Rail trips are a great way to explore a destination beyond the city limits. Frommers.com rail expert Sascha Segan joins host David Lytle to talk about big city and small town pairings of day trips you can take by rail. Segan shares advice about traveling outside London, New York, Washington, D.C., Barcelona, Portland and Hong Kong, and gives day-tripping listeners ideas about building their own railway getaways.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Time: For proper day trips, try to limit travel time to under 3 hours each way.
- London to Lille/Tournai: About 2 hours ride, Lille and Tournai are only 20 minutes apart. Try staying for dinner in Lille, then returning to London for the night.
- Eurostar: Take the Eurostar trains for speed and class. Check prices at RailEurope.com or Eurostar.com.
- New York to Philadelphia: From New York Penn Station, take the Amtrak for about $40 and an hour and ten minutes. Or take the slow train for about $17 and two-and-a-half hours. Explore Philadelphia's Historic District and high-class dining.
- Amtrak: Search for Amtrak on Frommers.com to find the latest discount codes.
- Hong Kong to Guangzhou: About an hour and 40 minutes apart. Hong Kong for the East/West flavor, Guangzhou for the pure Chinese flavor.
- Barcelona to Taragona: About an hour and 30 minutes, explore the Roman ruins in both locations and the local dining.
- Washington D.C. to Baltimore: Take the Market Train for about $7 from D.C. to Baltimore.
- Portland to Eugene (Oregon): About 2 and a half hours apart, experience the Portland's inviting attitude, and Eugene's college-town attitude.
- Bay Area Travel: Take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) for only $1.50.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.Frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi, this is David Lytle. I'm the online editor for Frommers.com. Today we're talking with Sascha Segan. Hi, Sascha.
Sascha Segan: Hi, David.
David: Sascha is a regular contributor to both our newsletter and our podcast. He has contributed to our official guide for Rail Europe.
Today we are going to be talking about, basically, day trips that you can take by train, some surprising locations and routes, and we're going to talk about itineraries around the world.
Tell me about your theory behind this, these sort of surprising day trips that people can take by train.
Sascha: To me an ideal day trip is somewhere that has a very different flavor from your primary destination, and the train is the ideal way to get to a day trip. It's a low-stress means of travel. There is not the worry of navigating roads, of dealing with traffic, of having to rent a car; it is a low environmental impact mode of travel, and people are concerned about green travel right now; and it is nice just to see the landscape go by.
I've put together a list of pairs of cities that would go together well by train, where the two cities have a very different flavor--one is a primary destination, and then the other is somewhere that you can really get a sense of in a day. It's not another great destination where you might need a weekend, but it's not a tiny town which would only give you an hour and a half.
David: Yeah, I know in earlier conversations that you and I have had, you have sort of poo-poo'ed this idea that people will take a day trip from London to Paris.
Sascha: Yeah, that was my example of a bad day trip. I know people do it, but I really recommend they don't. Paris and London both deserve so much more than the eight hours you have on a day trip. I can understand why you would do it if you absolutely had to, but I don't necessarily want to recommend only spending eight hours in Paris.
David: Right, yeah, exactly. It does deserve far more than eight hours. Would you say that these sort of recommendations that you're making--I mean, anybody can do them, but sort of looking over the list, I was thinking, "Oh, these are really for somebody who is re-visiting a favorite destination, and it's a way to start exploring even beyond the boundaries of that city."
Sascha: I think that is certainly a good way to look at it. On your first trip to a destination, it's good to stay there, it's good to explore that city and explore its nooks and crannies; but once you have come back to a place for the second, third, fourth time, you start to get curious about what's around there, using your familiar city as a base to jump off for a day to somewhere more unfamiliar.
David: So your suggestion for a day trip from London is two smaller French cities.
Sascha: Yes. Actually, one is French and one is Belgian. They are right next to each other--they are only 20 minutes apart--and trains run between them all the time. My idea there is that the ultimate train to take from London, in terms of luxury and class and speed and fun, is the Eurostar, the Channel Tunnel train. It is a wonder of the world unto itself.
Sascha: And it puts you very much in a different culture. Where there are a lot of day trips that you can take around England very easily, taking the train from London to France makes it clear how small Europe is, and how many different cultures they pack into how small a space. Lille is a beautiful little city, nice 17th Century core, and Tournai has even some medieval elements--also very beautiful, and that's in yet another country. So you'll have a satisfying time in three different countries, using one of the most amazing trains in the world, all in one day.
David: How long is the train ride?
Sascha: The train ride, I think, from London to Lille, is just about two hours. So that's perfect for a day trip. I think if it's more than three hours each way, it is a little too much traveling for a day.
David: And at the end of the day, too, if you're on a train and it's a two hour ride, you can even get a little nap in on your way back, before you maybe get back into your major destination and have dinner that evening, if you leave early enough.
Sascha: I'd recommend, with this trip, trying to have dinner in Lille. I mean, it's a very nice little French city, you can get some very nice French food, and you can catch one of the later Eurostars and sleep in your bed in London.
David: That would be nice. Now, what's the average cost for a train ticket for that route?
Sascha: I haven't checked the prices recently. You can find them, of course, on RailEurope.com or on Eurostar.com. I think it's about $100 each way, in general, for a Eurostar ticket.
David: OK, but it's, I mean, that's really affordable.
Sascha: There are specials as low as, I think, 60 euros, so that's what, $75?
David: Yeah, right around there.
Sascha: Right, but once again, the Eurostar is very special. It's an attraction unto itself. It is probably one of the most expensive trains in Europe, but it is also such a marvel of engineering and such a marvel of speed that it is the kind of thing where you'll say, "Hey, taking the train was a big part of the journey."
David: Right, exactly. It's an experience unto itself.
You also have some nice domestic recommendations here--Boston to Providence, DC to Baltimore, New York to Philadelphia, Portland to Eugene, Oregon.
Sascha: New York to Philadelphia is actually my favorite suggestion of that bunch. New York is so powerful and huge and all-encompassing, you think, "Well, everything within a couple of hours of New York must bow down to New York or be in some way a suburb of New York." And it's not actually true.
You can hop on an Amtrak train in Penn Station, and for about $40 or $50, in an hour and ten minutes, be in Philadelphia, which is a really nice, medium-sized city, with a very different flavor and a very strong identity of its own--signature foods, sports teams, a really nice museum. For a day trip to Philadelphia, though, I just like to walk around the Historic District. It is this lovely, very pedestrian area, going from Society Hill, through Old Town, over to Rittenhouse Square. It is just a great walk, a great area to hang out.
Now that's another trip where you might want to have dinner in your day trip. Philadelphia has some very high-class restaurants. For instance, I have been to the one run by Masaharu Morimoto, the Iron Chef. Philadelphia's best restaurants often cost half of what Manhattan's best restaurants cost. So, somewhat, you can think of yourself as making your train fare back with the money you save on food.
David: Right. I know in the past year, year-and-a-half, sort of the description, now, of Philadelphia is that it's becoming almost the sixth borough of New York, because it is just close enough that people can live there more affordably and still go in to work in New York.
Sascha: I think that's overstated. I don't think there is all that much commuting; but one interesting trend is, some younger people, some more artsy people, have decided to settle in Philadelphia, and it has given the city a little bit more of an artsy flavor.
David: Yeah. So something also, then, to look out for is the arts scene in the city, when you go for your day trip.
Sascha: Yeah, absolutely. Now, there are two ways to get there. There is your $40 or $50 each way Amtrak, which is very fast, it only takes an hour and ten minutes. There is also a slow train you can take, which is what I used to do in college. The deal there is, it takes two-and-a-half hours each way, but it only costs $17.
David: Right, so if you're really on a tight budget--and it is, it's always that balancing act. It's like, what's more valuable to you, is it the actual dollar amount or is it your time?
Sascha: Exactly. When I was younger and I used to visit friends, going from New York to Philadelphia for the day, I would consider, for instance, taking Amtrak there in the morning, so I could be there as quickly as possible, but then just taking one of the slow trains back in the evening because I didn't really care when I got home.
David: Right, exactly.
One of the things that you do for us on a regular basis, you dig deep and we publish a list of Amtrak codes for discounts. Is this route ever discounted?
Sascha: Oh, absolutely. If you go look at our latest list of codes on Frommers.com, and if you just search the site for Amtrak, it will come up.
Sascha: So that applies to the Northeast Corridor. There are very often codes that apply for companion fares; and right now there is one triumphant Amtrak code that applies for every Amtrak route in the whole country, if you can't find another code. So just search on Frommers.com, and you'll find our whole list of codes; they'll get you discounts of between 10 and 25 percent on any train ticket.
David: That's good, and that can make a big difference if you're traveling with a group of people as well. I mean, those multiple tickets add up quickly.
David: Tell me about one of the trips you've listed, which is Hong Kong to Guangzhou.
Sascha: That is one of the favorite short day trips I have taken. There are several trains a day, and the two cities are surprisingly close together--it's just about an hour and 40 minutes--but the flavor is so different, especially if you're staying over in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is now part of China, but Hong Kong is really still a city-state. It still has its East-West flavor, and it feels in a lot of ways like the New York of Asia. But you hop on a train and you go to Guangzhou and you are in China. You are in absolute, positive, nowhere else, no other influences, China. You walk around and you see the chaos and the frantic building, and yet the people playing in dusty alleyways, and the guys doing knife sharpening.
Now, Guangzhou was also, was formerly known as Canton--that's what a lot of English-speaking people might originally know it as--and it is famous for crazy, crazy cuisine. It has been said that the Cantonese will eat--what is it?--anything on the ground except a car, anything in the air except an airplane, anything in the sea except a submarine.
And you can walk through the food market in Guangzhou and see the most absolutely improbable live things for sale. It is really an experience. So a very different flavor from Hong Kong, a very educational trip, giving you much more of a strong feel of China, and yet only an hour and forty minutes west.
David: It's nice to be able to provide that contrast, too, because I know some people--like, I love being in cities, but I have friends, and my partner who I travel with, who, they sometimes like the quieter aspects of travel, not being in a city. So you can provide a nice counterbalance.
Sascha: Well, there are... I didn't put these in my column because it wasn't really the theme, but in pretty much every city that I can think of there are great day trips you can take by rail to smaller towns, where you can sort of stroll around for a little while and get a more mellow feel.
I mean here, from New York, some of my favorite day trips are, for instance, to Cold Spring and Beacon, north of the city, which are two relatively quaint villages, one of which has a huge modern art museum. Or to New Haven, which is a town in Connecticut which is the home of Yale University, where you can just kind of mellow out on the university campus and get the real feel of a college town.
David: Right, right, exactly. Are you talking about the Dia Museum, is that the modern art museum?
Sascha: Yup, Dia Beacon. It's in an old, I believe it's a factory, and it's this vast, cavernous space full of cutting-edge art. Not the kind of thing you would expect from an almost run-down little town way up in Sussex County, New York, so it's a very pleasant surprise.
David: Now what about this trip, Barcelona to Taragona.
Sascha: That's interesting if you're interested in history. Barcelona is, of course, an ancient city. It was originally Roman, but the real feel you get from it, and from the old city, is more of a medieval to 17th century feel. Taragona, which is just about an hour and a half away, down the coast, frequent, inexpensive trains, has a great collection of Roman ruins.
So you can go down to Taragona. Now, it is a city. It is not one of those protected ruins sites, so you can have a great time on some of the plazas, drinking coffee, eating tapas and other Spanish foods, and tour the Roman ruins, which give you this idea of how truly ancient Spain is.
David: Right, and of course the vast reach of the Roman Empire.
David: It's just always surprising where Roman ruins pop up.
Sascha: Yes. That actually reminds me of a day trip I took once from London. It was into the suburb of, I believe it's St. Alban's.
Sascha: It is just north of London. Another huge collection of Roman ruins. It is otherwise--let me see if I've got that right, because I'm remembering it off the top of my head.
Sascha: It is otherwise a relatively nondescript suburb of London, except it has this vast city, this Roman city, built there. And you think, "In England?" And yet, it is; and yes, I was right, it's St. Alban's.
David: OK, that's great. Looking at this list here: DC to Baltimore?
Sascha: DC and Baltimore are these wonderful sibling twin cities. Where Baltimore has this continual inferiority complex of being more blue collar, more rough-and-tumble, less fancy, less wealthy city sister of DC; but the two cities are connected by a very frequent train, and once again, they have very different flavors.
Baltimore, you'll know if you have ever watched a John Waters movie, has a very small-town, very local feel to it. It is a place where people call each other, "Hun"; where they have characteristic local cuisine--apparently based on Old Bay seasonings; where they have this harbor that they are very proud of, with a water taxi that goes to various sites; and some charming residential neighborhoods.
David: Baltimore has a great aquarium.
Sascha: Yes it does. The Baltimore Aquarium is terrific. And once again, it is just a city with its own very recognizable culture. Great for a day trip. Base yourself in DC, which has several days' worth of attractions, and just take the Market Train for $7 up to Baltimore for the day.
David: Oh, that's great, $7. Yeah, recognizable culture. Also, a very recognizable accent.
Sascha: You bet.
Sascha: Exactly: B-A-W-L-M-E-R, Bawlmer.
David: I love visiting those places where just the sounds of people's voices let you know that you're in a different place.
Sascha: Yes, and that is once again a prime, prime day trip destination. You know you've gone somewhere different.
David: Let's see... Portland to Eugene.
Sascha: That was a little bit of a challenge. I was looking for things on the West Coast, and it turns out that a lot of the destinations I would want to pair up on the West Coast are just too far for a day trip by train. The West Coast is very car oriented, and you could do a lot of great day trips by car--you could do L.A. to Santa Barbara, you could do L.A. to San Diego--but the trains are just a little too slow.
So I picked out Portland and Eugene almost as half of a joke, but it's a funny joke that you'd enjoy taking. They are about two to two-and-a-half hours apart. Portland is this very mellow, kind of post-collegiate city that's missing one thing, and the one thing that Portland is missing is a big college with the sense of a college. Portland has a lot of loose 20-somethings that seem to be acting out positions of nineties slackers, but the colleges seem to lay pretty low on the ground there.
Sascha: Eugene, on the other hand, is Oregon's college town, and if you go there you kind of see embryonic Portland people...
Sascha: ... in a very young, hippie lifestyle; and it's a pretty little town. So they are two fun cities to pair. You could even think of Eugene as a far away neighborhood of Portland.
David: Yeah, exactly. I mean, Portland is just inviting in almost every way. People are very relaxed, they are very happy. I guess you could maybe consider Eugene to be just a younger version of Portland.
Sascha: Exactly. So you can play your comparisons of, are the college students even more vital? What would the population of Portland do if they didn't have to make a living, as many college students don't?
David: [laughs] Right, right, because they have the luxury of just being immersed in their thoughts.
Sascha: Exactly. Now, you could argue that you could just take the train out from San Francisco to Berkeley for the same effect, but Eugene is much prettier than Berkeley, because Berkeley is sort of part of the Oakland megalopolis.
Sascha: Berkeley isn't necessarily a physically pretty town the way Eugene is.
David: Right. I think the Berkeley campus has its little stellar spots, but yeah, I have to agree with you, it is not gorgeous by any means. If you are driving it is nearly impossible to find parking, so you should be taking something like Bay Area Rapid Transit to get there.
Sascha: Yeah. I have generally found, in the San Francisco area, the rule you should follow while being a tourist is--since you live there you can tell me if it's a rule that residents should follow too--is, if BART actually goes there, take BART.
Sascha: Because parking seems to be such a nightmare in the Bay Area in general.
David: Yeah, exactly. It is a common question on our message boards. People are like, "Should I rent a car when I'm in San Francisco?" And unless you're staying at one of the motels out on Lombard Street that offer free parking, you are not going to find parking in the city unless you're paying $45 a day.
Sascha: Right, and there are reasons to drive in San Francisco--you can take the 17-mile drive around the edge of the city; wine country is a lot easier to access by car, public transit access to wine country is not great--but you can have a very satisfying time in the San Francisco area entirely with public transit.
David: Yeah, oh absolutely. You can just ride the F-Line and just go all along the waterfront, and it costs $1.50.
Sascha, thanks for talking to us today. I think we've given our listeners some good tips for just an offbeat way to consider some things to do on their vacation by taking a day trip to someplace unexpected.
Sascha: Well thanks for having me, David, and of course keep an eye on the Frommers.com newsletters, where you'll find whatever ideas I can come up with in any given week.
David: Sure. I love reading your stuff, so, thanks for your contributions too. Have a good day.
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