Tripologist: Eurail will put you on track for European fun

Gare de Lyon train station, Paris.
Gare de Lyon train station, Paris. Photo: Alamy

Do you have any advice for a mother and 20-year-old daughter travelling to Europe in late August? I will return from London on September 13, after delivering my daughter to Manchester for a university semester exchange. We have also booked our tickets on Megabus, from Paris to London on September 7. We hope to have a couple of days in Madrid, visiting galleries, old buildings etc, day trip or stay overnight in Salamanca, and would like to visit Toledo, Seville, maybe Costa del Sol on the way up to Barcelona, then up to Marseilles, and on to Paris. Is it worth paying for a Eurail pass or just book local trains?
- K. Stewart, Queens Park.

Spain is a hot place in late August, especially the cities, so make sure you get rooms with airconditioning. The resorts along the Mediterranean will be packed. Marseilles is an interesting choice and it's a little out of the way if you're travelling between Barcelona and Paris.

The city has had a major renewal in preparation for its role as Europe's Capital of Culture in 2013, but it still retains a whiff of the drug-laced underworld so graphically depicted in the 1970s movie French Connection II.

Dog sledding in Lapland, Sweden.
Dog sledding in Lapland, Sweden. Photo: Getty Images

Your daughter is eligible for a Eurail Youth ticket. The price for five days of rail travel is $296, which entitles her to a second-class seat. However, you are presumably older than 26 and therefore you can only buy a first-class Eurail Pass.

You probably want to sit together, and the cost of a five-day Eurail ticket for first-class travel for two or more is $384 each from the Eurail website (eurail.com). Almost certainly, this will work out cheaper than if you were to buy tickets one-by-one, even travelling second class. You will have to pay seat reservation fees, which vary from €4.50 ($5.75) to €23.50 on Spanish trains.

 

Hot tips for those chasing a frosty reception

I'm planning to head to Europe this year to spend a white pre- Christmas with family and friends in Switzerland and Germany, then head to Morocco to warm up between Christmas and New Year. I am also keen to go to Scandinavia and see the northern lights and do some cross-country skiing and dog sledding. I would be doing this part of the trip on my own in early to mid-December. Do you have any suggestions about where to go and whether I should try and organise a tour? I'm not really keen to buy the cold-weather gear I would need to do this, so is hiring an option? Also, do you think it would be possible to fly in to St Petersburg and then onto wherever in Scandinavia you would suggest?
- N. Brick, Mount Gambier.

The Laponia World Heritage area (www.laponia.nu), in Swedish Lapland, might be a good choice for the winter activities you have in mind.

Lying within the Arctic Circle, this is a traditional home of the reindeer-herding Sami or Lap people.

Winter activities include cross-country skiing as well as dog sledding and snowmobiling, but the cold is fierce and you can expect only between 45 minutes and three hours of daylight throughout December.

In compensation, there is a good chance of seeing the northern lights at their very best in this region. The main town here is Jokkmokk (www.turism.jokkmokk.se), which has a choice of accommodation and tour operators. The main airport is at Lulea, 180 kilometres south-east of Jokkmokk, with bus services between.

You can get to St Petersburg easily from most major European cities, although coming from Australia it is easier to fly to the former Russian royal capital via a Scandinavian city such as Helsinki or Copenhagen.

Hiring cold-weather gear is not an option. Everyone who lives in Scandinavia is well-equipped with warm clothing and there is simply very little demand for hire gear. However if you wait until the end of our own winter, you should be able to find some bargains in the outdoor gear shops. There are also plenty of bargains available from online retailers such as L.L. Bean (llbean.com) and Lands End (landsend.com).

 

Cheaper travel for seniors

We are a retired couple, both over 60, and I will be travelling from London to Paris by train in late August. We are meeting up in Paris for a few weeks in France. We want to travel by train from Paris to Reims, then to Amiens. In late September we need to catch a train from Dinan to Charles de Gaulle Airport. Is there a suitable train pass or package that will suit our travels?
- J. and A. Tubridy, Wollongong.

Since the distances you are covering are small and over an extended period, a rail pass is probably going to cost more than the price of individual tickets. However, something that you might find useful is a Carte Senior, available to anyone over 60 for €57 ($73) and valid for a year. The Carte Senior gives a discount of between 25 per cent and 50 per cent on rail travel in France. You can buy a Carte Senior on the internet (senior-sncf.com), or at ticket offices in SNCF stations in France.

 

Self-drive through Spain

My wife and I plan to visit Valencia in October and would like to continue on through Spain and Portugal for a couple of weeks. Our initial thought was to fly into Madrid, spend a couple of days there then train to Barcelona for two or three days before again training down to Valencia. After the tennis, we thought a self-drive around the coast — taking in Seville and Portugal — before making our way back to Madrid, using Paradores along the way. Is such a move practical and the best way to see both countries?
- D. Harrison, Townsville.

Sounds like a great plan. The coast should be relatively clear of turistas by October, while the weather should still be mild enough for outdoor dining, as it was when I was in Barcelona last October. Self-drive is an ideal option for exploring towns and villages away from the coast and a diesel-engine vehicle will give you cheaper fuel with no real downside.

An in-car GPS is a must-have. If you have an Australian model, you can probably buy European maps, or purchase a local model in Spain at a starting price of around €80 ($102) from an electronics retailer such as fnac (fnac.com) or, for a lower price, downloading a GPS navigator app to a smartphone or tablet. I used Sygic's western Europe navigator loaded on an iPad and it worked well.

Paradores (www.parador.es) is a splendid institution, providing accommodation in former castles, monasteries, Moorish citadels and convents, and the website is refreshingly easy to use.

 

Digiwatch

Travelling by train through Europe? DB Navigator is a handy trip planner app with timetable information for train services throughout most of the continent. Key in your starting station and destination and DB Navigator responds with a timetable, train numbers, journey duration and step-by-step connections. Download the complementary DB Tickets app and, in some cases at least, you can also firm up a booking. Available free for iPhone and iPad.

 

If you have travel questions, we'd love to hear from you. Write to travelshd@fairfaxmedia.com.au and include the name of your suburb or town in your letter. Personal correspondence cannot be entered into. Only questions appearing in print will be answered. One published letter each week will win a Lonely Planet guidebook.

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