Planning a Trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau: Independent or Guided?

Last remains of outlined Birkenau concentration camp blocks with brick block in foreground

You don’t decide to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau on a whim, so it’s crucial to make the most of your time there. In my last post I covered the emotional impact of visiting the two camps, but now I’m focusing on the practical side.

Do you want to take the bus, the train, a pre-booked coach trip (with or without a tour included), or would you rather hire a driver? When you arrive, would you prefer to wander alone or join a group? If you’re indecisive, or a bit confused by conflicting opinions from other travellers, take a deep breath, grab a cuppa and we’ll go through the options.

Smiling woman posing inappropriately at Birkenau concentration camp in front of blocks and tracks
The woman on the left was posing for a smiling photo taken by her husband. Please don’t do the same – this isn’t like going to Disneyland, and there’s nothing to smile about. Just out of shot: another woman with a selfie stick. Not even kidding.

Should You Go Independent or Take a Guided Tour?

 When my mum and I went to Sachsenhausen concentration camp a few years ago, we assumed getting a tour guide would be overkill. It was great to explore on our own, but hard to fully understand the camp’s role in  the wider network of KLs (konzentrationslagers) across Nazi-occupied Europe, especially with limited displays and English text at the site.

For example, it was only when I read Sarah Helm’s brilliant study of Ravensbrück, If This Is A Woman, that I realised Sachsenhausen supplied the Ravensbrück inmates’ daily bread ration. Many of the camps were interlinked by prisoner and guard movements, with troublemakers moved around and ambitious SS staff promoted to higher positions at other locations; Ravensbrück tended to be the training ground for Auschwitz guards (again, a fact from Helm’s book).

I did a lot of research and found most people recommended doing a group tour of Auschwitz with an official guide (40PLN per person), then going back on your own later via an individual visitor ticket. If you don’t want the tour, you still need to pre-book a time slot on the official website, but you don’t pay for this.  Find the full FAQs here. Basically the choice is yours, but I’d recommend the tour option, even if you’ve read loads of books about the site already.

Chilling view of Birkenau (Auschwitz II) camp in Poland with train tracks and brick tower
You probably recognise this view. Birkenau’s entrance leads to row upon row of blocks in ruins, then onto the area that once was ‘Canada’ (the warehouses) and the remains of the horrendous gas chambers.

English-Speaking Group Tours of Auschwitz

  • The tour actually takes less time than stated (3.5 hours – ours took about 40 minutes less), but it honestly doesn’t feel rushed. You can ask questions along the way, and dawdle at the spots that move you the most.
  • Try to arrive 15 minutes before your session starts. If you haven’t pre-booked, you might be lucky and find a space available in your chosen language. You go through the entrance for individual visitors (unless you’re a school group), through security checks and then collect headsets, before waiting for your guide past the turnstiles.
  • The headsets mean the guide doesn’t have to shout, which would be weird and intrusive in a place like this. They don’t feel intrusive.
  • You’ll get some invaluable insight from an official guide, and discover things you didn’t know, such as examples of guards who escaped justice despite taking part in the prisoner selections.
  • The guide travels with the group on the shuttle bus to Birkenau, then you continue the tour from there. If you’ve booked private transport, wait for your group at the main entrance to Birkenau (the distinctive one you’ve seen in films and photos).
  • To explore more, book an individual entry ticket ‘without an educator’ for Auschwitz I set to start after your tour has finished. In the case of Birkenau, there are no tickets or checks, so you go straight back in. Visit before 10am and after 4pm for fewer crowds.
Jugs, pots and pans on display in Oswiecim Museum - items taken from Jewish Holocaust victims on arrival in Auschwitz
Just a small selection of the items people brought to Auschwitz, thinking they were being resettled and not sent to their deaths. Pieces like these were used to line the Nazis’ pockets, whilst their owners were cast aside and considered worthless.

General Tips for Visitors

  • The ticket office is a white hut to the right of the main entrance. If, like me, you forgot to print out your pre-paid tickets and your phone won’t load the email attachment (yes, I’m an idiot), you need to go here to retrieve them from the booking system.
  • Read the rules and regulations before you travel – the big one is bag restrictions. Your bag needs to be no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper, and they’re very strict about this. It helps not to carry loads around anyway.
  • Dress appropriately. I saw a woman in leather hotpants and raffia wedges, which was strange enough in winter but also very disrespectful. Besides, you’ll do loads of walking, so any kind of heels are a bad idea: choose trainers or walking boots instead.
  • There are left luggage facilities, cafes and food stalls, and several decent bookshops at the entrance. Toilets cost 1.50PLN.
  • It’s worth buying the small leaflet guide (5PLN), but you don’t really need the map; there are signs everywhere. Otherwise, bring your own Polish guidebook with an Auschwitz-Birkenau section – try the brilliant Kraków, Warsaw & Gdańsk by Rick Steves.
  • Many of the photos you’ll see in the museum are part of the Auschwitz Album, created by SS men and found by prisoner Lili Jacob after she was liberated from the Dora-Mitelbau concentration camp. She donated the album to Yad Vashem in 1980.
Real train carriage on the train tracks beside Auschwitz-Birkenau where victims were unloaded for selection at the camps
Imagine being trapped in this carriage for days on end, before arriving on the Judenrampe and facing the unknown horrors of the camps. There are no words.

Getting to Auschwitz with a Private Driver

I chose a private trip to the camps with Around Krakow, because I didn’t want logistics to dominate our day. For 180PLN per person, or about £36pp, they supply a driver (in our case, the very friendly Martin) who drives you from your hotel to Auschwitz I, takes you through security, delivers you to Birkenau and drops you anywhere in Kraków.

The drive takes about 1 hour 10 minutes from the city and, whilst it’s pricier than booking an organised coach or getting the train, we felt it was important to use the journey to reflect on what we’d seen. You don’t want to leave Birkenau making small talk or fighting someone for a good seat on the trip back. Besides, the train station is a bit of a hike from the museum, and the public buses can sometimes involve standing all the way to Kraków. All buses and coaches leave from Auschwitz I, whereas Martin waited at Birkenau until we were ready.

Martin also showed us an original train carriage and section of track that lies between the two camps: this unloading area was called the Judenrampe. Though it’s covered by the Auschwitz virtual tour online, it isn’t a busy part of the tourist route. Jewish mourners have left pebbles under the carriage in remembrance of lost loved ones. It was strange to see this without the crowds, and even stranger because someone had recently built a house beside the track, which stuck out like a sore thumb. I can’t imagine living next to this place and normalising the view from your window.

Traditional stones laid as a mark of respect for Jews lost in the Holocaust at the Judenrampe, near Auschwitz II
These pebbles were laid to remember victims of the Holocaust; it’s traditional to lay small stones on Jewish graves, but of course there were no respectful burials for their dead under the Nazis. I couldn’t help thinking of all the victims who didn’t leave behind friends and family to lay pebbles for them.

Hopefully you now have a plan for visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, but if you have any questions then just let me know. It’s not a take-it-or-leave-it tourist attraction but a monumentally important place of learning and remembrance, and I really do recommend you witness it.

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