When you spend most of your life in Texas and being dependent on a car to get from point A to point B it can be a bit of a culture shock when trying to plan rail travel across a country that is an ocean away. I hope you find some pointers and ideas for booking your travel on the UK Rail System. Many of the points could probably be applied to the rail travel across greater Europe as well. I developed these tips during our exploration of UK during our Scotland, England, and Paris trip.
The UK has a national rail network that has various carriers that provide service on the lines. There are many different contracts, terms etc… that the carriers have with the national rail network. These carriers will carry anything from people to cargo on the rail lines. I cannot remember the documentary name, or if it was on Netflix or not, but I watched a neat documentary at one time that showed a look into the UK Rail Network. Most people are probably interested in the passenger rail carriers, so I will stick to providing information about them.
East Coast Line
The East Coast Line is what we traveled during our rail journeys. There are many, many more routes throughout the country, but this is one I can speak to the most. At the time, Virgin Trains was providing the service on this line. Apparently it has gone back and forth a few times between the national rail network running it, other companies, but now is run by Virgin Trains. From what I can tell it looks like Virgin Trains is very invested in this line and will probably be servicing it for some time. Virgin East Coast provides a great service and has a great website for foreign travelers.
There are many different levels of ticket that you can buy from a general route ticket, to a reserved ticket, to a ticket on a particular train in a particular seat. I am sure there are some savings in exploring your ticket options, which you can easily see after choosing your travel route on the providers website. I suggest buying straight from whoever is providing the rail service and Virgin East Coast actually has a system where you can put in your route, travel date and contact info. They will then notify you when the tickets go on sale so you can get the best price.
Due to the money invested, distance traveled, and precision that I prefer when traveling, I suggest purchasing the tickets where you have a particular seat, on a particular train that is on a particular route. Sure you can enjoy more freedom with just buying a ticket for that route on that day, but I prefer to know exactly where I am sitting to avoid having to stand during my trip, and it helps my nerves to have the details planned out. It is also useful to have the printed ticket before you even leave the comfort of your house so you can make sure to add it to your travel documents.
Classes of Service
When traveling on airlines the difference of economy and first class are astronomical. Depending on your route and selected days of travel, the difference may not be as large when booking rail travel. Virgin East Coast Lines has a wealth of information on what they provide in the different classes. In both of the train legs in our journey there was very little difference between first and regular classes of service so we choose to do the first class service.
In first class we enjoyed free beverage service even during our short journey between Edinburgh and Berwick. Virgin even had their own lager at the time that was pretty tasty. The seats are much bigger and the cabin feels roomier than economy class. At the time Wi-Fi was included, but we could care less because we were too busy watching the countryside go by in the picture window as we traveled. We did not take advantage of the lounges, but many of the stations have first class lounges where you can kick back and relax if desired. During the longer journey between Berwick and London a great lunch was offered and of course was complimented with pre, during, and post meal drink service. They even offered snacks at various intervals so if you left the train hungry or thirsty you must have slept through all of the services offered.
Boarding the Train
While it may seem like a simple subject, if you have never done it before there may be some anxiety as to where to find your train, what part of the train to board, where to put your bags and how to find your seat. Again, taking advantage of the ability to book your exact seat, on your exact train helps to know the area where you need to be on the train.
Upon arriving at the train station make your way to the main area where many screens are available to show you what trains are arriving on what platforms. Your tickets, which can usually be pre-printed should show the train number. Some carriers even have a website that you can check the day of and see where the train should be arriving at the station. There is really no need to be at the platform any earlier than say 10 to 15 minutes before you train arrives. I would not be running into the train station and trying to figure all this out 15 minutes before the train arrives, but you do not need to be standing on the platform for 30 minutes before the train even shows up.
The booking site usually lets you know what car in the train your seats are booked in, also they should print the car on the physical ticket. Most of the platforms are labeled which area will be for which car and when the train does arrive you can see the car labels on the car itself. There should also be a label on the door as to which train it is, which direction it is going, and what stations it will make stops. If you enter your car you can easily find your seat by the labeling above the seats, and if you reserved a particular seat a card should be placed just above the headrest with your name and how far in the journey you are going. No need to show anyone your ticket for the most part as they will come by and check once you get underway.
We travel with two back packing packs which fit in the luggage rack above our seats. There are some baggage restrictions, but in general if you got it over there on an airplane you will be able to get it on the train if traveling domestically. Funny story about that in our England post. If storing your bags above your seat try to be courteous and not take other peoples space since it is just one long rack along the top of the train. Near the doors they also have a luggage rack if you cannot fit your items above your seat. I would try first above your seat and then use the racks by the door so that you can conserve space and make sure everyone has room. Also it is easier to keep an eye on your bags if they are right above your head. Once you have your things stowed, find your seat, kick back and relax you will be treated to a fantastic view of the countryside.
Getting off the Train
Again, this may seem simple if you have done this before, but most folks may be accustom to the airline services where it is painfully obvious to get off the plane. Getting off the train can vary depending if you are riding it to the end of the line, or getting off during one of the stops along the route. The key is to know which case applies to you so some prior proper planning is in order to ensure you have a smooth journey.
If getting off at the end of the line it is much easier. Everyone on train will be exiting as well. Make sure to get ready when you are arriving to the station and have everything packed back up and ready to go when the doors open. There will be a lot of people trying to get off at the same time so remember common courtesy and help other folks get their luggage out of the racks if needed. The train as some time for turnover before changing directions, but the next people want to get on and settled so make sure to make your way briskly off the train. The announcements from the train staff will let you know about how long to the station and also pay attention to the station names as you pull in to make sure you know where you are.
Things can get a little trickier if you are getting off the train during one of the interim stops of the trains longer journey. Make sure you know how many stops the train will be making before the one you are interested in. The staff will make announcements and the stations are clearly marked. While there is no need to tuck and roll as the train opens the doors at the station, they are on a schedule, people need to get on the train and no one wants to be one that a train full of people are waiting on. The train staff usually tell you about 10 to 15 minutes before arriving at the station so that is a good time to start packing up anything you used during your trip. Most of the time you can tell when the train is starting to slow down and getting closer to the station. It is a good idea to go ahead and move your luggage close to the door and be ready to just step off when the doors open. Elevator courtesy applies, so make sure you are ready to step off the train first before any new passengers are ready to get on the train.
There will be no one to come by and make sure that you are getting off at the right station so make sure that you pay attention. You will figure out real quick after you pass the station you needed to get off, because the conductor comes around to check the new passengers tickets, so make sure you are not the one to figure out what happens when you miss your station.