26 August 2020

Take Two: Amsterdam and Rotterdam to London by Eurostar - direct

Back in February I wrote about the new direct Amsterdam to London service that was due to commence operation on 30th April 2020.  Unsurprisingly there was a delay, but happily it has a new start date of Monday 26th October, with booking opening on 1st September.

After being a bit disappointed with the April time savings, let's see if Eurostar has improved the October timetable.

For context, the London to Amsterdam service takes 4 hours 7 mins and the London to Rotterdam service 3 hrs 28 mins.  There's currently a single weekday departure at 11:04 from St Pancras International station.

The existing Amsterdam - Brussels (Thalys) - London (Eurostar) connecting service is timetabled from 4 hours 42 mins (some take a lot longer), which includes at least 45 mins to change trains and clear UK immigration in Brussels.

The direct Amsterdam to London service starts with an 07:47 departure on Monday 26th October that is due to take 4 hours 10 mins (and 3 hrs 29 mins from Rotterdam).

This is equivalent to duration in the other direction, although the 32 minute saving feels a bit light - but maybe that's down to the impressive 45 minute connection time for the existing service!  Obviously not having to change trains will make the journey much more comfortable.

Whilst the service officially starts on Monday 26th October, it looks like there is also a 18:47 departure from Amsterdam (19:28 from Rotterdam) on Sunday 25th October.  Although this may disappear when tickets go on sale on 1st September.

Rotterdam is currently showing a second weekday direct service departing at 17:28 - which again takes 3 hours 29 mins to get to London.  It seems odd that this train wouldn't start in Amsterdam - so it may not really exist.

In November from Monday 9th to Thursday 12th and again from Monday 16th to Wednesday 18th, the normal weekday 07:47 departure from Amsterdam is switched to a 15:47 service (16:28 from Rotterdam).  And this later departure takes 5 hours 10 mins from Amsterdam and 4 hrs 29 mins from Rotterdam. 

There's no direct weekend service until Saturday 21st November - 16:47 from Amsterdam and 17:28 from Rotterdam.  On Sunday 22nd November it's a later 18:47 departure from Amsterdam and 19:28 from Rotterdam.  After that the weekend departures disappear again - but hopefully they will be timetabled before booking opens on 1st September.

And if the new direct train doesn't appeal - there's always the Sail Rail option via Harwich and Hoek of Holland.

01 August 2020

Updated: Countries and Cities to visit ...

Cape Verde islands - stay a bit longer this time
Ethiopia - including the mountains
Libya - Roman ruins, and desert
Madagascar - lemurs permitting
Namibia - including Okavango Delta, Kolmanskop ghost town
Zimbabwe - including Victoria Falls

Brazil - Rio including Fasano hotel infinity pool, Niteroi art gallery, grilled steak at Rubaiyat restaurant; Amazon
Canada - including polar bears
Costa Rica - done!
Cuba - including Havana and Vinales - done!
Equador - Galapagos
Mexico - Mayan stuff around Cancun
Panama - including canal
Peru - Inca Trail / Machu Pichu
USA - including Washington DC (done!), Grand Canyon (done!), Boston - including Opera House, Chicago - including Frank Lloyd Wright buildings (such as Fallingwater), Denali NP, Total Solar Eclipse Aug-17
Venezuela - maybe a tepui

The Peninsula - done!
South Georgia - done!

Georgia - including the soviet architecture in Tbilisi
Indonesia - including Borneo
Iran - including Isfahan and Persepolis, Tehran - including Contemporary Art Gallery
Japan - Hashima Island near Nagasaki, Yokohama
Lebanon - including skiing
Kuwait - to fill in the gaps
South Korea
Sri Lanka - including blue whales
Syria - if there's anything left
Turkey - Istanbul

Australia - Tasmania, Western, Central and Northern, GBR
New Zealand - all

Aland Islands - done !
Austria - Vienna - including Opera
Azores - maybe this walking trip or this self guided one
BelgiumAntwerp - including 5 Continents house
Croatia - including Zagreb
Cyprus - including border area and countryside
Denmark - Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen
Finland - the lakes, the north
France - Corsica; the bridge in the sky; Matisse chapel at Vence; LilleChateau de Chambord - for the double helix staircase; Versailles - including the Royal Opera (done!); Nice - including Opera; Paris - L'Acajou restaurant, Jazz Club; Roubaix - including La Piscine museum; Ronchamp - Le Corbusier's chapel of Notre Dame du Haut; Chamonix - nice looking hotel; Noirmoutier including Plages des Dames - and nearby islands; Oradour-sur-Glane (near Limoges)
GermanyProra and Dessau, Dresden (including the Royal Castle), and Hamburg (for the funny tunnel, and miniature airport)
Gibraltar - airport and back walk up rock (done!)
Greece - Athens, Mount Athos, island hopping
Ireland - Cork - including butter museum, harbour tour, Titanic Experience, Crawford gallery, Hook Head lighthouse
Italy - Sicilian volcanos, Greek Theatre on Sicily, Poggioreale ghost town on Sicily, Sardinia, Tuscany including Montepulciano, Naples, Verona, La Scala in Milano, Como - La baia di Moltrasio bar and restaurant (try fish with Riso in Cagnone) - terrace in summer, Florence - Vasari Corridor will soon be open, Room of Paradise at the recently reopened Museo dell'Opera del Duomo; Calcata town; Castel Gandolfo (train from within Vatican) - must be booked in advance; French Church in Rome; Palio di Siena ; Craco - far south
Netherlands - Amsterdam Modern Art Gallery and other galleries, a concert at Concertgebouw, Panorama Mesdag in The Hague, Delft, Leiden, Het Loo palace
Poland - medieval cities (Krakow done!)
Portugal - including Oporto
Romania - rural parts (sort of done). Crazy road.
Serbia - Belgrade
Spain - including the Moorish bits, Grand Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona
Slovenia - try skiing
Sweden - Stockholm always worth another visit
Ukraine - Kiev, Chernobyl
UK - Falkirk Wheel, Cramond island, Ironbridge, Ludlow in Shropshire, Norwich for Europe's largest medieval street plan, Chatsworth House ...

09 March 2020

Covid-19 Travel Advice and Returning Travellers

Different governments have different views about which countries pose the higher risk for catching the virus formerly known as Wuhan.

Starting with the UK - as of 8th March 2020 they advise against all travel to Hubei Province in China and the Daegu, Cheongdo and Gyeongsan areas in South Korea.
The UK government also advises against "all but essential travel" to the rest of mainland China and the 10 Italian towns that are currently on lockdown.  Since these towns are on lockdown, it's unclear how anybody could actually gain entry - so "all but essential" seems a weird category to put them in!

As far as returning travellers are concerned - the UK has put Iran, Hubei Province, the 10 Italian towns and Daegu & Cheongdo into their "Category 1" list which means you should self isolate for 14 days, even if you do not have symptoms.

The longer "Category 2" list comes with the instruction to self isolate only if you do have symptoms.  This list is mostly SE Asian countries - rest of China, Hong Kong, Macau, rest of South Korea, Cambodia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam - as well as the whole of Italy (previously it was just northern Italy).

In the USA, the Centre for Disease Control recommend travellers avoid "all non essential travel" to all of China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.  It also advises "older adults" or those with chronic conditions to postpone travel to Japan.  It puts Hong Kong in their "Level 1 - Watch" section which just means that travellers should use "usual precautions".

The USA just has one list for returning travellers, the equivalent of the UK "Category 1" list - where you have to self isolate even if you do not have symptoms.  And for the USA it's all of mainland China, all of South Korea as well as Iran and Italy - so covers a lot more than the UK list.  In addition, the US does not allow any foreign national to enter the country if they visited China or Iran in the previous 14 days.

Canada puts China, Iran and Northern Italy in their "Level 3 - avoid non essential travel" category and also suggests avoiding Daegu and Cheongo.  Hokkaido in Japan as well as the rest of South Korea are in their "Level 2 - Practise special precautions" with Canada advising "older people" and those with "weakened immune systems" to consider postponing visits to the area.  Hong Kong and Singapore are in the "Level 1 - Practice usual precautions"

Canada only requires returning travellers from Hubei Province, Iran and Northern Italy to self isolate even if they do not have symptoms.  All other travellers only need to self isolate if they develop symptoms.

Australia says "do not travel to" mainland China, Iran and Daegu in South Korea.  It also suggests that you "reconsider your travel" to the rest of South Korea.  And the Australian government says to "exercise a high degree of caution" in both Japan and Mongolia (which nobody else bothers about).

Australia requires any returning traveller from mainland China, South Korea or Iran to self isolate, even if they do not have symptoms.  In addition, if you are a foreign national you will not be allowed enter Australia if you have been in China, South Korea or Iran in the previous 14 days.  Although if you're returning from Italy you just have to be checked out, but do not have to automatically self isolate (and there's no ban on foreign nationals).  Similar to the UK with their "Category 2" list, Australia requires you to self isolate if you have symptoms after returning from Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore or Thailand.

Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs does not provide information on a single page - so you need to go and look up each country separately.  The DFA advises against all travel to Hubei Province.  They advise against all non-essential travel to the rest of mainland China, Iran, Daegu and Cheongo in South Korea, and the Northern Italian regions of Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Piedmont, and Le Marche.

Returning traveller information is also located separately on each country page.  Those returning from China, South Korea, Japan and the Northern Italian regions listed above should self isolate only if they develop symptoms.

Information as at 01:00 Monday 9th March 2020 - check links for latest information (and to check for errors) !

20 February 2020

Amsterdam and Rotterdam to London by Eurostar - direct

Update:  This planned service never actually took off.  See my new post for new October 2020 start details.

If you want to travel from London to Amsterdam by Eurostar tomorrow - there are three direct services (at 07:16, 11:04 and 17:16) which take 3:55, 4:17 (with a stop in Lille) and 3:55 respectively.  Eurostar website will also offer you another four services which take between 4:40 and 4:49 and include a change of train in Brussels.

However if you want to travel from Amsterdam to London by Eurostar tomorrow there are no direct services - because there currently aren't any UK immigration desks at Amsterdam Central station.  So not only do you need to change train at Brussels, you also need to pass through immigration there - adding even more time to your journey.  This means that on a normal weekday the Amsterdam-Brussels-London trip will take 4:47, 4:51, 5:00, 5:18 or even 5:50 if you're unlucky.

That changes on Thursday 30th April - when the UK Border Force starts operating in Amsterdam, and the first direct train departs at 18:47 taking 4:10 to get to St Pancras International.  On Friday 1st May they open their desks twice - for an 07:47 departure, and then again for the 18:47 service - both of which take 4:10 to get to London.

Exhausted after those three shifts, the take the weekend off - so you're back to clearing immigration in Brussels.  The connections on the four services that Eurostar offer aren't as good as during weekdays - so the journey times are between 5:22 and 6:25 (which includes 104 minutes in Brussels).

But from the following weekend they do a shift every Saturday morning for the 07:47 departure, and another every Sunday evening for the 18:47 service to London.

Rotterdam also gets a UK border post from Monday 18th May.  Up until then the journey time on the Thalys to Brussels, clearing immigration there, and then the Eurostar to London is between 3:59 and 5:07 on a weekday.  At weekends it's quite similar, ranging from 4:04 to 5:07

The 07:47 service from Amsterdam will depart Rotterdam at 08:28 (and the 18:47 Amsterdam service at 19:28) and the total journey time for these direct trains will be 3:29

The UK Border Force staff get the first weekend off.  But from Saturday 30th May the once daily Eurostar weekend service from Amsterdam is available to catch from Rotterdam.

The 3:29 journey time for the direct service compares with 3:16 for the early morning and evening London to Rotterdam trains, and 3:28 for the late morning direct service.

Whilst it's obviously a much more relaxing (and productive) trip not to have to change trains and clear immigration half way through your journey - the actual time savings aren't as large as you might imagine.  For Amsterdam departures the direct services takes a minimum of 37 minutes off your journey (although more typically 50 minutes).  And for Rotterdam departures it reduces your journey time by at least 30 minutes.

Part of the reason why the time savings aren't greater is that the direct services from Amsterdam take 15 minutes longer than the two faster services in the opposite direction.  And from Rotterdam the trip to London takes 13 minutes longer than vice versa.

Maybe Eurostar will be able to squeeze these minutes out of a future timetable - but for now you're left with a 30 - 50 minute saving, and a more comfortable journey.

15 January 2020

Ryanair - Why you should always pay in original currency

Ryanair used to be a complete ripoff when making payments in foreign currencies - they would charge you in the currency of your credit card, whilst adding a hefty margin, and not give you a choice about it.

Then they mended their ways, and would charge you in the original currency.

Then they went back to their bad old ways - but with an escape route if you spot it in time !

Now they have changed again - offering you a choice of currencies.

In this example I'm booking a flight that 16.99 EUR and I've put in a UK address ... so the first choice is in GBP

but 15.48 GBP represents a 6% commission for Ryanair on the GBP - EUR fx rate

and 179.05 NOK would be a 6.2% commission for Ryanair on the NOK - EUR fx rate

and 76.48 PLN would also give Ryanair a 6% commission on the PLN - EUR fx rate

and 190.94 SEK would give Ryanair another 6.2% commission on the SEK - EUR fx rate

and finally 20.14 USD represents a 5.9% commission for Ryanair on the USD - EUR fx rate

Since most credit cards charge 3% on foreign purchases - and some don't charge anything - this means you should always pay in the original currency of the flight.

13 January 2020

Star Alliance gold status

Although the received wisdom in the frequent flyer community is that Aegean Airlines gold status is the easiest to obtain - I thought it was worth a check to see if that really is the case.

Initially to get to Aegean Airlines silver status you need either:

12,000 Tier Miles and two Aegean/Olympic flights or
24,000 Tier Miles 

And then to upgrade to gold status you need either:

24,000 Tier Miles and four Aegean/Olympic flights or
48,000 Tier Miles

So in order to go from zero to gold you need either:

36,000 Tier Miles and four Aegean/Olympic flights or
72,000 Tier Miles

But then to retain gold status you only need:

12,000 Tier Miles and four Aegean/Olympic flights or
24,000 Tier Miles

This compares to an airline such as Thai Airways - which requires the following for gold:

50,000 Qualifying Miles within 12 months or
80,000 Qualifying Miles within 24 months

And then to retain Thai gold they still require the same amount of miles per year / two years.

Aegean Airlines are also sometimes more generous in calculating their Tier Miles - so for example a Thai Airways business class flight booked in C class will earn 150% in Thai's own frequent flyer programme, but will earn 200% in Aegean's.

WhereToCredit is an excellent website to check out which programme to credit your flights.

Looking at a real life example - an itinerary such as LHR-BKK-CTS return in business class (assuming C booking class) would earn: ( 5,958 + 3,152) x 2 x 200% = 36,440 Aegean Tier Miles.  So it would get you straight into Aegean gold if you took a little LHR-ATH-LCA trip later in the year.

So the moral of the story is that whilst Aegean is only a little easier to get to gold, the lower retention requirements are where it really shines.

02 January 2020

2020 Fares Unfreeze

Whilst the Mayor is today tweeting about his claimed "fares freeze", the reality (as we have previously seen) is different !

For many TfL users, the daily caps are what impacts them - and they are increasing inline with national fares - something that isn't under the Mayor's control (although he fails to mention this).

So for example, a day travelling around Zones 1 & 2 in London will cost you an extra 20p in 2020.

And for many TfL users, the weekly caps are what impacts them - and these are again subject to the national fare increases, and something which is again mysteriously missing from all official announcements and emails !

A week travelling around London's Zone 1 & 2 areas will cost you an extra 1 gbp in 2020.

For completeness - the full 2020 fare table is shown below:

And for more comparisons over the last five years, have a look a DiamondGeezer's blog post.

01 January 2020

Belgian Trains "Happy Ticket"

The Belgian Rail operator NMBS/SNCB offers a special deal over the Christmas & New Year period - a day return from anywhere in Belgium to anywhere in Belgium for just 10 euro!

The deal is so good that it will often be cheaper than buying a single.  And it's also so good that if you're travelling across the Belgian border, it will be cheaper to buy a "Happy Ticket" to the border, and a separate ticket for the onward journey.

For example a single from Charleroi Sud to Calais Ville is normally 42.70
But splitting the journey into a 10 euro "Happy Ticket" from Charleroi Sud to Tournai (near the french border), the remaining trip from Tournai to Calais Ville will cost you 24.70 - a handy 8 euro saving.
And a journey to cross a more distant border could save even more.

The "Happy Ticket" is available for the weekend in mid December, and then all the way from 21st December to the 5th January - full details here

Using the main https://www.belgiantrain.be/en/ website the fare comes up for any applicable journey within Belgium.  But using the https://www.b-europe.com/EN website for international train journeys, the "split ticket" fare (unsurprisingly) doesn't appear - so you have to work it out for yourself.

I bought my ticket from an automatic ticket machine in Charleroi Sud station, and the main screen (in english) highlighted "Promotional Fares", and it came up straight away.

A quick search of the internet suggests that it's been going a few years - so hopefully it will be back again next year.

Maybe this map of the Belgian Rail network will inspire some train travel next festive season!

22 December 2019

EMA to London

East Midlands Airport sometimes has some excellent fares - but it's not always the easiest to get to ...

There used to be a regular shuttle bus to the "East Midlands Parkway" station - but it is now just an hourly service run by Elite Cars - departing the station on the hour, and departing the airport at 20 mins past the hour (operating between 9am and 5pm) for the 10 minute journey, costing 6 gbp

December 2019 update: the bus service between the Parkway station and the airport now appears to have been withdrawn. A taxi appears to be the only option.

If you miss the hourly Raillink, Uber estimate a fee of 10-13 gbp for the trip
Elite Cars (who operate the Raillink) charge 12 gbp for a taxi journey

Using Monday 12th November 2018 to look for a sample fare - from East Midlands Parkway station there are departures at 14:56 and 15:56 (taking about 1.5 hours stopping just twice on the way) which cost 26 gbp

Total cost either 32 gbp using Raillink or 38 using a taxi

Another option is using is to use Nottingham station - which has a half hourly service (formerly known as Skylink Express) called the Clifton Skylink which takes just over half an hour which costs 6.50 gbp.  There's also the Nottingham Skylink that departs every 20 minutes, but which takes almost an hour and costs 5.20 gbp

Again using Monday 12th November 2018 to look for a sample fare - from Nottingham station there are departures at 15:45 and 16:45 (taking 1:39 and 1:55 respectively) which cost 26 gbp

Total cost (using the faster bus) would be 32.50 - but the journey might take considerably longer than via the Parkway station

To get to Derby station there are three buses an hour on the Derby Skylink service which take about 40 minutes and cost 4.70 gbp

On Monday 12th November 2018 the fare from Derby station to London is 49 gbp for any of the afternoon half hourly services which take about 1:40 to complete the journey

The final option is to use Long Eaton station via the Nottingham Skylink with the three services an hour and a journey time of just 23 minutes, costing 3.30 gbp

Long Eaton has just one direct train an hour to London (e.g. 15:40 and 16:40) which takes just over 1.5 hours and prices for 12th November 2018 are 49 gbp.  Using a ticket splitting website you can get the price down to 24.50 gbp with an increased journey time of 2.5 hours

The total cost would be 27.80 using the slower train

If you are tempted to get the train to Loughborough and the Skylink bus to the airport - be warned that according to Google Maps, it's a 12 minute walk from the station to the bus stop - so you would need to add that into your journey time.

For me the quicker journey time from East Midlands Parkway appears to be worth the slightly higher price than the Long Eaton option.  Although having done the journey to Long Eaton recently - it's quite a pleasant bus ride through the countryside to the airport.

28 November 2019

Luton Airport train prices

On 22nd October 2019 Luton Airport Parkway joined TfL's "Contactless" scheme

No longer do you *have* to buy a paper ticket ... although sometimes it may be cheaper.  Remember that this is contactless only - your Oyster card will not work at Luton Airport Parkway.

Standard fares using Contactless are 15.50 gbp peak (both morning and evening) and 12.00 gbp off peak.  This pricing also applies from any Zone 1 or Zone 2 station - so you no longer will get charged separately for getting to St Pancras.
Adding in the separate bus fare, the prices become 17.90 gbp and 14.40 gbp

If you use Contactless for a journey from Zone 2 Overground without entering Zone 1 (for example from Kensington Olympia via West Hampstead Thameslink) the fares are 12.00 gbp peak and 7.80 gbp off peak
Adding in the separate bus fare, the prices become 14.40 gbp and 10.20 gbp

If you use Contactless for a journey from Zone 2 Underground without entering Zone 1 (for example from White City via Shepherds Bush and West Hampstead Thameslink the fares are 13.70 gbp peak and 9.30 gbp off peak
Adding in the separate bus fare, the prices become 16.10 gbp and 11.70 gbp

The normal paper ticket fare from St Pancras to the airport (including the bus) is 17.40 gbp (a saving of 10 pence compared with buying separate tickets) - with no obvious change in price between peak and off peak.
However this fare can be reduced by using a Railcard - so for example if you are travelling after 10am, the price drops to 13.00 gbp and if you are travelling at a weekend the price is 8.65 gbp

The normal paper ticket fares from Kensington Olympia to the airport (including the bus) is 18.60 gbp - and this drops to 13.00 gbp after 10am on weekdays and to 12.30 gbp at weekends if you have a Network Railcard.

In summary: use Contactless apart from - if you are staying near St Pancras it is usually cheaper to buy a paper ticket (apart from if you are travelling off peak without a Railcard) and if you are travelling at a weekend from a Zone 1 or 2 tube station via St Pancras

It's also worth highlighting that if you have a Railcard and are in Zone 2 near an Overground station - it's actually slightly cheaper to take the tube to St Pancras, and get a paper ticket from St Pancras than travel via West Hampstead Thameslink

If you don't have a Railcard:
From Zone 1 tube station - use Contactless - 17.90 gbp / 14.40 gbp
From St Pancras during peak - use paper ticket - 17.40 gbp
From St Pancras off peak - use Contactless - 14.40 gbp
From Zone 2 Overground - use Contactless - 14.40 gbp / 10.20 gbp
From Zone 2 tube station - use Contactless - 16.10 gbp / 11.70 gbp

If you do have a Railcard:
From Zone 1 or 2 tube station weekday - use Contactless - 17.90 gbp / 14.40 gbp
From Zone 1 or 2 tube station weekend - use paper ticket - 11.05 gbp  (8.65 + 2.40)
From St Pancras station weekday - use paper ticket - 17.40 gbp / 13.00 gbp after 10am
From St Pancras station weekend - use paper ticket - 8.65 gbp
From Zone 2 Overground weekday or weekend - use Contactless - 14.40 gbp / 10.20 gbp
From Zone 2 tube station weekday or weekend - use Contactless - 16.10 gbp / 11.70 gbp