For the last few years the Honolulu rail project has been front and center in the news. Plagued by cost overruns and politics, it’s anyone’s guess what the final incarnation will look like, when it will be completed and what kind of ridership it will spawn.
It didn’t have to be like this.
In Europe rail is at the nucleus of a well-run, cost effective public transportation system. For the last month I have traveled exclusively by rail (and other modes of public transport) in England, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Holland.
For the most part, I have been dazzled at how well Eurail seamlessly weaves the transportation systems of Europe.
For the Hawaii traveler heading to the continent, rail is one of the best bargains around. It’s cliché but American travelers need to be reminded that the distances between most western European capitals are generally within a day’s train ride or less and if you’re traveling through Western or Central Europe, it may not make sense to take a plane. For example, Brussels or Paris are only a few hours on the speedy Eurostar from London.
Another great advantage of rail vs. plane is that the train will deposit you right in the heart of your destination. Thus there’s no need to hassle getting to the airport which inevitably means a 20 to 30-minute taxi ride from your hotel. In the case of a hypothetical London to Brussels flight you would have expended as much or more time in the air, going to and from airports, through security, etc, as you would have simply by taking the train.
First Class vs. Second Class
My travel was almost exclusively First Class, which is about 33 percent (roughly) more expensive than “coach”. If you can afford the difference, I’d say go for it.
That said, Second Class is the best bet for anyone on a budget. It’s also easier to meet people traveling in “coach” but keep in mind that First Class is often less crowded. Whereas First Class is sometimes less conducive to conversation, chances are you’ll have more time to nap.
First is nominally more comfortable and there’s always a steward to attend to your needs re food and drinks. In addition, there are other perks. In First Class you get free wi-fi on most (but not all segments). In addition, each seat has its own electrical outlet. You may get an electrical outlet in Second Class (depending on what country you’re in) but it’s shared among others in the compartment. (It can get a bit messy with those cords draping over your neighbors).
Most of the time Wi-Fi worked very well. The only exception was in Belgium where I simply could not sign onto their system. (The Belgians made up for this it slightly by being the only rail company to offer free coffee and other snacks).
Deutsche Bahn, (the German train system) will roll out Wi-Fi in both its First and Second Class trains next year.
I did experience Second Class on several occasions. Generally, the service was fine, but on one leg I took a 5 hour ride on a Second Class train from Prague to Berlin that was not so great. The air con was out on our coach and it was hellishly hot.
The train was crowded with students (not exactly unusual during the summer) and the conductor did not seem to be in a good mood. When I informed her that the toilet was running out of paper she deadpanned, “Wieviel brauchen Sie?” (How much do you need?). My German isn’t fluent but I don’t think she was inquiring how much to bring back for my comfort. Would she have addressed a first class passenger that way? Who knows…
Usually, train travel is pretty predictable but there are always exceptions.
On one of my segments (Budapest to Prague) the train was delayed about 15 minutes due to some kind of maintenance issue, which was about how much time I had to connect to a second train (that would take me from Prague to Berlin). I assumed the “connecting” train would wait.
I was wrong.
I needed to quickly find the correct platform for the train to Berlin but the Czech attendant couldn’t speak English and when I asked him what track the Berlin train could be found he looked bewildered, almost frightened.
Suffice it to say I missed the train and headed back to the ticket office, assuming they would honor my existing reservation. I explained to the woman at the counter that the Budapest train had been delayed but she wasn’t terribly empathetic and demanded that I pay for a new reservation.
I later found out that this was definitely contrary to the rules. I was able to explain what occurred to a Deutsche Bahn representative and she handed me a form and an envelope. “Go ahead and write up what happened,” she said with a smile, “and they should refund you. The agents in Prague should not have charged you.”
Hooray for Deutsche Bahn for giving it to me straight.
One should always be aware that management may decide at the last minute to switch tracks. In another memorable instance, I sat in Berlin’s Haupt Bahnhof patiently waiting for my train to The Hague. I kept on glancing at the digital sign above the platform that informed me I was in the right place. Meanwhile, a Russian man and his son asked me if this was indeed the right place to stand for the same train. I confidently told him it was, and continued to post photos on my Facebook page.
Someone upstairs chose to switch our train to another track and by the time I realized this, the train had left us high and dry. In retrospect I’m sure they announced this change (in German) which of course I completely ignored because I was busy posting on FB. So I had to take the next train to Berlin. Not the end of the world, but a pain in the ass. The lesson is train routing can change on a dime so pay attention.
On Eurail, I found security to be good. You can confidently leave your computer and belongings alone, visit the WC and come back without fear that your belongings will disappear. However, I wouldn’t do this on the Eurostar (a separate system from Eurail).
Without getting into the gory details, I left my tablet unattended out for less than a minute before some ingrate scooped it up. I did report this to the Eurostar officials, hoping that it would show up at the lost and found but this was not to be. I don’t know how frequently this occurs but I suspect I’m not only person that has experienced this. Caveat emptor.
Which type of ticket to Buy?
This will really depend on your itinerary. If you’re just traveling to a few places and you know exactly when this will be, the best thing to do is buy your tickets online, a few months ahead of time. Much like airline travel, train tickets in Europe are less expensive the further ahead you purchase them.
If you’re going to a bunch of destinations and want some flexibility, I’d suggest the getting a Rail Pass. There are two important advantages to this. First, a rail pass is usually more cost effective if, as alluded to above, if you’re going to take three trips or more (compared to individual train tickets).
Essentially, the more you travel, the better the value since the cost of the rail pass is fixed regardless of how many trips you take. The second advantage is flexibility. With train tickets you really need to have decided on your train, date, etc in advance. With a rail pass you can bob and weave, even without a firm idea of your overall itinerary.
Rail passes come in many different flavors.
Essentially Rail Europe provides you with a plethora of options that will save you money. You can get passes that work for one country, several countries or the entire system. In my case, I visited about 6 countries in six weeks and a 10 day “flexi pass” which allowed me to travel for two months in and around central Europe and the Benelux countries. This was ideal for my purposes. (Note that the Eurail pass system does not include the Eurostar, which runs from London via the “Chunnel” to Paris and Brussels. That ticket you can also book separately on Rail Europe).
The best way to educate yourself is by checking out the Rail Europe site. I like that they market their product in conjunction with Rick Steves, a travel writer I greatly respect. Also check out a site called “The Man in Seat 61” or which offers a veritable college course on rail travel.
Despite a few mishaps, travel by train in Europe was a very positive experience and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
The vast majority of the time rail personnel were friendly, helpful and English-speaking. In addtion, the train stations around Europe are safe, clean and often have quality grocery stores, eateries, currency exchange kiosks and every other sort of amenity you could ask for.
Riding the rails is also great way to meet locals (who more often than not) speak English better than you do.
I’d suggest that our mayor and city council members get to know Eurail. It will undoubtedly provide some needed inspiration for our own modest rail project.
Like most European travelers, finding an inexpensive ticket means going online. Naturally the longer the lead time the better ticket prices. I got to the game a little late and took a chance with IcelandAir out of JFK (in conjunction with my Hawaiian Airlines flight). Turned out to be a good move. It’s a budget carrier but the service was excellent. They don’t serve meals (unless you pay extra) but the ticket price was much lower than the competition. The main reason for this is that all IcelandAir flights from the US to Europe stop in Reykjavik for about two hours. The reason being that the airline (I’m sure in conjunction with the tourist board) would like you to extend your layover for a few days in Iceland. I did look at a number of the (in-flight) promotional videos on Iceland (which certainly were well produced and made the destination that much more intriguing). I’ve also spoken to friends who have visited the country and their reports were glowing. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this carrier and am seriously considering a visit to Iceland the next time I’m going to visit Europe. You can visit the airline’s website at http://www.icelandair.us/.
Rob Kay, a Honolulu based travel writer and the author of two guides the Lonely Planet series, has been the recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award.
Top Photo is from Rail Europe. Bottom photo courtesy of Rick Steves. All other photos courtesy of Rob Kay.