Category

Overnight Breaks

Overnight Breaks, Travel

How To Travel Europe By Rail Like A Pro

Ditch the plane, and travel Europe by rail. This guide to key international rail services in Europe will help you plan your trip with ease.

Many of us are looking to reduce the number of flights we take each year to help the environment. Thankfully, there are many ways to travel low-carbon. You can holiday at home or opt for camping trips. However, you don’t have to ditch trips to the continent. One great way sustainable way is to travel by train.

If you are looking to travel Europe by rail this summer then take note – Lonely Planet has recently published Lonely Planet’s Guide to Train Travel in Europe.

Whether you want to travel leisurely via the scenic route or head straight to your destination in the quickest possible time, Lonely Planet’s experts show you how to plan your journey. This covers everything from how to plan a long-distance trip, right through to the must-see stops and best ways to book value-for-money tickets.

And to help kickstart your trip, Lonely Planet has kindly let me publish this excerpt on the key rail services you need to know to help plan your trip. Get planning!


International trains are an unquestionably exciting part of the European travel scene. There’s no shortage of ways to cross borders on steel wheels to move between the patchwork of nations that makes up the
continent, from multi-day sleeper trains to glamorous high-speed expresses to regional curiosities. These services will be the backbone of any Europe-spanning rail itinerary.

Key International Services To Travel Europe By Rail

Image of a train crossing through a mountainous region, with a blue text box that says everything you need to know about travelling Europe by rail.

Several rail companies operate international routes across various European regions. These services often connect with other key international and domestic services at key hub stations and generally must be booked in advance. Services are well-used by leisure and business travellers so expect trains to
be busy during peak hours and at popular holiday times.

Thalys

Thalys is a high-speed service owned by SNCF and SNCB (respectively the French and Belgian state railways). It serves France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, connecting Paris, Brussels,
Amsterdam, Cologne, Dortmund, and points in between. It only stops at major cities, guaranteeing fast journey times, and connects conveniently (if tightly) with Eurostar services, meaning it’s heavily used
by business travellers and tourists. Thalys also offers a low-cost brand only operating between Paris and Brussels, IZY. Summer services extend to Avignon and Marseille.

The Thalys Neige ski train reaches French Alpine winter sports destinations including Chambéry and Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

Classes & reservations

There are three classes on Thalys trains: Standard; Comfort; Premium. All come with free wifi. Light meals are served at-seat in Premier class and are included in the ticket price. Reservations are required for all services.

Good to know

While there’s no specific security when boarding Thalys trains in Germany and the Netherlands, extra time should be factored in if travelling through Paris and Lille to put luggage through x-ray machines, and for
potential security checks in Brussels.

Resources

Thalys.com is the main booking site, though booking Thalys connections is possible through partners such as SNCF, Eurostar, Rail Europe, and Trainline.

Eurostar

Eurostar connects London’s St Pancras International with Lille, Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam. These distinctive blue and yellow trains use the HS1 high-speed line between London and the Channel Tunnel on the UK side. Once in continental Europe, they make use of the LGV Nord high-speed line (which also carries Thalys services) between Paris, Calais, Lille, and Brussels. A winter ski train follows the Thalys Neige path into the Alps, while summer services have in the past offered a direct connection to destinations in
the south of France including Lyon, Avignon, and Marseilles.

Classes & reservations

Eurostar offers Standard, Standard Premier, and Business Premier seating. Bookings generally open 180 days in advance of the date of travel – sooner than potential onward services, so consider waiting if you’re looking to connect onwards via Paris or Brussels.

Good to know

Eurostar recommends checking in 45-60 minutes before departure. Ticket inspection, luggage x-ray, and passport checks for both the UK and France are undertaken before departure.

Resources

Eurostar.com has bookings and destination info and also offers ticket-plus-hotel deals
that can offer good value for short breaks.

Nightjet

A train in Norway

The flagship sleeper train brand of ÖBB (Austrian Railways), Nightjet comprises the bulk of Europe’s night-train services. Radiating in all directions from Vienna and Salzburg, routes reach Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands. Sleeper services run by operators in neighbouring countries reach Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, and Ukraine from Austria. As they’re not run by Nightjet expect different, mostly older sleeping cars.

Classes & reservations

There are three classes of Nightjet services: a seat in a compartment; a 4-6 berth couchette; and economy or deluxe sleeper accommodation in single, double- or triple-occupancy cabins.

Deluxe berths come with a toilet and shower. Note that solo travellers will, in all cases apart from designated single cabins, share with other travellers of the same gender. Booking in advance is
highly recommended, and compulsory in Germany and Italy.

Good to know

It’s a good idea to build plenty of time for onward connections into an itinerary containing any night trains – 90 minutes is sensible. Nightjet tickets go on sale 180 days before departure.

Resources

Nightjet.com has bookings through ÖBB, which allows for combined Nightjet and day train connections to a wide range of destinations, plus more details of on-board services.

IC/EC

Many cross-border routes in Europe are denoted as IC (InterCity) or EC (EuroCity) trains, such as the Berlin–Warsaw, and Zürich–Bologna services. They offer comfortable and frequent, if slower, services than branded high-speed fast trains – think of these as express services that would have been the fastest trains
in operation before high-speed services became commonplace.

Classes & reservations

Generally, two classes (marked 1 and 2) are available throughout. Reservations are sensible for longer journeys and in some countries, such as Italy, are obligatory.

Good to know

If you’re hankering after an old-school European rail experience, compartment seating for six passengers with a sliding door on a corridor can still be found on many InterCity services.

Resources

Domestic websites for your starting point are the best place to start, though InterCity trains are often bookable via international ticket sites.

Regional Services

Few regional or local services run internationally, but many run right up to border stations, such as the scenic Jesenice to Nova Gorica line in Slovenia, which runs to the Italian frontier, and those terminating
at Latour-de-Carol from both the French and Spanish sides of the border. Regional services are differently named in various countries – see the national rail services section for details.

Classes & reservations

Many trains offer first (marked as 1 on the carriage or seating area) and standard class (2) seating, though smaller services may only have standard class. With few exceptions, regional trains are turn-up-and-go, so there are no reservations.

Good to know

On regional trains in many countries, you need to validate your ticket by stamping it in a machine on platforms before boarding.

Resources

As with InterCity services, domestic websites from your starting point are the best place to start for times and tickets, though buying at the station is the norm.

This excerpt has been reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet © 2022.

Overnight Breaks, Travel

The Best Things to Do on the Rhins of Galloway

Are you planning a visit or holiday to the Rhins of Galloway? Here are some of my top suggestions of the best things to do in this amazing part of Scotland.

Covid-19 hasn’t really changed how we holiday. We’ve holidayed in the UK for years and years now. We normally visit Aviemore for our holidays or another part of the Scottish Highlands. However, this year, prices were incredibly high and availability was really low in the Highlands. Deciding where to visit instead, I recalled visiting the Rhins of Galloway as a teenager and really loving it. I was sure my kids would love the expansive sandy beaches and dramatic rocky landscapes that this area of Dumfries and Galloway enjoys. What was even better was that at relatively short notice, we were able to find lovely, reasonably priced accommodation. So we booked, and off we went!

We’re just back from a week’s holiday on the Rhins of Galloway, and while my mind is still fresh I wanted to write about all the places I’d recommend visiting. If you are looking to visit the beautiful coastal region of Rhins of Galloway then here are my top family-friendly suggestions of where to visit on your next trip.

Where Is the Rhins of Galloway?

Firstly, you might be thinking The Rhins of What? Well, the Rhins of Galloway is a 25-mile long peninsula in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. Jutting out into the Irish Sea, its southern tip is the Mull of Galloway, the southernmost point of Scotland.

This area includes the principal town of Stranraer and encompasses the villages of Ardwell, Cairnryan, Castle Kennedy, Drummore, Dunragit, Kirkcolm, Leswalt, Port Logan, Portpatrick, Sandhead, and Stoneykirk, as well as a number of other smaller hamlets.

The Best Places To Visit and Things to Do in the Rhins of Galloway

If you are looking to mostly get away from it all, then this sparsely populated area is for you. The Rhins of Galloway is renowned for its expansive sandy beaches and dramatic coastal landscapes, and unique plant life.

When we were booking our trip, I thought we might run out of things to do on the Rhins of Galloway. I had planned that we may have to travel further afield for things to do. However, we spent a week on the Rhins of Galloway, and managed to not leave it once! As we very thoroughly explored almost the whole area, here are my top things to do in the Rhins of Galloway.

Logan Botanic Gardens

Port Logan Botanic Garden entrance

It’s safe to say that Logan Botanic Gardens is unlike any botanic garden I’ve ever visited in the UK. I think it’s probably my favourite botanic garden now, and I’ve been to a few! In part, because its relatively remote location means it’s an incredibly peaceful and tranquil place to spend a day, away from crowds of people. But also in part due to the amazing array of tropical plant life. We got lucky and visited on a very sunny Sunday. The sunshine, warmth, and tropical plants made it feel like we had been transported to some far-off exotic land, rather than being on a peninsula in Scotland!

The gulf stream warms the Rhins of Galloway, and this enables plants from Australia, New Zealand, South, and Central America, and Southern Africa to grow here. You can walk through groves of Gunnera (this was my kids’ favourite part) and groves of beautifully scented eucalyptus trees, as well as through the tree fern forest. There’s also a stunning walled garden, full of exotic plants, and fish ponds. And then there are the conservatories as well, housing more sensitive tropical plants. It’s a treat for both eyes and nose!

Something interesting to also note is that parts of the original Wicker Man movie were filmed here. In the movie, the gardens acted as Lord Summerisle’s garden. While you won’t find a Wicker Man here, do look out for the giant Wicker dinosaur.

Wicker dinosaur at Logan Botanic Garden on the Rhins of Galloway

The on-site Potting Shed Bistro serves a delicious lunch, as well as an array of cakes. We sat outside and enjoyed watching the local wildlife, whilst we ate in the most beautiful surroundings. If you’d rather take your own lunch, then picnicking is permitted in the gardens.

What’s great is that kids under fifteen go free. Adults are a great value £7.50 each. We spent hours here, and it was well worth the money. If you’re travelling with dogs, then do note that dogs (with the exception of assistance dogs) are not permitted into any part of the gardens.

Glenwhan Gardens

Glenwhan Gardens on the Rhins of Galloway, Dumfries & Galloway

The stunning Glenwhan Gardens was another beautiful garden we visited whilst on the Rhins of Galloway. These gardens are relatively new, created around 40 years ago, but my, this garden is breathtaking.

We spent hours wandering around the garden’s meandering pathways, discovering beautiful plants at every turn. Two small lochans (lakes) create the focal point of the main garden. However, there are stunning vistas to be had and sculptures to discover in all the nooks and crannies of the garden. There’s also a 17-acre moorland walk to explore. We ran out of time to even scratch the surface of the moorland.

If on the remote chance that life gave us an expansive garden then it would certainly look like this. It was wonderful. I’d love to go back in different seasons to see how it differs across the year.

Adults are £6 each, and kids are £1.50 each, which again is a bargain. Unlike Logan Botanic Gardens, dogs are welcome at Glenwhan Gardens. However, something to note is that picnics are not allowed in the gardens.

There is a small tearoom here. However, it has strong 1980s vibes and overworked staff. The member of staff taking food and drink orders was also expected to handle ticket sales and plant sales for the garden. This probably works for most of the year, but in peak visitor season in a place where you cannot bring your own food meant that queues did build up. Despite this, the food was good, with vegans catered for via the daily specials, and the cake selection was A+. If I was visiting again though, I would consider taking a car picnic.

Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

Mull of Galloway lighthouse and nature reserve

The Mull of Galloway is Scotland’s most southern point. Here, perched on a 260-foot high cliff is the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse that is well worth a visit.

Unfortunately, due to Covid safety restrictions, you aren’t able to climb up to the top of the Mull of Galloway lighthouse at the moment. However, that doesn’t mean this stunning spot isn’t worth a visit. At the foot of the lighthouse is a beautiful RSPB nature reserve, that is free to access. Here you can walk around and admire the dramatic views from the clifftop over to Cumbria, the Isle of Man, Scotland, and Ireland. There is a host of wildlife to spot. These include puffins, porpoises, and dolphins if you are lucky. There are also beautiful coastal wildflowers to enjoy in spring and summer. We spent a really enjoyable and relaxing morning having a walk here, completely in awe of the surroundings.

It’s a really cheap visit. It’s free to park at the lighthouse and free to access the nature reserve.

When you’re done, there is a really amazing cafe – probably the best we visited in the Rhins of Galloway – next to the lighthouse. Here at the Gallie Craig, you can grab a coffee and a slice of cake, a cooked breakfast (vegetarian and vegan options are available), or lunch on top of the cliff, sit outside and admire the views. On a sunny day, like when we visited, then I can assure you that it’s utter perfection. I’d love to visit again on a stormy day. I’d sit inside with a steaming hot cup of tea, and appreciate the dramatic weather.

Alternatively, there are benches dotted around the reserve, and at the lookout point. Take a picnic and a flask of tea, and enjoy the 360° views.

Port Logan Beach

Port Logan beach

Port Logan beach is an impressive white sand beach in a sheltered bay. It stretches round in an arc from the harbour, with its mini stone tower, round to the Port Logan Fish Pond. Its sheltered nature makes it perfect for walking, swimming, paddling or any other beach-based activity you can imagine. There’s also a Victorian bathing pond and hut, next to the beach. It’s sadly no longer in use, but it’s worth a look. Despite visiting on a sunny morning, the beach was deserted, so if you’re looking for peace then you will hopefully find it in this heavenly spot.

Port Logan Fish Pond

Port Logan fish pond

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a visit to the unique Port Logan Fish Pond quite as much as I did during our visit to the Rhins of Galloway. However, it turned out to be a firm family favourite.

Our satnav brought us to an old stone cottage perched on a cliff, that gives no clues as to what is to come. Inside the cottage are tanks housing a variety of small local fish. After an opportunity to look at these, and find out more about them, you are then taken down some stone steps from the backdoor of the cottage down to the main pond. This is a rock pool that 200 years ago was excavated into quite a deep hole, that is home to many species of marine life.

This fish larder, was in the Victorian era, used as a way of sourcing food and preserving fish until they needed to be eaten. Now it’s strictly educational.

The knowledgeable and friendly staff feed the fish. This encourages the different species to come up to the surface, where staff tell you about each one. After seeing many different types of fish local to the area, you can then enter a tiny aquarium inside a cave. Here you’ll find a variety of rock pool creatures, including Derek the 50-year-old lobster, and starfish and anemones. These were all fascinating to look at.

Due to Covid restrictions (particularly the potentially harmful interactions between fish and antibacterial hand gel), there are currently no opportunities to handle the wildlife. But still, getting to see flatfish, such as turbot, up close in such a fun and engaging way, was a real highlight.

It costs £10 for a family ticket, or £4 each per adult, and £3 per child.

Portpatrick

Portpatrick beach, Dumfries & Galloway

Portpatrick is a charming little seaside village situated on the Rhins of Galloway. Here, rows of pastel-coloured cottages jostle for space along the rocky harbour, and amongst the vertiginous cliffs. At low tide, a small sandy beach appears in the harbour, making it a sheltered place to catch some rays or let the kids play under the shadow of the lighthouse.

Along the picturesque seafront, you’ll find hotels, restaurants, and bars aplenty, all with harbourside seating. Portpatrick is also well equipped with play parks and picnic areas, and an impressive rocky harbour to explore. Or if you fancy a walk, there are a couple of clifftop walks you can take. There’s one that takes you to the ruins of Dunskey Castle, and another that marks the start of the Southern Upland Way. We didn’t do these, as clifftop walks with young kids felt a little too nerve-wracking. However, I have added them to my list of things to do when we visit the Rhins of Galloway again.

There is no shortage of places to eat in Portpatrick. However, if you’re vegetarian or vegan then I found the best place to eat in Portpatrick, with its array of choices, is the Port Pantry. The other places tended to offer just one or two not particularly inspired options.

Kirkmadrine Stones and Church

A beautiful walk in the dappled shade of an atmospheric avenue of trees brings you out at the Kirkmadrine Stones and Church. Here you’ll find intricately carved stones from 500AD demonstrating evidence of early Christianity in Britain. Even if you aren’t religious, like me, or aren’t Christian, it is a fascinating site to learn more about the history of Britain.

Sadly you aren’t able to access inside the tiny church. This is a shame because it looks beautiful. However, you can spend some time reading more about the stones, walking around the churchyard, and take in the stunning views.

Of all the places we visited on the Rhins of Galloway, this was unexpectedly felt like the busiest!

Sandhead Beach

If it’s one thing, then the Rhins of Galloway doesn’t hold back on beaches. Sandhead Beach is a vast and EXPANSIVE beach. It’s particularly great to visit with kids due to the playpark next to the beach, in case your kids get bored by the sea and sand. On sunny days it appeared to get quite busy (for Rhins of Galloway standards). If it’s peace and tranquillity you are after then this probably isn’t the beach for you. When the tide is out, then it’s also an incredibly long walk to reach the sea. Do check your tide times before visiting.

I managed no photos of this beach, but I promise, it is very beachy!

I hope you can see why the Rhins of Galloway might just be one of my very favourite corners of Scotland. It really is perfection in one small area, with so many different things to do. I am looking forward to so many more visits here. If you’ve been, or if you do go, then be sure to let me know of any spots that I missed on this trip! I’ll be sure to add them to my list of places to visit and re-visit!