During the later phases of the development of the Indian trip (see here) I woke up in a cold sweat one night as it dawned on me that I’d invited 18 people round the whole of India, most of whom I had never even met, on a flat out 2 week and a bit train trip that was rated as a certain failure by just about anyone who was prepared to offer an opinion. In retrospect of course, it was a doddle. 90% of the effort that I put into GCIRC was spent talking with people, most of them locals, who eventually bottled out. There were a few buses that needed ordering in the north west of the country, but really all the important booking was done at one stop, from the excellent Mr Shankar Dandapani at IndRail.co.uk
The European version has turned out to be a whole order of magnitude harder to work out. I need to source, and book well in advance, budget accommodation for about 15 people at our 5 obligatory overnight stops. This isn’t just to keep the trip under the £2,000 I have claimed from the outset that it will cost, all in. I really don’t want to have to go round a hotel at the crack of dawn banging on doors. If there is a night in a stationary bed then there’s invariably a train to be caught at daft O’clock the following morning. Dorms are ideal, and of course are as cheap as we are going to get. I also have a series of buses that need organizing, in several cases on routes that don’t actually have scheduled services, and on those that do have a service they don’t have any obvious possibility of advance booking. With over a dozen people to squeeze on, all with some kind of bag, this could prove disastrous if we haven’t worked things out beforehand..
But the main problem of course is that there are 23 countries on this route, all with their own national rail providers, and all of who change their timetables once every 6 months. The moving target aspect of this project is proving challenging in the extreme. Apart from efficiently and accurately booking it all, I need someone with both brain and backside in full gear to help me get the details checked, and double checked, and then checked again.
South of Bucharest it’s difficult to ascertain if there will even be a railway in six months. We are already committed to three bus journeys to perform the southerly end of the circuit, so incomplete is the network and/or it’s services. We have a dozen sleeper supplements to solve and twice as many long distance day trains to reserve seats on, including more supplements for TGVs and other special trains.
I had approached several booking agencies to solve the issue of how to book all, or at least as much as possible, of this epic traversal in one go. I wont mention those who failed the interview, except to state that I tried all the more obvious ones. Some people took one look at the plan and virtually told me what I could do with it. My winner has proved to be railroads ahead of the other candidates on just about all possible criteria. Principally price, coverage, and perhaps most importantly some much needed retrospection and double checking of the insane route we’ve cooked up.
A name like “Ffestiniog Travel“, for those who spent much of their summer youth at their grandparents in Colwyn Bay, naturally conjures up images of one of Britain’s most beloved preserved railways. So you’d expect them to be at least an OK rail travel agent.
Well, they are a whole lot better than just OK. They are on a completely different level to everyone else I talked to. They have come up with a figure of £970 for the route (bar the extreme south and subject to final pricing), which is so far below what anyone else quoted it’s stunning. They are actually owned by the same holding company as the Ffestiniog Railway itself . That’s a good enough reason on it’s own to use them. The holding company is a charity, any profit goes straight into keeping the Ffestiniog Railway in working order. Hard core globe trotting railfans will probably already know them, Ffestiniog Travel must have cooked up bookings for countless people during more than 40 years of operation. If it’s possible to book a train, anywhere, anytime, these guys can do it for you. And if they can’t then they’ll tell you they can’t, at which point you can assume that you are going to have to wing it and book it on impact cos you wont find anyone else who can do it for you. And there is, in my opinion after talking to various companies, nobody who has a feel for what’s actually going on better than these guys.
There are a number of serious question marks on the route still, notably the Bucharest to Sofia sleeper. Nobody else even knew there was such a train. Ffestiniog’ (FT) can’t book it, nobody can this far in advance. They knew though that it’s not running regularly, but that it does run, at least sometimes.
The connection I was aiming at for the flight from Bodø to Narvik wasn’t feasible, the timetables have changed. FT spent quite a bit of effort negotiating with the flight operator as the price ballooned when the airline saw a sizable group-booking landing on their balance sheet. FT then noticed, after several people looked at the plan, that we wouldn’t be able to get from the station to the airport in time anyway. You just can’t have enough eyeballs on this. We’re on the bus up to Narvik, instead, thank you again FT.
Here’s a picture of Nordland in Norway, taken on our bus route deep into the Arctic, which has a touch of the Welsh Alps about it. All we need is a dinky little narrow gauge running beside the lake.
If you too have a train trip you want to do, in Britain, Europe or anywhere else, and need a hand booking it, then call the guys in Snowdonia today
This glowing eulogy is not part of any kind of transaction between myself and Ffestiniog Travel. It is my honest assessment of them. The quoted figure of £970 per head, and the attention to detail, were all provided by FT before I told them I would be making a post. All I have asked them to do is verify the factual details above, which they have done and provided me with their corporate banner.