Poland has a long coastline and lots of rivers and canals, but passenger-boat services are limited and operate only in summer. There are no regular boats running along the main rivers or along the coast. Several cities, including Szczecin, Gdańsk, Toruń, Poznań, Wrocław and Kraków, have local river cruises during the summer, and a few coastal ports (Kołobrzeg and Gdańsk) offer sea excursions. There are also trips out of Elbląg to Frombork and Krynica Morska.
On the Masurian lakes, excursion boats run in summer between Giżycko, Mikołajki, Węgorzewo and Ruciane-Nida. Tourist boats are also available in the Augustów area where they ply part of the Augustów Canal. The most unusual canal trip is the full-day cruise along the Elbląg-Ostróda Canal.
Autostop (hitching) is never entirely safe anywhere in the world. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Those who choose to hitch will be safer travelling in pairs, and letting someone know where they are planning to go.
That said, hitching does take place in Poland; locals can often be seen thumbing a ride from one small village to the next. Car drivers rarely stop though, and large commercial vehicles (which are easier to wave down) expect to be paid the equivalent of a bus fare.
Car-hire agencies will require you to produce your passport, a driving licence held for at least one year, and a credit card. You need to be at least 21 or 23 years of age (depending on the company) to hire a car, although hiring some cars, particularly luxury models and 4WDs, may require a higher age.
One-way hire within Poland is possible with most companies (usually for an additional fee), but most will insist on keeping the car within Poland. No company is likely to allow you to take its car beyond the eastern border.
High insurance premiums mean that car hire in Poland is not cheap, and there are seldom any promotional discounts. As a rough guide only, economy models offered by reputable local companies can be as low as 120/800zł per day/week (including insurance and unlimited mileage). Rates at the big international agencies start at around 225/1000zł per day/week. It’s usually cheaper to book your car from abroad or over the internet.
Bring along a good insurance policy from a reliable company for both the car and your possessions. Car theft is a major problem in Poland, with organised gangs operating in the large cities. Some of them cooperate with Russians in smuggling stolen vehicles across the eastern border, never to be seen again.
Even if the car itself doesn’t get stolen, you may lose some of its accessories, most likely the radio/cassette/CD player, as well as any personal belongings you’ve left inside. Hide your gear, if you must leave it inside; try to make the car look empty. If possible, park your car in a guarded parking strzeżony (car park). If your hotel doesn’t have its own, the staff will tell you where the nearest one is, probably within walking distance.
In the cities, it may be more convenient and safer to leave your vehicle in a secure place (eg your hotel car park), and get around by taxi or public transport.
Timetables are posted on boards either inside or outside PKS bus terminal buildings. There are also notice boards on all bus stops along the route (if vandals haven’t damaged or removed them). The timetable of odjazdy (departures) lists kierunek (destinations), przez (the places passed en route) and departure times.
Keep in mind that there may be more buses to the particular town you want to go to than those that are mentioned in the destination column of the timetable under the town’s name. You therefore need to check whether your town appears in the przez column on the way to more-distant destinations. If you want to circumvent a long wait grab a bus to another hub and travel on from there – it may end up saving loads of time.
Also check any additional symbols that accompany the departure time. These symbols can mean that the bus runs only on certain days or in certain seasons. They’re explained in the key at the end of the timetable.
You can find online bus timetables at www.polskibus.pl.
In most cities you can travel on the autobus (bus) and tramwaj (tram), and some also have a trolejbus (trolleybus). Warsaw is the only city with a metro. Public transport operates from around 5am to 11pm and may be crowded during the rush hours (7am to 9am and 4.30pm to 6.30pm Monday to Friday). The largest cities also have night-time services, on either buses or trams. Timetables are usually posted at stops, but don’t rely too much on their accuracy.
In many cities there’s a flat-rate fare for local transport so the duration of the ride and the distance make no difference. If you change vehicles, however, you need another ticket. The ordinary fare is usually around 2.40zł. In some cities the fare depends on how long you travel, with the ticket valid for a certain period of time, such as 30 minutes or one hour. Night services are more expensive than daytime fares.
There are no conductors on board; you buy tickets beforehand and punch or stamp them in one of the little machines installed near the doors. You can buy tickets from Ruch or Relay newspaper kiosks or, in some cities, from street stalls around the central stops, recognisable by the bilety (tickets) boards they display. Buy enough tickets on Saturday morning to last you until Monday, as few kiosks are open on Sunday. Note that tickets purchased in one city cannot be used in another.
Plain-clothed ticket inspectors are always on the prowl and foreign backpackers are not exempt. These inspectors tend to be officious, dogged and singularly unpleasant to deal with.
If you are caught without a ticket, it’s best to pay the fine straight away. Never give an inspector your passport, even if they threaten you with police intervention if you don’t.
Trains will be your main means of transport, especially when travelling long distances – they are good value and usually run on time. Outside peak holiday periods in July and August, it should be no problem finding a seat.
The railways are administered by the Polskie Koleje Państwowe (PKP; Polish State Railways, www.pkp.pl in Polish). With over 27, 000km of lines, the railway network is extensive and covers most places you might wish to go to. Predictably, the network covers less of the mountainous parts of southern Poland, and trains are slower there.
Foreign students under the age of 26 receive a 33% discount on InterCity trains but still must pay the 25zł reservation fee. Persons over 60 can purchase a legitymacja seniora (senior concession) card for 75zł which provides 50% discount on 1st- and 2nd-class seats on all Polish trains.
Rozkład jazdy (train timetables) are displayed in stations, with odjazdy (departures) on yellow boards and przyjazdy (arrivals) on white.
Ordinary trains are marked in black print, fast trains in red, and if you spot an additional ‘Ex’, this means an express train. InterCity trains are identified by the letters ‘IC’. The letter ‘R’ in a square indicates a train with compulsory seat reservation. There will be some letters and/or numbers following the departure time; always check them in the key below. They usually say that the train kursuje (runs) or nie kursuje (doesn’t run) in particular periods or days. The timetables also indicate which peron (platform) the train departs from.
You can check train timetables online at rozklad.pkp.pl/bin/query.exe/en.
There are three main types of train: express, fast and ordinary. The pociąg ekspresowy or ekspres (express train) is the fastest and the most comfortable, operating on long intercity routes and only stopping at major cities en route. They carry only bookable seats; you can’t travel standing if all the seats are sold out. Express trains tend to run during the daytime, rather than overnight. Their average speed is from 80km/h to 100km/h.
A more luxurious version of the express train, InterCity trains are even faster and more comfortable than regular express trains, and a light snack is included in the price (EuroCity trains are international InterCity trains). These trains run on some major routes out of Warsaw (a full list can be found on www.intercity.pl) and they don’t stop en route at all. The main destinations (along with distances and approximate travelling times) include Gdańsk (4½ hours, 333km); Katowice (two hours and 50 minutes, 303km); Kraków (three hours, 297km); Poznań (three hours and 50 minutes, 311km); and Szczecin (five hours and 30 minutes, 525km).
Pociąg pospieszny (fast trains) stop at more intermediate stations. Usually not all carriages require booking; some will take passengers regardless of how crowded they are. At an average speed of between 60km/h and 80km/h, they are still a convenient way to get around the country and are one-third cheaper than express trains. They often travel at night, and if the distance justifies it they carry kuszetki (couchettes) or miejsca sypialne (sleepers) – a good way to avoid hotel costs and reach your destination early in the morning. Book as soon as you decide to go, as there are usually only a couple of sleeping cars and beds may sell out fast.
The pociąg osobowy (ordinary or local train) is far slower as it stops at all stations along the way. These trains mostly cover shorter distances, but they also run on longer routes. You can assume that their average speed will be between 30km/h and 40km/h. They are less comfortable than express or fast trains and don’t require reservations. They are OK for short distances, but a longer journey can be tiring.
Almost all trains have two classes of carriage: 2nd class and 1st class. The carriages of long-distance trains are usually divided into compartments: the 1st-class compartments have six seats, while the 2nd-class ones contain eight seats. Smoking is only allowed in designated compartments, but in practice some people still smoke in corridors and outside toilets; smoking is banned on InterCity trains. Chain smoking is not uncommon in Poland and a journey in a designated smoking compartment can be almost unbearable. It’s better to book a seat in a nonsmoking compartment and go into the smoking corridor if you wish to smoke.
The 2nd-class couchette compartments have six beds, with three to a side; the 1st-class compartments have four beds, two to a side. Sleepers come in both 2nd and 1st class; the former sleep three to a compartment, the latter only two, and both have a washbasin, sheets and blankets.
The only place to buy PKS tickets is at the bus station itself, either from the information/ticket counter or the bus driver. Tickets on long routes serviced by fast buses can be bought up to 30 days in advance and are best bought from ticket counters – tickets are numbered, and buying one at the counter assures you of a seat – but those for short, local routes are only available the same day and are just as easily purchased from the driver. If you get on the bus somewhere along the route, you buy the ticket directly from the driver.
Tickets for Polski Express buses can be bought at the bus stations and from some Orbis Travel offices.
Since most train-station ticket offices have been computerised, buying tickets is now less of a hassle than it used to be, but queuing is still a way of life. Be at the station at least half an hour before the departure time of your train and make sure you are queuing at the right ticket window. As cashiers rarely speak English, the easiest way of buying a ticket is to have all the relevant details written down on a piece of paper. These should include the destination, the departure time and the class – pierwsza klasa (first) or druga klasa (second). If seat reservation is compulsory on your train, you’ll automatically be sold a miejscówka (reserved-seat ticket); if it’s optional, you must state whether you want a miejscówka or not.
If you are forced to get on a train without a ticket, you can buy one directly from the conductor for a small supplement – 4zł on ordinary and fast trains, and 6zł express and InterCity trains. On ordinary and fast trains you must seek out the conductor otherwise you’ll be fined for travelling without a ticket; on express and InterCity trains you’ll be sold the ticket when the conductor comes by.
Couchettes and sleepers can be booked at special counters at larger stations; it’s advisable to reserve them in advance. Advance tickets for journeys of over 100km and couchette and sleeper tickets can also be bought at any Orbis Travel office and some other agencies – perhaps a quicker option.
The following Polish agencies offer organised tours in Poland:
Fabricum Specialises in tours of Poland’s Unesco sights and following in the footsteps of the country’s beloved John Paul II.
Jarden Tourist Agency (p195) A Jewish-interest agency that organises tours of Kraków and its surrounds.
Kampio Focuses on ecotourism, organising biking tours in Masuria, bird-watching in Białowieża and kayaking in Biebrza National Park.
Our Roots Specialises in tours of Jewish sites, including trips around Warsaw and sites throughout the country.
PTTK Mazury Runs kayak tours along the country’s best rivers in and around the Great Masurian Lakes.
LOT (www.lot.com) operates a comprehensive network of domestic routes. There are daily flights between Warsaw and Bydgoszcz, Gdańsk, Katowice, Kraków, Łódź, Poznań, Rzeszów, Szczecin, Wrocław and Zielona Góra. All flights between regional cities travel via Warsaw and connections aren’t always convenient. Currently there is no domestic competition, but this may change if DirectFly (www.directfly.pl) resumes operations in the future.
The regular one-way fare on any of the direct flights to/from Warsaw starts at 116zł and can reach up to 500zł. Tickets can be booked and bought at any LOT or Orbis office, and from some other travel agencies.
Senior citizens over 60 years of age pay 80% of the full fare on all domestic flights. Foreign students holding an ISIC card get a 10% discount. There are attractive stand-by fares (about 25% of the regular fare) for people aged between 20 and 24; tickets have to be bought right before scheduled departure. There are also some promotional fares on selected flights in certain periods (eg early or late flights, selected weekend flights); they can be just a third of the ordinary fares and are applicable to everybody.
Most airports are a manageable distance – between 10km and 20km – from city centres and are linked to them by public transport. Only Szczecin and Katowice airports are further out. You must check in at least 30 minutes before departure. Have your passport at hand – you’ll be asked to show it as ID. There’s no departure tax on domestic flights.
Poland has great potential as a place to tour by bicycle – most of the country is fairly flat and you can throw your bike on a train to cover long distances quickly. Camping equipment isn’t essential, as hotels and hostels are usually no more than an easy day’s ride apart, although carrying your own camping gear will give you more flexibility.
Major roads carry pretty heavy traffic and are best avoided. Instead, you can easily plan your route along minor roads, which are usually much less crowded and in reasonable shape. Stock up on detailed tourist maps, which feature all minor roads, specifying which are sealed and which are not, and which also show marked walking trails. Some of these trails are easily travelled by bike, giving you still more options.
On a less optimistic note, the standard of driving in Poland may not be what you’re used to at home. Some drivers hug the side of the road, thus giving cars and trucks more room to overtake, but pass perilously close to cyclists. Note that in Poland cyclists are not allowed to ride two abreast.
Cities are often not the most pleasant places to cycle either; dedicated cycle paths are few and far between, some drivers don’t give a damn about two-wheeled travellers, city roads are often in poor shape, and cobbled streets are not uncommon. More than likely (simply for safety’s sake) you’ll end up sharing the footpath with pedestrians and local cyclists.
Hotel staff will usually let you put your bike indoors for the night, sometimes in your room. Bikes, especially those in good condition, are attractive to thieves, so it’s a good idea to carry a solid lock and chain (for the frame and both wheels), and always use them when you leave the bike outdoors, even if only for a moment.
Some long-distance trains have a baggage car where you can store your bicycle. If this is the case, you should normally take your bike to the railway luggage office, fill out a tag and pay a small fee. They will then load the bike and drop it off at your destination. It’s a good idea to strip the bike of anything easily removable and keep an eye out to be sure it has actually been loaded on the train. You can also take your bike straight to the baggage car (which is usually at the front or the rear of the train), but this can be difficult at intermediate stations where the train may only stop for a few minutes.
Bikes are not allowed on express trains or on those that take reservations, since these trains don’t have baggage cars. Many ordinary trains don’t have baggage cars either, but you can try to take the bike into the passenger car with you as some Poles do. Check at the baggage window in the station before you do so. Buses don’t normally take bikes.
Cycling shops and repair centres are popping up in large cities, and in some of the major tourist resorts. Western bikes for sale are on the increase, as are some popular spare parts. For rural riding, you should carry all essential spare parts, for it’s unlikely there’ll be a bike shop close at hand. In particular, spare nuts and bolts should be carried.
Bike-hire outlets are growing in number, but they still aren’t numerous. They seldom offer anything other than ordinary Polish bikes, the condition of which may leave a little to be desired.