Category Archives: Travel tips

Who’s in the top spot?

This year (so far!) I’ve travelled with eight different train companies. I’ve just sacrificed a page of my current writing notebook to list them. In the interests of helping out other travellers, or at least of warning them what to expect, I thought I would write a post comparing them, using a set of perhaps random criteria that seem to me the most important. Of course safety is absolutely the most important criterion, but fortunately I cannot make any complaints about that. This year, unusually, I am unable to quibble either about my second most important criterion, which is whether the train actually turns up or not. So what follows may seem quite minor in the scheme of things. On the other hand, these minor details can loom quite large when you’re travelling a long way or making a lot of short journeys within a short time.

On Pitlochry station
On Pitlochry station

So here we go with the train company awards for 2015.

The contenders are Virgin East Coast, Virgin West Coast, Cross Country, Arriva Trains Wales, Scotrail, Eurostar, Deutsche Bahn, Thalys.

KEEPING TO TIMETABLE

Quite amazingly, the only train that ran more than a few minutes late in all these journeys was the Deutsche Bahn train from Berlin to Cologne, which as far as I can recall was half an hour late. So 10/10 for all the others in this category and about 8/10 for DB – this was a noticeable improvement on last year when neither of their trains reached its official destination at all.

CHANGING PLATFORM AT LAST MINUTE

I’m afraid Virgin East Coast definitely wins this award for sending us from one end of Edinburgh Waverley to the other with only 10 minutes to go before departure time. But a special mention here to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, where it’s almost impossible to find the right platform anyway, even if there aren’t any last-minute changes of plan.

CATERING

Scotrail’s on-board catering is way ahead of the rest, being extremely frequent and efficient as well as generally being staffed by pleasant people. They do have the built-in advantage in that their trains often have far fewer coaches than the longer-distance ones and are sometimes quieter too. The other companies, e.g. Cross Country, often seem to give up on their trolley service at various points during the journey, while the Scotrail one persists to the bitter end.

Virgin’s at-seat first-class service is good too although I am not sure it’s quite as good as that of the previous train company on the East Coast route.

I haven’t sampled Eurostar catering, mainly because once I fold myself into one of their extremely cramped seats (see below) I don’t really want to have to get up again until we reach our destination.

I was disappointed by the catering in Deutsche Bahn’s first-class coaches. Although there is quite a good menu available, the staff don’t seem to have the appropriate tools for their task, i.e. somewhere to write down orders or a trolley to deliver them on. While not being quite as horrendous as the cheese, mayonnaise and gherkin sandwiches and luke-warm Cola I got from the second-class buffet  on leaving Cologne at 5 a.m. last year, it does seem a bit amateurish.

To sum up, for companies who aren’t Scotrail it’s best to go to M&S at the station and grab a giant vegetable samosa, a drink and a slice of Victoria sponge cake before you board the train. Or if you’re in Brussels waiting for the Eurostar, you can get a really nice slice of quiche at one of the food outlets.

WI-FI

In my experience the free wi-fi that most train companies boast of nowadays is a waste of time – it disconnects randomly and is often so anaemic that it doesn’t even allow you to look at Twitter, never mind email or Facebook.

Virgin East Coast first-class ‘free’ wi-fi is quite good, but DB first-class wi-fi isn’t.

The best train wi-fi I have come across is the paid version offered by Cross Country. It cost me about £4 to access it all the way from Derby to Edinburgh, and the service was excellent.

SEATS

I don’t think I would have noticed this if I hadn’t done so many journeys within such a short time, but the comfort of train seats varies tremendously. DB seats, for instance, look as if they should be comfortable but they appear to be made for giants – I think of myself as quite tall but I couldn’t reach the foot-rests for some reason. By contrast Eurostar seats, in the cheap section anyway, have almost no leg-room, although the journey is fairly short so it doesn’t matter a lot, and they do feel quite cosy!

Thalys seats seem to be ok, as are Virgin east and west coast. Arriva Trains Wales are a bit more cramped. Cross Country are the least comfortable – the seats seem to be made in an odd shape with a raised front edge that catches you just above the knee.

Scotrail take the award for best seats. I don’t know why they’re so comfortable. Maybe they’re specially designed for true Scots or something!

SEAT RESERVATIONS

Oh, dear, Virgin trains both east and west. Even when you manage to get the seat reservations in place, they are often so confusing that people ignore them anyway.

ANNOYING ANNOUNCEMENTS

Oh dear. Them again. If it isn’t endless lists of foods that are allegedly available from the buffet, which is almost always at the other end of the train, it’s stupid voice-overs in the loos, especially on the west coast route. Just stop it.

HELPFUL ANNOUNCEMENTS

Scotrail is best (again. Not that I’m biased) for helpful and very clear announcements telling you what the next stop will be and whether it’s a request stop, of which there are many in the far north. And no excess verbiage – see above.

SUMMING UP

So Scotrail is best for catering, most comfortable seats and most helpful announcements.

Cross Country’s wi-fi is ahead of the others.

Virgin East Coast gets the ‘changing platforms at the last minute’ award and Virgin West Coast the ‘annoying announcements’ award.

Thanks to all the train companies mentioned for getting me there and back again through the year without any serious incidents!

Random Travel Tips

Some things I’ve learned during my week’s travel by train and ferry:

Make sure you always have some food and drink with you before you get on the train – even if it’s more than you thought you could carry. I was lulled into a sense of false security by my experiences on East Coast trains, and forgot this temporarily. I’m not sure if my tastebuds will ever recover from the shock of the Deutsche Bahn cheese sandwich.

Leading on from the first point, the catering arrangements on trains will hardly ever match what’s available at stations – especially at Brussels Midi and Stockholm Central. So it’s worth either stocking up on supplies as you change trains  or eating if you have time between connections.

Helsinki Market Square
Helsinki Market Square

Talking of connections reminds me of my next point, which is that the longer you have between trains the better. On long distance trips, there is a good chance of delay somewhere. I am particularly over-cautious about this so I recommend at least two hours for connections, and even then an overnight stop is sometimes better. There were several occasions on my recent travels when I had less than an hour in hand, and I didn’t enjoy either running up the steps to the next platform in Brussels with all my luggage because the escalator had broken down and there was only ten minutes to spare, or arriving in Copenhagen half an hour after my train to Stockholm had departed.

This leads neatly on to the need to prepare before going away. I don’t mean preparing in the sense of making sure you have your passport and toothbrush with you, but in the sense of thinking about what to do in certain scenarios. I remember someone once asking me why  I always expected things to go wrong with journeys, and I suppose it was because of past travel experiences. So although I didn’t have an exact plan for getting to Helsinki when I was stranded in Malmo and had missed my ferry, I had researched the different ferry options beforehand and knew there was a chance of catching the ship that sailed right into Helsinki instead of to Turku. For some reason it was always the connection in Copenhagen that worried me most when I was planning the journey, perhaps because it wasn’t even suggested by the Man in Seat 61! I think perhaps my final travel tip should be not to use routes or options not described in detail on his website.

However, my final tip instead is to try and relax and enjoy yourself, no matter what happens along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to do this after you’ve been travelling for 48 hours and things start to go wrong when the end seems to be in sight. But people will generally be a lot more helpful if you’re not shouting at them. (This could be a good tip for life too.)

By-passing the Flamingos

Visiting Disneyland was just the start of it. Our next trip after that was a much more ambitious one, involving a few nights in Paris followed by a lengthy train journey across France and all the way to Barcelona and back. By that time we were seasoned Eurostar travellers. While in Paris we sampled various other forms of transport, including the batobus, the Metro and, best of all, a trip boat on the Canal Saint Martin.

Canal Saint Martin
Going into a lock on the Canal Saint Martin

Coincidentally it was just outside the Musée d’Orsay, housed in a former railway station, that we had a family row started by me and probably caused by trying to visit too many museums in one day.  The museum still looks just like a station.

Musée d'Orsay
Musée d’Orsay interior

Luckily by the time we boarded our TGV at the Gare de Lyon for the next part of our journey, that was all forgotten. You can book right through from Paris to Barcelona. I’m not sure if it’s always necessary to change trains at Montpellier, where there were some rather pretty trams and a useful bag shop inside the station for people whose travel bags had fallen apart on the way.  We enjoyed the section on the TGV better than the rest, but later I became fascinated by the lagoons and flamingos we caught sight of during the trip along the southern French coast, and I began to wonder if we should have got off the train there to investigate instead of carrying on with a journey that became particularly tortuous at the Spanish border at Portbou, where I think the wheels were changed over to a different gauge and armed soldiers came through the carriages.

Barcelona sunrise
Barcelona sunrise

But of course it is always worthwhile going to Barcelona! I even managed to visit some more museums, and I thoroughly recommend the Picasso Museum and the Barcelona Museum, where there are real Roman ruins in the lower levels and you can walk round them.

estacio franca
Estacio Franca – waiting for the night train

We had decided to travel back on the night train or Trenhotel from Barcelona to Paris. One tip for Barcelona (though this may well have changed by now) is that there weren’t any left luggage facilities at the Estacio Franca, and we had to go over to the other station, Barcelona-Sants, to deposit our bags for the day so that we could spend some more time sight-seeing, and then go back to collect them later.

As we spent all night and then all day travelling constantly, it turned out to be one of those times when we really enjoyed going first class from London to Edinburgh. I think all we were fit for by then was drinking coffee and eating whatever the train staff brought us.

Look out Europe, here we come!

I’m jumping forward in time in this post, although I will probably return to the distant past in due course. The sunshine this week in our grim northern outpost (Edinburgh) has made me think fondly of warm southern holidays and travelling across Europe to distant and different places.

I thoroughly recommend The Man in Seat Sixty-One for planning this kind of journey, particularly if it’s at all complicated. I’ve always found his advice on routes to be excellent, even although the details may change slightly over time. For instance Rail Europe, which we used to use for European train bookings, has now been replaced by the SNCF website.

It’s also best to be flexible about through bookings. So for instance it’s theoretically possible to book from Edinburgh to Paris or Brussels or some other European destination via the Eurostar website, but I usually find there’s some reason to make the bookings separately. For instance you might want to travel first class from Edinburgh to London – I quite often do, to avoid the fall-out from random occurrences such as the passengers from two trains being shoehorned into one train, and to take advantage of the ‘free’ food that appears regularly in first class.  There’s nothing like an apparently endless supply of free coffee to help you forget you’ve been travelling for over 24 hours. Sometimes first class isn’t all that much more expensive than standard class on the East Coast main line either.

Our first foray into Europe by train as a family took place only a few years ago, when I wanted to visit Disneyland Paris to mark a special birthday. This is an ideal destination to reach by train as you can go straight out of the station into the park. You can also travel into Paris by train for the day from the same station. My tip for this trip is to make sure you learn the  French phrase for ‘my ticket won’t work in the exit gates’ in case you get stuck inside Les Halles station as we did!

Once we had successfully completed that first trip, Europe was our oyster (not a reference to the London transport card). More on all that later.

Disneyland train
Disneyland train
Thunder Mountain train
Thunder Mountain train