Stephanie travels through Europe

Staff member: Stephanie // Trip date: Nov 2010

Stephanie travels through Europe

September 2010

Heathrow Express: Heathrow to Paddington

The Heathrow Express into London Paddington was a very quick and painless way to transfer into the city after a long haul flight. We spotted the signs as soon as we walked out into the arrivals area and headed down the ramps. Before getting into a lift which transports you straight to the platforms there are ticket machines and a manned desk. We had pre purchased e-tickets so we could head straight to the platform. The trains are so frequent you won't wait for long, and before you know it you are in a comfortable seat being zipped into the central city. There is plenty of storage space in each car for luggage and you'll be able to view a TV screen with news and information. The conductor came through and scanned our e-ticket bar code. 15 minutes later we arrived in the large and busyPaddington Station.

Eurostar: London St Pancras to Paris Nord

St Pancras is a bright and modern station which bustles with shops and restaurants. If you are feeling a little bit decadent and have some time to spare before your train departure, why not stop into the Champagne bar located upstairs for a glass or two.

The Eurostar has a 30 minute check in time as you are required to pass through customs before reaching the Eurostar waiting lounge. I would recommend arriving a little earlier as Eurostar is quite strict on late arrivals not being able to board the trains.

There are plenty of signs to direct you to the Eurostar Terminal of the station. Those with e-tickets can print their tickets from one of the many machines and then go through the electronic gates. If you have a paper ticket you can line up to present your ticket to the customer service agent and then go through the turnstile. The passport and security check are next before you enter into the waiting lounge. There is plenty of seats and also a few food outlets in the lounge area. Electronic screens will display the departing trains and which gate they will depart from.

Once the Eurostar boarding is called you make your way up to your platform to the train where you need to check the carriage numbers located on the doors. Numerous Eurostar staff are located on the platform to point you in the right direction. We were travelling in Standard Premier Class, which was previously Leisure Select. When you board the train there is a luggage rack to use, however if you prefer to keep your luggage close by there is overhead luggage racks above all seats.
The seating on the Eurostar is very comfortable with a foldout table, a pocket for magazines (which are provided), UK power point, a bin, armrests and headrests.

If you are travelling in Standard Premier or Business Premier you are served complimentary food at your seat. Business Premier offers a full 3 course meal with wine or beer, Standard Premier offers a light cold meal suitable for the time of the day with beer or wine. We travelled mid afternoon and had a selection of cold taster dishes. My dishes served were a risotto ball, pork pie and roast vegetable brochette (all taster size). A restaurant car is open for the whole journey, so those in Standard class can access food and drinks at any time.

We entered the tunnel while enjoying our meal and drink and after what seemed like a very short 20 minutes popped back out into the sunshine in France. I didn't experience any sensation of heading underground and only had my ears pop a couple of times which is normal when travelling at high speed through a tunnel.

The 2 hours 15 minutes literally flies past and you find yourself in the centre of Paris without the dread of making your way through another airport terminal. With it being such a stress free and comfortable journey, it is no wonder most travellers are now choosing Eurostar over flying.

Eurail Pass

For our onward journey into Europe I had a Eurail Global Pass, 10 days in 2 months. With this pass it is possible to travel through 21 European countries for 10 days over 2 months. Travel is unlimited from midnight to midnight on travel days and offers maximum flexibility to go just about anywhere.
On the first day you plan to use your Eurail Pass you need to have it validated by a railways official. Arriving at the station a lot earlier on this first day is recommended, as you'll need to visit the ticket office to have your passport sighted and the pass stamped and validated. Depending on the time of day, the stations can get quite busy, so best to allow time to line up to have this done before you intend to catch your train. Before boarding your first train of the day, you must fill in the date of travel on the Eurail pass for the pass to be valid. If you board the train without doing this and the conductor comes by before you write it in, you'll generally be looking at an instant fine.

Many trains in Europe are now high speed "premier" services which have compulsory reservations. Pre-booking services where possible before travelling will save you plenty of time and will get you on your preferred train. There are generally long queues for reservations & ticket purchases, especially in busy season.

TGV: Paris Est to Strasbourg

This is a fairly new service introduced to the TGV network with new rolling stock only a few years old. You can tell this is a new train with its bright fabric seats and sleek design. It is very comfortable with reclining seating and headrests. Storage for luggage was similar to the Eurostar with a luggage compartment at one end of the carriage and overhead racks above all the seats.

As you zoom through the country side you can make your way to the Bistro car and choose from a range of "café" style food and drinks to eat either in the bistro car or back at your seat. My only difficulty was not having any English descriptions for the menu available.

Strasbourg looked like an amazing city, I only had a few hours to quickly walk around but it is certainly a place I would put on my list to visit properly next time. The Strasbourg Railway station is a fantastic sight itself, a massive glass dome in easy walking distance to the centre of Strasbourg. If you just plan a quick look around before heading off on your next train, it is easy to store your bags at the station for a small fee.

TGV: Strasbourg to Zurich

One of the older stock of TGV's and although you can see the age difference in the train, it is still a comfortable service. The seats on these trains had footrests so you could recline and rest while watching the scenery whiz by. This TGV also had a Bistro car if you felt peckish, and a trolley car was rolled through a few times serving snacks and drinks at your seat. The train only stopped twice along the way in Mulhouse and Basel, Basel being a slightly longer stop. Apart from the conductor checking our pass and reservation not long after our departure from Strasbourg, there was no other onboard checking of passports even though we had crossed the border.

Swiss Pass

If you plan to travel on a few trains in Switzerland and want the extra benefit of free travel on the huge network of buses and ferries, a Swiss pass is definitely worth considering. Not only will it get you around Switzerland with ease, but it gives an extra bonus of free entry to more than 400 museums. Switzerland is a country full of mountains and the Swiss pass will give a good discount on accessing peaks such as the Jungfrau, Pilatus, Titlis and many others.

ICN : Zurich to Lausanne

This Inter City train was single level and an older train. We could tell we were not on a high speed train like the TGV straight away, but when travelling through Switzerland you actually want to go slower to take in all the scenery. The train was fitted with large leather seats and fold down tray table. An electronic sign at the front of the car displayed the next stop and arrival time so you could easily keep track of where you were.

In the Restaurant car on this train you had proper tables and chairs you could sit at next to the windows and it was busy with passengers enjoying breakfast and coffee.

Lausanne to Montreux

This local train took us along the edge of Lake Geneva and through the incredible terraced vineyards of the Lavaux region - a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although a very short trip, it was one of my favorite train rides with the gorgeous combination of lake, mountains, small villages and terraced vineyards. Montreux is a town nestling between Lake Geneva and the mountains, a place of exceptional beauty. A guided tour of the medieval Chillon Castle, one of Switzerland's most visited castles, is a must when you visit Montreux.

Lavaux Vinorama: Montreux to Rivaz

The Lavaux Vinorama is a discovery center of wines and vineyards of Lavaux, registered to the UNESCO World Heritage. Some 170 wines of this region are available for purchase, and every week you can taste a selection of them on the bar or in the wine tasting area. A film can also be watched which describes the annual work involved with being a wine grower in Lavaux.

Chocolate Train: Montreux - Gruyere - Broc - Montreux

Travel in a Belle Epoque carriage or a panoramic car across the land of chocolate. This day trip includes 1st class train travel, bus transfers and entry to the cheese factory, chocolate factory and to the Gruyeres castle. After visiting the cheese factory in Gruyere, you then have ample time to explore the medieval town of Gruyere, its castle and then find yourself lunch before continuing on to the chocolate factory. I would have to suggest you sample a cheese fondue for lunch, decadent to say the least! The Chocolate train departs every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday in May, June, September and October and daily in July and August.

Golden Pass: Montreux to Luzern via Zweisimmen and Interlaken

One of Switzerland's most beautiful panoramic lines, a unique journey alongside lakes, mountains and glaciers. Depending on your direction you travel, there are a number of different Golden Pass trains with their own style. Food and beverages are able to be purchased onboard from the trolley service. Three trains are required for the journey along the whole Golden Pass route. The track between Montreux and Zweisimmen and Interlaken and Luzern are narrow gage, while the middle stretch Zweisimmen to Interlaken is a normal gage track.

Montreux to Zweisimmen is the mountainous part of the journey, with fantastic panoramic cars on each end of the train. Advance bookings are recommended for these carriages, they have an option to book "driver view" seats right at the front/back of the train for an additional surcharge. The connection between trains in Zweisimmen is only a few minutes, however this is fine as the departing train is waiting for you at the platform straight across from where you disembark.

The Zweisimmen to Interlaken leg enjoys views of Lake Thun before arriving into Interlaken. Interlaken has a lot to offer as a stop-over with cruises on the Thun and Brienz lakes, train up to Jungfraujoch (the highest train station in Europe), cable car up to Schilthorn or the Brienz -Rothorn steam train up to Rothorn.

Interlaken to Luzern has some beautiful lake and mountain scenery, passing through Meiringen and then up the Brunig Pass before descending down into Luzern. This sector sometimes uses an Inter Regio train which is comfortable but doesn't have the panoramic windows. When in Luzern a must do is to go up the cog railway, the steepest in the world, to the summit of Mt Pilatus.

ICE: Basel to Cologne

We departed out of Basel Sbb on this very modern and comfortable train and stopped a few moments later on the German side Bad Bf Station before heading off again on a high speed journey into Germany. The conductor came through checking our tickets, and at the same time asked if we would like to buy a drink to be brought back to our seat. At our seat we also had a menu for the bistro car and an information book on the ICE service we were on, its services and stops. I visited the Bistro car and found an even larger menu selection (in English) available from meatballs and frankfurters to salads and sandwiches, all at a very reasonable price. I found the ICE to be a fantastic service, and although it lacked the amazing scenery of Switzerland, I decided it was one of my favourite trains.

Thalys: Cologne to Brussels

Thalys is a red, high speed train that operates mainly between Cologne, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. The décor of the Thalys train is quite modern and the seats are ergonomically designed for comfort. In first class, a light meal is included which depends on the time of day you travel. We were offered filled rolls, fruit and cakes. Tea, coffee, water & juice were also included.

Before we arrived into Brussels Midi station, we were asked if we wanted to book a taxi and could fill out a form to give to the conductor. The taxi drivers then wait for passengers inside the station by the Thalys office; they have a maximum price they can charge you for drop off within Brussels city (EUR23). Brussels Midi is a huge station which services not only Thalys but local trains as well as the Eurostar, so allowing plenty of connecting time for onward train connections is wise.

Eurostar: Brussels to London

When heading to London on the Eurostar I would suggest arriving well before the minimum 30 minute check in. Once through the ticket check, you have the Belgium side passport control, bag scan area and then you'll need to stop and fill in a UK arrival card before proceeding through the UK customs and passport control.

On the return back to London we tried out Standard class and found it to be perfectly comfortable and certainly a good value option. I would rate it as just as comfortable as travelling economy on an airplane but with the ability to get up and walk around freely and visit the restaurant car for a meal whenever you feel peckish.

Travel by train through Europe is truly the way to go, with frequent departures and fast comfortable trains; it is so easy and convenient to get to your destination. I found that arriving straight into the city centre with only a cheap taxi ride to your hotel was such less a hassle than having to negotiate your way through an airport terminal and find airport transfers. My two main points of advice for rail travel would be to book/reserve in advance where possible and to pack those suitcases lightly!

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