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  • Writer's pictureEveline Vouillemin

Train X Europe - No-fly travel service for Europe

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

We spoke to Harry Brennan, founder of Train X Europe and learnt about the flight free revival across Europe and planning the perfect trip.

There is a growing demand across Europe for low carbon, overland travel and Train X Europe is one of a growing number of companies who are supporting this adventurous new era of travel.

Train X Europe was founded in 2022 by Harry Brennan, an enthusiastic advocate for flight-free travel, and it is a fully customisable, no-fly travel service for Europe. It is helping to provide people with the knowledge and confidence to make a success of their flight-free adventures.

We spoke to Harry about the flight free travel movement, advice for planning your first flight free trip and the most underrated rail destination in Europe...

Can you give us an overview of Train X Europe and tell us about what you do?

It is a service which creates customised and personalised flight free travel plans and route maps. But it isn’t just creating a list or a timetable, it's also about giving people the visual and written information which will help them on their journey.

I offer additional services such as creating a map of all the places you can go from a certain starting point because a lot of the time people know that they could go on holiday without flying, but they want to be able to visualise their options on a map or table. I create city guides as well.

If I want to plan a holiday but it is open-ended, people need the equivalent of going on Skyscanner and choosing the option to go anywhere. I try to provide more of an equivalent for that.

That is the fundamental idea and the main thing to note is that it's not a travel package service, so I don't book anything.

When did you become conscious of the flight free travel movement?

It was definitely a gradual process. I think the turning point was around 2019. I did quite a big trip in the summer, which involved a lot of overland travel, but also, a couple of flights.

It wasn't planned as a flight free trip at all but I tried a proper sleeper train and I was testing the waters a bit more and then with the pandemic, especially during the first lockdown, I spent a lot of time making this big spreadsheet and map for myself of all the places I can travel to by train. I kept looking at it more and more.

I had also been doing a PhD, which I just finished recently, so that involved some travel for research and for conferences, so I thought more about travel as a result. Essentially, before the pandemic I was starting to think about it and then by last year I had become a little bit obsessed.

So did the inspiration for Train X Europe come from creating all these spreadsheets for yourself, and then wanting to share them with other people?

Yes, pretty much! I mentioned it to some people later on in the pandemic and they said they would like to use that. I was living in Edinburgh at the time, and it takes a little bit more work to plan a trip from Edinburgh because most trips will start from places like London or Newcastle before you're even going anywhere else in Europe.

My whole family is from Ireland, so I also appreciate how being an island also means that you are that bit further from the continent. So, talking to people who also wanted similar things, I realised that if I'm going to be pulling together all this information, I'm not the only person who needs to use it. I saw the potential for a business.

Have you committed to never flying again?

I would love to say no more flights but at the moment I can't do that for a few reasons. The one most obvious reason is that my partner is American so to visit her family there's obviously going to be some transatlantic flying.

However, I am committed to minimising it and I am reducing my flights drastically, but I have not been able to get rid of all of them.

For my most recent trip, in late January, I did a week and a half trip where I went from the Netherlands down to the south coast of Spain without flying but then I had a whiskey conference in Hamburg (for my other business) which I had to be at the next day.

I couldn't move my visit to Spain because I was meeting family and they'd already booked everything so I did no flying all the way to Malaga, I flew from Malaga to Copenhagen and then took the night train from Copenhagen to Hamburg, and then a train from Hamburg all the way back to the Netherlands.

I kept the number of flights down, whereas I could have just done three different flights. So, the short answer is, it's far from ideal and I would like to get rid of all flights. At the moment, I am trying to work on reducing it down and will only fly if I can't figure out another option. It means that most of the time I'm trying to maximise adding different visits and trips together.

You've mentioned a few times that you have travelled on night trains for different journeys. Do you feel that there is a train travel revival happening across Europe right now?

I'd say there is a revival of interest from people but is there a revival of service and infrastructure? Actually, not really, or at least it's a very sluggish one. It might just be my sort of impatience as someone who works in this area, but even looking at 2008-2010, up to and into the financial crash, it's incredible how many night trains there were that don't run anymore.

Then the pandemic killed off even more of them, especially the ones that crossed all of Spain and Portugal. I talk to people online who work on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and the carriages that were created for the night service still exist. They're just sitting there.

The very slow revival of these trains and train routes is partly due to the fact that none of the European train companies seem to want to work together very efficiently. Also, for some reason, everyone is refusing to order new carriages. That's why the recent European Sleeper route to Berlin took so long, because there's no or very few new carriages coming.

But essentially, yes there is a revival. There are new services and interest is definitely increasing but it's going a lot slower than I think people might think.

So, I've never myself taken a night train. I would love to. What advice would you give to people who've never taken the night train before?

Firstly, I would tell people, not to let the experience of night trains in the UK colour those of the rest of the continent. I know what it's like to sit on the Caledonian Sleeper all night from London to Inverness or Fort William. And if ever it is at all possible, don't take the seat option, even though it might be temptingly cheap.

Having a bed is worth the extra money and if you can't afford that extra money, I would suggest you find a different way to do it. There may be a cheaper travel option during the day.

If you travel overnight on a seat, you don't get the sleep, you don't really get the convenience of it and it's a false economy. That's what Seat 61 always says. It's a rule I have broken before, but it's generally a good rule.

The other thing is it’s interesting to give it a try if you get the chance because I think people can worry about it because they can't picture the space or they don't have the experience of it but it's something that in so many other countries, where these services are common, everyone of all ages does it.

The trains are designed for you to get a night's sleep. The lights are dimmed, the temperature is managed, and you get sleep aids like a mask and some earplugs.

Maybe bring additional sleep aids just in case, especially if you're going on a couple of night trains.

You also need to think about when you're getting on the train, at what point in the route you are joining. Some people will already be asleep if you join at a later stop and you may have to set an alarm to wake up if you are getting off before the final destination. These small details are examples of the type of information I provide to people through Train X Europe.

What advice/encouragement would you give to people who love to travel but want to reduce their impact on the environment?

You don't want to make people feel like they're limiting their experiences and obviously it's hard to plan with time off and financial strain and half the time the more expensive thing is to either travel through the UK or stay in the UK. I think trying to think about how you can maximise your time is very important.

You have an incentive to do fewer longer trips because you can't really do a long weekend so easily. There are some routes you can do, but obviously most of the time you're going to need a longer trip, something like a week, rather than doing multiple smaller trips, which I think is the tendency with flights.

You can still visit all the same places but now you might just have to figure out how you're going to stick them together into one trip. I think that's the best way to make use of your time and money to still do flight free travel.

What tips do you have for people who are planning their first flight free trip?

Well besides, go to Train X Europe, I think you've got to have your priorities clear. I know I’ve talked a lot about holiday travel, but this goes for business trips as well. With business trips, the priority is very clear, because you will have something you have to go for such as training or a conference and everything revolves around that.

Whereas with holidays, it's very easy to get sucked in because you have so many options, so it is key to have your priorities clear.

The only other thing I would say, because we're talking about the UK specifically, is to get to know the travel routes that are most relevant for you based on where you are living in the UK. If I have two people asking for advice for a route but one lives in Bristol and one is in Newcastle, I'm going to give them vastly different advice.

I think those two are a great place to start. Thinking clearly about your travel priorities and figuring out the specific options based on where you live.

Organisations such as Flight Free UK and Byway, put an emphasis on the journey being a part of the holiday experience. Do you agree with them?

I definitely agree but I do think people have to experience it for themselves to understand it. With trains, buses, and ferries, you really do have the chance to actually see the environment you are passing through. It does make a big difference because you are already getting something out of the trip before you arrive at your destination.

Could you talk about maybe your most memorable flight free travel experiences and what you really loved about them?

A really memorable trip is the flight free trip I did last summer in June. I travelled all the way from Edinburgh to Porto without flying. I was moving from Scotland to the Netherlands, but there was a gap in between moving and I was going to attend a history conference for my PhD in Porto.

All the parts of the trip worked pretty well. I didn't have any major issues or delays.

Well, I did manage to smash my laptop when I dropped my bag in Barcelona, but that was my fault, not the travel! Everything travel related was great. I took high speed trains and the night train for the first time from start to finish, and I loved it. I took some coaches, which were not as fun, but they were short, and they were scenic.

Another memorable experience is the very first time I ever took a night train, and I messed it up. I travelled around Italy for a week on a week's pass for Italy and I didn't really understand how these things worked, so I'd just booked seat. I arrived in a carriage compartment, and it was just me and this other guy. The compartment was empty except for the two of us and we think we’ll be able to stretch out and lie flat because we discover that the six seats in the compartment fold into a bed.

Then other people start to come in and we realise that it is just the seats. We were awake all night, wedged up against this family of four who had arrived who spoke no English and we spoke no Italian.

We were on that train all the way until 6:00 AM in Rome and we just stumbled into Rome feeling absolutely miserable. It was followed by a wonderful day in the city, but it just goes to show that you need to do some research before you go or you'll have some very uncomfortable experiences.

I've made mistakes, but now I have so much experience which allows me to help others through Train X Europe. I can give people the advice they need, so they don't make the same mistakes that I did.

What do you think is the most underrated rail destination in Europe?

I would have to say Valença in Portugal which is not a big junction but it's right by where the Portuguese and Spanish border. It's a lovely destination to approach from either direction and somewhere almost no one thinks to go because it's not that big but it's a lovely environment.

The river is amazing and it's historical because it's on the Camino de Santiago that everyone knows across Spain, but the Portuguese Camino coming up from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela is stunning.

So that's somewhere I would absolutely recommend if anyone's visiting Spain or Portugal.

And finally, how would you describe your perfect holiday experience?

My perfect holiday experience would not be too rushed. I’d give myself time to rest and recover, which I'm not always very good but I'm getting better. I’d make sure I have lots of interesting things to eat and drink because I’ve got be honest, that's always my first thought on holiday, no point pretending otherwise!

By Eveline Vouillemin ©

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