In my case, much the best option was an Interrail pass. Often thought of as a way for youngsters to bum around Europe on the cheap, it’s actually available to people of all ages, though you get a good discount if you’re under 28 – or over 60. It’s available for people resident in Europe, but those from elsewhere can get a Eurail pass, which is effectively identical. The pass gives access to a vast range of rail networks, even some buses and ferries, and it charges you not per journey but per day of travel. Two bits of small print to flag up that I found out about the hard way. First, no matter how many travel days on your pass, you get only one journey out from and one back to your country of origin. Second, some journeys require seat reservations, which can become complicated and sometimes costly. If you are considering Interrail, there’s a handy routemap with general info on the Interrail website, and a detailed guide on Seat 61.
One more important point. Big action plans are already under way to improve and facilitate train travel in Europe, including the creation of a Single European Rail Area (SERA) and upgrades and integrations of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). In policy terms, the direction of travel in Europe is clear: towards rail. Why not get on board now?
Admin and accounting
Accounting systems often favour the ‘boomerang’ trip (go there, come back). One outward and one return journey for one event – all entered on the same line of the spreadsheet, with receipts matching expenses. But a multi-destination trip also has in-between or onwards journeys, with each event administered by a different company or organisation, each with its own financial and procedural requirements. So even when a round trip makes sense in terms of time, money and carbon cost, the systems seem stacked against such joined-up thinking: costs have to be divided between different administrations, and demarcations are often not clear cut. Essentially, you have to organise a tour, not a trip.
My solution was to agree a travel budget in advance with each organisation, estimating on the high side so that my final invoice would come in lower than the estimate. It was not straightforward for anyone, but having shown that I’d done the legwork to find the best travel options, and divided costs as fairly as I could, I did encounter a lot of support for the underlying motive: to avoid aviation. Accounting for journeys with multiple stakeholders, and which may blend necessary work with optional personal travel, is never going to be easy, but goodwill can go a long way.
Sometimes you can’t do a long trip in day, in which case you have to arrange overnight accommodation – a major expense. Mindful of overall costs, I went ultra-cheap (€45 for a hotel room in Hamburg, for example), which was ok for a sleepover, if not a stay. A work colleague very generously let me stay in Brussels, three times, which made a huge difference not only to the cost, but to the quality of my journey.
Consider sleeper trains too, which combine overnight accommodation and travel in one stroke. They are making a comeback.
Time adds up
When doing your sums, remember to count times (and costs) from door to door, not just the length of the plane or train journey. Once you factor in airport transfer and waiting times for both arrival and departure, you can often easily be adding another 6 hours to the scheduled flight time. On my trip, on every leg of the journey apart from London I could walk between my accommodation and the station in under 30 minutes, and generally arrived 15 minutes before departure time. Bliss.
Counting just travel days for the whole trip (including an unforeseen stop in Antwerp, arranged mid-trip), my sums worked out like this. By train, I needed 11 travel days for work, to which I added two days of my own during the trip (in Denmark), and two days afterwards (in France). By plane, it would have taken 8 travel days for work, with no separate travel.