Max Wyss pointed out in his comments on my earlier article, most of the European national railways use the same "HAFAS" timetable software, just with different user interfaces and ticketing options. As I mentioned, I've been partial to the Austrian version (and we are, in this case, starting from Salzburg, Austria). The German version Bahn.de got the most votes in comments and feedback on my earlier article, but you can take your pick. Whichever you choose, you'll have the same problems.

To begin with, the translation engine on the English-language interface converts "Bucharest" to "Buchara", so its first set of suggested routings are for epic five-day rail journeys from Salzburg to Bukhara, Uzbekistan, by way of Vienna, Warsaw, Moscow, and Tashkent. Bukhara is worth the trip, and some years ago I did take the train part of the way there from Tashkent. But that's not where we wanted to go today -- once again that will have to wait until next week.

Once you figure out that you need to enter the Romanian spelling, "Bucuresti", you get the correct schedule from any of the HAFAS railway timetable sites. The trains get slower as you get further east in Europe: "ordinary" mainline express trains in Western Europe are as fast as what Amtrak would call a "high-speed" train, while in Central Europe they are more are on par with the speeds imposed on most of the Amtrak system by the need to use tracks shared with heavy freight. Still, the racers could have gotten trains from Salzburg at 13:00 (1 p.m.) that would arrive in Bucharest at 10:30 the next morning, or departing at 17:00 (5 p.m.) and arriving at 14:00 (2 p.m.) the next day. That would be more reliable than connecting flights, and not really that much slower overall.

How much would those trains cost? Who knows. As is common for international connections, none of the European railroads' online systems can come up with a ticket price. Rail Europe in the USA will sell you a ticket, but only for the unrestricted full first-class fare of US$444 per person.

The trick when travelling into a poorer and cheaper country with a weaker currency is not to buy a through hard-currency international ticket. Buy your first ticket in Euros (EUR), Swiss Francs (CHF) or other hard currency only as far as the border of Euro-land, and then buy a separate ticket from there in Forints or other soft currency for the rest of the distance.

This is especially important right now, since the Forint (HUF) has lost a third (33%) of its value against the U.S. dollar in the last 6 months. Of European currencies, only the Icelandic Krona (ISK) has fared worse against the USD or Euro. That's made Hungary, which was already cheaper than anywhere in Western Europe, into perhaps the most affordable country in continental Europe right now. Romania is a close second, with the Lei (ROL) having fallen 29% against the USD in the last 6 months. So there are good reasons for the race to be where it is, and for you to consider going there too if you're looking for Europe on a budget.

But what if you don't have the time to take the train, or think a ticket on a low-cost airline might actually be cheaper? Salzburg has some cheap direct flights to package holiday destinations (Antalya, anyone? We saw plenty of Austrians there at this time last winter). But there are no cheap flight connections from Salzburg to most points within northern Europe.

From Munich, AirlineRouteMaps.com leads me to Carpatair , a low-cost airline with its hub in Romania's second-largest city, Timisoara (TMS).

Until recently, Romania's national airline, TAROM, had direct flights Timisoara-New York and Timisoara-Chicago. I sold a few tickets on those routes, but not many. It was hard to get customers, especially those in the USA, to accept an intercontinental flight with a stop in a city they had never heard of -- even if the price was right.

Some of my favorite cities, though, are second cities, such as Marseille and Thessaloniki -- not to mention the Second City, Chicago. Often such a place is easier to deal with, especially when you first arrive, than a larger capitol. People in a second city are often more patient with confused tourists, and more likely to treat them as "guests" rather than "marks".

When I search for "Munich to Bucharest", Carpatair's Web site understands the anglicizations of the city names correctly, and shows daily through connections for prices starting from about EUR75 (USD100). That's a nice contrast to Tiger Airways (which I flew on last year from Australia to Singapore) or some other low-cost airlines that require you to search for and book each leg separately. These flights are at the wrong time of day to be useful to the teams on "The Amazing Race 14", but they are the cheapest way other than a 24-hour bus ride to get between these cities.

What about the other Web sites some commenters recommended? WhichBudget.com and Flylc.com don't list Carpatair at all. (WhichBudget.com's listings of low-cost airlines tend to be even less complete outside Europe.) Skyscanner.net has the Carpatair schedules, but only as direct flights. Presumably it hasn't been programmed to recognize Timisoara as a possible hub. But that means you'd only find these flights yourself if you searched separately for each leg of a possible connection through Timisoara, which you probably wouldn't think of and which would be tedious even if you did.

Where's next? Siberia in winter, of course -- I said we were headed east. Stay tuned!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 1 March 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

"As is common for international connections, none of the European railroads' online systems can come up with a ticket price."

I can confirm that while this is usually true, especially for multi-country train trains, it is sometimes *not* true. I just booked a trip from Nuremberg to Paris for late March on bahn.de, was able to compare prices for different departure times (and specials available), and received a printable e-ticket by email that I can print and take with me, along with the credit card used for payment, to board the train.

I've also just been able to successfully book and download an "online ticket" from Austrian Railways' website for a journey from Vienna to Nuremberg.

What was odd is that depending on the entry point to the ticket buying part of the website it was easy to be left with the impression that tickets could only be delivered by mail when, in fact, another part of the website says this is no longer the case.

The price quoted for an in-Canada pre-purchase from raileurope.ca was C$269.50, all-in, whereas the "direct" price from the Austrian Railways' website (which I'm assuming includes special prices that Rail Europe doesn't expose) was C$146 all-in (in each case total price for one adult, one child).

Posted by: Peter Rukavina, 5 March 2009, 19:42 ( 7:42 PM)
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