Valerie's London and Europe Trip

Staff member: Valerie // Trip date: Jan 2013

London

Day 1:
We arrived at Heathrow Airport at about 11.30 am and met up with our City UK transfers driver, who was waiting for us holding a card with my name on it. Arriving at the hotel, we all had a shower and slept until the next day. I have never felt so tired in all my life.

Day 2: The weather conditions were horrible. We heard on the news that many flights were cancelled due to heavy snow. We geared up with some very warm clothes and we were off to Trafalgar Square to exchange our HOHO voucher. First, we topped up our oyster card, as we were going to use it on the bus. This was very easy to do. It is exactly like topping up your MYKI card at 7-Eleven.

There are bus stops everywhere, and the buses runs frequently, if you miss one the next one arrives 5 -10 mins later. It was not advisable to take the tube due in the bad weather;therefore, bus 91 took us straight to Trafalgar Square. After looking around we found the Tourist office, if you are very good with reading a map then you will find it within seconds. After exchanging your voucher, just cross the road and catch the Sightseeing Bus. There are a few different lines, red, blue and yellow; so we took the yellow line and there was a guide on board. She was fantastic. If this is your first time in London, like us, then catch the yellow line as it takes to you to all the attractions and it also takes you to certain posh areas of London, showing you the houses of Margaret Thatcher, Madonna, Sean Connery, Roger Moore etc. The houses on that street are worth £18 million each.

We got off the bus at Piccadilly Circus, as we wanted to do some interesting things for the kids, so we went to 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not'. The kids loved it. It is not necessary to purchase a ticket to visit the museum unless you want to.

After a long day out the kids were tired, so we had a quick coffee and caught a cab back to our hotel, and that cost £18.

Day 3: We took bus 205 to Baker Street, to visit Madame Tussauds. The bus leaves you right in front of Westminster University, which faces the museum. Our priority entrance voucher purchased from Rail Plus got us in quickly. After spending a few hours in there, we decided to catch the underground just to experience it. The underground station is just a few steps away from the Museum. We were not sure which line to catch, so we asked the people who work there and they were very helpful. It got us where we needed to go which was Kings Cross station.

London - Brussels on the Eurostar
Our train was scheduled to depart at 10.58am; so we at St Pancras Station at 9.30am and we did well getting there early. The station was packed with people due to the weather conditions and a few Eurostar services were cancelled. We were lucky that ours was still running but with a few minutes delays. Once we got to the station, we checked in and they asked for our tickets and stamped it. They did not look at our rail pass. They advised that this would be done when we caught our connection in Brussels.

At 11am, we boarded our Eurostar in Standard Premier Class. A staff member asked for my name, which she already had on paper, greeted us. After that, we got to our seat. In Standard Premier Class, the seats were comfortable and there was enough legroom. Our two suitcases were kept in the luggage compartment with no problems. During the journey a continental breakfast was offered on board.

Brussels - Bruges on the Intercity Train
At 2.30pm, we arrived at Brussels Midi Station. Again, at this station, staff greeted us, but no one asked for tickets or to see our rail pass. We caught the IC train to Bruges. On this train, the conductor checked our rail pass and punched a hole on the first travel day. I found that train very good. It was clean and the seats were quite nice and it had two levels.

BRUGES

Day 1: Arriving in Bruges, we were not sure where to catch public transport, so we asked a woman who directed us to the second exit of the train station. This is where all the buses and taxis are located so we caught a taxi to our hotel and that cost us €15. Taxis are very common in Bruges and it was very easy. All taxis driver speak very good English. Bruges is a medieval city with a picturesque market square, dreamy canals and unique architecture. Each corner you look at is like looking at a painting.

Day 2: We took the bus tour from the Market place. This bus runs every hour. It is not a big bus, so it is first come, first served. We sat at the back of the bus and it was very squishy. For this tour, you purchase the ticket with the bus driver. This tour goes for about an hour.

Day 3: We checked out from our hotel about 10.30am and caught a taxi to the station. Bruges train station is not very big. At the entrance, you have the ticket office, then some kind of lounge. All writings are in Flemish. However, it was easy to find our platform. What I have also noticed in Belgium is that most trains are overground and offices are underground. Therefore, to access the platforms one needs either the lift or the escalators. Of course, we took the lift, as this was the most convenient while travelling with kids.

Bruges - Antwerp Intercity train
We caught our second IC train from Bruges to Antwerp. The IC train once again did not disappoint us. It was clean, very spacious and our rail pass allowed us to sit anywhere. The train was not full at all. We had a little cabin for ourselves; which was perfect for us.

Antwerp - Amsterdam on the Thalys
We arrived at Antwerp at 12.30pm. Antwerp train station was not very big however very modern and easy to navigate around. It has a huge board in the middle with all train departures and arrivals times. It has lots of shops. This is where we caught our Thalys train to Amsterdam. All trains scheduled are displayed on a big screen with the platform numbers; hence, there is no way that you can miss your train unless you are not paying attention.

We took the lift to platform 22 where we caught our Thalys. Before boarding, staff greeted us and directed us to our seats. We had a club 4 seater. Shelby had a seat even though we had no ticket for her. No one checked our ticket on this train. They only looked at the carriage number on your ticket. Five minutes after boarding, they offered some snacks (macaroons, tea biscuits, and croissants) with a choice of tea, coffee or soft drinks. Comfort 1 (1st class) offer free WIFI. Seats are very comfortable, you can automatically recline your seat, or move it forward and backward like on a plane but with much more legroom. Of course, my kids found this amazing and all of a sudden, they wanted to recline their seats.

AMSTERDAM

We arrived in Amsterdam at about 4.30pm and this station was busy. Once we got off the train, we took the lift to ground level. Outside there were heaps of taxis. There is a man there dressed in yellow and red who came up to us and asked if we needed a taxi. Then he chose which taxi we got in. A ride from the station to our hotel (10 mins away) cost €15.

Amsterdam city did not impress me personally. It is beautiful but the scenery is quite repetitive. You will see about 10 bridges, many canals, same kind of scenery as you go. I would not recommend, parents travelling with kids to go there. It is not a kid friendly environment. The atmosphere is quite scary even though it is safe. There so many Coffee Shops, now please be careful those coffee shops do not sell coffee the drink. They are specialised in all sort of cannabis. If you are after a cup of coffee, you should look for a CAFÉ.

Amsterdam - Zurich overnight train City Night Line
At 7.30pm, we left the hotel and caught a taxi to the train station. I went straight to the information centre where I was advised that the train to Zurich would arrive on platform 5B. The CNL train arrived but the board said destination Munich. This got everyone confused. The train number matched my ticket, so I thought it would be safer to ask the CNL staff. We were fine, it was the right train to Zurich not Munich. Staff at Amsterdam station got it wrong. There were people who boarded the train and others did not. We went straight to our cabin. This was actually very small. The beds were made up but we struggled to fit the luggage in. The beds were good enough for us. I shared mine with Shelby, and we both slept very well. There is no shower in this cabin but there was a washing basin, soaps and bottles of water. The toilettes and shower were at the end of the carriage, which was not too far. They were also in good condition.

The conductor came and checked our tickets, then took our passes and tickets and brought them back later due to customs requirements.

The train stopped in Basel and then continued to Zurich. We got a small breakfast in the morning. The kids got a special kids breakfast, which was chocolate milk, cake and crackers. Even though we did not purchase a ticket for Shelby as she was 2 years old, she also got the breakfast. I believe this will depend on the person who serves you.

ZURICH

We finally arrived at Zurich station at 8.30am. The station was quite busy for a Saturday morning. We used lockers to store our bags and this cost 9 Swiss Francs per suitcase. After all that, we were free for a day in Zurich. We used the tram free with our rail pass. Public transport in Zurich is very efficient.

Zurich - Lucerne Inter Regional Train
In the afternoon, we caught the IR train to Lucerne. We were in the first class carriage. The train was very comfortable and clean. There is a luggage compartment for our suitcases. The trip took about 1hr to Luzern.

LUZERN

Once in Luzern, we tried to catch a taxi but they will not take us because of the kids. I went to the information centre located at the train station. There they advised that the bus should take us to our hotel easily. We took bus #1 and then walked a few minutes and we were there. Taking the bus was very simple. No one checked the tickets. Kids are free.

Golden Pass Line:
We were off again to the station to catch the Golden Pass line. This time we walked to the station, which was very easy as well. On the departure board, I could not see the train; there was only the IR to Interlaken. I asked a conductor who advised me that this is the right train. He advised that this train is new. The new train was refurbished with nice leather seats. The windows were big. First class is very comfortable, in front of each seat there is a folding table with a map of the route on it.

The trip to Interlaken took about 2hrs. The scenery is just breathtaking. At Interlaken, all shops were closed as it was Sunday. We had to wait another hour to catch the regular train back to Luzern. This is important for people to know, that on the way back the train did the same route, same scenery. Catching the Golden Pass return is not necessary, unless one wants the extra luxury seats and dining car etc. The Regional carriages are at the back of the very long train. The Golden Pass one is at the front of the train. We accidentally boarded the second-class carriage. We did not notice the number on the door. However, we found it comfortable enough to keep going rather than changing for first class. The conductor was kind to let us know that we should be in first class but it was up to us. Kids were tired so we just travelled second class. The only differences were that the seats were old, and its can get a little bit noisy as people get on the train.

We decided to have a free day in Lucerne, as there is so much to do. If one wants to go to Mt Rigi you just need to catch the train from Lucerne train station, go to Hergiswil and from there you catch another train to Mt Rigi. Mt Pilatus is the same in that you need to catch a train to another little village then connect with another train. Trains in Switzerland are very efficient. They are always on time. Once the conductor whistles that means the train is ready to depart and if you happen to be late and you just got there, they will not allow you on the train. Lucern station is not very big, they have 12 platforms. Platforms are numbered as Platform 1A and 1B.

We caught many buses in Lucerne. This was our main source of transportation. Kids under 16 are free on the bus. We did not have to get a ticket either since we had a Swiss Pass. If you do not have a Swiss pass, you need to get a card which is called the 'passepartout' then you just enter it in the machine on the bus. Travelling by bus in Lucerne is so easy. The bus station is outside the train station, you cannot miss it.

Lucerne -ArthGoldau:
Now it was sadly time to leave Switzerland to go to Milan, Italy. We needed to catch a train from Lucerne to go to Arth-Goldau then from there to Milan. This train was an ICN train, very nice train as well. We were in first class, so got on our first class carriage, and then 5mins later we were told that we could not be on this carriage because of the kids. Wondering why, then he told us this is a quiet zone carriage, no mobile phones, no music, no kids allowed. We shifted to the next carriage still in first class. This train is very similar to the IR trains in Switzerland. Very clean and smooth running. The journey was great as the scenery was amazing. This train goes to Lugano. This is a cute little village with a small train station.

Arth- Goldau - Milan
At 12.15pm, we boarded our EC train to Milan. This is a 3-hour journey. Scenery is fantastic as well. The train itself was as good as the trains we caught in Switzerland. This train has a dining car on board and a coffee trolley, which comes around. This train goes through the villages like Bellinzona, Lugano, Como San Giovanni. You will also notice from Arth-Goldau people start to speak Italian. While you are on the train, staffs speak Italian as well. Once we crossed the border, a bunch of police officers came on board and checked some passports.

ITALY

Milan
We spent only 1 night in Milan as we got there late. However, we still went for a walk to have a look around and had dinner. Milan Centrale is very big, there are many shops. If you go to the station early, you will not be bored.

Milan - Rome
After a night in Milan, we walked to Milan Central station. The station is big with different levels and many shops. First thing I did was check the schedule to find our platform. I saw a Milan - Rome Termini departing at midday and train #9625, this did not match the train number on my ticket. My ticket stated train #9529, I waited a little bit to see if the board changed but it did not. I went to the ticket office on ground floor, and asked. There they said this train #9529 is the Napoli line, train will terminate in Naples but will stop in Rome Termini. However, the train will depart 5mins earlier than scheduled. I went back to the lounge and waited for them to announce the platform. This was done 10 mins before train departure at 12.10pm. We had to rush to platform 13 then find our coach #3, which was at the front. This was a bit disorganised compared with the other train that we caught prior. After running and a bit of screaming at the kids we finally made it. The carriage inside says business class, that it is similar to first class; this is just the way they named it. This train was very nice inside, very clean and comfortable. Seats are numerated as 1a, 1b, 2d. All D's are single window /aisle seats. The train had a restaurant on board. The waiter came around with a menu and invites you to the restaurant. Similarly, other staff came around and gave away newspapers, snacks and drinks.

Catching the train from Milan was not as smooth as I thought it would be. So please arrive early at the train station just in case. This will avoid you missing the train. Once again, do not hesitate to ask staff at the train station if you are not sure about certain things. Unfortunately, they do not speak English a lot. Nevertheless, you can manage. Avoid taxis once out of the station as they can roll you like they rolled us.

ROME

Rome is a magnificent city, but getting around the city can be tricky. Each little street might look alike. It is very easy to get lost. Always have a map with you and if you choose a landmark this will definitely facilitate things for you. We got on the Hop On Hop Off bus for €20 and the ticket lasts 24 hour from the time you bought it. Kids are free.

I validated our Rome pass in the morning. All you need to do is to write the name and date on the pass. We used our pass to access the Colosseum. This was great as we skipped a very, very long line. After the Colosseum, we were off to the Vatican City. The ticket was €16 per adults, kids are free. This ticket gives you access to the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel. However, it is a long walk from where the HOHO bus leaves to reach the Museum. At least a 10-15 mins walk. After the museum and the Chapel, we went to St Peter Square, which was great.
Our next stop was the Trevi Fountain. This fountain was beautiful but crowded with people. After this, we caught a normal bus, which took us back to Termini station. The Rome pass covers all public transport within Rome. On the bus, all you need to do is enter the card in the ticket machine.

Rome - Florence AV Train
We left Rome Friday morning to Florence. Our train was meant to depart at 1.25pm but it was delayed by 10 mins. The platform was not known until 10mins prior to train departure. In addition, the board showed train departure to Milan Centrale not Florence SMN, our destination. It is advisable to check the train number; if the train number matches your ticket then you know this is the right train. The train was the new AV, this is a new type of Eurostar TrenItalia. It is apparently faster than the other trains. In 2014, this train is expected to travel at a velocity of 400 km/h.

We arrived at Florence SMN. This station was not as big as Milan or Rome, however, it was crowded. At the station an old man who works at the station as a guide kindly gave us the direction to our hotel, which was spot on.

Florence - Venice
NTV: On our 1st day in Florence, we thought we would do a day trip to Venice. We went to the train station and went to the Italo ticket office first. The officer there was very helpful; she advised that as Italo NTV is very new, they do not have many trains that go to Venice regularly, and Eurail passes are not accepted by NTV. We had a Rail pass so NTV was not good for us.

I went to the TrenItalia ticket office to book 3 passholder fares on the next train to Venice and back. It cost €60. Venice Mestre to Venice Santa Lucia is about 4 minutes away from each other by train. Venice St. Lucia is currently under reconstruction. Once you are out of the station you will be mesmerized by the waterfront with the water taxi ferries and the people wearing masks.

Florence -Pisa Reg train
We left Florence Monday morning after breakfast. We caught a regional train to the Cinque Terre region. Regional trains are on platforms 1, 2, 3 and 4. Trains are just average, they are more crowded than the other trains. With your rail pass, you just board the train and sit anywhere. This train did not have a luggage compartment. You either keep your luggage with you and blocked some seats or leave it in the corridor and keep an eye on them.

Pisa - Monterosso
Our destination was Monterosso; from Florence, this trip is not direct. You need to change trains at Pisa Centrale. The trip is about 1 hour. Pisa Centrale is a station similar to one of our Melbourne local station. However, be careful in dark hallways and lifts.

Pisa - Monterosso IC
This time we caught IC674 stopping in Monterosso. The Cinque Terre villages are not far from each other, 5mins by train to reach each of them. Once you are out the station you come right in front of the breathtaking views of the ocean. The locals were kind and helpful. There so many bars and restaurants but most of them remained closed due to the flood damage. Locals advised us that the best way to see the Cinque Terre was by train, which runs every hour.

Monterosso - Genova
We left Monterosso after breakfast, and the hotel host dropped us at the train station. Monterosso is very small station with only 2 platforms. Our intercity train arrived on time. We boarded the train and went to our compartment. Surprise, surprise! There was Rene and Tammy in the same compartment. Rene is my colleague from Rail Plus and he was on a Europe famil too. It was great to meet up with them as we shared a bit of our travel experience.

Genova - Ventimiglia-Cannes
We got off at Genova Piazza Principe. We were catching a train from Genova to Ventimiglia. This trip was very nice, scenery just breathtaking. Once in Ventimilglia we ran to our regional train to Cannes as the later was about to depart. It was the TER Apls Cote D'azure. This train is a duplex. We sat on top to get great views of the beautiful scenery. We went pass cities like Monaco, Villefranche, Nice, Menton and more. Arriving at Cannes train station this station is not very big as well. There is an information office inside the station. Getting around the city is very easy by either bus or walking, so we did a bit of both. We got on a bus to Palm Beach and back. Tickets were only €2 Euros per adult. Child 0-4 is free.

CANNES

Cannes is so beautiful and this is a very glamorous city. Restaurants were everywhere and of course, most of them were fine dining. You cannot go to Cannes and not go to the famous film Festival Place. The Red carpet was there and lots of tourists as well. Casinos and Marinas really make this place a must visit city.

Cannes - Paris TGV
We left our hotel about lunchtime to catch our TGV to Paris. As usual, I checked the board, but there was no sign of our train. I went straight to the train staff and they kindly explained that our TGV is the same TGV going to Geneva. However, the carriage for Paris is located at the back of the platform. Along the way, the TGV train became two different trains going to different destinations.
The TGV was comfortable. The train has a dining car in the middle of the carriage. Each carriage has two luggage compartments. One is located at the entrance of the train and the other one at the back of the carriage. There were also luggage racks like all the other trains. This was a 5 hours trip, with two main stops Toulon and Aix en Provence. From Aix the train ran non-stop to Paris.

PARIS

Day 1: We arrived at Paris Gare De Lyon at about 5.30pm. It was very cold and it was snowing so we had to be careful at the train station. Gare de Lyon is a very busy station as it is the closest station to Disneyland. That night we checked into our hotel, which was across the road to the station.

Day 2: Our 2nd day in Paris was not very pleasant due to the weather. Nevertheless, we went out to start our adventure. First, we needed to find to get to Notre Dame to catch the Hop On Hop Off bus, Les Car Rouges. Since we had the Paris Pass, we did not need to purchase the Paris Visite Card to board the metro. At the metro station, we caught Line Chateau de Vincenne and we got off at L'Hotel De Ville. After crossing the bridge and the famous Notre Dame, there was the red bus. That bus was crowded despite the bad weather conditions. The bus passed every main attraction and museums like MuseeD'orsay, Louvre, Place des invalides, Trocadero, Arc de Triomphe, Gallery la Fayette and a lot more. We went to the magnificent Eifel Tower. The queue there was enormous. After purchasing our tickets, we went through the security check and then off we went in the lift for a breathtaking view from the top of the Eifel Tower.

As it was getting colder and colder, we thought that the best thing to do is to go back to our hotel. We caught our Red Bus, which stopped at Notre Dame. The queue to enter Notre Dame was so long, we could not believe it. There is a fast track entry on the side door of the Church and there is a sign for people who have a pass. I was surprised that catching the Metro in Paris was so easy.

Day 3: I had in mind to visit the Louvre but I was not keen to take the Red bus. I found the Metro so convenient with the kids. All you need is a good map of the tube to know your stop. We caught the Vincenne line again and this time we stopped at Louvre Rivoli. Once we came out the station, the museum was just in front of us. We spent a few hours in there, as there was so much to see. After a while, my kids were bored so it was time to leave. We kept on with my idea of catching the Metro, and this time our stop was Champ Elysee Clemenceau. Once we came out of this station, we were on the Champs Elysee and we could see the Arc De Triomphe. I loved this beautiful street full of shops and restaurants. This is such a busy street with lots of tourists. Since we wanted to buy Disneyland tickets, we went to the Disney store located on the Champs Elysee. There we were told to get a better discount we should buy the tickets at the FNAC. This is a similar store to Harvey Norman but bigger. FNAC is located on the Champs Elysee next to Sephora store. It was not far at all, so we walked there and indeed, we got a great deal. We paid €74 per Adult for a 1-day pass and the kids were free. The sales representative there also advised me that to obtain a further discount it is best to purchase the tickets at least 5 days prior. That was very helpful information for those who intend to purchase ticket locally.

Disneyland
Our next and final destination was Disneyland. After breakfast, we walked to the station, which was two mins away from our Novotel Hotel. There we caught the RER to Marne la Vallee or Val D'europe. Catching the RER is not as simple as catching the Metro. To Val D'europe, one must look for Line A. We walked for a good 10mins before arriving at the platform. Be careful at that station as there are people dressed as civilians and they pretend that they work at the station as a guide helping people. This man really did helped us, he carried our suitcases, showed us where to get the ticket and then you have to tip him. However, unfortunately he got us the wrong ticket. When we arrived at Marne la Vallee, we could not get through because the tickets were invalid. The woman at the ticket window let us though but I can tell you she was not happy.

From the station we walked to our hotel and very close by there was the biggest shopping centre and factory outlet. The next day we were at Disneyland, my kids were so excited. Most of the hotels not located in the park get free rides back and forth. This bus is pink and line 50. You definitely cannot miss it.

Arriving at Disneyland the park was full of people and I thought that in wintertime the park would probably be deserted. I was very wrong. There were many people, kids were everywhere. To go on a ride the average wait was 55 mins. We waited for that long for some rides and did both parks on two different days. It was amazing. Highly recommend parents travelling with kids to go there if they have time. I hired a stroller for my 2 yr old for the cost of €12. That really made things easy. After 4 nights at Val D'europe we caught a taxi to Charles de Gaulle Airport, which took 1 hour and cost €100.

Summary
When planning this trip I was very worried and stressed as to how things would go travelling with my four and two year old. However, it was wonderful and everything worked perfectly well. The Rail Pass definitely made life easier. With our Swiss Rail Pass, we got the free Swiss card for the kids. We caught many trains while being on this trip and my husband who was not a train lover is now a fan. Train travel is definitely the simplest way to travel country to country within hours. Travelling with the kids was fun and they just loved the trains.

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