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Product trials

Book review: Europe by Rail

I was thrilled when an opportunity arose to review the latest edition of Europe by Rail in exchange for a complimentary copy.  This guide, now in its fifteenth incarnation, is to print what the Man in Seat 61’s website is to the internet – the definitive guide.  But with so much information freely available on the internet, should you buy this book at all?

Europe by Rail

A task of epic proportions

Covering all the railways of all the European countries in a book light enough to carry onto a train is a huge undertaking.  As a consequence this book acts as an overview.  While it’s definitive, it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive.  The guide is designed to be used together with the European Rail Timetable – or in these times of data roaming, in conjunction with the websites of national rail providers in the countries it covers.  The authors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, have updated the guide once more, expanding coverage of the Baltics and the Balkans, as well as providing current information about rail travel across the continent.  Schedules change frequently, and I was sad to learn that the excellent CityNightLine service which I enjoyed in 2015 ceased operations between Munich and Berlin last year.

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CityNightLine

An inspiring guide

The authors wanted to take the guide in a different direction and as such, set out to inspire as well as inform.  So although there are factual sections in the guide, its greatest strength is in the persuasiveness of the descriptions that comprise the bulk of its pages.  Underpinning this erudite prose is a fundamental belief that train journeys are fun and, most crucial of all, to be savoured.  While acknowledging the important role Europe’s high speed trains have to play, Gardner and Kries put the case for slow travel, yet never come across as preachy.  If you need to zip across the continent in a hurry, then so be it, but for those with more time, there are routes to be savoured on local stopping trains, with tempting sidetracks built in as well.

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Crossing the Landwasser Viaduct in Switzerland

Punctuating the narrative are frank insights into the realities of each trip: “It’s an easy run south to Barcelona.  The railway enters the Catalan city through its unexciting northern suburbs and terminates in the subterranean gloom at the Estació de Sants.”  Nuggets of advice are also in abundance, such as this on Italy’s fabulous Cinque Terre: “A long sequence of tunnels means that you’ll see little of the area from the train, but take time to stop and explore.  Vernazza is a good base; it’s the prettiest of the villages.”  Gardner and Kries have put the hours in and travelled these routes, which makes them authoritative as well as engaging.

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The Cinque Terre

What could be improved?

Numbers rather than names refer to each of the fifty routes covered by the guide once you get past each one’s title.  Though this system takes a bit of getting used to, many of them cross international borders so it’s hard to see how they could be referred to in any other way.  It doesn’t help, however, that some of the subtitles within each section, specifically those of the major cities en route, are in the same sized font, making it confusing as to whether you’ve reached the end of a route or not.  It takes a bit of time to get your head around, but once you’ve got into a rhythm, you won’t be bothered by it.

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Spain’s high speed AVE

Each route features a map.  The presentation is simple, with a table attached that shows the journey time, frequency and cross-reference for the European Rail Timetable.  While I could see that the authors were aiming for clarity, I thought it was a shame that these maps couldn’t have been illustrated to showcase some of the key attractions along the way.  This would have added to the temptation to jump on a train and follow in their footsteps.  I’m guessing publishing constraints required the photographs to be grouped in their own section, as is the way with most guidebooks, but it’s again a pity that these couldn’t have been integrated with the text.  Instead, I wanted to skim over them, impatient to get to the routes themselves.

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Sintra station’s exquisite ticket office

There’s a lot of page turning, back and forth, which breaks into reveries and brings the reader back to reality.  I appreciate that logic dictates a section entitled “Before you leave” should be placed at the beginning of a guide, but perhaps the parts detailing rail passes, ticket classes and the like would have been just as at home in an appendix.  These are minor criticisms, more a measure of how keen I was to get stuck in than any fault with the guide.

The verdict: would I buy this guide?

For anyone planning to embark on a rail holiday in Europe, this guide is an invaluable companion.  Even if you’ve travelled extensively by rail across the continent, things change regularly and it’s an easy way to bring yourself up to date.  Don’t wait until you leave to buy it.  The suggestions for stopovers and detours will help with your planning and you’ll have information at your fingertips about rail passes, supplements, connections and the like.  If you’re like me, it won’t help you make a decision, as there are so many tempting routes from which to choose, but it will give you hours of pleasure as you take a virtual journey on some of Europe’s most scenic tracks.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to go back to that chapter on Arctic Norway…

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Review of Thomas Cook Airlines

I’m no stranger to low cost flying, but it’s been a long time since I’ve flown with an airline which made its name catering for package tourists. So what’s it like to fly Thomas Cook Airlines?

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Timing

I chose to fly to Cape Verde, and at the time of booking, I was flexible about which of its nine inhabited islands I would fly to.  The only direct flights from London were with Tui (formerly Thomson) and Thomas Cook Airlines.  I could have flown with scheduled airlines but it would have meant an indirect flight, such as with TAP via Lisbon.  The flight times were convenient too, with an 8.05am outbound option and a 2.45pm inbound flight.  Flying on a Wednesday worked for me, though to get a daily flight option I’d have needed to fly indirect.  From LGW Thomas Cook Airlines fly in winter; in summer the only flights offered depart from Manchester.  But with November temperatures in the late twenties, the islands are a good choice for a winter break, if a little windy.

Additional costs

Though the base fare was reasonable – and even more so now November is almost over – the airline’s pricing model worked on getting its passengers to pay for add-ons.  Some of these prices were pretty steep.  £10 for each sector secured you a hot meal, a suitcase was £25 each way and allocated seating cost from £13 per leg.  I opted just to take a suitcase, given that the carry-on dimensions (55cm x 40cm x 20cm) and, especially, weight limits (6kg) weren’t sufficiently generous for a week-long holiday.  This would be higher on the all-inclusive Economy Plus tariff but the price difference was significant, making it poor value for money.  I didn’t choose the seat allocation and was randomly allocated a middle seat in each direction.  A polite request with the check-in staff got this changed to an aisle seat both ways, but of course this can’t be guaranteed.

On-board service and comfort

The Sal flight operated on an Airbus 321.  Legroom was 28″, 2″ less than on a Ryanair short haul flight.  On this six-hour mid-haul flight, that’s cramped, and I was glad of the aisle seat to be able to get up and stretch my legs frequently without disturbing other passengers.  Service on board was excellent, the cabin crew without exception polite and professional.  Ground staff also conducted themselves well.  Many travellers were on package holidays and thus met by a member of the Thomas Cook team, but as I had booked a flight-only option I had no interaction in this respect.

Other information

There’s an entry visa requirement for UK travellers headed to Cape Verde and this currently can be purchased for €25 on arrival.  So long as Advanced Passenger Information (API) is completed via the Thomas Cook website 7 days or more in advance, this is paid for by the airline even if you are on a flight-only booking.  There’s no need to queue at the visa desk on arrival, saving you time when you get there.

The verdict

Would I travel with Thomas Cook Airlines again?  I was impressed by their punctuality and professionalism.  However, the lack of flexibility in their schedule and the steep cost of extras means this wouldn’t be an airline I’d consider travelling with again, unless like this route, all the scheduled options were indirect flights.


Product test: Sunwise UVA clothing

It was August 2004.  I was in Bali and I’d heard about a celebration known as Kuningan.  This ceremony was held to mark the end of Galungan, a holiday similar to our New Year.  Devotees dress in white with red sashes and bring offerings for their ancestors who are returning to heaven after spending time on earth for the Galungan festivities.  They bring yellow rice, fish and fruit, placed in bowls made from leaves.  The rice symbolises their gratitude to God for the blessings he has bestowed and the bowls are adorned with little figures representing angels which bring happiness and prosperity.  It promised to be an incredible sight, so I made my way to the temple near Candidasa on Bali’s eastern coast.

Arriving, I wasn’t alone.  In front of me was a sea of white, a crowd of people thronging the space between me and the temple entrance.  Resigned to a long wait, I found a place in a queue of sorts and waited.  It was late morning.  The sun was already high in the sky and packing a powerful tropical punch.  I wasn’t unduly worried.  I’d put on some sun cream and had chosen what I thought to be a sensible outfit – a long sleeved cotton blouse.  Time passed slowly and my shoulders began to redden.  I applied more cream to the visible parts and thought no more of it.  Eventually, I entered the temple and observed the prayers and rituals.  It was a fascinating scene.

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Later on, returning to the hotel,  I realised the thin cotton blouse I’d worn was no match for the midday sun and my skin had not only reddened, it had blistered badly.  I spent the rest of the holiday in the shade, cursing how ill-prepared I’d been.  I’ve never been as casual about the sun since.  Several of my friends have had skin cancer, and that’s not something I wish to emulate.  According to statistics compiled for Cancer Research UK, there are over 15,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer each year.  While many are treatable, some, sadly are not.  Realistically, with the amount of travelling I do and how fair my skin is, I need to be proactive about the precautions I take.  Sun cream alone isn’t enough of a solution.  Yet there are many tropical places in the world that I still want to visit.  I don’t want to find myself in a position where I’ve got to stay out of the sun completely and miss out on the chance of seeing them.

But here’s the rub.  I’ve never found much in the way of UVA resistant clothing that I thought I’d actually like to wear.  The thought of putting on one of those clingy long sleeved surfer shirts in soaring temperatures and high humidity just doesn’t appeal.  Nor do I find the functionality of the standard traveller clothing appealing; it just doesn’t feel like I’m on holiday if I’m wearing a collared shirt.  So up until now, I’ve slapped on the sun cream (ruining many a white blouse in the process with those impossible to remove stains) and hoped for the best.

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I’m not ready to give up my view of a tropical beach just yet.  So when a friend offered to let me trial a UVA resistant kaftan, I jumped at the chance.  Finally, something that would prevent a repeat of my Balinese burns.  Its first outing was to Ibiza.  In May, the temperatures are in the mid-twenties, perfect for a trial in conditions similar to a good British summer.  Here’s how I got on.

Style 8/10

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I just loved the colours in this.  Blue always feels so summery and the mix of the palette works well as a pattern and means that it goes with a wider range of bottom halves.  The longer length style, sitting flatteringly mid-thigh, meant this kaftan hid both generous hips and a tummy that likes to eat.  I’m not usually a fan of the tie waist, as I do sometimes think such styles make me feel like a trussed turkey, but actually it too was attractive.  I found that in a bow it did have a tendency to undo itself, but in a loose knot it looked just as good.  The batwing sleeves hung to my elbow, giving it a pretty waterfall silhouette.  The round neck, though high, was loose enough to be comfortable.  In my selfies, though, it looks a little too high, reminding me of a hairdresser’s gown.  In real life, this isn’t the case, as the length of the garment more than balances this out and obviously if you have someone else taking your holiday photos you’ll get a better image.

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Comfort 9/10

I trialled this in a number of situations.  As I was on the move, it’s yet to sit round a pool (watch out for an update later this month when it comes with me to hotter Texas).  When I first looked at the label, I was a little concerned to see that it was made of 100% polyester, usually favouring cotton and linen for high temperatures.  It was so lightweight though, that I never felt hot and sticky; it didn’t cling and hung beautifully.  The versatility of this style means that it’s as at home in a cafe as it is on the beach, sophisticated enough for the city yet casual enough to wear poolside.  I even went for a short hike in it.  The floatiness of the fabric meant it didn’t ride up or become too rucked up around the legs.  My only criticism is that with half-sleeves the lower parts of your arms are exposed.  I’d love to see that the range is widened to include a long sleeve tunic blouse in the same colourway and fabric.

I’m not alone in praising its versatility.  Fellow tester Kate had this to say when she packed it for a Med cruise:

“In Rome today and melting.  The kaftan is absolutely brilliant. I don’t need cream under it and there’s been no burning at all. I feel posh too! Ingenious.”

Kate’s a skin cancer survivor and adds:

“It gave me so much confidence, took away the worry I have when I see the sun is shining! I could sit on a beach and look like everyone else in a glamorous floaty cover up, yet I knew my skin was being protected.”

Value for money 10/10

This item is new for 2017 and the retail price has yet to be finalised.  I’m assured that it should be in the region of £25 to £30.  At this price bracket, that’s excellent value for money in my opinion.  The kaftan is well made and you’re getting a quality product.  With little competition in the UK market, it’s hard to find a comparison, but similar clothing from high-end retailers can go for up to £100, making this a bargain.

Function 10/10

Let’s get real for a minute: the main reason you’re going to be looking at the Sunwise UVA product range is to buy clothing that is going to protect you from the sun.  So did it do its job?  I spent the day in and out of the sun, and even when my lower arms were reddening at my sunny cafe table over lunch, the parts covered by the kaftan were well protected.  I’ve covered the lack of wrist-length sleeves in the style score, so for me this garment’s ability to protect me from sunburn in temperatures of around 25°C was first rate.  If that changes when I up the temperatures a bit, I’ll edit this section to reflect its capabilities.

The verdict

Would I buy it?  Yes, absolutely, and another one too if further colourways were to become available.  It’s not something I’d have considered before, but I’m a convert.

Where to find it:

Sunwise UVA is a recent start up and would value your custom as well as your comments.  Their current range can be viewed online at:

http://www.sunwiseuva.co.uk/

They’re also on Facebook: look for Sunwise. UVA clothing


Trialling the Caxton FX currency card in New York City

I’m a creature of habit. Packing for a trip to New York, I fall into the same tried and tested routine. When it comes to spending money, that means a wallet of crisp dollar bills which quickly morphs into a pocket full of nickels, dimes and pennies. Spending this ever-growing mountain of coins involves finding a retail assistant (and a queue of other shoppers waiting behind me to pay) with the patience of a saint while I count out the exact change. Of course, if they didn’t add on the tax at the till, I could sort it out beforehand instead of admitting defeat and breaking another twenty. So, at the end of the trip, I tip my leftover coins into the drawer at home and resolve to do things differently next time.

This time I have. For the last two days I have been trying out a Caxton FX currency card. Loaded up with dollars and bearing the Visa logo, I can use this like I would a regular credit card, but without the end of holiday bill that can take the edge off a good vacation.

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Here’s what I did with it.

Day 1: The Bronx

Tino’s delicatessen in Arthur Avenue looked like the perfect spot for a coffee. Four elderly Italians with accents like Robert de Niro sat at one of the pavement cafes while I took the other. Interrupting their conversations every now and again to apologise for their colourful language, they spoke warmly of this close-knit community that had been their home for decades and puffed cigar smoke into each other’s faces.

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