What we have learned so far.
To set up a journey like this takes a bit of organising. Nothing like a trip across the Antarctic wastes, but a bit more than a package deal with Thompsons. If you are thinking of doing something similar remember that your best ally is The Man In Seat 61. His website is packed with masses of essential advice on rail travel anywhere in Europe.
Next is to decide whether to buy a rail pass or individual tickets. To do this you will need to check prices for everything en route. This is tricky. Firstly, the rail passes still require you to buy reservations for every single trip, or part of a journey. These are cheap in some places, not in others. The costs can mount up significantly, meaning that what looks like a bargain at first, becomes much less attractive. The cost of a rail pass depends on which you can buy and residents in Europe have access to both the InterRail Pass and the Eurail Pass. Those outside the EU are restricted to the Eurail Pass. There is a bewildering matrix of passes, global, one country, limited to numbers of days or numbers of trips within a specified limit of time. Another factor is that access to scheduled train journeys seems to be restricted for pass holders. If the numbers wanting to travel exceeds a quota, you may find you can’t get a reservation.
Buying individual tickets might be the cheaper option. However, you can spend ages trying to work this out based on the cheapest tickets available on various websites, only to find that when you try to book those deals, the train is full, not running, or as I found, the price switches up and down as you navigate the various options. Some of the cheapest fares you see on websites are only available for a few minutes. Fail to book immediately and they may disappear to be replaced by standards fares. When trying to book one leg of our trip I discovered that refreshing the page brought the price down again, but not to the discounted price first offered.
Even when you have sorted out the legs of your rail journey, you have to find your accommodation to fill in the gaps. Of course, you may be prepared to stay in hostels, or take your chances by turning up and taking pot luck. The danger here is that like us, you find an event going on during your stay that makes the cheapest hotel £4000 a week. It is a bit difficult to get around, if you have booked train tickets either side of your time there.
The simple answer is to get some help. There is lots of advice telling you to avoid booking charges, but what we found was the charges are well worth paying if it removes the hassle of rejigging and reworking all of your arrangements to get all the bits of the jigsaw to fit together. We used Rail-Europe to organise ticket buying and Avios to book hotels. The reason for using Avios was that we had lots of ‘air miles’ to use and these can be exchanged for Eurostar tickets as well as hotels. I have since discovered that Nectar points can also be used for Eurostar.
Having now been on the trip, we ought to add some of the things we have learned by doing it.
The long days train journeys were exciting, but getting up at 4 o’clock and sitting on a train in the dark was not the best part of this. We chose mostly daytime rail travel so that we would be able to see the countryside we travelled through. In February, daylight begins later and ends a lot earlier than in midsummer, so we didn’t enjoy the landscape for several hours of the journey on these long days. We might as well have been asleep. In view of this, next time we would limit travel to daylight hours as much as possible and stop at more places.
The benefits of extra sunlight in February can hardly be exaggerated. We felt so much healthier after weeks in the Mediterranean. If you want to save money for the NHS, take yourself off for a few days in sunshine. It doesn’t need to be sunny really, just more daylight.
The idea of a connected world is still illusory. You will struggle to maintain contact and remain solvent unless you are able to afford large roaming data charges for using your phone/tablet. You could get a SIM card just for the trip, but you will still have to pay international charges when your family call you asking where you are. Wifi is neither universal, nor cheap. Trains don’t all have it. Hotels usually have it, but you may have to pay and still find reception difficult or non existent. Wireless hotspots can be found in many cities, but these often cost as much as hotels. €5 per day would still be expensive, but if you are on the move, paying this each time you transfer to the next hotspot is prohibitive. What I did was to use cafes, after all I only needed a couple of hours and instead of paying for wifi, I paid for coffee and a seat. Which I would have bought anyway at some point. Most expensive wifi? Virgin trains.
The Czechs make the best hot chocolate. Don’t know why, but they do. The question is why others do it so badly. Some people, like the museum in Genoa, tried hard but didn’t quite manage to get it right. The most obvious place to start is not to use powder in sachets, or tins. The Czechs make it from lumps of real chocolate from a bar. I appreciate that a machine in a station platform is not going to break up a bar of chocolate and melt it with hot milk into a plastic cup, but if they can get machines in cafes to grind up coffee beans they can get them to snap a couple of lumps off a bar of 80% plain chocolate and stir in some hot full cream milk. They don’t have to froth it up add extra cream or flakes of milk chocolate, just deliver it so thick you have to spoon it out after failing to reach the bottom of the mug with your tongue. Oh, and a tissue to wipe the ring of chocolate from around your mouth and nose.
Smokers will risk anything to get a few puffs of nicotine when they are on a TGV. The sight of people standing inside the train doors waiting to get off and inhale carcinogenic fumes is commonplace on these journeys. By some little piece of magic they manage to get off, light up and be leaning nonchalantly against the outside of the train before the doors are fully open. It is as if they managed to hitch a lift on the stale air that is exhaled by the carriage as the doors slide open. Groups of them huddle together on the platform assisting each other in getting lit up like passengers on a doomed aircraft might help others pull down the oxygen mask. Pity for them that they know this life giving treat is to be severely curtailed, because after only a few puffs they hear the tannoy message that the automatic doors are about to close. And so, up to a dozen, not quarter-used cigarettes are either squeezed or stamped out as the herd stampedes back aboard the train. Until the next stop, when they will do it all again.
Sometimes, the reason you don’t appreciate something, is because you are not attuned to it. Being constantly on the go makes your mind work at that particular rhythm. You get used to moving and negotiating obstacles, getting what you need without holdup to your itinerary. It’s a law of motion; a kind of inertia, that keeps you in the flow with everyone around you. It is a good thing. It keeps you inside the herd, protected. When you slow down or stop, it takes a while for the feeling, that you should be catching up, or getting hold of something instantly, because otherwise you will fall behind and get eaten, to subside. When it does, you find yourself in synch with your inner sloth and much more likely to fall in with the culture around you. You still see people rushing around like you were a while ago, only now you find their need to be always getting somewhere, being busy, as vaguely irritating. Now you wish they could, like you, enjoy watching the sun go down, the tide ebb, the froth settle. They would be happier for it. Normally, this adjustment, when you kickback and conform to your surroundings takes the first week of your annual vacation. By the time it does, you are already mentally preparing for your return to the normality of your life. What happened to us is that we stayed in the relaxed mode, even when travelling, to the point where simply driving was a wrench back into an unnecessarily hyperactive mode of travel and behaviour we had tuned ourselves out of. The downside was how much harder it was to retune to our rhythm of life back home. But it did mean we could laugh about the delays on the Virgin West Coast train instead of wanting to punch Richard Branson, as I have wanted to do most times when I use his train service.
There are differing attitudes to drinking on trains. In some parts of Europe, people have a drink in the restaurant car with a meal, or even with their family having a picnic at their table in coach. In others, I’m thinking the UK, the idea is to see how much you can pour down your neck and then review on the seat beside you as you slump in an alcoholic stupor, giving your mates the chance to consume the rest of your share of the stash and take pictures of you in humiliating poses involving some nudity, to post online. This is a cultural marker not fully explained by the price differential of a unit of alcohol in each country. We suggest leaving train travel in Britain after the pubs open at the weekend to those who wish to render themselves unconscious in the least time possible, short of opening a window and sticking their heads out.
There is an optimum amount of stuff to carry with you on a train journey. Unlike air travel this is not limited by the imperative to achieve a balance between the amount of fuel required to lift the contents of the aircraft off the runway and complete the journey and the weight of the fuel and content that would prevent it from flying anywhere. Nor is it restricted by such vagaries as the amount of profit Ryanair needs to make from charging for everything except the air you fly through. In most instances it is down to your own ability to impersonate a pack animal and the not inconsiderable matter of finding space to put your bag when you get on board. We overpacked by taking about a months clothes for every kind of climate eventuality. I even had two pairs of swimming trunks, one for France where they don’t like shorts in public pools and one for elsewhere in case they objected to my budgie smugglers. I wore neither. It was February. We used our winter wear in Prague and then had to carry it for twenty two days and brought most of it back unworn. We did reduce our clothing pile a little bit by taking old clothes to wear travelling. These we left behind at the next stop. So our suitcases had a space where pants, socks and tights started off, but if you discount the holes already in them, the difference is not that much. We each carried one suitcase and one backpack. One suitcase and backpack gave up on us, so next time we will buy a proper suitcase with wheels and reduce the amount of clothing, so that we either take only one suitcase, or lose a backpack.
We have more ideas for journeys we are dying to do, than we have either time or money to permit.
We will plan our trips better, pack more efficiently, try and make the experience more responsive to circumstance, allow a bit of serendipity to control our itinerary. We are, in our heads at least, already criss-crossing the USA, climbing the Alps in the glacier train, rolling into Goa on the Golden Chariot or on the Himalayan Queen to Shimla in India, perhaps aboard the Copper Canyon railway in Mexico even if we have not yet worked out how to get to the starting point without taking a climate battering plane ride. We will get to some of these places somehow and I might even find time to write and take pictures.
Thank you for reading any of this. And especially to those who have taken time to comment.