Rail and Sail: Dublin Bound

And so I found myself getting up at some ungodly hour of the morning (by my standards, at least) with not nearly enough sleep (even by my standards, which really says something) to get back to Euston train station. I was heading across the Irish sea, and while I had originally thought it would be easy to get a cheap flight across, I soon learned that with Ryanair the baggage I would be carrying would double the price of the ticket to the point that it simply wasn’t worth it – especially not after the traumatic experience I had had trying to fly with them last time. During my scouring the internet for travel options I discovered a deal called the ‘Rail and Sail’ offered by Irish Ferries, which was a package deal that included a train ticket from London to Holyhead, a small port town in Wales, and a ticket for the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. It was roughly 4 hours on the train and 6 hours on the ferry, as opposed to a flight from London that took an hour at most, but I had heard so many complaints about getting to the various airports in and around London – as well as the endless Ryanair horror stories – that I decided that trying to organise a flight for such a short distance was just not worth the hassle. I was in no rush, so I was more than happy to take a full day out to make the trip. It was cheaper than the flight, there were no extra baggage costs or restrictions, and I rather enjoyed the last trip I had made via ferry, so I thought it would be something nice to do again.

In the end it was the train ride that proved to be a little hair-raising. At one point the tracks travelled along the ground at such an angle that I could feel the slight pull of gravity dragging me towards the window. It was a brief terrifying moment, but other than that the ride went along smoothly and without much other excitement. When we finally arrived at Holyhead, the passengers disembarked and headed down the platform and towards the ferry port. I think it was almost a unanimous migration – aside from the ferry port there didn’t really seem to be much other reason to visit a town like Holyhead. I know that a lot of people said that same thing about Ancona, but at least I knew that in Italy there was sunshine and beaches to be found – the coast of Wales was as gloomy as I would ever have imagined it that morning, and in no way did I feel compelled to hang around, even if I’d had the choice. When I’d booked the ticket it had said that there was a bit of a wait between the arrival of my train and the departure of the ferry, but in reality it was just enough time to wait in the long queue with the rest of the mob, have my ticket and baggage checked, and board the vessel that would carry me across the Irish Sea.

The boat was similar to the one I had caught from Helsinki to Stockholm, except this time it was a shorter trip so I didn’t have a cabin, or any kind of personal quarters. The ship did have a huge variety of rooms and activities though, including a bar, restaurants, duty free shops, games rooms and theatres for the kids, as well as plenty of lounging spaces to sit around and enjoy the views of the open seas. To get in the mood for my arrival on the Emerald Isle, I tucked into a hot steak and Guinness pie from one of the cafeterias, and after a quick walk around to see the rest of the ship, I curled up on one of the lounges in the main area and tried to doze off and have a nap, given that I was running on very little sleep due to my late last night out in London. There were a lot of families travelling that day though, with some particularly noisy children, so in the end I really only managed to shut my eyes and rest my physical body. The mind would have to endure until Dublin, although being able to stretch out and have my own personal space to relax in was definitely a highlight of travelling via ferry rather than a plane. The Rail and Sail option was an experience a thousand times better than anything I would likely have received from Ryanair, and if you have the time to take the day trip and are travelling between Ireland and Great Britain then I would definitely recommend it.

When the ship finally pulled into port early that evening, I gathered my things and made my way off the ship to collect my checked baggage. When I got to immigration, I was a little confused as to where to go. There were basic directions to the exits, but rather than queues and individual gates and passport checks, everyone just seemed to be walking through a main gate with very little resistance. I assumed it was just for returning EU citizens, so I approached one of the desks to the side.
“Hi,” I said to them as I set my bag down.
“Hello there! Well, what can do for yer?” one of the two gentleman said to me with a friendly smile.
“Ahh… Is this where you stamp my passport?” I’d never seen security personnel being so relaxed around the new arrivals – welcome to Ireland, I suppose?
“Why, do yer need one?” The other man said.
“Um… I think… ah, I probably do?” I held up my Australian passport, seriously confused at this point.
“Oooh, yes! Yes.” Obviously they had just assumed I was another Irishman returning home. “Alright, here we go,” they said as they briefly checked my passport before stamping it and handing it back. I was a little dumbfounded as I walked out of the terminal and over to the bus stop. I’d thought the security at Southend airport in London had been pretty lax, but Dublin Port had well and truly usurped that title. I chuckled to myself, realising that all I’d heard about the carefree Irish nature was turning out to be remarkably, incredibly accurate.

The bus into the main city of Dublin was rather uneventful, but the whole time I was still riddled with anxiety. During my last days in London I had been searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Dublin – I had been living at Giles’ for so long that I’d all but forgotten the very real need to search for accommodation, or the very ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ style in which I had been doing it. Unfortunately, all my searching had come up with nothing, but in my desperate hanging on for a potential, miraculous breakthrough, I had put off booking any hostels either. Eventually I alighted from the bus in the centre of the city, and hacked into some free wifi at the bus station to search for a nearby hostel. There was one around the corner, so I lugged myself over there and was overjoyed to learn that they had some availability. I enquired about the room prices, and the helpful guy at the front desk told me everything I needed to know.
“But I’m gonna give you a little bit of a discount,” he said with a little smile, without even lifting his eyes away from his computer screen to look at me. “Our little secret.” I was genuinely stunned – was he flirting with me? He didn’t seem like he was flirting with me? Not even a cheeky wink. But hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a price reduction. He gave me my key and directed me to the stairs towards my room, and I don’t think I even saw him again during my stay at the hostel, but it turns out his little gesture would be the first of a few rather unexpected surprises during my time in Dublin.

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Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.