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Been there, got the stiff neck: Long Distance Rail Travel

Traveling by train is among the best, if not the best way to cover long distances overland. Trains are far superior to buses as means of overland travel and can compete with driving on many levels. Long distance train travel is an experience in itself and in many countries, the preferable way to cross the country. Before embarking on a long-distance, do consider some of the following tips. In this article, long-distance means a journey that takes over 12 hours, but many of the tips are applicable to shorter trips too.

(1) Does the train have a sleeper service? For very long journeys (20 hours plus) as well as for overnight journeys, a sleeper (or anyway, some form of a berth as opposed to seat) is preferable. It's always easier to get some sleep laying down, and many sleeper cabins offer comfortable accommodation in which it's possible to have a genuine good night's sleep. The downside of that is inevitable expense. Depending on the train and country, the sleepers are often several times more expensive than seats. This is the case for example on Canadian ViaRail services and Australian Indian-Pacific. On the other hand, in many European countries, the sleepers or couchettes (simpler berths that come without bed linen but still allow for lying down) incur only a supplement to the ticket price, and it's often fairly modest amount, independent of the length of the journey. If you can afford it, go for the berth whenever you can.

(2) What type of catering is available on the train? This can vary enormously by country, railway company and a particular service, from nothing to a la carte dinner service. It's always worth bringing your own snacks and drinks, as well as fruit and any favorite munchies that might not be available. Check if the train has drinking water fountains, and if not, bring your own supply of water in large (1.5 liter or equivalent bottles) as well as a couple of drinking cups as the on-board prices are invariably very high and you might want to save your spending money for tea or coffee. Don't assume the buffet or a bar will be open 24 hours, and make sure you get what you want before it closes for the night.

(3) Can you book a specific seat? This can be both a great advantage and a problem: an advantage, as it might allow you to book a preferred seat or carriage, but also a disadvantage as if no seat numbers are assigned, it's easier to move around if you don't like your neighbors, find a better seat or an emptier carriage. The ideal seats isby the window, facing the direction of travel, and ideally with either and empty or occupied by a member of your part seat opposite (so you can stretch your legs).

(4) Are there showers available in your class of travel? The provision, again, varies by country and train service. Even if there are no showers, you still might want to bring a towel and a change of clothes, as well as a couple of changes of underwear (almost definitely for any overnight journey or any other journey longer than 24 hours). Toothpaste and toothbrush, alcohol hand rub, tissues, cosmetic or baby wipes, basic medicines (painkillers, antacid, plasters) as well as make up (if you use it on a daily basis), moisturizer, deodorant and travel size mouth wash are all going to come in handy.

(5) Will you have access to your luggage during the journey? If yes, you still might want to pack in a way that will allow you access to on-board essentials without repacking everything, but if not, you need a cabin-luggage bag, similar to an airplane carry on bag. However, you are likely to have more space both for yourself and for the bag, so you can be fairly easy with what you take: it's better to have too much than too little.

(6) What kind of carriage will you be riding in? If it's an open-plan, airplane-style seats carriage, you need to keep a better eye on your stuff and will need to carry your valuables with you when walking round the train. Single travelers often get a padlock that allows them to attach their rucksack or a case to the luggage rack,especially if the train doesn't have a separate car for large items of luggage If you are going to have your own sleeper cabin, bed clothes and even a dressing gown are not a bad idea. A face mask and earplugs are always useful (and rarely supplied by railway companies unlike airlines) and especially when traveling overnight in an open-plan carriage.

(7) What kind of bedding will be provided? In sleeper cabins (bed-like berths, usually 3 or 2, sometimes 1 to a compartment), there is usually bed linen, pillows and blankets. Couchettes (simpler lie-down berths, usually 6 to a compartment) often come with no bedding or just a blanket. Some rail companies provide pillows and blankets to passengers traveling in seats (for example Canadian ViaRail), but many don't. Check this if your journey is longer than 12 hours or overnight. A pillow makes a big difference and so does a blanket. If you are carrying a sleeping bag, bring it on board, if not, consider athin fleece blanket and a expendable pillow (or make one from several fleece jumpers).

(8) Are there any smoking, refueling or servicing breaks? This is obviously of paramount importance for smokers, but anybody who has been on a train for many hours should take a chance at stretching their legs, even if it is just a walk along a platform. If possible, go further into town. Longer service breaks often come with a possibility of booking a sight-seeing tour, check what they are and consider doing that.

(9) Is it worth breaking a journey for a stopover? Many railway companies allow passengers on very long trips to break a journey for a stopover. This might work out significantly cheaper (though obviously, slower) than staying on the train and paying for a sleeper cabin, and is always worth considering on very long overland trips. In the ideal circumstances you might be able to avoid overnights on the train altogether, though it is often impossible on cross-continental trips that don't have more than one train a day.

(10) Will you have enough entertainment? Although train journeys have a rather mesmerizing quality of their own, and it's possible to spend hours just looking at the trees passing by, boredom is always a factor on a long journey. Bring all entertainment you can handle: MP3 player, a netbok or laptop computer loaded with movies and games (check where the electricity sockets are), books (ideally throw away ones), writing and drawing materials (especially for the kids), playing cards, even board games (travel versions of scrabble, chess and Monopoly are all good). Unlike plane travel, train journeys yield themselves very well to reading and playing games, and on many train services there are seats arranged in fours with a proper table in between. This is an excellent daytime arrangement, and definitely worth it if you are traveling as a family. Some long distance trains offer wi-fi services. If not, you might want to invest in a mobile internet USB dongle (the prices vary a lot by country, but are coming down all the time). Bring your camera too for recording the journey and the views.

Railways offer a unique and often wonderful way to travel and see countries in a way that flying, although faster, will never accomplish. There is a real sense of covering the distance, and the traveler can get a great feel for the size of a country and the lay of the land. For more information on rail travel all around the world, check the excellent website of The Man in Seat Sixty-One: http://www.seat61.com/

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