Talk about Travel: Trains in Europe and more

Apr 14, 2014

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Happy Monday, travelers. Thanks for being here. Did you enjoy reading Joe's fun story about his breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and dinner in Barcelona adventure? If that's not quite your style, you might find a few tips for European train travel in my accompanying sidebar. And to help answer your train questions, we have a special guest: Laura Terrenzio, travel information manager of Rick Steves' Europe. Of course, she can answer probably most about anything about traveling in Europe too!

To keep on topic, share your best tip for or tale of riding the rails in Europe. My favorite will win a little token of our appreciation.

Now let's get started!

Hi, All, I really enjoyed Joe's story of traveling (and dining) from London-Barcelona, especially as I'll be taking a similar trip next month from London to Turin, en route to Venice for a wedding. Two questions for Joe or any chatters who've traveled this way: did you consider taking the Metro between train stations in Paris? And how closely should one monitor one's luggage onboard? I'll be traveling alone, and will need to leave it unattended on the train when I grab a bite, etc. I'm used to traveling on Amtrak, where I've never had this issue. Thanks!

You can take the RER Green Line D directly from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon in Paris, but if a taxi helps you to feel more secure in your timing, then it's not likely to cost more than 10 euros.


Your trains will make very few stops, and it's mostly at the stops that I would want to have an eye on my luggage. Note that Joe did not dine on the train, although there is usually a bar/bistrot car on these faster trains. For best selection and value, I'd bring my own food onboard. Beer, wine, stinky cheese - anything goes that you can eat on a small tray table.

Glad you liked the story! I did think about taking the Metro, of course, but I was worried about timing (getting to that lunch reservation, and then onto the next leg), especially given that we were dragging roller bags, and I thought it would be less stressful to line up for a taxi instead. Generally I really love taking subways when I travel because you see more of the local culture, and I like being on my feet to make up for all the calories I usually ingest! When I check Google maps right now for the timing, looks like the RER Green Line D that Laura suggests would take you 27 minutes, while it's up to 10 minutes faster to take a two-train combination. But at another hour, things could be different!

I am traveling to Quebec city this summer and after a few days in the city I would like to plan several days of travel outside the city. I am thinking of the Laurentian Mountains or traveling along the St Lawrence. Any suggestions? I'll be driving alone. I enjoy scenic views, hiking, nature, good food and some relaxation.

Either of those sound good. Don't think you can go wrong in Quebec. Along the river, you could visit the scenic Cote-de-Beaupre region. Farther north is Baie-Saint-Paul. But you could stay much closer to the city and easily spend a few days on the gorgeous Ile d'Orleans. We only took a day trip there and barely skimmed the surface. I would have gladly stayed longer.

Good afternoon. My family - 2 adults, 2 girls (10 & 13) will be in Crete for a week starting this Friday. We will be staying near Chania and renting a car. Any must sees? Also, we will be there over Easter - any suggestions for enjoying this holiday? Thank you!

The main must-see is Knossos, the oldest city in Europe,  and the largest archaeological site on the island, with the extensive ruins of the palace of Minos. Another fantastic archaeological site is at Phaistos. The Roman ruins at Gortyn are also fascinating and worth a visit. To tie it all together, visit the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in the capital, Heraklion. The weather probably won't be quite warm enough for sunbathing -- highs in the low to mid-60s -- but you can certainly take a stroll along some of the island's beaches.  Chania itself is very nice -- be sure to catch the view from the Firkas Fortress, and stroll the old Venetian quarter. As for Easter, I believe the main celebration is at midnight on Saturday/Sunday, with fireworks, even. Chatters, do you know more?

I was in Chania for Greek Easter several years ago. I remember: a Good Friday candlelit evening procession, seeing lots of whole lambs going home from the market with everyone for their Sunday roast, receiving a traditional egg bread as a gift at a restaurant, and old Greek ladies insisting that I take a seat instead of standing in the crowded church. All very welcoming, and Chania was a good spot for it.

What international destinations have the cheapest plane tickets these days? I really want to go somewhere, but have a hard time spending several thousands of dollars on plane tickets alone.

From the Washington region, Istanbul has been relatively cheap since Turkish Airlines began offering service there. Reykjavik via Icelandair is typically less expensive than most European cities. Aer Lingus to Dublin or Shannon (connecting service on JetBlue to Boston and then Aer Lingus to Ireland) is a good deal. San Jose, Costa Rica is sometimes reasonable, as there is competition on that route. Cancun and San Juan are usually the least expensive Caribbean destinations.  

I was on a red-eye in first class. I had put my bags in the overhead bin, when my neighbor across the aisle returned from the lavatory, shoes in hand (yes). He proceeded to put said shoes in front of my bags in the bin, and prompted went to sleep. GREAT. I could not retrieve my bag and "get comfy" in the same fashion that he was able to, since his shoes were blocking the way - I'd either have to drag my bag across his shoes (unpleasant/gross) or crush those shoes (unneighborly). I turned to the attendants for help ("I don't want to wake the gentleman up but his shoes are blocking my bags"). Attendant #1 said "I'll wake him up and tell him" - the neighbor went promptly back to sleep, nothing changed. Attendant #2 said "I have to go put gloves on to move his shoes, but just this once" (very coldly like I was doing something wrong). I'm the kind of person myself who never puts shoes even in the TSA bins because I don't wish to dirty other people's laptops, coats, etc. I don't expect others to extend the same, but shoes in bins? And in front of someone else's stuff which clearly can't clear your shoes? How could I have handled this differently? (I should have spoken up as soon as I saw him put the shoes in, or at least when it appeared he was getting ready to go to sleep.)

How inconsiderate. The overhead bins are a shared space, no matter which class of service you're seated in. But the passenger should have asked before placing his shoes in the bin above your head. At that point, you might have asked him to move the shoes to a different place, so you could access your bag. These luggage conflicts are too common, and with more passengers checking more luggage, they're only becoming more common. I'll be writing something on this topic soon.

Hi - There is a comment on your European rail article which recommends something called a "Tracer Tag." Do you know anything about this technology? The website is I've never heard of this before but it sounds useful.

Chatters, has anyone used this service? I tried FinderCodes and it seemed to work as promised.

My biggest tip would be to make sure you know the pin number for your credit card if you bought the rail tickets in advance and then want to print them at a kiosk in the tarin station (at least in Spain - fortunately I had seen a warning about needing the pin and received it from my credit card company before the trip).

Ah, a good tip indeed! I wish I had researched various print/kiosk/email ticketing options before I went on this trip; would've saved me some anxiety! Although that was part of the fun, I admit.

Fascinating article! But, my one experience with the TGV train (Geneva / Paris, at about 150 mph), was a headache. When passing through forests, orchards, or built-up areas, the blur of trees/houses right by the window gave me an actual headache, and I finally had to close the curtain to avoid that blur. Next time, I would take the aisle seat. This wasn't a problem when traveling through open fields or along a river bank (if you are on the river side, not the valley side).

Thanks for sharing that experience. I haven't personally had that problem, but travelers do sometimes ask if they can guarantee a seat facing either forward or backward on the fast trains. That's hard to guarantee, but a pair traveling togther often can request facing seats, especially if you book a couple of months before your travel date, so you have one of each option. The default option for a pair is side-by-side, one window and one aisle.

I was worried when I got on the train in London to find that we were sitting backward. I have an annoying tendency to get motion-sick (can't read when riding in a car or on a bus, for instance), but this ended up being fine. I found that looking farther, at the horizon rather than at the closer blur, helped.

I leave on Friday for a 10 day adventure in Europe (Munich, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest) and the best tip I got was not to get a standard Eurorail pass. Instead, I searched various websites (Bahn, CD, OBB, all with help from Google Translator) and was able to save over 70% on the cost of a Eurorail ticket. Also, there is normally a 50% discount if you book with a friend, so I had to make sure to always buy our tickets together.

It always makes sense to do the math before choosing a railpass. One of the cheaper railpass options is the European East pass, for instance starting at $220 per person for 5 days of travel in Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary (but not Germany). In these countries, seat reservations are not necessary, even on the fastest daytime trains, so a railpass gives you lots of hop-on flexibility.


However, locking in dates and times with advance-discount tickets can also be a good way to save money, if you only need a few train rides and you are ready to commit. You cannot count on a 50% discount for booking point-to-point tickets with a friend, but do always book together if you are traveling together. Most European web sites, especially those that work best for selling train tickets, do have a British flag or other link to switch to the English-language version of the site.

You all convinced me that Eurostar is the way to go instead of flying, and Joe's story on Sunday took the cake (no pun intended). I'm glad I went ahead and bought the tickets last week after the chat, because the prices have by now gone up- or, in the case of the Paris-London leg, all been purchased! So, thanks for that. My favorite train travel story isn't from Europe, but Russia instead; i've traveled a lot by train there, and never without a dull moment. The best was a 20-hour ride from Moscow to Volgograd (used to be Stalingrad), and a friend and I did not bring nearly enough food, so we wandered into the dining car, where we made the acquaintance of an older gentleman who - upon finding out that we were from America - bought us several glasses of champagne, some plates of chicken Kiev, and sat us down and said "tell me everything about living in America. I'm too old to ever get there, so I want to know what it's like". I think we whiled away at least four hours in that car, as we traded life stories with this person when we all knew we'd never see each other again. Pretty neat, even though I had a wicked hangover the next day!

So glad to inspire and help! It's true, when I was checking prices for the Details box to go with the story, I noticed how even looking a couple months out, there were routes that said "1 seat left" and the like. Especially those popular times like the 7-8 a.m. departures.

Hi! We are trying to decide on our honeymoon destination and it's been a challenging process. We are getting married in the Caribbean and would consider going to other islands that we haven't visited before but besides beaches, it needs to have other cultural things to do (sightseen, haciendas, forts etc.). We have been already in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Barbados & the Dominican Republic, so any other options? Perhaps Central America will be a better alternative? (We've traveled extensively Mexico & Costa Rica so those are out). On the other hand we've always wanted to do a train journey and would consider America, Africa or Asia; we will have a week or less to do so, have frequent flyer miles enough for 2 transatlantic flights and a budget of $1000-1300 per person for the land portion. THANK YOU!

If you have just a week to spend, and you are flying out of the Caribbean, getting to Asia or Africa is a tall order. A train journey along the Pacific Coast might work: Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner is a short  journey (about six hours) between San Diego to San Luis Obispo, but if you stop along the way, can easily stretch that to a week. The Coast Starlight train is another option, operating between Los Angeles and Seattle.  Again, it's not a short trip to get from the Caribbean to the West Coast. You've already been to Puerto Rico and Mexico, which are places I'd recommend for those interested in more than the beach. Perhaps Panama would be another alternative. 

About 40 years ago I was studying in Paris and decided to go with a friend to Denmark for our two week spring vacation. We bought a student pass that allowed us to use trains and ferries without buying separate tickets. We had a blast, even when we slept through our station and had to backtrack. And when we laughed at a station called 'Middelfahrt" everyone on the train knew why we were laughing and joined in!

Hi gurus! We're getting in an early Spring trip and going open-jaw from Madrid to Lisbon. We checked with Hertz, and it seems that there's hundreds of $ in penalty for not returning a rental to the origin - thus, we'll only be renting around a couple of home bases (Madrid, Sevilla) and doing day trips from there. 1) Do you know of other rental companies that do allow pickup/dropoff in diff. locations w/o severe/unreasonable penalty? 2) We're thinking of going to Granada from Sevilla instead of from Madrid, it's less time by train from Sevilla (by ~2hrs). Does that make sense? Much obliged!

That car rental question is a common one and no, I don't believe there are any car rental companies that won't charge a large penalty for dropping a car in the neighboring country. The primary transport links between Spain and Portugal are buses from Seville (to Lisbon or the Algarve, for instance) and the overnight train from Madrid to Lisbon (no daytime train option). Flying is usually expensive, although I did recently hear of some more affordable Seville-Lisbon airfares coming up on a search engine like SkyScanner.


Daytripping by train or bus from Seville to Granada is possible, with travel time about three hours each way, but I would much prefer to stay overnight in Granada, if your schedule allows. Daytripping from Seville to Cordoba is shorter at one and a half hours each way.

This was quite a few years ago, but we discovered the hard way that outside of Quebec City very little English was spoken. Don't know whether that's changed much since then, but you might want to brush up on your Francais before you go.

If you're heading from Chania to Iraklion, Rethymno is a great place to stop for a break (the roads, while breathtakingly beautiful, are narrow, hilly, winding, and decorated with drop-offs that will make you want to pause after a while!). It's a university town, but you'll probably never see the university (way up the hill)--the old section of town down by the water is where the charming shops and restaurants are. Rethymno shuts down fairly early in the evening, in contrast to bigger cities, so I'd recommend being at dinner by 8pm.

We went to Munich for Oktoberfest when we were studying abroad. The trains were PACKED. We made a switch somewhere and then go to share a 'cabin' with some traveling germans. Who liked heavy metal music. Who sang and conversed with us (and fed us). Did I mention the train switch was likely at 2 in the morning? A fun time was had by all.

I missed last week's chat, but had an experience I wanted to share since the topic was so timely! I had booked an end of March trip to Thailand and Malaysia- I bought a Chicago to Singapore RT ticket with Cathay Pacific, and flights within the SE Asia region on various discount carriers. The day of departure I got a text message from Cathay saying my 3:00 pm flight to Hong Kong would now depart at 9:00 pm. I called and explained that I would now miss my connection into SIN, and would have to forfeit and re-book my flight into Phuket on another carrier. After about 15 minutes on hold, they had me re-booked from Hong Kong directly to Phuket on Dragon Air. When we arrived in Hong Kong at 1:00 am passengers were met at the gate and hotel and meal vouchers with our names on them were distributed. I was in bed in the very comfortable airport hotel in less than an hour, and had a feast for breakfast in the morning. I was also treated to lunch before my 1:30 pm departure. On the return - Cathay put me in Business Class from Singapore to Hong Kong on the short overnight trip, and best of all - the Business Class boarding pass got me access to the arrivals lounge, so I had a shower, breakfast and some quiet before boarding the long-haul return flight. I'm not in Cathay's loyalty program, and I actually paid less than $1000 for my ticket during an after-Thanksgiving sale. I was really impressed with how I was accommodated; I also was happy such early notice let me wait out the delay at home instead of the airport.

Sounds as if you truly lucked out! Great service. Thanks for sharing.

Right after Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared there was some discussion about why all flights don't have GPS or some similar tracking system. As this fiasco has dragged on, have there been hints of any movement or push by governments and/or industry on this issue?

I'm no expert, but I've kept up on this story and have not heard of any movement or groundswell in this direction.  You might want to read a blog item written by our own Brian Fung last month detailing how a plane like this can disappear. Also, there is a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast which is coming online across the globe and would have been very useful in this situation. Maybe one of our aviation expert chatters will chime in here.  

We're (probably) off to France next month, and are thinking of renting a car to drive from Paris to our destination in Provence. My husband speaks French, but despite extensive travels in other parts of Europe, our total experience in France to date is a half-week in Paris. What are folks' "don't-miss" stops between Paris and Aix, and "must-sees" in the Provence area itself? We'll be there a week and love history and great food.

I did this drive (many years ago) and we stopped in Lyon, which was great, as most French cities are. In Provence, I'd be sure to see Avignon, Gordes, St. Tropez, St. Paul-de-Vence. Oh dear, there are so many beautiful towns in Provence, it's hard to see them all! Chatters, what are your favorites?

I can't imagine not riding the rails in Europe. It's the most sensible and comfortable way to travel. That said, don't forget about the extensive postal bus system either. Very cheap, and you can do all kind of research/route planning on the internet ahead of time. Also, in Germany, Mein Fernbus offers affordable and convenient service between lots of cities. We took them from Munich airport to Innsbruck. Super easy.

Obviously, this needs to be my next trip. (Although I don't think I could do 3 meals and 3 cities in 3 countries in 1 day unless I found a bus that focused on a tripoint -- and one with populous cities nearby. Hmm...)

It was 1976 and my besty and I were doing the "backpack through Europe" trip over the two-month Christmas break from our study-abroad program in Madrid. By the time we got to Italy, we were pretty bedraggled and totally exhausted when we slid into the train compartment across from the seat occupied by a well-dressed Italian man. We visited a little with him, but we were so tired that we fell asleep almost as soon as the train started moving again and weren't awake when he got off the train a few hours later. But when we did wake up, we found a pack of cigarettes (this was 1976, after all) and a chocolate bar and a note that said, "Here is a treat for my two American angels." It sure lifted our spirits!


Hubby and I are planning to go to St Louis in May for the weekend for an engagement ceremony. We are trying to figure out if it is worth adding an extra day to take in the sights.. I am not sure what there is to see or do in Saint Louis.. Besides the arch.. is there something worthwhile seeing/doing? We had no problems finding things to do in other cities (New York, San Diego, San Fran, Chicago, Detroit, etc) but are coming up blank for Saint Louis. Thank you! =)

St. Louis is a great town, especially in the warmer weather, with a broad array of attractions on par with Boston or Chicago.

You can catch a Cardinals game, or spend the day in Forest Park, home of the 1904 World's Fair. The park has gardens, bike trails, the famous zoo, an art museum, science center and much more. For other art/garden attractions: Laumeier Sculpture Park and Citygarden. You can also take a brew tour at Anheuser-Busch or at a local micro-brew. For unusual museums, check out the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, the St. Louis Transportation Museum or the Kemp Auto Museum. For browsing, try Historic Cherokee Antique Row; for a charming neighborhood, wander around Central West End. For an overview of the city, take a riverboat cruise.

especially at busy times! Spend the extra Euros for a taxi, you'll be glad you did

Any tips for taking photos out the window while riding on a high-speed train? Most of ours on the TGV between Gare de Lyon and Marseille turned out blurry. What shutter speed do you recommend? Any other advice, or is it a hopeless situation?

In these situations, the higher the shutter speed, the less of a blur. A few ideas (and I'm no expert, of course): 1. Try to wait until you are coming into a valley or some sort that allows a farther-off vista, where things aren't blurring closer up quite as much. 2. Get your shutter speed to 1/2000. 3. Press the lens right up against the glass to avoid glare (or, on lower-speed trains, if you can open the window, even better).

Those are just a few thoughts -- chatters, any others?

My digital camera has special settings for "action" or for taking photos through windows. I'd probably try both, but doubt that this photo opp will be your best.

I'd like to attend the famous Festival of Lessons and Carols at the Chapel of King's College in Cambridge on Christmas Eve. The Chapel web site has some information about standing in line on that morning to gain entrance. Do you happen to have any additional information or experience with getting in to this service? Is there anything else I need to do, besides show up and stand in line? Do you know how good my chances of getting in might be? Any insight you have would be most appreciated! Thank you.

Have never done this, but hoping that some chatter out there has? Anybody have insight to offer?

According to the official Web site, "Normally anyone joining the queue before 9am will get in, but we cannot guarantee this." They open the grounds to those who want to stand in line at 7:30 a.m., so if you have the stamina, you should have no trouble getting in. Also, the Web site does have details on how to apply to receive advance tickets if you have a medical condition that precludes lining up. 

Hi -- my husband and I are traveling to Vienna next week (!!) -- we'd like to take our i-Phones to be able to text with each other while there, and also call back home to check on our kids and parents. We have AT&T. What are our best options for keeping costs down while still being able to use the phones? Access to e-mail isn't necessary, but I'd love to be able to access the map! Thanks.

Seems like you might want to activate an international plan with AT&T, assuming your phones are compatible with European networks. You can do a calling plan, data plan or both. There are also apps out there that let you make calls (or video calls, as with Skype) over WiFi. Anyone have a favorite? Certainly you can access your maps via a WiFi connection. Or look into offline map apps that you can use without tapping into a data plan or the Internet. Here's a page from AT&T you should look at.

My husband's ancestors are from a small town near Salerno, Campagnia, Italy. I'd like to plan a trip there this fall. I hate hot weather and he hates cold. Can you give me a good timeframe for a visit? Don't want the summer crowds but also don't want all the tourist places in the region closed either. Many thanks!

Weather may still be over 80 degrees in October, but October sounds like the best compromise for your parameters.

In the summer of 1967, a college friend and I went on a typical "Europe on $5 a Day" trip, taking a lot of overnight trains from country to country to save on hotels. On one of our travel legs (maybe from Amsterdam to Zurich) we realized that the seats in the compartment we were in pulled out to make a flat padded platform stretching across the whole compartment. Much more comfortable than trying to snooze sitting up. Fast forward a few weeks to the next overnight trip (maybe Spain or Italy); Thinking that the seats looked very much like the ones that made into beds, we proceeded to pull them out - and everything crashed away from the walls, crashing onto the floor. Luckily, the train wasn't that crowded, and we were able to slink away into another compartment before our wreckage was discovered.


My husband's family is planning an August get-together - 9 adults with an age range of 21 - 80. All are mostly sedentary, but enjoy walking on beaches. Brother-in-law wants to do something in the Caribbean. Wouldn't that be miserably hot in August? I was wondering if British Columbia/Vancouver would be a better choice. Appreciate any insights or ideas that you may have. Thank you.

It's hot in August in the Caribbean. I've done two family reunions in July -- one in Jamaica and one in DR -- and the older and heavier people in our family struggled with the heat. Look into staying at ski resorts -- they have all the amenities in locales offering cooler weather. Take note of the elevations to make sure it won't be too much for the older members of the family.  

I can't recall a "Rick Steves' Europe" episode on the Azores Islands, in the mid-North Atlantic (part of Portugal). I checked online before planning a trip, but found no reference to one, just a few Q&As to his travel forum. Any chance he'll visit there someday for a show?

You're correct that Rick has not yet made the trip to the Azores, and it's not on his schedule in the near future. He's trying to focus on a manageable section of mailand Europe, and the spots that he considers hightlights for a first-time traveler in each country. If you do go, I hope it's lovely and relaxing.

We often take trains when traveling in Europe. Best was a 2 week trip in Switzerland and a little side trip to Lichtenstein all by train and the Swiss Saver Pass requires 2 people traveling together. We started in Zurich, then did Sagans (for Lichtenstein), the excursion train to Zermatt that we picked up in Chur after 2 days in Vaduz. Then Zermatt to Geneva, then to Montreux and on to Lucerne by another excursion train and then back to Zurich. All places we stopped were wonderful. Lucerne was great. We left a wallet at a restuarant and got it back! Worst train experience was the Rome to Naples, where a group of unkempt individuals decided they should pickpocket everyone. Don't try to be first on the train. There's time to board without trying to be on early, especially with reserved seats. And have all your valuables and wallet in extra safe places on train travel. Funniest train story was going from Zagreb to Munich during the troubles in former Yugoslavia April 1995. We bought tickets in Osiek. We brought our bags to the 1st class car and a porter/pullman whisked the away without looking at our tickets. We said, "How do you know what compartment we are in?" He answered, "You're the only ones on this wagon. We added it for you!" We felt very special.

OMG, how can I not share the Circumvesuviana experience???We glided into Napoli Centrale on the Trenitalia Express from Rome, stepped onto the concrete platform and into what we'd been worn was the pickpocket hell of Naples. I gripped my wheeled suitcase, clutched my purse and strode lockstep with Paddy, adrenaline flowing, alert for crooks and criminals, suspicious of the entire population. With the rush hour crowd, we negotiated the station's oddly configured corridors and stairs to the Circumvesuviana platform below. A musician working the platform noticed our disoriented air, glanced at our tickets and motioned that we were heading for the the wrong train. We were so discombobulated he had to do this twice before finally guiding us to blundering graffiti covered mass of metal, wood, and windows disguised as the train to Sorrento. Finally aboard, we wedged ourselves against a luggage rack and studied a schematic above our heads that mapped the train's one-hour, 33-stop journey. Paddy shrugged. The Circumvesuviana left the station, lurching and swaying toward Sorrento.

We are headed on a Bulgarian adventure this summer and will be visiting Varna and surrounding environs. Has anyone ever been? Would love recommendations for hotels, food, and adventure!

Varna is beautiful and you could have a great time just lazing on the beach. But if you want to see more and you're into archaeology, be sure to visit Varna Necropolis (or Cemetery), an amazing archaeological site where hundreds of graves full of gold and jewelry and pottery have been excavated. Afraid I can't recommend specific hotels or restaurants, so we'll have to throw it out to the chatters. Anybody been to Varna recently?

I hope the poster from two weeks ago asking about weird/random places to visit during their week-long visit to West Virginia is reading today because, do I have some suggestions for them! We did a "weird and wonderful" road trip through West Virginia a couple of years ago and two of the highlights for us were: 1) the Palace of Gold outside Moundsville and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston. Our sources for information were the "Weird West Virginia" book that we got from our library and the online Roadside America website.


Many years ago, I took the train from Zagreb to Sarajevo, in what was then Yugoslavia. Departure from Zagreb was a chaotic mess; I ran around like a lunatic in the pouring rain, trying to find the right train car for Sarajevo. (Trains were commonly broken up at intermediate stops, so if you got into the wrong car, you'd end up in Budapest or somewhere else instead of Zagreb.) Fortunately, I had been in Yugoslavia studying the language, so I was able to ask people, but no one knew which was the right car. Finally, a railroad worker pointed at a car and said "take any seat in that car," so I did -- soaked to the skin. It was an overnight ride, without a sleeping compartment. I was in a compartment with a nun and two older men who were retired Yugoslav railroad workers. Very early in the morning, the attendant came down the aisle with a cart very much like an airplane beverage cart, but they had Turkish coffee and vinjak (a raw Yugoslav brandy). After the retired railroad guys finished their vinjak, which came in little airline-type miniature bottles, one of them went to heave the empties out the window -- but I had just closed the window because the nun had said she was cold. I lunged and yelled "Nooooo....!!!" but of course it was too late, and the bottle shattered into a gazillion pieces. But we still drank our coffee, hoping the glass shards had sunk into the grounds at the bottom. The ride got a little less pleasant when the conductor came to punch our tickets. It seemed I had been directed into a first-class car, and I had a second-class ticket, so the conductor insisted I pay the difference (probably about $2.00). But I wasn't thrilled about being woken up at 5:30 a.m., so I got my back up and refused to pay, whereupon the conductor took my passport and I ended up in the railroad police station when we got to Sarajevo. The police officer listened to my story, then gave me back my passport and told me to get lost. I now look back on that and shake my head in amazement that I didn't just pay the extra $2.00.

I was returning to London from Edinburgh (single female) when the train filled up with oil rig workers who had just spent the last few months in the North Sea. Suddenly, I was the focal point of the party. They (and I) wiped out all of the beer in the club car. After much merriment, they all departed at York while I continued on to London in an alcoholic haze.

Amazing how many of these stories involve alcohol one way or another!

There is a bee in my bonnet telling me to go to Bhutan, and it just won't go away. I have been very happy with my tour company, but they only offer Bhutan as an extension of two weeks in India or Nepal. That makes the trip too long for me, not to mention too expensive. I would like to see the Taj Mahal, or maybe some time in Nepal, but not two weeks. Do you have any suggestions?

Bhutan is one of my favorite countries. I actually shed a tear on the last day. It was such a moving trip.

To give youself more flexibility, you might consider signing up with a different tour group that focuses on Bhutan, then arrange a side trip to the Taj or Nepal yourself (or through another group).

For example, Intrepid Travel has an eight-day tour of Bhutan.


A friend and I are coming back from an Alaska land/sea tour and docking in Vancouver on Saturday, August 2 at 8:30 am, but our flight back East doesn't leave until 10:30 pm that night. Do you have any suggestions on how we could do some touring during the day? What about our luggage--can we check our bags at the airport and then go to some places? Thanks for your help!

Here's a page and another page with info on where you can store your luggage at the airport. The Metro Vancouver Convention and Visitors Burea has a One Perfect Day in Vancouver itinerary. That might get you started. Other advice?

Hello I have a 3 day business meeting in Milan in mid June. My wife is coming along. Neither of us has been to Italy before and would like to spend a few extra days. Where to ? North? South ? We would welcome your thoughts. Thanks.

Italy is your oyster by public transport. Fast trains from Milan take about 2.5 hours to Venice or 1.5 hours to Florence. Smaller towns near those cities, such as Padova or Siena, would give you a nice variety from an all-city itinerary and can be visited as day-trips.

My husband and I will be visiting our daughter in London and Cambridge next month. We will have about 5 extra days to travel. We are considering Stonehenge, Bath, and Blenheim Palace. What are your top England not-to-be-missed locations? How would you suggest we get there - public transport, rent a car, tourist bus? Also, can you suggest which side of London to look for accommodations (B&B, hotel) that are convenient for sightseers? Many thanks. (I'm so stressed already!)

I am partial to the northern parts of England. York is a lovely city. And you can't miss with a visit to the Lake District. Virgin Trains offer convenient and reasonably priced service between London and both destinations. As for where to stay, I prefer locations near the Thames between Tower Bridge and the Tate Modern. 

You could easily spend a whirlwind 5 days in London and not leave the city at all! That said, there are some groups that will combine Stonehenge and Bath in a day trip (Golden Tours is one). But I hate to be rushed and on someone else's schedule. I did Bath on the train on my own. It was very easy. For a shorter trip, consider Windsor Castle. Magnificent. Also an easy trip by train.

Nothing special, just the incredible memories of late May / early June trains from Paris to Brussels and Paris to Rouen, and the huge swaths of red poppies growing wild alongside the tracks. I can still see them in my mind's eye, like something out of an Impressionist painting, and of course, the John McCrae poem, 'In Flanders fields, the poppies grow..." Magic.

Well, Vienna is only an hour from Bratislava, and then Bratislava to Prague is about 6 hours (I think) or yu could go to Budapest . . . I think this is doable, Joe - go for it!

I smell a series! ;-)

I feel like you should be able to do Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia by bus in one day, stopping in each for a meal.

Well, there you go! I (jokingly) said I envisioned a series in response to another chatter, but maybe I shouldn't joke about this kind of thing...

Any special tips for an American riding trains in Wales or Cornwall this September?

You can keep your schedule very flexible by buying tickets as you go. But consider purchasing ahead for any longer train ride, since many British trains offer significant Advance discounts, available two months ahead of your travel date (, or smaller discounts may still be available for booking a couple of days in advance.


If you have a few long train rides in England, then a BritRail pass can also be a good value, offering hop-on flexibility, reservations not required, starting at three days of travel (either consecutively or spread within two months).

Hello! My husband and I are looking forward to our western Med cruise next month. We're traveling in and out of Civitavecchia and are looking for a quaint bed and breakfast type lodging someplace between the port and the airport. (We fly out the day after docking.) We are 20-somethings that enjoy good food, wine and would be looking for a relaxing spot in the countryside before heading back to home. Amazing views required! Any recommendations from you all, Laura or the fans? For what it is worth, we'll be enjoying Rome beforehand and are thinking it would be better to not venture back into the city.

Can you help us out here, chatters?

Just get on the train. Especially during crush hours, don't wait for a train that is marked for your destination. We let several go by and realized we could be on the platform for hours. So we just boarded the next one and got to our destination with no problem.

With two tracks to choose from, northbound or southbound, almost any train that comes along should work, but some faster trains won't make all the stops in the five towns. Don't be afraid to ask any staff you see on the platform, or any local Italian.

If you want to stay in the Caribbean, I would recommend Martinique (and maybe Guadaloupe as well). It's offiically part of France, and has a great mixture of European and Caribbean culture. An amazing old capital that got mostly destroyed by a volcano, hiking on said volcano, great food, beaches, rum tours on old French plantations... We loved it, and it is definitely not a typical Caribbean destination (well, at least not for Americans).

Thanks for the ideas. 

If you're a history buff, nearby the Arch is the Dred Scott courthouse.

Great tip. Thanks!

The best thing to do if you want to go to Bhutan is to contact a local, Bhutan-based tour company. Cutting out the middleman will save you a lot of money. And they can tailor the trip to your individual interests. I used Keys To Bhutan and was very happy with them. The local agencies will only charge you the government-mandated tariff.

Great advice. I also used a local guide, a former monk who had a pet monkey and a tofu company. It was amazing to travel as a small group of four (my friend and the driver were the plus-two).

I speak French but sometimes get flustered when dealing with numbers. On a trip from Bordeaux to Paris I took the seat assigned to me on the appropriately numbered train. A French woman boarded the train and said I was in her seat. I told her that I was in the correct seat. She insisted and I was afraid that I had spoken the wrong seat number to her. But I checked and I was correct. Her voice raised and she started to address the entire train car, talking about how foreigners always want their way, etc. Then someone else asked to see her ticket and mine, and informed the woman that she was wrong. She gave a huffy "NEVER MIND" and stormed off. The passengers applauded!

A slice of France! Love this.

My boyfriend and I were taking a vacation through Europe (Germany, Prague, Austria, Czech Republic) and were on the train from Prague to see the bone church in Kutna Hora. We started talking to another woman in the compartment and discovered she was a professor at the school where I had just graduated! What a small world.

I, my sister and my 2 year old son are planning a trip to Europe in June. We are going to start in paris then go to the champagne region of France then Bruges then end up in Leiden outside Amsterdam where we are rendezvousing with our cousins. Obviously no car in paris but we are thinking that with a toddler we will want a car instead of riding the train . Thought is it return the car in Leiden and then take the train to schipol. Any insights? And things we shouldn't miss.

With a toddler, I think you will appreciate the freedom of a car and the ability to haul more luggage. If you take any train, it would probably be just to get out of Paris - such as a TGV to Reims - and then pick up a car there the next day. This TGV is one with advance discounts if you lock in nonrefundable tickets up to three months ahead. There usually will be a fee for dropping the rental car in a different country, so try getting a few price quotes, or start with a car rental "consolidator" like Auto Europe, who surveys several suppliers.

Botanical Garden?

Yes, would definitely recommend the Missouri Botanical Gardens. And the City Museum is a quirky spot that's worth a visit. 

We were studying in Nice and trying to get to Barcelona. We fell asleep on the train. We woke up the next morning in San Sebastien! Apparently, that train split in 1/2 in the middle of the night and we had no idea when we hopped on the train (had europasses)...

Oops! Not all cars of the train are necessarily completing the same journey, but the destination of each car is usually marked both outside and inside. If you have a couchette or sleeper reservation on an overnight train, then it will be in the correct car for your destination and the conductor usually will wake people up about a half hour before arrival.

When I went to Germany last summer I bought and printed all of my tickets in advance using the DB website ( I think). The conductors always wanted the credit card I used to buy the tickets when they came by to check. They swiped the card through a reader. (I had actually needed to replace the card I had used to buy the tickets due to some one making unauthorized charges, but I kept the card specifically for the train trips just in case and I am glad I did).

The German DB web site is one that has great advance-purchase discounts if you book nonrefundable tickets up to three months ahead of your trip. They will offer you a choice of which form of ID you will present on the train, but credit card is usually the only one that works for Americans. Even if your credit card gets replaced with a new number, it is important to keep the old one for ID, as you experienced. Thanks for sharing!

In June I'm taking a trip that will require an open jaw ticket (IAH-SFO and LAX-IAH) and currently UA is $452. Do prices on these types of tickets follow the pattern of regular tickets (lowest about six weeks out)? SWA (HOU-OAK-LAX-HOU) is lower but the schedule and originating airport aren't as convenient. Any other options I should consider?

That fare does not sound unreasonable to me. And I'm not sure that buying six weeks out results in the lowest prices. Different studies have come up with different conclusions on airfare pricing patterns. 

It wasn't quite the train trip itself that was so memorable, but about 15 years ago my husband and I took the train from Edinburgh north to go camping. Since we didn't want to carry our suitcase, we took it to the left luggage place at the train station. The people there were very agitated and told us at least 3 times that they were closing at 6pm. That seemed pretty reasonable to us and we didn't need our bags that night so we went ahead and took our claim ticket and got on our train. When we came back 3 days later we discovered that the left luggage booth had gone out of business at 6pm and we had to hunt all over the station to find our bag at security. But we didn't have to carry our suitcases and we didn't end up having to pay!

This reminds me of how my husband and I found a cute little place for lunch on the way to Rehoboth. The next year, we returned, ready for a meal and were told that we were too late -- the restaurant had just closed for good.

Just wanted to express my appreciation for Rick and his travel guides! Stayed in a wonderful inn in Rothenburg thanks to him -- his advice to spend the night in the village as opposed to just a daytrip was spot on. ALSO absolutely loved Hallstatt (in Austria) which I knew about from his book. Seemed that all the other American visitors in Hallstatt were there thanks to Rick as well; vast majority in tourists in that village seemed to be Europeans.

Thanks for that shout-out! I have also used all of Rick Steves' guidebooks around Europe and loved the places he directed me. I think his listings are both opinionated and honest.

you can take a boat ride up and down the river. really nice. the city museum is pretty awesome. we weren't sure about it since we didn't have kids, but we went and it was really really something to see. very interesting...

Agreed. I love St. Louis. Daughter went to college there, and I used any excuse to visit her and the city. 

How high on your life list is this? Cambridge is cold, wet, and dark at this time of year. I lived nearby and never even thought about going. Toilets and food and the possibility of illness from being chilled through and possibly wet, plus being in a crowd of like chilled people made it an unpleasant prospect. Yes, it is beautiful to see, but the BBC has the best angles and the best sound systems set up for everyone.

For some,  watching it on television is just not the same as being there. 

If you are thinking about Vancouver / BC, maybe also consider San Juan Islands or Oregon Coast. You'd get beaches without insane heat. I'd also avoid the Caribbean in August since that's getting into peak hurricane time.

All nice locations, but when dealing with a large group of people from different age groups, I'd opt for a resort with amenities. 

One thought for taking pictures on fast moving trains is to intentionally let them be blurry to show the fast motion. Other than that, yes you want a fast shutter speed. You also might need to bump up your ISO a bit in order to achieve the higher shutter speeds depending how bright the light is.

Yep, sometimes you definitely want some blur, but even then depending on how fast the train is moving you're going to want a shutter speed on the higher end, I'd think. There's a difference between some blur and so much blur that it just looks like a mess, right?

Imagine the reservations line of the chain hotel you are staying at in a world capital won't give you your branch's street address or transfer your call there -- and to top it off, gives you the wrong 'phone number to call directly! Hard to believe but it happened this weekend -- sadly, here in DC. This may not belong in the Travel section but I had to share: Saturday afternoon, I saw two tourists outside the Shakespeare Theatre at 6 & F NW looking wilted and completely lost so I asked if I could help. They wanted to know how to get back to their hotel and showed me a scrap of paper that gave a partial address on 1st St, without specifying the quadrant, and a mini-map that did not indicate the hotel location. They knew it was a Hilton Garden Inn so I looked on my not-that-smart 'phone, which doesn't show maps but did offer a toll-free reservations 'phone number. it also offered an address for a Hilton Garden Inn on 14th St. NW but the Scandinavians were sure it wasn't 14th St. So I called the reservations line -- and was told they couldn't give out the hotel address (!) -- or even tell me if the address I had was located in NW, NE, SW or SE! Neither would they connect me directly to the hotel! My gasps of "What?" and Why not?" and "You must be kidding!" were met with some non-explanations I've forgotten. But they did offer to give me the direct 'phone number to call myself, so even though I was embarrassed that I was having such difficulty getting such public info here in we-know-everything-land, I figured we'd know in another minute. I called the number we'd been given and it was, of course, the 14th St branch. Where I was told they didn't have the info for another branch and would not transfer my call there. I asked to be put through to a supervisor and, several rings later, Valet Parking picked up! At this point, rather than stand by while I made another call, the couple decided to simply start walking since I could a least indicate the general direction for 1st Street. ...Of course, today, when I searched again, the hotel address came up (it's in NE), but that was no help in the 80 degree heat and crowds last Saturday. I wish I'd gotten the couple's names so Hilton could maybe comp them an extra night or you could send them today's "token of appreciation" -- or I could sen them a good, old-fashioned telephone book, where all that info is so easy to find.

How terrible for those tourists. Hopefully someone from Hilton is following our chat.

However, this is an important lesson for all travelers: No matter the destination, grab a business card from the front desk with the address and direct phone number. Don't leave the hotel without it!

My boyfriend and I are 20somethings living in DC and are thinking about a long weekend trip somewhere within driving distance. He likes hiking and outdoorsy things, I like good food and history, and we both really like not having to spend a lot of money. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance!

Charlottesville! It has everything you mentioned: You can kayak, hike, bike, taste wine, explore history, and do it all without dropping a ton of cash.

We never visited milan - but that's where all the trains passed through! so we spent a lot of time in that train station. it is beautiful. and has a bar...;) so you can get anywhere from milan, basically.

We did basically the same thing, started in madrid then returned the car somewhere else in spain (for a short hop back to madrid, great story, but...). Anyway - we worked through a travel agent (this was in 2000 though) and it wasn't very expensive, if i remember correctly....

While there are very steep drop-off fees to pick up a rental car in one country and leave it in another, fees are usually minimal to drop the car in a different city within the same country.

I did what I call the Milan "trifecta" several years ago...La Scala Opera House with its wonderful little museum; the Duomo cathedral, with a beautiful view from the rooftop; and the Church of Santa Maria de La Grazie, home to "The Last Supper." And, yes, the train station is nice, too!

A friend and I met in St. Petersburg and had a late lunch, fueled by wine, that left us scrambling to catch a train to Vladivostok. We made it, barely, and as the train began to pull out of the station, we started heaving our luggage down the crowded aisles of the completely full train- and discovered that our seats had been taken! We showed our tickets to the conductor, who very quickly realized that we were on the completely wrong train -- we'd misread the times in our buzzy state. Ooops! She muttered under her breath "quick, jump off before we get too far", and she flung the door open and tossed our bags out. Speechless, we had no choice but to follow suit...! Since we then had a couple of hours to kill before our actual train, we did what was most logical at the time: got some candy and beers and hung out on the platform. Good times.

Has any avid fan of the BBC show "Doc Martin" been to the town of Port Isaac in Cornwall, where it's filmed? Is it worth the almost 4 hour drive from London?

Maybe someone will come back with insight next week!

That will do it for today. Thank you for all your great train tips and stories. Our little prize goes to the chatter who brought the old credit card they had replaced just in case they needed it for the train. That is thinking ahead! Please send me your name and mailing info at

Until next week, happy traveling!

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the Travel editor.
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the deputy editor of Travel.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott writes The Navigator column, clearing the way through the fog of consumer travel issues. He is also National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate.
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
Laura Terrenzio
Laura Terrenzio is travel information manager of Rick Steves' Europe.
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