Category Archives: Holidays

Plane vs Train to Eastern Europe

I wanted to go from Bristol to Krakow with my bike, returning from Prague a fortnight later. I’m flexible on the travel dates (within a couple of days). I prefer not to fly, so as to reduce environmental impact and because overland travel is more of an adventure.

This is what I found when making the booking 23/2/2012:

Costs and durations of journeys:
  • Prague-Bristol, departing 15/4/2012:
    • Fly: £125 (incl. bike) depart 18:29, arrive 23:00 (airport-airport, excludes check-in and check-out time)
    • Train: £207 (plus bike) depart 21:55, arrive 15:23 next day (centre-centre)
  • Bristol-Krakow/Wroclaw, arriving 31/3/2012:
    • Fly: £84 (incl. bike) depart 10:10, arrive 13:40 (airport-airport, excludes check-in and check-out time)
    • Train: £156 (plus bike) depart 13:30, arrive 21:53 next day (centre-centre)
  • The cost of taking the bike on the train is hard to find out in advance for some parts of the journey. It’s not insignificant for Eurostar but free (generally) for ferries; in the UK bikes go free but in Poland you need a bike ticket (costs about a quarter of a person ticket, which is very little as Polish train fares are so low).
Carbon “cost” of each means of travel, estimated by various online calculators:
Ease of booking:
  • Flights – a few minutes to find airlines which fly the routes, a few minutes per flight to find prices on each of EasyJet and RyanAir, a few more minutes to book each flight, online ticketing send by email to print at home – total about 30 minutes
  • Rail –  www.seat61.com provides the information needed but it takes longer to check prices; bikes can’t be booked onto some trains online – this may be possible by phone – total about 2 hours.
Result:
  • I cycled to Bristol Airport, packed my bike in a reusable polythene bag and then flew to Europe. Flying wasn’t fun, lots of queueing and waiting  but it was easier to book, cheaper and faster.
  • Whilst in Poland and Czech Republic, we did put out bikes on trains on occasions; it was never a problem – more details elsewhere on my blog.

Cycling holidays

For years I’ve enjoyed cycle touring holidays, in the UK or further away. Trips have been from a week to three months, including the Outer Hebrides, Ireland, Lands End to John O’Groats, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, France, Spain, Morocco, West Africa and Poland.

It’s not about the speed or the distance. Long days might be 80 or 90 miles but more usual are days of 30 miles and days ‘off ‘ are not unusual. Cycling is a great way of spending time outdoors, travelling independently and cheaply, getting to places which are hard to reach by public transport and seeing the world at a human pace.

Bikes can be taken on trains, planes and ferries (and sometimes buses or taxis). Typically the holiday will start with cycling to the station or airport, and once we’re in our destination country we often use local trains to get from one area to another when the distances are too far to cycle in the available time.

My festival summers – summary

Since 2006 I’ve spent a lot of summer weekends at UK festivals. At some I’m a ticket-holder but at many I’m there as a volunteer, usually with Oxfam Festival Stewarding or Green Stewards. Volunteering is a great way of trading some of your time for a free ticket (as well as early access, better camping, free food and the opportunity to meet lots of new people). Volunteering with Oxfam also helps the charity raise about £1 million annually.

I wouldn’t go to a festival by myself as a ticket holder, but I certainly would go alone as a volunteer. In fact, it can be more fun volunteering by yourself because your only option is to make new friends, which is a great part of the festival volunteer experience.

Most years I get to six or eight festivals between May and September, spending five or six days at each.

The trouble with Insure And Go travel insurance

A friend had an annual travel insurance policy from Insure And Go. She broke her arm and a camera whilst we were in France last month. We weren’t impressed with Insure And Go. Here’s some of the problems we had:

  • We called I&G and they quickly offered to call us back. That seemed kind, saving us the cost of an international mobile call, so we accepted. Only later when we read the policy small-print did we find out that they will pay the costs of our first phone call to them but no more. So when they called us back it was costing us money (for an incoming roaming mobile call) and they weren’t going to pay for it. There were lots more phone calls involved over the next few days – I&G were pretty hopeless when we needed advice on travel and medical issues and we spend a lot of time on hold or going through automated phone menus. More than once they promised to call us back and then didn’t call, so we had to call again. All this added up to a lot of expensive calls as a result of the accident, but I&G don’t pay for them.
  • The I&G helpline told us that EasyJet might refuse to fly somebody with an arm in a plaster-cast (apparently because the arm could swell up during the flight). But I&G weren’t at all helpful when it came to confirming this with EasyJet, helping us obtain the “Fit To Fly” certificate that they thought we might need or offering alternative ways to get us home. In the end we sorted it out ourselves – we got ourselves to a French hospital and they removed the cast.
  • Even though the camera was damaged in the same accident as the arm, I&G insist that we make two separate claims (because they’re in different sections of the policy, I think). We’re lucky that we paid extra for the excess waiver, otherwise this would have meant paying two excesses. It still requires extra paperwork though.
  • I&G require a written confirmation from a camera shop that the camera isn’t repairable. Camera shops quite reasonably don’t want to do this for free, two local shops wanted to charge £20. I&G won’t cover this cost in the insurance, so we have to pay £20 for them to accept that the camera is broken. The policy isn’t new-for-old and because the camera cost £115 three years ago it’s now devalued and it’s lower spec than most modern cameras. We expect to get a fairly minimal offer from I&G we’ll save ourselves the bother and the £20 by not claiming. I&G win on this occasion!
  • Bying an I&G policy is very simple and fast, everything is done online, you even print the policy out yourself – no need for anything in the post. Claiming is less simple – lots of calls to their premium-rate number and lots of forms which are sent in the post to be completed and returned. We’re still sorting out the paperwork they need (copies of flight details etc), we have yet to make the claim and find out whether they’re going to pay up!

So whilst Insure And Go seemed very good value when we bought the policy, they’re a lot less good when you have to make a claim. All in all we’d have been better off not buying the policy, not bothering with all the phone-calls and forms and sorting it all out ourselves! Next time I think I’ll try an annual policy from a more reputable house-hold name insurer. Even if it’s a bit more expensive I think it will be worth going with a company with a good name, I claimed on a Direct Line car policy once before and they were harsh but fair and very efficient, so maybe I’ll try their travel insurance?

Travel to France from the UK with Bikes

I needed to travel with five friends from Bristol (UK) to Cahors (France) in July 2008 (and go back again a couple of weeks later). Each of us needed to take a bike and some luggage (two panniers) with us.

Here’s some notes on our experiences, for anybody wanting to do something similar…

The possible options we considered were:

  1. Fly from Bristol to the nearest airport (Toulouse, which is about 60 miles from Cahors) and then take a train to Cahors.
  2. Drive from Bristol to a port (probably Portsmouth or Plymouth or Poole), take a ferry to France and then use trains to get to Cahors.
  3. Use trains all the way – from Bristol to the Channel Tunnel and then across France to Cahors.

Option 1 – planes and trains

Two of us took option 1, we boxed up our bikes, took them by taxi to Bristol Airport and flew with EasyJet to Toulouse (they charge £16 extra each way for each bike). From there we cycles to the station and took a train to Cahors. We booked everything (taxi, flight, trains) online, which was straight-forward except:

  • The train booking site wasn’t all that clear about whether bikes had to be booked or paid for but it didn’t give us the option.
  • Our flight bookings were part of a complex arrangement of multiple flights and we didn’t want to take bikes on all the flights; EasyJet will only let you book bikes on both parts of a return flight, not just one, so we ended up paying for more bike flights than we needed to use.

The bikes had tyres deflated, front wheels removed and put along-side the frame, saddles lowered, handle-bars turned to be parallel with the frame, pedals removed. They were then packed in cardboard boxes (boxes which are used to deliver new bikes, given to us by a local cycle shop) which were taped and tied closed. This was a bit tricky – bike boxes are quite small (I think they’re intended for bikes with both wheels, mudguards, saddles and handlebars removed).

When we arrived in Toulouse airport, the bikes eventually appeared on a conveyor; one was fine but the other bike box had been half-shredded. That bike had two punctures (one inner-tube had a pair of minute holes 10mm apart, no signs of what made them, the other had a rip where the valve meets the inner tube. Also the plastic front light bracket was broken, the front mud-guard bent and a hub nut was missing front the front wheel. We didn’t bother to complain because:

  • The baggage handling staff had already been unhelpful (when the bikes didn’t appear at the same place as the baggage),
  • EasyJet have disclaimers about not taking responsibility for damage done to bikes,
  • The value of the damage was fairly small (although it was a major inconvenience),
  • My previous experience is that when have problems with EasyJet at an airport, you’re told to phone their call-centre – a premium rate number in the UK which puts you on hold for ages and doesn’t help much anyway

I fixed the bike with various spares and we cycled to Toulouse station just in time for the train (next day the proper spares from a bike shop cost me 16 Euros). As in the UK, different types of trains and different train operators have different rules for bikes. We were lucky, this one allowed bikes for free with no reservation, subject to space (there was plenty). Two hours later we were in Cahors.

Later we took another train from Cahors to Limoges (about 2 hours trip). This train allowed bikes if they were booked (10 Euros per bike) but when we tried to book there were no bike spaces left. However, if the bike is in a bag (max size 90cm by 150cm, I think) then there’s no need to book and there’s charge – it counts as baggage. We were carrying bike bags for our return flight (big tough clear plastic bags bought online from the CTC shop) so we used them. Even with front wheels and pedals removed, handlebars turned, saddles lowered, our bagged bikes were over the size limit. Luckily nobody checked and as it turned out there were six bike places on the train (ceiling-level hooks to hand the bikes from their front wheel) and only one of these was occupied. Nobody checked our tickets or luggage the whole time, so we could have just wheeled our bikes on (without bike tickets) and hung them up.

Our final train journey was Limoges to Bordeaux – bikes carried free subject to space with no booking, there were four bike places (this was a small regional train, only two carriages). No problems here, although if there were more of us or if it had been critical that we got the train and the bike space had been full then it would have been an issue.

Finally we flew home from Bordeaux to Bristol. This time we took pedals off and turned handle-bars but left tyres inflated and wheels on. This makes it easy to roll the bikes into the bags and just tie up the end of the bag. Airports used to insist that tyres were deflated, in case the pop in the unpressurised baggage hold on the plane, but this isn’t necessary. I was slightly worried when Bordeaux airport insisted on putting bikes on conveyors from the check-in area (usually they have an oversized-baggage desk where things are handled manually) but everything was fine. I watched out of the plane window as the bikes were carefully loaded onto the plane, and I watched them being carefully handled behind the scenes at Bristol airport (possibly only because the baggage handlers noticed me watching them?). The bikes arrived unscathed.

Option 2 – ferry and trains

None of us tried using ferries, so nothing much to say here. Different ferry companies have different policies on bikes (some charge, some don’t), but it’s not always clear if you’re booking online.

Option 3 – trains all the way

Four of the group took trains all the way from Bristol to Cahors. The elapsed journey time was around 20 hours (including a sleeper-train) compared to around 9 hours for plane+train.

They had some trouble making bookings. There were several legs of the journey (Bristol to London, London to Paris, TGV and/or local train to get to Cahors). To get the best tickets (or to get bike tickets before they sell out), you need to book as early as possible. Unfortunately this would mean booking some legs of the journey before the tickets (or even the price-list or timetables) were available for other legs of the journey.

Some trains require you to dismantle bikes and pack them up (like on planes), others can take whole bikes, others don’t take bikes at all. Sometimes bikes are free (but they don’t guarentee a space), other times you have to buy a ticket. All this makes it quite hard to book and travel as a group.

I can’t tell the whole story of the train trip because I wasn’t there. Suffice to say that it worked out okay in the end but it wasn’t as easy as it could have been.

Conclusions

  • Better to put you bike in a bag rather than a box. You don’t have to take it appart as much (but check with your airline, some may have maximum dimensions, EasyJet seem only to care about the width and weight, although I haven’t tried flying a tandem yet). The bag seems to be handles with more care, possibly because it’s obvious through the clear polythene that it’s a bike so they treat it like a bike rather then just another box marked ‘fragile’.
  • We has no show-stopping problems with bikes on French trains, although we might have been unlucky of there was no space when the train arrived.
  • It’s hard to reach a conclusion on cost because train, flight and ferry prices vary depending on how early you make the booking. When we looked there didn’t seem to be that much difference in the costs.
  • Flying reduced the journey time, but the train journey time included a night’s sleep (not necessarily a good night’s sleep, it depends how well you sleep) so it didn’t really make much difference.
  • Flying is an annoyance that you put up with to get to your destination. Going by train can be fun and it’s certainly part of the adventure.
  • Your carbon footprint will be much lower if you go by train.

Cycle touring in The Lot, France

I spend 10 days cycle-touring in The Lot, France with five friends in July 2008. Here’s just a few thoughts that might be useful to other people considering the same:

  • We had a great time!
  • Here’s our approximate route (start and end at Cahors, one night in most places but two nights in a couple of places which gave us days off cycling and/or days to do a round-trip route without heavy panniers).
  • It was hot – but not as hot as we expected and it wasn’t a problem for us. I think it peaked at about 25 to 30 centigrade most, cooler on a couple of days. We had rain on two days, fairly heavy for a couple of hours – one time we took shelter and waited for the worst to pass.
  • Late July is fairly busy in France so we decided to book our accommodation in advance (which also meant that our route was more-or-less fixed in advance). We booked mostly one-star and two-star hotels online, a month or two before we travelled. This worked well – my preference would have been to keep things flexible and find places to stay when we arrived in a town, but in France in July this would have been hard work and potentially much more expensive.
  • We based most of our tour on route 7 (“Rivers and Castles – Dordogne and The Lot”) from the October 2007 edition ofCicerone’s Cycle Touring in France. This was quite useful but it could do with some updating – for example it fails to mantion or use sign-posted cycle routes heading west from Cahors and an off-road cycle route (on an old railway line) from Sarlat to Carsac and on to Cazoules.
  • Some days we were mostly in river valleys – undulating with not mich climb. Other days there was a lot of climb; from St Cere to Figeac we spend the morning climbing from around 200m to around 620m, had lunch on the ridge and then freewheeled 9km downhill. I like to have some hills on the route, I get bored of flat cycling after a while.
  • We used Michelin maps (blue cover, scale 1:100000 I think) which were okay for cycling although it was sometimes hard to pick out the small roads and it wasn’t easy to see the hills (contours are not very clear and are only at 50m intervals I think?). Maybe I’d use the 1:50000 series (orange covers) next time.
  • It worked out more expensive than I imagined, partly because the British Pound is quite waek against the Euro at the moment. We paid typically 60 Euro per night for a double or twin ensuite room (one or two star hotel), 8 Euro for a breakfast, 25 Euro for en evening meal (three course set menu plus wine and coffee), maybe 5 Euro per persoon for picnic lunches from the supermarket. Frequent coffee stops set us back 1.5 to 2.5 Euro per coffee (or juice or soft drink). We didn’t buy bottled water, we had no problems drinking water from hotels and chilled tap water was always free at restaurants and cafes.
  • We cycled on a few busy roads but most of the minor roads were very quiet and the tow centres were generally not at all busy. Where there was traffic, the drivers seemes very well behaved towards cyclists (compared with in the UK for example).
  • A number of main roads in the region have been renumbered since the maps were printed. The road signs showed the new numbers but they didn’t match with the maps.
  • No serious problems with insects – occasional bites from mosquitos and files but not enough to be a problem. No problems with dogs or other animals. The people were friendly too, the drivers in France are generally nice to cyclists.
  • No problem with mobile phone (GSM) coverage anywhere that we went.
  • Most of the group speak a bit of French, this made things easier but was by no means essential, almost everybody we needed to speak to could manage better English than we could French.
  • Here’s our photos.
  • See my Blog for entries on travel with bikes from the UK to France and on the week that I spend mountain biking in the Creuse region of France with BonkersFrog Active Holidays.

Mountain biking week with Bonkers Frog Active Holidays

I spent a week in July 2008 mountain biking (and a little canoeing) with Bonkers Frog, a small activity holidays based in the Creuse region of France.

I was there with my girlfriend, Carrie. We’re both reasonably fit road cyclists – I’ve also done some off-road but Carrie hadn’t done any before this holiday (other than occasional tracks with a hybrid bike).

Bonkers Frog is owned and run by a British couple, Cris and Andy, who’ve been mountain biking and canoeing in this area of France for three years and in the UK for years before that. They’re base is a pair of newly converted stone barns in a tiny hamlet called Marsat. The surrounding area has huge numbers of off-road trails and paths for mountain bikes, from easy tracks to steep rocky paths through forests.

Bonkers Frog has well-maintained Specialized Hardrock mountain bikes (front suspension, hard-tail, full disc brakes), you could take your own bike but it’s probably not worth the bother for most people. They use a Landrover with a big box-trailer to transport the bikes to different local biking areas so there’s plenty of variety.

They also have open canoes for relaxing or energetic paddling on lakes or rivers in the area. The format of the week is pretty flexible, the mix and level of activities can be tailored to suit the group and there’s plenty of choice of things to do (not just relaxing by the pool) if you fancy a day off. There’s some great walking in the area, it’s very rural with forests, hills, valleys and rivers.

The week when we were there, Bonkers Frog had six guests in total, mostly on their 30s or 40s. We went did two rides most days, with a long lunch-break between. Some days is was quite hot, but the hottest time coincided with lunch and there were plenty of shady rides through the forests so the heat wasn’t a problem. We did one day of canoeing but we were all more interested in mountain biking – best to check with BF before you book as the focus can be different some weeks. That’s the great thing about going with a small independent company, they’re flexible enough to tailor the holiday to the group.

Catering was excellent – picnic lunches (bread, cheeses, meats, salad from the garden…) and Cris and Andy cooked most evenings, with BBQs on a couple of nights. Jarnages (the local town, 30 mins walk away) has a restaurants, the one at the Auberge De Templiers is good.

If you’re looking for a holiday like this then I’d recommend taking a look at Bonkers Frog.

China – my top tips for travellers

A friend asked me for some advice on planning a trip to China (I’m assuming a three week trip), here’s what I said (based on our trip, September-October 2007):

  • I’d really recommend China – it’s a very interesting place, not particularly difficult to travel independently, good value. It’s a huge growing world power and travelling there is a great way to get an insight.
  • China is richer, more educated (more globalised, lots of English spoken) and far easier to travel around if you stick with the east and south half of the country, for example from Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong. The far North and far West are cheaper and maybe more exciting but will be harder work and it would be harder work to get by independently. That’s a broad generalisation but if you’re planning a short trip and you want to travel around then the East will be easier for you.
  • Don’t let language put you off (at least for the south and east of China) – people speak lots of english, lots of signs in english and where there’s no english spoken they’re really friendly and keen to get by with phrase books (take one – the Lonely Planet Manderin/English one was good), hand-waving, drawing pictures, taking you to show you what they’re talking about, etc.
  • Train services are great, overnight sleepers are fine (our longest was 25 hours Shanghai to Guillin, very pleasant and quite relaxing). The harder bit was buying the tickets – not that hard really (especially if you avoid being there during national holidays and if you avoid the Beijing-Lhasa line which is booked solid by travel agents). You can make train tickets very easy by using an agency, there’s plenty of them, they speak English and they’ll charge a few quid extra per ticket (not too much).
  • There are loads of internal flights – if you’re short of time then you might want to use them (and avoid 24-hour train journeys). That said, you can get a long way on the train overnight, it’s cheaper than a flight and more interesting than a hotel and less environmentally damaging. We didn’t use any internal flights.
  • Don’t plan to spend much time in Hong Kong or Macau, they could be interesting places but after you’ve seen the rest of China they’ll just feel like a Westernised/commercialised version of the same thing, more expensive and less interesting.
  • I really liked Beijing. It’s pretty well set up for Western tourists and very interesting. Don’t forget that 2008 is the Olympics, so it will be packed in the summer. It’s a pretty good place to start your trip (and easy to get flights).
  • Check the climate carefully when you’re planning when to go (eg. avoid the north in winter and avoid the south in summer)
  • Don’t try to see everything unless you’re there for a year or three, it’s a huge place, concentrate on seeing a few bits of China properly
  • Some specific stuff I’d recommend (see my blog):
    • Yangshou Culture House http://www.2hostel.com/ (spend at least 3 nights, there’s loads to see/do around there)
    • Ping An or surrounding areas (stay in Ping An or somewhere else that’s on the rice terraces, far better than staying in one of the surrounding towns),
    • Qingdao was an interesting place (stay in the old town, maybe the Observatory Youth Hostel)
    • if you’re in Beijing then this tour is a good way to see the Great Wall (and see the Olympic Stadium as you drive past it) http://tingstours.com/
    • Shanghai and near-by Hangzhou are each worth a couple of nights. The Urban Planning Museam (that may not be exactly the right title) is worth seeing if you’re there – good way to appreciate the scale of reconstruction in Shanghai (and in China in general)

Is immoral to lie to a monk?

“We’re married” she said to the novice with the tattoos and the orange robe. Buddhist novice monks in Laos usually start in their early teens but he’d waited until he was 32. Carrie didn’t know if an unmarried couple would seem immoral to him. Monks and temples are everywhere in Laos. We met several novice monks later in our trip, I think it’s safe to say that most of them wouldn’t take offence to us not being married.

We arrived in Laos from Bangkok, after a fairly good night’s sleep on a Thai sleeper train. Our friend Jo celebrated one year of living in Vientiane while we were there visiting her. Our ten days in Laos were an excellent mixture of living the ex-pat life with Jo’s ex-pat friends, getting an insight into Laos with Jo’s Lao friends and having a thoroughly good time as tourists in Vientiane and ViangVeng. We arrived at a busy time, we saw the end of Buddhist Lent (early-morning ceremonies in Jo’s local temple, That Luang, which is the most important temple in the country). And, Vientiane was a busy carnival for most of our time there because of dragon-boat races and an annual candle-floating ceremony on the Mekong River. On top of that, our visit was just in time for the build-up to the world stone-skimming championships, to be held in Laos for the first time. Thanks Jo for your hospitality (not to mention being our guide for 10 days).

We took a four-hour bus trip from Vientiane to Viang Veng, a backpacker mecca set in fantastic limestone hills. The surrounding countryside reminded us of Yangshuo in China; we spent our three days there enjoying kayaking, caving, cycling and swimming. Jo managed to book us the best room in the best hotel in town,Elephant Crossing.

On leaving Laos we headed to Khao Lak in southern Thailand, where we’d booked three days of diving with South Siam Divers.Khao Lak is a string of beach-side villages which were one of the hardest hit parts if Thailand in the 2004 tsunami. A lot of the area has been rebuilt and there’s still a lot of work in progress, but on the fringes you can still see occasional buildings which were damaged by the wave. There’s now a comprehensive warning system and signposted escape routes in case it happens again. Most tourists in Khao Lak seem to be German, and a lot of dive companies and some of the hotels and restaurants here are German-owned or run. Jai Restaurant and Bungalows is our recommendation for eating and sleeping in Khao Lak.

The trip with South Siam Divers was on a live-aboard boat which took us to some world-class dive sites around the Similan Islands. I packed eleven dives into three days and we saw a great variety of underwater life and landscape. Highlights for me were the enormous quantity and variety of reef-fish which surrounded us on some dives, and the White Tip Sharks which we saw several times.

Tonight we leave Khao Lak for a final couple of days shopping and sight-seeing in Bangkok (where we’ll meet up with Jo again to find out how she’s managed to hospitalise her brother)before we fly back to London.