As I’ve previously mentioned, I love trains. Trains are generally more comfortable and relaxing than alternate modes of transportation, and often also more reliable and safe. Overnight trains provide not only the fun of sleeping comfortably in a moving vehicle, but can save time even compared to plane travel. Since I like taking trains, I always try to incorporate train rides in my trips (for that matter, I like incorporating as many modes of transit as possible in my trips–but trains especially).
Booking overseas train tickets, however, can be difficult. Booking air tickets is, of course, quite easy (even if finding the best fare can be tricky)–you can book through online websites such as travelocity, go through a travel agent or go directly to the airline’s website or office (airlines often seem to have offices all over, including in cities to which they do not fly, for whatever reason).
I have been planning a trip to Indonesia (I leave for Jakarta on Friday) and wanted to travel by train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, an eastward trip on Java that is an almost perfect overnight distance. How to do it? First, I consulted http://www.seat61.com/, which is by far the most comprehensive and user-friendly website on trains worldwide. Not only does the site include descriptions and useful links for what seems like every single long-distance train system in the world, but it often includes other useful information such as schedules and fares for popular routes. All put together by a Brit named Mark Smith, who runs the site as a hobby!
seat61’s Indonesia page provided me with a great start: the address of the official website of the Javanese train system PT Kerata Api (which is available in English), descriptions of major train stations and classes of travel, and schedules of a couple key routes.
Because the page did not include the trains I needed (and one man can’t be expected to keep schedule information current across his entire site), I searched the timetables on PT Kerata Api’s website. The search showed that there was a train from Jakarta’s Kota station to Yogyakarta at 17:15, arriving at 01:04 and later trains from Jakarta’s Gambir station at 20:00 (arriving 02:54) and 20:45 (arriving 04:47). I knew that Kota and Gambir were the two main Jakarta stations from seat61. Clearly, I wanted to depart as late as possible, to enjoy the evening in Jakarta and to avoid a middle-of-the-night arrival. I could not, however, figure out how to book tickets on the website (very few train systems outside of the first world allow for easy online booking for non-locals, I’ve found).
The next step was to contact a local travel agent. I chose Nusa Global, which was strongly recommended by guidebooks and located conveniently to the hotel I was planning to book. I confirmed the schedule with them (Pedro was very professional and helpful), sent a wire according to their instructions with an understanding that I would make up any shortfall/receive any surplus upon arrival and received confirmation that the tickets were waiting for my pickup.
Of course, booking train tickets this way results in some extra cost (possible agent commissions, wire fees), but given my like of trains, our relatively tight schedule and not wanting to get stuck in Jakarta an extra day, it was an easy choice.