Train travel in Europe: Ten things to know before you go
EUROPE — Since the invention of the internal combustion engine, Americans have been road warriors with their love affair with the automobile. In Europe however, the fastest, most comfortable and convenient way to travel is by train. And high speed train travel in Europe, where available, is even better. In fact, high-speed rail in Europe is a uniquely satisfying experience.
In a country like the USA, where Amtrak is your reference point, it’s hardly surprising that the illusion of independence of a car would dominate your thinking. Consider this, however. Planes fly over countries, but trains pass through them. In fact, on journeys of 3 1/2 hours or less, it’s actually faster to travel in Europe by train. Plus, you’ll usually arrive in your destination city’s center.
As for cars in Europe, there’s the high cost of fuel, European signage, garage fees, navigation and the personal drain on your traveling stamina to consider. Train travel in Europe offers restrooms, wi-fi access and access to food. And let’s not forget the opportunity to work, relax, read or even enjoy the panoramas that pass by your window.
In short, train travel in Europe is a no-brainer if you want to see and enjoy the countries you visit. So here are ten helpful suggestions to help you get the most out of riding the rails through Europe. Just call it “Basic Training.”
1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK & PLAN EARLY:
When considering train travel in Europe, at first glance it appears there are so many kinds of European rail passes that initially it can seem overwhelming. Should you choose one-country or multiple-country passes? First or second class? Global, Youth, Saver passes? Many passes also offer selected bus and boat journeys.
To learn about it all, go online to RailEurope.com as early as possible. There, you can research the option(s) that best suits your budget, destinations, trip duration and style of travel.
One popular product is the Eurail Global Pass which can be used in more than 25 countries, offering many options in its services and prices. Another good choice is the Eurail Saverpass which offers discounts for two to five people traveling together. Be sure to check for bonuses, specials and discounts.
2. COMFORT & CONVENIENCE:
High-speed rail in Europe is often quicker and certainly less stressful than flying or driving. In addition, many trains, including high-speed rail service, offer comfortable seats in all classes with much more legroom. Even better, most first-class seats have individual power outlets and a table. Some services have complimentary Wi-Fi.
If there is one major drawback with rail travel, it would have be that trains are not geared for loads of luggage. The solution? Travel light. That’s also easier on you.
And consider traveling overnight to save on hotel costs. You can often reserve either a “sleeper” compartment with one, two or three beds (plus linen, towels and washbasin). Or you could consider a “couchette” with four or six bunk-style beds.
3. BOOKING IN:
Construct a clear travel plan. That way, you can calculate whether point-to-point tickets or a rail pass offers the best deal for your trip. Start your planning early, not just a few days before departure. Advance purchases can also result in significantly better fares.
Pay online. A courier service will deliver the pass and its accompanying travel diary, plus any reserved seat tickets within five business days.
4. TO RESERVE OR NOT:
Do you want to hop on and off on a whim in different towns? Or do you prefer a bit more structure in your European adventure? The latter requires seat reservations. That’s particularly true for high-speed rail TGV travel in France where reservations are required.
You’ll also need reservations for first class and sleepers. These choices involve additional booking fees (from $15 upwards).
Note: A rail pass doesn’t guarantee a seat unless you’ve secured a reservation in advance. Not all services, especially local ones, offer reserved seats. In that case, just jump on and sit where you can.
Tip: Some capital city stations, such as Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Milano Centrale and Madrid Atocha are massive and busy. So allow up to an hour between connecting trains. (Miss your departure and you’ll have to queue and re-book your reserved seat.)
If a train is full with few or no seats, just go to the Bistro car for a snack and/ or a cup of coffee.
5. ALL ABOARD:
Each country’s railway system has differences. But keep in mind that, overall, punctuality rules. Those high-speed rail rockets that run at just under 200 mph in Spain, Germany and France wait for no one. In fact, most trains usually stop very briefl. So be prepared to leap on or off immediately.
Some major city platforms are quite long, and trains can consist of 13 cars or more. Such platforms are often divided into sectors, so scan the platform for a car position indicator if they’ve marked one.
Security inspections and luggage X-rays are increasingly part of the boarding process at major terminals. So arrive well before departure time.
6. LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE PRODUCT:
When it comes to train travel in Europe, consider this. European rail products cover more than 30 countries and 25,000 destinations on more than 11,000 different routes. Numerous railway companies, both public and private, exist in many countries. And not all sectors of Europe are covered by the Eurailpass. Regional lines in Italy, for example, often don’t accept these passes.
Most stations in Europe allow boarding without ticket inspection. En route, the conductor comes through and inspects your pass and updated travel diary, your reserved seat ticket if any, and ID: likely your passport. Be prepared (see “Basic Rules” below), because fines for breaches can be stiff.
7. THE BASIC RULES:
A Eurailpass comes with a dedicated, personal travel diary (which is the official log of all your rail sectors). In addition, you get a pass guide explaining the simple rules. Before boarding each time, you must update the diary and pass. Use ink, not pencil, and never alter a date.
Guard your pass like your passport. There are no refunds if lost or stolen. Once a pass is validated, you can’t get a refund for any unused days.
Note: Some overnight journeys can use up to two, not one, of your allocated pass days.
8. HOT TIPS:
Be sure to have your pass activated at the ticket office of your first departure station. Get used to thinking in terms of the European or Military 24-hour clock — turning up at 10 pm to catch the 20:00 train, which is 8 pm, can be mortifying. Train travel in Europe is much more precise and punctual than traveling on Amtrak.
When traveling in popular countries such as France, Italy and Spain, reserve your seats in advance. French trains offer only limited seats to Eurailpass holders. You can book up to 120 days in advance and can be up to 70 per cent cheaper with an early purchase.
9. JOIN IN THE FUN:
Once aboard, kick back in a clean, comfortable seat. Enjoy a movie showing on the overhead screen. (You’ll get free earplugs if you travel first class). Better still, watch Lake Como, Andalusia, the Black Forest or Côte d’Azur flash by like a dream. Then stroll to the cafe-restaurant car for a decent coffee and sandwich or salad. No security boarding pat-downs. No pesky, carry-on liquid confiscations. Enjoy it all and reach your destination relaxed and ready to explore on your own time and at your own pace.
10. APPS AND MAPS:
With roughly 150,000 miles of track beckoning riders to every corner of Europe, make sense of it all with the Eurail planner app and Rail Europe interactive website map. Also, watch for fare deals and family/group reductions on the website.
Rail travel, including high-speed rail offerings, may appear overwhelming at first. But the European train systems are easy to understand and user friendly. English-speaking assistance is readily available at virtually every station. To get the most out of train travel in Europe, all you really need to do is “train” yourself.
— Headline image: French TGV Duplex coming from Nice and Cannes and passing over
the viaduc de la Rague bridge, between Mandelieu-la-Napoule and Théoule-sur-Mer, in Alpes-Maritimes.
Photo by Florian Pépellin via Wikipedia entry and caption on TGV. CC 3.0 license.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
Editors Note: Support Bob’s GoFundMe to give him a hand up