European Rail Travel
Q. Recently you answered a query regarding train travel between Paris and Brussels, and implied that the only way to purchase tickets in North America is through RailEurope (888/382-7245), which is not the case. SNCF's (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer, France's national rail company) web site is quite proficient at selling electronic tickets in advance.
I have used it several times for inter-city travel, often at substantially cheaper prices than offered by RailEurope. That is because SNCF has special deals and discounts, and also because there are no service charges.
Some of the SNCF itineraries allow the purchaser to print out tickets at home. To get to that part of the site, one specifies ticket delivery in France. Otherwise the tickets can be picked up at any mainline SNCF station, simply by showing the printout of the ticket order and the credit card used - no need to speak French. The tickets printed at home are even more convenient; just hand them to the conductor on the train along with your passports.
A. I fiddled around with SNCF's site and you can indeed purchase tickets through their Web site, and you mention, you can just pick up the ticket at predetermined locations once you're in France. As far as I can tell, you can only book tickets as far as 90 days in advance. Besides the lack of service fees, tickets purchased through SNCF's seem to have a more flexible cancellation policy, offering a 100 percent refund before departure and up to 90 percent after scheduled departure, compared to RailEurope which levies a minimum 15 percent cancellation fee on many tickets and under some scenarios charges a 100 percent cancellation fee.
Q. My daughter is studying in Madrid, Spain and she is trying to travel to Lourdes, France in May. The cheapest flight she has found so far is $1,699! Do you have any suggestions?
A. The fastest way to get between Madrid and Lourdes is by air, using one of the many low cost carriers available. The ticket pricing she got was probably flying with Air France, and that can be costly. The cheaper option would require buying two separate tickets from two different airlines - the downside to that is she'll have to spend a night at the Brussels airport or a nearby hotel, which may not be so bad if she is trying to save money. The first leg is between Madrid and Brussels on either Vueling (10 to 60 EUR each way) or Virgin Express (from 73 EUR each way). The next leg would be between Brussels and Lourdes on Jetairfly (39 to 129 EUR each way). There's only one flight a day between Brussels and Lourdes, departing 7:45AM, and based on what I've found online, neither Vueling nor Virgin Express have flights arriving Brussels that early. Depending on how flexible her schedule is, she might want to take a few days to explore Brussels.
The 10 to 12 hour train ride is also an option, and it'll probably cost her under 60 EUR each way. With the train, she'll again have to buy two separate tickets: Madrid to Hendaye, France (on the border of Spain and France,) through RENFE, the Spanish National Railway Network; and from Hendaye to Lourdes through SCNF, the French National Railway. From Madrid to Hendaye, it'll be about seven hours and cost 35 to 47 EUR, and between Hendaye and Lourdes, it'll be three to four and a half hours, at about 23 EUR. The upside to taking the train is that your daughter won't have to spend a night anywhere. The train schedule (available through the sites above) is such that she won't have to wait for more than an hour at Hendaye. She can opt for a night train from Madrid in a sleeper car, but that'll be at a premium, of course.
Q. Five family members, including myself, are traveling to Paris this winter. I have made this trip several times and everything is set. We want to take the train from Paris (Nord) to Brussels for the day. On my last trip we paid around a hundred and twenty Euros, which I thought was really steep. I have paid far less for trips of a similar length in other European Countries in the past few months. The 'Travel Advisor' site suggests that by making your ticket purchase in advance the cost is lower than buying it at the train station. When I attempt to get the information from www.raileurope.com the screen goes to "Page Expired" every time I try. I have e-mailed RailEurope and they just say try again. I would like to have the tickets purchased before we leave and hope this will save us some money. Is the Thalys high speed train the only way to go? Or is there more than one option? We don't care as long as we don't end up on a 'milk train'.
A. Unfortunately, if you want to get your tickets in advance before you leave, you'll have to purchase the tickets through RailEurope, and Thalys is your only option. A full fare one-way ticket in second class between Paris and Brussels costs $90 each-way for an adult, $19 each way for children 12 and under, and $63 each-way for seniors 61 and over. However, if you purchase early enough, you can find a discounted round-trip ticket that ranges from $62 round-trip to $100 round-trip, but these tend to sell out quickly.
And I suspect the problem you had with www.raileurope.com was temporary, as I was able to access the site with no problems. You might want to check to see if you've disabled cookies or have security set on high on your Web browser.
Q. My wife and I plus another couple will be in Sorrento, Italy later this year. My parents were born in Lacedonia, Avellino, which I believe is west of Naples. What would be the best route and method of transportation to get from Sorrento to Lacedonia?
A. Lacedonia is located in the province of Avellino, in the Campania region of Southern Italy, and as you said, it is west of Naples (incidentally, fans of HBO's "The Sopranos" might recognize the name Avellino as the locale to which the famous mob family traced their origins).
To get to Lacedonia, you have two options: train or automobile. With the train, you'll first have to get to Naples (either via train, hydrofoil or bus), and take a train to Lacedonia. The journey will take anywhere from three and a half to four hours and a half hours, and you'll have to change either once or twice, depending on the time you leave. Further more, the train station nearest Lacedonia is located in Rocchetta San Antonio , which is about 12km away, so you may still need to take a taxi or local transportation to reach the town. For a train schedule, go to the Trenitalia Web site.
I personally recommend renting a car and driving, because you'll probably have to rent a car anyway, even if you take the train, unless you have relatives to drive you around Lacedonia. According to ViaMichelin, which is the European equivalent of MapQuest), the driving distance is 153km, and should take (providing you don't get lost) about two hours, and cost 5.7EUR in tolls. And about 106km of the driving trip will be on highways.
You can get more information from the Italian Tourist Board at (212-245-5618).