EUROPE, July 27, 2015 – No matter how often you travel, each journey is unique, and one of the ideal ways to experience Europe is by train.
Trains allow travelers to meet locals, enjoy breathtaking scenery and avoid airport and traffic hassles with the added advantage of having time to sit back and relax as you head to the next destination on your itinerary.
Planes fly over countries; trains pass through them. Cars keep your eyes fixed to the highway while trains allow you to observe ever-changing panoramas that pass by your window.
Like anything else, there is a technique to using the train networks of Europe efficiently.
Today, many major European airports have train stations right in them. Those that don’t have ample transportation transfer services readily available.
When traveling with a rail pass, be sure to validate your pass before boarding a train for the first time. Just present the pass and your passport at a ticket window and you will be on your way in a matter of minutes. Travelers using point-to-point tickets do not need to do this.
Generic pictograms can be found throughout all railway stations to provide visual information about services such as ticket offices, hotel reservations, currency exchange, lockers and the like.
All trains stations have schedules posted that list departure times, train numbers and departure platforms. In many cases, platform numbers are not posted on electronic departure boards until about 15 or 20 minutes prior to leaving.
Trains are listed chronologically in military time. Therefore, 1 p.m. becomes 1300 and so on up to midnight at 2400. Next to the times are the names and numbers of the trains and track numbers. Beside the train listings is the routing to the final destination plus the most important intermediate stops.
Some coaches have identification panels on the side of the train. The top name is the city of origination. The bottom name is the final destination. Major stops en route are listed, but not necessarily all stops.
One of the most helpful tools is train diagrams, which are on many platforms. The diagrams show the configuration of each train so you can find first- and second-class coaches, dining cars and the general position of your car in relation to sections of the platform.
It is absolutely necessary to reserve sleeper accommodations. If you are traveling with a rail pass, reservation costs are not included in the pass. Overnight trains are a good way to save time by sleeping while traveling from one destination to the next.
Today, some of the more popular European regions have special trains designed specifically for nighttime travel only.
Most train stations have locker and/or checkrooms for storing luggage temporarily.
Speaking of luggage, if you bring it, you have to carry it. Trains have limited space for bags and porters are rare. Beware of “friendly” locals offering to assist with bags. Don’t be fooled by their kindness; they expect to be tipped.
Luggage areas on trains are found at the ends of coaches, between seats or overhead for smaller items.
European trains are as diverse as the countries themselves. Seating comes in two styles; compartment or wide-open airline-style carriages.
Many trains have roaming food carts with a selection of sandwiches, snacks and beverages. Intermediate range trains may have bistro services available, usually located between a first- and second-class carriage. Longer distance international trains often include full-service dining cars.
In some cases, certain trains offer meal services at your seat in first class. Otherwise, just do as the locals do and purchase food in the station for an onboard picnic.
Many, if not most, modern trains are equipped with computer connections and offer wi-fi services.
For pass users, if you are traveling overnight on a train departing after 7 p.m., you may enter the next day’s date on your pass, which actually gives you five extra hours of travel for free.
One overlooked aspect of traveling with a rail pass is the variety of bonuses they offer. Bonuses often include free or discounted transportation on many boats, ferries, buses and other forms of transportation as well as admission to museums or other attractions.
European trains are punctual and usually arrive and depart on schedule. Unlike other forms of travel, trains do operate when the elements don’t cooperate.
Be sure to check whether high speed trains require reservations. Many do.
For rail pass users it is a good idea to purchase rail protection insurance to cover lost or stolen passes.
Trains allow you to mix and to mingle with fellow travelers from a variety of nations, and, after all, isn’t that what real travel is all about?
All it takes to become a veteran rail traveler is a bit of planning, preparation and a little common sense to make tracks through Europe.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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