No-frills train travel: a new trend

What if I told you that train companies were using principles pioneered by RyanAir and EasyJet and applying them to the convenience and speed of train travel?  If you love train travel as much as I do, you might be as excited as I was when I first found out about them.  Thankfully, I’m still excited about them, because they are generally great services that I’ve used multiple times over the last 4 years.

iDTGV

Back in 2004 SNCF created a program called iDTGV focused on budget travel to and from Paris.  The idea was simple: why not sell budget fares, only available via online ticketing, on older trains that can be towed behind undersold TGV trains that have to run anyway?  This would mean that underperforming routes could be subsidized and a new line of revenue would be created.  The service would have a stricter luggage provision and wouldn’t have onboard conductors (though there would still be a food carriage).  Instead, the tickets (and luggage) would be checked outside before boarding.  iDTGVs continue to be part of the ticketing mix offered by SNCF.

Ouigo

In 2013 SNCF, partially due to the pressure of the ultra-low-cost air carriers on rail passenger numbers, iterated further on iDTGV and came up with Ouigo.  There are is a “Oui” bus service called Ouibus (pronounced wee-boose), which are directly competing with Flixbus (fleex-boose) – comfortable seats, free internet, electrical outlets at each seat, and rock bottom pricing.  But I want to focus on Ouigo trains this time and may tell you more about the great bus lines in another article.

Ouigo trains offer amazing pricing: two of my friends took a Ouigo from Paris to Bordeaux this summer and paid 30€ each for the 2 hour trip – that line has recently been upgraded to shave 90 minutes off what used to be a 3.5 hour trip to the heart of the Atlantic coastal wine country.  Ouigo also runs to Montpellier, Lyon, Nantes, Lille, Rennes, and, of course, Paris.

So…what’s the catch?  There are several.
  • Tickets can only be bought online through the Ouigo site or at my personal favorite, Trainline (the French startup formerly known as Captain Train).  Tickets must be printed out or presented using a mobile app.  Not having your ticket printed can lead to you having to pay more before boarding.
  • Like iDTGV, your luggage is restricted, but even more so.  You are allowed one piece of hand luggage and additional pieces cost extra.
  • You won’t be using the “main” Paris stations.  Ouigo trains coming to Paris stop at CDG, Marne-la-Vallée (Disneyland), or Massy (in the dreaded suburbs).  This strategy means SNCF doesn’t cannibalize the revenue of the business traveler, who is quite happy to pay less to travel the same route if you make it easy, but if you tell him/her that the departures are from the three above stations, which vary from 45-90 minutes away from the center of Paris by RER, they will almost always pass.  Tell budget travelers the same thing (like saying you need to spend 70 minutes on a shuttle to get to Beauvais or that on Ouigo they will be arriving at Saint-Exupéry when they go to Lyon) and not only will they jump at the low fare, they might elbow you out of the way to ensure they get it before the tickets sell out.  The business reason is that SNCF has to pay less for trains departing from “budget” stations than from the main ones, which are the same questions that airlines face when choosing which airport to use and whether to use gates instead of stairs, etc.
How does SNCF limit costs with Ouigo?
  • As alluded to above, the fees it pays to the company that runs the stations, SNCF Reseau, are less for the “budget” stations.
  • Like iDTGV, there aren’t “conductors,” who are the single highest-paid staff on the trains for SNCF, but rather a team that is tasked with doing multiple things, from cleaning, to addressing customer issues, security, etc.
  • There is no food carriage.
  • There is no customer service phone number or email address.  You can only address complaints or questions using the website.
  • Ouigo trains are run up to 13 hours a day, almost double the standard 7 for most TGV trains.  They can run on their own or be simply added on to an existing TGV service, so SNCF can leverage the assets as best needed.

Ouigo has sold over 5 million tickets since inception, 80% of which sold for 35 euros or less.

Thayls, which most of us associate with The Netherlands, is actually a subsidiary of SNCF, and unsurprisingly, with Ouigo’s success, a version has popped up called IZY (A French speaker would pronounce those letters as “easy” which is the branding play hoped for, but an English speaker might understandably ask, “What’s an Izzy?”).

IZY

IZY one-ups iDTGV and Ouigo by offering rock bottom pricing – as low as 10 euros, and offers an outside-of-France option: Brussels.  The first time I took IZY I saw 18 IZY carriages hitched up to 6 Thayls ones.  Now, keep in mind that a regular Thayls fare to the Netherlands (Rotterdam, Schipol, or Centraal) averages between 90-150 euros, so a journey that takes half that time (and half the distance) at 10 euros is quite a deal.  Those fares sell out quickly as they are “standing” tickets, as do the 19€ “sit in the unheated/uncooled hallway of the carriage” fares, but even the 29 and 39 euro fares sell pretty quickly.  A nice aspect to this budget service is that if you do buy the 10€ “standing” fare, and there are seats available when the train departs, the staff will invite you to have a seat (I got “upgraded” from the 19€ fare I paid in that manner the last time I took an IZY).

* * *

There are whispers of more continent-wide programs similar to what Ouigo and Izy are pioneering.  This can only be good news for travelers who will get more options, and less-expensive ones, to satisfy their wanderlust.  The first “big” play in trains, continentally, will come when Eurostar finally launches their London-Amsterdam line, which was supposed to launch December 2016, but is currently slated for Easter 2018.  To be fair, it is Eurostar’s most ambitious project, and requires coordination and cooperation with the train companies in 4 different countries.  The train will take around 4 hours from city center to city center, and that makes it, like the Paris-London Eurostar, faster than flying, which will necessarily cause airfares to drop between those destinations.

That said, traveling to the Low Countries these days presents the traveler with a bit of an oddity: security screening.  With the terrorist shadow we have lived with the past three years, the trains are expected to do “something” except that train passengers are used to not being screened.  So what ends up happening on outbound services is a very long line in which people walk through metal detectors, set them off, and get waved through anyway (like what happens around 16h00 every day at the Louvre and Orsay, when the staff have decided they’ve done enough work for the day) and bags are put through a screening process that sometimes features no one monitoring bags.  They are moving too quickly to truly catch anything, and I can only hope that something doesn’t happen on one of the trains because skipping the hassles of air travel is one of the great pleasures of rail travel.

Those pleasures await you on these innovative (and inexpensive) services.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

London Calling

I often tell people I never expected to like London as much as I do.  Don’t get me wrong – I would never, ever live there – it’s too expensive, rushed, big, and dense.  But for a few days at a time, quietly sipped, it’s a wonderful retreat for a native English speaker.

For one, most of the museums are free.  Over eight or so visits I’ve gotten to see the great treasures of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum, as well as had the chance to venture out to Greenwich to see the marvelous nautical museums out there.

Then there’s the food.  Just saying the word “spicy” is enough to make French people reach for their throats, pre-emptively coughing.  It’s not their fault.  There’s not any native spicy food in France.  Same for the cuisines in Germany and Switzerland.  But the British palette, early on stretched by colonial ambitions, can tolerate quite a bit of spice, and so you see many more Indian and Malay restaurants here, done using authentic spice profiles.  You can find those cuisines, and dozens more, for bargain prices.  There’s also the theatre.  As a native speaker of the language I appreciate all the nuance, humo(u)r, and wordplay without the need of a translator or intermediary.

In a way, London is where I go to remind myself what it feels like to freely breathe in my native language, whereas in France, my French reading comprehension has far outpaced my speaking speed, so while I scan through Le Figaro or Le Monde at my regular English reading speed and truly understand what is written, my speed in discussing issues spoken about between those pages, or any issues in general, is slower.  I’m always a bit more cautious and held back with witticisms, jokes, or the casual jump-in of a serious conversation in my new language.

As for getting to London, having flown in and out of Luton, Gatwick, and Heathrow from Paris, I’m a very big advocate of taking the Eurostar.  If you book 6-8 weeks in advance, you can routinely pay around 50€ each way, which is not only competitive with the lowest rates you can pay to fly, but it’s one of those rare instances in which taking a train is actually faster than taking a plane.  The Eurostar is 2 hours and 20 minutes, Gare du Nord to Saint Pancras, and is city-center to city-center, connected by the Metro and Tube, respectively.  Even the fastest trip from Gare du Nord out to CDG is going to take you at least 30 minutes (slightly longer to get out to Orly), then you need to get through security, and then you need to be there at least one hour before your flight.  By the time you have done all that, you could have already been in London, and you haven’t even left Paris yet.  So, if you want to take a few days’ trip to London, you can get there and back pretty quickly, and pretty affordably.

The question might be accommodation.  And that’s a fair point.  Over the years I’ve developed a really wonderful group of friends in London and if they are in town I can often crash at their places.  But if everyone is out of town, I can find a hostel (25-35€/night) or an airbnb/hotel (55-75€/night).  Just be prepared: in London they aren’t shy about renting out spaces that would be glorified closets in America.  You can get more space, of course, if you’re willing to pay for it.

You don’t need to regularly visit, as I do.  Just go once and see how you feel.  I definitely underestimated it when I first visited as a tourist, back in 2009.  Summer, with Wimbledon and sunshine everywhere, is a great time to give it your first try.

I took the picture from Westminster Bridge on the day after the Brexit Referendum, just some minutes after I had left College Green by Parliament, where I had been doing some short informal interviews with some MPs and MEPs on their reactions to the referendum result.  The article I wrote on it is here.

 

Why you probably shouldn’t use Opodo to book your flights in Europe

When I lived in the United States I unfailingly used Hipmunk to search for flights.  They use an “agony index” which scores layovers, price, etc. to give you the best option for your journey, not necessarily just the best price (you can always click “sort by price” if you want).  They also have a simple and beautiful design interface that makes reading and understanding the fares simple.  Odd inclusion these days?  Amtrak.  Expected exclusion?  Southwest.  But you can always search Southwest in a separate tab.

Hipmunk simply doesn’t work in the European market as well as Skyscanner, which is the go-to travel website over here.  Skyscanner searches an absurd number of airlines you’ve never heard of, and then proposes all kinds of itineraries that don’t take into account any manner of logic.  Oh, you want to go to Budapest?  You probably want to stop in Dusseldorf for 4 hours on your way there.  No I don’t…wait, I mean, I’ve never been to Dusseldorf…and it looks like the direct flight is 100€ more.  Hmm.  Maybe I could go to Dusseldorf… (not a random example – I did do this last year, and Dusseldorf is definitely worth a few hours of your time, at least).  Alternatively, you’ll also want to check out Skypicker, which dynamically shows cheap flights in real time geographically.

I was headed to Romania to see some friends recently and had difficulty finding direct flights to Bucharest, Romania’s only airport, at reasonable prices.  It was short notice and it was December, so I understood.  I spun the Skyscanner bottle and landed on…Munich or Frankfurt for 8 hours on the way.  I polled my friends in a large facebook travel group and the vote was unanimously Munich.  Done.

I booked the ticket through Opodo for seats on Lufthansa.  Wait, what?  Why didn’t you go to Lufthansa?  Well I would have, but it wasn’t an option at that pricepoint.  Skyscanner lists a number of resellers of varying levels of excellence which have bought seats in advance for the express purpose of reselling them.

Some you will recognize – Expedia, for example.  Others, you will never have heard of, but like most Americans, will cautiously use because no one ever cheats you on the internet for flights, right?  I had used Opodo before, I think, with no serious issue.  I can also vouch for travelgenio/travel2be, though they look shady and my bank initially denied my purchase due to “high fraud with that site” they told me later.

Anyway, I paid for the flight through Opodo, got a confirmation number via Lufthansa, and even went into Lufthansa’s system with the confirmation that showed that yes, indeed, I had a flight to and from Bucharest from Roissy (Paris CDG).

Until I didn’t.

I was in my online banking website, preparing for a meeting with my accountant when I noticed that Opodo had refunded all but $5 of my ticket.  Hmmm.  I called Lufthansa after a login to their system revealed my return flight still, but no outbound flight.  In its place was an ominous error message: there has been a change in your reservation.  I explained all this to the bemused customer service agent, who, after conferring with her supervisor, informed me that the reservation number was simply a hold.  No ticket number had been issued.

I checked my email and nothing had been sent to me from Lufthansa or Opodo.  Four days before my flight and I had been dropped without notice – not even an email – and I only noticed because I was, by chance, looking at one of my accounts in online banking.

Opodo – which seems to be run like a vending machine – great when it works, but useless when it doesn’t –  at the time simply had an FAQ page where there should have been a “contact us.”  As of January 2016 they’ve added an actual phone number on the site.  That’s at least some progress.

I didn’t want to bother over an issue of $5, which they had effectively stolen.  I did another search on skyscanner, but this time I did a quick cross-check in my travel email for an aggregator that I had successfully used in the past – travelgenio won that lottery – and I booked my ticket.  Again.

And now I’m telling you this story over dessert in a cafe in Munich.

I should note I’ve successfully used Opodo at least twice in the past, but such a catastrophic letdown, which led to me re-buying the exact same ticket I had bought originally, but this time for 50€ more, is a dealbreaker…and I didn’t want any of you to make the same mistake when you take your casual trips around the continent.  And trust me, mine isn’t an isolated tale.  These guys are muppets.

If you have any resellers your really like or have good experiences with, please share them with us in the comments.

 

I forgot my passport

A huge pit formed at the very bottom of my stomach.  A hot flash of embarrassment started at my chin, ducked below my eyes, and lurched forward onto my forehead, spilling down my cheeks.  These physical reactions usually accompany the realization I have done something catastrophically wrong.  I said the words to myself, just for effect:

I forgot my passport.

I rehearsed quickly what I would tell my French cab driver, which would start with an apology and a request that he immediately turn around.

But my brain had already run ahead of me (as it is wont to do), presenting two factuals:

1)  If you turn around now, you will certainly miss your flight.

2)  On several occasions you have flown within the Schengen zone and not been asked for your passport.

This stood against the conditional:

1)  How do you know they will ask for your passport?

Since turning around to get my passport offered the same risk as trying to board my scheduled flight and being turned away (missing my flight), I decided to proceed.  My brain asked the conditional “but what about returning” question but answered it within seconds saying: “let’s worry about this first.”

If the driver had looked back during the two minute colloquy that had begun with that flush of embarrassment, he might have seen my furrowed brow accompanying my eyes glancing out the back window, moving side-to-side in a slow calculus, because surely part of me was wishing I took a short international flight more seriously than a bus ride.

Worse – I still didn’t have my permanent carte de sejour – I wouldn’t have it until April.  All I had was my temporary recipisse, which simply indicated that I would get an ID.

I showed up at Paris’ southern airport, Orly, about 30 minutes before boarding time.  It was a 07h20 flight to Rome.  It was my grad school friend Donald’s birthday, and he was due to be in Italy for a few days, so I thought to join him for dinner before coming back to Paris the next day.

As I passed through security the only thing they asked for was my boarding pass, which I was carrying electronically in Passbook.  I cleared security with a little bit of private nervous laughter.  As I moved towards the front of the boarding queue, I unfolded my recipisse and steeled myself with a confident insouciance (imagine a “What, I need a passport?” type of look).  The gate staff were really only looking to see that my name matched the one on the ticket so I’m not certain she even realized what class of ID I was presenting.  I shook my head after I passed through and wondered why I had been conditioned to think that in a 1st world country it was vitally important to always show ID.  Grateful for the nonchalance of the gate agents I started planning for hitting the ground in Italy.

Donald had booked a cooking class beginning at 10h00.  Since I was due to land a bit before 09h00 I knew I would have to take a cab.  Traffic cooperated and I arrived there and had a 6-hour culinary experience of learning, prepping, cooking, and eating.  It was lovely.

Since the theme of this blog has always been focused on Paris and France, I’ll perhaps share the details of the Rome trip at another time and in another place.  For now, know that I am writing this to you somewhere over northern Italy.  On my return to France the Italian gate agent had taken exception to my recipisse, but fortunately two (quite lovely) Russian ladies who also did not bring their passports had already been asked to stand aside while a supervisor was called.  I was asked to stand with them and we started speaking in French about the Schengen area.  “I didn’t forget,” said the older one, “I simply didn’t bring it.  You don’t need it in Europe.”  I shared that I had needed it in Romania, Poland, and Croatia, but then added, “but I’m not an EU citizen, you know, so I never go in your line.”  “Ah yes, she nodded.”  The gate agent returned and waved us through.

This time the cool wave of relief started at the top of my forehead and slid slowly and luxuriously down my head, cascading over my shoulders, and down the rest of my body.  I flipped to “music” on my iphone, tabbed to David Gray, put on Shine, and slipped my noise-cancelling headphones on.

***

Moral of the story: write a huge note to yourself of DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT YOU NON-EU CITIZEN and put it on your computer monitor the night before any international flight, Schengen or not.

What I always see when I travel

“Wow, it sounds like you’re really into churches.”  My companion was to my right.  Corsica was outside our window and below, to our left.  He was a Spaniard and we were both headed to Romania that weekend.  I, for a wedding, he for a bachelor party.  Our conversation that afternoon had covered all kinds of ground but we had finally come on to why I had been in Madrid.  I told him I had taken opportunities to go on day trips to Ávila and Segovia.

“Honestly,” I said, “churches are the most important things to see.  They matter most, in a way.”  As the words left my mouth I realized I had never articulated such a thought before but that I believed it deep down in my bones.  I began to make my case.

“Think about whenever you visit a new place.  Apart from enjoying the language, food, culture, and customs, you want to enter into how these people are the way they are.  You can examine their buildings, see their art, and see their places of worship.

“Castles are majestic.  Museums are fascinating.  But they are, in their own way, simply an artifice.  The Louvre was a working palace before it became the world’s largest museum, and El Escorial (my favorite royal palace in Spain) is magnificent, but I’m only permitted to see it because it’s no longer the king’s residence.  If things were now how they were then, it would only be under some extraordinary circumstance that I would be able to so freely traverse the private apartments of the king.

“But the irony is that despite being constructed in the happiest times of monarchy, these churches are the most democratic of buildings.  Overwhelmingly they were built by the contributions of the whole community, be they great persons or small.  People contributed their time and expertise and money to raise these stony testaments to God.  Stained glass provided otherworldly lighting for the space and catechism to the illiterate.  Statues of wood or alabaster or marble brought the lives of the saints and stories of Scripture into real and convincing relief.  Some of the people were paid for their work as artisans, but many volunteered their time: these buildings would be legacies to be handed down from generation to generation.  They weren’t buildings frozen in amber, as museums often are, but these were living things, the pride and joy of the communities in which they were always located in the center.

“Go to any small town in the countries that comprised Christendom after the Protestant Revolt.  You will find inspiring cathedrals surely, but you will also find beautiful little churches, ironically proud in their humility.  People started their lives here when they were baptized.  They ended them here when they had a Requiem Mass.  They may have been joined to another human for life in the company and witness of all their beloved in the enduring tradition that is marriage.  Or they consecrated themselves to God’s service.  People gathered under those roofs in all times – in peace and in war – in plenty and in famine – in good weather and foul – and in times sad and happy.

“As you breathe in the incense and candlesmoke of centuries in a place where so many spoke to God – or didn’t – or simply sat and listened, your senses can be afire.  Churches are places that remind us, by their majesty, that all things must end, no matter how glorious.  This is why I go to churches whenever I travel: to remember that I am immortal.”

He simply nodded.  I looked out the window at a beautiful bank of clouds.  I closed my eyes and was again in the dark beauty of a Spanish church.