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  1. To Sapa and Back on the Fanxipan Express

    February 22, 2015 by Jools Stone

    Fanixpan Express

    Pic by calflier001 on Flickr

    Justin Schmid shares his experience of taking a sleeper train in Vietnam.

    To Sapa and Back on the Fanxipan Express

    Vietnam taught me one important lesson: For every blazing-fast maglev train or smooth-riding KTX or futuristic Japanese bullet train, there’s a Fanxipan Express.

    I experienced an overnight trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai and back during my two-week stay in Vietnam. The bottom line – the Fanxipan Express sways its way along the tracks, creaking and lurching … but there’s arguably no better way to get to Lao Cai and then onto the popular mountain destination of Sapa.

    Some part of me really enjoyed the novelty of the rickety Fanxipan Express, if only to feel a little better about my own country’s Amtrak; enjoying rail travel in South Korea or Finland can give an American a serious train inferiority complex.

    Let’s take a look at my time on the Fanxipan Express.

    Booking the Fanixpan Express

    Night train Lao Cai train Station

    By David McKelvey

    It’s entirely possible to book online far ahead of time. My wife and I left some room in our schedules, though, so we could evaluate our side-trip options in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. While staying at the Rendezvous Hotel in Hanoi, some references to homestay hiking trips around Sapa – near the Chinese border – caught our eye. We booked through the hotel, with a price that included train travel. The Fanxipan Express website lists a round trip in four-berth “Superior Cabin” as $45 US person, one way. So call it $90 for a round trip per person.

    The Rendezvous website lists our trek as $185 per person including fare for the train … but I recall us paying less than that. Nearly every price in Vietnam is negotiable, and you’re more likely to swing a deal in-person.

    The Rendezvous staff dropped us off about 90 minutes before our train’s departure time – plenty of time to get acquainted with the train station situation, and overcome any language barrier problems.

    Aboard the Fanxipan Express

    Fanixpan Express sleeper cabins

    Sleeper Train from Lao Cai to Hanoi by Kirk Siang, on Flickr

    Soon, we were aboard the Fanxipan Express. The strains of a super-schmaltzy ballad echoed throughout the cars (maudlin sounds of this magnitude transcend languages) as we found our room, a wood-paneled, four-bunk affair we’d share with two strangers.

    Well, we lucked out. We enjoyed the company of a teacher and an engineer who spoke excellent English. The four of us chatted a good bit before hitting the lights in an attempt to search for sleep.

    I did manage to fall asleep, but the swaying and creaking jolted me awake more than a few times. I spent a lot of time in that gray area just short of full sleep. I’d call it a combination of the train’s swaying and being a 6’2, 200-pound person jammed diagonally into a bunk not really intended for my frame. I was relatively clear-headed when we arrived in Lao Cai, and I handled the next three days of hiking just fine … so I guess I got enough rest.

    Conductors checked our tickets, and an attendant with a snack cart rolled by a few times. To be honest, I had little interest in snacks or drinks. I just wanted to get to Lao Cai, so I didn’t indulge.

    Don’t Miss This Tip

    Now, I need to tell you something absolutely vital about the Fanxipan Express – it’s time to talk toilets. Western-style toilets are getting more common in Vietnam, but you’ll definitely find more squat toilets. The Fanxipan Express has both types, which my wife didn’t realize. She found the squat toilet first, and assumed all the train’s toilets were the same.

    So, if you don’t favor a physical task that’s like playing billiards on a roller coaster, keep walking until you find the Western-style toilet on the Fanxipan Express.

    Wrapping up 16 Hours on the Fanxipan Express

    We returned to Lao Cai on a chilly evening a few days later. There are plenty of cafes nearby where you can enjoy a cafe sua da (the delicious iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk that’s so popular here) before boarding the train. We spent some time strolling about Lao Cai, but didn’t wander too far because … well, we’d just hiked for three days and were feeling the weight of our packs. That, and the clock was ticking.

    Our return trip was much the same as the outbound leg. This time, three other passengers jammed into the four-bunk cabin. My Vietnamese-language skills allowed me to offer some greetings, but that’s it. No cross-culture connection this time.

    The Fanxipan Express creaked, we tried to sleep … and we arrived back in Hanoi. We said tam biet to our bunkmates and headed off to our last few days in Vietnam.

    About the Author

    Justin Schmid works as a creative professional for a nonprofit organization to support his travel habit. He tries to make the most out of every two-week trip abroad. You can learn more about his travels at his blog. You can find him on Twitter as @wandering_j.

    ‘ Hi Impact Radius’

  2. London to Iran by Private or Public Train

    October 31, 2014 by Jools Stone

    London to Iran by train

    This month UK-based rail operator Golden Eagle Trains will set off with the first private train into Iran. Tickets for this epic luxury rail journey apparently sold out very quickly, despite the minimum price tag of nearly £9000 and they’re already booking up for 2015.

    Of course it’s quite possible to arrange your own train journey to the region for a fraction of that cost, as Tom Stapleton, of travel start-up Travel Local, shows with this latest guest post on his own rail trip to Tehran back in 2008. Here’s his account of the journey.

    I’d been intrigued by Iran for a while before coming across the London to Tehran pages on, describing an epic sounding rail adventure taking in Cologne, Vienna, Belgrade and Istanbul. That persuaded me to take the plunge, and after many evenings figuring out how to buy the tickets, my brother and I embarked on the first leg of our journey from St Pancras.

    Trans Asia Express train sign

    There was just enough time in Cologne to climb the spire of the city’s Gothic masterpiece of a Cathedral. In Vienna timings only allowed for a coffee in the station before we continued to Belgrade – a youthful city with friendly, international locals where we spent a couple of nights. A sleeper train later and we were in Istanbul, exploring the many layers of history, trying to like Raki and enjoying the colour of one of the world’s most convivial cities.

    The final three day leg of the journey – the Istanbul to Tehran ‘Trans Asia’ Express – started with a ferry ride across the Bosphorous to Haydarpasa railway station. Located on the Asian side of Istanbul, the station is a grand, classical building, and one of the busiest in Asia (or was – it’s currently closed for a major refurbishment).

    Train party Turkey

    On board, we met our fellow passengers. There were a handful of other travellers, but the majority were Iranians returning home from holidays or work in Turkey. Shortly after departing, an Iranian gentleman from our neighbouring compartment invited us in, and with a conspiratorial grin invited us to join him and his wife for some sweet red wine, along with pistachios and other snacks. We had no language in common, but whiled away a pleasant hour or so learning a few words of Persian. Heading to the buffet car, the party atmosphere continued, with much singing and a little dancing. As the train hurtled eastwards, women took their last opportunity to be without the Hijab, and men had a few last sips of beer, wine or whisky – all forbidden in Iran.

    Turkish train

    Waking the following morning, we felt a long way from St Pancras. Dry, gently undulating scenery, small villages and towns with donkey carts waiting at the level crossings, and the preponderance of minarets rather than church spires: all told us that this was not Europe. The further east we got, the more the train slowed as the condition of the track became more and more rickety. As we approached the eastern most Kurdish provinces, soldiers got on board, supposedly to protect us from Kurdish separatists. They stayed with us all the way to Tatvan, on the shores of Lake Van.

    Seventy four miles across, the lake is more of a sea and marks the end of the railway. Our luggage was loaded into a luggage car, and we boarded a ferry to take us across to Van on the other side – a five hour journey that is reportedly very scenic. Unfortunately the train was five hours behind schedule, so we were unable to verify this…

    Waiting for us the other side was an Iranian train to complete our journey to Tehran. A little shabbier than the Turkish train, the party atmosphere evaporated as we crossed the border and the hijabs came on. After a few hours sleep, we arrived at the first major city, Tabriz. A prolonged stop of an hour or so presented the opportunity to change some money. I handed across a couple of crisp fifty dollar bills and received back 2.7 million Iranian rials – a carrier bag full of banknotes that made us feel rich beyond our wildest dreams until we came to actually buy things.

    Iranian Rials

    We’d departed Istanbul bang on time, but the further east we got, the more time we seemed to lose. We finally limped into Tehran a mere 12 hours late – but what’s 12 hours when you’re practically crossing a continent?

    At the time I was glad to be getting off the train, but looking back, this is a journey I remember with great fondness – with the world getting ever smaller, it truly felt like an adventure.

    London to Iran by train journey cost

    Tom took the journey in 2008, but the following are current costs, as of October 2014.

    From around £150 London to Belgrade in a 2 berth sleeper, saver single ticket (via Brussels, Cologne, Vienna).
    The overnight Belgrade to Istanbul train has been suspended, so now needs to be done in two sections – Belgrade to Sofia overnight and then Sofia to Istanbul overnight. Around £80 for both legs.
    Istanbul to Tehran is around £50.
    Overall we spent around £1800pp on getting to Iran by train, having a 10 day private tour (with a car and driver, staying in budget hotels) and then a flight back.
    What were the sleeper cabins like?
    All pretty decent – Belgrade to Istanbul was a bit shabby, with 6 berth compartments. Istanbul across Turkey was in a modern 4 berth compartment. From the border across to Tehran, the 4 berth carriages weren’t so modern but still in good enough condition.
    In general, what was the food like on the journey?
    Food on board from Istanbul to Tehran was not bad at all, mostly classic Turkish dishes. In Iran, the food is pretty tasty, though slightly repetitive – expect lots of chicken kebabs!
    Anything about booking the journey that would be useful for our readers to know?
    It is a faff, but most of it can be done in advance from the UK. Deutsche Bahn should be able to get you as far as Sofia. Use a specialist rail booking agency for the Istanbul to Tehran leg.
    My company, TravelLocal, can help with travel arrangements within Iran. Drop us a line and keep an eye on our website in future for more info on that.
    The Foreign Office currently advises against ‘all but essential travel to Iran’, though I would imagine this will change within the near future.

    About the Author

    Tom on Tehran train

    A life long train lover, Tom is the co-founder of start-up TravelLocal connects travellers to locally owned travel companies in your destination who specialise in providing private, bespoke trips. For instance, if you’re travelling to India, TravelLocal makes it safe and easy to book with an Indian travel company, saving you money and getting you a better, more authentic trip. Call 01865 242 709 or email to find out more or to start planning a trip.

    Iran night train

  3. Amtrak Trip Planning & Ways to Save

    September 15, 2014 by Jools Stone

    Amtrak California Zephyr train

    Pic by Loco Steve:

    We’ve finally booked our big ‘whistlestop tour of America’ with Amtrak next month, taking in short stays in New York, New Orleans, LA, San Fransisco and Chicago.

    Of course we’re incredibly excited, and as if visiting these cities wasn’t thrilling enough, our trip takes in 5 classic, long haul train routes, travelling through 18 states over 18 days and nearly 6,000 miles.

    We’ll be taking the Crescent train from New York to New Orleans, then we have 2 nights on the Sunset Limited across the southern deserts all the way to LA in 2 nights. The following day we’re off on the Coast Starlight, up the Californian coast until San Fransisco. Then we cross the country again on board the California Zephyr, perhaps America’s most celebrated train ride, over 2 nights to Chicago. Finally, after a few nights there, we take the Lake Shore overnight to the Big Apple before flying home.

    Here’s our route:


    Trip Planning

    Amtrak’s website is surprisingly easy to use, once you’re familiar with the basics. In terms of rail planning, we found it to be one of the best run websites by national train operators.

    Route Atlas

    The best thing about Amtrak’s site is the interactive route planner. The interface is a map of the country. To look for fares, you simply click on your starting city, choosing the green go arrow icon and do likewise with your terminus, choosing the orange stop icon. It asks you your dates and number of passengers and then returns results, either by shortest journey or cheapest price. It will also show you multiple route options, where relevant.

    It will always display the standard coach fare, but it gives you the option to see prices for a variety of sleeper accommodation. Whether you choose Roomettes or Bedrooms on longer journeys, you pay for the room in addition to the individual fare, regardless of how many people are travelling in your party, which makes it good value for small families.

    That’s not to say that traveling by train across America is a budget option, far from it, particularly if you’re not prepared to sleep in coach seats. Rates for bedrooms and roomettes vary wildly, depending on demand and availability for your chosen route and dates, so it’s always worth experimenting with different dates.

    As an example, we managed to bag a bargain on the California Zephyr with a bedroom for $650. On another day in the same week (found on the same day) the same room was going for over $1900.

    Sunset Limited poster

    Amtrak Rail Passes

    Amtrak offers a range of   for different length of trips across the full national network. These can offer great value, especially if you’re planning to make at least 5 or 6 journeys, or simply prefer to have flexibility and stop off in different places en route. It’s different from InterRail, which gives you unlimited journeys across multiple countries per day of travel. Each individual journey is counted as one segment, which must be taken within a set timeframe.

    Passes start at 8 segments (or journeys) over 15 days, for $450 per adult. Other options include:

    • 30 days/12 segments – $679 (adults)
    • 45 days/18 segments – $879 (adults)

    Bear in mind that your final journey must end before midnight on the last day of your pass.

    Although an Amtrak Railpass covers the entire country, there are a few exceptions. Check out this page of Amtrak’s site for full info on these.

    The Crescent train, New Orleans,

    The Crescent train, New Orleans:

    Pass vs Individual Tickets?

    It’s always worth checking the value of the pass against individual fares though, as they can sometimes work out cheaper, particularly on shorter journeys.

    Note that you will still need to book reservations (or sleepers if you don’t plan to sleep in your regular coach seat) for each journey, as there are only a limited number of railpass seats allocated on each.

    Why use an Agent?

    We booked our trip with Holidays by Rail, a UK-based rail tour operator specialising in Amtrak and US rail travel. The trip cost exactly the same as it would have done if we booked via Amtrak’s site. Although we used the Amtrak site to plan the different legs of the journey and find the best fares ourselves, we still found an agent useful for peace of mind, to doublecheck prices, make sure we hadn’t overlooked anything and generally get sound advice.

    It’s also worth noting that if you book with a railpass there may be a slight delay (overnight) in confirming your sleeper tickets, whereas point-to-point tickets are confirmed instantly.

    If you don’t have the time or inclination to use Amtrak’s route planner, an agent can really help, especially with complex, multi-stop itineraries. Our agent was able to advise us on whether to book a railpass or single sleeper fares and generally provide useful information on each of our destination cities, including which areas to stay.

    They also advised us to upgrade to a Superliner Roomette for the Coast Starlight train. Even though we wouldn’t be sleeping on the train overnight, with an upgrade we’d benefit from getting access to the vintage parlour car and two meals for just $100 more in total for two people. (This was actually something we already knew, but still it was reassuring to get the advice.)

    Coast Starlight parlour car

    Pic by The West End:

    Amtrak Discussion Forum

    This independently-run site is invaluable for trip planning, especially if you have more specific, in depth questions. The people on it are friendly, knowledgeable and super helpful. One even went ahead and costed up my journey for me!

    Amtrak Discounts: American Rail Travel Deals

    Since Amtrak’s fares are not the cheapest, it pays to be aware of various discounts that may apply for your trip.

    Amtrak Disabled Discount

    If you’re a wheelchair user, blind, deaf or have another disability that requires special attention when travelling you (and your travelling companion) should be eligible for a 15% discount on single fares, but do note that there is no discount applied to railcards. You’ll just need to provide proof of disability (a doctor’s letter will do) at the time of booking.

    NARP Discount

    If you’re keen to support rail travel in America, you might also consider joining the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a group that lobbies to improve rail travel in the US, which gets you 10% discount on most Amtrak fares, along with 10% discount on Canada’s Via Rail services. Membership costs $35 per year and, despite the name, the organsiation is open internationally.

    Amtrak Student Discounts

    An ISIC International Student Card also bags you a 10% discount on most standard fares. The card costs $25 a year and can be used for similar discounts with other travel merchants, including Hostelworld, STA Travel, Citypass and Motel 6. It’s even open to part time students and there are no age restrictions.

    Amtrak’s 25% Specials

    Amtrak offer a regular suite of discounted fares which changes week-to-week,. You can usually book these up to three weeks in advance. Check the latest deals on Amtrak’s website.

    Amtrak’s Guest Rewards Scheme

    It’s also worth joining Guest Rewards, Amtrak’s loyalty programme. It’s free to join and open internationally. You’ll earn 2 points for each dollar spent on fares, which can be redeemed at a later date, not only on future Amtrak tickets but also on hotels, car hire and various items sold via Amtrak’s online merchant portal, plus you’ll get a 500 point bonus when joining.

    On certain routes you can claim a single journey from around 1500 points. You cannot redeem them on sleeper accommodation though. The points can take a little while to process, so if you’re booking a trip, don’t bank on being able to use them on the same trip. Points remain valid for 3 years and you can buy more, often at specially incentivised rates. The Amtrak Discussion site has a busy forum section dedicated to the intricacies of maximising guest rewards points.

    Check out the full range of Amtrak’s discounts for children, senior citizens, servicemen and more.

    We hope you’ve found this info useful and look forward to following our American Amtrak adventures in future posts!

  4. Bob Dylan weekend in South of France

    July 16, 2014 by Jools Stone

    A Weekend Music Break near Tarbes: Go by Train!


    Grays Garden for Dylan weekend

    Today we bring you news of a rather unique travel experience, the chance to travel by train to the South of France for a weekend of music and chat about Bob Dylan, with a man thoroughly immersed in the subject.

    Our writer friend Michael Gray shares two of our own passions: train travel and  a wide range of rootsy American music. Two things which we’re sure you’ll agree complement each other rather nicely. If you’re a serious Dylan aficionado then you may be tempted to join him. His extensive knowledge of the subject and personal music collection ensures you’ll be in good hands. Here’s what Michael himself has to say about it.

    It’s pretty rare for a writer to invite his readers into his home. But the British author Michael Gray is doing just that in September and October this year.

    His book Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan pioneered the recognition of Bob Dylan as an important and serious cultural figure over 40 years ago, and he’s been described as Dylan’s most assiduous critic. Many books later he lives in France now, 45 miles from the Spanish border and in sight of the Pyrenees, with cookery writer Sarah Beattie. And just once or twice a year they open their home to guests for these unique events – Bob Dylan Discussion Weekends.

    Pool at Tarbes house

    The maximum number of guests each time is six. This year’s dates are Friday to Sunday September 12-14 and October 3-5. Previous guests have come from Australia, Canada, the USA, Germany, Switzerland, France, the UK etc.

    The 19th Century house lies on the edge of a small village in deep and beautiful countryside, and guests enjoy en-suite rooms, exceptional food, good local wines and evenings of great music and talk.

    And you can take the train to this unique weekend break. Take the TGV from Paris to Toulouse, and on by a good local train service to Auch, just 30 minutes from the house.

    Train to Tarbes France

    (There’s also a route to Tarbes, 30km from the house: one couple left York by train at 8.30am and, via King’s Cross-St.Pancras, the Eurostar to Paris and the fast train from there, arrived at Tarbes at 8.32pm – and on time too!)

    Train Route Toulouse to Auch

    Feedback from previous participants has been brilliant:

    “I couldn’t really think of anything to improve the weekend. The food was divine and it was great to be able to indulge our Bob Dylan interest (I’m avoiding using the word obsession!) in an unfettered way!” Ian.

    “A special thank you for a gem of a weekend. Wonderful food, warm hospitality and an amazing giving of knowledge.” Jill and Louise

    For full details, prices and bookings, see this page on Michael Gray’s website

  5. Overland from London to Sydney by train

    April 6, 2014 by Jools Stone

    Travel writer Peter Lynch shares some highlights from his epic round the world rail trip, from London to Sydney.

    Australia's Indian-Pacific train

    Overland from London to Sydney: travelling around the world by train

    Around 640,000 people travelled to Australia from the UK last year. I was possibly the only one that went by train.

     The world’s ‘biggest train journey’?

    According to legendary travel writer Eric Newby “the Trans-Siberian is THE big one [train ride] and all the rest are peanuts.” Maybe it’s the biggest single train journey but it was only a fraction of my trip.

     Visas and Customs

    London to Sydney by train may sound far-fetched but that was my plan and it turned out to be a surprisingly easy 20,000-mile trip. Organising all the visas was probably the greatest hassle although crossing umpteen borders was a breeze. In fact, on the entire journey, no customs official ever bothered to look in my bag.

     The best route?

    My route was chosen to be bandit and terrorist free and with the least number of breaks in rail connections – France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. Taking the route through Lithuania skipped the additional visa hassle and the cost of crossing Belarus and meant I didn’t need to get my passport out until I crossed the Russian border.

    How long is a piece of string?

    The trip could probably be done in three weeks at a rush but that would be hard graft and pointless as the idea of an overland trip is to see and explore countries on the way. So I spent three months stopping off wherever and whenever I felt like it.

    Lake Baikal transsiberian

     Crossing Europe

    Brussels and Cologne were good stop-off cities, sadly the timetable didn’t allow a Warsaw stopover but Bialystok in Poland was interesting but Vilnius in Lithuania was fabulous. The overnight train to St Petersburg was smart and comfortable and all the border and customs procedures were carried out without having to leave my cabin.

     The Trans-Siberian

    The trans-Siberian is not a train but a route, actually several routes that cross Siberia to different destinations. There are a number of ways to travel – cattle class, 4 berth or 2 berth cabins and if you want to make stop-offs you need to buy separate tickets for each leg. That’s why most travellers opt for organised trips with companies like the Russia Experience; I on the other hand opted for some luxury on this leg of the trip.

     The Tsar’s Gold is not just a luxurious Trans-Siberian option, it’s home for 16 days. Unlike the usual scheduled trains, where you have to pack up and cart your luggage off at every stop; because it’s a private train it waits for you at every stop-off. It also runs its own schedule so eats up long distances while you sleep so minimising the dull stages and maximising time spent on excursions. Mongolia was the country that I really wish I could have spent more time in.

    Great Wall of China

     Crossing China

    Passports are needed to buy onward international rail tickets and I found it easier to go to a ticket agent rather than the station. As the only European on the train to Vietnam I attracted many sideways glances but had a four-berth soft sleeper cabin to myself.

    The twice weekly Beijing to Hanoi train served excellent food in the café-style restaurant car and most stations had kiosks selling food. The heat became more oppressive and the landscape more tropical the further south we went.

    Arriving at Hue Station

    The Reunification Express

    The Reunification Express runs the length of Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). The carriages are mostly battered Chinese cast-offs, with squat toilets and no air-conditioning. The ‘hard sleeper’ carriages have wooden benches, but ‘soft sleeper’ carriages come with four bunk beds, and are well worth the few extra pounds.

    It’s cheap and basic but good fun and an excellent way to meet local people. I stopped off at the ancient Royal capital of Hue and the beautiful World Heritage town of Hoi An before ending in Saigon. 

    Siem Reap Floods

     Crossing Cambodia

    With no railway lines through Cambodia I was forced to take a dirt-cheap bus to Phnom Penh, and later another to Siam Reap and finally a bus across the border into Thailand and Bangkok. Two weeks was nowhere near enough in Cambodia and I definitely have to return.

    Eastern Oriental Express Cabin

     The Eastern & Oriental Express

    It was a month since my last bit of luxury travelling so I was looking forward to the Eastern and Oriental Express, from Bangkok to Singapore. Sunan, my personal steward, has learnt my name before I stepped into my cabin and was more butler than train official, insisting I ring the bedside bell if I needed anything.

    Everything had a sumptuous hotel-feel, even the smallest cabins: elm and cherry wood marquetry, thick carpets, hand-embroidered curtains, brass lamps and cosy but practical en-suites.

    Breakfast and afternoon tea were served in my cabin and Sunan kept me updated on daily activities, dealt with border formalities and reconfigured my compartment for day and night use.

    Passengers dressed elegantly for dinner, and tables were laid for fine dining. Gourmet meals appeared from the small kitchen where the French chef designed menus for a broad range of tastes, subtly blending European styles with Asian spices).

    The Ghan train Carriage

     The Ghan train

    Named after the Afghan cameleers who built the rail line into Australia’s bleak red centre from Adelaide to Alice Springs. It now runs all the way to the tropical northern city of Darwin and I rode south from Darwin to Adelaide in a comfortable, air-conditioned, en-suite cabin. Gold class (or Platinum if you can afford it) is the way to travel.

    The Indian-Pacific

    The Indian-Pacific runs from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and is another of Australia’s great rail journeys – Perth – Adelaide – Sydney.

    This time I travelled in the cheaper Red Class, where you have to make do with a reclining seat and tucker from Matilda’s Café, except they had run out of all food by the time I turned up.

    I decided to stop-off for a few days in the outback town of Broken Hill because if you haven’t spent some time in the outback you haven’t really seen Australia. After an uncomfortable night in my recliner chair I woke up to the beauty the Blue Mountains on the final leg into Sydney.

    This formally ended my journey but after a week I couldn’t resist making the full 2,500-mile trip on the Indian-Pacific to Perth, but this time I thought I’d earned a trip in comfortable Gold Class.

    Cost of the Trip?

    Peter was sponsored for sections of the trip, but estimates that it could be done from around £3,000.

    Raffles Hotel Singapore

    Peter Lynch’s new ebook Overland from London to Sydney: travelling around the world by train is now available from Amazon for £3.09.

    Support this site and buy it now from our amazon railway stays book store


    About the Author

    Peter has been a professional travel writer for 12 years, writing for American & Australian newspapers, UK magazines, plus a number of websites. Peter reviews hotel and is the author of books on his main travel passions: wildlife conservation, volunteering & rail travel.

    Eastern Orient Express Side of Train

  6. The Ghan train turns ten

    February 13, 2014 by Jools Stone

    This year, Australia’s legendary long distance trainThe Ghan celebrates 10 years since its inaugural transcontinental journey across Australia.the ghan train australia
    On 1 February 2004, The Ghan train departed the South Australian city of Adelaide for the very first time on its 2,979km crossing through the heart of the country to the Top End. Two days later, the train arrived at the Northern Territory capital of Darwin. To mark the milestone, The Ghan gives us 10 reasons to explore Australia by rail this year:

    1. Size matters 

    When it takes three days, two nights and a staggering 2,797km to complete a rail journey, you know you’re in for an adventure of sizeable proportions

    2. Train your palate

    More than 1.3 million restaurant-quality dishes are served aboard The Ghan every year. Whether you’re up for grilled saltwater barramundi, pasture-fed pork cutlet with macadamia and sage, Coorong Angus beef medallion or wild lime and coconut tart, it’s on the menu.

    ghan train food

    3. Half a million tracks made
    More than half a million travellers have experienced the Ghan since its journey was extended from Alice Springs to Darwin ten years ago.

    4. All-inclusive, all year round

    Platinum and Gold Service guests on board the Ghan can now enjoy fully regionally-based dining, on-board beverages and fascinating Off Train Excursions at key stops, as standard extras.

    5. Prestigious history

    While the Ghan has traversed Australia for the past decade, the train itself actually dates back to 1929 when it used to travel between Adelaide and Alice Springs.

    ghan train longview

    6. 40,000 years of history in a day

    More than 35,000 guests last year enjoyed the ancient wonders of Katherine Gorge. Marvel at the sheer sandstone cliffs, Aboriginal rock art and cruise the tropical waters where you might even spot a croc!

    7. Meet new mates

    The on-board Outback Explorer Lounge is open round the clock, where you can enjoy a complimentary beverage or two and meet some new travel companions.

    8. Visit a town called Alice

    There’s nothing malicious about the quintessential Outback town of Alice Springs, which you can explore with your choice of complimentary Off Train Excursions.

    9. Go your own way

    Whether you’re up for a backpacking adventure in Red Service, travelling in comfort by yourself or with a partner in Gold Service or immersing yourself in luxury in Platinum Service, there’s on-board accommodation to suit all needs and budget.

    10. Early bird specials

    Book your Ghan adventure by 30 April 2014 for travel from 1 November 2014 onwards to save 25% off your journey. Prices start from £964 per person for Gold Twin Service with dining, beverages and Off Train Excursions included.

    Book your Ghan Adventure now!

    Alternatively, take a look at Great Rail Journey’s epic 22 day tour of Australia, which as well as the Ghan journey itself also takes in The Great Barrier Reef, dinner under the stars by Uluru, Sydney and the Blue Mountains, a Barossa Valley wine tour and 4 other scenic railways, including the majestic Kurunda Railway, with return flights from London Heathrow, from £6,075 per person.

    outback explorer train car

    10 Ghan facts to go’han about

    1. The name and symbol of the Ghan was inspired by the pioneering cameleers (many of them Afghans or as they were widely known, ‘Ghans), who more than 150 years ago first established a permanent trail to the Red Centre.

    2. In World War II, the Ghan played a vital role in transporting troops. Each year, The Ghan pays tribute to veterans with its special Anzac Tribute journey between Adelaide to Darwin.

    3. From Adelaide to Alice Springs, the Ghan track originally consisted of wooden sleepers. The desert termites dined on the sleepers as quickly as they were laid. Flash flooding also frequently washed the track away so in 1980, the old rail track was abandoned in favour of a new standard gauge line built with concrete sleepers.

    4. When the Ghan departed Adelaide for its inaugural journey to Darwin, it was the longest passenger train in Australian history, stretching more than 1km with two locomotives and 43 carriages.

    5. The 43 carriages on the first journey to Darwin included four ‘Special Carriages’ – the Chairman’s, Sir Hans Heysen, Sir John Forrest and Prince of Wales carriages.

    6. The average weight of The Ghan is 847 tonnes (single – 16 carriages) and 1,344 tonnes (double – 26 carriages), excluding the locomotive. For the inaugural journey to Darwin, the total weight exceeded 2,000 tonnes.

    7. Work on the 1,420km line commenced in April 2001 with the eventual cost reaching AU$1.34 billion – AU$741 million from private enterprise and AU$559 million from the government. It remains one of Australia’s largest ever infrastructure projects.

    8. When construction was finally completed in January 2004, workers had used 15 million cubic metres of earthworks, 146,000 tonnes of metal rail, 2 million concrete sleepers, 3,500 tonnes of structural steel, 2.8 million tonnes of ballast and built 93 bridges.

    9. The average speed of the train is 85km/hour with a maximum speed of 115km/hour.

    10. The total length of the journey is 2,979km, which takes 54 hours to complete.

    Ever taken a trip on the Ghan train? Tell us how you found it!

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  7. ærø: Denmark’s Fairytale Island by land & sea

    January 15, 2014 by Jools Stone

    Aero view Villa Blomberg

    Depending on who you believe, the remote Danish picture book island of ærø can either be pronounced as it sounds – as in aerodynamic – or if you’re a stickler for the Danish language, it can sound a bit like a particularly violent sneeze.

    But there’s nothing remotely violent about the island itself – whose main claims to fame are being home to the world’s largest solar power plant and seeming to be plucked from the pages of a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. All woozily angled bungalows and eye-catching doors, brightly painted in pastel shades and wearing the year of their build with pride in iron horseshoes.

    Aero building from 1783

    We were there for a friend’s wedding and it certainly lends itself well for that purpose. The happy couple had an intimate affair in the end, the distance and expense caused  a fair few invitees to drop off – but really getting there is not so hard, if you don’t mind taking a few trains and ferries. :)


    Copenhagen Museum

    We stopped off first via an overnight stay in Copenhagen, a very calm, pleasant – and surprisingly quiet – capital city, staying at the Hotel Absalon, an unpretentious modern railway hotel just a few minutes walk from the Central Station. Copenhagen wasn’t quite as expensive as we were led to believe either, with a really tasty and ample Smorebord platter for 2 in one of the main squares coming in at just shy of 25 Euros.

    Smorebrod in the square

    Smorebrod in the square

    We particularly enjoyed strolling around the orderly landscaped gardens of Kongen’s Have, past the scout hut-like cottage buildings and side streets around Nyhaven and taking in the fine esplanade walk past the grand Gefion fountain, the National Gallery and gawping in awe at the people dangling from the ridiculously high rides in Tivoli Gardens.

    Copenhagen Roundtower

    It’s a city that often makes you crane your neck to the heavens, we didn’t go in, but the Roundtower looked interesting for those with more time. The main thing that struck us about the city was just how quiet and orderly it was. Even during the midweek rush hour, it seldom had the bustle you’d come to expect from a capital city.

    Train to Svendborg

    Svendborg train station

    Then we trotted off to the station for a 2 train journey to the ferry port of Svendborg. The station, done out in that dense dark brown brickwork beloved of the Danes, is a perfectly pleasant place to dwell, having retained its wooden struts and typical railway architecture.

    The Danish trains we rode on were certainly busy (reservations were definitely necessary), but very comfortable, with wide seats and enough luggage space. We didn’t notice a buffet service or car on this short journey. It’s worth noting too that this journey goes via Copenhagen Airport, whose station is handily directly located in the terminal building.

    Copenhagen Odense train

    Booking Tickets

    The booking process using the Danish national operator DSB was noticeably smooth and easy – they even allow you to amend your booking up to a day before you travel at no extra charge. You can print your tickets at home, just remember to have your credit or debit card handy to show the inspector. The return 2 hour journey cost around £80 per person, including reservations.

    Some 75 minutes later, having past a few water-based windfarms, farmland and the music festival town of Roskilde, we got into Odense. A tight connection there meant there was no time to explore the town, but if the view from the station platform of grim modern architecture is anything to go by we probably didn’t miss too much.

    Odense to Svendborg

    Our second journey was shorter and on a smaller train where seats were at a premium. Soon enough though we reached Svendborg, which looked quite charming, if  a little sleepy. We struggled to find a cafe that was open on a Sunday afternoon, eventually settling for a table in the quirky, piggy bank festooned pub just around the corner from the station. A real local’s place reeking of rich pipe tobacco.

     ærø Ferry

    Aero ferry at Svendborg

    A few minutes walk from the station is the ærø ferry terminal. The crossing takes 75 minutes and a return ticket will set you back around 200 Krone, or £25. You can buy your ticket on board. The jollily painted ferry is a fair size, with plenty of seats on the two lower decks, picnic style benches on the top deck and a basic cafeteria on board. You’ll pass many small islets, populated mainly by seabirds.


    Typical Aero cottage

    The ferry docks at Aeroskobing, one of the island’s three ‘towns’ and the closet it has to a centre. A few minutes walk from the port you’ll find the main street, mostly impossibly pretty houses, a few gift shops, restaurants and ice cream parlours.

    There’s a Tourist Info Office, just by the port, plus a cafe (both were shut when we arrived after 5pm) and there’s a Netto supermarket just around the corner for all your essential supplies. The area’s a bit of a building site currently, as a multi-purpose arts centre is being built, but don’t let that put you off, there’s still plenty of natural and architectural eye-candy to feast upon.

    Villa Bloomberg

    Villa Bloomberg Aero hostel

    We stayed at Villa Bloomberg,  up a quiet country lane (also home to the solar plant) a 15-20 minute walk from the port. This former boarding school building was converted into a hostel earlier in the year. It’s wonderfully set with views of the water, windmills and gently rolling fields.

    Bloomberg garden view

    Being a hostel, the accommodation is fairly spartan, but cosy enough with many double rooms and plenty of shared bathrooms with powerful showers. Excellently run by good humoured retired chef Keld, with a little help from his two sisters, you can expect a very friendly, easygoing welcome here and truly superb traditional Danish food served at generous breakfast and dinner sittings.

    Around ærø

    Aero Pension

    Our brief stay on the island didn’t allow for too much exploration, but we would recommend dropping into the Pension Vestergade, for afternoon tea. The pension is a gorgeous 18th century cottage built by a wealthy sea captain at a time when the island was effectively independent and allowed tax-free living – and run today by delightful English emigree teacher Susanna.

    Her house, with its beautifully rambling wooded garden, is packed from floor to ceiling with books, stuffed animals, object d’arts and curios in every nook and cranny. It really feels more like staying with your eccentric Danish auntie than at the average BnB.

    Aero museum chair

    The town museum, which doubled as the registry office for the wedding ceremony, looked like it would be an intriguing spot to while away an hour or so, but mostly the appeal of ærø lies squarely in going for quiet rambles along the calm coast and farmlands.

    Gangster Paradise Aero

    Our Danish is not so hot, but we think this could mean ‘Gangster’s Paradise’

    There is something ever so slightly eerie about ærø , such is its charming remove from ‘civilisation.’ As tourists dragging our cases from the port on arrival we felt more than a little bit conspicuous. I half expected to be chased by one of those giant bubbles that emerged from the sea in the Prisoner. That said, everyone we met was unfailing friendly and welcoming.

    Aero houseboat

    Know before you Go

    Depending on your time of arrival, it may be worth arranging your transport from the ferry in advance. There is a (free!) bus service on the island but departure times are sporadic and you will probably struggle to find a taxi. Our helpful hosts offered to collect us by car.

    More to see around ærø

    Aero boating disaster

    We loved the mini boats in the pond – complete with a capsized vessel!

    Aero survival camp

    Aero fantasy world door

    Eerie streets of Aero


  8. Dinner with Raymond Blanc on the Orient Express

    September 24, 2013 by Jools Stone


    Here at Railway Stays we have a fierce aversion to the horribly hipster fad for ‘pop-up’ everything, and tend to turn our noses up at anything that refers to itself that way. However, we could (quite easily) be persuaded to put such petty peeves aside for the chance to enjoy dinner with Raymond Blanc on board the Northern Belle.

    The imaginatively named ‘The Dinner Hosted by Raymond Blanc’ is part of the Orient Express’ new series of pop-up (cough!) dinners, which will see the UK’s most celebrated chefs host evenings on board the Northern Belle and the British Pullman.

    Northern Belle dining

    The 100 lucky passengers who manage to bag a ticket to the first of these exclusive fine-dining events in November will be treated to champagne and canapés on the platform of Manchester Victoria station before boarding the Northern Belle. This stunning Art Deco luxury train is beautifully furnished, and each carriage is individually styled with ornate marquetry on the walls and mosaics on the floors.

    Northern Belle

    As the journey begins, so will the dining – passengers will be served a seven-course meal created by Raymond Blanc himself, accompanied by champagne and fine wines. When he’s not busy in the kitchen he’ll be passing through the train to chat to his guests, talking about his love of food and sharing the story behind the evening’s menu. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’ll also be onboard entertainment with a musician and magician visiting each table, and a fireworks display part-way through the journey.

    musicians on board the Northern Belle

    If you’re thinking that this would be the perfect evening for a big romantic gesture, you’re going to love this next bit: the Northern Belle will make a stop at Carnforth Station, the filming location for iconic British railway romance Brief Encounter, before heading back to Manchester.

    British Pullman

    Raymond Blanc is also hosting another dinner later in the month on the British Pullman, this time leaving from London, but at the time of posting there was no further information about the rest of the series or the celebrity chefs involved. Don’t worry though – we’ll keep you posted!

    A Dinner Hosted by Raymond Blanc: 2 November, Manchester, from £335pp; 16 November, London, from £495pp.



  9. Luxury Train news – Private Train to Iran, RTW Rail Tour & Cally Sleeper Re-duxe

    September 5, 2013 by Jools Stone

    Private train Iran

    Here’s the first in our occasional series of posts, bringing you some lovely luxury train news, you lucky people you.

    Behind the Iran Curtain

    Gotta spare 15k burning a hole in your pocket? Yep, me too. Great, why not book yourself onto the first ever private train to be allowed into Iran from Europe?

    A company called MIR Corporation is behind this private train tour, which departs from Budapest for Tehran this October. The 15-day ‘Jewels of Persia’ tour passes through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, drinking in several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Bulgaria’s ancient city of Veliko Tarnovo, the Fairy Chimneys and cave houses of Turkey’s Göreme Valley and the ruins of Persepolis in Iran. Intrepid travellers on these inaugural trips are promised ‘a truly unique route you won’t see on any standard itinerary.’

    Can’t say F-f-f–f-Fairer than that


    Tsars Gold Train

    Round the World Train Trip

    Still got that urge to splurge? No problemo, quash it with this even more epic Round The World train trip, courtesy of possibly the world’s least stutterer-friendly travel agent Ffestiniog Travel. FT, as you may prefer to call them, are hitting the big 4-0 next year (hey, me too, can I crash the party?) and to celebrate they’re really  pushing the boat out, or rather they’re pushing the luxury train out, with their epic 40-day Rail Holidays of the World trip.

    For a mere £19,965 of your earth pounds they’ll whizz you across the globe, kicking off with a welcome dinner at the truly excellent Kings Cross St Pancras Renaissance hotel.

    This world-whooping journey across the Northern Hemisphere begins in Europe, taking in city visits to Brussels, Frankfurt, Vienna, Budapest and Moscow, followed by 11 days on the privately-owned Tsar’s Gold Luxury train, with lunch in a typical nomadic herdsmen’s settlement, a Mongolian horseback riding show and even a stop in the Gobi Desert.

    In China you’ll get escorted tours of the Great Wall of China, Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Warriors (in Xi’an) and a full day exploring Shanghai. Then they cheat a bit and stick you on a flight to Vancouver, where you’ll get some time to explore this fine, cultural melting pot of a city, before boarding the Rocky Mountaineer for a Gold Leaf service journey to Kamloops.
    Rocky Mountaineer

    You’ll get to explore two of Canada’s greatest national parks, Banff and Jasper, before hopping on to Via Rail’s Canadian train, through the famously wide open Prairies, via Saskatoon (which rhymes with balloon) and Winnipeg (which rhymes with boiled egg) to Toronto (which rhymes with pronto or orthodonto.)

    Then it’s a case of ‘another day, another train operator’, as you board Amtrak’s Maple Leaf service to New York. The grand rail tour to end all grand rail tours finally reaches its apotheosis with a 3 night stay in the ‘Big Apple, where you’ll get more sightseeing and a lavish Farewell Dinner, just to cushion the blow of your re-entry to the real world, back on Blighty.

    Want to book this journey with Ffestiniog Travel? Make sure you quote this reference when you do:  Ref: JS1

    The humble Cally Sleeper to get the Orient Express treatment?


    Mere hours after we published our guide to Scotland’s Caledonian Sleeper train we learned of news to give the night train service a bit of a blingy redux, when it gets put out for tender in 2015.Transport Scotland, who will award the 15 year contract, hope that the service will become ‘as iconic as the Orient Express‘, which certainly sounds rather ambitious given its present pedestrian state under the tenure of First Scotrail, but who knows?Could it even come to rival the OE’s Royal Scotsman one fine day? We’ll see. Stranger things have happened at sea and on the rails I suppose.’
    Will it be mushrooms? Fried onion rings? We’ll have to wait and see.’*
    *And if you get the above obscure ‘cultural reference’ and leave a comment below correctly identifying it, you can win a bumper prize of travel on all of the aforementioned epic train rides!
    Only joking…


  10. Vintage-Style Railway Posters Celebrate Centenary of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide

    August 29, 2013 by Jools Stone

    Canada vintage train poster

    Few things evoke the golden era of rail travel better than vintage rail posters. If you find yourself hankering after the charming retro artwork of days gone-by, then you’ll probably enjoy these new versions, courtesy of hotel site HRS.

    100 years ago George Bradshaw published the world’s first guide to rail travel, Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide, now celebrated by Michael Portillo’s popular BBC TV series Great Railway Journeys, while 50 years before that saw the opening of the London Underground.

    In celebration, HRS has commissioned this series of vintage-style railway posters. Depicting some of the world’s greatest trains from the age of steam onwards, these posters pay homage to the original advertisements used to attract rail travellers in the first part of the 20th century. 

    Flying Scotsman poster

    The boom of our railways sparked major change in Britain, stoking the fires of the industrial revolution and opening up leisure travel to the masses. It wasn’t long before steam locomotion crossed the English Channel and rail services began to spread across Europe.

    George Bradshaw first produced his Continental Railway Guide in 1847, publishing Europe’s new railway timetables, but it was the 1913 edition of his guide – an 1100 page tome – which really opened up the continent to British tourists. 

    As well as timetables, Bradshaw’s guide carried overviews of towns and cities, recommended ‘watering holes’, tips on places to go and to avoid, ticket prices and anything else the intrepid train traveller of the time might need. The guide was updated monthly, from 1847 right up to 1939, when World War II broke out.

    Vintage tube poster

    The London Underground opened in 1863 with its Paddington to Farringdon line. Whatever your views on the Tube today, there’s no denying that London would be a different city without its subterranean transport network, which aided the city’s expansion over the decades. 

    Mallard train poster

    A third milestone this year might be the 75th anniversary of the Mallard breaking the world speed steam record, a record which remains unbeaten today.

    Sadly the posters are not available for sale just yet, but you can see hundreds like them in the archives (and online) of the National Railway Museum in York.


    As a rather sad footnote, earlier this month we learned of the demise of Thomas Cook Publishing, the people behind what is perhaps Bradshaw’s modern-day equivalent – the excellent guide book Europe by Rail and the printed European Rail Timetable, which was until very recently updated monthly.

    Like Bradshaw’s, TCP’s rail guides date back to the 19th century, so this really feels like an end of an era for rail information publishing.

    Hidden Europe magazine provides a fitting eulogy to the firm in one of their recent Letters from Europe articles.

    Siberian express poster