Megan's UK and Europe Trip

Staff member: Megan // Trip date: Mar 2013


With five weeks to travel through Scotland, England, Belgium, France and Italy, three Rail Passes with my name on them and two new sighting products, here is my report with my experiences of my trip around the UK and Europe.


UK Rail

First up I used my First Class Britrail Pass, which I had validated the day before while I was at Paddington station. This pass was for use on the services between London to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Inverness via Aberdeen and Inverness to London (through the snow).

London to Edinburgh departing from Kings Cross station; I did not book a seat on this train, when I arrived at the right platform; I just got on and sat in a seat. Most forward facing seats had been booked, but I was able to find a club duo that had not been. As I was travelling on a Saturday they were not serving hot food only hot drinks, I was however given sandwiches, a small packet of chips, a small packet of bisects and a drink. The attendants kept coming through and offering tea and coffee, but did not come through as often with the other drinks. This service also supplied free wifi for first class passengers which nice really nice, as I was able to follow the Milan to San Remo race on twitter, while it started to snow outside.

Next up was Edinburgh to Inverness via Aberdeen, again I did not book a seat but after getting on I realized there were more unreserved seats than reserved so it was not hard to find club duo to sit in. As this was a week day service I had a few the options for lunch a salad sandwich or a meat pie, both served with a small packet of potato chips. I went for the pie and it was up there with one of the best I've had, it was hot which was nice as it was snowing again outside. This service also had free wifi in first class. When we arrived at Aberdeen, the service to Inverness left from the same platform 20mins later. The service to Inverness was regional train, so the majority of the carriages were for 2nd class, with about 10 seats at the front of the first carriage for 1st class. As this was a regional train there were no freebees or wifi, everything from the bar cart had to be purchased.

Inverness to London was the next service and it was a 7hr journey with only one direct departure from Inverness every day. Due to this I booked a ticket at the station the day before I travelled. It was easy enough and I was given a forward facing seat in a club duo. This was best thing I could have done as most seats had been booked for different parts of the journey. So people who did not have reservations had to move as they were sitting in other people seats. As the service got closer to London not only did the snow get heavier but the train got fuller. As I took this service on a Saturday there was not hot food, only sandwiches again but also free wifi, which was awesome on a 7hr journey.

The Britrail was pass was fantastic, it offered more flexibility than the ATOC point to point tickets as I was not locked in to a time and date of a service. It allowed me the opportunity to travel when and where I wanted. As reservations are not compulsory with a pass you can travel with no extra costs, however in some cases it would be smarter to book a reservation (like if there is only one direct service a day or travelling on a weekend) as this way you will have your own seat for the journey and will not have to move as you might be sitting in someone else's seat.


The Shard

While in London I took the opportunity to visit the new attraction called The Shard. This is the tallest building in London and Western Europe. I was given a Rail Plus voucher, that had a phone number on it. The voucher advised to call and book your time to go up 48 hours before. When I called I was advised that there were still times available for the following afternoon or any time the day after that day, I took 4pm the following day. I was then given two reference numbers, one to collect my ticket at the Shard and the other was if I had any issue and needed to call the number on the voucher and quote the 2nd reference number. I got off at Tower Hill underground station heading towards the Guy Hospital exit. It was about 3.30pm and as I had to collect my ticket, I went to see if I could go in to collect my ticket and get out of the snow and going in maybe look through the shop until my booked time. But no, the earliest you are allowed through the door is 10mins before your booked time and you have up until 30mins after your booked time until you are not allowed in and will need to purchase a new ticket. The lovely security guard on the door was very apologetic, but this was the rule as much as she really wanted to let everyone in out the cold, she was not allowed. So after going for a short walk, I was back at 3.50pm and was allowed in. Once in I was ushered to the queue to collect tickets, to which I was the only one in. The lovely gentleman printed my tickets and pointed me in the direction of the lifts. There was a small group of people waiting to go up. So once one became available we went up to the indoor viewing platform. The outdoor viewing platform was on the floor above; to get to this you did have to go up a flight of steps. When I got up here it had started to snow again. Some of the staff said that the day I went up was the clearest day they had had since they opened. The view was amazing, as the Shard was down near the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, you could look straight up the Thames to Parliament House, Big Ben and the London Eye. After 20mins and no longer able to feel my nose, it was time for me to go back down. Staff pointed me in the direction of the lift, to which I was able to get straight into with 4 members of staff, all asking me if I enjoyed the view and what I thought. The exit was through the gift shop where you could purchase all sorts of merchandise. The one thing that really stood out for me about the Shard was the staff; they were very polite and extremely helpful.

Eurostar

Arriving at St Pancras via Kings Cross (and platform 9¾) I was taking the Eurostar from London to Brussels. I had arrived at the station just over an hour before my train's departure and the check-in had already opened for my train. I joined the end of the long line going through the ticket check, security and customs; it would have taken a good 30mins to go through to the waiting area as it was very busy. With free wifi in the waiting area I had about 30min wait until my train. When my train was called there were staff everywhere to point you in the right direction and to the right carriage. As I had a reservation in Standard Premier and I received breakfast included in the fare. Tea and coffee were offered first, then a tray was placed down in front of me, which had a bread roll, a croissant, butter, jam, yoghurt and apple juice, then an attendant then came through offering warm chocolate croissants. Wifi was also available in standard premier, so I was happy and content until I arrived in Brussels.


Eurail Global 10 day 2 month First Class Pass

Once I arrived in Brussels, I had to take a regional train to Ghent, so after finding the paper timetable to see when the next service was departing I made my way to the correct platform. When the train arrived I got on and found a seat, this service only had 2nd class and not seat numbers as did all the trains I took in Belgium. There were not seat numbers so it was not possible to book a seat reservation, but as services were frequent that there is no need to book a seat anyway. Seating on all the service was four seats facing each other.

The next train is one of my favourite, the Thalys, and again as I did not have a passholder fare I did not use my pass.

I arrived at Brussels Midi station via the underground about 45mins before my train departed. There is no need to get to the station this early, but with the checkout time at my hotel I found it easier to go straight to the station. The Thalys has its own platforms so you just need to follow the signs at the station. About 15mins before the train departs they advised which platform the train would be arriving. So along with the rest of the passengers I made my way up to the platform where staff checked your tickets and advised where on the platform you needed to stand in order to get on the right carriage. Once onboard I found my seat in the first class carriage (single seat backwards facing). As I was in first class I again had access to free wifi and as it was a mid-morning service I was given morning tea, which was a drink and a slice of cake. So I was happy until I arrived at Paris Nord station.


France Pass

The third and last pass I had was a France Rail Pass, very handy to have when travelling in France on the TGV services as TGV trains have compulsory seat reservations, I was able to book France Pass passholder fares.

When I arrived in Paris Nord station I had to change stations as I was departing from Montparnasse as I was heading to Rennes, I had given myself just over two hours to make the change via metro, but when I arrived at Paris Nord I decided to take a taxi, as it was less stress and I could see a bit more of the city. I was lucky with my taxi driver as he was very nice and gave a bit of a tour as we drove along; pointing out things I know I would not have found out about any other way. When I arrived a Montparnasse station, I had just under 2 hours to kill, there was a train leaving in the next 40mins I did think about seeing if I could change my ticket, but when I saw the queue at the ticket counters, it was lunch time and the queue at the Pub was a lot smaller, I decided to wait for the train I was booked on. About 20mins before the train arrived, the platform number was advised on the departure board. Walking onto the platform there was staff member checking tickets and advising where in the platform to stand. Once on the train I was sitting in a club duo again in only a half full carriage. The TGV services do not offer anything for free, not even wifi.

Once I arrived in Rennes, I then had to take a French regional service to Dol which was about 30mins out and a pick up point for the bus to Mont St Michel. The train was not very big as it serviced the line between Rennes and St Malmo, so just as many locals as tourists use it. On the way to Dol I was able to get a seat and there was plenty of room but on the return journey it was standing room only. As I had a French Rail Pass, I did not have to pay anything extra for this journey.

The journey back to Paris was very different to the journey to Rennes. The first class carriage I was in was full; there were no empty seats or much space left for bags. But in saying that there were not bags blocking any of the walk ways, so everyone must have found a spot their luggage ok.

My next train was another TGV from Paris to Nice, it was not a smooth running day; to start with I looked at the wrong ticket so I arrived in time but to the wrong Paris station. After cracking it with myself for being so silly, I went in search for a taxi, as I was not lugging my bags any further on the metro. €10 later I arrived at Lyon station and had missed my train by about 15mins. So it was straight to the ticket counter, where I had to take a number and get in line. The lady that served me was very nice and very helpful and without any issues booked me a passholder fare on the next service departing for Nice which was 3hrs later. I thought about hiring a locker for my things and going for a look around, but as it was very wet and cold, I went to a café with free Wi-Fi and caught up on my emails.

30mins before the train was due to depart I made my way back to the main part of the station and checked the departure board for the platform I needed to be on. The platform number was already showing so I made my way over to it. There were TGV staff checking tickets as you entered the platform, but as I made my way down the train looking for my carriage, I realized it was not there. When I asked a staff member about it, they just said to get on one of the first class carriages and find an empty seat, which I did. It seemed like every one was in the very same situation, everyone had tickets for carriages numbering in the teens, but the train had carriages numbering in the twenties. The good news was that they had not over sold the train and they had as many seats as they did passengers, it just meant that you did not get to sit in the exact seat as per your ticket.

For my day trip out to Monaco and to get me over the Italian border, I had to take a different type of French regional train. These trains looked newer and were longer with the carriages having upper and lower seating. But again like the regional train I took earlier in my trip, just as many locals use these trains as tourists do. So if you use them during busy times of the day, then it there might only be standing room available.

Once I got into Italy I took a wide variety of trains, from the small regionals to a fast, clean and efficient Frecciarossa train from Florence to Rome, which was definitely up there as one of the better trains I have taken. The one thing that all the Italian trains had in common or I just noticed it more (as I had more luggage to carry) was that you always had to step up on to the train and then down on to the platform. None of the trains or platforms where at the same level, I had to step up a couple of steps to get on the trains and then step down again on to the platform. I had seat reservation on all the trains but the regional trains and had only one 20min delay from Pisa to Florence which was the only delay I had for my whole trip.

The Global and France passes were ideal for my trip, as I had a mixture of trains that had a compulsory reservation and regional trains, both of which are covered on the passes I used. I also booked all the trains that had a compulsory reservation before I left Australia, this way I was not going to miss out on seats on the services I needed to be on. This meant that I was able to arrive at the station any time before the train departed as I did not have to line up for at ticket at the ticket counter.


The Rome OMNIA Pass

The OMNIA Pass was very well worth its weight in gold. Once I arrived at the Vatican, the place to exchange voucher was very easy to find (the map on our website was very help full) I handed over my voucher and they gave me the small folder that had the Vatican Pass, the Rome pass, a map and small information booklet. They went through how I would use the Vatican pass to get a fast track entry in to the Vatican Museum and St Peters Basilica and that the Rome pass will get me free entry into 2 of the top 5 Rome attractions and discounted entry into any of the attractions listed in the booklet. Before I left I put my name down for the next group that was leaving for the museum, they handed me a yellow sticker that I had to wear until we got in and was told to meet out the front of shop in 20mins.

Well, this allowance was worth the purchase of the pass just to skip the queue into the museum. We walked the full length of the queue and it would have been a good 5mins from the end of the queue to the entrance of the museum and this was at 10am in the morning. If I did not have this pass I would not have gone to the museum as I do not have the time to stand in a line that long on my own. When I had finished looking around the museum I went back to where I exchanged the voucher to find out when the next group were leaving for St Peters Biblical. I was handed a purple sticker that I had to wear until I got in and told to meet out the front in 30mins. This queue was long but it did not look as long as the museum queue. The group was taken to the very front and let in ahead of everyone else. There was one thing I noticed that the staff were strict on, was not covered up in a respectable way, and were not being allowed in. So any one with a singlet top, short shorts (anything above the knee) and thongs, were being told to come back once they were more appropriately dressed, which meant they came back to the end of the line.

The next day I went to the Coliseum, there was a line just for holders of the Rome pass, very clearly marked and very helpful staff to point you in the right direction, so you just walked straight passed the long line of people waiting to buy their ticket to get in, it was very easy and quick. However it was not clear at the Forum, as I got to the Forum before it opened and was fourth in line, it did not take long for me to get in, but I did notice when I came out there was a lot of confusion as to where people with a Rome pass lined up to get in.

The Vatican pass also allowed you to travel on a hop on hop off bus. This bus was good for travelling between all the major tourist spots, but as it was associated with the Vatican you also went past the entire major catholic spots in Rome.

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