Rail travel is a good alternative to flying because it often allows you to depart from the centre of a city, travel at speed to your next destination, and arrive at the very centre. Flying means airports!!
I just hate modern airports, don’t you? You have to get there, queue and fight over baggage limits at check in, go through all the security, walk miles to the gate, be crammed into a small seat, fed rubbish food, arrive at your destination, and then even more hassle and expense to finally get to your hotel. A simple 1 hour flight between two major cities can take up the best part of a day. And travelling long distances by intercity coach is slow and just plain boring.
So if you have a distance to travel and there is a good high speed train option then why not use it? It will be less hassle than a flight, and may even save you money. Furthermore, to quote Mark Smith, The Man in Seat Sixty-One, “A train journey is an experience, an integral part of your visit/holiday, whereas with a flight, your holiday is put on ‘pause’ while you shift your posterior from one place to the next.” Mark’s website is by far the best on the internet for rail information as well as booking rail travel, and I thank him for some of the info in my blog. Thinking of travelling by rail? Then a visit to The Man in Seat Sixty-One is essential.
Do you know that by intercity fast train you can travel from London to Paris, be there for lunch, and enjoy dinner in Nice, Milan or Barcelona? You can travel from Moscow to St Petersburg, 750 km in just 4 hours, 1300 km from Beijing to Shanghai in just over 5 hours, and the 340km from New York to Washington in just 3 hours 20 minutes. And the prices will please you.
Alternatively, your reason for choosing rail may be to travel on one of the world’s scenic or great epic rail journeys, purely for the experience – but more about that later. Let’s now look at the travelling independently by rail and what that may entail. Her are a few useful tips.
Fitness. You don’t have to be super fit for rail travel, but if you have mobility problems you will have to choose your journeys very carefully so that you only travel on sectors which cater for those less mobile. And perhaps give some thought to booking a meet and greet service in advance, so that when you do alight from the train there is someone to look after the luggage and drive you to your hotel. It could be money well spent. You can often find yourself with a long walk getting to or from your carriage.
Overpasses can be another challenge, requiring you to carry your luggage up and down lots of steps to reach your platform. I have found this quite common on stations in the UK with no lifts or escalators in sight. And in Beijing, the pedestrian bridge to cross the 6 lane highway to get to the station to board the Trans Mongolian train was quite a challenge with my luggage!
Luggage. Clearly, if a considerable amount of rail travel is involved, keep the maximum number of pieces to two each (including handbag). And of course keep the size manageable and not too heavy. This is all common sense but often ignored.
Lifting luggage on and off trains can be a challenge when there can be large gaps and big step ups. When boarding a train from Kiev to Simferopol (Crimea) with a very heavy suitcase, I was so pleased that our large transfer driver had come right to the carriage where a big lift was involved! In countries like Switzerland it is not a problem, but getting on and off can be a challenge on many of the world’s railways.
Storage of large luggage on a daytime journey will normally involve placing it at the end of the carriage in dedicated racks, so it is always a good idea to be one of the first to board. Some modern trains now also have storage in the middle of each carriage so look out for that – can be useful. Sometimes large luggage can be stored between the backs of seats. Hand luggage can normally go above your head on racks, but keep valuables like passports, iphones, laptops etc with you in the seat.
When travelling overnight, you need your luggage in the compartment with you, so if you are sharing with strangers in, say, a 4-berth on the epic Trans Siberian, that can be interesting. You could occasionally be sleeping with your luggage! Personally, when travelling overnight, I like to have my own compartment for both comfort and security. For pictures and compartment plans of various trains try going to The Man in Seat Sixty-One.
Tickets and booking. For short trips on local trains, as in Australia, you buy your ticket at the station and cannot prebook. But when you are including a number of rail sectors into a holiday itinerary, the question is whether to buy/book individual sectors or buy a rail pass like Eurail or Amtrak. Here is some advice/guidelines as to how to choose.
Sector fares. If you are looking at just a few relatively short trips – Bruges to Brussels, London to Bath, even New York to Boston, then just purchasing a ticket for each trip, even at the station, often will be much less expensive than buying a pass which can be costing AUD 100 a day or more. A rail pass is not compulsory!
Importantly, if you can decide on a date and time for a rail sector a couple of months before travelling, then an advance–purchase fare, normally booked on the site of the rail company, can offer at least 25% saving and often much more. But look out for strict conditions – you may not be able to change the ticket in any way once issued for a particular date/time.
If you look for off–peak times of the day, and stay away from public holidays, you can find the very cheap rail fares even on some longer all day journeys. And, if you are advancing in years, sometimes there are Seniors’ fares.
Rail Passes. Eurail is the most commonly known rail pass to Australians, and offers great savings if you are doing considerable rail travel. It can be used across 24 European countries. Seat reservations for passengers with passes are not mandatory in some countries, but are in others – France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Sweden. Also there is a reservation charge ranging from about Euros 3 per seat up to Euros 55 on the Paris to Milan TGV! As well, there are quotas for pass holders on a few trains. Check it all out at The Man in Seat Sixty-One.
Eurail offers a choice of passes. You can buy a continuous pass, which means that once the pass is actioned, you have a fixed numbers of days before it expires, whether you use it each day or not – 15 days, 21 days, 1 month, 2 months, and 3 months. Then there is the flexi pass, which allows 5 days travel in 10 days, 10 days within 2 months and 15 days within 2 months. The latter is great when you are going to be doing quite a number of rail sectors. It’s useful for multiple stops if you don’t know how long you will be staying at each.
Eurail is also priced according to the number of people travelling, with reductions when 2 to 5 adults travel together – also there is a 60+ Saver pass for Seniors. Often children under 12 travel free with adult pass holders.
So, when deciding whether to buy the Eurail pass or not, set out your itinerary, then check online what it may cost buying in sectors well in advance. Then compare with the cost of a pass, keeping in mind its flexibility, and the option of 1st class travel at not much more. You’ll find The Man in Seat Sixty-One very, very useful in giving you the various price options. He also suggests that for Italy and Eastern Europe the Eurail pass may not be the best way to go as you can purchase lots of cheap intercity fares.
The Amtrak USA Pass works differently in that it limits the traveller to a maximum number of segments within a fixed time period – 15 day (8 segments), 30 day (12 segments) and 45 day (18 segments). And pre-booking is mandatory. The Man in Seat Sixty–One has done the maths and suggests that unless you are doing at least 8 fairly long haul sectors, it is probably cheaper to just buy individual tickets.
Many countries have their own individual passes. The Swiss system is legendary as a leader in rail travel, and offers excellent passes which pay for themselves with just a few trips. Choose between the Swiss Travel Pass with unlimited travel on consecutive days, and the Swiss Travel Flexi non-consecutive pass. For the former, in first class, an 8 day pass is AUD 780, and for the latter in first class 8 days in a month pass is AUD 950. They also offer 50% discount on buses and boats, as well as most mountain railways and cable cars. Reservations on the intercity trains are generally unnecessary – just hop on and off. However, reservations are definitely advised on the popular Bernina Express, Chocolate train, Glacier Express and Wilhelm Tell Express.
Finally, the Britrail Pass is very familiar to many travellers, and also offers both continuous and flexipasses. But there is also just an England pass, and also a South-West pass. There are first class and second class passes, and discounts for Seniors, youths (under 25), children, and 3 adults travelling together.
So check out the passes to see if they will work for you.
That’s an introduction to rail travel, and in later blog I’ll look at some of the great rail journeys of the world – look out for it..
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