I’ve just got back from an extended rail trip which was wonderful and I’d like to share with anyone who would like to hear, how to go about this really enjoyable activity.
First you have to be flexible (both mentally and physically) and optimistic. Secondly it helps if you enjoy planning and don’t feel completely spooked when all your plans seem to fall about your ears.
That said, this is something that everyone should try. I began by deciding where I wanted to arrive at the end of my trip. For me, this time, it was Greece. Over the years I have visited Greece many times and the worst part of it for me was always the airport and the associated driving to airport, queuing for flights, crowded and tight-fitting aircraft and all that goes with them. I had become totally disenchanted with all the paraphernalia that goes with flying, and now the cheap airlines have become the sneaky, charge-you-for-anything-we-like airlines, I just felt disinclined to use one.
So I went for rail travel and so could you. To begin with you need to take Eurostar to Paris ore Brussels. I use my Airmiles, earned by shopping with Tesco, to buy the ticket, but it really isn’t terribly expensive if you actually have to come up with hard cash. I guess it costs about as much as a week’s airport parking. Then I went to a wonderful website started by a rail enthusiast who calls himself the man in seat 61. If you Google this you will find a wonderful resource for travel by train. Here is all the information you could possibly want on rail travel anywhere in the world. I went to the section on railpasses and selected the one I wanted.
But railpasses are just for teenagers doing their gap year, aren’t’ they? No – now anyone can have one. They run from 5 days during a set period, 10 in 20 days and a full month and can be limited to one country or to a very large section of Europe and Scandinavia., which includes such countries as Poland, Serbia – but not, sadly, Russia (yet). You set the area you want to cover and the time you have for travel and it’s very east to buy online.
Then, consulting the same site, you can plan your route and reserve seats on your chosen train. This runs from a few euros to a lot more of you want a sleeper, or some kind of sleeping accommodation. Balance the price of this with a hotel room and you will find it’s fairly comparable. If you usually star in hostels then a bed in a six-berth compartment compares really well with a hostel bed. Yes, it’s pretty cramped – but you’re asleep most of the time. Then you make the right contacts, reserve your seats/beds and get ready for the off.
Now, what to take? Well, luggage. Don’ t take too much. You have to carry it, and who will see that you are wearing the same skirt and shirt as yesterday? Clean underwear takes up very little space, and is kind of useful, of course. And get insurance – nothing fancy, but get some. Don’t forget your medical insurance card, free for EU members. Take simple things like painkillers, moisturizer and sun cream – you won’t be on the train all the time.
It’s a wonderful way to travel, to meet people and to relax. You can move up and down the train, carry your own food or risk what’s available on the train – which in some cases in Eastern Europe is nothing but drinks. You can get off and spend a day somewhere and get back on for a night’s rest – and you don’t have to book all this in advance. If you just book your first couple of trips then you can be far more flexible later. You can make reservations at all major railway stations – and you don’t need them for many local trains, on;y for the special extra speed or inter-country trains. A European railpass covers certain ferries for nothing – for example, my global pass covered the ferries between Greece and Italy. You just pay port taxes, and maybe a summer supplement.
If you are travelling at peak times it pays to sort out at least some reservations – certainly the one back into Paris or Brussels which connects with Eurostar is a vital reservation. Of course most people will end up at one of those stations and demand is high. Also, if you miss your Eurostar and it’s your own fault, they won’t be obliged to replace your ticket. And one last thing. Railpasses for Europeans do not operate in their own country – that’s why we need to pay for Eurostar. There are railpasses for non-Europeans too – all details on that same website. Happy travelling! Take photos – record your trip – each train journey will be different and all will be great! Oh, and don’t expect perfection. Keep telling yourself, as the train is held up for one reason or another, ‘I am not sitting in a tin can up in the air in some holding pattern.’ It’s a different kind of freedom.