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Europe travellers look to trains and taxis to get home

Paris — Thousands scrambled to get rare places on London-Paris express trains, ferries across the Baltic and even long distance taxi rides Friday as a volcanic cloud brought Europe’s air travel to a halt.

Even the continent’s VIPs are having to slum it because government jets have no way to get around the no-fly zone around the cloud of ash that has covered the continent.

The Eurostar cross-Channel rail service laid on three extra Paris-London trains but places rapidly filled up and queues of passengers built up at the Gare du Nord station in Paris.

The company said 10,000 more travellers than usual had tried to book seats on trains out of Paris on Friday, almost a third more than normal.

"We’ve never seen so many passengers on such a day, when normally we’d transport between 26,000 and 28,000 people," said a Eurostar spokeswoman.

"We’ve seen a strong increase in interest since yesterday, as passengers seek alternative solutions," she added, warning passengers without tickets or reservations not to bother turning up.

The Eurotunnel operator, which also runs shuttles for cars and trucks through the tunnel, said those bookings had doubled since the troubles started. Cross-Channel ferry companies said their business had risen by about 50 percent.

Baltic Sea ferry company Tallink also said reservations had soared.

"Right now the situation is such that on the Stockholm-Helsinki route all tickets for Friday have been sold out," Tallink spokeswoman Luulea Laane told the Baltic News Service. "For those wishing to travel from Stockholm to Helsinki we’re offering the opportunity to travel to Helsinki by boat via Tallinn."

European leaders have already been hit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s official plane was ordered to land in Lisbon on Friday as she returned from a week long US tour. Merkel’s next stage depends on how long the air chaos lasts.

Germany’s Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was stuck in Uzbekistan en route home from Afghanistan, along with five soldiers injured in a Taliban attack that killed four of their comrades Thursday, a spokesman said.

Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip is ready meanwhile to make an 18-hour drive to the funeral of Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski on Sunday if air travel is still blocked, his spokeswoman said Friday.

French car rental firms said they had stopped accepting bookings for the weekend and beyond. But the car is still proving popular.

British actor, John Cleese, star of the Monty Python comedy series, took a USD 5,100 taxi (EUR 3,800 or 30,000 kroner) ride from Oslo to Brussels after becoming stranded in the Norwegian capital, the Norwegian TV2 broadcaster reported.

"We checked every option, but there were no boats and no train tickets available," Cleese told the broadcaster in a telephone interview.

He said the cost would be 30,000 kroner because the taxi would take two extra drivers for the 1,500 kilometre (930 mile) drive.

"It will be interesting. I’m not in a hurry," Cleese said, adding that from Brussels he planned to take the Eurostar to London, where he hoped to arrive by 3:00 pm (1400 GMT) Saturday.

According to Oslo Taxi, drivers have made numerous trips between Oslo and Stockholm since Thursday. "The longest trip so far was from Oslo to Paris," Oslo Taxi spokesman Lars Dolva told the NTB news agency.

Six British businessmen paid a taxi driver GBP 700 (EUR 800) to take them from Belfast to London after they became stranded.

"I thought they were winding me up when they asked me," said Belfast driver Joe Duffy of the 869 mile (1,400 kilometer) trip. "It is only once in a lifetime you get a job like that. You have to keep the wheels going."

AFP / Expatica