Planning a trip is almost half the fun!
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5 Tips on How to Find, Book & Board a Train in Europe
1. Know when your train opens for sales and be first to book. The best deals (especially in high season) are the first seats sold
- French trains typically open 90 days before travel. Italian and Spanish trains are less strict but tend to open 60-90 days before travel, with some of the Spanish trains opening only 30 days before travel.
- In some cases you can go online to SNCF and look up a train well in advance of sale, click on “train non ouvert” and it will prompt you to give your email. They will send you a reminder when the ticket sales open.
2. Choose your seat in advance. Note that many French trains have an upper level. That’s great for viewing the countryside, and the bar car is on the upper level as well. However, if you have heavy luggage, that can be more difficult and you might prefer lower level. "Bas” means lower and “haut” means upper in French.
3. How to find your car and your seat on a train. In France and Spain there are lighted diagrams (see photo). First you locate the train by it's number (not by its destination). The train number is usually 4 digits. Confirm this by the original departure time. Then look for your train car number. The LED will have train car numbers in the diagram. The number will correspond with a letter below the train diagram. That letter will be on the track as well. Look up! Find the letter that corresponds to your train car number. That is where you stand to board. Your seat will be marked and is easily identified.
Note on Italy: I wish this were the case too in Italy. It is not normally posted. If you do not see a diagram, then you will need to ask someone where to stand in order to board near or at your train car. The people who work that track do know.
4. How to manage your luggage on European trains. Luggage racks are customarily in the front of the car. Sometimes the luggage racks are between the cars. If you wish to keep an eye on your luggage then keep it your train car. If you don’t see room on the front of racks, check mid car (there are often second racks there) or check between seats when seat direction changes (i.e. where the seat backs touch each other because one seat is going direction of travel and the other is going opposite direction of travel). There is a V that forms, and there is room for a fairly large suitcase in that spot. Remember, none of these racks are sized to hold extra large hardshell cases. The best choice for travel is either a large carryon or a medium case.
5. When to get ready to get off at your stop. Trains, unless you are end of the line, will stop only 1-3 minutes. Make sure you have your luggage and are lining up in the entry or between cars (wherever the door is) a few minutes before your scheduled arrival time. If you have a tight connection or want to get off quickly, go up about 8-10 minutes before arrival for end of the line and 5 minutes before arrival time for an intermediate stop.
5 Tips for Getting the Best Value for Your Travel Dollar and Making Your Travel Easy
1. Book early. Airfare is at its lowest very early on. Airlines often offer great deals for travelers willing to book early. Many tour companies also offer advance booking discounts.
2. Compare "apples to apples". Consider all of your travel expenses when deciding how to book your trip. Here are some questions to ask yourself and some categories of items to check:
- Rooms: if a hotel or "discounter" offers a great rate, make sure that you are getting all the other things the other company or agent might be including?
- Are you getting the same type of room or is the 'bargain room" a less desirable room (something shoved against the stairs (noise) or smaller than normal) or facing the street (possible noise) ?
- Are you in a good neighborhood and a central area or will you be taking time and spending money to get "to and from" everything?
- Are you getting the same services and add ons with each sort of booking (DIY, discounter like Expedia or travel company)?
- Other hotel extras (early check in, late check out, upgrades, in room gifts, evening wine...) ?
That said, a hotel is not everything! Here's a list of other things you will need even if you are planning a DIY trip:
- transfers to/from airport (plus tips)
- lunches and dinners (plus tips). Review both the number and the quality --a sandwich is not equal to a Michelin starred dinner!
- museum and tourist admissions. Are they included and what sort of access to they provide? Will you have to wait in line 2 hours or will you get priority access? What will you pay for delivery of these items if you purchase them in advance?
- guided tours or walks or tastings: Are they public? Private? How many people are the maximum? What's included in your tour/tasting? How long is it?
- And very importantly: does the vendor have the right to cancel if he/she doesn't get the minimum # (i.e. will you be left last minute with no tour?)
- wines or other alcoholic beverages (quality and quantity)
- taxis (and tip) or metro
- international cell with data and roaming (for maps functions). This is important especially if you are doing a discount or DIY trip because you will be in charge of planning, navigating and communicating.
What to ask yourself to determine what sort of trip you would like
- Is your time at a premium?
- Do you have the ability or desire to plan things on your own?
- Do you know where to look for the things that are important to you (certain sorts of restaurants, neighborhoods that you like, historical info or art....)?
- Do you speak the language of the country you are visiting?
- Do you want to drive in the countryside or have someone manage that for you?
- What do you like and how do you like to get your information? From a local or a guide? or perhaps a book and your own research?
- How important is is to you to have a resource to answer your questions while planning and while on traveling?
- How important is it to you to avoid lines or waiting time?
- How much or little do you want to be involved in organizing day to day items like where to find the taxi, what time to get tickets for something, how to get to that restaurant?
3. Travel with others. Travel with friends or at least overlap your trip with them. Often you can get a discount for booking multiple rooms. Include your child and consider staying 3 to a room. Both of things things will reduce the per person price no matter how you book.
4. Pack lightly --but smartly. In winter, bring comfortable shoes and boots. Plus pack thermal socks to keep your feet warm while you saunter through the Christmas markets all afternoon. The hand held heat packets people use for skiing are great to carry (they are small) and keep in your pocket for a cold day. Dress in layers so that you can accommodate a variety of weather conditions without having to pack your entire closet. And save room in your suitcase, or pack a nice folding bag, so that you can bring home all of those cool purchases.
5. Surviving airplane food. On the way over, sleep! You'll be much happier when you arrive. On the way back, pick up something in one of your favorite gourmet shops and take that on the plane for your lunch. Enjoy one last fabulous meal while on your way home.
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