Something to declare: On the rails; Tips in China; Midwinter escapes
Saturday 08 December 2007
Destination of the week: On the rails
Tomorrow marks the latest stage in the rail revolution. Most European nations change their schedules on the second Sunday in December, but the enhancements from tomorrow are even better than usual. The new edition of the Thomas Cook European Timetable (12.50) contains details of almost all the annual changes, with the exception of some services in Italy and Serbia, where information has not been forthcoming.
The new timetable generates plenty of new options, using the high-speed Eurostar line to and from London St Pancras. For example, skiers can spend much of the day on the slopes of the French Alps before taking a train from Geneva at 4.14pm with zero check-in time. This connects in Paris for the last Eurostar of the day to London, arriving at 10.34pm. Business travellers can travel out from London at 1pm and, changing at Brussels and Cologne, arrive in Hamburg shortly after midnight.
On the Continent, Amsterdam and Paris see an increase in sleeper services. There is expected to be a twice-weekly link from the French capital to Moscow, but note that this train makes a seven-hour stopover in Berlin going east, and a 12-hour wait there heading west.
German Rail is speeding up services between Cologne and Frankfurt to 64 minutes, though these serve Cologne's Messe/Deutz station, across the Rhine from the heart of the city. Cultural connections in south-east Germany are enhanced, with faster, more frequent services between Nuremberg, Bayreuth and Dresden.
In France, Aix-en-Provence will be served by more TGV high-speed trains from Paris, allowing a six-hour journey from St Pancras in London when connections are good. The very-long-haul link from Strasbourg to Bordeaux, connecting the Rhine to the Gironde, increases to three trains a day.
Not all of the plans have come to fruition. The introduction of high-speed services between Amsterdam and Rotterdam has been delayed, further postponing the completion of the Thalys link from Brussels to Amsterdam.
Geological problems in Barcelona have delayed the completion of the flagship link from Madrid, connecting Spain's two largest cities. This is now likely to happen in February. But there is good news elsewhere on Spanish railways, from 23 December. Madrid to Malaga is accelerated to two hours 30 minutes, and lines to the north including Bilbao and Santander are also faster. Indeed, as the compilers at Thomas Cook note, it will be possible to travel from London to Madrid by train in a single day, without using a night train.
In Britain, a key development for international travellers to and from Scotland is the introduction of direct trains linking Edinburgh and Glasgow with Manchester airport. The First TransPennine Express will run four services each way, each day from the Scottish capital, and three a day from Glasgow. Fares for advance bookings at www.tpexpress.co.uk start at 10 each way, though tickets at this price are scarce. Manchester will gain an edge on Scotland's two biggest airports, since neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow has a direct train-to-plane link between the city and the airport.
Finally, National Express takes over the East Coast main line from GNER. Timings and fares are not affected, in the short term at least.
Warning of the week: Tips in China
Should you tip in the People's Republic? It's a topic of heated debate in the new edition of Wanderlust magazine (3.80, www.wanderlust.co.uk). Rachel Russell, who works for the Chinese tour operator CTS Horizons, says: "Salaries in the service industry are low and we encourage our clients to tip as a way of showing thanks." Wendy Wu, another tour operator, insists: "If you book a tour with an English-speaking guide, tipping is essential. People learn languages because they know it pays with foreign visitors; tips are part of their livelihood and it is almost more compulsory than it is in the US." But the writer and presenter Simon Lewis says: "In normal life, no one tips in China, not in restaurants, taxis, hotels, or anywhere else. There is no culture of tipping, full stop."
Bargain of the week: Midwinter escape
The gap between Christmas and New Year is an excellent time to find a bargain on flights that are predominantly used by business travellers. Leave on 27 December and return three days later effectively, a long weekend and British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) has a fare of 123 return from Heathrow to Zurich. Alternatively, BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) can offer 107 return, Heathrow to Amsterdam. These fares are available only online.
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