Saturday, October 06, 2007

How to ride the rails in Europe

The Internet is a wonderful tool. You can check the Internet for train schedules and routes and this presents an incredible tool in helping design a travel itinerary. All the guidebooks give the names of the rail companies of all the countries in Europe, Renfe for Spain, SNCF for France, British rail for England and Trenitalia for Italy. I've found this to be invaluable every time I make up my travel plans. There are agents for these companies here in the US. I've used both of them, BETS and Raileurope. One can purchase the myriad of rail passes from these two companies, not only that they publish their own guide and is available to everyone and when you call, at least this is true of Bets (I've called them before), they are a rich source of information about using the railway system in Europe. They are very knowledgeable about train travel in Europe.
The system is huge, especially with the formation of the EU, Italian trains roll right into France, German trains roll right into Amsterdam, Spanish trains enter into French border towns, it is really amazing. . These are fast trains too. Within any country there are a myriad of different trains, fast and the slow milk trains that stop at every town. Once I'm in Europe I'll be using the trains primarily, I usually go the day before I need to travel (to the station) to check out the schedule and to buy my ticket, this way I know when to go to the station the day of travel and I know the duration of the trip and the stops and if I need to change trains anytime.
1) check Internet for schedule and routes while planning trip.
2) agents in US - Bets or Raileurope
3) Rail pass or point to point, - it depends, lately I seem to prefer point to point, preferring to purchase train tickets while in Europe, but sometimes you have to make advance purchases, like the next trip, when I go to Paris from Catania, I shall be taking the TGV from Charles de Gaulle airport and head down to Lyon. I have my tickets mailed to me by Raileurope, so I have my train tickets already even as we speak.
4) different trains, fast and slow, check in host city.
5) find accommodation near the train station, Let's Go is good at giving addresses and contact for rooms near train station, for this reason my preferred guide book is Let's Go. These are usually cheap rooms but sometimes a 3-star hotel is necessary with a 24-hour concierge- if you have an early flight, you need some one to wake you up and call you a taxi.
6) Most trains (the newer ones) announce the next stop, some don't - the older trains, in this case you have to ask fellow passengers or better yet, ask first at the ticket counter the name of the stop before your stop, so you can get ready, wait at the door and get off at the correct stop.
I've been on older trains in Italy, there were no announcement, each time the train slowed down, I had to stand up to ask what stop it was, I must have done this at least 6 times on that trip. Newer trains are great, they flash the name of the next stop so you know. If you're not sure about any train, ask a uniformed personnel, is this the train for Palermo? While alighting, if not sure, ask fellow passengers, is this the stop for Catania?
Some train station are so huge, they are like an airport, look for an information booth, ask questions, ask lots of questions, always look for a train employee, they're in uniform. Don't ask a fellow tourist, most likely they're as lost as you are. I remember arriving in La Spezia and was looking for Cinque terre train. There were other Americans doing the same thing, this smart Alec American pointed to the train for Genoa and was sure since it goes through the Cinque terre, that must be the train we were looking for. It wasn't, that train doesn't stop in any of the Cinque terre towns, it just goes right through. Only the Cinque terre trains are allowed to stop. Good thing, we didn't believe him but continued to look for and found the Cinque terre train. He did the same thing, he didn't trust his own advice. We all got to get to where we wanted to go, all was well.
Trains are better, cheaper and less stressful. Renting a car has its advantages but is expensive. Unless one arranged for a car rental before leaving home, renting one at the spur of the moment is expensive. I remember arriving at Dignes le Bains, trying to get to see the lavender fields and could not because of lack of transportation. We rented a tiny Renault for 69 euros a day. That wasn't all, the agent made me sign another credit card slip for 500 euros in case I have an accident with the car, they will use that to pay for the damage. If I bring the car back intact,she'll give that slip back to me to tear up. So all the time that Sophie, my sister in law, was driving, I was praying. If you can arrange ahead of time, Renault rents out cars, to be picked up or returned at any city in France, for a very reasonable rate.
I've seen Americans driving rental cars in Sicily, they get out of the car, sniffed around, got back into the car and drove off. I'm sure they can see the whole island in a week. The thing is to take public transportation, linger longer and talk to the locals. We talk to the locals all the time, the old retirees, we don't understand a thing, we just smile and nod.
I got addicted to cheap railway station accommodations during a trip, a few years ago. It was in Brive la Gallarde in France. Never heard of it? Don't despair, it's a nothing town, Let's Go said, 'it has lots of cheap rooms and is a major rail stop which makes it a good base for exploring that area of the Dodorgne eg. Rocamadour and Sarlat'. We paid US$100 for 3 nights for 2 people. Wow! While you can still find these in small towns in France, it is near impossible in Italy. Italy has gotten very, very expensive. Mind you at my age (55) I still stay in hostels if the hostel is close to the train station but most hostels are too far away.
As I said before, I usually purchase my tickets the day before travel. This way I can plan to get up at the right time and get ready some food and drinks for the trip. Some trains have a dining car or a food cart comes around, not all. Be prepared, get ready some food for the trip and relax, let someone else do the driving
Do some research before you leave, write down some notes if you have to, you'll be leaving home with a head full of information. I am my own travel agent, so I have notes on everything, the names of the hotels, how to get there, when I go where, what to see, where to eat. It might be overwhelming the first time, that's why it is important to start with a simple itinerary and slowly work into a more complex one for future trips. Get into your mind that you will return to Europe and soon.
I recently checked the Internet and found out that the Eurostar station in London is no longer Waterloo, starting November 2007, it's being moved to St Pancras station.
I remember my first trip on a TGV train, not knowing there's seat assignments, I got into the first class coach and sat in some one's seat, there were a whole bunch of French families who said nothing till an hour later, a train conductor kicked me out to my seat in a second class coach. I apologized and went to my assigned seat. I've come a long way from those days.

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