Poland travel guide - Part 3

Following my first trip to Warsaw and Kraków, I wrote this guide to offer some suggestions about things to do in preparation for your trip, ways to navigate the two cities, and things you'll encounter that you might not have anticipated. This installment addresses getting around on the ground in Poland.

Using public transit
Both Warsaw and Kraków have extensive bus and tram lines. Both also have Underground systems, but those don’t seem targeted to tourists, as the stations don’t align with major touristed areas. Trams and buses run frequently and their routes are easy to identify as Polish uses the same numerals as the English language.

Tram tickets can be purchased for time periods ranging from as little as 20 minutes to several days. Prices range from about 1.20 zł for a 20-minute ticket in Kraków to 15 zł for a one-zone 24-hour pass or 24 zł for a two-zone weekend pass in Warsaw. Weekend passes are good from 7:00 p.m. Friday through early Monday morning.

Tickets can be purchased at street kiosks with the RUCH sign, at automated ticket machines located either near the tram stop or on board the newer trams. If you’re planning to buy your ticket on board in Kraków, look for a car with a sign near or over the door that says, “Automat Biletowy” or ticket vending machine. In Warsaw, automated ticket machines are seldom found on the older cars and those on the newer cars often take only coins. Machines at stations also take bills (called “banknotes” in Poland) and credit cards.

Tram ticket validator
Once purchased, tickets must be validated by inserting them into the slot of the yellow validators that are in every car. Plain-clothes ticket inspectors conduct random checks and reportedly have little sympathy for tourists who protest, “That’s not the way it works at home.” FLASH BULLETIN: You’re not “at home”! The adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” applies equally to Poland, too.

The morning I left Kraków, I purchased a 20-minute ticket on board the tram for 1.20 zł for my two-stop ride to Kraków Glówny, the city’s central train station, then turned right around and put it in the validator. Literally less than a minute later, I was approached by a young man in a skullcap, trendy shirt and jeans, looking like any other slightly scruffy Millennial. With electronic scanner in hand, he asked to see my ticket. At that moment, I was very glad I’d informed myself of the way things work on Poland’s public transit systems.

If you find yourself boarding an older tram (which will be obvious by its appearance), be aware that the older trains do not have video monitors, nor do they have announcements of the upcoming stops. That is a feature unique to the newer trams. On an older tram, you will need to pay particular attention to your route and surroundings to ensure you get off at your intended stop.

Although trams are generally convenient and economical, the trams stops are not, at least when changing trains. In most cases, trains in each direction stop before the intersection, meaning that you’ll have to cross at least two streets if you’re changing trains. If you missed a stop and need to go back in the opposite direction, you may have to cross the street three times.

Pedal pushing
Bike paths
While biking in Warsaw isn’t nearly as popular as it is in Amsterdam, the city does have dedicated lanes for bicycles, and some of the same principles apply in Poland as in the Netherlands. Specifically, look both ways before crossing a bike lane or you risk getting run over. Don’t walk in the lane; cross it quickly and get to the other side, where pedestrians are supposed to be.

One hotel at which I stayed in Warsaw had bikes to lend to the guests. In addition, there is a bicycle service in Warsaw called NextBike that rents bike and includes the first 20 minutes free of charge. A rental of up to an hour is a modest 1 zł. The second hour is 3 zł, the third is 5 zł, and all subsequent hours are 7 zł. One needs a smart phone and must first register to be able to use the service.

If you are inclined to use a bicycle, remember to use the lanes designated for bikes and to follow the red and green signals for bicyclists. And remember that the country’s DUI laws apply to bicyclists as well as motorists.

Walk? Or Don’t Walk?
Unlike many U.S. cities where pedestrian signals are at most a suggestion, people in Poland simply do not jaywalk against the “Don’t Walk” signal (a lighted red man). The fine for jaywalking – even if there isn’t a car to be seen – is expensive. One person I spoke to quoted 500 zł, or about $150 at this writing, while another said cars that run red lights would pay that fine but pedestrians got a slight break and would be fined about 200 zł, or $60. Regardless, it’s better to simply wait it out than take the chance.

Drinking and driving
Don’t. Period.

If you’re thinking of renting a car, motorcycle, moped or even borrowing a bicycle to tool around, it may be important to know that the legal blood alcohol level (BAL) for driving in Poland is extremely low. To counter a significant problem with drinking and driving, Poland some years ago set the rate for being considered legally intoxicated at 0.02 percent, one-fourth of the 0.08 percent BAL common in the U.S. and Canada. The bartender at one restaurant cautioned a patron that, if he wanted a single beer he’d “have to wait three hours before driving.” That may have been overstating things a bit because the body will generally assimilate about one standard drink an hour, but he opted for an iced tea nonetheless.

Taking the train

Trains are very popular for intercity travel. They run frequently, are relatively inexpensive and fairly comfortable. There are, however, some caveats.

Even within the same class of travel, trains vary. For example, I booked First Class for my round trip between Warsaw and Kraków. For the outbound trip, I shared a compartment of six seats with three other gentlemen. Everyone was gracious and polite, but it was not the upmarket experience of the return trip, which was aboard a newer express train. There, First Class seats were arranged two-and-one, with single seats on one side of a generous aisle and pairs on the opposite side.

The newer train had a power outlet at the seat, a fold-down table, underseat as well as overhead storage, complimentary beverages, and was far quieter. Same class, same price, different experience.

Further, when traveling by train, be prepared to negotiate stairs – lots of them – on your way to and from the trains. Poland has nothing like the Americans with Disabilities Act, so while there are some lifts, the icons on the doors of the very small elevators indicate they’re for the elderly, the handicapped, and people with babies in strollers. People with luggage are expected to use the stairs. Even ramps are a rarity, so be prepared to carry your bags up and down the stairs, especially when ascending to a train platform.

Consider hiring a guide
If you plan to visit sites that are not readily accessible by public transit, want to get away from the city and see some of the Polish countryside, want a more personalized experience, or perhaps want to do some genealogical research, consider hiring a guide.

There are a number of locals available who serve as chauffeurs as well as tour guides. While in Kraków, I worked with a gentleman named Andrzej (Andrew) Durman who operates under the name Tour-service.pl. He is a native of Kraków who has also lived in Chicago and is fluent in Polish and English. Andrew showed me sights I would likely have not found on my own, provided a fair bit of local color and, importantly, served as my interpreter when we went to a small town that bore the same name as the town where my grandmother was born and where I attempted to locate her birth records. Your hotel may be able to recommend local guides, or they can be found and engaged through websites like ToursByLocals.com, among others.

Tomorrow, sundry observations on a range of things you'll encounter when in Warsaw or Kraków.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
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