Monday, 2 February 2009

Off track - why booking a euro-train couldn't be harder

So a third runway is given the go ahead and quite rightly we all cry 'what about trains?'. Well, what about them?

I love travelling by train. Aged 17 I set off, interrail ticket in hand, with 5 mates, to travel around Europe. With no plan we went city to city, consulting the Thomas Cook European train timetable as to our next move. We slept, ate and drank on trains and watched Europe go past our eyes as we did so. With the Interrail ticket, you can travel anywhere in Europe, as much as you want on most trains and even some ferries. We got as far as Ios, in Greece and somehow made it back. We resereved 6 berth cabins with nothing but our smelly feet and diligently filled in our tickets with each new journey.

We even blagged some free buses in France on the basis that SNCF was the bus company. We dodged paying supplements and went wherever we pleased. I did the same thing for the following few years, travelling to most European cities and all the way to Morrocco. Lots of other jeunes did the same and still do. Only once did my efforts to avoid paying a supplement backfire, on a train in Austria, the guard argued with us at length, something about 'first and second' - we assumed we were sat in first class, instead of second and moved to the end of the coach. The train split in two and we went to Graz, home of Arnie Schwarzenegger not Ljubjana, as planned.

So it was with great excitement that I sought to plan a summer rail journey over the weekend just gone. With plans for a trip to Budapest and some ramblinga round Hungary, I went to the RailEurope site, which promised :

Travelling around Europe by train is fast, affordable and fun. A huge European rail network enables you to choose from thousands of destinations – and it's so much less hassle than flying, too. By train you'll enjoy:

1. No tedious transfers – trains go straight to city centres
2. No long check-ins
3. An ever-changing view
4. No extra charges for baggage or flight duty
5. Travel with a clearer conscience – it's greener to go by train -
and I concur!

Online booking isn't working today, as you'll see if you click the link above - but it normally is, it's just that it's not that easy to book a train across Europe, even if you know your way around the train networks.

If you use the Rail Europe site you can try and book from, say, Cardiff to Budapest - this fails. Then you try London to Budapest, this fails. Then you try Paris to Budapest, this fails. Then you try Paris to Munich - success, but it only offers you the expensive train and I want the slow and cheaper one. The same happens if you try and book London-algeciras (spain for boats to Morrocco), you end up booking Paris to Madrid, only given the TGV option.

So here's what you do. You go on Ticketline and but Cardiff to London, Eurostar website for London to Paris, SNCF website for Paris to Munich, then DBahn website for Munich to Budapest. And the total cost for one person, return, cheapest tickets = 400quid+. It takes a day or so aswell. It's also worth noting that planning a rail journey like this requires alot of pen and paper and a reasonable knowledge of european trains. I know, for example that my bum will hurt as the above option includes no sleeper seats and even no reservations for some of the journey.

Or of course you could fly, in a few hours, for 150 quid, at the busiest time of year, booking via one website and taking a couple of minutes. I checked using Skyscanner, flying from Bristol.

Now, somehow, I'll find a way to travel by train but it just can't be like this, if we're to stop the runways being built we need to get the alternatives in shape. Pronto.


Benoit MATHIEU said...


1. Cardiff - Budapest ( 9 changes, 26 hours travel at least)
London - Budapest ( 4 changes, 18 hours travel at least)
Paris - Budapest ( 3 changes, 15 hours travel at least)
London - Algericas (5 changes, 25 hours of travel at least)
Only Deutsche Bahn has the capacity to propose these itineraries...

2. On Paris-Munich, the direct train Paris-Munich proposes fare from £36.00

3. Paris - Madrid by TGV? This does not exist (directly). You have to go to Irun (with TGV) and then change for a local train (5 hours).

Neil@Cynnal said...

thanks Benoit - you're right about the TGV to Madrid and on the Paris Muncih train, I'm not getting a fare anywhere near 36 pounds but will try try again.

I also found the DB wesbite the best but couldn't get it to do full Cardiff or London to... journeys. Do you see my point though - that I'm desperate to campion the cause of the train - but it's just not as easy as it could be, accepting that trains aren't plains so travel will take longer, changes etc...

Big thanks for the info, you may have saved my holiday!