IRT Answers Guests’ Burning Questions about Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, World’s Most Famous Luxury Train

7 Nov

IRT Luxury Travel Associates Natalie Schuetz and Nora Elzy just returned from their inaugural journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). They sat down with us after to discuss their experience, and answer some of IRT travelers’ most frequently-asked questions.

The following account was co-written by Natalie and Nora.

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“You’re either architects or you’re planning a murder,” quipped our cabin steward on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, as he found us measuring the overhead shelving in our Cabin Suite.

We were neither, nor were we spies, thieves or cutthroats.

We were — and are — relatively new travel advisors at The Society of International Railway Travelers. Our mission? Find answers to the questions most frequently asked by IRT travelers about the VSOE.

The clock was ticking. (The journey from London to Venice takes about 30 hours in total.)

Armed with our list of questions, we raced from one end of the train to the other, Poirot-style, to question every porter, cabin steward and sous chef we could find about the world’s most famous luxury train.

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Natalie (left), and Nora (right), with new friends in the bar car on the VSOE. IRT Photo

So, the VSOE takes me all the way from London to Venice?

Not quite. This is really a journey of three parts:

First, board the Belmond British Pullman — luxury day train and sister to the VSOE – at London Victoria Station for the two-hour journey to Folkestone. En route, enjoy a hearty four-course brunch. The highlights of our meal were berries and yogurt, fresh pastries, salmon with potato and pickled cucumber salad, and lemon and olive oil cake.

Next, undergo border formalities before boarding a luxury coach for the half-hour journey under the English Channel. (The “Chunnel” may be an engineering marvel, but the actual experience is a bit dull. Sit tight – it only takes 30 minutes.)

Once you have emerged in France, a short drive takes you to the station in Calais, where the gleaming blue carriages of the VSOE await.

NOW you are on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express!

Is this THE Orient-Express? The one of Agatha Christie fame, I mean?

While it is not the original Orient-Express, it does comprise several of its carriages. Most were built in the 1920s and 1930s and have been beautifully restored. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in its current incarnation began service in 1982. (Want the complete story? To get IRT CEO Owen Hardy’s extensively researched cultural history of the Orient-Express, click here.)

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Twin cabin during the day. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

What (and how) should I pack?

You can never be overdressed on the VSOE – especially at dinner. Men will not be out of place in tuxedos, but a dark suit is also appropriate. Just don’t show up in jeans.

Pack your finery and have fun playing adult dress-up. Downton Abbey duds are not required – but some guests enjoy donning period dress. (We certainly did.)

During the day, smart casual is appropriate.

Note: Grand Suite guests can stop reading this section now, as their palatial quarters include a surfeit of storage space.

For everyone else, however, heed us when we say that space is at a premium. Twin cabins measure only 35 feet square.

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Twin cabin at night. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy.

What to pack? Our affable steward Davide had these suggestions:

“Just the essentials… It’s more important to have the right size of cabin luggage. Some people don’t think about that, but that really changes the trip.”

When you board, select what you’ll need on the train. Davide suggests packing your formal wear in a dress bag, which you can hang from a hook in your compartment.

Pack all other necessities in a packing cube or two – or in a small overnight bag.

Then hand off your suitcase to your steward for storage elsewhere on the train.

What creature comforts will I be foregoing?

Private bathrooms, to start. Only Grand Suite patrons have those (and they pay dearly for them.)

Guests in all other cabins have an en-suite sink and vanity, but toilets are shared and are down the hall. We never had to wait for a bathroom. If one is occupied, there is another just a few feet away in the next car. The stewards keep them sparkling clean day and night.

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Private bathroom with sink, toilet, and rain shower in Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

There are no showers on board (except, of course, if you are in a Grand Suite). But all VSOE itineraries are planned so that you never spend more than one night on board (with the alternating nights spent in a luxury hotel if you are on the Paris-Istanbul journey or the Istanbul-Paris journey.)

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Grand Suite Istanbul. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

So tell me more about the new Grand Suites.

These spacious cabins debuted in 2018 and were covered in-depth here and here by our senior colleague, Rachel Hardy.

Six Grand Suites, all of them unique and named after famous capital cities on the VSOE’s routes, include a large double bed (can also be made into two twins), living area with table, chair and sofa, and an en-suite bathroom with rain shower, sink and toilet.

Additional Grand Suite amenities include preferential seating and guaranteed dining time for meals, caviar upon arrival, free-flowing Champagne, private transfers to/from train stations, private guided excursions, complimentary designer Art Deco bathrobes, and hair dryers. A complimentary alternative “à la carte” menu also is available during lunch or dinner for Grand Suite guests.

Grand Suites are located at the very end of the train for ultimate privacy.

OK, so back to reality. What about Wi-Fi?

We were told there is Wi-Fi on the train, but it was not working during our tour. As young people who probably spend way too much time on our phones, we found that not having Wi-Fi was a nice change of pace; it allowed us to spend more time enjoying the overall experience of the train.

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Mingling with a fellow passenger over lunch in the Lalique dining car. IRT Photo.

What is the atmosphere like? Do people mingle?

Mingling is the name of the game. Our advice? Go to the bar car — the social hub of the train — directly after dinner to secure a great seat and strike up a conversation with your fellow travelers.

A pianist plays through the night; the staff doesn’t quit until the last guest has retired.

Just keep in mind that, while water, tea and coffee are included in the rate, all other drinks are additional. A signature cocktail in the bar costs about €22 (about $28 U.S.).

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A bountiful breakfast is served in your cabin, giving you a chance to wake up slowly and luxuriously. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy

What is dining like on board? Are there multiple seatings? Will I have a choice of what food I want?

There are typically two seatings for dinner: the first at 7 p.m., and the second at 8 p.m. Ask the maître d’ to seat you in a different dining car for each meal so that you can experience each of them — or at least two of the three. Each is unique.

And almost all dietary restrictions can be generously accommodated if the kitchen staff knows in advance.

Every dish we had on board was delicious — and beautifully presented. Natalie’s first course for dinner was a Blue Brittany lobster, served with earthy French potatoes in a savory sauce and truffle caviar and decorated with edible flowers.

And though Nora felt like she taxed the chef with her dietary restrictions (gluten-free, dairy-free, no seafood), she was always thrilled with her meals. The beef fillet with Flint wine and morel sauce was sumptuous, and she loved her dessert: an exotic fruit platter.

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Blue Brittany lobster and caviar. IRT Photo by Natalie M. Schuetz.

What about gratuities? Whom do I pay and how much?

We recommend €20-25 (about $22-$28 U.S.) per person, per day. We split this evenly between our cabin steward and the restaurant staff. Cabin stewards can only accept cash, but the restaurant cars and bar car can accept credit cards.

Is one night on the train enough?

“The longer guests are on board, the more they enjoy the train,” said Assistant Train Manager Francesco Bonotto.

They especially love the five-day itineraries, he said, that begin in Venice and then travel on to either Budapest, Vienna, or Prague, and then continue to London.

“They offer a great mix of sociability and time to explore independently: two nights on the train, plus two nights on your own in a beautiful European city.”

We here at the IRT Society also get rave reviews from our travelers who opt for the route made famous by Agatha Christie: the once-a-year Paris-Istanbul journey and Istanbul-Paris journey.

These sell out very far in advance and include grand hotels and exclusive touring along the way.

In what months does the VSOE operate?

The train runs from late March through early November.

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Natalie poses with Paolo, one of our indefatigable stewards. IRT Photo by Nora Elzy.

What are the stewards and train staff doing when they aren’t working on the train?

During the off season, many go to work in European hotels. And since all staff are bilingual (at a minimum), brushing up on their second language is also a focus.

What are some scenery highlights?

We saw rolling British and French countryside, staggering Swiss mountains, and stunning Italian lake towns during our two-day journey. The longer itineraries include iconic cities such as Prague and Istanbul.

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VSOE cabin key. IRT Photo by Natalie M. Schuetz.

What makes this train unique?

Much of it is the exquisite detail. In fact, one of the knobs on the wall in our cabins was not functional, but it was there simply for nostalgic purposes. At one time, we were told, the train piped music in the carriages; the knob was used to turn the volume up and down. Also, each carriage is heated by a coal furnace, which the cabin steward tends throughout the journey.

This train is very expensive.  Is it worth it?

It’s an experience unlike any other. Assistant Train Manager Bonotto said he’s never had a single complaint about the cost. By the time passengers disembark — after their fabulous meals and A+ staff treatment — they couldn’t be happier.

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Do you have a question we didn’t cover? Ask us in the comments below.

Natalie and Nora took the London-Paris-Venice journey, as seen on our website here. All Venice Simplon-Orient-Express itineraries can be found here.

Ready to start planning your VSOE journey? Call or email us. 2020 and 2021 departures are available and selling briskly.

To book, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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