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International trains—and there is a steady stream of them, from all directions—are routed to two stations in Budapest. Keleti Pályaudvar (East Station) receives most international rail traffic coming in from the west, including Vienna. Nyugati Pályaudvar (West Station) handles a combination of international and domestic trains. Déli handles trains to the Lake Balaton region and to Pécs. Within Hungary, there is frequent and convenient rail service to many smaller cities and towns on the many routes that radiate in all directions from Budapest.
Snacks and drinks are often not available on trains, so pack a lunch for the road; train picnics are a way of life. For more information about rail travel, contact or visit MAV Passenger Service.
Many domestic trains have only second-class (másod osztály, pronounced "mah-should oh-sty") cars. First class (elso osztály, pronounced "ell-she oh-sty"), which costs around 50% more, will give you somewhat larger seats, fewer fellow passengers crowding in and slicing their odorous salami beside you, and velvety upholstery that you won't stick to on a hot summer day, unlike the vinyl-like seat fabric found in most second-class cars. On generally newer Intercity (IC) trains even second class is considerably more comfortable than the same class on older trains that ply slower routes.
For travel only within Hungary, Eurail offers a Eurail National Pass, which costs $83 for any 5 days of travel within a 15-day period, or $98 for 10 days within a one-month period. There is also MÁV's own 7- and 10-day turista bérlet (tourist pass) good for either seven or 10 days (13,180 HUF and 18,960 HUF, respectively) of second-class travel, available directly from the MÁV office. Such a pass may be economical if, during a short stay, you take separate trips from Budapest to Eger, Pécs, and Lake Balaton, for example.
The European East Pass, available outside of Europe, may be used on the national rail networks of Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia. The pass covers anywhere from five to 10 days of unlimited first- or second-class travel within a one-month period; a five-day first-class pass costs $226, second-class costs $160.
Hungary is also covered by the Eurailpass, which provides unlimited first-class rail travel, in all of the participating countries of Europe, for the duration of the pass. Purchase rail passes in the U.S. and Canada from either ACP Rail, Euro Railways, or Rail Europe. Service charges can vary dramatically, so be sure to shop around.
Domestic fares are based on distance traveled, minus a series of complicated discounts for which foreigners are mostly ineligible. Information staff at the Budapest train stations and MAV Passenger Service office should, in theory, be able to help you with ticket information as well as sell you tickets. If you have trouble communicating, you can ask for help at any tourist information office or travel agency listed below. MÁV's English-language Web site, called "ELVIRA," has current domestic schedule and fare information in English, as does its 24-hour telephone hotline, and is a good place to start.
Travel by train from Budapest to other large cities or to Lake Balaton is cheap and efficient. Avoid személyvonat (local trains), which are extremely slow; instead, take Intercity (IC) trains or gyorsvonat (express trains). On timetables, vágány (tracks) are abbreviated with a "v"; indul means departing, and érkezik means arriving. Trains get crowded during weekend travel in summer, especially to Lake Balaton; you're more likely to have elbow room if you pay a little extra for first-class tickets—assuming first class is an option on your train.
All major credit cards can be used to pay for tickets at Budapest train stations, but at domestic ticket windows you won't make friends with the locals in line behind you at rush hour if you opt to pay for a ticket amounting to 1,000 HUF (roughly $5) with plastic rather than cash. Practically all locals pay with cash, and at many stations in smaller cities and in the countryside this is your only option.
Intercity (IC) trains—which ensure relatively comfy, clean, and fast service on domestic routes to the largest towns outside of Budapest—require a helyjegy (seat reservation, roughly pronounced "hey-yedy" as two distinct syllables). But you should automatically receive one at the time of purchase, for around 500 HUF extra beyond the normal cost of the ticket for the distance you're going. Before leaving the ticket window, though, check to see that you get two ticket-like slips of paper: one is your ticket, the other your seat reservation.
MAV Passenger Service (District V, József Attila utca 16, Budapest. 06-40/49-49-49 central infoline (local charge from anywhere in Hungary). www.mav-start.hu.)
ACP Rail International (866/938-7245. www.eurail-acprail.com.)
Euro Railways (866/768-8927. www.eurorailways.com.)
Rail Europe (877/257-2887 in the U.S.; 800/361-7245 in Canada; 800/622-8600 in the U.S. www.raileurope.com.)
Déli Pályaudvar (District XII, Alkotás utca, Budapest.)
Keleti Pályaudvar (District VIII, Baross tér, Budapest.)
Nyugati Pályaudvar. The iron-laced glass hall of the West Railway Station is in complete contrast to—and much more modern than—the newer East Railway Station. Built in the 1870s, it was designed by a team of architects from Gustav Eiffel's office in Paris. District XIII, Teréz körút, Around Nyugati Train Station, Budapest. M3: Nyugati Train Station.
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