Saturday, 9 March 2019

BritRail Pass: A guide and review

I went on a trip to the UK from February 25th to March 1st. This was my first solo trip to the UK, but 8th overall to the country. This post will be on how I travelled within the UK: on trains, using the BritRail Pass.

 What is a BritRail pass?

The BritRail pass is a multi-use ticket for rail travel in Great Britain for visitors to the UK. BritRail was created and is managed by Rail Delivery Group (more commonly known as National Rail) - the organisation overseeing and coordinating operations of the 23 privately run passenger rail carriers. In addition to the 17 franchised carriers, BritRail is also valid on express trains serving airports around London, but is not valid on the London Underground or any other local light rail service. The BritRail pass also has special offers for museums and other sights across the UK.
My BritRail pass
BritRail passes are available for several areas of the UK, and for different periods - either consecutive or flexible (e.g travelling on 5 days out of 15), and is available both on paper and electronically for smartphones (M-Pass). Full details can be found on the official homepage, and passes can be bought from rail travel agencies, such as ACP Rail, where I purchased mine.

How to use?

The first step to using a BritRail Pass is buying one from a travel agency, such as ACP Rail. BritRail passes are not available in the UK - you must buy one before you travel. I bought a consecutive 4-day paper pass for England only. I also added pass protection, which covers loss and theft of the pass. My total came to €119, including express delivery included with pass protection. I would personally recommend the M-Pass though, as you won't have to pay for delivery or protection, and for other reasons you'll see later.

Once you've arrived in the UK want to start travelling on trains, your paper pass must first be validated. If you have an M-Pass, you don't have to - you have to select the dates of validity during the purchase process. Paper passes must be brought to a staffed ticket office at a National Rail station, where it will be marked with the range of validity and stamped with the start date. Users on flexible passes must also write down their dates of travel in sequential order on the pass.

When your pass is validated, then the next step is to get on a train and enjoy your travels! However, as most stations have ticket barriers which can't read your pass, you must show it to a member of staff to be let through. M-Pass users again won't face this problem, as many barriers are fitted with bar code readers, which can read the pass.

On an 'HST' train towards King's Cross from York. I couldn't have gone there without BritRail.

My experience with the pass

As stated before, I used a BritRail consecutive 4-day pass for England on my travels. My first trip on a train was a Heathrow Express service to London Paddington station, starting at Heathrow. I found out there was no ticket office which could validate my pass at Heathrow, so I had to travel to Paddington first. Fortunately I was told by members of staff that it's OK to use it, as long as I fill in the dates of validity myself.
My one true enemy

Most of my travels went without a hitch. Every ticket barrier however was a minor inconvenience for me though, as I had to get my pass out of my backpack and show it to a member of staff to be let on to the platforms. Fortunately this didn't cause me to miss any trains, but I will be using an M-Pass the next time to avoid this issue.

Guards on the trains seemed to be OK with my pass as well, even though they probably only see them once every few months at best. One guard on a train from York to King's Cross didn't like that I had the dates of validity filled in myself, even though they were written again twice by staff at Paddington in marker. He let me go that time, but warned me that he'd charge for tickets next time. This was fortunately the only encounter like this.

I recommend BritRail for anybody visiting the UK outside of London and thinking of taking the trains. Within London it is mostly not valid, and visitors would get a better value of using the Oyster card, on which there will be a post on in the future. BritRail passes provide a great value for anyone taking long distance trains, as tickets can get rather expensive. For shorter journeys however, it might be best to buy regular tickets from ticket machines. It all depends on your individual travel plans and budget.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Tallink's Tallinn-Stockholm ferries: A review

This post is all about the Tallinn-Stockholm ferry service operated by Tallink. I went on a cruise on this route on December 26-28, and this is a post about my experiences on that ferry, and also a general guide to the service, as I've been on these ferries several times over 12 years.

History of the service

Regular ferry service between Tallinn and Stockholm began on June 16th 1990, when MS Nord Estonia departed Stockholm for Tallinn, operated by EstLine - a joint venture between Estonian and Swedish shipping companies. In 1993, MS Estonia took over the route from Nord Estonia, however her time was cut short by a tragic sinking on September 29th 1994. EstLine continued to operate the route until 2001, when the route was transferred to Tallink - an Estonian ferry company which had previously operated only on the Tallinn-Helsinki route.

MS Victoria I docked in Värtahammen, Stockholm

In 2004, Tallink received MS Victoria I - a brand new ship designed for running between Tallinn and Stockholm. She entered service on March 21st 2004, and remains on the route today. On May 1st 2004, following Estonia's accession to the European Union, a stop was added in Mariehamn, Åland, to allow duty-free sales onboard to continue. MS Victoria I was accompanied on the route by MS Regina Baltica until 2006, when she was replaced by Victoria's sister ship, Romantika, which had previously operated between Tallinn and Helsinki. She was transferred to the Riga-Stockholm route in 2009, when MS Baltic Queen, Tallink's newest cruiseferry, entered service between Tallinn and Stockholm.
Baltic Queen in Tallinn. Source: Wikimedia Commons

About the service

Tallink operates a daily service between Tallinn and Stockholm. Passengers can book a cruise - departing and arriving at the same city, with approximately 7 hours at their destination, or a single or return trip between the two cities. Passengers have a choice between 6 classes of cabins (8 on the Baltic Queen.) On a single/return trip, passengers may also bring a car, for an additional fee. They may also book a place in a shared cabin for a lower cost, while cruise passengers must book an entire cabin.
E-class cabin on board Victoria

A ferry departs Tallinn every day at 18:00 and arrives in Stockholm at 10:15. The departures alternate between the two ships, i.e when Baltic Queen departs Tallinn, Victoria leaves Stockholm. The departure from Stockholm is at 17:30, arriving in Tallinn at 10:45. The ships stop at Mariehamn on the way for 10 minutes, arriving at 04:50 when heading for Stockholm, at 00:50 when headed for Tallinn. For latest, up to date schedules and more traffic information including disruptions, check Tallink's web page on the service.
A display at Terminal D in Tallinn, informing passengers of the ship's departure time.

On-board facilities

As the ships are designed for a leisure service, they have plenty of restaurants, shops, and entertainment on board. 2 decks of both ships are dedicated to public spaces. Deck 6 is where the shops are located. Passengers can buy sweets, alcoholic beverages, souvenirs, electronics, apparel and beauty products free of tax. Deck 7 is mostly for restaurants and bars - both ships have Grande Buffet, Grill House and Gourmet restaurants and the Sea Pub and Piano Bar. Baltic Queen also has a Russian a la Carte restaurant and a Cigar Club for smokers.

There is a show bar, spanning the stern of the ships on decks 6 and 7, where most on-board entertainment activities take place. Inside is also a PAF Casino and arcade games. There is also a disco, childrens' play room, conference centre, spa with saunas and an information desk.

My experience

Baltic Queen and Victoria cruiseferries provide a great experience for people looking for a holiday at sea and for people using it as transportation. While slower than flying, the price includes a night's stay in a comfortable cabin, saving a hotel bill. The best option for travellers on a budget is a shared place in a B class cabin, with a price of around 40-50€ for a one way trip. As passengers on a cruise must book an entire cabin, they are usually entitled to cheaper rates than passengers booking single or return trips. For example, I booked an E-class cabin for 70€ on my cruise, while a return trip on the same dates would've cost over 170€.

The ship is best for group travellers, as the on-board activities are mostly planned as such. Additionally, it is cheaper, as a group of up to 4 people only need one cabin. However, groups should take dining costs into account as well. A dinner in the Grande Buffet costs 31€ when booked in advance, per person, and breakfast is 11€. I recommend passengers to bring food from home if possible, and have breakfast on land outside the ship.

Overall, while I do recommend Tallink's ferry service for transportation and for group holidays, care should be taken when planning it, since expenses on board can go out of control. I would also use caution when booking E-class cabins. The stern thrusters cause vibrations while turning, and this can lead to an unexpected wake-up call as the ship arrives in Mariehamn at night.