Kieran visits Europe

Staff member: Kieran // Trip date: Jan 2010

It is always a great experience travelling around Europe, gazing upon ancient wonders and famous art works, visiting monuments, great cities and little villages. Armed with a Eurail and Britrail pass this adventure is smooth, thanks to Europe's extensive rail network whose main arteries connect the great cities, mostly via high speed rail, and whose regional lines can take you to places off the beaten track. Rail allows you to travel from the centre of one city to the centre of the next in comfort and style. This report will outline my experience training my way around Europe and also details some additional products available through Rail Plus, that can help you avoid queues and add another dimension to your trip.

Leonardo Express- Rome Fiumicino to Rome Termini

After flying for more than a day all I really wanted was an easy way to get myself into the centre of Rome without having to worry about being ripped off. The Leonardo Express offers this service. After dodging the numerous taxi drivers aggressively seeking my business I found my way to the train station at Rome Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport. Tickets for this train can be pre purchased from Rail Plus or if you have a Eurail Pass you can use a day of travel on the Leonardo Express (First class passes only). If you are using a Eurail pass I would recommend pre-validating the pass from Rail Plus before you depart Australia as the ticket office did not appear to be always open. A validated pass is non refundable even if not used.
The train left on time and although it was slightly delayed it was by far the most direct way to get to Rome. It is a first class only service and the seats are spacious and there is plenty of room for luggage with storage areas throughout the carriage. The journey takes 20 mins and delivers you to Rome's central station, Termini.

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Eurostar Italia- Roma Termini to Florence SMN

This is Italy's signature train. It looks sleek and travels at high speed. I took the morning service to Florence and although it was quite full the luggage space was quite adequate. The seats in 1st class are forward and backward facing with single seats and double seats available. The seats recline and snacks and drinks are offered complimentary in first class (Italian newspapers are also offered). 2nd class is a little more crowded and the luggage racks tend to be fuller, also there are no complimentary items offered. In either class, this train makes the journey between this famous city pair quick, easy and comfortable.

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Italian Regional Train- Florence SMN to Pisa Centrale return

Sometimes it is not possible to have a train booked and this sector is one which falls into that category. It is serviced by regional trains which do not have seat numbers, so you just hop on with your Eurail pass or point to point ticket and find a seat. The train stops along the way so there are people getting on and off all the time, it is therefore unlikely that you will not get a seat. I did not have to wait long for a train and there are departure boards and timetables available at all the stations. The journey only took an hour and although the trains are not beautiful, they are comfortable and do the job.

City Night Line- Florence SMN to Munich HBF

I really look forward to overnight trains, it is something about the rocking that really gives me a good night's sleep and I find it amazing that I can travel through 3 countries in my sleep. The City Night Line trains provide this experience with German efficiency. I and my wife booked a double deluxe cabin which included an ensuite. We were welcomed by a multi-lingual conductor and offered a glass of wine each. There is a dining car onboard and if you are leaving your room you can lock it and access it again with a key card. The rooms are small but all we needed. We fit 2 large suitcases and 2 more bags in the room with ease. The shower is not luxurious but certainly worth having, just note that all the buttons in the cabin have to be pressed hard. I slept soundly and was awoken by our conductor an hour before the arrival in Munich. Half an hour later breakfast was served, cereal, toast, a croissant, orange juice and tea or coffee. It was a perfect start to the day before arriving in Munich on time.
The only point I might mention is that at the station in Florence it is best to check the train's departure early. Our train was on the departure board as a Vienna train because it split halfway and our cabin went to Munich while the others went to Vienna. The ticket windows will let you know details and they are open until 9pm (they close at 9pm sharp even if there are still people queuing).

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Alex (ALX) - Munich HBF to Prague hl.n

German trains and stations are very helpful places. I was taking this train to Prague directly after the City Night Line arrived. I was not able to book a reservation on this train from Australia and so I wanted to find out if a reservation was required. After a hot cup of coffee the ticket office opened right on 7am and my question was answered immediately: no reservation possible on this service. 45 mins before departure the platform was displayed on the departure board and 15 mins later the train arrived so we could escape the winter cold and find a seat. There was, in hind-sight, no need to worry about reserving as the train was not full at all. The seating arrangement was cabins, with 5 seats per cabin in 1st class and 6 per cabin in 2nd class. We were the only people in our cabin for the entire journey, in fact hardly any of the cabins were occupied, either in 1st or 2nd class. A food and beverage cart was available, and a drinks and snacks trolley stopped by at the beginning and end of the journey. Our tickets were checked once in Germany and once in the Czech Republic but apart from that we were left alone to enjoy the snowy landscapes and read up on our next destination.

Czech Regional Train- Prague hl.n to Kutna Hora return

By far the best example of customer service I experienced was in Prague. I had read about a church decorated with bones outside of Prague but had little information about how to get there. I visited the ticket office at the station for assistance and they were a terrific help. I was informed that the church was at a place called Kutna Hora and given a timetable with various options for both the outgoing and return journeys. The train again was cabin style but no food or drinks available. The outgoing journey involved a 3 min change in Kolin, which seemed very close, however we did not even need to rush as the trains were on time and Kolin was a small station. On arrival at Kutna Hora there was a map at the station pointing the way to the bone church, about a 10 min walk. Our return journey was smooth enough but I would recommend checking the train's destination before boarding. The stations are posted on each door and this was helpful as 2 trains arrived at the same time, one to Prague and the other to Brno. We took the right train but it was very full so we could not make our way to the first class section. We stood for about 30 mins before some people alighted and we were able to find a couple of seats. All in all it was a very smooth day trip.

Eurocity (EC) - Prague hl.n to Berlin HBF

Before boarding in Prague a screen on the platform indicated where each coach was located. The coach number was easily located on our reservation ticket. The Eurocity is what you would expect from an intercity train, airplane style seating configuration and very comfy seats. Luggage storage was plentiful and the train left on time. Due to heavy snow our train was slower than normal and we ended up being about 30 mins delayed getting to Berlin. Announcements were made in Czech, German and English and you were always well informed. The only thing to notice about this train is that no food or drink was available onboard so it is always a good idea to take some snacks and drinks with you for longer journeys. Berlin HBF station is massive and has everything you need. A transfer to your hotel is easily available via the S-bahn which can be used with the Eurail pass.

City Sightseeing Berlin- Berlin City Tour

I have found that the best way to get to grips with a new city is to take one of the many sight-seeing buses. I was able to purchase tickets for the city sightseeing bus in Berlin, run by the Berlin City Tour company. Their buses stop at 6 locations around Berlin and give a commentary in German and English as you pass various sights. The commentary is live and so it also gives you an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the city. We did one lop which takes about an hour and a half, then hopped off at various spots like Check-point Charlie and the Brandenburg gate to do some more in depth exploring.

Intercity (IC)- Berlin HBF to Amersfoort (the Netherlands)

After Berlin, the next stop was the Netherlands and we were taken there aboard an Intercity, or IC train. 1st class was again back to the cabin style seating and again we were able to have a cabin to ourselves for the entire journey. 2nd class offered airline style seating. A dining cart was available and drinks and snack trolleys came round twice. Our tickets were checked once in Germany and once in Holland and announcements were made in German, Dutch and English. You can tell when you've crossed the border as the leading language changes from German to Dutch for announcements, not to mention the increase in windmill sightings as we passed into Holland. The train was on time (to the second) in Germany but became delayed once in Holland due to heavy snowfalls. Once again, passengers were kept up to date as to the progress of the train.

Dutch Regional Trains- Soestdijk to Amsterdam Centraal return

Staying with family in Holland meant I had a great opportunity to become familiar with the domestic trains. Regional services are mostly double decker, you can't reserve them but I never had trouble finding a seat. Services were regular, even in the small town I was staying and on time. Most Dutch speak good English and so assistance at stations was easy, announcements in Amsterdam were made in English however only in Dutch on the regional trains.

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City Sightseeing Paris- Les Cars Rouge

Paris was the next stop on this whistle stop tour. Once again I had purchased city sightseeing tickets from Rail Plus and was able to use them on the buses run by Les Cars Rouge, it has a 2 day validity in Paris. Their circuit was detailed and offered 9 stops, most notably the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe and Tocadero. We picked it up from the Eiffel Tower stop which you can't miss as there is a big 'Les Cars Rouge' sign at the stop (as there are at all the stops). Upon boarding we were issued headphones which we could keep for our use of the pre recorded commentary. Buses ran until the early evening and were very regular, every 15 mins.

Paris Visite Pass/Paris Metro Pass

The city sightseeing bus was terrific for seeing the sights as you travel, the Paris metro is great for getting from A to B with a minimum of fuss. I took a 3 day zone 1-6 Paris Visite pass which is available from Rail Plus and can also be used on the buses and RER services in Paris. My hotel was located in the South of Paris and so the metro was very handy for visiting sights on the other side of Paris such as Sacre Couer and Montmartre. With the pass you just put the ticket through the ticket slot in the barrier and collect it again before walking through. Metro services are very efficient and we did not have to wait more than 5 minutes for a train. Network maps are located everywhere and staff were quite helpful, not rude at all! One tip is to be careful with wheeled suitcases as the turnstile barriers will not allow you to wheel your luggage through because they only turn once. Most stations have a gate designated for passengers with luggage so that you avoid getting stuck.

Eurostar- Paris Gare du Nord to London St Pancras

Travelling from Paris to London could not be easier than taking the Eurostar. No need to worry about airport transfers, we just arrived at Gare du Nord and checked in 45 mins prior to our departure. When checking in first our tickets were checked then we moved on to pass through French then British passport control. You keep your luggage with you and take it on the train. I was lucky enough to gain access to the Business class lounge where there were newspapers, magazines, food, drink and internet access all available complimentary as we awaited our boarding call. There is a waiting area for Standard and Leisure class passengers also. Boarding commences 20 mins before departure and staff directed us to our coach at this time. The carriages provide ample room for luggage and you are seated either forward or backward facing. I travelled 1st class and was able to enjoy a warm, airplane style meal as well as alcoholic beverages, soft drink or tea and coffee. The journey takes you through the French countryside and the Channel Tunnel section only interrupts this for 30 mins before you are delivered to England where once again the cars are travelling on the right side of the road (that is to say on the left). On arrival at London St Pancras station you are directed to the underground station or to the street exit. I was connecting with a service to Scotland so it was a quick transfer to the street exit, cross the road and I was at Kings Cross station.

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East Coast- London Kings Cross to Leuchars (for St Andrews)
Leuchars to Edinburgh return
Leuchars to London Kings Cross

East Coast trains service the London to Aberdeen route via York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. I was travelling to Leuchars as I was staying near St Andrews and then also used these trains to travel to and from Edinburgh and back down to London. The trains offer big, comfortable seats and good luggage space. In 1st class there is complimentary tea and coffee throughout the journey and on longer trips there is the option of a hot meal (at additional cost). There were a few delays in Scotland due to snow however the East coast trains were given priority and so were usually on time. Friendly staff on board really helped make the journey very pleasant.

First Great Western- London Paddington to Thatcham multiple journeys

First Great Western operates most services west of London in Southern England. They have a fleet of trains which range from a basic commuter style to the more comfortable longer distance trains. Paddington station is their main hub in London and this station is equipped with many areas where you can gain assistance and information. Platforms are assigned around 15 mins before departure and you need to show a valid ticket to gain access to the platform. The biggest lesson I learned was to try to avoid travelling on the weekend if possible as engineering works are frequent and trains are therefore replaced by buses. The buses we had to take ran on time but tended to be quite full. Also buying individual tickets can be very expensive and some tickets limit travel to certain times. I travelled with a Britrail pass which was by far a cheaper option for my itinerary. It also meant I was not limited as to what time I could travel.

Oyster Card

We spent a couple of days in London and used the underground to get around. To facilitate this I bought Oyster Cards from Rail Plus before we left. The card is loaded with credit and so it was ready to go straight away. We topped up credit at the station but we could also top up at newsagents who sold the underground and bus tickets. The underground is terrific to get around this large city with services just as efficient as the Paris Metro. The oyster card charges you the best fare for your journey, capped at a maximum daily rate.

London Eye Flight

The London Eye is a must do when in town. It offers the best views of London and is an experience in itself as you are taken 30 metres high and back on this 20-30 min flight. I purchased my tickets from Rail Plus and so avoided the queues at the ticket office. We headed straight for the boarding gates and handed over the tickets to the gate keeper before boarding. All up we waited maybe 2 mins.

Heathrow Express

Exhausted after 5 weeks travelling Europe it was a pleasure to catch the Heathrow Express from London Paddington to Heathrow Airport. Paddington station is equipped with flight information so that you can check which terminal you need to head for. The Heathrow Express stops at Terminals 1, 2 & 3 and Terminal 5. We needed to go to Terminal 4 so had to change at Terminals 1,2 & 3. Trains run every 15 mins and the journey only took 15 mins. You can buy tickets from Rail Plus but we had an extra day left on our Britrail Passes so we were able to use this on the train. There is plenty of luggage space available and the news is shown in the carriage so you can keep up to date on the short ride. Changing for Terminal 4 was a breeze. All we needed to do was go from platform 1 to platform 2 (about 20 meters) and there was a train waiting to take us to Terminal 4. All up the journey took less than half an hour from London Paddington to our check in desk.

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To sum up, the train was the perfect vehicle to use for travelling around Europe. It allowed me to travel from the centre of one great city to the centre of another with minimal fuss. The European trains are smart, stylish and efficient. As with most things there were a few hiccups with journeys but I was always well informed and able to find assistance and the train stations were very English language friendly places. The Eurail pass suited my itinerary and I was glad I made reservations where possible. On those services where I could not reserve there was no problem as I only ever had to stand for about 30mins and only on one train. Validating the passes was as easy as visiting a ticket office in Rome (Eurail Pass) and London Kings Cross (Britrail Pass) then all I had to do was make sure the pass was up to date before boarding the first train of the day. Eurail aid offices were obvious at most major stations if I needed assistance. My trip was made all the more easier by purchasing several add on items before I left, helping me to not waste valuable time in queues. The European train network is advanced and easy to use and makes a nice change from travelling on Melbourne's infamous train network.

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