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Imagine starting your day in the heart of Brussels, Belgium, then head north up to Rotterdam for lunch and city explorations, and come back by evening down south to Paris for the quintessential French coffee and a dinner for the kings. Well, this did fit in perfectly in my dreams earlier, but quite recently I also realised that it's possible in real life too - and that without the rush that you might connect with a trip like this.
An obvious question is how, and I can answer that in one simple word - Thalys. Some of you might already be familiar about them, but I wasn't. It was only when they invited me to come on-board for a trip across Europe that I learnt about them - and now I can't stop telling anyone traveling to Europe to try them out, especially if speed and service is high on your priority.
Thalys is the high-speed red train which travels from Paris to Brussels in 1 hour 22 minutes, to Cologne in 3 hours 14 minutes and Amsterdam in only 3 hours and 16 minutes. Since April 2014, Thalys has also provided a link between Amsterdam and Lille in a time of 2 hours and 40 minutes. In Germany, Thalys takes you as far as Dortmund since 2016. Connecting four countries, Belgium, France, Netherlands and Germany by fast trains, Thalys is the only truly multicultural rail service to have achieved a high-speed international link between these.
The motto of the company, Welcome to our World, not only welcomes you to one country, but also connects the cultures of four different countries by making it easier and faster for people to commute. Plus, when you add on the excellent on-board services (including great meals and free wifi), the package is almost irresistible.
Before I tell you more about how you can use Thalys to plan your trip, let me give an overview of how my day exploring three different countries with Thalys went!
I started my day early in the morning and spent chilling out by the window in my room and enjoying what I enjoy the most in my mornings - coffee! The city was overcast with clouds, but that was perfectly alright as I was as moody as the city itself.
The past few days in Belgium had been hectic - I had spent them exploring Brussels, Ghent and Brugge, and I was now ready to leave the city and explore some more of that famed European summer.
I stayed at the Zoom Hostel in Brussels, and though there was no air conditioning in my room, I was happy to get a feel of the warmth of the city. The hotel is located in a great locality and you can easily walk to the bus stand as well as the metro station. I actually walked to most places in the city whenever I had time - I always saw so much more, like last evening when Shayla and I walked back from city center to the hotel.
Soon it was time for the lovely Belgian breakfast - I had waffles (which I made myself) and coffee with fruits and I was ready to head out.
I was fresh as ever as we boarded our first Thalys, but looking at the comfortable seats, I was almost tempted to take a mini nap, but then Rotterdam was just over an hour and I wanted to enjoy the views and some of that famed on-board services! None disappointed - the sky had opened up and we could enjoy both the Belgian and Dutch landscapes, and I also enjoyed my second round of breakfast in the train! Damn...it's so impossible to watch my diet when I am traveling - I simply eat and eat and eat!
Stay tip for Brussels: While you are in Brussels, plan you stay the Zoom hotel. It's located a little away from the city center (but still walk-able if you enjoy walking European cities) and also very competitively priced. The rooms are nice and cozy, and their breakfasts are simply delightful.
The next on the trip was a completely new city for me - Rotterdam. Rotterdam was one of the most unfortunate cities during the second worlds war. It was bombed and completely flattened out during the seize and later took years to recover from the destruction. However, the city rose as a phoenix and is today one of the most youthful and modern cities of Europe. The contrast with Amsterdam is stark and it takes only a short while before you fall in love with it.
But we weren't in Roterdam just to explore the city as a tourist, but on a treasure hunt! My team actually won the hunt (and a Euro 500 pass) but in the process we also got to see the city in a very unique way. What was the most fun part? Well, for me it was talking to the strangers and also taking the cool water taxis! These taxis are just like the yellow and black cabs of Mumbai - just that they ply on the river!
We had a quick lunch at the station, but we were not yet done for the day as our dear old lady, Paris, was waiting for us with open arms.
Stay tip for Rotterdam: We stayed at the award-winning Rotterdam Student Hotel and I simply loved the place. It's a shared space with the university students and that adds a very youthful vibe to the place; additionally there are numerous student parties (even on weekdays) and if you are open to those, you can join them too. It's also walk-able from the river as well as the tram line, so traveling is easy.
We took an afternoon train to Paris and within just over three hours I was in the city of dreams! I have an old connection with Paris - having visited the city on my first ever Euro trip about a decade back. But this visit was different and was seeped in luxury.
We started the evening with one of the most elaborate and delicious French dinner at Restaurant Le Train Bleu, and our stay at Villa Royale certainly made me see a different side of Paris.
Stay tip for Paris: Located right by the iconic neighborhood of Montmartre, Villa Royale is a treat for the senses. Located inside an old heritage building, a step inside will take you to 19th Century Paris with rococo style interiors and plush royal decor. The view from the window is to die for as well!
I am sure you would already be completely impressed with how much can one travel these days across Europe within just a day. Traveling like this could be possible with an airplane as well, but you might end up spending amount of time at the airport, and going through multiple security checks and so on. However, when you travel by train - there is very little stress. You travel between city centers (no long journey from the airport anymore) and you can actually do work while you are traveling (not take-off and landing) with great wi-fi and food during the journey.
If you are a traveler from India, here's how you can use Thalys for your travels. You can use both Thayls as well as Rail Europe website to make the bookings.
Here's a pro-tip - if you book 90 days (3 months) in advance, you also get the best prices, and these are extremely competitive.
Additionally, if you go and check on their website, there are always some good offers - make sure you check those before you make the booking. For example there is one on right now with which you can travel to Paris for only 19 euros!
As I mentioned earlier, Thalys connects four different countries - Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and France. Belgium is the most central city and perhaps the best way would be to start with Brussels (you can fly directly into Brussels with a non-stop flight from Mumbai) and then radiate outwards.
Alternatively, you can start with Amsterdam (again very well connected by flights from India) and then travel downwards. Stay for 2-3 days in each city (or more, if possible) and then move on. Keep a few extra days for Brussels and plan a trip to Ghent and Brugge also - they are both close by and well connected by trains (not Thalys).
Finally, end your journey at Paris and spend as many days there as you can. If possible, even plan on traveling outside the city as well.
Now coming to the tickets, there are three categories to pick from:
Standard: These are the cheapest tickets that you can get on Thalys. There is free wifi so you travel connected and stay in contact with your loved ones. At the Thalys Welcome Bar, a large selection of drinks and snacks are available to satisfy every appetite. Plus there are are individual charging points for each passenger.
These are available only 30 days prior to departure date and there are only a limited numbers available. Also, there is no refund or exchange possible for these.
Comfort: If you need flexibility, and expect last minute change of plans, this is the ticket category for you. Apart form everything you get in standard tickets, here the seats are more spacious and comfortable.
These tickets are exchangeable up to the time of departure indicated on the ticket. A fee of 15 euros is applicable, as well as any price difference between the old and new ticket. The cost is 50% refundable if cancelled before the time of departure indicated on the ticket.
Premium: With a premium ticket, you enjoy a flexible fare and the full range of services. You travel in full comfort and benefit from the greatest flexibility to exchange or cancel your ticket up to the last minute. At any time of day, a delicious meal made from regional, seasonal ingredients is served at your seat. Multilingual newspapers and magazines are available for reading. Also, you will have access to the Thalys Lounges for a pleasant experience before or after your journey.
Needless to mention, the Standard is the cheapest and the Premium is the most expensive ticket. Which one should you pick?
Well, I think if you are a traveler visiting Europe on a planned trip, standard is a great choice. You can bring and eat your own food (the longest trip is also only 3.5 hours) and save some money for things to do in the destination city.
However, Premium is best for business travelers. You get good food, newspapers, hi speed internet, and can continue to work while you are on-board.