Trip Coach: June 12, 2007

tc_061207_msmithtc_061207_msmith

Mark Smith, editor of England-based website Seat61.com, answered your questions on booking inter-city rail travel in Europe.

Mark Smith: Hi, this is Mark Smith. Thank you for joining me. I'm ready to answer your questions about inter-city rail travel in Europe!

_______________________

Egg Harbor Township, NJ: I am taking my mother to Switzerland and Germany. I have already purchased my tickets and will be arriving Zurich 10/09/07. I plan to leave Zurich on the 12th or the 13th, then go to Frankfurt, from there I want to go to Munich, then on to Berlin, then leave Berlin for home on 10/23/07. I would like to stay in each of those places a few days. I promised my mother no flying once in Europe so I was looking at a train pass. I was on the Rail Europe web site and found what I want but there were only prices in first class. Is it possible to get a pass in a cheaper class? (2nd and 3rd class gets there the same time as 1st). Thanks for any help you can give me. Linda

Mark Smith: Hi Linda. Forget expensive railpasses. Just use http://bahn.hafas.de (English button at upper right) to plan all your train trips, and to book the Munich-Berlin train online (there may be very cheap deals available if you pre-book this section). Then buy the Zurich-Munich train at any Swiss station as soon as you reach Switzerland, there are always lots of places available even on the day of travel. You'll find the journey very comfy, and scenic!

_______________________

Mount Laurel, NJ: Since I am able to read French, I recently booked a TGV ticket directly on the SNCF website (voyages-sncf.com) rather than through Rail Europe, the official US sales outlet. SNCF also offered many more low fares than Rail Europe. Is there any downside to doing this?

Mark Smith: This is exactly what I recommend! Book online at European prices with all the cheap airline-beating advance purchase deals that we Europeans are offered, direct with the European Railways. SNCF try to make it a little difficult for you, as Rail Europe is their subsidiary company and they'd rather rich Americans paid the special Rail Europe prices. So SNCF will happily send tickets to Iran, Iraq, Northern Korean and even Afghanistan, but quite deliberately NOT the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. But to get round this, simply leave 'France' selected as the country in which you want to receive tickets and you can print out most of the cheapest 'prems' special fares and have other tickets sent to an address in France, for example your hotel. Easy!

_______________________

Sarasota, FL: We are flying in to Paris on September 1 and returning from Madrid on Sept 28th. We plan to visit Eastern France, Barcelona, Southern Spain and if there is time Portugal. We generally use second class train tickets (except on overnight travel) to move about. I'm puzzled about whether or not to buy tickets ahead of time, (what package) or to wait and simply buy the tickets there. What is your advice? Jim

Mark Smith: If you're planning long distance journeys and you want to retain the ability to be spontaneous, to be able to decide there and then to hop on a train tonight in Paris to go to Berlin tomorrow, then a Eurail pass is probably going to save money over full fares. But pre-book cheap deals online direct with the European railways at sites like www.voyages-sncf.com or www.citynightline.com or www.nachtzug.de, on a no-refunds, no-changes-to-travel-plans basis and this is now almost certainly the cheapest option for long distance travel in western Europe.

_______________________

Fremont, California: Is it possible to buy a Eurorail ticket in the USA and if so, is it cheaper than buying a ticket in Europe?

Mark Smith: In theory, Eurail tickets can ONLY be bought outside Europe, as they are intended for overseas visitors. But in many cases you'll find ordinary point-to-point tickets are a cheaper option, especially if you book direct with the European rail operators at their own website rather than through an expensive US agency, and especially if you are prepared to pre-book tickets on a no-refunds, no-changes-to-travel-plans basis so as to take advantage of European railways' various budget-airline-beating special train deals.

_______________________

Chicago, IL: May/June 2008, wife & I, ages 61&65, will go to Madrid, Sp. on frequent flier miles. Then Train to Lisbon, Por. for a 3 day pre group tour. Group travels 2 weeks & ends back in Madrid when we will Train from Madrid to Santiago, Sp. for 1 week & return to Madrid for flight home. (All 1st class train or overnight sleepers) I have gone on the internet to find discounts/schedules but only get more confused. Please HELP?

Mark Smith: Spanish Railways website will give you fares for the Madrid-Lisbon 'Lusitania trenhotel' sleeper train. I'd go for a 2-bed preferente sleeper, or better, a 2-bed gran classe sleeper with private shower and toilet. Then ask the same website for Madrid-Santiago and back. It's possible to go Lisbon-Porto-Vigo-Santiago, but with quite a few changes. And probably a hotel stop in Porto. To find Lisbon-Porto train times, fares and to book online, use the Portuguese Railways site for Lisbon-Porto (www.cp.pt). Then as neither Portuguese nor Spanish websites handle a cross-border multi-train trip very well, let's bring in the Germans: http://bahn.hafas.de (English button upper right) will find Porto-Santiago connections. For all of these trips, buying tickets at the station is the most practical option.

_______________________

Long Island, New York: Hello! We are 2 adults and 3 kids ages 10, 13 and 15. We are traveling by train from Madrid to Barcelona on December 25, 2007. Is there a "family" rate that will discount the children futher than a children's fare or are we all charged as individuals? Does Spain offer a family group discount? Thank you!

Mark Smith: None that I know of--the fares at www.renfe.es will apply per person, with a 20% discount for return journeys, whether you buy online or at the station.

_______________________

Charlotte, NC: My wife and I plan to tour Italy by train in September, starting in Milan, then to Genoa, Pisa, Rome, Florence, Venice, and back to Milan. We may add some side trips to places like Lucca and Assisi. We like the flexibility (and probably the cost-savings) of buying point-to-point tickets when we're there. But we don't want to spend a lot of time in lines or have to worry about the availability of reservations on those trains that require them. Your advice? Thank you.

Mark Smith: You won't have difficulty getting seats on trains at short notice, except at the busiest holiday periods--September should be no problem at all. You can plan your trip and check fares anywhere in Italy at the Italian Railways website, www.trenitalia.it/en/index.html. Normal tickets for Italy are almost always cheaper than a railpass, unless you're commuting from Milan to Sicily every day!

_______________________

Troy, OH: I will be visiting Rome on June 22 and taking a train to Naples on June 25. Going back to Rome on June 29. On June 30, I am going to Venice. I would like to purchase train tickets for these days online, but it seems so confusing. Can I just wait until I arrive in Rome to buy them all? I Would like first class seats. There will be two adults on the first trip and three from Rome to venice. Thank you.

Mark Smith: It's easy to buy tickets at the station in Italy, and there are almost always places available, except at peak holiday times. Or book online using the Italian Railways' 'ticketless' facility to avoid queuing at the ticket office, at www.trenitalia.com/en/index.html. You book online, pay by credit card and simply quote your booking reference on board. Go for a Eurostar Italia train, these are the best and fastest in Italy. Second class is absolutely fine for most people, though first class is an affordable luxury.

_______________________

West Palm Beach, Florida: During a scheduled trip to Italy we are taking the Euro-Star Train from Rome to Florence to Venice. Where are large pieces of luggage stored on the train?

Mark Smith: The rule on all European trains is that you keep all your bags with you, small items on the racks above your head, large items like suitcases on the luggage stacks at the end of each coach. In sleepers and couchettes, you take it into your compartment with you, there's space provided for luggage.

_______________________

Kansas City, MO: What are the benefits of a first class Britrail pass versus the regular pass? Is it worth it? thanks, Mary

Mark Smith: First class means wider softer seats, more space and legroom, usually less crowding, and occasionally free tea or coffee or even more. And less chance of having to sit next to screaming kids! But as a Brit, I only go first class if the company is sending me on business. If I'm paying for my own ticket, first class is out of the question most of the time, in fact it's only affordable if I can corner one of those cheap deals off-peak. Standard class is fine!

_______________________

Webster, New York: Hi Mark, For my 40th birthday I will be traveling in Europe this summer. I have always wanted to travel by train and I hope I have the chance. I will be in Prague from August 15-18 and will need to get to Budapest on the 18th...is there a way to book a relatively inexpensive trip for 3 adults from Prague to Budapest? Thank you for your help! Karen

Mark Smith: I'd wait till you get to Prague and book a sleeper on the direct overnight train to Budapest or a seat on one of the daytime Eurocity trains on the first day at the station. You can check times beforehand at http://bahn.hafas.de (English button upper right). The fare will only be about 60 euros plus 20 euros for a bed in a 3-bed sleeper, or 30 euros in a 2-bed sleeper. This trip can't be booked online and overseas agencies will charge you far, far more.

_______________________

West Des Moines, IA: My husband & I leave for Milan on 9/18/07, arriving the morning of 9/19. We want to take a train to the Cinque Terre area and spend a couple days walking along the entire route. We must be in Milan at the airport the morning of 9/22 to meet some friends. Can you recommend train routes & approximate times (Milan to whichever of the five cities you would begin/end with) train travel would take? Thank you. KH

Mark Smith: No problem--just go to www.trenitalia.com/en/index.html and you can check times and fares for any Italian train journey. You can book online at Italian prices there, too!

_______________________

Milwaukee, WI: My husband & I (both seniors) will be taking two teenagers (both 14) to France next summer (2008). We would like them to experience the TGV, but are not interested in doing the whole trip by train - so that excludes rail passes. We're thinking of a round trip Paris-Avignon as we'll be in the south for 10 days. What is the easiest/best/least expensive way to book a reserved table seat for four? Are there special fares for teens / seniors? How can we book such from the US? Thanks for your advice. Clare

Mark Smith: Just go to the official French Railways website, www.voyages-sncf.com, leave 'France' selected and book a return from Paris to Lyon. The cheapest 'prems' fares must be booked at least 14 days in advance (maximum 90 days, the closer to 90 the better) and they can be printed out on your own PC printer. Easy! Other fares must be sent to an address in France, but how about sending them to your hotel?

_______________________

Irvine, CA: We are traveling with two boys in July , from Paris to Perpignan, in France on the TGV. Do they have food to purchase on the train? Thank you, Norah

Mark Smith: On European trains, you're free to take your own picnic if you want, including your own alcohol (welcome to the real land of the free!). I often take a bottle of wine with me, it's a lot cheaper than buying a bottle on the train. But there's a buffet-bar on every long-distance TGV selling filter coffee, snacks, wine, beer.

_______________________

Portland, Oregon: Is the Eurostar trip from London to Paris counted as one of your days when you purchase a 4 day in 2 months pass for France and Italy?

Mark Smith: Yes. But as the special passholder fares are actually MORE expensive than the cheap fares you can get if you pre-book in advance at www.eurostar.com, I'd simply buy a normal ticket for this section.

_______________________

Ann Arbor, MI: My daughter (25) and I (66) arrive in Frankfurt, early morning of July 20. I have to be in Berlin the evening of July 24 for a Conference. We leave Berlin the morning of July 29. We plan to travel by train from Frankfurt to Berlin, and any other must-see destinations near Frankfurt and Berlin, or between Frankfurt and Berlin. How do we find train routes? Do we buy before we leave, or after we arrive? Where ought we to go? What about intra-city travel in Frankfurt and Berlin?

Mark Smith: If you don't remember any other European train resource, remember the Germany Railways all-Europe timetable, http://bahn.hafas.de (English language button upper right). It will give you train times for almost any journey in Europe, and even allow cheap fares to be booked online for journeys within Germany.

_______________________

La Quinta, CA: I will be in Paris in September, traveling with my daughter. We are thinking about taking the train to Brussels for a day trip - could you advise on the difference between first and second class? Thank you!

Mark Smith: First class means more space, and wider seats with more legroom. On Thalys trains drinks and snacks are included in the first class fares on Mondays-Fridays. But first class is aimed at businesspeople, second class is perfectly adequate for normal travel!

_______________________

Bluffton, South Carolina: Can I travel with my electric scooter chair? Do the trains have lifts to load it on and off the train? The scooter weighs 38.5 kg. Thank you

Mark Smith: Most modern western European trains now have wheelchair spaces and there are ramps or lifts to handle these at all main stations. But unfortunately, large motorised scooters are generally too big for trains.

_______________________

New York, NY: I am a student who will be studying in London this July. My program ends August 11 and I'm planning on meeting my family in Barcelona on August 14. Is there a train that could take me from London to Barcelona during that 3 day span? I'm definitely working on a student budget but I do have ISIC. Any tips? I'd much rather have a scenic train ride than do budget air...

Mark Smith: There certainly is--Eurostar to Paris in the afternoon from ?59 return, then the excellent trainhotel sleeper train Paris-Barcelona overnight, from 67 euros with a bed for the night in a 4-bed sleeper. My site has the info, at www.seat61.com/Spain.htm.

_______________________

Arcadia, CA: We arrive Frankfurt airport morning of July 13 from CA. We will take a through train to Interlaken, Switzerland from the airport. We bought Swiss Transfer tickets which need to be validated once we enter Switzerland. Do we need to exit the train at Basel to get the transfer tickets validated, or can it be done on the train without paying an additional fee? If we get off in Basel we will need to get another train to Interlaken after validation.

Mark Smith: The last time I used a Swiss Transfer Tickets, I entered Switzerland fast asleep on a Paris-Bern sleeper train--so I definitely didn't get off! But just double-check that your agency isn't giving you some sort of voucher to exchange instead of the Swiss Transfer ticket proper.

_______________________

Salem, Oregon: When prebooking rail for Europe, does Rail Europe supply you with all train schedules? Trying to make reservations from Venice to Assisi has been a difficult task with only 1 train a day. When actually there, will there be more options to choose from? Is it best to wait and make reservations once you get there? Thanks for any help you can give. Nancy

Mark Smith: There are LOADS of trains! Just use the excellent German Railways timetable for any journey in Europe, at http://bahn.hafas.de (English button at upper right). Within Italy, the Italian Railways website www.trenitalia.it/en/index.html will give both times and fares, and allow online booking at cheap Italian prices.

_______________________

Qualicum Beach BC Canada: We will be flying into Paris next Spring Break and after touring there, want to travel to Barcelona and Nice. We need to take the train to either location as we are flying "Open Jaw" back from one of these places. It is easy to get from Barcelona to Nice? Which would be cheaper--getting the train from Paris to Nice or Paris to Barcelona? Thanks SO much, Sandy

Mark Smith: From Paris to Barcelona you can use the excellent trainhotel, see the photos on my own website at www.seat61.com/Spain.htm under 'London to Barcelona'. You could book at www.voyages-sncf.com, leave 'France' selected and have tickets sent to your hotel in Paris. From Barcelona to Nice, the same website will book it, but only if you break the trip down into Barcelona-Montpellier (there's a direct 'Talgo' train at around 08:00) and a connecting Montpellier-Nice leg. Allow at least half an hour between trains in Montpellier.

_______________________

Venice,Florida: In October we will be traveling from London to Paris. We are thinking about taking the Chunnel train but hear it is expensive. What would you suggest?

Mark Smith: Eurostar is both the fastest, most comfortable and convenient way to go, and an experience in itself, so definitely take it..! Fares start at £59 return, or £155 one-way. Yes, you read that right..! Which is why I always buy a £59 return and throw away the return half after using the outward portion. I think that if you tell the site you're from the USA you may be offered sensible one-way fares, but us Brits have to pretend to make a round trip, and everyone in the know does this¿

_______________________

St. Petersburg FL: A friend and I will be traveling to Italy in October. We're flying into Florence on October 13, on October 20 we'll go to Rome and then on October 25 to Venice. We fly out of Venice back to Florida on October 27. Is train travel the best way to get from Florence to Rome and from Rome to Venice? I had read that taking an overnight train from Rome to Venice was the way to go but I can't figure out the price. It appears that it would be less expensive to fly.

Mark Smith: Train is the way to go..! You can book Italian trains online at Italian cheap prices at www.trenitalia.com/en/index.html. For overnight travel you should select either a sleeper or couchette. 2-bed sleepers come in small and narrow 2nd class 'T2' type or the larger (but still compact) first class double type. A lot cheaper than a flight, plus taxis at each end, plus a hotel!

_______________________

los angeles, ca: I am planning a trip to London and Amsterdam in October and have not decided how to go from London (Eastbourne area to Amsterdam). What's the most economical or convenient way to go? Train or air? Thanks.

Mark Smith: The cheapest way is to use the traditional and fun train, ferry, train service, from just ?25 one way from central London to central Amsterdam (see www.seat61.com/Netherlands.htm), then buy a separate Eastbourne-London ticket, check times and fares at www.nationalrail.co.uk. Remember that a train out of central London to Heathrow, Luton or Stansted airports will cost ?12 each way, even before you set foot on a plane!

_______________________

Battle Ground, Washington: I'm meeting my son and his family in Paris for a few days, and then we're on to Provence by way of the TGV. I think I've got that wired, but I have a real basic question about the Paris Metro. In fact, I'm sure it sounds stupid - but...Since there will be 6 of us using the Metro quite a bit for a couple of days, if, for instance, I buy a "Carnet" of 10 tickets, can each of the six of us use 6 tickets from the same carnet for the same trip on the same day?

Mark Smith: Yes, no problem.

_______________________

Mark Smith: Our time is up! Thanks for all your great questions.

Related Content