How we devise our holidays by rail

Many may wonder why I term our trips and holidays by train "adventures". They may not look adventurous to those used to trekking through the Himalayas or exploring the jungles or deserts of the world, but it seems to me that they are adventures if they fulfil some of these criteria:
  • We go somewhere we've never been before, do new things and/or meet new people
  • We go out and come back by different routes
  • We use interesting train routes or change trains in interesting places
  • Some walking is involved
  • We do not take the car 
It is all a bit more of an adventure to my wife as she leaves me to do all the planning, but I don't like to keep her in the dark and when I planned our first adventure, the 2011 West Highland Railtour, I devised what I hoped would be a helpful chart to tell her where we would be on what date and, crucially, what times our trains depart and arrive. In order to give a taste of what the places would look like I searched for images on the internet and pasted them into the chart. I hope this would make the trip a little more exciting to anticipate and a little more comfortable when under way. We each take a copy with us to ensure that we know where we are going: a do-it-yourself tour guide. While planning a trip the chart is useful to me in deciding what activity fits in when, and formalises the pile of scraps of pencil-scribbled paper that I use while devising routes and booking train tickets and hotels. 
The actual planning of a trip begins long before anything is written down, of course, when we begin to think about where we might like to go, and several of my blog posts describe the thinking involved, but I thought some readers might find it interesting, or even helpful, if I write a description of how I go about planning an adventure by train, whether here in the UK or abroad. It is all good fun!

Once upon a time I'd start with the British Rail timetable, which had an international section, and write off for tourist information from the places I was thinking of visiting in order to find bed-and-breakfast accommodation. These days, of course, all that is done by the internet, although I sometimes wish I had a printed timetable - the websites usually assume you have some idea of when and where you're going before you start, whereas you can browse a timetable book as you might a catalogue!

Dates used to be fixed by my teacher wife's term dates but now she is retired it tends to be my own commitments that determine dates, and we have in advance some things that have to be fitted in: for example, when we did the first adventure, to the West Highlands of Scotland, the trip to Fort William on the Caledonian Sleeper was the essential element, and when we went to the Isle of Wight recently it was important to be there for a whole day when the best timetable was being run on the Steam Railway. These essential and desirable things, together with accommodation in the places we are visiting have to be planned first and booked as soon as I am sure about the dates for them. Often something is in short supply and has to be booked in good time to secure it - like a hotel room on the Isle of Wight in August, for example; Fort William in April was not so hard, but the Sleeper berths had to be secured before I could do anything else.

Once the outline has been decided and the B & Bs and hotels booked, with reference to the railway (and sometimes bus and ferry) timetables, if it is more than three months before travelling I have to wait before I can buy the cheapest, Advance, tickets for most of the train trips. Most Train Operating Companies will send alerts when tickets are released for the date needed so I do not have to keep checking - although it did come to that this summer when planning a trip from London Waterloo just before the big improvement works there. Sometimes I book accommodation by telephone direct with the establishment involved, but usually I do it through which is often easier. I have loyalty cards for a couple of international chains and for a favourite hotel in in one city, so I book those through their own websites in order to earn the loyalty benefits.

Tickets for a typical "adventure": the outward
journey, trips taken while away, and the
homeward journey.
I used to book all my train tickets on the Virgin Trains East Coast website because it was so easy to use and have clear prices for all companies, but the site has been so badly altered that I find it hard to use now and tend to book mostly on the GWR website or, especially when using their trains, Cross Country Trains. For those to whom it matters, though, GWR give Nectar points on all bookings. There are no loyalty schemes on any railway route at present since the demise of the East Coast Rewards scheme when Virgin took over. (Nectar is not a loyalty scheme since you can earn the points in so many ways, including driving a car and booking a coach.) How ever I do it, I book as soon as I can and I ask for the delivery option of collecting my tickets at my local station, no matter where the journey starts: I have no intention of starting my holiday by worrying about whether I have time to pick up the tickets between trains in some remote location, so I opt to get them locally and I pick them up when I am next going near the station.

The exact time we travel, and sometimes the route we take, will depend upon finding good-value fares (we always try to travel First Class if we can find good fares), arriving at our accommodation at an acceptable time and travelling by either an interesting route or on an interesting train (sometimes both, like the Caledonian Sleeper).  We do like to travel a decent distance on at least one train each way so that we can settle in and relax, and have a meal with a drink, but we are not averse to making several changes on a long journey, such as our trip to South Wales one summer which was a series of very varied trains.

A night in Bristol on our way to Sussex enabled us to visit
the M Shed museum which had been closed last time we
stayed in Bristol
When possible we allow plenty of time at changes and use them to explore a town or city on the way to our destination. Sometimes we stay overnight between trains and make a tour. When going to the Far North of Scotland there was no choice anyway: Inverness is a necessary "base camp" for going into the Far North! Just now and again things don't work and we cannot fit everything into the time available, but we are young enough to plan to have another go, and when I retire there will be fewer constraints on the length of our adventures so if we need more time we'll be able to add an extra day or so.

Once all the accommodation is booked and train times decided (whether or not I actually have the tickets in my hand), I fill in activities which we might do on the various days in various places, but unless these need to be booked in advance these remain flexible so that we can decide on a whim to do something we had not planned in advance - in 2015 we went to the Isle of Wight for a day at only a day's notice! Try to get advance bookings made whenever convenient, in order to avoid queues and delays once we are away, and especially if there is a discount for booking in advance or if it is recommended to avoid disappointment: if we have only one day to visit something and it is fully-booked that day, then we would be disappointed indeed.

When all this is done, the chart is printed and placed in the Holidays box file along with the train tickets and hotel booking confirmations and the excitement is put to one side while life continues, although I may just Pin a few ideas on Pinterest to give a flavour of some of the places we might see and things we might do ...


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