Plain Trains and Automobiles: Squeezing the most out of getting from A to B.

We’ve just passed a sign reading ‘Lyon 125km’ meaning I’m approaching the last hour of the third leg of four of my journey to the French Alps. Usually in this day and age, getting from Scotland to France is an inexpensive return flight. Some EasyJet scramble out of bed, into the airport, grab coffee and something vaguely porridge-like at Pret, onto the plane, obligatory glance at the attendant showing you how to not open the life jacket inside the plane, maybe a stale coffee and an offer of David Beckham’s new fragrance without tax but you’re paying 25% above RRP anyway, maybe you might buy a kilo of tobacco tax free so you can get in on that Panama paper action. After landing you show off your queuing prowess, you’re British after all, then maybe a sardine tin for your transfer, or you go a rent a car, which is added stress for whoever’s driving. Maybe you get lost on the way, maybe it goes really smoothly. At the end of it you’ve spent 11 hours of your time, only 3 of which were actually flying, the rest was just a weird blur of air conditioning and adverts mixed in with babies screaming.
Okay so I’m a cynic, but not this time, not me. I’m now at the age where family holidays are something I have the choice of signing up for, along with this freedom comes the responsibility of getting there off my own back. Easy, I’ve travelled. But not on Easter weekend, that shit’s expensive, pushing £120 each way from London. Not including the train to London, then to the airport, food in the airport, and being in an airport. Luckily this isn’t the only option. Megabus, for all the scorn I’ve seen it given, is brilliant. £60 return to London, added onto that a well timed purchase of a £28 return from Glasgow to London, £13 for a hostel next to Victoria Coach Station, and I’m looking at a skiing holiday for about £120 when you include food and a train to the airport in Lyon to meet my family. I’m now going to try and convince you why it is not only worth the savings, it’s worth your time. I was brought up doing these coach trips with school, 21 hours here, 18 there. Since school I’ve spent 50 hours on a train and 25 on a bus in Vietnam another 15 in Thailand, 12 in Australia. I came back from Barcelona by bus in August and spent 30 hours there. Every time I’ve taken wheeled transport on international journeys, I’ve not only saved money, and lowered my carbon footprint, I’ve met people, seen things and done more.

23rd March 14:40 – Glasgow – London

So I’ve strolled into town from my flat, with my Osprey backpack on my back and a wee bag on my front. I look like I’m a tourist, which is weird in your home city. Once at the station I’m  greeted with a 40 minute delay. This isn’t all bad, firstly I’m in no rush. Second, a delay over 30 minutes on a Virgin train means a refund. Always check out delay and repay on Virgin trains, I’ve travelled for free about 5 times now because of ‘freight trains breaking down’ or ‘an earlier problem with signals outside of Preston’. Keep hold of your ticket and booking details and you’re laughing, if you want to be really cheeky, once you know it’s delayed, upgrade yourself to first class and get the free grub.
Two hours later I’m steadily being rocked side to side with the train, passing through the Lake District as the sun starts to dip, projecting orange and dark purple rays through clouds and around the hills.
Sadly good wifi on trains isn’t a thing in the UK yet, although much of the rest of the world has got on board with the idea. However if you’ve got a good data plan and a smart phone, you can hotspot yourself into a rolling office. You could, for roughly the same price, fly from Glasgow to London, and door to door you’ll take about the same time, but that time will be spent standing in line, security checks, the 23 times you have to double check your boarding pass and passport haven’t disapparated, more queuing at your gate, then barely enough time in the air for you to take off your seatbelt, more queues, more security, waiting for bags, finding your way out of the airport and actually into London. By this point you’ve achieved nothing apart from a higher-than-average blood pressure.
When I got off the train at Euston now an hour late (full refund), I’d sorted through emails, written an article, and done a solid chunk of my to do list. I also watched an episode of ‘Thirteen’ on BBC iPlayer.
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23rd March 20:30 – London

So I met up with my friend Emily and we walked to the hostel I’m staying in. Sadly my family finally cut ties with London last year and a train out to the countryside costs about £15 each way depending on rush hour, and I’ have to be up at 4am. So for that £15 I got myself a hostel bed and a pint at PubLove in Victoria. Emily and I had dinner, then I went to bed. I’m actually a huge fan of hostels, quiet or rowdy, I feel like I’m travelling again.

24th March 06:00 – London – Paris

After getting up and showering as quietly as possible so as not to wake everyone else who struggled to sleep with some Italian guys’ snores, I headed out to grab some breakfast at Victoria and then get the bus. Yet another delay, this time 45 minutes, but after a semi-orderly queue I’m on the bus next to a 10-year-old who’s headed to Turin with his 4 siblings and mother. Sitting contemplating the risk factor -he could be really well behaved and I enjoy extra leg room or he could puke on me…- the bus pulled away and slowly worked through London. Making the most of the USB charging ports on the Megabus and the free wifi which actually works (you get 300mb of fast wifi per device and then slower but still decent wifi), I watch another few episodes of Thirteen, read a few journals, and start planning what I’m going to do in Paris. The child stays silent mostly, until his two sisters squeeze onto his and my seat with us to play on an iPad. Not the worst 8 hours of my life, there’s minimal queuing for passport control, until we get to the other side of the channel. In the wake of Paris attacks in November and Brussels only a few days ago, the police seem quite vigilant on random checks. Although I question how random they are when they merely glance at my and any other white persons passport, but collect any person of colour’s and take them outside to confer with their colleagues. The bus has been delayed and it’s quite cramped. With this kind of thing I’ve found you don’t get anywhere faster by being annoyed by how uncomfortable you are, the sooner you settle down into your position (be it cramped up against a window by smelly children) the sooner you’ll start to enjoy the smaller things (not the children).

24th March 20:00 – Paris – Lyon

3 hours late into Paris is slightly annoying because the four hour break I was going to use to explore, eat and slack-line, has been shortened to 45 minutes. I just have time to walk to the supermarket and grab some snacks, snap a few photos and head back to the bus. Now for what I thought would be the worst leg. When I get back to the bus I begin to appreciate the anal British queuing as French and Italian travellers flock to the woman checking them onto the bus like hungry carp attacking a badly judged tearing of bread. If I’ve learnt anything from my travels it is in a situation like this, lots of stressed people speaking many different languages, clambering for the ‘best seat’ the best thing for you to do is step back, smile and relax. The bus isn’t going anywhere. Smiles, manners and a tiny bit of cheek can get you really far, especially with bus drivers. They do this everyday, long hours ferrying people on holiday. The driver in question is sitting having a cigarette watching the display with vague amusement. He checks his watch as I walk over to him, we’re both aware that it’s late again. After a quick chat I ask him if it’d be possible to sit in the only seats downstairs where no one else is sat. “It looks out of bounds but would that be okay? Totally cool if not”. He smiles and tells me I have to move if I snore. I’ve now spent the last 5 hours sleeping beautifully with three seats to myself and more leg room than you could swing…your legs at. I’ve slept far better in the last 5 hours than since I left Glasgow. I’ll be in Lyon in an hour and a bit, and from there I’m meeting my parents at the airport seven hours later, giving me time to slackline, watch the sunrise, and chow down on some pain au chocolat.
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25th March 09:00 – Lyon

So I slept really well on the bus strangely. Got to Lyon at about 3:30am, with nowhere to stay and nothing open I looked in a lonely planet ebook for places to see. Clearly in Lyon THE place is the Basalisk Notre-Dame (not a hunch back form of the Hogwarts snake), a massive church atop a hill overlooking France’s third largest city. From the bus stop I rented a city bike and pedalled to the bottom of the hill with my two big bags. It’s not surprise that I got a lot of shouts from people heading home from their nights out before the long weekend. At the bottom of the hill the church sits up I decided it would be best to walk…because these bikes only have three gears and I’m carrying an extra 30kg. So the first little hike I’ve done since the Pyrenees was back in France, at 4am, with two bags and lots of layers which I couldn’t be bothered to take off.

I’d hoped to manage to put up a slackline inside the grounds of the Basalisk but no such luck, it wasn’t open. Just round the corner however is a really nice park with a modern, well-lit bridge that worked perfectly. Come 6am joggers were enjoying the new found obstacle course my early morning hobby had created while I kept occupied and enjoying the sunrise in a city I’ve never been before. Watching unknown landscapes slowly come into fruition with the dawn of a new day is ridiculously exciting, because the change from lights to structure is so gradual you have to remind yourself it’s happening.

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Now I’m sat in a coffee shop 5 hours later, trying to persuade myself to finish my breakfast and go sit in the airport for another hour. I’m not going to lie, I’m not looking forward to another four hours in a vehicle.

 

25th March 17:00 – Meribèl

So after waiting at the wrong stop for the half hour tram to the airport, which I finally got (more free wifi), I met the rather exhausted looking ‘fam’ at the airport. Ironically my dad’s bought a new camera in ‘duty free’. Another 3 hours of getting slightly lost while the rental car’s sat nav becomes more and more sarcastic, we finally got in. Everyone seems really tired apart from me so I cook, we go hire skis and I’ve got a nice proper mattress, suddenly any discomfort all feels worth it.

The Return: Meribèl 1st April 10:00 – London 2nd April 08:00

This time I was only heading to London to stay with the other half of the family for a week. The same slightly bewildering car journey, followed by getting the tram without my rents and sister who had a 6 hour wait until their flight so wanted to go into Lyon too because I was nearly late. Onto the bus, which this time round is practically empty. The hours to Paris pass incredibly quick and once there I have 2 hours in which I meet a fellow passenger ‘Reni’ from Germany who’s heading to Glasgow with her boyfriend. Naturally overly-trusting, I give her my keys and my address and let my flatmates know there’s going to be a stranger staying in our home (update: humans are perfectly trustworthy and often leave chocolate as a thank you, although LeftRight Repeat take no responsibility for adverse affects of overzealous generosity). Once back on the bus I cheekily asked the bus driver, this time an incredibly jokey guy, if we could both sit downstairs, he obliged. He also turned out to be an incredibly interesting guy who cycles all over when he is on his bus routes and not driving. He also left the Mormon church recently although all his family are still avid followers including his wife and children. With any luck you’ll see more of him on here. Just before we got into Calais we were stopped by a roadblock made by refugees directly in front of us. Watching helpless as the police came and scared people, in desperate need of help away stirred a quite large pool of self-awareness in me. I had no idea how anyone could feel so desperate, and I never would, and here I was complaining about delays.

The Footprint

A I said at the beginning of this rather long-winded commute, not only did I meet awesome people and do loads on my way to my holiday, I also did so in a less harmful way to the environment. The carbon emissions for a flight from London to Lyon come out on average per person at 250kg, that’s 250kg of gas… the weight of your average Silverback Gorilla, per person, per plane. That’s ridiculous. Although when the figures come out it’s still upsetting to think that the bus journey release 60kg of planet destroying gas into the air for each person on that bus, the weight of three golden retrievers. This kind of shocked me, when my life has been so full of travel, I’m also destroying the world which I’m so lucky to be able to enjoy, which sucks. I’ve made a deal with myself that from now on Im going to try and neautralise my footprint.

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Verdict

Okay, so let’s weigh up the pros and cons.

Cons first:
  • 18 hours on a bus, 5 on a train, and an uncomfortable hostel bunk
  • Small, smelly and loud children (who were kind of cute in hindsight)
  • Delays
  • Still produce substantial carbon emissions
Pros:
  • A wealth of experiences in a very short amount of time, visited three different cities
  • Met amazing people whilst travelling
  • Got to my destinations roughly on time
  • For the cost and carbon emissions of flying one of the 4 of us on that holiday, there by plane, you could have taken all of us there by bus.

Basically, stop being travel snobs, it wasn’t long ago that people flying places was an absolute luxury, and it still is in many parts of the world. You can still travel, you may not be as comfortable, but if you have the time, you’re travelling while you’re travelling, if that makes sense.