Crossing Borders in Schengen

While staying in Munich, we decided to take a day trip to Innsbruck. The beauty of travelling through Europe with a Eurail pass is that it affords one the luxury of making spontaneous plans. The beautiful town of Innsbruck is nestled in lush mountains. Its city centre is buzzing – electric just enough to be jovial, and calm just enough to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds it. Within the day, we managed to cover several touristic hot spots including Nordkette, the cable car that took us to a mountain top, offering panoramic views of the Austrian landscape. By evening, as we stood at the platform, waiting for our delayed train to take us back to Munich, a calm prevailed. We were tired but happy. Innsbruck was worth it. We were tired but happy. We were unaware of the anti-climax that awaited us on board the “Munich express”.

At 10 pm, as our carriage prepared to swoosh past Mannheim, two police officers got on board and demanded our passports. Our green booklets of glory, at that time, lay safely tucked inside our Munich hotel room locker. I began to have a panic attack – hot, hot blood gushing to my face, my limbs becoming lifeless. I had a hard time operating my mobile phone, as I tried showing the police officer our return tickets to Pakistan. It was an act of desperation that bore no fruit. He was in no mood to grant us the benefit of the doubt. We were rudely asked to get off the train. As we made our way towards a container in a park behind the train station – a makeshift police station – the heart pounded vociferously. Our 5 year old was both alert and exhausted. He was holding in tears being mature enough to know that nothing about what was going on, was normal.

A lady officer in the station, we felt, was subtly pleading our case with the officer who brought us in. They were speaking German, so we didn’t know the exact exchanges being made, but he said “Pakistan” furiously several times in his conversation, while she’d look toward our kid time and again. To her, we seemed okay to release. Eventually, a call to our hotel was sanctioned. It was past midnight and the “24-hour” front desk wouldn’t pick up. When they finally did, I patiently explained the situation to them, gave them our room number and locker combination. Following 45 minutes of agony, the officers received emailed scans of our visas and passports.

A taxi was then summoned for us. Of course, the one hour drive through the highways of Germany was on our tab. The lady officer escorted us to the taxi stand, and apologized repeatedly for our sour experience. There was apparently an illegal immigrant problem in the area, and the police there wasn’t equipped with biometric machines. She knew that although bringing us in was within her colleague’s power, not doing so was also an option. Not in so many words, her parting gestures towards us were apologetic in lieu of borderline racist behaviour meted out by him.

All is well that ends well, but we would never want to be in that situation again. Always carry your passports along during cross-border day trips in Europe. Sure, the borders are blurred within the Schengen area, but random checks are a real possibility.

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Europe via Rail or by Air?

A question often put forward by eager travelers planning their first trip to Europe. I am proudly biased in favour of rail travel. Here’s why:

  • European airports are situated outside the city centre. You need to get to the airport at least 2 hours prior to your flight. When you add the time and money it takes to get to the airport in the city of departure and from the next airport to the city of arrival, you will have wasted a lot of time.
  • All central and major stations are situated in city centres. They are easily and cheaply accessible.
  • With train travel, there is no requirement to check-in so you can very easily arrive within 10 minutes of departure time.
  • You can even transit in cities on the way. Just leave your luggage at a locker facility on the station, step out to roam the city, and then, catch a later train for your final destination.
  • Seeing Europe by rail also allows you the flexibility of keeping your schedule spontaneous. Buy tickets (or supplements, if required with your Eurail pass) when at the station. For most routes – especially within one country – this is very doable. It keeps the element of surprise alive.
  • For longer routes, it is also possible to take a night train. These will offer flat beds. Since those won’t be as expensive as a hotel room, by next morning, you will have saved money and welcomed a new dawn, a new city.
  • Budget airlines have extremely stingy luggage rules and limitations. With train travel, the weight and/or dimensions of your bags and accessories, are not a hindrance.
  • Eurail pass holders, do not forget that you get perks (like hotel discounts) and complimentary ferry / cruise travel. Be sure to check what is on offer.

Have we missed something? Please use the comments section below.