SailRail – a logistical love affair?

Irish Ferries' Ulysses coming into Dublin Port Photo: Irish Ferries
Irish Ferries’ Ulysses coming into Dublin Port Photo: Irish Ferries

I have long been a fan of SailRail deals and wish there were a lot more of them. I have lost count of the amount of times I have travelled this way between London and Dublin, my two home towns, hopping on the 9.10 Virgin train at Euston and travelling direct to Holyhead, one of the most gorgeous routes which clings to the shores of North Wales, arriving at 12.50 in time to catch a variety of afternoon ferries. I am always in Dublin in time for tea and all for £38 single. A price that doesn’t go up during school holidays either. What’s not to love? For more information on how to book and what it costs, your absolute best and most up to date port of call is the inimitable Man in Seat 61.

So, I am forever trying to persuade my pals who are crossing the Irish Sea to do so using SailRail. It takes a bit of work, but they get there in the end and usually love it. The extra time to work of have family time together, no airport apprehension, no Ryanair rage and,of course, it’s cost. It’s a win win. At least, most of the time – until delays kick in and then the happy marriage of Sail and Rail starts to show a little need of counselling. The logistical love affair hangs by a thread when a third party is introduced. The car passenger. Because car drivers are always given precedence when it comes to ferry travel. They board first, they disembark first and they have access to better infrastructure in the ports. As a foot passenger I was always in the minority on these ferry crossings for years, struggling to find a bus to transport me from a ferry port to the city centre, or a car hire company which will deliver to the port without charging a huge supplement.

Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port by ferry
Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port by ferry

But things are changing. When I travel by train and ferry now, the numbers have increased ten fold at least. People have cottoned on for various reasons and fair play to the ferry and rail companies for keeping these deals going. But when you arrive into Holyhead with an hour to spare before the London train leaves the platform, and you are instructed to wait  for an hour watching car after car disembark, and your train leave the station (despite informing the crew that you have a SailRail ticket and would very much like to catch your train) this could be considered terms for divorce in my opinion. However, with a little mediation, and recognition of the needs of all parties involved, we could surely feel the Sail Rail love again? Stenaline, Irish Ferries, Virgin Trains, Arriva and the rest. Please take note and help put the Rail back into Sail so that we can all make this the marriage made in heaven that it deserves to be.

Can international train travel ever be good value? Ask the train brains……

Belfast to Derry train Copyright: Mari Ward

People just don’t believe me when I tell them it is often cheaper for me to go back to my home country of Ireland, from London, by train and ferry. But the last time we travelled to Dublin as a family was at Christmas it cost us £258 (for two adults and two kids) including return tickets from our home in London to Euston station.

We usually take the same journey every time, catching the Virgin Trains service leaving London Euston at 9.10am as it is direct to Holyhead, allowing you to relax the whole way and enjoy the coastline of North Wales at the same time. We have about an hour’s wait in Holyhead, catch an early afternoon ferry and are in Dublin Port in the city of centre by 5.30pm, and home to Granny for tea. Any airline equivalent at this Christmas rip off period was  minimum £600 not including transport to and from the airport. SailRail offers consistent prices, and I always book it through Raileasy, although most ferry companies offer the same package. Sailrail makes train and ferry travel affordable, with similar packages to Holland now, and hopefully other destinations will start offering this as an option soon. Still waiting for news on the London to Northern Ireland Sailrail (via Liverpool) to open up, hopefully by the end of this year.

A couple of my other favourites include Bargain Berths on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to the Scottish Highlands. Blogger Simon Varwell is the font of information on how to bag one of these elusive tickets – definitely worth a read. The other is the underrated Train des Pignes which goes from Nice into the Alpes, terminating at Dignes les Bains. A tiny metre gauge train which rattles its way through mountain villages, this is a tourist route, but we took it up to Entrevaux to start a hiking holiday across the Mercantour, with a donkey to carry our bags from auberge to auberge. Catch it at the Chemins de Fer de Provence station iin Nice,  €18 adults, €9 children, one way.

I have asked a few of my favourite train brains to give their top tips on getting bargains when choosing to travel abroad by train, as listed below. Some of them suggest the same things, but all have great points, so many thanks to all of them for taking the time to contribute and spread the train.

Jools Stone, freelance journalist and top rail travel blogger
Follow Jools on Twitter,  facebook or on his blog 

  • As with booking UK train tickets, the best deals are often found on the national operator’s own site, instead of one of the third
    Jules Stone en route from Montreal to Quebec See http://www.trainsonthebrain.com/2011/03/25/via-rail-review-whats-train-travel-in-canada-like/

    parties. Germany’s www.bahn.de usually has great deals and if you can book up a few months in advance, you can get tickets for €49 from the UK or €39 within Europe. Their system covers journeys across most of Europe and the site is easy to navigate. For some reason you have to put in passenger ages or it won’t let you proceed and view prices, but this little quirk aside, it works pretty well.

  • Sleepers services vary in comfort and price but offer you a good way to save both time, by speeding you through the night to the heart of your destination, and money on lacklustre hotels. There are some good deals to be had. For example, the recently launched, and rather swish looking Thello night train can whisk you from Paris to Milan, Verona or Venice from as little as €35 in a shared couchette.
  • If you’re considering using night trains while InterRailing you’ll need to buy sleeper supplements. In most countries east of Germany these can often be found for €20 or less. If you want to get to Scandinavia, a part of Europe not usually associated with budget travel, the Berlin Express is one night train worth looking at. This runs from April to November, zipping you cross the Øresundsbron Bridge from Berlin to Malmo, a short hop to Stockholm. Sleeper supplements start at €19.
  • RailDude is a handy site which lists practically all of the sleeper supplement prices. Of course it’s always worth doing the maths before you book your InterRail pass, especially if you’re heading east. Add up the costs of the single journeys you’re planning to take, as sometimes it can work out cheaper than the pass, though there’s a lot to be said for the flexibility the pass gives you of course.

Richard Hammond, Chief Executive and founder Greentraveller Limited, www.greentraveller.co.uk. Follow Richard on Twitter and Facebook

  • Split ticketing would be my top tip. For example, always book London to Paris/Brussels/Lille then separately book the onward portion of the trip, from Paris/Brussels/Lille to the final destination.
  • The direct train to Avignon is from £109 return, which is pretty good value. See our Greentraveller video of this fantastic rail journey

Amanda Monroe, Media Relations Manager RailEurope ( www.raileurope.co.uk/)
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  • The further in advance you can book international rail travel, the better bargains you can get. Eurostar services can be booked 120 days in advance, and most other European services 90 days in advance. Most operators work on a yield managed system and so the cheapest fares are available the earlier you book. If you leave making your booking until a week or two before departure you’ll find you’ll pay much more for your tickets than if you book as soon as the tickets go on sale.
  • If you’re planning lots of rail journeys during one trip, it’s worth looking into rail passes. InterRail passes come in Global or single country versions and can offer great value, particularly if you’re booking close to the date of travel when point to point tickets will be more expensive. It’s always a good idea to check the cost of point to point versus pass plus seat reservation costs before booking.
  • Seat reservations also work on a sliding scale, so again, the earlier you book these the lower cost they will be.
  • Children under 4 travel free on most European trains and, in some cases, children under 6 travel for free. This tends to be in northern European countries such as Belgium, Germany and Denmark (scroll down to table below for more details of this and general discounts for kids).
Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61, on the Glacier Express with his son. Copyright: Mark Smith

Mark Smith, founder of award winning train website www.seat61.com
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  • The Dutch Flyer, London (or any station on Greater Anglia) to Amsterdam (or any Dutch station) from £39 plus cabin cost (single cabin £30, double cabin £43  per cabin).  Can save expensive accommodation costs in London or Amsterdam too!
  •  DB’s (Deutsche Bahn) ‘London Spezials’ cost  from €49 from London to anywhere in Germany.  Limited availability, but I have certainly returned from Berlin to London for €49  myself!   Book at www.bahn.de, which will also book sleeper trains from Paris to Berlin, Hamburg or Munich, or from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, Prague, Warsaw or Zurich, from €59  with couchette, €99  with a bed in a 2-bed sleeper, or journeys such as Berlin-Prague from €29, Amsterdam to Berlin from €29.
  •  At the French Railways English language website www.tgv-europe.com, Paris-Geneva/Basel/Zurich starts at €25;  Paris to Turin or Milan start at €25;  Paris to Barcelona from € 72 with sleeper;  Paris to Amsterdam from €35.
  • And for ever-popular Italy, book at www.trenitalia.com looking for a cheap ‘Mini’ fare.  Rome to Florence from €19
  • The trick is really to book direct with the operator, using the right website for that route.  The rule of thumb is to start with the train operator for the country in which an international train starts, e.g. tgv-europe.com for France, trenitalia.com for Italy, bahn.de for Germany, oebb.at  for Austria, and so on.  Although the first exceptions have appeared:  The Paris-Venice ‘Thello’ train needs to be booked at www.thello.com or www.trenitalia.com in either direction, and the Paris-Milan TGVs need to be booked at www.tgv-europe.com in either direction.

Anila Babla, Digital Marketing Manager www.loco2.co.uk
Follow Anila on Twitter as well as on Facebook

  • Any Dutch station – You can travel from London through to any station in Holland for the same price, this is detailed more here. The good thing is you can stop en route in Brussels for a day and not pay any more.
  • London Spezial- Deutsche Bahn’s London Spezial fare lets you travel from London to any German station from €49 one way.
  • Trenitalia mini-fares – the Italian rail network is now using a system more like the UK where if you book in advance you can profit from very cheap fares, what they call MiniFares. True they are non-exchangeable and refundable and only standard class but are unbeaten on price.
  • Renfe Turistas fares – Renfe, in Spain, has a 2nd class of tickets called Turista which offer 40-60% discounts on journeys. It’s hard to give an estimate on price because the network is pretty big, but this is worth researching though!

    Catherine on the Train des Pignes between Nice and Dignes Les Bains

 

Age limits for children travelling by rail in Europe Source: RailEurope March 2012
Free travel 50% Discount
Bosnia-Herzegovina Under 4 Under 12
Croatia
France
Greece
Holland
Italy
Macedonia
Poland
Portugal
Romania
Spain
Turkey
Norway Under 4 Under 16
UK & Ireland
Belgium Under 6 Under 12
Bulgaria
Luxembourg
Slovenia
Hungary Under 6 Under 14
Montenegro
Serbia
Austria Under 6 Under 15
Czech Republic
Germany
Slovakia
Denmark Under 6 Under 16
Sweden
Switzerland
Finland Under 6 Under 17


Train and ferry between Ireland and London

Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port with Irish Ferries

I had a call from a friend who was stuck in London during the worst of the snow, “You must know how to get me home without flying”, she said. “I need to be back in Dublin tomorrow and every airport in Europe seems to be closed”. Within minutes she was sorted. “ Catch the 9am train from London Euston direct to Holyhead with Virgin Trains, arrives four hours later, then onto 2pm Irish Ferries crossing to Dublin port, arriving just after 5pm. Hop in a cab or shuttle bus, and home and dry in time for tea” I said.

She booked it immediately online via Virgin Trains and Irish Ferries, with last minute rates of £55 sterling for the single train journey and £25 sterling for the one way crossing. She had a lot of work to do on the way, so upgraded to first class on the train, (£97 sterling). This is the best train upgrade around, in my view, with free food and drink the whole way. Enjoy smoked salmon and scrambled eggs as you lash through the Shires, bagels on the border and a glass of something lovely to strengthen the sea legs as you follow the North Wales coastline. With free WI-Fi and generous reclining seats, you won’t want to get off at all. Although to be honest, Virgin’s latest speedy trains are so comfortable, economy feels like first class compared to any of my memories of what was the journey from hell all those years ago when ‘budget’ meant the ‘bus’.

I got a text at 5.15pm from my friend – “just drifting past the South Wall. Best trip home ever. Will never fly again”. This I doubt, but every snow cloud has a silver lining. It’s hard to convince people about the joys of greener, slower travel, unless they actually experience it. You can bring as much luggage as you want, including bikes. You check it all in now, so no lugging it round the ship anymore. You don’t have to hide your make-up bottles either. Even Holyhead terminal is better these days. On a recent trip, a Donegal man who makes the trip six times a year told me, “It breaks my heart.In the old days we begged them for a new terminal and now it’s here, but it’s empty. It used to be a cattle market, dirty and full of drunks”. Sounds like a bad budget airline, I thought.

If you aren’t making a last minute booking, book a Sail and Rail package. This is possible using various methods. If you are travelling out of the UK, go through booking agency Raileasy, and remember to put your home station first, not just Euston, as you can get a through ticket from any station in UK.  Do check if you are travelling direct to Dublin Port or Dun Laoghaire, as some services mean you have to change at Crewe or Chester stations. You can’t get a first class ticket on this package, but book well in advance with Virgin Trains (virgintrains.co.uk), and you can get a First Class Single for approx. £50 sterling, with great food and drink served all the way through Wales and England. Note, however, that this is a mid-week deal, and there is no food at weekend, so you are just paying for a bigger seat if travelling Saturdays or Sundays.

If you are travelling from Ireland to UK and want to get a good SailRail package, do this at Irish Rail, either by phone

On our way home

+ 353 1 8366222 ( Mon to Fri 9-5),  email sailrail@irishrail.ie, or call in to one of the following Irish Rail stations: Athlone, Ballina, Cork, Drogheda, Claremorris, Dublin Connolly, Dundalk, Ennis, Galway, Killarney, Limerick, Limerick Junction, Longford, Mallow, Mullingar, Sligo, Thurles, Tralee, Tullamore, Waterford, Westport or Wexford.

Or you can do just as my friend did, and book online the night before, roll on, roll off, no bother. I’m not sure she really cares that her carbon footprint was at least half of flying, to be honest. But if she can see that travelling the greener way is a much better experience all round, then it’s a win win. Any other converts can check out all European rail routes with details of journey lengths, transits, and overnight accommodation, as well as green places to stay nearby, at the newly launched www.greentraveller.co.uk

An edited version of this article was fist published in The Irish Times, 16 January 2010