Maree's first time in Europe

Staff member: Maree // Trip date: Jan 2010

Heathrow Express

Heathrow Express was so simple and easy to use. I found the Airport really well sign-posted so just ambled along, following the signs and boarded the train. Having a pre-purchased ticket was probably the best thing we could of done as it saved any thinking/hassles as we'd just come off the longest flight ever and weren't really in the mood for anything complicated. The trains are frequent, first class had big luggage racks near the doors and the ticket inspector just came along and scanned our tickets. On board there were televisions showing information about the Heathrow Express and BBC updates. It terminates at London Paddington station, so nice and central and real easy to connect with the London underground trains.

Oyster Card

Another pat on the back to myself for pre-purchasing the Oyster card before leaving Australia. No hassles trying to buy a ticket or even working out what ticket would be required, just scan and go. All the train lines are colour-coded and easy to follow. At every station there was an information desk with actual helpful people that could direct us to the correct platform for our train. I even found topping up my Oyster card really easy and quick. Perhaps there is hope for the Melbourne Myki system yet.

Hop on Hop Off Bus - London

The Hop on Hop off Bus was a fantastic way to get around busy London and see all the sights. As we had an e-ticket, we just headed to the Visitor Centre in Trafalgar Square to have it validated before boarding the bus. There is a choice of 3 different routes, Red, Yellow and Blue, we did a combination of both the Red and Yellow. Having the ticket for 2 days was great as it allowed us the 2nd day to catch up on all the sights we ran out of time for on the 1st day. The audio guide on board the bus was excellent with heaps of bits of information not just about the sights but history of the area also. Really enjoyed the Free River Cruise along the Thames, it allowed us to see London from a different perspective, plus the Captain had a wicked sense of humour as he filled us full of random information about the city.

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Golden Tours - Windsor, Stonehenge and Bath

Fantastic day out! The whole day from start to finish was well organised and well run. The first stop was at Windsor Castle. Unfortunately Queen Lizzie wasn't in attendance and the State rooms were closed for annual maintenance but the Dolls House was open instead. Our guide gave us a tour around then left us to our own devices to explore and experience ourselves. Next stop was for lunch at the Stonehenge Inn. This was the only option for lunch, unless people had brought their own with them, but the food was excellent. I highly recommend the chicken pie! After lunch, we headed off to the mysterious Stonehenge where we had plenty of time to take photos and invent our own theories then we were back on the bus heading for our last stop, the Roman Baths in Bath. Once in Bath we were free to either experience the history of the Roman Baths or wander around the town of Bath itself. A few on the Bus headed off to find Jane Austen's house but as long as we were back at the meeting point on time or the bus would depart without us, the time was ours.
Our guide, Margot, was excellent. She was real interesting, informative and funny, not boring or cheesy like so many other tour guides I've encountered. She knew all little details about everything and every place we drove through. She also dealt real well with the big group as we were a full bus of 47 people, and keeping the day running smooth and on time.

Britrail - London to Edinburgh and return

Our first train trip. First we had to head to the Information Office to have our passes validated which was ridiculously easy to do. The guy checked our information against our passes and passport, stamped them then showed us how to fill them out for each day we would travel.
Kings Cross station was under renovations but it was still really easy to navigate around. There was a massive board at the start of the platforms that listed every train departing then about 15 minutes prior to departure; they announced what platform the train was departing from, then we were free to board. Our coach in first class was basically empty so we had our pick of seats. The seats were Club Duos with table in between then the aisle then Club Fours also with a table. The seats were big and comfortable, and train ride really smooth. There were plenty of clear announcements along the way and complimentary Tea/Coffee/Orange Juice offered continuously throughout the journey or the option of ordering something off the menu and it delivered to your seat. The service back to London was a little busier but still plenty of seats to choose from, I think the majority of passengers were in 2nd class.

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Eurostar - London to Paris

St. Pancreas station was another one of London's simple to navigate station, with everything well signed and easy to find. As we were leaving the UK, our bags were security checked just like at an airport. The line was short but could easily see how this could take a bit of time during Peak season. One thing I wasn't prepared for is the removal of hats/beanies when going through the security check, but hey I wasn't the only one with shocking hair. Once through, there is a waiting area with plenty of chairs, a cafe and a newsagent. When the train is ready, it's announced just like a plane and there are escalators leading up onto the platform. On board the decor was a little dated but still clean and there was luggage storage space at the end of the carriages. The meal served in first class was yummy with plenty of food and 2 choices for the main. As we were travelling in the AM, ours was breakfast and there was a choice of an Omelette or Egg and Bacon Quiche. The trip went quick, perhaps quicker for me as I had a mini-nap, so obviously the seats are comfortable. Overall the Eurostar was quick and efficient, no messing around, simple and straight to the heart of Paris.

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Hop on Hop Off Bus - Paris

For the Paris Bus, we were just able to exchange our ticket on board with the driver. The Paris Hop on Hop off Bus isn't as in-depth as the London one, as there is only the 1 route with 9 stops but it still covers all the main sights and took me where I wanted to go. Again a great idea having the ticket for 2 days, and I found the Bus Drivers were great at answering any random questions we seemed to have.

Le Mont St Michel Day

My day to Le Mont St Michel, I'd been waiting for so long to go and it didn't disappoint. First part of the journey was TGV from Paris to Rennes. The train was actually 2 trains joined together that were splitting at Rennes so it was the longest train I have ever seen and was quite a hike along the platform to get to our Coach. We were doing this leg in 2nd class, with the return journey in 1st class. There was not a lot of room in the 2nd class seats and the coach was full. All announcements were in French only. I would only really recommend 2nd class for short journeys, I wouldn't want to be stuck in those seats for a longer journey. There was a hook to hang your jacket and a foot rest but no power plug. Once getting off the train at Rennes, we just followed the signs and headed to the front of the station to find the Bus station. It was directly out the front of the train station, slightly to the right and had clear signs where each bus was heading. We just showed the ticket to board the bus and it departed on time with about 15 pax onboard. The bus dropped us right at the foot of the Mont, so simple and easy, and the driver explained what time return buses would be operating and to meet in exactly the same spot as he dropped us off. The Bus to take us back to Rennes arrived right on time and departed from the same place. It really was a simple and easy way to get right to Mont St Michel, considering the closest train station is about 7km away. Heading back to Paris from Rennes we were travelling in 1st class. The seats were wider and adjustable with more leg room. We were in a club duo with a table, light and power plug and there was a food cart that came around. First class was very quiet compared to our trip in the morning in second class, with mainly business people.

Thalys - Paris to Brussels

The Thalys was perhaps the easiest train to spot at the station as its bright red. On-board was really nice with big, wide comfortable seats. We were in a Club duo with a table with most of 1st class fairly empty. All announcements were in 4 different languages with a taxi service offered upon arrival in Brussels. The ride was smooth and quiet with seats having light and power plug and the option for Wifi.

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IC services - Brussels to Bruges, Bruges to Antwerp to Amsterdam

As seat reservations are not required on IC services, we just hopped on with our pass. Second class was always full with people standing in the aisles as the train went along, stopping at all stations. There was always seats available in first class. There was a fair amount of room with big seats and the trains always ran on time. Between Antwerp and Roosendaal, the border, we had to fill out a travel survey as to why we were travelling, where we were from and where we had bought our tickets. Railplus was actually an option on the survey as a place we had purchased our tickets from. We also got a complimentary pen when we filled out our survey.

IC 143 - Amsterdam to Berlin

The train was delayed about 15minutes which I'm guessing was due to the heavy snow falling. The train staff on the platform were very helpful and showed us were to stand so we were right in front of our coach when the train pulled in. The carriages were pod-style with an aisle down the side and pods of 6 seats, 3 and 3 facing each other. Train announcements were also in English. There was no dining car on board, only a vending machine selling muffins and drinks, which was a bummer as we hadn't thought ahead and bought food with us so we were slightly hungry when we reached Berlin. Overall the train was super smooth and quiet and the trip seemed to go really quick.

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City Night Line - Berlin to Munich

Our City Night Line trip was a little bit of a debacle but I suppose not all trains can run perfectly on the trip. The train was delayed by about 2hours due to the lovely snowstorm Berlin was putting on for our benefit. Unfortunately this meant waiting on the platform for the 2 hours for the appearance of the train as the Platform staff were as clueless as us as to when the train would arrive. There were announcements every 15 minutes in German stating that the train would be delayed another 15 minutes, and the staff were happy to translate that into English for us, but basically it was just sitting around in the cold, waiting for the train. On the platform there was a diagram of the train layout so we knew where to stand when the train pulled. Unfortunately when the train did finally appear it was a lot shorter than the train diagram and missing a few carriages. This meant there was a quick dash down the platform to get to the train for everyone. Once on the train there was obviously a mix up as there were no deluxe sleepers, instead we were offered 2 normal cabins side-by-side with one cabin made up with beds, the other as seats. There was complimentary champagne and bottles of water in each cabin. Our cabin was only made up as a single so after some explanations to the staff, we were moved to another cabin which was set up as bunks. Due to the delay leaving Berlin, we weren't entirely sure what time we would be arriving in Munich, and the staff wasn't sure either but they ensured us we would receive a wake up call. We received breakfast the next morning which I wasn't expecting. It was a simple breakfast box containing a roll, a croissant and juice but still good.

ALX 355 - Munich to Prague

I discovered that ALX actually stands for Albert Einstein and I think the train may have been as old. As it wasn't possible to pre-book a seat reservation before leaving Australia, I attempted to book it in Munich only to be told that there are no seat reservations taken for the train, just jump on board. It took a little while to locate the 1st class carriage as most carriages were heading to Regensburg, as the train was splitting halfway along the journey, but we eventually found 1st class, the last carriage. It was a very basic train with pods as the seat compartments. A 2nd class pod contained 6 seats whereas 1st class had the extra room with the pod containing only 5 seats. There was a basic food and drink cart that came along the train offering basic snacks and the Police boarded the train once we crossed the border into the Czech Republic to check our passports. This train answered the question of why we can't guarantee forward facing seats as it often pulled into a station one way then left the other way, meaning we alternated who was facing forward.

EC75 - Prague to Wien

The train to Wien was quite nice after the ALX, it ran on time and again the seats must have been comfortable as I slept basically the whole way. The seats were on a 2-aisle-1 configuration with half the carriage facing forward and the other half backwards. Our passport was checked as we left the Czech Republic and headed for Austria. Wien Meidling wasn't a massive station and was having construction work done but as soon as we got off the train, there was a departure board right on the platform informing us which platform we needed to go to for our connecting train to Salzburg.
Railjet - Wien to Salzburg and return
I'd been waiting my whole trip to try out the "new" Railjet after hearing rave reviews and it didn't disappoint. It was simply lovely inside with spacious leather seats and a heap of leg room. Each carriage was equipped with TV screens which show various train information such as train speed, next stations, time of arrival, connecting services at the stations and maps tracking train along the route. It gave us something to watch, apart from the amazing scenery, along the way. In first class, attendants came along and offered complimentary newspapers in German or English and also a snackpak of a Fruit Juice and a chocolate bar! Overall Railjet lived up to its hype, great train.

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Sound of Music Tour

The hills were definitely alive on the day of our tour. The Panorama tours office was really easy to find, just a short walk from our hotel and the staff there were super friendly. Our bus took a total of 8 people with 6 of us being Australian and also from Melbourne. Our guide Günter was great fun, he started with a city tour of Salzburg before heading off to see the sights from the movie. He was full of information and plenty of stories about the filming and the area in general. It was great to see all the sights I remembered from my repeated viewing of the movie. The only downside was not being able to go into the Rotunda for a '16 going on 17' moment but we all posed for photos in front of it anyways. The playing of the sound track to the movie was a great idea on the drive back to Salzburg, though I did feel sorry for our guide as there was a lot of off-key singing going on. All in all a great morning.

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As this was my first trip to Europe, I was surprised how easy and simple train travel was. With the exception of our delayed overnight train, all other services ran perfectly. It's great to be able to sit back and enjoy the scenery while travelling along. Also unlike airports, the train stations are generally centrally located, so much easier to get to my accommodation and all the sights. I can highly recommend 1st class over 2nd with the extra room and less crowded carriages. Overall I had great experiences on my trains and now firmly believe it's the only way to truly see Europe.

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