People and Personalities
Mark Smith with his Website
Who is the Man in Seat 61?
Buckinghamshire's Mark Smith is the man behind an award-winning Website. If you want to enjoy travel again and reduce your carbon footprint to boot, then take a look!
Who is the Man in Seat Sixty-One? Well, he's not some kind of fictional spy, he's Mark Smith, the man behind the massively popular and award-winning website offering invaluable advice for anyone who wants to travel to Europe and beyond by train.
From his home in Buckinghamshire the experienced traveller packs his site - seat61.com - with insider knowledge and top tips about the quickest routes and the cheapest fares.
His efforts have won him awards including the Best Personal Contribution category in the First Choice Responsible Travel Awards and he also won the Wanderlust Best Travel Website in both 2007 and 2008.
As such he is a great advocate both for turning a passion into a business and, in these days of flight travel problems, the joys of travelling by train.
Mark, you are the man in seat 61, can you describe your Website?
Mark: Well, it tells you how to get by train or ferry from the UK to just about anywhere in Europe, whether it's Dublin or Barcelona or further afield like Istanbul or Athens. It also tells you how to travel by train worldwide, whether it's Singapore to Bankok on the Trans-Siberian railway to China and Japan or coast to coast in the USA or Canada.
It assumes you know nothing and it talks you through what the options are, what the best train times and routes are, how much it will cost and where is the best place to buy tickets.
How did this all start?
Mark: I used to be a London commuter and was looking for something to read on the train. I saw a book about how to start a Website so I bought it and tried it and actually got a Web page online! The subject for the site was obvious. I've always travelled by train to Europe, it's so simple and actually far swifter and more affordable than most people think but finding out about it and where to buy tickets is downright impossible. So I thought I'd start a site that told you how to do it. My first page was one about how to get to the principal cities of Europe and it's just snowballed.
The name - the man in seat 61 - where did that come from?
Mark: It's Eurostar's fault! I used to treat myself from time to time to first class travel on Eurostar and I hate sitting in a seat that doesn't line up with the windows or where you're staring at the back of the seat in front of you. So I always chose seat 61, which is one of a table for two with an unobstructed view out of the window! Then when I started doing the Website I thought it would be a great title! I've certainly left London on Eurostar in seat 61 on my way to all sorts of places such as Tokyo via Vladivostock or Marrakesh and the Crimea and places like that. It's a great place to start any trip to Europe - seat 61 in coach 11, 7 or 8!
You can't request it on line but if you book by phone and pay the extra booking fee you can request a particular seat and I think it's worth it!
It's a massive site and looks like a real real labour of love. Is it a hobby or more full time?
Mark: It started purely as a hobby, I had a day job and used my lap top on the way to work on the train. I found ways of making a bit of money here and there using the site and eventually it got to the stage where I've been able to give up the day job and do it full time which I think is just as well because keeping it updated, researching it and expanding it certainly has become a full time job.
So - you do it yourself, but do you also rely on feedback?
Mark: Yes. People are beginning to email me feedback about the journey's they've made, telling me where things have changed, giving me little hints and tips, and telling me where they've had experiences where it would have been useful to know a little bit more about this or that. So yes, I travel myself, and take photographs and notes and I also get feedback from people who use the site and do their own travelling but I also keep my ear to the ground. I've got contacts and magazines, books and Internet sites that help me keep the site updated.
But you can't beat going yourself because you can get all those little details which escape the commercial sites so, if I can possibly do the trip myself and research it, it's far better than doing it at a desk.
Let's talk about some of the trips that you've done. Which country has the best trains to travel on?
Mark: I find that quite difficult because some of the most backward run down rail systems have given me the most interesting journeys where I've met some of the most interesting people. Certainly I love the rail system in Germany and in Spain. Some of their trains are absolutely superb and they're very, very progressive, building new high speed lines. Barcelona to Madrid now takes 2 hours and 38 minutes - no one in their right mind now flies!
I also have to say that I love the Amtrack network in the United States. Americans complain about it but I love a network that will get you coast to coast through fantastic scenery with reclining seats that are like business class on an airliner, sleepers with ensuite toilet and shower, a diner and a cafe lounge with an observation deck. That can be an absolutely fantastic experience. It costs about £92 - these aren't expensive tourist trains, these are real trains.
Have you got a particular favourite journey?
Mark: Last year we went to New Zealand and we took the overlander between Wellington and Auckland and I was absolutely amazed. I think there's just about every type of geography you could want between Wellington and Auckland, there's volcanoes, there's rainforests, flat farmlands and river gorges and you're travelling on a very comfortable train and it cost about £48. And this train almost disappeared because people take flights. So, if you're going to New Zealand, you'll probably fly into Auckland, well, forget your domestic flight to Wellington, pay £48 and book the overlander. It will show you the whole of the North Island, end to end in a day.
So, when you're travelling by train it's part of the holiday, whereas going to an airport is just a means of getting somewhere else?
Mark: That's true - when I started the site it was suddenly of interest to a whole load of people who were more or less forgotten by the commercial travel industry, those who were afraid of flying or who wanted the overland experience. But site visitor numbers have more or less tripled over the past two or three years and suddenly I'm getting more and more emails from people telling me two things.
Firstly, they want to cut their carbon footprint and secondly they are fed up with flying. Certainly these two factors, one pushing and one pulling, have suddenly reawakened the interest in going by train. I think it's a great thing because I think we're in danger of creating a world where every single journey is an identical non-experience at 30,000 feet and life's too short not to grab every experience when you get the chance.
So the advantages are the carbon footprint aspect, people who don't like flying and seeing the country - is there anything else you'd like to say about what's great about train travel?
Mark: I've only recently discovered the biggest single advantage of train travel and that's when I became a dad! When you drive you turn your back on your children and when you fly you're strapped in and they're strapped in and no one likes that, in particular a two year old. But on a train it's actually quality time with your family. You sit around facing each other over a table and you may have a private sleeper so it can be a really good experience as a family and I think people miss that from travel. They regard it as a nightmare going with kids - I certainly don't, I regard it as a big plus.
TGV train in Paris
Are there any disadvantages of train travel?
Mark: People sometimes think it's expensive compared with the cheap air fares you can get. There are two answers to that. One is that you have to be realistic about what these airlines actually charge. You have to pay taxes and you have to travel to the airport and pay for luggage while at the other end you have to pay to get into the city you are going to. Once you've added all that together it's far higher than initial temptation of the low price.
Secondly, if you know where to look, and that's what I'm trying to do with my Website, you can get some absolutely amazing bargains. London to Paris - £59 return. Paris to Geneva on a high speed TVG - £20 each way! It can be absolutely fantastic. And that's city centre to city centre and infants go free. You can even take your own food and favourite bottle of wine - try doing that on Ryanair or Eastjet!
And you arrive in the city centre?
Mark: Yes - you are right in the middle of the action with no extra to pay!
Is there a journey that you haven't done that you want to?
Mark: Oh there are lots. There's the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada over the old Canadian Pacific railroad which I'm doing next month! And I would love to visit
Could you, in theory, go all around the world?
Mark: On the plus side, the Trans-Siberian railway makes it actually fairly straightforward and pretty affordable to get to China or even Singapore, Hong Kong or Vietnam by train overland. The difficult bit is the ocean sections because airlines have virtually destroyed passenger shipping. Therefore you are looking at either a very expensive cruise or being a passenger on a cargo ship which is also fairly slow, unpredictable and quite expensive.
Have you ever had any problems on trains?
Mark: I'm not sure I have, maybe I've been lucky but I actually find it fairly straightforward travelling by train. Maybe it's because I know what to expect. But I can honestly say I've never had a real problem on a train!
So if people been put off by travelling by train in this country it's no reason not to travel that way in other countries?
Mark: Oh no, a long distance train journey into Europe on Eurostar and on Europe's high speed trains is a huge distance away from your commuter train to work. You mustn't think of having to stand up in an overcrowded train all the way down to Italy. You can have a sleeper, a private room and a restaurant. On the best sleeper trains to Italy and Spain it's like travelling in a mobile hotel.
What are your top tips for train travel?
Mark: My top tip is of course, never travel without a good book and a corkscrew! They are my essential must-haves on any trip. But generally I think it depends where you're going and in a sense that's why I started seat 61. There's no single agency to call for all your European tickets, there's no single Website to go to, you have to know the right Website to go to book the right trains and sometimes you have to use several different Websites to book one long journey, so it's difficult to give a one size tip that fits all.
What's the longest single train trip that you've done?
Mark: The longest I've done is Moscow to Vladivostock in seven days. I've been on the Trans-Siberian a couple of times and they couldn't have been more different experiences. I went from Moscow to Bejing on a through train across Mongolia which had 50 Westerners on board and a party like atmosphere with everybody doing the whole trip. There was also a huge variety of scenery from Mongolia to the Gobi desert to the mountains of China and we actually passed through the Great Wall, whereas Moscow to Vladivostock is seven days of Siberia and no Westerners at all on board for much of the trip and very few people using it to do the whole run.
What's the strangest situation you've ever been in on your travels?
Mark: Well, there was the occasion where I was coming back from Kiev to Warsaw and the train stopped at Ukranian customs and I thought if there was any problem with my customs declaration it would be there. But there wasn't. Then we arrived at the Polish customs who decided to take the sleeping car apart! Then they wanted to search my compartment and I thought they wouldn't find anything because I'd been on my own since Kiev but they found a complete off- licence in the panelling directly above my head. I wouldn't have minded but I could have done with a drink!
Did you start all this before you met your wife?
Mark: Yes, it started in 2001 and we've been married three years, so she's come into it but had no problem discovering the joys of train and ship travel. In fact we got engaged on a train! It WAS the Venice Simplon Orient Express but we only took it because we needed to go to Italy and they were doing 25 per cent reductions in October and I wouldn't have to pay the single supplement! So it was a very romantic reason that we took the train! But it sort of worked its very special magic and I'm not quite sure who said what to whom but when the train left Innsbruck we were single and when the train arrived in Verona we were engaged!
Do you have to be a fan of trains to be a fan of train travel?
Mark: No. When I started the site I was a bit worried that I would end up purely dealing with train enthusiasts arguing esoteric matters of this train versus that train. But no, most of the emails I get are from real travellers. I don't care what the locomotive is at the front, and I certainly don't care what the number is - on a decent train they change the locomotive at the frontier anyway - I'm more concerned about the scenery, the experience, the food on board and the sleepers - the travel!
Mark's book, based on the site, 'The Man in Seat 61' will be out in June 2008.
last updated: 23/04/2008 at 13:59
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