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European Rail Travel Is Trending

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© Jaime Kowal

How rail travel in Europe perfectly ties into today’s hottest travel trends.  

Successful travel advisors know that keeping tuned into today’s travel trends is as much a part of the job as the actual act of selling travel. The best way to ensure satisfied clients, and the boost to the bottom line that comes with that, is to anticipate a client’s desires by suggesting destinations, experiences, services and products that are in line with—and even ahead of—consumer behavior trends.

“Travel is an ever-changing animal,” says Dee Dee Bradford, international sales manager of Gateway Travel and Cruises in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “In today’s world, we have to be on our toes to sell ourselves and prove we are better than the Internet. Staying on top of the trends makes us relevant. It keeps us fresh and able to connect with all travel issues that may appear.”

Karen Malone, ACC, MCC, a travel specialist with Travel Leaders in Woodbury, Minnesota, adds that advisors must be “the needed filter for consumers.” With all the options available to travelers today, she says, “The advisor must sift through trends and current hot destinations to find the best fit for their clients.”

One way that travel advisors can provide that much needed added-value is by making suggestions that their clients might not have thought about originally. To that end, European rail travel should be a part of every travel advisor’s tool kit. Of course, most American travelers will reach Europe by airplane—but once on the ground, traveling by rail taps perfectly into today’s hottest travel trends, providing travelers with unique experiences they can’t otherwise achieve. Here’s a look at some of today’s trends and how European rail travel addresses these changing needs and desires.

TREND: Travelers Care About the Earth
A joint study by Virtuoso and YouGov on sustainability found that more than one-third (37 percent) of consumers who participated in the survey are seeking companies that focus on “adopting environmentally friendly practices.” The study also showed that 41 percent are willing to pay more for “adopting environmentally friendly practices.”

For eco-conscious travelers, traveling by train is in most cases more energy efficient than flying and other modes of transportation, notes Clarissa Mattos, Eurail’s North American Market Manager. “There is an increased interest in rail because it fits in with the concerns of customers right now who want to reduce the carbon footprint of their holiday,” she says.

Mattos notes that in a 2019 Eurail Customer Survey, 71 percent of Interrailers—nearly 20 percentage points more than in 2017—agreed that “the low carbon footprint of rail travel was relevant in their decision about the mode of transport for a holiday.”

“Customers are realizing what they purchase has an impact on their lives and the future of the planet, and that the way that they travel impacts other lives,” says Mattos. “What we see, especially in Europe, is that more and more people are asking questions. They are curious about how products are produced, their origin and their source.”

Millennials seem to be the most concerned about sustainable efforts, according to the 2018 Virtuoso Luxe Report. The report shows that “Millennials are three times more likely than second-place Generation X to seek out and support travel companies that are committed to sustainable tourism,” says Virtuoso. Baby Boomers come next, with Generation Z close behind, according to the report.

“Millennials are the first generation that see where the world is going,” says Bradford. “They are witnessing first-hand climate change and their scary futures ahead.” Still, Kim Johnston, manager of the Leisure Department at Travel Leaders in Tacoma, Washington, notes that sustainability concerns are not limited to millennials. “All travelers want to believe that they can make a change in the way their travels impact the environment,” she says. “No one wants to cause more damage to our world, and every enlightened traveler wants to leave their destination better than when they arrived.”

TREND: Overtourism—Too Much of a Good Thing
Overtourism has come into the travel trend lens so much so that the annual MMGY Global's Portrait of American Travelers for 2019-2020 included a question about overtourism/overcrowding for the first time. Some 60 percent of survey-takers agree with the statement: “I believe tourism overcrowding will have a significant influence on what destinations I want to visit in the next five to 10 years” and 73 percent say, “I avoid really popular destinations at peak times to miss the crowds.”

While riding the rails allows travelers to easily access the most important and popular city centers, it also encourages riders to stop along the way and enjoy destinations they would completely miss if simply flying from city center to city center. 

“The trend is to visit smaller, more intimate locations so that they can immerse themselves in the real culture of a destination,” says Bradford. “Rail affords a much easier gateway to these vacations. There are so many exciting destinations that can only be accessed with rail or car.” While renting a car does allow flexibility, it brings with it additional stresses that are unknown on rail—learning driving patterns and habits in a foreign country, insurance commitments, the need to focus on driving at the cost of seeing the sites along the way, to name just a few. “With a car, the same trip takes so much longer and the stress is dramatically increased,” says Bradford.

TREND: Seeking Authentic Experiences
Under-the-radar destinations accessible via regional and local trains not only enable an escape from overtourism, but also offer a taste of authentic Europe with stops in small villages. Visiting these destinations that would be missed if clients were traveling by plane provide opportunities to interact with locals and discover unexpected places and experiences. “Seeking authentic experiences” is among the five Top Travel Motivations in the 2019 Virtuoso Luxe Report.

“Many Europeans use local intercity trains as their primary mode of transportation, particularly from the smaller towns and villages to larger cities as part of their daily commutes,” says Johnston. “We, as tourists, can use the same trains to visit out-of-the-way destinations. It’s an opportunity to learn about local cultures.”
Mattos adds that trains enable a “connection with culture that starts as soon as you get on board.” She says: “When you travel in Europe on the train you are already in an authentic mood. You connect with the locals and the landscape. You are not locked in an airplane. You are really seeing Europe as it is passing you by. You can talk to someone in a bistro car and it’s a more natural, more relaxed and more authentic experience.”

Beyond simply wandering around these local destinations, travel advisors include local immersion opportunities in their travel planning using trains. “It is so much fun to see my clients’ faces when we offer a cooking lesson in a farmhouse, the chance to take a small boat to go fishing off the coast of Spain or to have a private wine tasting with a sommelier,” says Bradford. “We do wine groups and use rail between the smaller cities that have great vineyards. We market specialized, accompanied groups that are only 10 people. Rail is a great product to move small groups.”

TREND: The Comeback of Slow Relaxed Travel
Slow Travel is all about exploring a destination and its people at a more relaxed pace, including the journey itself. In Italy, 2019 has been the year for “slow tourism,” with promotional focus from cultural and tourism entities on heritage railway lines to lesser known historic and cultural areas of the country.

By the same token, travel advisors are seeing their clients looking to take in a variety of additional sites/locations along the way instead of rushing from point A to point B. Rail travel naturally ties into this concept. “Traveling via train is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable ways to travel,” says Johnston. “While watching the spectacular scenery, you can be reading a book, chatting with companions, making new friends and enjoying a beverage.”  

Carol Sandstrom, a home-based agent out of Prestige Travel in Tampa, Florida, says slow travel is appealing to her mature core client group. “As clients get older, they want to see stuff and be active, but it doesn’t have to be every minute,” she says. “They can schedule travel at their own pace, stay longer over lunch, and stop and have a cocktail watching the sunset.”

TREND: The Power of Personalization
Beyond slower and more authentic travel experiences, the Virtuoso Luxe Report notes that “2019 is the year of ultra-personalized travel” with “client requests that illustrate the desire for a deeper level of personalization and one-of-a-kind experiences.”

Mattos says European rail travel allows for that kind of unique personalization because it offers such diverse interests. “You can create adventure and outdoors itineraries, a culture focus with wining and dining, or design and fashion, and even leave room for spontaneous travel with rail passes,” she adds. “It’s very important that travel advisors specialize in Europe and get to know the destination, the geography, the specialty of each country, and then they can dream up so many customized rail itineraries.” 

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