Do-It-Yourself Travel is Not Always the Way to Go.

When something goes wrong with my travel plans, it’s usually that guy in the mirror who screwed it up. I’d guess that’s true for most us who choose to make our own travel arrangements. Things sometimes go wrong if we venture into unfamiliar waters.
For instance, people making their own reservations for long-distance train trips in the U.S. often don’t allow enough time for connections … especially these days when Amtrak’s on-time performance, shall we say, needs work. With some trains on a few routes, allowing an hour or so for a connection might be OK. But with the long-distance trains, several hours often isn’t enough and, to play it safe, the best plan is probably to spend the night in a hotel and continue the next day. A good rail-savvy travel agent will know things like that.
Moscow to Irkutsk 059 copy 
Several years ago, I put together a pretty complicated European train trip. The centerpiece was a train ride from Moscow across Siberia, into Mongolia, then south to Beijing. But on my own, I also dreamed up a somewhat roundabout way of getting to Moscow for the start of that adventure. Fortunately, at some point in the process, I snapped out of it and realized I needed to consult with a pro on some of the details.
 On his outstanding rail travel web site, The Man in Seat Sixty-One, Mark Smith recommends Railbookers, a London-based firm specializing in train travel. I contacted them and a damn good idea it was, too! They did all the ticketing, made several suggestions for better connections and instructed me carefully on the visas and transit visas I would need. They also suggested—and rather emphatically, I remember thinking at the time—that it would be a good idea if they arranged for someone to meet my train in Moscow and take me directly to my hotel. I hesitated, but finally agreed.
 Berlin to Moscow 120 copy
Weeks later, when I stepped off the overnight train from Berlin onto the crowded platform at Moscow’s Belorusskaya Station, there was a smiling Russian man holding a small sign with my name on it. He thumped his chest and carefully pronounced his name: “Ah – lex – ahn – dair”. Then he grabbed my bag, gestured for me to follow, and minutes later we were threading our way through Moscow traffic en route to my hotel.
That’s when I noticed that all the signs—street names, on buildings, on billboards, everywhere—were in the Cyrillic alphabet and, for me, completely undecipherable. If Alexander had suddenly pulled over and dropped me at the curb, I would have been totally, completely and helplessly lost.
There are times during our travels when an extra few bucks will relieve us of uncertainty, confusion and stress. So now, even in the planning stages, when it looks as though one of those moments could occur, I fork it over without a whimper.