Sunday, February 17, 2008

Six things train travellers should know

Delays, inconsiderate passengers and equipment breakdowns are unavoidable nuisances that main people face. So why do some travellers fair better than others? Preparation and attitude are the key. Back from my latest train trip, I'd like to offer this advice to make everyone's trip a little less of a hassle:

1. Wear appropriate footwear. Think maneuvering steep stairs (which are icy-slushy-snowy this time of year) and walking in moving cars. Not the best place for spike heels, high heels, flip flops or any other sort of footwear that might come off and/or cause you to stumble.

2. Pack sensibly. Like airlines, trains have luggage limitations as well. Holidays and university reading week (usually mid-February) are especially packed (if you'll pardon the pun) with arm loads of gifts and bags of laundry. However, there is only so much room on the train cars. The result? Passengers are often separated from their luggage as station staff try to find room for everything. It's a bit of a scramble to find a bag during quick station stops.

How to get around the extra hassle? I've noticed that a lot of frequent travellers pack smaller cases that can fit into the overhead luggage compartment. Other tips such as making sure your contact information is with your luggage and making your bag easily identifiable (such as a bright luggage strap or bits of yarn) can be helpful in a crunch. If you're travelling between major cities, as about the checked luggage service.

3. Everyone can hear everything. Your train seat does not come equipped with a cone of silence. Most travellers now pack a set of headphones for their music or DVD players, but cell phones are still an issue. Be mindful of what you say -- remember you're travelling with complete strangers. I've heard conversations that contained personal or business details that shouldn't be common knowledge. (I've noticed that cell phone users tend to speak in a louder voice than passengers conversing with their neighbours). A train trip is probably not the best time for sensitive conversations.

4. Train late? Keep your receipt. Anyone who travels by train regularly in Canada knows that the trains are frequently late. The rail company's policy is to give passengers a 50% discount on their next ticket (for the same trip) when their train is more than one hour late arriving at their final destination. This policy isn't always communicated to travellers en route.

The discount is good for six months, so it's worth knowing about.

5. Go with the flow. Unlike air travel (and I've read the horror stories), Canada's rail travel company has a more humane policy when it comes to serious delays. They can hold connecting trains or offer alternate transportation. At main stations such as Montreal and Toronto, they will even provide temporarily stranded travellers with food and water.

I don't deny it's frustrating, but every time there's a problem I remind myself that air travellers often have it much worse. No one likes delays, but patience and courtesy can help lessen the frustration and anger.

6. Pack a snack. If you're not travelling first class, your at the mercy of the snack cart which may or may not come around promptly or have what you want. I've found bringing a bottle of water and a healthy snacks is a great backup plan. I often buy a drink or a sandwich (when fully stocked, they do offer a good variety), but bringing my own food means I always have something I want to eat ready when I'm hungry.

Do I find the train "a more humane way to travel" as they claim? Yes and no. For many business travellers and students, it can be a boon and a hassle. The key is to travel smarter, and make the experience more humane for yourself and others around you.

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