When our children were students, they used to travel all over Europe by train, with all sorts of passes and concessions. We are in our fifties, and would like to follow in their footsteps. Are there any passes or discount rail concessions for us "oldies," and are there agencies that can arrange the trip for us? Finally, do continental trains have affordable sleeping cars?

John Allanby


Jill Crawshaw replies: There are some excellent rail bargains, passes, discounts and journeys by train inEurope. Two useful sources of information are: the International Rail Centre at Victoria Station, London NW1V 1JY (tel: 0990 848848) and Rail Europe at 179 Piccadilly, London W1. If Rail Europe's number (0990 300003) seems permanently engaged or there is no answer, you may have more success phoning in the early evening or faxing them (0171-633 9900). They have assured me they are putting in more telephone lines and operators.

Among the passes available, the best is probably the Inter-Rail 26+ pass offering unlimited travel within 19 European countries and costing pounds 215 for a fortnight's unlimited use and - much better value - pounds 275 for a month.

On a Eurodomino Pass you can travel as far as you like for three, five or 10 days in a month in 19 European countries buying a coupon for each country you wish to visit.

France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Scandinavia have excellent rail systems with their own passes available; it is worth contacting their National Tourist Offices in London about these. France, for example, offers the Carte Couples with savings of up to 25 per cent when you travel with your partner, while Switzerland's Swiss Pass and Swiss Card give access to their entire rail system .

l Jill Crawshaw is a travel expert, writer and broadcaster.

Get to Malta by land and sea, but not by air

I wish to travel to Malta next summer but I am pathologically terrified of flying. Do you know of a route which doesn't involve taking to the skies? I do not mind how long it takes or what it costs - I just can't fly!

Helen Moss, Cambridge

The travel editor replies: The best way for you to go is by train and ferry, which will involve a journey of around 44 hours from London to Malta. International Rail Enquiries (tel: 0990 848848) will organise and sell you a ticket to Catania, Sicily; prices start from pounds 195 return. This does not include sleeping berths for the 36-hour journey; these cost an extra pounds 13.80 per night.

From Catania it is possible to catch either a ferry (about eight hours) or the faster catamaran (about three hours) to Malta. The return ferry journey costs from 35 Maltese lire (about pounds 56) for adults and 27 lire for children, with cabins for four persons from 30 lire. Both ferries and catamarans operate most days of the week and it is not normally necessary to book ahead.

However, much of this can change between now and next summer, when you intend to travel, so it is probably best to check the details of the available water crossings with the Malta National Tourist Office (tel: 0171-292 4900) soon before your departure. The office will also be able advise you on ferry times to coincide with your arrival by rail in Catania, but remember to allow plenty of time for any unexpected delays.

By the way, don't spend all of your Maltese lira before you leave, as all passengers leaving Malta by sea are required to pay a departure tax of 4 lire plus a 10 per cent government levy.

Panama passage

I would like to sail through the Panama Canal. Is there any way of doing this other than on an expensive round-the-world cruise? Ideally I would like to see the canal as part of a voyage by passenger-carrying cargo ship. Is this possible?

N R Lines


The Travel Editor replies: Yes, you can travel through the Panama Canal on a passenger-carrying cargo ship. Strand Voyages (tel: 0171-836 6363), an agency representing 38 cargo shipping lines, offers a 13-day voyage from New Orleans to Guayaquil in Ecuador, via the canal, from pounds 1,105 per person.

There are frequent sailings on two well-maintained vessels which are part of the German-owned Egon Oldendorff line. Connecting flights are not included in the price and they are left up to you to organise.

Cope with jet lag by slowly adjusting your body clock to local time, not with a draught of sleeping pills

Are sleeping pills bad for the body? We travel to California every year and I have got into the habit of taking sleeping pills strategically as a means of getting over my jet-lag. I know that some people think I am crazy to do this.

Manjit Singh, Brentford, Middlesex

Dr Larry Goodyer replies: Regular long-term consumption of most types of sleeping tablets may be harmful in as much as they can lead to dependence. This means that when you stop taking them, not only may it be hard to get to sleep, but unpleasant "withdrawal" symptoms may appear. This is why doctors don't like to prescribe them for more than a few days at a time.

This warning does not apply in your case - presumably the tablets are being taken as a one-off to help sleep during a long flight. There is little danger of dependence, and if they help prevent jet-lag you can continue safely. Make sure you take a tablet which is short-acting and has the minimum hangover effect to avoid drowsiness when you wake up.

If you want to sleep during the flight without sleeping tablets, avoid eating a large meal outside your usual eating pattern. Earplugs and an inflatable neck rest can help. A few more jet-lag tips are: acclimatise by adjusting sleeping and eating times to local time; adjust these times gradually a few days before travel; don't do too much in your first 24 hours: increase exposure to morning sunlight when travelling west by more than six time zones.

Dr Larry Goodyer is superintendent of Nomad Pharmacy (3-4 Turnpike Lane, London N8, Tel: 0181-889 7014) which specialises in travellers' medical needs.