Highly Train-ed Holidaymakers

Now that the evenings are darkening it’s a good time to look back at our summer holiday this year, a big trip to new places and excitingly our most ambitious train-based journey yet! Our train trip:

  • Got us to Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia
  • Costed the same as flying
  • Let us visit a total of 7 countries
  • Was really fun!

Forget the jet

I want to share this journey because it took us from UK to exotic Mediterranean places without a plane involved. Often in conversations about avoiding air travel to reduce your carbon footprint dramatically (see graph), people seem to assume this condemns you to endless rainy caravan weekends. Whilst there’s a lot of great places to visit in the UK you needn’t limit to these shores; holidays can be flying-free and adventure-filled.

Most people know that plane journeys are more carbon-emitting than train journeys but sometimes they think it’s a small difference, or a low-impact decision for their carbon budget overall. But as you can see from this comparison, the train journey was led to vastly less carbon (in this case ~75% less according to ecopassenger). If I run up my carbon footprint on WWF with holidays done by train, my footprint for this past year is 8.2 tonnes of CO2. If I run it with exactly the same lifestyle etc. except for 2 holidays done by flying (one EU, one non-EU), my footprint for this past year increases to 11.7 tonnes of CO2. So a couple of return flights each year would increase my footprint by over 42%, and would then make up about 30% of my yearly emissions. That’s a lot of environmental impact coming down to the seemingly small decision of how to go on holiday.

The plan

This holiday was a 2nd exploration of the Balkans; we went to Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovinia in 2016 and were so impressed by the variety and beauty of the area that we decided to come back to explore Serbia, Montenegro, and spend a final week back in Croatia again windsurfing. On that 2016 trip we went out by train and back by plane; on this trip we felt emboldened by how well it had gone and wanted to do the entire trip without flying.

Our route out was to Belgrade, Serbia, and our route back was from Hvar, Croatia.With big routes it can be tricky to work out where to start; I began with the biggest chunks of distance and filled in the gaps later. The Eurostar and TGV to Munich was a known route already. Our trusty source, Man in Seat 61, gave different options for Munich to Belgrade; I chose the Hungarian Sleeper to Budapest because that used our sleeping time most efficiently. Then a train down from Budapest to Belgrade.

On the return I initially ran into the same problem as in 2016; there isn’t an easy way to get onto a long distance train from the Split area. This is partly why we flew back then. But we hadn’t realised back then that the ferry links are very strong. Instead of trying to go straight back over land, I booked an overnight ferry to Ancona in Italy. From there we got the train to Milan, then the Thello Sleeper from Milan to Paris, and a quick Eurostar hop back to London.

It costed the same as flying

Another concern that comes up is thinking that the train will be much more expensive than flying. Sadly in the UK trains can be quite pricey, if you’re not booking in advance, and if you’re comparing a peak time UK train to a budget destination flight then indeed that’ll be unfavourable to train travel. However on the continent trains are much more reasonably priced, and flights to unusual places slightly off the beaten track (like Belgrade) or ultra-touristed (like Split) are not so cheap. Anyway, in this particular instance I ran up the prices vs. plane options and came up with this:

The train price and plane price were very similar, so it was an open choice either way, there was no cost barrier to us taking the train. We could have got cheaper trains if we’d booked a bit less last minute and the plane could have cost us ~£50 more, or ~£30 less, depending on how we handled travel to and from airports. This is often overlooked as a travel & time cost, and whilst it’s possible to do airport transfers cheaply if you are willing to give up additional time to use local buses etc. one of the things we really liked about going by train was arriving right in the city centres and being able to get exploring straight away.

We got time to walk around exploring in 7 countries

 

If you fixate on the destination, you miss an opportunity. Taking the train means you will take 2 days or more solid travel to cross to eastern side of Europe, vs. a matter of hours on the plane. But with a train, you can break your journey; take the different legs at your own pace, explore different places along the way. We decided to stretch our return journey over 4 days. We got to spend an afternoon in Split, a day in Ancona, a day in Milan – we’ve never been to Italy before – and a day in Paris (which, admittedly without planning, happened to be our wedding anniversary!). On the way out, we met a friend for dinner in Munich, and we spent a couple of hours walking in Budapest. Rather than 3 headline countries in our holiday, we got to enjoy time a dazzling array of places, all so different. When I got back from this holiday it was unusually difficult to tell friends where I’d been!

It felt like a proper adventure!

 

This trip was the first time we’d ever taken sleeper trains, and they turned out to both be comfortable and quite exciting – waking up in a new place was really fun. In particular we got from Serbia to Montenegro via another sleeper train and woke up as we were coming down from the mountains to incredible views. This is reportedly one of the most beautiful train routes in the world! Not bad for £30!

There are some quirks

Each country’s train system is a little bit different, plus we were travelling through some areas which use the Cyrillic alphabet which meant everything looked a bit disorienting to us. Mostly the little quirks are endearing, sometimes they are humorous; for example Serbia hasn’t set up a way for people outside the country to buy train tickets. You cannot buy them via any official route yourself, you have to contact a Serbian man named Mr Popovic who buys them for you! (Which, counter to our skepticism, worked surprisingly well!)

Each trip was simple, but taken together they were a bit of admin

Making it all line up required a bit of thought and some spreadsheet magic. I used a visual itinerary to make sure I had it all correct before I booked everything:

I’d definitely recommend getting it all planned out and then just digesting it for a bit before booking to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Also to get the best prices means booking with different sites so that aspect is more complex than an equivalent flight.

A bonus of having time to explore each location was it built in redundancy to our schedule in case anything was late, but it wasn’t required; in our experience trains on the continent are exceptionally reliable. The only one which caught us out was Budapest to Belgrade, which was running to timetable but was exceptionally slow-moving, we hadn’t realised and would probably take a coach for that leg if we were doing it again as it would be faster.

Will we do it again?

Absolutely! We’ve got more big ideas for future train trips – if you book well in advance then cheap tickets to Paris can connect to sleepers out to Italy and beyond. We will definitely be using the trains again but we’ll be off to new destinations and new adventures next time!

 

Links

Another track for work and holiday travel? ; Would a train work for your trip?

Trains won’t work for every journey and they don’t loop the world, even if the phenomenal cinematographic breakthrough “Snowpiercer” suggests they can (trailer linked here). However, they often could work. They are often cheaper with a bit of research, offer greater chances to see the places alongside the route (both out the window and on stops), more comfortable (leg room, ability to walk around etc), less stressful (no “check-ins” as such, lots of luggage allowance etc) and give substantially lower CO2 emissions. A huge plus for my partner and I is that, unlike driving, no one gets annoyed when you read a good book in transit…

Some people like flying. I have always had childish glee watching the wings every time I have taken off. However, I have always found planes uncomfortable (especially for longer trips), stressful, and find the irony of being an atmospheric scientist and flying often rather too poignant. Without spending too much time on the emissions argument, I would like instead to put time to the argument that trains could be an upgrade to many trips in terms of comfort, experience and holiday time.

  • Logistics & planning

Train travel logistics can be less than obvious to those who do not often use it, and even those who do. A good example of this is my partner and I’s trip to the Balkans by train, in which by just using the Euro-star site for our tickets London to Munich lead to addition £50 charge (We should have used SNCB after Brussels as soon as we were on a line operated by them or LOCO2). I have almost ubiquitously found that buying separate tickets from the country’s provider leads to the best prices, the answer is always to check a least a few providers website’s for the same service and the general sites like LOCO2.

However, with that said there are some phenomenal sites and blogs from people who know the score with trains. My favourite (and the favorite of many people!) is a site called The Man In Seat 61. I’ve tried to list (at the bottom) a few that we’ve found useful over the years, and will happily add suggestions.

  • Work travel

Some professions end up travelling a lot. In academia, I’ve been sent to America once a year for the last 3 years which has rather ratcheted up my travel carbon footprint. I admit that, obviously, I flew across the Atlantic. But the USA actually does have a lot of good train routes (and buses too…) if you are travelling within the states and are willing to spend a bit more time on the travel. My decision to catch the train from Boston Massachusetts to San Francisco made me the subject of much amusement from my colleagues (especially the American ones!). Unfortunately the USA setup for train travel means they travel at a tiny fraction of the speed of their European counterparts (so the direct version of my trip would take ~3.5 days).  However, things like free WiFi on buses and trains puts us to shame in the UK. To do this trip you need to take holiday (only ~1 day if you included the weekend), but I really have to emphasis how much of a wonder doing the trip was. I’ve put a few photos of the trip below, however although the sights are incredible shots through train windows (or photography in general) has never been my strong suit.

 

Apart from the mind-blowing sight of a wolf in the wild whilst eating a (well priced) 3 course dinner in the dinning cart, just the scenery was enough. As Brit who has only been to the USA because of my PhD, I had not seen the USA and its vast and glorious landscapes. The university I was based at in Cambridge Massachusetts was surrounded by fantastic independent shops and the office I shared was actually with scientists from Switzerland and Denmark, suffice it to say I doubt this was representative of the USA as a whole (and after my train trip I know it wasn’t). Neither in fact were the 10 days I spent in San Francisco at a conference following the train trip. I cannot recommend the trip enough if you need to get from Denver to San Francisco (other USA summarised routes here). I guess the point I am making is that the train trip was a great way to see some of “real” America.

There is often an argument about driving being cheaper or easy. Sometimes this is valid in the UK due high rail prices, but often not. Certainly in academia when a lot of trips (e.g. conferences, talks etc) are organized in advance, advance singles are a good match.  Also, in the UK it is often cheaper and quicker to get to close Europe by train (e.g. Paris in 2h20, Brussels in 2h21, Lille in 1h22 etc…) by buying return fares not that far in advance. For instance prices to Paris from London start from £29. On our latest train trip, which was a holiday, we actually arrived into Brussels casually for 9am (UK time). I can’t easily describe my huge endearment to the Eurostar. It is both the big things (like how smooth the logistics work) and little things like dated (but in good nick) upholstery that is enough to transport you back in time, and really make you feel like you holiday or trip has started!

I am actually right now excitedly researching travel for my next work trip (to travel the weekend before) as I have recently been invited to give a talk at Copenhagen university (my 1st invited talk!). However, it is unfortunately a little complicated due to the recent cancellation of the Danish ferry to the UK. It looks like it with be as footpassenger on the ferry to Gothenburg, followed by a train from from Gothenburg to Copenhagen.

  • And holidays too? (and combining with boats…)

By combination with a through deals like “rail and sail” (Which includes any east Anglian train station to any Dutch station – like Flussinger, which is a few Euro ferry and few minute cycle from Belgium), there are lot more travel options (e.g. Bilbao… ). The “rail and sail” option used to be closer to £20 each way a while back, but at £34 from your door it is frankly still a steal. Just think about cutting out all those airport lounges, stressful queues, expensive transfers (ad nauseam…) and just boarding your local train station with a bag and a book. The standard arrival into the centre of cities is huge boon for holidays and work travel (again saving the transfer time,  which with many budget airline airports is frankly ridiculous, and costs. )

We’ve also done quick trips from York to the south France (Eurostar to Avignon, cycled the rest). The similarity times from York to London, York to Edinburgh, and London to Paris really raise questions why anyone would fly UK to Paris. I am so surprised when I frequency here of people doing this, especially from York.

The big eye opener for us recently though, was getting the to Balkans by train. It was a painless trip to Munich in fancy new trains (with a pretty LED speedometer casually reminding us we were at ~250 km/h or faster!), with a lovely evening walking round the city and eating Bavarian food with a friend. Then just another simple trip to Ljubljana (which can be done by bus or train).

The kicker? the cost out was less (£118.75 pp + 1xtransfer, London=> Ljubljana) than the flight back (£133.90 + 2xtransfer, Split=>London). Admitted this was on BA, and took substantially less time. I could have got both the trains tickets and the airfare for slightly less with more advance planning, and arguably we could have taken a budget airline (and paid the extra costs for luggage etc). But there is only so much time…

 

  • Ending thoughts?

There are lots of people who are fanatical about trains, but we just use them to get from A to B and enjoy our longer trips in them. I would strongly argue that most of the time When comparing costs of flying and trains, all costs and times need to included (baggage, transfers, parking). These considerations obviously apply for smaller trips too, and there are of course the arguments of time, experience, and carbon footprints.

Although we have only recently had our eyes opened to how cheap and easy it is to get to the Balkans via train, we have been using them for a while now and continue actively choosing them in the future. As firefly’s Shepherd Book says, sometimes “how you get there is the worthier part”…

Links:

  • The Man in Seat 61 –  A fantastic go to site for day dreaming about trips all over the world and nailing down exact details. It is a brilliant at pointing where the most update information will be found too
  • LOCO2 – A booking website for trips, which I have used and often found best prices on
  • “Rail and Sail” to holland – A fantastic deal for getting to the continent by ferry and train. Any station in East-Anglia to any in the Netherlands from £34 each way as an adult foot passenger (it used to be closer to £20, but it is still pretty good!), and a bit more from farther afield. There are Ferries to Ireland too from Holyhead, Liverpool, fishguard, and Cairnryan…
  • Eurostar – They have a good website, and lots of good deals to get to the continent.
  • International train travel summary from National Rail (This should stay up-to date…)
  • Greyhound buses (there are often other good local services too) – A cheap, and in my experience very pleasant way to get around the US (contra to the general impression and what a lot of Americans who haven’t used the service will tell you!)
  • Eurolines – A (very) cheap alternative, but less comfortable alternative to trains.

Disclaimer: I am not a travel agent and I have tried to be as accurate as possible. However information will change and I would advise double-checking any information before acting on it.