First published 01-02-2023
Over the last week, I took a trip which combined winter sun with family time, a bit of tourism with my partner Laura, and visiting distilleries for EuroWhisky all without flying. Here's how I did it, split over three parts - there's a lot to show, and a lot to talk about!
Hopefully this gives you some inspiration for your own flight-free travels across Europe. You can find a lot more detail on Train X Europe's social media as well (TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter).
Part One of the Trip
1. Weert -> Eindhoven Central -> Rotterdam Centraal (NS - Dutch trains)
2. Rotterdam Central -> Paris Gare du Nord (Thalys*)
3. Paris Austerlitz -> Latour de Carol (SNCF - French trains)
4. Latour de Carol -> Barcelona Sants (Rodalies de Catalunya)
5. Barcelona Sants -> Malaga Maria Zambrano (AVE)
6. *Trips from Malaga to Granada and El Chorro*
7. Malaga -> Estepona (Avanza)
*Thalys has been fully absorbed into Eurostar in a merger. When I traveled, Thalys was still supposed to be a separate service - but by the time I reached Estepona, it was no more!
1. Weert -> Eindhoven Central -> Rotterdam Central (NS - Dutch trains)
I booked this through NS International. That’s not the only way to do this - you could use Deutsche Bahn’s website, or The TrainLine, both of which are a bit more user-friendly. I used NS International because it allowed me to pay with the Dutch e-payment system iDeal, but the important thing for you is to do the whole journey as one booking if possible.
Checking the fares, I made sure that this wouldn’t be any more expensive than separate bookings. That’s not always the case - that’s why it often takes a while to get this right, and why I can do it for you!
With our 40% off NS deal, the Weert to Rotterdam ticket (changing at Eindhoven Centraal) was €9pp.
2. Rotterdam Centraal -> Paris Gare du Nord (Thalys*)
This was a bit more complicated due to NS cancelling one of our planned trains. We arrived at Rotterdam late, so we had to go to the service desk for Thalys and get permission to travel on the next train to Paris. It's a shame this isn’t automatic, but here the value of a single booking came into play - Thalys still had to get us on a train at some point despite NS being responsible for the problem.
This kind of thing isn’t universal in European train travel, so you have to be careful when planning these things. Again - it's why Train X Europe exists!
The rest was a Thalys train from Rotterdam Centraal to Paris Gare du Nord. Fun fact, this was one of the last trains to run as a ‘Thalys’ service before the Eurostar merger went through.
This was a bit more expensive, as we had no discount - €81. That said, for a high-speed train crossing the Netherlands, Belgium, and a big chunk of northern France… could be worse! And it's not an atypical fare for this service, so at least it's not cherry-picking a fare you’ll struggle to replicate.
3. Paris Austerlitz -> Latour de Carol (SNCF - French trains)
We could have taken later trains to Paris, because our night train didn’t leave from Gare Austerlitz until 2142! But we wanted to spend some time in Paris, so the early train was worth it - and of course, it gave us lots of leeway in case of delays, so arriving an hour late barely made a difference to the rest of our day.
We walked from Gare du Nord up into nearby Montmartre. Top tip, which I got from @trainlagged on Twitter - Atelier Dürüm has great quality wraps and lahmacun. Tucking into those for lunch on the steps of the Sacre Coeur, me and Laura worked our way through lovely streets to the Seine.
Stopping for coffee and croissants more than once, we took some time to visit a landmark both of us had missed on previous visits - Les Invalides. If you’re interested, it's about €15 for a ticket, and you get access to a series of museums about French military history and the tomb of Napoleon. It's a beautiful place to visit!
We explored the streets between Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower, buying snacks for the train and trying one (1) macaron each. The RER C got us over to Austerlitz - double decker trains, cheap fares - and we hunted for some dinner as the cold January evening drew in. Banh Mi Viet got us a massive bowl of excellent pho each for €10.
The platforms for Austerlitz are hidden behind what looks like the main station building. Between that and the ongoing renovations, make sure you leave enough time to hunt for your platform if you take this train. I’m sure it’ll be great when the refurbishment is done, but for the moment you need to take some extra care to avoid rushing.
It's pretty simple - a few night trains sitting next to each other, not much else happening in the station. Just show your ticket to a conductor at the head of the queue that forms, and check you’re getting on the right part of the train, as the Latour train is coupled to other carriages and splits off from them in the night. The Latour cars are right at the front of the train, so it's a long walk down the platform.
Inside, the couchettes are simple but clean and plenty good enough for a night’s sleep crossing France. I had a top bunk, and Laura had a middle - the headroom is equal for each one as far as I can tell. A bit like airline seats, you have a trade-off for each bunk. Top bunk gets less disturbance from coming and going; Middle has the best view out the window; Bottom bunk has easiest getting in/out. That’s my theory anyway…
You get a little water bottle, shelf for belongings and a sleep kit. Wet wipes, a mint, sleep mask, ear plugs… even sudoku on the inside of the packet, if you need something to pass the time. Each bunk also had a reading light and backlit plug socket. That last one functions like a nightlight. If you need absolute darkness to sleep well, this might be annoying, but if you need to charge your phone while everyone is asleep, this certainly makes it easier.
While I got thin sheets in the summer, this winter journey saw us given a kind of combo sleeping bag-sheet. The cabin was kept very warm anyway, so no worries on that score. Me and Laura were sharing the cabin with a solo traveller and an older French couple. It was easy enough to get settled in. Once we were past Orleans about an hour into the journey, we knew no one else would be getting on, and everyone got to sleep pretty quick.
Tune in next time for part two - arriving in Latour de Carol, continuing down to Barcelona and then Malaga. It was a nice way to spend a Sunday, but too much to include here - share with anyone you think might be interested in taking night trains, or send us a message if you want to plan a journey like this for yourself.