Money And Other Tips For Travel In Poland

Seven Things To Know Before Traveling To Poland

Vicki and I are in Poland, our first time here. We like the Poles. They seem to work to understand us and to accommodate special needs. They tend to be courteous. We’ve only been here a short time, and I could be wrong, but I sense that Poles are exceptional people.

In our travels through Poland (Warsaw, Krakow, and Przemsyl) we’ve had some surprises.

We discovered that first-class and second-class train coaches seem to offer the same accommodation. On our train from Krakow to the Ukraine border not a single traveler rode in first class, which costs twice as much as second class. Why pay double for the same thing? Bizarre. I must be missing something here. On a later trip we saw a first-class car that offered slightly more room, but I found it hard to justify the huge increase in fare.

Poland faces a declining population—not a fall in the birth rate but an absolute decline in the number of those who live here. Twenty years ago 38.5 million people lived in Poland; today only 38 million people. Reason? Emigration. Millions of Poles have left to work elsewhere. And few immigrate to Poland.

Poles have few children, also contributing to the population decline. A Polish school teacher we met told us she was fired because the state closed her school. In my experience public school teachers around the world have guaranteed jobs. They get transferred rather than fired. Poland must be an exception where fewer and fewer children leads to school closures.

Saying “thank you” to a waiter, in whatever language you speak, can mean “keep the change,” even if you’re due quite a large sum.

On long-distance trains the bar car offers air conditioning and the most comfortable seats. Yet except for Vicki and me, no one rode there. Now and again someone would enter, order a Coke or whatever, and drink it. But then he/she promptly left. Most of the time Vicki and I were alone in the comfortable surroundings.

Poles follow rules. At crosswalks they wait for the green light even with no cars in sight. They pay their fares on buses, which run the fare box on the honor system, with spot checks. Eight-year-old kids must prove their age before conductors will permit under-18 travel. Without ID they get fined, even if they’re small children who obviously meet the rules.

Poles climb stairs. Museums, hotels, train stations, and more provide only stairs to get up and down. Vicki and I travel with smallish backpacks; we each carry our own stuff. We can walk up four flights to a hotel room when necessary. But those who pull oversized luggage cases on wheels strain to get up all those stairs. If you’re disabled, with weak legs, you have very limited range.

Taxis linger at airports, train and bus stations, and other tourist sites to rip off travelers. These scammers stay strictly legal, for example, by posting their outrageous fares on the window—in Polish zloties. I’ve run into crooked cabs all over the world. I’m sure you have, too. But in my experience drivers in Poland, and Eastern Europe generally, lead others in the race to unconscionable charges.

Polish banks try to, and often do, convert credit card charges to dollars at a rate of their choosing, between 4% and 20% off the regular bank rate. For example, I ran into ATMs that asked if I wanted to fix my rate in dollars. If you’re careless and click yes, you’ll pay 4% to 20% more for your time in Poland. Ditto at hotels; we were told we MUST accept credit card charges in dollars rather than zloties. We refused and paid instead with cash.

My advice: Never accept a credit card chit in dollars, anywhere in the world, in countries that use other currencies. Insist you want to pay in Polish zloties, or whatever the local currency, like everybody else.

Poland is flat, seemingly blanketed with arable land. We traveled long distances by train and bus and saw fields of beans, corn, and wheat, more or less continuously. Wonderful. Farmers seem to practice low-tech agriculture. We saw little equipment, very few vehicles, and no irrigation.

Our next stop: Ukraine, a war zone. We plan to stay in the far west of Ukraine, more than 800 miles from the fighting between Russians and Ukrainians in the east.

Many people have warned us to stay away.

But I think we’ll go anyway.

More later.

Paul Terhorst

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