Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Man in Seat Sixty-One

Nobody seems to have a good word for Ryanair. But many people still use it. And that is a metaphor for attitudes to air travel in general.

Most passengers have mixed feelings about flying. They are conscious that it is not the most environmentally-friendly form of travel. They dislike the onerous and time-consuming security procedures. They dislike the cramped seating and the baggage restrictions. They dislike the hidden charges. Above all, they dislike the stress.

Air travel nowadays is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Let’s face it, the glamour of flying went long ago.

But feelings about flying remain mixed because it has two redeeming features, cost and convenience. Low-cost airlines have made flying a very cheap way to travel (despite the hidden charges). And booking a flight is easy, just a few minutes on an airline’s website. For more complex travel arrangements using regular scheduled airlines, any damn fool travel agent can book you a through ticket simply and quickly.

So most people travelling abroad choose to fly without giving the alternatives much thought.

But what if you want to keep your feet on terracotta (as John Prescott would say)? What if you would rather travel by train or ship? People are vaguely aware of the spread of high-speed trains throughout Europe, but could you reach Berlin or the Mediterranean coast in one day? How do you book tickets? What does it cost? And how do you get the best deals?

Admittedly, the answer is that it’s not as simple as booking air tickets. But one excellent website has made the procedure much easier, The Man in Seat Sixty-One. It explains how you can travel by train or ship anywhere in the world, provides tips on the best routes, times and fares, and includes links for buying tickets. You can also see photos of what various operators’ train seating, sleeping car berths or restaurant cars look like.

Whether it’s a simple journey from London to Paris or a week-long trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway; taking the sleeper to Scotland or vital tips for train travel in Mozambique; all the basic information you need is here in plain language. It’s what the internet is for.

Anyone whose main experience of train travel is a daily commute on the 08:13 from Staines to Waterloo may take some convincing. Personally, when I travel, I prefer to be able to see the passing scenery, to stretch my legs whenever I choose, to take my own booze and food, and (on increasing numbers of trains) to have access to wi-fi. It doesn’t matter what my suitcase weighs and I don’t have to pay a supplement for bringing it on board. Apart from Eurostar, there are no check-in deadlines or security procedures to worry about. And facilities for children and disabled people are much better.

So next time you travel, avoid the airport. And if you do, one other website you should bookmark is the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) journey planner (in English), where you can get train times for any journey throughout Europe, not just Germany. If your journey starts or ends in Germany, you can also use this site to check prices and book tickets. You can also waste time by doing silly things like planning a journey from Wick to Budapest. Or, if the fancy takes you, Budapest to Wick.

Finally, if you are planning some serious train travel across Europe, you’ll need one of these.

But promise me one thing. Throughout your train journey, never display the same smug expression as Michael Portillo.

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