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TRAIN TRAVEL

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids
Is travelling across Europe by train with kids instead of plane really viable? Photo: The Local

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from Paris by train

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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CHRISTMAS

Nine things to know if you’re visiting Italy in December

From dazzling Christmas markets to succulent festive meals, December is one of the best months to visit Italy. So, here are some things that you should know if you’re planning on visiting.

Nine things to know if you’re visiting Italy in December

December in Italy is nothing short of magical.

Most cities across the boot light up with twinkling light displays and local life is energised by enchanting Christmas markets, which tend to turn even the most ordinary of urban landscapes into a cheerful wonderland. 

So, if you’re planning on (or, perhaps, just considering) travelling to Italy in December, here are some things that you should know prior to setting off.

No travel restrictions

People who travelled to Italy last December were required to show proof of Covid vaccination, recent recovery from the virus or a negative molecular (PCR) or antigen test result in order to enter the country.

The above mandate expired on May 31st, which means that travel to the bel paese for any reason, including tourism, is no longer tethered to any health requirements.

As for the requirement for arrivals to complete an EU digital passenger locator form (dPLF), that was also scrapped last May.

Face masks required in healthcare settings

The requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport lapsed on Friday, September 30th.

However, Italy’s new government has recently extended the requirement to wear face masks in all healthcare settings and care homes until the end of the year.

So, if you’re planning on paying a visit to a relative or friend who’s currently staying in one of the above structures, you’ll have to wear a mask. 

Anyone refusing to comply with face mask rules can still face fines ranging from a minimum of €400 to a maximum of €1000.

Current quarantine rules 

Italy still requires anyone who tests positive for coronavirus while in the country to self-isolate, with the minimum isolation period currently standing at five days.

In order to exit quarantine, the infected person must be symptomless for at least two days, and must test negative to a molecular (PCR) or rapid antigen test at the end of that period.

Testing should be carried out at a registered pharmacy or testing centre as the results of home tests are not seen as valid for this purpose.

Should the patient continue to test positive, they must remain in isolation until they get a negative test result. However, the maximum length of the self-isolation period has now been cut to 14 days, down from 21.

National strike on December 2nd

After months riddled with nation-wide demonstrations, travel to, from and across Italy will continue to be disrupted by strikes during the last month of 2022. 

The demonstration that’s currently expected to create the greatest amount of disruption will take place on Friday, December 2nd and it’ll be a 24-hour national strike affecting airline and rail travel as well as local public transport lines.

Staff from Spanish airline Vueling and public transport companies in Udine, Trieste, La Spezia, Naples, Foggia and Bari have already announced that they will take part in the strike.  

At the time of writing, it isn’t yet clear if essential services will be guaranteed and, if so, which ones and at what times.

As always, The Local will keep you abreast of all the latest developments.

Local public holidays 

Italy has three public holidays in December. Those are:

  • December 8th – Feast of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25th – Christmas Day
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day in English-speaking countries)

As you might have already realised, December 24th (Christmas Eve) and December 31st (New Year’s Eve) are not official public holidays in Italy. However, most local companies do give their staff both days off as a gesture of goodwill. 

It’s worth noting that on all of the above-mentioned days the country will pretty much collectively stop, with all public offices and nearly all shops remaining shut. 

Even transport services are usually very limited on the days in question, so, if you’re planning to visit around those dates, make sure to make all the necessary arrangements well in advance.

Christmas markets 

This Christmas looks set to be Italy’s first in two years without any Covid restrictions.

This means that the country’s traditional Christmas markets, a number of which were cancelled last year due to safety concerns, should be up and running again this December.

Italy’s most popular markets are located in Trentino-Alto Adige, the northern region bordering Switzerland and Austria – Bruneck, Bolzano and Brixen are all well known for their gleeful stalls.

That said, the northern mountain cities don’t claim complete ownership of Italy’s Christmas markets, as Rome, Perugia and Gubbio also have some of the best set-ups in the entire peninsula.

Galleries and museums’ special openings 

Most galleries and museums in the country tend to have special opening hours during the festive season, which means that you might be able to admire artworks by some of the most famous Italian painters and sculptors even on public holidays and as late as 10pm on some days.

For instance, in Venice, Palazzo Ducale, Museo Correr and Murano’s Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) will be open every day (public holidays included) in December, with their doors remaining open to visitors until 9pm on some dates.

As always, you’re advised to check the websites of the museums you’re interested in visiting to know what they’ll offer visitors in December.

Christmas’ culinary wealth 

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

The quality of Italy’s cuisine is no secret, but the country dishes out some of the best examples of its long culinary tradition over the Christmas holidays.

While the evening meal on Christmas Eve (known as ‘La Vigilia’) tends to be quite frugal, the Christmas Day meal is anything but.

A pasta dish (tortellini, lasagne or baked pasta) is followed by a veal-, ox- or poultry-based second course accompanied by a variety of vegetables.

Finally, the festive meal is finished off with a scrumptious slice (more like, three or four for some) slice of panettone or pandoro.

Prosecco or another variety of sparkling wine is generally used to wash down all of the above.

Extravagant New Year celebrations

READ ALSO: Red pants, smashed plates and bingo: Six reasons Italian New Year is awesome

If you’ve never spent New Year’s Eve in Italy, you might be in for a surprise.

The Italians have a reputation for being a superstitious bunch, and some of their New Year customs can truly startle the uninitiated foreigner. 

Apart from ladies wearing red underwear to fend off evil spirits and people eating lentils by the bucketload to bring wealth and prosperity to their families, some residents, especially in the south, throw crockery out of their windows to show that they’re ready for a new start in the new year.

An alternative tradition – which, to be fair, seems to be slightly more friendly towards passers-by – is crashing pots and pans together right by the front door to frighten away evil spirits.

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