29 January 2013

Rail - The Man in Seat 61 (my go-to website)

For most of the people I know, I am the guy to ask when it comes to questions about Amtrak, having worked there as an employee and as a consultant, as well as being celebrated/notorious/ridiculed (pick your adjective of choice) for being fond of trains.

Though my knowledge of Amtrak does not translate to in-depth knowledge about other railroads in the world, I still get questions from friends and clients about trains outside of the U.S. (especially in Europe), which, except for some general knowledge, I seldom can answer.

So where do I recommend that people go to do their research?

Always to The Man in Seat 61!

The Man in Seat 61 (henceforth simply called Seat 61 - the URL is seat61.com) is simply the most comprehensive compendium of rail travel information I've ever seen.  What makes it valuable is that it is aimed at ordinary travelers, not folks that are already train-crazy.  It's been years since I first ran across it.  For anyone who is train-crazy, or has tendencies that way, it is a dangerous place to drop in - kind of like quicksand that you don't really want to get out of.

For example, as I began writing this post and was looking at Seat 61, I got trapped looking at information there about riding trains in Cuba and North Korea.  Yes, it gets that esoteric.

Recently a friend asked me for information about buying tickets for travel from Budapest to Prague.  I checked Seat 61, and as I hoped and expected, there was detailed information about that very subject.

Seat 61 began in 2001 as a personal project by Mark Smith, a train-loving Brit.  But Seat 61 grew and grew, and eventually he left his day job in the U.K. Department of Transport to devote himself full-time to Seat 61.  (Seat 61's origin reminds me a little of imdb.com.  imdb.com was created in the late 1990s by Col Needham a British movie fan.)  Seat 61 does not charge for access, but makes money selling advertising, so click on a few links while you're there.  Over the years, Seat 61 has garnered many "best travel website" accolades, and most deservedly so.

Many Americans (and American travel agents) use Rail Europe to book train travel in Europe.  (Rail Europe is jointly owned by SCNF [the French railroad] and SBB [the Swiss railroad].)  Nothing wrong with that as they make it easy to buy both passes and point-to-point tickets from the U.S. and Canada.  But they do not offer access to most of the bargain rail fares that you can buy in many instances on the websites of the individual national rail operators in Europe, and the price differences can be astounding!

For example, on a trip to Germany in 2008, I booked point-to-point tickets from Munich to Leipzig, and then on to Berlin on the German railroad website for far less than it would have cost via Rail Europe.  (Keep in mind that Seat 61 is not a travel booking site.  Rather it supplies the information and provides links to websites where you can buy rail tickets.)

But it's not just about getting deals on rail tickets.  Because Seat 61 was created by a rail travel enthusiast, you get the deep drill-down into many useful subjects that you won't necessary find even by looking at the individual railroad websites.  For example, take a look at this information about how to get from one station to another in Paris using the Metro.  Or how about this page with details on using trains and ferries to get from the U.K. to the channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey?

An interesting feature of Seat 61 is providing ways to get from Point A (usually in the U.K.) to Point B (on the continent of Europe or beyond) by means that do not involve flying.  That might include combinations of train, ferries, ships, buses, etc.  Check out this page with detailed plans to get you from the U.K. to Malta, the island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Libya.

While the sharpest focus of Seat 61 is on rail travel in Europe, it includes trains worldwide.  Mark Smith covers what I know best - Amtrak - in excellent detail, and I would highly recommend his chapter about Amtrak to anyone.

Rather than go on and on about Seat 61, I invite you to look for yourself.  But I caution that you, too, might get pleasantly trapped on the site daydreaming about the train rides you could take.

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