The mas­ter­class

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents -

Rid­ing the rails is easy, but plan­ning a train ad­ven­ture can be tricky. Our handy guide sim­pli­fies matters...

Hop­ping on your first rail ad­ven­ture can be thrilling, with epic land­scapes viewed from your cabin and the abil­ity to pit stop in cap­ti­vat­ing places along the way. That’s the sim­ple part, but how do you go about plan­ning it all? And can you save money by look­ing in the right places? Read on…

Where do I start?

Where ex­actly to be­gin is a prob­lem most would-be rail trip­pers have. “The first thing you need to con­sider is what type of jour­ney is right for you,” says Matthew Lu­cas of train­trav­el­ex­ “No two jour­neys are alike – the beauty of the Glacier Ex­press in Switzer­land pro­vides a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence to spend­ing long days on the Trans-siberian rail­way, as Europe melts into Asia.”

Work­ing out your bud­get and time­frame, how­ever, can help nar­row down your op­tions sig­nif­i­cantly, says Mark Smith of The Man in Seat 61 web­site ( “You can also start plan­ning at any time, there’s no need to book years ahead. Most trains only open for book­ings 90 days be­fore travel al­though some, such as the Eurostar, open up to 180 days ahead.”

Plus, in this dig­i­tal age, train travel is fi­nally catch­ing up with flights and ho­tels, and now you can book seats for most rail jour­neys across the world with a sim­ple press of a but­ton. That in it­self of­fers you flex­i­bil­ity as to when you book – you could seal your seat as soon as they’re made avail­able, right up to (in the­ory) the day the train de­parts, with­out hav­ing to queue for hours at the ticket of­fice.

If you’re still un­sure where and for how long you’ll be away, then a rail pass is the best op­tion for you. It lets you move about flex­i­bly dur­ing any pe­riod of time. The In­ter­rail Pass (in­ter­ is the best known in Europe, but many oth­ers ex­ist world­wide.

How can I save money?

If you look in the right places, there are plenty of ways to penny-pinch when book­ing a rail ad­ven­ture. Rail passes may be a fluid way to travel but they’re of­ten not the cheap­est.

“If you can com­mit in ad­vance to spe­cific dates, look for bud­get train fares booked di­rectly through the rel­e­vant op­er­a­tor,” says Mark. “They’re ex­actly like bud­get flights, but for trains.” These low-cost al­ter­na­tives can also of­ten be found trac­ing the same routes as their lux­ury peers, mean­ing you get the same eye-pop­ping views for prac­ti­cally a snip of the price.

Shop­ping around can be key. There is no one web­site that sells ev­ery route at the cheap­est price, so it’s best to start with the di­rect op­er­a­tor be­fore mov­ing on to any third-party ticket providers (to avoid any ex­tra book­ing fees). Bear in mind, too, that seats are go­ing to be more ex­pen­sive at times when there’s more de­mand, as well as far like­lier to sell out.

“Plan in ad­vance if you’re book­ing at times dur­ing fes­ti­vals or big cel­e­bra­tions, such as Chi­nese New Year,” adds Matthew. Get­ting in early and go­ing off-sea­son helps, too, says Mark: “Mid­day on a Wed­nes­day in Fe­bru­ary is of­ten cheaper than a Fri­day night in June.”

Con­sider night trains as part of your itin­er­ary as well. On face value they might be pricier, but they’ll save the cost of a ho­tel room and of­ten have food in­cluded.

Bear in mind...

“The book­ing process isn’t as smooth as it is for air­lines and ho­tels,” ex­plains Matthew. “Dif­fer­ent coun­tries have very dif­fer­ent sys­tems – most trains in the US, Europe and Australia can be e-tick­eted, while in China and Ja­pan you’re re­quired to have a paper ver­sion.” Of­ten, the op­er­a­tors that need a phys­i­cal ticket won’t mail them in­ter­na­tion­ally to you, so that throws up a headache. Get­ting them de­liv­ered to a ho­tel you’re stay­ing at or pick­ing them up at the ticket of­fice can sort that. Don’t worry if one web­site (or even a few) aren’t showing a route or train you’ve had your eye on. “Train book­ing sys­tems are of­ten very re­gion­alised,” adds Matthew. “If you’re trav­el­ling across re­gions, you’ll need to re­search and book across two – or more – dif­fer­ent web­sites.” Plus, if you are trav­el­ling long dis­tances or overnight, do your re­search first. Don’t as­sume your train will have a din­ing car (or even a food trol­ley) or a shower. Also, be aware that book­ing a sin­gle spot in a multi-berth cabin means you will be shar­ing with strangers; if you want one to your­self, you will have to pay a sup­ple­ment.

Pre­pare for the worst

No jour­ney is guar­an­teed to go smoothly: “Make sure you have travel in­surance to cover you for any de­lays,” says Mark.

If you get stuck or de­layed at any sta­tions – es­pe­cially if they’re re­mote – arm your­self with a phrase­book or Google Trans­late to quickly as­sess the sit­u­a­tion. Buy­ing a lo­cal SIM card or hav­ing a data roam­ing pack­age on your phone can al­low you to quickly look at timeta­bles or po­ten­tial rerout­ing op­tions.

“But if you are truly stuck some­where, a good book, a corkscrew and a bot­tle of wine will help to ease the pain,” adds Mark.

Whether there’s hic­cups (wine in­duced or oth­er­wise) or not, there’s no deny­ing that rail trips are unique. “No form of travel pro­vides the con­nec­tions with peo­ple and cul­tures that you make on the rails,” says Matthew. He’s right. Once the plan­ning is out of the way, all that’s left to do is en­joy the ride.

‘Con­sider night trains as a handy part of your itin­er­ary. On face value they might be pricier, but they’ll save the cost of a ho­tel room and of­ten have food in­cluded’

The rail thing Switzer­land’s Glacier Ex­press rat­tles over the Land­wasser viaduct – one of the great jour­neys in Euro­pean rail travel; ( right) hold­ing tick­ets for a Rus­sian rail ad­ven­ture

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