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You can effectively extend a touring holiday of Europe by several days and perhaps save money. To do it you need a Eurail pass and a little forward planning.
This is how it works. With a Eurail Pass you can go from city center to city center in Europe in great comfort at a reasonable price.
The key to this is the phrase 'city center to city center'. Consider Paris. The airport, Charles de Gaulle, is 23 km north-east of Paris. If you go by taxi in either direction it costs the national debt and takes 45 minutes. There are regular buses and trains but your journey is never going to be less than 45 minutes. Leaving, you have security to go through and the airlines would like you there well before take-off. At least an hour, sometimes two hours.
Thus on any flight you find that as much as six hours, never less than four, are spent getting to the airport, checking in, flying, getting there and collecting your luggage. Then getting to the center of your destination.
By train, in every capital in Europe (I have searched and found no exception) you arrive in the center of the city.
Yes, you need to be at the train station ten minutes before the train leaves -- make it fifteen minutes to be on the safe side -- and when you get to your destination it is instant arrival. Your baggage is with you and you are there, bang in the center of the city. To test this stay with Paris for the moment.
At Easter -- one of the busiest times of the year for Paris -- I arrived at Gare de L'Est, one of the main stations of Paris. In the station was the tourist help desk -- every station in Europe has a help desk.
There I explained what I wanted -- an inexpensive (as in under 50 Euros a night) room in a hotel near Place Republique with a view over the rooftops of Paris. And I got it confirmed in ten minutes and went happily on my way. (In passing, it was the most romantic room I have ever had in a hotel anywhere and this was Paris in the spring and the chestnuts were in bloom and, alas, I was alone.)
On this trip I traveled from Salerno in Sicily right through Italy and then France, on to Spain to Barcelona to wonder at the work of Gaudi, back to Greece and then up again to Germany to Mainz. I had a lot of ground to cover and this was the best and least expensive and most pleasurable way. I saved a lot of time and a lot of money.
(And, if you are interested in old motorcycles you should know that I spent my birthday touring Sicily on a 350cc Royal Enfield which was an exact replica of the sixties model but made in Madras. I could have hired the 500 cc model but thought that going a bit over the top.)
You will typically only be dealing with relatively short travel times -- Paris to Lyon is two hours, Amsterdam to Cologne three hours, Geneva to Paris three-and-a-half hours and so on -- and these will be pleasurable experiences because the trains are fast, comfortable (especially in first class) and wonderfully quiet.
The best example of the modern trains of Europe are the TGV trains of France, which are part of the EuroCity network.
I am writing this while I travel on the TGV express -- TGV stands for Train a Grande Vitesse which translates, roughly, as high speed train -- from Paris to Avignon. The quietness -- we are running on rubber tyres -- is eerie. This is first class, and there is a three seat configuration in the carriage -- two and one. I am in the single seat, which is adjustable and comfortable.
There is a tip-down table, on which rests my computer.
We are now nipping through the suburbs of Paris at more than 200 kilometres an hour. We will eventually reach our maximum cruise speed, which is more than 270 kilometres an hour. There is no sway, no rattle, no lurch, no jerk.
A gentleperson's conveyance for the grand tour of Europe.
For trains between big cities, the best bets are the super fast name trains like (ah ! the romance in the names) Catalan Tago, Maria Theresa, Voltaire, Leonardo da Vinci, Etoile du Nord. These are very fast and are almost never late.
Sometimes you will use the train only as high-speed, economical and comfortable transport, but at other times the train ride can be a sightseeing trip as well.
Bernina Express in Switzerland, the Bergen Express in Norway, the Loisirail in France are examples where the journey is part of the scenic holiday.
Important points to remember:
• Bear in mind that Europeans very sensibly use a 24-hour clock in matters of this sort. That is: five o'clock in the afternoon becomes 1700 hours and half-past nine in the evening is 2130. Easy once you get the hang of it.
• As you start your train journeys you need to have your Eurailpass validated, for which you will have to show your passport. Do it before you get on any train at the information window of any largish railway station. You will be given back your ticket and a validation slip.
• Keep your validation slip separate from the ticket. It constitutes proof of ownership. (If you are a worry wart like me, make a photocopy of both straight away and remember to keep the copy in the lining of your suitcase.)
• Make sure you go to the right station. Every city in Europe has several different railway stations. This TGV train I am riding started from Gare de Lyon in Paris. But there are six other mainline train stations in that city of light. The concierge at your hotel will advise you.
• When you get to the station make sure you get on the right platform and into the right car. The signs are always very clear and railway staff are always most helpful. There will be a board confirming the name, number and time of departure of the train at the entrance to the platform when you get there.
• Getting into the right car, as opposed to the right train, is essential; in modern trains it is the car that is sent by computer control to its destination. On the side of every car is an identification panel that tells you the number of the car, where the car is heading and the names of the most important stops on the way. Check the panel carefully and, if you are still in doubt, show your ticket to the conductor of the train and explain exactly where you are going.
• Limits. An Eurail pass is for x number of journeys over a given period of time. Do not waste the pass on short trips.
Example: I was in Nice and had to go to Cannes. I went by train and bought a ticket. You do not waste your Eurail Pass on journeys on trips that take less than an hour.
• Ubiquity. Every station seems to have a Eurail booking desk. Be organized and try and book as far ahead as you can if you want a sleeper. These trains do get fully booked, especially during the holiday season, and the earlier you book, the more certain you are of getting the right train.
• Sleep on the train. If it is a very long journey take the evening train and sleep on board. On a first class Eurail tickets the sleeper is part of the package.
This has great advantages. It saves you the cost of one night's accommodation and it gets what could be a longish journey over in considerable comfort and style. For example, I went from Salerno in Sicily right up the leg of Italy to Genoa and did it on a night train and slept like a baby.
One has to be careful.
There is a story about a passionate young couple who used their sleeper not for sleeping. In a moment of ecstasy the young lady hung on like mad to the nearest object. Sadly, it was the emergency stop communication cord.
• If possible, take your own snacks. There was a thought in my mind that food on European trains would be a gourmet's delight. In my experience, it is very far from that. On the other hand, almost all station restaurants serve good food at very reasonable prices provided you stay away from the fast food chains.
• Get the right stop. As you come into a city make sure you do not get off at a suburban stop which is, typically, the stop before the central station. If in doubt, ask the ticket inspector or the guard. No need to be able to speak the language. Just show your ticket and they will tell you what to do.
• Travel light. If you cannot easily carry your baggage you are stuffed. Porters do not exist. Not at any station I have ever seen.
• Use all of the pass. When planning your itinerary, be bold. You can go from Greece to Oslo and pretty much everywhere else in between.
• Not the UK. All of this applies to Europe except for Britain. A Eurail Pass does not work there. Britain is not part of Europe. Whatever made you think otherwise?
Sites which can help
It claims, correctly, that it is the only official Eurail site. This is true. But it is not the only site that can give you information. And it is certainly not the only site that can sell you tickets. It does, however, make a very good starting point because from here you can sort out potential timings and itineraries.
This is not the official site but it might just as well be considered as such. There is nothing about Eurail that it does not know.
Europe by Eurail
Again, this is a commercial firm selling tickets but that does not stop it having a load of useful information on the site.
Boots 'n All Travel
Would you buy a ticket from a company with a name like that? Let us not be snobbish. It has great expertise on Eurail and its site is very helpful.
Sounds official but it is still a commercial company selling tickets. You will not find much differential in prices between the companies but you will find a wealth of information on sites such as this and work out the most economical pass for your particular trip.
About the Author
Gareth Powell is a publisher, journalist and author. His travel writings are mainly on http://www.travelhopefully.com.
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