A Quick Guide to Train Travel in Europe
OK, summers just around the corner and your backpack is making noises in your closet. You don’t really feel like travelling on a crowded coach, flying Ryanair gives you the sX#ts and hitch hiking these days is a little dodgy. So it looks like the train is the way to get around Europe, but how?
A tram car is a great way to explore Lisbon in Portugal
- Have a Rough Idea of Where You Want to Travel to
The first thing to do is to have a basic plan of what you want to see and do. The reason for this is that is allows you to be realistic about time frames as the last thing you want to do is the photo shop tour of Europe by travelling every day and not allowing yourself time to explore and experience places properly.
2. Choose Your Ticket Type
The next thing to do is to match where you want to go with the type of train tickets available. There are basically three types of tickets available. The Eurail Pass, The Interail Pass and Point to Point Rail. Let me explain:
Eurail and Interail are rail passes developed by the rail companies in Europe. There are several types passes. The most common used is the Flexipasss. Where you buys a pass that is valid for 1 month and you have any 10 days of travel within that month. A Consecutive Day pass. Which allows for 15 consecutive days of unlimited travel. There is also a third option which is a Saverpass which is for groups of two to five named travellers.
Interail is the European equivalent of a Eurail Pass and is only available for those residing in the European Union. If you are from anywhere else the Eurail pass is for you.
Some train stations are worth the visit alone
Point to Point Rail is you buying tickets either on the day or before hand for a certain journey e.g. a journey between Rome and Florence. Point to Point generally is cheaper in places where rail travel is cheap such as Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe and gives you the ultimate flexibility of not being committed to time frames or pre booked seats.
Tickets are available through Travel Agents, the Internet and some train stations.
Ok, you have bought the ticket so now you are all ready to go. So get yourself down to the Train Station
3. Validate Your Pass
If you are travelling on a Eurail Pass the first thing to do is to go to the ticket office of your arrival country and validate your ticket. If you are using express or fast trains you will also need to make a seat reservation. Remember that passes are not valid on Eurostar trains between London and France, although your pass will allow a substantial discount of the going ticket price.
Remember after validating your pass, you must fill in the date of travel before boarding the train as this is in the terms and conditions for use of the pass. It has been known for conductors to confiscate passes that have not had the dates of travel inserted before travelling.
Trains are a great spacious alternative to cars and buses
- A Quick Word About Supplements
Some trains, especially express trains, international, overnight (couchette) and some intercity trains require that pass holders pay up to a €5 supplement. This should be paid at a ticket office before boarding the train otherwise the likely hood of being stung by overzealous conductors’ increases.
5. Seat Reservations
It is commonplace for seat reservations to be required for express, international and intercity trains. Now the tricky part comes when boarding the train. In France, Germany, Austria and Holland the conductors put little yellow cards on your reserved seats and nine times out of ten your seat will be free when you get there. If your seat is taken by someone, kindly ask them to move on.
Make sure you double check the carriage number you are in against what is on your ticket as usually there are the same seat numbers in different carriages and it is very easy and highly embarrassing to try to evict someone when you are in the wrong carriage yourself. If you are in the right carriage and they wont move wait for the conductor and they will sort the problem pretty quickly.
Warning: On Italian trains for some obscure reason they don’t use the card system anymore, which leads to all sorts of musical chair type shenanigans and hand gesturing while finding your seat.
When time frames are a concern, take one of Europe’s many speedy trains
- Finding Your Train
Always leave a bit of time between when you arrive at the train station and when the train departs because no matter what country you are in the station staff tend to play a little game of change the train platform at the last minute. This usually happens either when you have gone for a quick snack or are in the toilet but has also been known to happen when you are actually in your seat! Keep an ear and eye out for platform changes.
7. Arrival and Departure Boards
In most European train stations an easy way to get in the right vicinity of your train is to start with the arrival and departure time tables on the platforms. Yellow for departures and White for arrivals. These boards list the arrival and departures by times, train numbers and the end destination of the train. Just look down the board for your train and walk to that platform. If you don’t know ask. In my experience, most staff are really helpful.
8. On The Train
Pulling into a station in Venice, Italy
You will soon realise one day pack and one backpack are all the luggage that you need for traveling by train. Any more luggage becomes a pain getting on and off the train and hard to keep an eye on, as luggage storage is usually somewhat crowded in the height of summer.
The good thing about train travel is that you can move around. Hence you can even bring your own travel pillow for extra comfort. In the good old days, you use to be able to pop down to the smoking carriage for a quick fag, but now most trains are non-smoking so you have to be content for a trip to the dining car or to the toilets to stretch your legs.
Make sure that you chat to the locals. Some of the best experiences you can have in travel are having random conversations with the locals. Shared food, language, guides and inquisitive locals are the norm especially on Inter regional trains that the locals take every day.