By Brad Beckstrom
I’ve always enjoyed train travel. I figured out years ago that it’s often faster than traveling by air when you factor in getting to and from the airport and ever intensifying security. This is especially true in the Northeast, traveling between Washington DC and New York City. If I’m going downtown, I can step off the train at Penn Station in Manhattan versus cabbing to and from the airports, dealing with lines and weather delays. Sure, trains get delayed occasionally but at least you’re in a large comfortable seat with power outlets and can read a book or get some work done. As a bonus, no bag fees and up to 70% less CO2 versus a plane.
I really caught the train bug while traveling in Europe. There are some fantastic trains like the 186 MPH double decker TGV in France or the Frecciarossa ETR500 in Italy, also clocking in at about 186 MPH. Like Formula One, they are very serious about trains in the EU and UK. You can take a comfortable high-speed overnight train, have dinner in Munich, and breakfast in Rome. In addition to some great sunsets and scenery, you’ll be saving money you’d otherwise be spending on a hotel room.
Trains create stories
Planning overseas train travel can be a bit tricky. Even in Europe, dealing with language barriers, time zones, currencies will more often than not result in a few mixups. I recall traveling across Italy with my wife and two boys. The tickets we purchased online appeared to be for one fast train coast-to-coast but as it turned out it was two separate trains with a slow bus in between. We ended up renting a car which turned into its own adventure you can read about here.
Or the time traveling in Germany, when I stepped off for a scheduled stop in the town of Worms and the train took off a minute early, leaving me stranded at the small train station. My friends were still on the train and I had no way to get ahold of them. I ended up catching a fast train and meeting up with my train again, hours later in a different town. My friends had not even noticed that I was gone. On the same trip, we enjoyed too much German beer, slept through our stop in West Berlin, and arrived in East Berlin. This was in 1990 and the Berlin wall had just started to come down. We were woken up when some East German police were inspecting the train with muzzled guard dogs. We promptly got (ran) off the train and were able to explore the wall from the eastern side.
The mishaps, unexpected surprises and things you would never see from a plane seat are part of what make train travel great. The challenge is, many travelers wait to book their train travel just prior to their trip or at kiosks in busy commuter train stations. Many of the trains are traveling through multiple countries and do not have a simple tool like Kayak.com that lets you quickly sort through all the options and pay in advance to save some cash.
Bangkok to Chiang Mai
This was the Google search I typed in that led me to the holy grail of train travel. The site called The Man in Seat 61, reads like a travel blog but has an encyclopedic amount of information about train travel all over the world. In addition to pricing and schedules, it gives you detailed information about each route. For instance I quickly learned that my journey from Bangkok to Chang Mai via overnight express train would be effectively faster than flying and would save me a night in a hotel room. The site includes thousands of photos, videos and interactive route maps. It also includes bus and ferry connections, important if you don’t want to end up on a bus. The site has a narrative about train travel in each country and is a bit of a rabbit hole for train travel enthusiasts. It’s loaded with cost-saving suggestions for each country, something that is lacking from other train scheduling sites.
Versus discount airlines
I do know that in Europe and Asia it’s often cheaper to fly on discount airlines then travel by train. But if you’ve been on a discount airline in Europe and are over 5 feet tall you know these are basically flying cattle cars that suck a lot of the fun out of travel. I’ve read about several discount airlines in Europe that are experimenting with military style seating where you’re strapped in standing up similar to a flying bus. They’ve got this up and running in Asia. Passengers hate it so they are expanding the concept globally.
On these same flights you will also pay to use the bathroom. All around bad situation for a tall, frugal guy who likes his coffee. If these planes hit any turbulence this guy may be doing a face plant into this flatscreen.
I’ll take the train. Thanks