Thanks to excellent stories from friends, I learned superb cost-saving ways to travel in Europe. One of the best tips was to use trains not only to go from, say, Paris to Milan, but also to rely on trains for overnight accommodations throughout Western Europe!. My boyfriend and I had been smart enough to purchase first class Eurail Passes, even though they were more expensive than second-class passes. We did so because friends had had whole first-class cabins to themselves, with plenty of room to stretch across the seats, for a reasonably good night’s sleep.
We slept through parts of Holland, France, Switzerland, Italy, and possibly all of smaller countries. We learned to pick our routes so we could enjoy seven or eight hours of sleep and arrive at a new destination fairly refreshed. We saved hundreds in lodging, which we could then spend on better food and more museums. We had been warned to padlock our purses around our waists just in case of thieves but we never met any in First Class cars.
We became skillful trip planners, with destinations planned about 8 hours apart via overnight train schcedules.
Mom Invites Me to Tour France With Her
Mom wanted to enjoy Europe but not alone. When none of her friends had matching vacation schedules, she offered to pay part of my way in exchange for my being her travel companion. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had learned how to keep my costs down on my prior trips – sleeping on trains, lunches on benches with food from the markets, laundry washed in hotel sinks among them.
Mom’s “must sees”: Switzerland, Paris, Brittany, and Mont St. Michel. She included Normandy, especially the graveyards filled with those allies who died on Normandy’s beaches in 1944. Mom has known men who numbered among them and, like many Americans, wanted to see why and where.
After landing in Paris and spending a few days there, we chose Brittany (la Bretagne) as our next stop. Our destination in mind, why give up a whole day for train travel from Paris to Brittany? I suggested we travel at night, economy with efficiency. I was so sure that Mom would want to save money that I did not take time to discuss that idea with her. When we went to reserve our seats, the agent included “la couchette,” which was a hefty add-on fee. I pitched my case for sleeping in our train seats and received icy stares from two pairs of eyes, my mother’s and those of the ticket agent. I had no choice. I paid for my “couchette,” which seemed an exorbitant folly.
We boarded the train about 7 PM, along with about 100 young girls and their counselors. It seems there are a number of camps for pre-teen girls in Brittany. Taking the train to camp seems to be a highlight of summer vacation. “What will all these young ladies do during the long, boring train ride? Surely they’ll be bored…” I mused to myself.
And perhaps they were bored for a fleeting few moments. They wandered up and down the train aisles, chatting with each other, talking in the high—pitched voices of that age. But the counselors had it in hand; they passed out song books and the girls sang. And sang. And sang. The same 10 songs, over and over and over and over and… Around 10 PM, we were told our berths had been made up. We could not wait to get away from the steady stream of camp songs! I was deeply grateful I had reserved “la couchette” in a sleeping car.
We slipped into our couchettes and snuggled into the covers. Peace at last… As I began to drift off, the door opened and I looked down to find who would be our roommates for the night. Six camper girls. Who were singing. Who opened the windows so all the girls on the train could take part in the non-stop chorale. Who ignored my French and my mother’s English.
Each time the train pulled into a town, the station platform was filled with new recruits – more singing girls who harmonized with our singing roommates. And, no, they never went to sleep. Girls and counselors boarded all night long, singing until the train pulled into their stop around 6 AM. That gave Mom and me an entire half-hour of peace and quiet until we had to dress for our destination.
The day was lost. In our hotel, we lay down for a nap about 9 AM and slept until 4 that afternoon.
Years later, whenever I make train reservations, I can’t seem to book another couchette…