Train travel is one of the great pleasures of traveling through Europe. It is a quick, efficient, and (in most cases) affordable way to get from place to place. It's also incredibly enjoyable: imagine sipping a coffee, perusing your guidebook, and watching the beautiful scenery rush by your window. No need to worry about watching the road, finding your way to the airport, or reading a foreign map.
However, train travel can also be confusing and frustrating, particularly if you're new to the experience. There are dozens of different lines with different rules and regulations run by separate governments. Figuring it all out can give you a royal headache. But there are a few things you can do to make travel easier, including these key train tips.
Planning Your Trip
Trains in Europe run both domestically and internationally. Almost every country in Europe has their own national rail system, and there are several international companies like the Eurostar, which connects London, Paris, and Brussels. In general, trains in Western Europe are more efficient, faster, and more expensive than trains in Eastern Europe.
You can find the timetables and routes for most train lines online through various countries' national rail websites. The German National Rail site,
DB Bahn, has consolidated a lot of this information for both Germany and the rest of Europe. The independently run Seat 61 website is also a great resource for finding schedule and route information.
When you are planning your travel schedule, you want to make sure you give yourself enough time to make connections if your route involves switching trains. European stations can be sprawling and confusing, so it's wise to budget extra time. Keep in mind that some larger cities have more than one major train station.
Tickets and Rail Passes
Prices and ticket classes can vary based on where you are going, in what class you are traveling, and the speed of the train. Not all tickets need to be bought ahead of time, but if you are traveling a very popular route, have an inflexible schedule, or are traveling during high season, it is wise to book ahead.
You can book tickets in advance using the websites of the national rail companies (for international trips, you can book your ticket through either your departure country or your destination country). You can either have your tickets mailed to you or arrange to pick them up at the station.
If you plan to do a lot of train travel, you can simplify things a great deal by buying a Rail Pass. Eurail (for non EU citizens) and InterRail (for EU citizens) offer a variety of different train passes ranging from single country to global passes that cover all of Europe. They are priced based on how many travel days you estimate you will have, and you can take as many trips as you like on a travel day. However, even with a pass some trains require reservations and can book up in the summer months. Make sure you read all the information that comes along with your pass for a full explanation.
Note that a rail pass is only cost-effective if you are traveling quite frequently or long distances during your trip to Europe. Price out how much it would cost to buy the tickets individually compared to the cost of the pass for the best deal.
Train Etiquette and Safety
Get to the train station 30 minutes before departure so that you can find the correct platform. Some trains depart very promptly, so don't be late. Unlike air travel, there is generally no check-in or security process, you can go directly to your platform (Eurostar is one major exception). If you can't figure out where you need to be, it is okay to ask at the information desk.
Pay attention to whether you have an assigned seat and car number. You should be able to store your luggage above your seat or in a luggage rack at the end of the car (although you will want to keep a close eye on your bag if it is not next to you). Ask a conductor if you have questions. Tickets will usually be checked once you're on board, so keep them handy.
Train travel is usually pretty safe, but theft is a common issue, particularly in train stations. Always keep your valuables in your sight and never, ever, leave bags unattended. Sometimes the area around train stations can also be rough, so take care if you are arriving somewhere new late in the evening.
Have you traveled by train in Europe before? What did you think?