How we planned our railway trip

My dad wanted to go on a big rail adventure when he retired and we decided to go with him. We had completely different budgets, so planning a trip that accommodated all our needs was no easy feat.

The original plan was to begin in Vietnam and make our way via train to the UK. However, we couldn’t go to Southeast Asia without visiting friends in Cambodia, so we decided to begin the journey there. The train lines aren’t in use in Cambodia so we had to introduce another flight and a coach ride into our itinerary. In the end, the first train we would take would be from Ho Chi Minh to Danang.

Our journey was set when we bought tickets to see Australia vs Chile in the 2017 FIFA Confederation Cup in Russia – so we had to be in Moscow for that date. Then we hopped online and bought plane tickets to Cambodia in the sales, locking in our departure date.

Here’s how we worked everything out:

Travel time: 43 days (roughly 2-3 days in each city + train travel)

Research

We did a lot of online research. Seat 61 is a great website to find out anything you need to know about train travel.

The idea was to keep to the railway lines and make small side trips to nearby attractions. TripAdvisor helped us to research possible sites to visit, but mostly we sought advice from friends and acquaintances who were either from the country or had recently visited the countries we were travelling to. Having many international friends was a huge help!

Accommodation

If we didn’t arrange to stay with friends, we mostly found quirky, local places to stay via AirBnBor Booking.com.

Tickets

Sydney to Siem Reap: we bought plane tickets on sale from AirAsia.

Cambodia: we bought plane tickets online from Bassaka Air and coach tickets online from Giant Ibis.

We used our friend, Sokna’s friendly tuk-tuk service to get around in Siem Reap and found tuk-tuks off the street in Phnom Penh.

Vietnam: we bought our train tickets at 12Go Asia – an online transportation service for Southeast Asia.

We bought a local sim card and downloaded the Grab Taxi app to get around the cities, especially to and from the train stations.

To cross the border into China, we bought our train tickets at Baolau – an online booking service for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

China: we bought our train tickets from China DIY Travel agency online, who were quick to respond to queries and provided helpful information about travel in China along with the ticket confirmation and translations for taxi services to the train stations in the various cities.

Mongolia to Poland: we bought all of our train tickets from Beijing to Warsaw from Real Russia – a Russian travel agency operating from the UK. This included tickets for the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railways.

Poland to Germany: we bought our train tickets at Deutsche Bahn – the official German railway website.

Germany to France: we bought our train tickets at SNCB Europe – the official website to buy tickets for Belgium, France, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.

France to England: we bought our train tickets at the official Eurostar website.

Visas

Getting visas was a time-consuming process, especially as we needed proof of accommodation as well as tickets in and out of the country. To make things harder, most train tickets only go on sale about a month before departure. This is fine if you only need your confirmed travel itinerary to obtain one visa, but when you need six visas – timing is tight!

All the visas required passport photos plus at least one blank page and at least six months remaining in your passport.

Cambodia: we purchased our Cambodian visas upon arrival at Siem Reap Angkor International Airport. A single entry (one-month) visa cost USD30. We needed to bring a passport photo (or you pay USD5 extra if you don’t have one). I recommend having cash with you to pay for the visa. Check your local Cambodia Embassy website to see if this is still the case.

Vietnam: you can’t get a visa upon arrival if you’re travelling by land. A visa needs to be firmly stamped in your passport before you enter the country. However, at the time, there was a 15-day visa exemption for British citizens, which my dad and I decided to use. Check your local Vietnam Embassy website to see if this is still the case or to see what you need to get your visa. I ended up having a horrible experience at the border crossing so make sure you check all details before you arrive.

China: we made an appointment to submit our visa paperwork, which included our accommodation details and our tickets in and out of the country. As we had proof that we had booked our accommodation, we didn’t need a letter of invitation. The process at the Sydney Consulate was streamlined and efficient, but expensive. Just make sure you have all the required paperwork! Check your local China Embassy website to see what you need to get your visa.

Mongolia: there isn’t a Mongolian Consulate in Sydney so we drove to Canberra to submit our paperwork. We could have sent everything via post, but with our tight timeline, we wanted to avoid any possible delays. The Embassy doesn’t accept credit cards or cash so we needed to bring along a bank cheque. We ended up getting a transit visa as we only planned on staying for two nights. Check your local Mongolia Embassy to see what you need to get your visa.

Russia: once I had received my letter of invitation from Real Russia, I applied for my visa from the Russian Embassy in Santiago, Chile. The application required a lot of information and the Embassy only took US dolars in cash (who would have thought) so, unfortunately, I had to return a second time to submit my paperwork. Chileans don’t need visas to Russia and there was a temporary visa waiver for people attending the FIFA Confederation Cup, but only if they were arriving by air to one of the host cities in the west. We, on the other hand, would be arriving by land in western Siberia so we needed that visa! Luckily, the staff at the Embassy were friendly and I didn’t have any problems getting my visa.

My dad, on the other hand, had a very off-putting experience at the Russian Consulate in Sydney. The visa was also more expensive in Australian than in Chile. Check your local Russia Embassy to see whether you need a visa.

Belarus: even though we didn’t plan on staying in Belarus, we still needed to get a transit visa. We booked an appointment at the Belarusian Embassy and again drove to Canberra to submit our paperwork. The Embassy also doesn’t take credit cards or cash. Instead, we needed to go to a specific bank (The Commonwealth Bank of Australia) to deposit 60 Euros into their Australian bank account. The first branch we went to had no idea how to deposit Euros in an Australian bank account. We went to the appointment and they referred us to a specific branch and then we emailed through the payment confirmation.

The transit visa cost the same as a regular tourist visa! Again there is a waiver if you fly but not if you travel by land. Check your local Belarus Embassy to see whether you need a visa.

Europe: we didn’t need visas for Poland, Germany, France and the UK. As a tourist, we can spend up to three months travelling in Europe. Check your local embassies to see whether you need a visa.

Image: the route we took to travel mostly by train from Cambodia to England over 43 days.

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