January is always a struggle – cold, dark, full of broken resolutions and battered bank balances – but the beginning of 2020 has been particularly grim. From the crisis in Iran, bushfires in Australia, coronavirus and Brexit around the corner, the year could hardly have got off to a worse start. There is hope – of course – and there are holidays, too: this is peak booking time for the travel sector.
Despite uncertainties around the impact of Brexit, 54% of Britons plan to travel to Europe in 2020, according to a survey by the peer-to-peer currency platform WeSwap. And the good news for anyone who has resolved to give up flying is that we are entering a new golden age of rail travel, with expanding networks, a revival of sleeper trains and Interrailing, along with a growing number of travel companies replacing flights with train travel. Add in improved ferry services, a boom in remote hideaways, and alternatives to traditional destinations, and the outlook for anyone wanting to escape the headlines looks positively sunny. Here’s our guide to planning your own exit – albeit for just a week or two.
1 Where to start?
Whether you already have a destination in mind, or are looking for ideas, your first port of call should be the Man in Seat 61 – an independent website covering every stage of booking trains in the UK, Europe and beyond. It includes everything you need to know about routes, fares, buying tickets, timetables and rail passes. The site was founded by Mark Smith in 2001, when cheap flights were booming and the typical seat61 user was, in his words, “afraid of flying, medically restricted from flying or particularly liked train travel”. Undeterred, Smith continued to share his tips – free – and this modest former station manager has become a guru among regular rail travellers.
Seat61 doesn’t allow you to book tickets. For that you need to go to raileurope.co.uk or trainline.com – both connect to the British, French, German, Austrian, Italian and Spanish railways ticketing systems. Beyond those countries, go to the national rail operator site for the country where you want to start your journey. Fancy a dip in Budapest’s thermal spas after wandering Prague’s new art spaces? Go to the Czech rail operator České Dráhy’s website, cd.cz, to book the six-to-seven-hour journey for €20 (£17) for an advance purchase. To look up train times in Europe, Smith recommends the German railways website bahn.com; and, to take with you, a printed copy of European Rail Time.
2 But rail travel takes longer …
Not always. Door-to-door, it is quicker or as quick by train from London to Paris, Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam or Rotterdam (all direct routes on Eurostar). The Netherlands’ second largest city is tipped in Guardian Travel’s 2020 hotlist for its architecture and progressive urban living (it’s home to the world’s first floating farm, and many hotels, restaurants and attractions support the city’s goal to be a waste-free society) – plus it’s less crowded than Amsterdam. Beyond that, yes, travelling by train takes longer – but that’s part of the appeal. This year, more of us will embrace rail travel, not just for environmental reasons, but because it’s fun. Not convinced? Pick up a copy of the latest edition of Europe By Rail, an anthology of 52 routes, from the north of Norway to southern Sicily.
Instead of flying direct to Spain, the slow route might include overnight stays in Cahors (Gallo-Roman ruins and excellent red wine) and Foix (“one of those unsung but perfect-looking French towns”) before crossing the Pyrenees and passing through the Catalan countryside to Barcelona. From there, the rest of Spain awaits. At Easter, Renfe, the Spanish rail company, is introducing a new range of low-cost, high-speed trains, aimed at getting Spanish travellers off the roads, but opening up opportunities for tourists, too. Among the routes will be Barcelona to Madrid for €10.
3 Sleep through the journey
After being threatened with extinction, Europe’s night-train network is undergoing a renaissance. The driving force behind this is the Austrian state railway, ÖBB, which is expanding its Nightjet network across Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy into Belgium and the Netherlands. This month saw the return of a Brussels-Vienna sleeper. Departing the Belgium capital at 6pm, you will be rocked to sleep and arrive in the Austrian capital the next day at 8.30am – perfect timing for a coffee in the opulent setting of Cafe Goldegg, a five minute walk from the station. At the end of the year, ÖBB will add a route going from Amsterdam to Vienna.
4 Interrail is not just for students
There was a time when it looked as if the glory days of Interrail were over. Happily, this is another tale of rail revival. In the past 15 years, sales of Interrail passes have almost tripled, with Scandinavia – birthplace of the flight-shame movement – showing the highest growth rate. Young people still account for more sales than any other group, but families and older travellers are catching up.
Unlike flights, the price of Interrail passes is fixed and children under the age of 11 go free, making it a better-value option than flying for families travelling in the peak summer months. Add in reductions for travellers under 27 and over 60, free luggage, regular deals and discounts on city attractions and Interrail looks increasingly like a modern miracle.
As we leave the EU, plan your own ode to Europe – along the French and Italian rivieras, perhaps, before heading north into Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland, before returing via Berlin and Brussels. For itinerary ideas, go to theguardian.com/travel/interrailing. And remember, for some trains you have to pay an additional booking fee.
5 If you don’t want to DIY it …
If poring over endless rail timetables is not your idea of fun, fear not – a growing number of tour operators are incorporating rail travel into their packages. For 2020, Sunvil has introduced Greece by rail for the first time – offering train journeys to the islands of Corfu, Paxos or Lefkas, and Parga and Sivota on the mainland, via the French Alps, Milan and Bari, from where the ferry departs. Just Sardinia and Just Corsica are also making it easier to reach islands without flying, building train and ferry crossings into their trips. Inn Travel, the walking and cycling specialist, has made all of its European mainland holidays, plus the Balearics and Sicily, available by rail, and trebled the size of its in-house rail team to cope with demand.
6 What about ferries?
Ferries could hardly be called green, but emissions for each passenger are considerably less than short-haul flights and the sector is endeavouring to reduce them. This year, Brittany Ferries is launching the Honfleur, its first liquified-natural-gas-powered ship, to run on the Portsmouth to Caen route, followed by the Salamanca in 2022 and the Santoña in 2023 on the Portsmouth-Bilbao service. South of Caen, connect to the Véloscénic cycle route that runs between Paris and Mont Saint-Michel, cutting across Normandy, stages of which are easy enough to do with kids.
The French are masters of camping, with thousands of excellent sites offering waterparks (Brittany’s Domaine des Ormes), sandy beaches (Domaine de la Bergerie between Cannes and Saint Tropez), alpine views (Campsite de Martinière in the Chartreuse regional park, where the owner has a sideline in amazing land art) and more. Start your search on lefrenchtime.co.uk, which lists 78 sites from seaside to mountain, river to town, or coolcamping.com’s French glampsites.
Stena Line is also investing in new technology and ships. Its rail-and-sail service to Amsterdam is an alternative to Eurostar – and a good option for families. Go to little-clogs-holidays.co.uk for holiday park suggestions. The Dutch invented Center Parcs, but holiday parks are often cheaper there than in the UK.
7 The great Brexscape
This month, the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) issued a statement reassuring travellers that holidays won’t be affected by Brexit in 2020. Valid passports can still be used as normal, the cost of making calls, using the internet and sending texts will remain the same, and coaches and trains from the UK to the continent will be unaffected.
The peaks and lakes of central Norway should help clear your head of all thoughts of the B-word. Walks Worldwide’s nine-day self-guided tour follows routes through the Jotunheimen mountains, staying in a mix of hotels, cabins and a lodge (£1,499 each). You are also unlikely to be bothered by the news on the biking tour of rural Albania offered by Much Better Adventures (seven nights, £774 each).
Too adventurous? Switch off in comfort at the isolated Instants d’Absolu Ecolodge, a former farmhouse in the Auvergne, France, with a spa, delicious farm-to-table food and limited wifi and phone signal (Neussargues station is 10km away; from £122 a night through i-escape.com). Or keep it simple – with a book by the (small) pool, wine in hand and views of the Umbrian hills at Wild Umbria, a holiday home for four (book through sawdays.co.uk).
Cycling specialist BSpoke Tours has a new coastal tour along the wild coast of northern Spain’s Asturias region (from £1,095pp, excluding travel; take Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Santander). For sporty families, Adventure Creators puts together multi-activity trips in the French Pyrenees with rock climbing, high ropes and river rafting – ensuring kids will be so exhausted they may even forget about screens.
8 You could always stay in the UK
If the disastrous start to the new decade has left you feeling too weary to contemplate venturing beyond our shores, set your sights on an escape closer to home. The number of secluded cottages, cabins, bothies and boltholes in the UK is on the rise. The National Trust’s collection of remote cottages includes the diminutive Bird How, tucked away in Eskdale valley in the Lake District, which doesn’t even have a TV. Canopy and Stars specialises in places to stay in nature, such as The Woodcock, an eco-cabin on a Norfolk farm with no electricity or wifi. Or browse the idyllic Welsh cottages on underthethatch.co.uk. In the Carmarthenshire hills, you will find Tŷ Barddu, a modernist cottage with cedar hot tub, but no neighbours or wifi, and the rustic Bryn Eglur, a place, the website says, “to step back in time” – perfect for pretending the past few years never happened.
For guaranteed isolation, Much Better Adventures’s Castaway weekend is a chance to set sail up the Kyles of Bute in Argyll for two nights’ wild camping on a remote island – and the added bonus of learning survival skills (could come in handy).
Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips
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