In traveling around Europe by train, the UK stands out by not being a stand-out. Because the British do not like being thought of as European, UK trains are not sleek, modern, and fast like French and German trains. To ensure that American tourists understand that the British are not Europeans, British trains are also not included in your Eurail pass.
This means you will have to buy individual tickets on one of the world’s most grossly inefficient, antiquated train systems. Do not plan on arriving when you hope to or need to. Trains are frequently delayed or canceled because of “leaves on the rail.” A dusting of snow on the Isle of Wight can paralyze the country’s entire rail network for weeks at a time.
Never, never buy a last-minute train ticket in the UK. Buy your tickets in advance. My husband and I once spent three hours traveling from York to London in that dreadful space between train cars jammed with five sweaty men all yammering into their respective cell phones. This delightful travel experience cost us $150 each because I wanted to be spontaneous. It was not a good day to be spontaneous.
Passengers are exhorted to “Mind the Gap” when boarding and exiting British trains. This does not refer to the American clothing chain. This announcement is intended to help you avoid falling into the perilous chasm that maws between the 1950s-era train car and the fantastically sharp, metal-edged platform. This chasm, or “gap” as it is termed by the British, has a depth and width roughly equal to the Grand Canyon’s. Sufferers of vertigo should be cautious when taking British trains due to the risk of swooning into “the gap.”
Be sure to pack light and wear sensible shoes. If you have several bags, you will always have to change trains at the exact moment you have stowed your bags and settled into your seat. The crisp-voiced British train station announcer will calmly state that your new replacement train departs in one minute. This announcement will be broadcast at the exact moment you have only just started to hump your bags up hundreds of narrow, steep stairs towards a platform that is approximately 5.2 miles away. The British will know that you are neither British nor European because you, as an American, will begin to curse. Loudly.
On the bright side, the tea served on British trains is actually quite good.