Sorry for all the annoying train questions, but we have never used trains before in Europe and we will have my 73 year old mother with us. I'm trying to make this as pleasurable and comfortable a trip as I can for her. Where did all of you buy your train tickets? At the train station, Amex travel office? What is the best, most convenient place with the most helpful people?
Anne, ask away! People are happy to help explain and smooth things out. I bought train tickets as I traveled, right at the train station. They have automated machines that accept credit cards or cash (some are only one or the other, a sign will say). They have an easy to use touch-screen, and have an English menu. At the start pick the British flag, then follow the instructions. By default it assumes you're leaving from the station you're in, then you pick the destination by typing in a few letters of the name and it shows you the possible matches. Pick your destination, up pops a timetable for a couple of hours of the current day. You can easily scroll to a later time or a future day.
Buy your tix 1-2 days ahead of needing them so you know when the train will leave.
You asked about "most helpful people" and this isn't a person, its a machine. But its EASY to use, and much quicker than the lines at the window. If you can use an ATM, you can use this.
One thing to consider at many large train stations with your 73-year old mother is stairs. Most large train stations have multiple platforms. To get from one to the other, you go down about 30 stairs and back up about 30 stairs. Some stations have elevators or ramps. If your mother is fairly ambulatory, this won't be a problem. Hopefully, you won't have a ton of luggage or it's a ton of fun to schlep up and down the stairs. I'm 67 and I had one 24" roller bag. I complained a little about the stairs but it wasn't all that bad and we didn't miss any trains. Just be advised.
Hi Anne... My husband and I saved at least an hour by using the same machine Mike spoke of.. We tried both the window and the machine and found the machine to be so easy we had to laugh at our timidness... The efficiency of public transportation was a pleasant surprise. One of the nicest things was being able to buy a ticket and have it good for whenever we traveled that day... there are trains leaving constantly so no worries if you miss one. Don't forget to "validate" your ticket immediatley at the convenient validation machine and be sure you travel within eight hours of purchase.. Take your time with your Mom. (lots of stairs)and just "Piano". Kate
A couple of clarifying points -- Ticket can be good for any train IF you don't reserve a seat. But some trains require a seat reservation therefore the ticket would be only good for that seat and that train. Second, you don't have to use a ticket within eight hours of purchase. We often purchase one or two days ahead -- well outside the eight hours.
Do you also reserve your seats ahead at the automated machines? I think we are going to reserve 1st class seats. I have heard there is more room for your luggage.
It depends on the type of train you select. The regional trains (locals) don't accept reservations and have no seat assignments. You do need seat reservations on the higher speed trains such as the Eurostar, Eurocity and Intercity trains. You still can do ths at the automated ticket machines or at the ticket window at the train station. As for 1st or 2nd class, how much luggage are you taking? 2nd class is normally just fine for a 22"-24" roller bag plus a backpack each. There are overhead racks. Big and heavy bags may not fit well overhead. As I mentioned above, if you have a lot of luggage, you will just love the stairs.
If the decision to buy 1st class is driven by he amount of luggage you have bigger issues. Second class will handle a lot of luggage. If you are committed to lots of luggage use smaller bags -- two smaller bags that would equal the weight of your large bag. Beside the storage problems, large heavy bags are a big problem to handle when getting on and off and sometimes quickness is important. Entry areas are small, steep stairs, and crowded with other folks with large bags.
We plan on using Eurostar trains. We will each have only a 21" wheeled and a small carry-on tote. Again, my main concern is really to make everything as convenient and easy for my mother as possible.
The machines do the reservations too. They show you a diagram of the seating arrangement (window or aisle, basically) and you click on the seats you want. You can choose side-by-side or to sit across from one another since the seats in many compartments face each other.
also I should add they allow you to try to get seats near friends of yours but just skip that option since I don't think that will apply.
Depending on your physique you may want to ask a taller guy to lift your bag into the overhead rack. my 21" fit, my friend's did not (slightly larger and packed more full.) There may be space behind seats and at end of car. But eurostar's are often booked quite fully.
Note that on the Eurostar trains, there is space for a good-sized bay behind the seat. It's hard to explain but the seats are not all facing front. Half face one direction and half face the other. Thus, seats where you sit face each other. Secondarily, the seat backs are placed up against each other. Since the seat backs are not straight up, they almost touch each other at the top but there is almost 18" of clearance at the bottom. You can easily lay a 24" roller bag on its side and place it between the seats.
Depending on how much traveling your are doing and where you are going, your mother would probably be most comfortable traveling by car. If you plan to go to the big cities, you can park outside of the city and take transit. Like park in Orvieto to go into Rome, the guidebooks have some good tips on this.
When attempting to purchase tickets at Trenitalia ticket counters were found the workers to be very rude. We then stopped at one of the many travel agent offices along the streets to purchase a ticket. The difference was night and day. Yes, it costs a few Euros more, but it was WELL worth it.
Please note that a significant percentage of the trains between Rome Florence Milan Venice etc are often a few mins late. This can be a real problem is you are trying to make a connection and esp if you have a person who cannot dash to the train. We really loved our train rides, however.