Train travel through Europe: The couple who saw 11 countries without taking a flight

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For many, 2022 was the year that the ever-clearer climate crisis spurred people to fly less. For Rick Turner and his husband Adam Longbottom, their decision to ditch airplanes for a three-month trip around Europe and across to South America was down to something else: 2022’s notorious aviation chaos.

“Everyone’s luggage was going missing, and we knew that we’d be moving on [from destination to destination] every few days. This was the trip of a lifetime and we didn’t want to lose our luggage for any part of it,” he says.

The UK couple, who both work remotely, had decided to take a months-long trip around Europe, visiting countries they’d never been to before. In fact, by the time they boarded a plane they were in South America – having crossed the Atlantic on a boat, following their European rail odyssey.

In total, they traveled through 11 countries before they took a flight.

Rick and Adam abandoned their tickets to Marseille to go to Luxembourg instead.

Everything was up for grabs when they left the UK, says Turner. Their only goal was to get to Italy at some point – a country they knew well, but wanted to return to.

In fact, by the time they were on the Eurostar train going through the Channel Tunnel, their only certain plan was to stop at Lille – the first stop for the Eurostar after Calais.

“We’d been to Paris before loads, so we chose Lille this time, and decided where to go from there,” says Turner.

“We just knew we wanted to go to places we hadn’t been before. We’d always wanted to do that thing of going to an airport, looking at the flights leaving and getting on one – so without flights, we were looking at our rail app every day, working out where we could get to.”

In every destination, they would decide where to head next – meaning their trip by rail was planned the day of travel or the day before. Sometimes they even changed their plans. From Lille, they initially booked a train to Marseille, in the south of France, planning to skim east along the Cote d’Azur and then cross into Italy.

“But then we thought, we’ve done that before, let’s go the other way round [to Italy], traveling via Luxembourg,” he says. They gave up their Marseille tickets (no, they didn’t get a refund) and booked seats to Luxembourg instead. “It was lovely – not what we expected, and probably my favorite bit of Europe that I hadn’t been to before,” he says.

And so begun their trip, during which they both continued to work remotely, making sure they were in a destination for a good clutch of days when they needed to settle down at their laptops.

The couple had an eventful trip, though they didn't like Basel.

It was a momentous time to be away from the UK.

“We missed the whole of the Liz Truss premiership,” says Turner, referring to the UK’s prime minister who took office on September 6 and resigned on October 25, with the country plunged into economic crisis.

“And the Queen died while we were in Luxembourg. We got to the hotel, put the TV on, and saw all the royals going to Balmoral. She died as we were in the Novotel.”

It was an inauspicious start to what would turn out to be an eventful trip. They cleared out fast from Strasbourg, their next stop, when it was hit by a 4.7 magnitude earthquake shortly after their arrival.

Later, in France, they’d deal with what appeared to be an attempted burglary. And when they were on the home strait to Brazil, they both came down with Covid.

But that all came later. First they had to cross the Alps – and brave Switzerland.

“We stayed two days in Basel, but it was a bit boring – you’re on the Rhine, that’s nice, but there wasn’t tonnes to do,” says Turner.

“But the train from Strasbourg had involved a change there, so we’d thought we may as well get off.”

Bored by Basel, they decided to speed up their arrival in Italy, taking a regular train to Milan, rather than any of Switzerland’s famous tourist routes. The Swiss scenery immediately made up for the disappointment of Basel.

“It’s exactly what you’d expect,” he says. “Huge lakes, beautiful valleys, mountains, lots of green.” The only difference to those more fabled (and more expensive) tourist routes? “You don’t go over the mountains, you go through them.”

One thing the couple noticed, traveling so far, so slowly, was how different each country was, even in the border areas.

“The landscapes in Switzerland and Italy looked totally different – the buildings were different. The Swiss side had tiny churches, and it wasn’t like that at all in Italy.”

They were among the few tourists staying overnight in San Marino.

First stop in Italy: Milan. And again, things weren’t going too well for the pair. They’d arrived at the end of Fashion Week, and the city was “crazy hot and really expensive. The cheapest hotel we could find was €130 ($140) a night – a lot for a not-great hotel.”

Undeterred, they pushed east, to Lake Garda, where they’d visited the previous winter. Without private transport, they stayed in Desenzano del Garda, the town at the southern point of the lake, served by Italy’s high-speed train network.

And, finally, things started to go right, with a bit of dolce vita.

“The best day of our whole trip was in Desenzano,” says Turner. “We hired a speedboat and spent a few hours zooming up and down the lake – it was awesome. We were going round Garda Island, that huge palace [the neo-gothic Villa Borghese, a Venetian-style mansion on Garda’s largest island]. You could go wherever you wanted.”

Then: their beloved Venice. They stayed at their regular digs on the Lido island, Hotel Villa Pannonia – but again, they weren’t in luck. The 2022 travel boom was still in full swing, Venice was packed, and rates were sky high. “They know us, and we get a discount – but the price was ridiculous,” he says. “We were going to spend two weeks but the universe was telling us not to be there.”

So they let the universe lead them elsewhere. To tick off another country, they visited San Marino – taking a train to Rimini, in the Emilia Romagna region, and then a coach to the clifftop microstate.

It was another place they loved.

“It’s so weird – a country up a mountain,” he says. “The altitude means you feel a bit weird getting out of the bus, and it kind of goes to sleep at night because nobody stays up there.”

As the daytrippers departed, the infamous gun shops closed, and the archery and crossbow demonstrations at the castle finished, the couple – who stayed three nights in the historical center – saw another side of San Marino, drinking in empty bars and walking along deserted streets.

The couple were on Lake Garda when they decided to stay on the water -- all the way to Brazil.

The next stop? Parma, an elegant, history-filled town between Bologna and Milan. They’d booked five nights so they could catch up on laundry and have a more concentrated stretch of work days – for most of their trip they chose hotels, but switched to rentals where they needed that laundry time.

Five days was too long for sightseeing – he advises two days for a regular stay – but it worked for them. They got more work done, and they took a day trip to Milan. Ah yes – because by this point, they knew they’d be going to South America.

“In Desenzano, we’d started looking at our route, either going down through Europe to finish at Malta, or finishing at the bottom of Spain.”

As they were looking at stays in Barcelona, they had a lightbulb moment: it was the time of year for repositioning cruises, where ships that have spent the summer sailing around the Mediterranean make the long hop to warmer climes – often westwards, to start Caribbean winter routes.

“We’d done a few cruises before, and used to look for deals. When we were both in 9 to 5 jobs, we’d seen ridiculous things, like, if you can go next week you can get 20 nights for $1,000. We suddenly thought it’d be nice to do that.”

They looked for a repositioning cruise to the USA, but found one with MSC going to Rio de Janeiro – for less than half the price of going to Miami.

For the two of them, in a balcony cabin, for 13 nights, the cost was just £1,800 ($2,175).

The Cinque Terre area was the closest they got to mass tourism.

The race was on to get to Barcelona for the cruise departure date, while still enjoying their cross-Europe trip.

From Parma, they headed to the French border, stopping in Liguria to bid farewell to Italy. They stayed in Genoa (“awesome”), where Longbottom slept off a reaction to his yellow fever vaccine for two days, then took a daytrip to the Cinque Terre region, which was still packed with tourists, even on a Monday in late September.

Next, they crossed the border into France, and headed west, making it to Monaco for Turner’s birthday. Two nights quickly turned into five. “It’s efficient, clean, safe, stupidly expensive and feels like a treat,” says Turner. To cut costs, they ate supermarket food and stayed at one of the principality’s cheaper hotels, Hotel Columbus, slightly out of the center overlooking Fontvieille port – though splashed out on a birthday dinner at Buddha Bar in the Monte Carlo Casino.

Back in France, and three hours west, their next stop was Toulon, but the pair weren’t fans. They booked an Airbnb in “not necessarily the nicest area,” and found evidence of someone having tried to access it twice during their stay. “A random person let himself into the apartment block one day and was knocking on doors,” he adds.

They moved on, with three nights in “lovely” Montpellier: “Thirty minutes from the sea and just cool, lots of history, a really pretty old town, café culture and lots to do,” is their verdict.

From there, they took the high-speed Renfe train to Barcelona: 215 miles and two countries in four hours. They spent three nights there, revisiting places they’d been before, and stocking up on supplies for their South American journey. “We were ordering Amazon stuff into this hub at a parking lot near the port.”

Both got Covid on their 14-day cruise.

And so to South America – still without having set foot on an airplane.

The cruise started off swimmingly, with a stop in Madeira, where they took the cable car to the top of the mountain. “It was lovely – we’d really like to go back,” says Turner. And since his husband is an avid avgeek, and Madeira has one of the most infamous (windy) landings in Europe, it’s a dead cert they will.

Then they settled in for a week at sea before hitting Brazil, with a stop at Salvador.

“It was quite rough to start with but we were enjoying it – the ship was half-empty and you could settle yourselves in for a long time.”

And then, two days before they reached the Equator, at the furthest possible point from land, Turner woke up feeling ill.

It was Covid. Two days later, they were both positive.

They were moved to a “Covid cabin” – the same spec, with a balcony, but through a watertight door to get to the area.

“We could hear people coughing either side,” he said.

Every morning, they were brought a menu choice, offering them food from any menu. They were told they’d be refunded their drinks and internet packages, but have yet to see the money. And in fact, when they were at their worst, there was no internet because they were in the middle of the ocean. All they had was a channel streaming movies: mainly “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Lord of the Rings.” Over and over again.

Confined to their Covid cabin, they missed the first two stops in Brazil: Salvador and Ilhèus. Finally, the ship arrived in Rio, sailing past the Christ Redeemer statue as they tested negative. They were free to leave along with the other guests.

They had made it through 11 countries without taking a single flight.

They ended up flying back from Peru to Paris.

From there, the journey got less green. They flew from Rio to Argentina, Chile and then Peru. It was when they were planning to head to Mexico that, stumped by expensive flights, they realized it was time to go home. “We were tired,” says Turner. “We were in the Lima airport hotel, and we saw an Air France tailfin, and Adam just said, “Shall we go to Paris?” Two days later, the avgeeks were on flight AF483 to Charles de Gaulle. After a break in the City of Light, they returned to the UK.

So would they do it again? It’s a resounding yes.

“It was loads easier than we thought,” says Turner. “None of the stress of flying, and so much easier to get to the station. You know what time you’re leaving, you don’t have to go loads earlier, and the trains run mostly on time.”

The pair traveled with backpacks rather than suitcases, so they could be sure of fitting them in overhead racks, and booked trains individually, rather than using an Interrail pass, so they didn’t limit their travel days.

For those thinking of tackling a similar trip, they suggest checking out the kind of train you can travel on before booking. “Some are awful, and some are great – we had a horrible one from Genoa to Milan, an InterCity.” They could have booked a better, “Freccia” train, had they planned ahead.

Their other main tip: “Research the area where you’re staying very carefully.”

A train odyssey like theirs means you’re likely to want to stay near the station, but, as Turner says, often that means the area is bad. Take a backpack, he says, and walk half an hour further into town.

Finally, they say, don’t worry too much about building in long breaks where a change is involved. Planning for the worst, they booked an overnight stay every time they had to change a train. “Next time we’d just change trains – we thought we’d be tired, but we weren’t,” says Turner.

And if you’re the kind of person who needs to plot everything way in advance – feel free to go with the flow on something like this. The pair may have had to improvise when arriving in cities to peak season rates, but it was that kind of change and surprise that made the trip. As Turner says, “Not knowing where you’re going to be in two days’ time is really nice.”

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