Across the sea and by land – Star of Europe awaits

Experiences Youth Erasmus+ Erasmus+ for youth work EU youth programmes Climate
Ulla Pötsönen reports from her journey on the European railways to the international Star of Europe training in Prague. She has a lot of experience in travelling by land and with her diary also wants to encourage others to try more ecological and experiential modes of transport. With that in mind, she promised to share with us her best tips for travelling more slowly – welcome on board ships, trains and propeller planes with Ulla Pötsönen!
 photo collage.
Ensimmäinen osuus Ulla Pötsösen kotimatkaa Prahan Star of Europe -koulutuksesta sujui varsin miellyttävästi kakkosluokan lipulla puolalaisessa yöjunassa.

A travel grant from the Finnish National Agency for Education enabled me to participate in the Star of Europe training organised under international youth exchanges of the Erasmus+ programme in Prague, the Czech Republic. This time, the report is less about the training itself (which actually was rewarding, inspiring, intensive and, because of the COVID-19 situation, also a bit scary) and more about the journey there.

I already reduced my air travel to the absolute minimum several years ago, for reasons I am sure everyone is aware of. However, I have not stopped travelling, quite the contrary. Before the virus, I lived and worked in two countries so I was regularly commuting between Finland and the Czech Republic. I was also travelling elsewhere in Europe. Therefore, I have slightly more experience in travelling by land than people do on average, and I am particularly familiar with the routes from Finland to the Czech Republic. I hope that my report will encourage others to try more sustainable modes of transport in their free time, on business or when going on exchange with young people. 

Even if you think travelling by land is uncomfortable and expensive, I recommend that you still familiarise yourself with the options available! If you plan it well, travelling by land is both pleasant and cost-effective. The slowness of travelling is a fact that you can turn into an advantage, for example, by using it as uninterrupted working time to write something. The best way to travel is to travel with a friend, so tempt a colleague to come and try it with you.

Download the appropriate apps and set off

Travel day 1: Mikkeli–Turku, Turku–Stockholm, overnight stay on the ferry
Travel day 2: Stockholm–Copenhagen, Copenhagen–Flensburg, overnight stay in Flensburg
Travel day 3: Flensburg–Hamburg, Hamburg–Berlin, Berlin–Prague
Travel day 1: Prague–Warsow, sleeper train
Travel day 2: Warsow–Helsinki flight by propeller plane, overnight stay in Helsinki
Travel day 3: Helsinki–Mikkeli

I began to book the tickets when the travel grant was confirmed, about three weeks before the event. I didn't use all that much time for browsing the internet for the trip and the different options because I already knew the route. I recommend the Rail Planner mobile application for first-timers. Rail Planner is also suitable for interrailers for making seat reservations. However, buying individual tickets is easier to do directly in the train companies’ portals. Travel secretaries or other people responsible for travel arrangements at workplaces may not all have up-to-date knowledge about reserving train journeys yet. Therefore, they should also be encouraged to find out about the options.

As perhaps the most common travel route is through Germany when you travel from Finland, it is a good idea to download the Deutsche Bahn Navigator application. You could almost say that it serves as the central booking agency for train travel in the north and west of Europe. You can use it to browse routes and prices and also buy a ticket directly from the application. Tickets bought through Deutsche Bahn (DB) form a travel chain, meaning that if one part of your journey goes wrong, you will get to your destination on the next possible connections. I have also heard stories about overnight stays in hotels that have been paid by Deutsche Bahn when it has been necessary. In other words, the practice is similar to the rerouting service of airlines and airline alliances.

If you need to, you can also download the applications of the corresponding companies of other countries that you travel through. For this trip, I found the Swedish Statens Järnvägar (SJ) and the Czech České dráhy (CD) useful. Applications such as Omio, Rome2Rio and, surprisingly often, Google Maps are suitable when you are looking for general routes. The local transport applications of cities also save time and your nerves as you need to browse only one application to find the tickets, maps and timetables. Jakdojade, which covers all of Poland, is a handy and intuitive example. 

A trip within a trip may take you to a charming holiday in a little town

The first destination of my trip was Sweden. Viking Grace, the ferry from Turku arrived at 6.30 am, so I had plenty of time after breakfast to get from the terminal to the train towards Denmark and Continental Europe. I filled up my thermos flask with tea, got some packed lunch and set off. 

This time, I was not able to get the entire outbound trip from the ticket sales of Deutsche Bahn. I always got an error message when I tried to buy the ticket. I read in Facebook’s Maata pitkin matkustavat or Tågsemester group, that the ticket sales interface of Statens Järnvägar had not been functioning with Deutsche Bahn on the preceding days or weeks. I did not dare to wait for the fault to be rectified, so I bought the ticket for the Stockholm-Copenhagen part form SJ and the rest of the journey from DB.

Another problem that slowed down the normally smooth purchase process was that I could not have had a seat from Copenhagen to Hamburg. I did not want to risk having to change places several times/stand on board the train in the peak-hour traffic on a Friday afternoon, so I chose a connection with a train change and stayed the night in Flensburg near the Danish border. It is a little town that I would probably never visit otherwise!

Other than that, there was nothing different from normal about my outbound journey. As I was travelling over a weekend, I had a chance (?) to observe a few groups of people who were heading for a city for a wild city break. For example, a group travelling from Flensburg to Hamburg offered me some Jägermeister – at eight in the morning and from the crystal glasses they had brought with them. I declined politely, saying I was travelling on business.

The training in my destination, Prague, will be a subject of another report.

Surprising luxury and need to know one’s limits 

On the way back, I tested a Czech sleeper train to Warsow for the first time. Because of the situation and the time, the experience was almost luxurious, although I was travelling in second class. The train was almost empty, I had the cabin to myself and the sleeper car attendant (is such a word still used?) wearing a peaked cap had time to be extremely polite and helpful. The sheets and the towel were there and the cabin had a washbasin. Because there were so few passengers, the shared toilet and shower in the middle of the sleeper car remained clean and tidy throughout the journey. However, if you are a light sleeper, you should bring ear plugs with you as there is some noise from the train during the night.

The breakfast served to the cabin in the morning was a nice surprise! So were the bamboo toothbrush and the natural soap in the vanity bag. I assume that the tendering of the products had gone right by accident, so to say, as I really do not think that ecological products had been obtained intentionally.

From Warsow, I was forced to speed up the pace of my travelling and fly to Finland for reasons related to timetables. The alternative would have been a coach to Tallinn through the Baltic States, with one overnight stay on the way or by sleeping in the coach seat, something hard-core travellers might do. I can recommend continuous coach travel only with the same reservations as I would swimming in a hole in the ice or other extreme activity: beforehand, you wonder why you have decided to take part in it, you feel (slightly) awful when doing it, but afterwards, it feels you have achieved something.

I chose a connection operated by a propeller plane for my flight from Warsow. This reduces the emissions by about one third compared with jet planes. You can usually check the aircraft type when you browse through the available options (ATR-72 is propeller plane). In the end, the most unpleasant part of the whole trip was having to wait at the airport late in the evening because the flight had a long delay. I did not arrive at Helsinki Airport until 1 am, so I did not have very much sleep before returning to Mikkeli by train the following morning.

Weighing the savings and the emissions

By air, the travel costs from Helsinki would have been EUR 160–200, while mine were EUR 300. Both ways of travelling would have led to additional costs from domestic travel and an overnight stay in Helsinki, so I do not include them in the comparison.

I had to pay EUR 50 extra because I had to buy the tickets separately for my outbound journey. If the rail companies’ interfaces had worked as normal, the trip would have been cheaper. It would have made the price more comparable with flying.

I have also tried to calculate the emissions of the trip as kilograms of Co2 equivalent. I am a little bit hesitant about publishing the exact figures because they are averages of the calculators I found (VTT Lipasto, Atmosfair, Lentolaskuri, Ecopassenger, MyClimate and ICAO) and there may be critical comments if someone gets different results.

The totals using these averages are the following: a direct flight 740 kg and my trip 270 kg. This means the emissions were less than a one-way flight by jet.

Perhaps it is enough to know that the emissions remained considerably smaller. And that you cannot calculate the emissions easily in one place. I hope there will be simpler calculators and aids for doing it soon.

I wish you happy business and free-time travel by land!


TOP10 travel tips

  1. Download Rail Planner, Deutsche Bahn and the mobile applications of the railway companies of the other countries on your route. The tickets you have bought, the tracking of the route and the possible notifications of delays are visible in the applications, which is handy. 
  2. Unless you specifically enjoy the instant coffee and the sandwiches wrapped in cling film that you get in restaurant cars, plan the train changes so that you will have time for a meal and a cup of coffee. Breakfast in Hamburg, lunch in Berlin and dinner in Prague does not sound too bad, does it?
  3. You can already join the Facebook groups Maata pitkin matkustavat and Tågsemester before the trip. You will get good tips, travel stories and answers to acute questions people have had when travelling. The websites Man in seat 61 and Maata pitkin matkustavat have tips and route suggestions for train travellers. Ask people you know about their experiences, and, if you wish, you can even send a message to me (contact details at the end of this article).
  4. If the connections from one capital to another look too expensive/full, try to split the journey so that you will change trains or stay overnight in a smaller place. At the same time, you will see some of the small towns in Europe.
  5. A sleeper train saves time and is also an experience! There are several sleeper train routes in Continental Europe, such as from Stockholm to Malmö, and during the peak season, also from Stockholm to Berlin. 
  6. If you fly, choose a propeller plane instead of a jet. When travelling by ship, favour ships that combine freight and passenger transport and avoid express ships. 
  7. Reflect on whether it is necessary to fly at all. Discuss with your employer the possibility to use the train journey for working. The WiFi connections on board trains work reasonably well, and the mobile network also works in most countries. Just wear headphones and you are in the same kind of remote bubble as at home. 
  8. Speak to the persons responsible for travel arrangements in your workplace and, if necessary, familiarise yourselves with buying train tickets and the reservation practices together.
  9. Or travel in a nice and comfortable way to start with. If your employer allows it, reserve a weekend or leave days for the travelling and stop at interesting cities or villages on the way.
  10. Reserve time for resting after travelling before important meetings, especially if you have slept on board a train or a coach or have otherwise had an irregular rhythm. Of course, this depends on the individual, age and lifestyle.
+1 Here is an extra tip: get on your feet, eat and drink, rest and go to the bathroom whenever you get a chance!


Ulla Pötsönen
Mikkeli Youth services and the project Youth work as a builder of climate hope
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