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Ask the experts: Best flight-free trips to Europe

Our panel give advice on the best flight-free trips to Europe

Ask the experts: Best flight-free trips to Europe
Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. Image: AWL

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QI’m increasingly drawn to trips that don’t involve flying. But what’s the furthest I could travel by train, ferry and so on without stepping on a plane — and without it turning my trip into a slog?

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Andrew Eames, freelance travel writer: Excellent idea! There’s panache and comfort in train travel these days, not to mention speed. And in London’s St Pancras we have a travel springboard
with charisma. The Eurostar, which will inevitably host the first leg of your journey into Europe, has proved its worth, and this year it has extended its range down to Avignon and Marseille — the Mediterranean is your oyster in just six and a half hours.

The other Eurostar destinations — Brussels, Paris, Lille — are, in essence, weekend breaks, so if you want to probe further into Europe you’re going to have to change trains, preferably onto another high-speed service that’ll take you further, faster.

The French are particularly good at this and simply walking across the platform at Lille opens all kinds of possibilities. From here, the Loire Valley is four hours away, and deepest Normandy and Brittany are just five hours. Strasbourg, with access to Champagne country and Germany’s Black Forest, is just three-and-a-half hours via TGV from £57 at uk.voyages-sncf.com.

If you don’t mind a schlep across Paris, you can take the new TGV all the way to Spain, travelling from London to Barcelona in just one day. Crossing Paris can also take you right up into the Alps, overnight — a sleeper train leaves Gare de Lyon most evenings and arrives into Chamonix the following morning. And while on the subject of sleeper trains, don’t forget our own gem: the London to Fort William sleeper is one of the world’s top train journeys; you fall asleep amongst black cabs, and wake up among red deer.

A two-week holiday will allow you to really extend the boundaries, stopping off in big railway cities, such as Berlin, Munich or Geneva. You can reach northern Italy, for example, with an overnight in Geneva, and enjoy the same spectacular journey through the Alps as the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. An overnight in Barcelona after your day-long TGV from Paris, and you can set off again on Spain’s AVE, ending up in Seville or Granada.

And in the other direction, you can make your way into eastern Europe. There are good sleeper trains from Cologne to Prague, or from Berlin to Budapest (London to Budapest will cost from £161 via Loco2.com). Once you’ve rested in the baths and spas of the Hungarian capital, pick up the overnight sleeper the Ister.

For western European trains there will usually be an advantage to booking well in advance via either of the two aforementioned sites. Going into eastern Europe, the best resource for timetables is bahn.com, and advice for booking tickets is on seat61.com.

Get in touch: If you’re in need of travel advice, email our team – inbox@natgeotraveller.co.uk

Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)