Today's trains are not only a part of the green "slow travel" movement, they can be ultra-fast and super deluxe. Lea and Guest Yi Ding, a Eurail executive, share train tips and trips, from speedy, efficient Eurail to the luxury private train tours of the world. Riding the rails proves it's the journey, not just the destination.
We first discuss all about Eurail, which connects Europe through trains and ferries. We offer tips, scheduling, scenic routes, night trains and ferry passes.
Lea then describes 14 private trains focused on luxury, with reclaimed vintage carriage cars, fine dining and luxury bedding only a part of the ride: the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, the Royal Canadian Pacific, the Palace on Wheels, The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, the Belmond Hiram Bingham, Inca Rail, Belmond Andean Explorer, Belmond Royal Scotsman, the Transcantabrico Classico, The Pride of Africa Rovos Rail, The Palace on Wheels, the Belmond Eastern & Oriental Express, The Belmond English panel, The Ghan and The Rocky Mountaineer.
And of course, we end with a special memory of a train ride.
Yi Ding was born in Beijing, and considers herself a citizen of the world having traveled in close to 50 countries and being based in Europe for ten years. She currently lives in the Netherlands, Eurail’s headquarters. She has focused on building the awareness of Eurail and its rail passes.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to many guidebooks.
Contact Lea @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.com.
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*Transcript edited for clarity
Lea Lane 0:06
Hi, I'm Lea Lane an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
Commuter trains are an efficient means to get from A to B. But for travelers, by day or overnight, a train trip can bring you where everyday roads can't, all around the world. Boarding a train means letting someone else do the driving and navigating, watching the world go by in the comfort of a seat or a bed; a chance to view the landscapes, to stop and go off-train for excursions you wouldn't otherwise experience, traveling by train can be an adventure in itself. Our guest is Yi Ding, Business Growth manager for Eurail, the company behind the Eurail and Interrail passes, enabling flexible rail travel across Europe. We'll be talking with her in the first part of the episode. We'll both discuss some general train trips. And after that, I'll describe some of the greatest private train trips in the world. And then he and I will both end the episode with our own special train travel memories. Welcome Yi to Places I Remember. Well, train travel in Europe is on the upswing, thanks in part to a renaissance in sleeper trains and new investments in high speed rail across the continent, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Tell me about the growth of Eurail: what's going on right now?
Yi Ding 1:39
But actually, what we see in 2022, is that the open travel to Europe has resumed dramatically. And we see that more and more American travelers booking the Eurail pass and traveling within Europe with a Europass. So definitely the first sign of a recovery after two years of pandemic.
Lea Lane 1:57
I read that on average US travelers visited three countries during their trip with an average of 1.5 train rides a day. Is that about correct?
Yi Ding 2:04
Yes, you are absolutely correct.
Lea Lane 2:06
So how does Eurail work? Tell us what you do if you want to get a pass.
Yi Ding 2:10
So with a Eurail pass, travelers of all ages can use an expensive network of train and ferry connections to travel in and between up to 33 countries. The history of Eurail can be traced back to 1959 when the first Europass was born, and were first introduced to American travelers to travel in Europe by rail after the Second World War. So since then, the pass has been expanding the network from covering multiple European countries back to 60 years ago to now 33 countries.
Lea Lane 2:43
Well, I remember as a student, taking a Eurail pass and going all over the place -- what an exciting thing I just loved; it was a wonderful way to see not only to see the country, but to meet the people, because you'd meet the passengers, many of them people from all over the world. Like you said, it was a very exciting thing. But there was no mobile pass then -- tell us about the mobile pass.
Yi Ding 3:07
Yeah, in 2020, we launched the mobile pass. And now over 90% of American travelers use the mobile pass to travel within Europe. And mobile pass is so flexible, it gives the traveler the opportunity to just use one single app to manage their trips, to keep track of their trips and show the tickets straight from their device to the ticket inspector. So it's much easier than using the paper pass.
Lea Lane 3:34
Absolutely. I remember fumbling around losing the pass, you know, different languages. At the time, you had to have passports between countries. It was really quite an experience. But it was fun. Now, it's a much smoother and better ride.
Yi Ding 3:48
Exactly. When customers could just load their mobile pass into the runner app as soon as the gap their order confirmation. So there's, as you mentioned, there's no risk of damaging or losing a mobile pass. Yeah, it's absolutely fantastic.
Lea Lane 4:01
I know that many other train systems use it as well, Amtrak in the United States has one too. So it's a really big thing to make it easier for you to get on, in and off the train. Now, a great part of this, one of the best reasons to travel besides being able to see the world from your seat, tell us some of the ways that train travel makes a better green option.
Yi Ding 4:26
Absolutely. Compared to cars and airplanes trains use about 70 to 90% less carbon. So in terms of energy consumption, use of space and noise levels, trains are far more sustainable. The CO2 emissions of an average Eurail trip are about three times less per person than traveling the same route by car, and four times less than traveling by plane. And actually Eurostar conducted a survey, independent research awhile ago, showing that traveling by train from of London, emits 90% less greenhouse gas emission than traveling by short flight for the same route.
Lea Lane 5:10
That's wonderful. Can you bring your bike on easily? Is there special storage for bikes?
Yi Ding 5:16
Yes, in some countries such as in the Netherlands where I live, bringing the bicycle is possible; you just need to pre book space for the bike,
Lea Lane 5:26
Okay, it makes it a great asset to to know that you're traveling green as well as traveling fun. Now tell me what are some of the most popular European routes with travelers for the US. travelers.
Yi Ding 5:36
The most popular European routes are from Rome to Florence from Paris to Rome and Amsterdam to Brussels --as you hear that, the names are the big cities. No surprise that the American travelers would first need to land and use the international flights to land in big cities like Paris or Amsterdam,
Lea Lane 5:56
But about other travelers from around the world?
Yi Ding 6:00
What we see for example: European travelers, they tend to use the pass or travel in eastern Eastern Europe, from Berlin to Prague.
Lea Lane 6:09
I've taken some exceptionally scenic train trips in Europe. I mean, sometimes it was just going from one place to another, but they happen to be gorgeous. What are some of the most scenic routes in Europe if someone wants to take it for that purpose alone?
Yi Ding 6:21
There are just two routes that I really like to highlight. The first one is to Bergen railway. It runs from Oslo to Bergen, which is included in the Europass. It goes through the deep Norwegian fjords to the snow covered mountains. This is really fantastic. And the second one is the Bernina Express running with lines to Tirana in Italy. So the train takes about four hours from start to finish passing through about 55 tunnels, and 186 bridges. So in spring, the Bernina Express travels through green fields and large colorful farming villages. And in winter the train passes through snow covered mountains, frozen lakes, so the experience is like a movie theater depending on seasonality.
Lea Lane 7:09
Sounds beautiful. I've been on the flam railway that's the one in Norway. And I remember the waterfalls all all around me and they were playing Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg, it was in the air and I remember -- this is perfect. I'm seeing Norway and listening to this great music. I loved it. Now night trains have become popular to save time and costs -- sort of like a land cruise where you travel at night and you have the day to explore. For example, you might fall asleep in Paris and wake up in Nice and it just gives you the whole day in Nice without being tired. So tell me about your rail in terms of sleeping and bathroom facilities?
Yi Ding 7:46
Night trains are indeed getting so popular, and in Europe it saves travel time moving from one destination to the next while sleeping. And we see that the night train waking up in the in the destination in the following morning is just so unique.
Lea Lane 8:17
Now there's a roomette and there's a bedroom. What's the difference?
Yi Ding 8:21
????Some have couchette, some have the regular seats and some even have a good sleeper cabin with the Europass and travelers have the opportunity to book different compartment fitting your travel plans.
Lea Lane 8:36
One that has a bedroom, they'll have a dining car right there where you can sit down and have a meal. Is that correct?
Yi Ding 8:43
Yes. sometimes if a traveler books a sleeper cabin, free breakfast will be delivered to the cabin. Of course the travelers can also go to the dining car.
Lea Lane 8:54
And they're hot showers I presume? And are there any private bathrooms? One for every few bedrooms. So how does that work?
Yi Ding 9:01
In some sleeper cabins there is a dedicated bathroom; a private bathroom for each cabin? So there is no need to share the bathroom.
Lea Lane 9:12
I want to ask you about some of the newer routes because there are places they're not really so easy to get to and you give ferry passes for those. What are some of the ones where you offer a ferry pass?
Yi Ding 9:25
It allows travelers to use the ferry to do the island hopping. With Europass travelers can usually also enjoy some tax benefits. And our pass benefits include some ferry lines connecting, for example, Germany to Sweden.
Lea Lane 9:52
I know you can do the Greek islands and get a ferry pass to that which is super great.
Lea Lane 9:59
In addition, to be able to go a little further, beyond, you know, sometimes when there aren't rail lines, you can go deeper into Europe. Okay, let's offer some tips for easier train travel. Before I mentioned some of the world's best private trips. Let's start with safety and health. What would you suggest? What are some suggestions for safety?
Lea Lane 10:20
Train travel is a reliable transport, meaning that it offers a sense of security for our travelers punctual and safe.
What's the best car to be? And there's all kinds of myths about this where it is said in the terms of motion sickness as well. Yeah, which one in the front? The back? Everybody says something different, of course. But what do you suggest, I would say choose the window seat, no matter is on the front or in the back, don't train, they do offer semi automatic view, especially the senior at scenic train, whether it's in the front or in the back. That's a good and you can see I mean, the perfect place just to sit as the window because you see us anyway, that's a good thing. I would say the one thing I feel a little bit shaky about literally is when I go between cars, so you want to watch yourself then and wear comfortable shoes, I wouldn't wear up very high heels probably. Also, I would wear comfortable clothing and you don't have to dress up anymore. Wear whatever you think is comfortable. Totally fine. Yeah, I'm just thinking of some of these long distance rides, where you're going through mountains and sort of curves around and I've been caught in the middle of the cars. So that's something I think about, I think one suggestion I would make is to make a pre departure list because there's a lot of things going on when you're going to the train station and you want to know what you're doing. You want to have your ID with you, your make sure you have your train tickets, consider your travel insurance. And make sure to bring your medications and personal care items. And check ahead of time about Wi Fi on the trade. How about on your rail is there Wi Fi on most of the trains. The most of the trains, especially in the western part of Europe, do offer free Wi Fi. And good to mention that in some major European European stations. The first class you were passcode or and also enjoy the longest, the longest. And in those lounges they can use free Wi Fi and sometimes enjoy some free drinks. So yeah.
Lea Lane Can you bring your own food on board?
Oh, yes, absolutely. Well, two of my tips that I've thought about a lot, because I've traveled on trains a lot. One is to familiarize yourself with the route because when I've taken a map out or when the old days I used to take it out, now you just look on your phone. But when you know where you're going, it makes such a difference. You go through a city and you see some of these beautiful buildings. If you know the history of the city, it helps a lot. So I do a little preparation and know your route and makes a difference in terms of understanding where you are. And to me that's one of the things about travel, I like to feel a sense of place. So that's fun. I mean, you have the time to do that when you're sitting when you can't do that in a car. The other thing is to pack carefully, because I've had to lift some pretty heavy things up steps. I like to travel. I also would like to recommend the travelers to bring less. Many trains have special luggage storage space.
Now, I think one of the things is to be aware of scheduling because they may change on weekends. My friend Alan had a problem. Once he was in grad school, he was traveling by himself on the train. And he took a stop, he knew there was about 15 or 20 minutes, and he left his backpack on the seat because he knew he just was gonna go out a little bit. And what happened is the train left with his backpack. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday he didn't notice that it was a different schedule. He did get the backpack because the people were very helpful to him, which is another thing -- you can get help if there's a problem. But remember that the scheduling may change on the weekend. Is that correct? Or is it always the same on URL?
Yi Ding 14:02
Trains are sometimes change and if you unfortunately lost your stuff it goes in the claim center and we've seen major stations go and check there.
Lea Lane 14:18
Oh, it was a happy story because he got the backpack back. I don't know if I'd leave my backpack. I guess it was big and he didn't want to take it with him. But boy was he scared when that train left the station. So be aware. And you know, it'll, it'll be good, if you have a problem. You can go to someone and they'll help you and that's the best part of the story. So we've covered lots of info but I compiled a list of some of the greatest private train rides. They're usually private lines that offer scheduled excursions and sometimes even possibility of a private charter. And they're luxurious and they're throwback, so I'm just going to read .Do some of them even if we don't go on them. They're lovely to hear about. The most famous probably is the decadent Venice Simplon Orient Express, the interiors are art deco from the 1920s. The service is fantastic. You dress formally, play dress up kind of and you feel like you're in an Agatha Christie mystery because you have champagne and you're watching the countryside go by. And it's quite an experience. I went on a little leg of it -- I think was from London to the edge of Britain.
You know, Dover or one of those areas of the end, just a little portion, and it was so beautiful. It was like a throwback. So I think this is similar to many of these trains. They're wood paneled, and they were built earlier and they were repurposed by private companies for a luxury week or so. Some of them are three or four days, you'd have to book ahead, but they're fun, as I said, to listen to now. The Royal Canadian Pacific is Canada's most luxurious sleeper train. And Queen Elizabeth has been on it and there are only eight luxury passenger cars and they were built between 1916 and 1931. So it's a throwback again, you can have a wood panel cabin, and watch the mountains go by in the prairies of Canada. Someday in the future, we can return I hope to the Golden Eagle Trans Siberian Express, which you start from Moscow, it goes to Vladivostok or vice versa. You see Mongolia's capital, the Ural Mountains, Lake Bicol which is the largest body of fresh water in the world, and the vast steppes of Central Asia. So that's something to hope to get back to its five star service. With lots of vodka and caviar, all you can eat. In Episode 23 and in Episode 30, we talked about Machu Picchu in Peru and you can take several trains that are wonderful to get there. There's the Belmond Hiram Begum, which is named after this discover of Machu Picchu, who discovered it in 1911. And it's very luxurious and it takes you there in 20th century charm. These are mostly as I said, throwback trains, so you're gonna feel like you're in the past usually, which is kind of fun, but you can stretch out of you the mountains as you go. Then there's Inca rail, which is more accessibly price than the others. It's also very nice, it gives you live Peruvian music, and you eat or organic ingredients grown right in the Sacred Valley and you can see the staggering scenery to a spacious observatory lounge with an open air balcony, sipping a pisco sour, which wouldn't be bad. There's another one called the Andean Explorer, which goes all the way to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. And it goes to through the Peruvian Andes at 14,000 feet. And it's really something else, you get all sorts of alpaca wool blankets and hand woven fabrics and you'll eat something called alpaca tortellini, which I don't think you're going to get very many places with champagne. So it's really special, if you're going in that part of the world. In Episode 55, we talked about the royal Scotsman. And I had taken that years years ago, I don't know if it's quite the same today. But I do know there were only 24 guests on board, you go through some of the most beautiful areas of the Scottish Highlands, is a dedicated spa carriage and listen to this, the specialists are chained to synchronize their motions with the natural length and tilt of the train. So that's real luxury. I don't think you could get that anywhere else. In episode four, we talked about walking the Camino de Santiago where you can take a train. El transplanter brico classico, which is a luxury sleeper train takes you on the same route. If you don't want to walk, I don't know if you're gonna get your shell at the end. I don't know if that's considered walking and pilgrimage thing but it is a beautiful way to see that part of the world. And it makes stops at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. And in some of the prehistoric caves, and again, many of these trains their tours, they will stop for the best areas of the whatever itinerary you're on, so you get a real tour as well as a train ride. In South Africa, the pride of Africa is going on for 33 years. It goes from Pretoria, and there's a private lounge and a no cell phone rule. Some of these trains do have a no cell phone rule because they want to again, be a throwback. They don't want the present interfering with the luxury. So you know it's a wonderful journey. You get to see much of southern Africa; there's even a freestanding clawfoot tub in most of the grand compartments. India has the palace on wheels, which is a two-week trip that takes you from New Delhi through the Pink City of Jaipur and Rajastan and to some of the great UNESCO sites, and also Agra home of the Taj Mahal. It's pretty beautiful. It's a wonderful way to see this part of the world. In episode 39 we talked about Singapore and you can go from Singapore to Bangkok on the E and O, which has polished wood interiors, trim of silk, polished silver, white linen covered tables, and a bar car reminiscent of 1920s jazz clubs; you'll see the Malaysian jungle roll by sipping a Singapore Sling. How bad is that? Now, I like this one because it's a little bit different: It's the Belmond British Pullman. It's a historic 1950s carriage designed by filmmaker Wes Anderson. It's been updated to his specifications. So you know, it's gonna be special. And you will sip your champagne and special glassware was hand selected by Andersen, and you get a private tour of the train with the manager of the train. So it's kind of a personal feeling when you go on that train. You'll go from London through much of England, York, Cambridge, Canterbury, and you'll feel like you're back in the 20s and 30s, just like on many of the other lines, but with Wes Anderson's touch. And now they start to get it if you're in Australia, there's a chain, and that's really interesting. The name harkens back to the Afghan cattle traders and riders who first helped chart a course to Australia's interior. And you go for a three day journey from the gold fields, to the opal town of Cooper Paddy. Sounds great. I've been on this last one. It's called the Rocky Mountaineer. And it's very famous, it's the most popular of the train routes. And you just have this wonderful glass dome. And you can see the mountains and you see the wildlife. And there was a big thing on when I was on there spotting a bear. And we were all looking for the bear and I fell asleep. And when I was asleep that they spotted a bear. So that was a thing I remember about that trip, I missed the bear. But it's a very friendly service, you stop at some of the towns like Jasper, or Alberta and you start in Vancouver. So it's a very popular route that many of us have heard about.
So the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So Yi, would you share some travel memories about traveling on a train? What memory would you like to share?
Yi Ding 22:22
Oh, I'd like to share my memory traveling in Finland, with the Europass. And my best route experience is to travel from Helsinki, Finland to central Finland Christmas period in 2017. Up north to the Lapland area in Finland. At that point, they have short in winter in Finland. And I remember my train passed through small villages, lakes and forests covered with snow in different types of twilights. And that's the first time I know that twilight actually has different types and different colors. And the whole experience was just magical because of the light and snow. Which may be why there are so many fairy tales in Scandinavian country. So pure and magical.
Lea Lane 23:21
That's beautiful. Isn't there a train that goes to Santa Claus up there? You can get Santa Claus.
Yi Ding 23:29
I didn't go to the Lapland area. I stopped in the central central part of Finland enjoying the pure nature.
Lea Lane 23:43
I have some glimpses in my mind of some of the train trips. I've taken I some of them are in tiny little trains, the cog wheel trains, I went up in the cloud forest in Costa Rica. I've been up to the Jungfrau in Switzerland. I took steam engines in France, and in Wales. And I've gone through the chunnel, you know the train that takes you from London to Paris. It's an experience, you have lunch, and you're in Paris. It's a wonderful trip. I've been in the Grand Canyon, where a train was set up with a gunfight ensued. They had outlaws come on to the train and it was a lot of fun. It was like a story. I'd been on the bullet train in Japan. I've been on the bullet train in Japan, where you speed by Mount Fuji. And I've been on a train in Shanghai called the Maglev where you go 433 kilometers an hour. It's amazing, fastest train I've ever been on -- you tilt to the side and it's quite exciting. So wherever you may go, there are trains to take you somewhere and I think that some of us love them. But whatever it is, I think it's fun talking about them but it's even more fun taking them. So thank you Yi Ling, business and growth manager for Eurail for sharing your information and your stories. I hope we meet on a train somewhere sometime.
Yi Ding 25:29
Thank you Lea.
Lea Lane 25:36
My book Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries is available in print Kindle, and I read the audio version. You can follow me on forbes.com where I write five travel posts a month. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. And I'd love to hear from you on any of my links in the episodes show notes or on my website placesI rememberLea lane.com Until next time, make some travel memories.