I’m going to note here some of the resources we’ve found useful in planning the trip.
Firstly I have to mention the remarkable Man in Seat Sixty-One website. This is run by Mark Smith, an individual rail travel enthusiast, who has collected together an enormous amount of helpful information about travelling by rail in Europe (and beyond). As he says about the site:
First, it sets out to HELP people who already know they want to travel by train or ship, but who can’t find out about it through normal commercial websites or travel agencies. Many people prefer the experience of train travel, are afraid of flying, or simply want to avoid unnecessary flights for environmental reasons, but information can often be difficult if not impossible to find. Second, it aims to INSPIRE people to do something more rewarding with their lives and their travel opportunities than going to an airport, getting on a globalised airliner and missing all the world has to offer. There’s more to travel than the destination. It used to be called a j o u r n e y …
There are sections devoted to each of the main European countries, with suggestions of the best routes and times for getting there by train from the UK. Also a comprehensive section on rail passes, info about Eurostar, and lots more. This site should definitely be your first stop if you’re researching a train trip round Europe. (There’s also quite a lot of info about train travel outside Europe.)
Rail passes: as the Man in Seat 61 (MS61) makes clear, rail passes aren’t necessarily the best deal (particularly for us over-26 ageing hippies). The pass looks like it could be a bargain, but you must remember that for almost all long-distance/international express trains, there will be a supplement to pay. (You could, with the help of your trusty Thomas Cook — see below — plan you journey to avoid trains with supplements, but it would be very slow. Great if you want to see lots of countryside, but not if you want to get to Greece in a reasonable time.) If you’re travelling on overnight trains, the pass doesn’t include the cost of the couchette (courgette as Callum calls it) or sleeper, which can be quite pricey. Taking all this into account, my spreadsheet calculations did seem to agree with MS61: it was actually slightly cheaper to buy a series of point-to-point tickets. The advantage of the rail pass of course is that it gives you flexibility — you can change your plans at a moment’s notice, stay longer somewhere you like, or move hurriedly on. So in the end we decided to go for the rail passes.
There are various type of pass, and again MS61 explains the options very clearly. We went for the Interrail Global pass, which covers all countries in Europe (except the country you’re starting from). We got the pass which allows 10 days travel within a 22 day period, which seemed to fit our holiday very well. What MS61 doesn’t tell you is that you can buy the passes from various companies, and the prices seem to vary quite considerably! We paid €359 (about £329 back in May) for the adult passes at InterRailnet.Com, but I saw other websites asking as much as £455 for the same pass. So shop around before you buy!
The next difficulty was actually making the reservations to go with the Interrail passes. We thought that we should at least start by reserving our overnight couchette from Paris to Venice, since it seems likely that will be very busy in the middle of July. There are plenty of websites where you can buy train tickets online (again see MS61 for detailled recommendations), but very few of them allow you to make only the reservations. International Rail claims to be able to do this, but the online booking part of the site has been down every since I first tried in in mid-May. So we went into the booking office at Waverley Station (main railway station in Edinburgh for those who aren’t from around here) to see if we could make reservations there. “Oh no, we haven’t done that for quite a few years now…” the woman at the counter said, helpfully giving us the details of a travel agent who specialised in such arcane matters (the travel agent’s leaflet had of course been brought in by a customer, and the bookings staff had resourcefully kept a copy to photocopy on such occasions). Presumably the international bookings service wasn’t profitable enough so became another victim of British railway privatisation… Apparently you can make these reservations at any main station elsewhere in Europe — we shall see soon enough. Eventually I admitted defeat and phoned up Rail Europe who happily and efficiently make my reservation and charged me an £8 booking fee for the privilege.
The Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable is the interrailer’s vade mecum, the train geek’s holy scripture, the armchair traveller’s book of dreams, apotheosis of the golden Victorian age of steam. The Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian, the West Highland Line — all have rolled through these pages. The neophyte will tentatively taste the glossy-covered Independent Traveller’s Edition (with feature on railpasses, checklists for packing, and country-by-country advice on such handy matters as climate and tipping); the hard-core devotee will get their fix from the monthly edition, with the latest news (by telegraph we assume) that:
In Lithuania, the service from Vilnius to Kaunas (Table 1811) has been retimed; these serve Kaunas I (‘one’), the temporary station in use due to the closure of the Kaunas tunnel.
Don’t leave home without it! Keep it by your bed at all times in case of sleepless nights. Published monthly since 1883.
Eurostar: this is of course not included in the Interrail. Prices vary greatly, but if you book well enough in advance, and are flexible about when you can travel, it is fairly easy to get the advertised £59 London to Paris return fares. (Child fares are, strangely, more than this, so just get the same ticket for the kids.)
Greek ferries: The inter-island ferry schedules are highly complex (reasonably enough, since there are so many islands) and they seem to keep changing. But there are several websites which seem to give good information (we’ll see next week how well the virtual ferries correspond to the real world: does that overnight boat from Kimilos to Piraeus on Friday night really exist?). The most useful seem to be danae.gr and Greek Travel Pages. You can book tickets online as well as looking up timetables, but we’re just going to buy tickets at the port since the prices seem to be the same.
Travel insurance: I don’t have anything particularly interesting to recommend here. We bought ours from Direct Travel in the end — they seemed to offer reasonable cover for a reasonable price. In the event that we need them, I’ll report on how good they were. We did think of going with ETA, the Environmental Transport Association, particularly when we saw on the website that they were offering a 25% discount for people who were not flying. It turned out that the discount only applied to annual policies, and the woman on the phone kept assuming we were going by car, which was a wee bit disappointing.
Table 2810: Pescara — Split
NO SERVICE SUMMER 2009
… ah, how poignant!