Tag Archives: train

An Amsterdam-to-London adventure

I hadn’t planned to catch a train from Amsterdam to London. I had my flight booked and an easy 45 minutes or so in the air already planned.
Yet the weather had a different plan…
And this is the story of how travel disruption turned from very stressful into a nice adventure :-)

Monday 11 December 2017. Snow, fog and strong wind cause the cancellation of 95% of flights out of Schiphol airport.

When at 5pm announcements were made that also my flight (initially scheduled for 2pm then delayed to 7pm) was no longer going, panic seeped in! I have to be back in London within 24 hours due to more travels planned, and there are no seats on other flights until Wednesday, I cried to the desk agent – how the heck am I going to make it?!
To add to the misery and mayhem, also all trains from Schiphol were cancelled due to bad weather conditions. The only way out of the airport was to catch a taxi. Welcome to a two-hour queue then :-(.

Based on the EU regulation Nr. 261/2004 on “compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, flight cancellations, or long delays of flights”, I was reassured that my airline would reimburse any additional expenses incurred (within set limits). So I went ahead with taxi and hotel booking in Amsterdam for the night.

And to get to London? Then train will have to be! Intercity from Amsterdam to Brussels then Eurostar from Brussels to London. It would take me most of the following day but at least there were seats. And a chance to get home!

It was sunny with blue skies in Amsterdam the following morning. I took a stroll around Amsterdam Centraal train station to enjoy the snow. But it was soon time to catch the train.

And here I am, on board of the Intercity train to Brussels. Slower but much cheaper than the Thalys, it felt like being back to the days when train journeys across Europe (good old InterRail!) were the norm. Slow travel. Stare out of the window. Enjoy the moment.

The scenery was lovely – snow covered the fields, the streets, the roofs of the houses. White everywhere, shining in the sunlight of a beautiful day with bright blue skies.

The train drove through Den Haag, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Roosendaal, Antwerp, Mechelen. And eventually reached Brussels, 3hrs and 20minutes later.

The Brussels-London stretch wasn’t as interesting. I slept most of the two hours on the Eurostar, it was dark outside and in the tunnel under the Channel. I had finally relaxed, knowing that I would make it home in time to unpack my bag, repack it for the tropics, and fly out again the following morning!

As for my claim for a refund, once I got home I immediately submitted it online, uploading all receipts for transport, accommodation and meals costs incurred as the result of the flight cancellation. (Update Jan 2018: in less than a month I received full reimbursement of all additional expenses!).

If your travel plans are ever disrupted in a similar way and you find yourself stuck, try and see the bright side to it as you can turn it into another adventure :-)

Transport in Sri Lanka

In my two weeks in Sri Lanka my approach to the means of transport available in the country was a bit of mix’n’match, partly because I wanted to try different options (in general choosing the cheapest available) partly because on certain routes you have no choice!

So let me share here my experience and comments on all options I tried:

#Plane. Only to get into the country and back out again. The Bandaranaike airport is 35Km north of Colombo and can be reached by public transport. 2-bandaranaike-international-airportThere is an airport bus that leaves from a small car park on the left as you exit the airport – if you ask the airport staff they will point you in the right direction.
Rs 200 is what I paid for a single trip to Colombo but the fare seems to vary, depending on your bargaining skills. Alternatively you can catch a taxi and pay extortionate prices.

#City buses. I like them so I used them most times, even when carrying my suitcase. Buses are very crowded and never stop for more than a couple of seconds so you often have to jump on/off when the bus is still moving. Not many Westerners semed to travel like this but I think that everyone should try. And the locals were always helpful (I was offered seats, given directions, etc). Bus fares are ultracheap, for example I paid Rs 15 for each few Km ride within Colombo. You buy the tickets on board and the ticket guy never has much change so make sure you have small notes and coins on you.

#Long distance buses. The “standard” ones look like city buses and have no a/c. They get very crowded and very hot. My journey from Colombo to Palavi – just under 4hrs – wasn’t overly pleasant in the tropical heat of a late morning/lunchtime but it only cost Rs 150 (less than £1!!!). I wouldn’t do it everyday but it’s an interesting experience. Just bring lots of water and don’t expect toilets on board or toilet breaks. Minivans with a/c are available on most routes and are a much more comfortable option, at only slightly higher fare (Rs 180 for Anuradhapura-Dambulla, Rs 200 for Dambulla-Kandy).

#Trains. I travelled 1st class between Kandy and Colombo, and 2nd class between Colombo and Galle (and back). 1st class had a/c and seat reservation, very comfortable although not comparable to a Western-style 1st class. I bought the ticket at the station two days before travelling and had no issues whatsoever.

The 2nd class train had no a/c and the seats were grubby but ok. No seat reservation (you buy the ticket on the day) so get on the train quick and sit by the window to get some breeze! Trains can get very crowded too, though, and while my journey from Colombo to Galle was fine, the return was a bit cattle class. Yet I cannot complain: I sat the whole time (ok ok, it was on the floor next to the toilet!), I had fresh air coming from the open door and made friends with some backpackers who were sharing the floor space with me. Much luckier than those people standing in the middle of the aisle!

#Tuk tuks. Also called “three-wheeler taxis”, they are good for short-to-medium distances, cheaper than standard taxis and the favourite choice of many locals and tourists. As for me, I used them only when there were no buses available. In Colombo tuk tuks have meters, everywhere else you’ll have to agree a price before starting your journey. My advice is: have an idea of what distance you are going to travel and haggle accordingly. In Colombo I shared a tuk tuk with a fellow traveller for Rs 50/Km, the standard rate. In the countryside I negotiated Rs 1,200 for a 17-Km ride.

#Private car with driver. Not something I would usually go for, as too expensive when you travel on your own and also it lacks the character of catching public transport. But I used it once as I joined a couple who was travelling in the same direction as me. The 2-hr journey from the Kalpitiya area to Anuradhapura cost us Rs 12,000 in total, superpricey compared to my travel standards, but in 36C heat it was a welcome change!

Overall I found it easy to travel around Sri Lanka by public transport but be prepared for slow journeys and not the maximum of comfort. If you are in a hurry or cannot do without comfort, choose the private car option. I will meet you at destination when I arrive by bus :-).

On the train from Kandy to Galle

There is no direct train from Kandy to Galle. The quickest route is via Colombo, where you change train.  Both legs of the journey are very scenic, although different: the first one through mountains while the second one follows the coastline.
I took the Intercity train from Kandy to Colombo at 6:15am and was pleasantly surprised to realise that my 1st class ticket (Rs 800, bought two days in advance) entitled me to a seat in the observation car, the one at the rear of the train, with a large window looking back along the tracks.
The train travelled at snail pace, rolling and rattling through the mountains, with amazing views of the tropical forest wrapped in the morning mist. Every now and then, short tunnels interrupted the view. School kids and workers would sometime appear out of nowhere and cross the tracks as soon as the train was gone.
The mist gave an almost magical touch to the landscape and I watched the scenery in awe.

We arrived at Colombo Fort railway station just before 9am, after almost three hours.
Colombo Fort was bustling with energy and was as chaotic as ever. I bought a 2nd class ticket to Galle (Rs 180) and waited for my train to arrive.

At 10:45am the slightly grubby train started its journey south, following the coastline so closely that for the first hour I could almost touch the ocean. I had managed to get a window seat and could really enjoy the amazing sea view: miles of blue waters, sand and palm trees. Villages and towns were dotted along the railway line, and villagers seemed to enjoy watching the trains go past.

We made it to Galle in just over two hours. The whole journey from Kandy to Colombo took almost 7 hours but I really enjoyed it!

My train strike mishap

I consider myself fairly well travelled.
You may have bumped into me on a local bus in Hoi An (Vietnam), seen me arguing with taxi drivers in Phuket (Thailand), or spotted me planning complex train journeys, always checking timetables and any other available information.
I mostly travel alone, and careful planning makes my life a bit easier.

So how did I miss the news about the national train strike in Italy this weekend??? How did I manage to find myself completely stuck at a main train station, with no trains (or even buses) to reach the destination of my planned day trip???

I am staring at the board. “Cancelled”, it says. Second train I am trying to catch within an hour. Second cancellation. In both cases, trains were cancelled a couple of minutes before departure, and after I had validated the ticket. Someone’s having a laugh, I thought.

It looks like I am not going anywhere today. I quietly turn around and leave the station, and prepare myself for the online refund process, which isn’t as straightforward as it should be.imagesBut the doubt remains. How did this super-well-travelled chick manage to miss a national train strike in her home country? Ok, I don’t live here anymore, have been back only for a few days and don’t feel the need to be overly alert. But I should have known better. Or not?

No, this is not how Trenitalia announced the strike!

I look on the Trenitalia website again. I had checked train times online the night before travelling, and all seemed good. I had booked the ticket online in the morning, with no issues. Now I spot a note at the bottom of the webpage stating that there is a national strike and train schedules may be affected. Why not putting that note right at the top of the webpage instead – this defies all logic to me. Yet, they had indeed informed us. I just didn’t read.

So here’s my piece of advice, for what is worth: when you are about to embark on a train journey, always check the news and ensure that trains are actually running… Even more so when you are visiting home: never let your “experienced traveller” guard down!

Now it’s your turn: feel free to share your experience of a time when an oversight badly impacted your travel plans :-)

On the Reunification Express – round two

Three days after my first experience on the Reunification Express (read here), I decided to give it another go.
This time SE8 from Ninh Binh to Hanoi. Less than three hours, afternoon journey.

Did I book my ticket online this time? Nah. Last minute decision, plus Ninh Binh doesn’t seem enabled for online bookings.
So I turned up at the station 20 minutes before train departure time, only to find out that the ticket office wouldn’t open until 1pm.

Hold on! The train departs at 12:52 but the ticket office opens at 13:00??? How is that going to work?!
“No worry madam” a local man told me “you can buy ticket before train. Sit please”.
Mmmmmm, does he know that the train is very late and all will be fine? No idea, I was not convinced and he wouldn’t explain. I had no choice. Sit and wait.
Not that I managed to do that for more than five minutes! I was completely restless and kept moaning so I decided to start the queue at the ticket window.
I. Am. First. In. Line.
Well, I was. Until some locals decided to arrive from the sides and push to the front. Heeeey! There’s a damn queue here!  I live in England, the land of orderly queuing, do not mess around with me! After a few minutes of me moaning at them very loudly (and everyone watching me) they all backed off. Yay!
When the ticket lady finally decided to grace us with her presence at 1:30pm (and still no sign of the train, luckily), I only managed to buy a ticket for a hard seat coach. No soft seats available. Oh well. For 58,000 dong (less than US$2) I can surely sit on a wooden bench in a crowded coach for just over 2.5 hours!
And so I did.

Hard seats area
Hard seats area

It was crowded (but not as bad as it could have been). Loud. Dirty. Smelly. Very hot. Luggage everywhere. People everywhere. Food everywhere (mainly on the floor). And I was surrounded by a group of very loud ladies who kept shouting on their phones and at each other. Deaf now.
But it was all part of the travelling experience (I am a spoilt Westerner, after all) and I regret nothing of it.

Also I met a superhelpful Vietnamese lady who – in great English – gave me lots of tips and info about Hanoi.

The little note from the Vietnamese lady
The little note from the Vietnamese lady

And this is what I love about travelling!!!

On the Reunification Express

There is a pot with flowers on the small table by the window. I have never had that before on a train.

In my train cabin
In my train cabin

This is the SE20 Reunification Express train from Da Nang to Hanoi. I have got on board in Hue’ and will get off in Ninh Binh in the morning – a 12-hr overnight ride for $46.
Memories of my “epic journey from Da Lat to Hoi An” (click here) make me pray for an uneventful one.

The train itself – when it finally arrives in Hue’, 45 minutes late, not too bad for a start I am told – doesn’t look bad. It reminds me of trains in Italy in the early 80’s. Very basic. But it’s clean.

I booked my ticket online on the Vietnam Railways website and the ticket was efficiently delivered to my hotel in Hue’. A lot of Westerners told me that they had tried to do the same but not found the correct website. So I am grateful to my local contact in Ninh Binh for sending me the right URL!

My berth
My berth

I have a lower berth in a 4-berth soft sleeper cabin. An Australian girl is already in when I get on board. A Vietnamese man joins us an hour later and spends the whole night coughing and spitting. But there are no other disturbing factors.

The cabin is initially very hot but at some point the a/c kicks in and I have to make use of the blanket provided. I wonder how often blankets and pillows are washed/changed. But I don’t see major causes of worry.
I spot one coackroach in the morning but I guess it could be worse.
And it’s quiet. Quite unusual, a regular ‘commuter’ tells me.

We arrive in Ninh Binh at 9:30am. 45 minutes late. It’s ok.
All in all a fairly smooth train journey!