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The National Rail Enquiries website is the clearinghouse for information on train times and fares as well as to book rail journeys around Britain—and the earlier the better. Tickets bought two to three weeks in advance can cost a quarter of the price of tickets bought on the day of travel. However, journeys within commuting distance of city centers are sold at unvarying set prices, and those can be purchased on the day you expect to make your journey without any financial penalty. You may also be able to purchase a PlusBus ticket, which adds unlimited bus travel at your destination. Note that, in busy city centers such as London, all travel costs more during morning rush hour. You can purchase tickets online, by phone, or at any rail station in the United Kingdom. Check the website or call the National Rail Enquiries line to get details of the train company responsible for your journey and have them give you a breakdown of available ticket prices. Regardless of which train company is involved, many discount passes are available, such as the 16-25 Railcard (for which you must be under 26 and provide a passport-size photo), the Senior Railcard, and the Family & Friends Travelcard, which can be bought from most mainline stations. But if you intend to make several long-distance rail journeys, it can be a good idea to invest in a BritRail Pass (which you must buy in the United States).
You can get a BritRail Pass valid for London and the surrounding counties, for England, for Scotland, or for all of Britain. Discounts (usually 20%-25%) are offered if you're between 16 and 25, over 60, traveling as a family or a group, or accompanied by a British citizen. The pass includes discounts on the Heathrow Express and Eurostar. BritRail Passes come in two basic varieties. The Classic pass allows travel on consecutive days, and the FlexiPass allows a number of travel days within a set period of time. The cost (in U.S. dollars) of a BritRail Consecutive Pass adult ticket for eight days is $359 standard and $509 first-class; for 15 days, $535 and $759; and for a month, $759 and $1,139. The cost of a BritRail FlexiPass adult ticket for four days' travel in two months is $315 standard and $445 first-class; for eight days' travel in two months, $459 and $649; and for 15 days' travel in two months, $689 and $975. Prices drop by about 25% for off-peak travel passes between November and February.
Most long-distance trains have refreshment carriages, called buffet cars. Most trains these days also have "quiet cars" where use of cell phones and music devices is banned, but these rules are not enforced with any enthusiasm. Smoking is forbidden in all rail carriages.
Generally speaking, rail travel in the United Kingdom is expensive: for instance, a round-trip ticket to Bath from London can cost around £143 per person at peak times. The fee drops to around £27 at other times, so it's best to travel before or after the frantic business commuter rush (after 9:30 am and before 4:30 pm). Credit cards are accepted for train fares paid both in person and by phone.
Delays are not uncommon, but they're rarely long. You almost always have to go to the station to find out if there's going to be one (because delays tend to happen at the last minute). Luckily, most stations have coffee shops, restaurants, and pubs where you can cool your heels while you wait for the train to get rolling. National Rail Enquiries provides an up-to-date state-of-the-railways schedule.
Most of the time, first-class train travel in England isn't particularly first-class. Some train companies don't offer at-seat service, so you still have to get up and go to the buffet car for food or drinks. First class is generally booked by business travelers on expense accounts because crying babies and noisy families are quite rare in first class, and quite common in standard class.
Short of flying, taking the Eurostar train through the channel tunnel is the fastest way to reach the continent: 2 hours and 15 minutes from London's St. Pancras International station to Paris's Gare du Nord. The high-speed Eurostar trains use the same tunnels to connect St. Pancras International directly with Midi station in Brussels in around two hours. If purchased in advance, round-trip tickets from London to Belgium or France cost from around £125, cheaper in the very early or very late hours of the day. If you want to bring your car over to France, you can use the Eurotunnel Shuttle, which takes 35 minutes from Folkestone to Calais, plus at least 30 minutes to check in. The Belgian border is just a short drive northeast of Calais.
BritRail Travel (866/938-7245 in U.S. and Canada. www.britrail.com.)
Eurostar (08432/186-186; 1233/617-575 outside U.K. www.eurostar.com.)
National Rail Enquiries (0845/748-4950; 020/7278-5240 outside U.K. www.nationalrail.co.uk.)
Channel Tunnel Car Transport
Eurotunnel (0844/335-3535 in U.K.; 3-21-00-20-61 from outside Europe—use country code 33. www.eurotunnel.com.)
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