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Train travel in Europe is a fun way to see the countryside out your window as you sit back and relax while you’re whisked from place to place. Enter into the romance of the clickety-clack of the wheels and the gentle swaying of the cars. And choose from styles of trains that speed along or those that meander more slowly so you can savor the views of rivers and castles and quaint, colorful towns.
While you can often choose to fly from one destination in Europe to another, trains have advantages. You are a part of the landscape instead of winging above it. You don’t have to arrive hours early to check in or figure out just how many ounces your luggage weighs. And depots are often in a city, while airports are generally a ways out and require transportation to your hotel. All things considered, riding trains in Europe is often the most enjoyable and expedient way to get around.
Here are tips to help you navigate trains in Europe. With just a bit of planning and know-how, you will be hopping on and off with confidence.
1. Book Tickets Like A Pro
Buying train tickets in Europe is easy if you use online resources and apps. For planning an entire trip itinerary, use Rome2Rio for transportation options, train schedules, and maps. For general tips as well as information about trains in each country on your list, check with The Man in Seat 61.
Some tickets are available weeks before and you can save money by booking ahead. If you are not sure of your schedule, though, you can wait until you arrive in Europe to buy your ticket. I did learn the hard way that if you wait until your day of travel, ticket prices can soar. If you arrive in a city and know you want to train out in 2 or 3 days, buy your next ticket on arrival at the station.
It’s fine to book regional trains on the same day of travel in many cases. If you are training from Paris to Giverny, for example, showing up at the station the morning you want to go and buying your ticket works well. You can keep your itinerary flexible that way, due to weather, health, or whim.
Ticket agents at train stations can be your best friends if you have problems figuring out a route. Almost every time I’ve bought tickets in person, the agents have been efficient and helpful.
2. Head To The Correct Train Station
Large cities in Europe, as well as some small towns, host more than one train station. For example, Paris has six major stations, and the town of Lille has two. Gare de Lille and Lille Europe may look the same at a glance and both have regional trains, but your ticket will be for one or the other.
If you’ve booked a connecting train in a city, you may be arriving at one station and leaving from another. You may pull into Gare du Nord in Paris and connect with a train in Gare Saint-Lazare. Check your tickets carefully.
If you book connecting trains from different stations, make sure you have enough time between the trains to locate the second station. Plan whether you will walk or take the metro or a taxi. Allow extra time to get from one place to another.
3. Check And Double Check Your Car Number
Once you find your track and your train, you will be looking for your car. Some tickets are simply for first or second class. Others have assigned cars and assigned seats.
Look on the side of the cars for their numbers. The placement of the numbers varies with the style of train. Personnel may be standing in boarding areas to help. If not, look in doorways for car numbers as well as on the outside. The numbers 1 and 2 refer to first and second class. The car number is somewhere else.
You want to be sure you are in the correct car because European trains sometimes uncouple cars at stops along the way. Ask the ticket agent whether your car goes through to the city you’re aiming for to be sure you don’t get rerouted during your trip.
4. Help! I’m On The Wrong Train!
Trains in Europe run frequently and tend to be on time. If a train is scheduled to leave from track 15 at 3:05, it likely will. I got on a train in Lille thinking I was heading to Belgium, but the train pulled out 5 minutes early. Immediately, I knew we were on the wrong train. We had boarded too early. Our train was pulling in right behind this one. We learned we were heading to Dunkirk, France.
The helpful train personnel spoke in alarmed tones in French and went to get someone who spoke English. We were told to get off at the next stop, wait for a train back to Lille, and try again for Belgium. We ended up spending a delightful hour in Armentieres, France, not a place many Americans visit. The one-person train station clerk was so friendly, kept our luggage behind her desk, and proudly bid us explore her city.
If this happens to you, there’s no need to panic. Go with the adventure and chalk it up to funny travel bloopers.
5. Consider The Pros And Cons Of Sleeper Trains
The pros of sleeper trains include waking up in a new place ready to start a day of sightseeing. You also generally pay less for a sleeper than you would pay for a night in a hotel.
The cons include the possibility of a restless night of sleep or lack of sleep. The trains may stop during the night and new passengers getting on may be noisy. If you are in a car with others not in your party, they may go to bed late or get up early.
My daughter and I took sleeper trains and loved waking up in Rome with the whole day ahead of us. Check out train schedules and think about whether it’s worth risking a night of less-than-ideal sleep to save time traveling.
6. Enjoy Meeting New Friends
One great pleasure of traveling by train is the opportunity to meet locals as well as other travelers. Smile and don’t be shy about striking up a friendship with your train mates. I’ll never forget the young man who talked with us the entire ride from Zurich to Innsbruck. As we wound through the Alps, he told us of his excitement about going to medical school in Vienna. We learned that he grew up on a small farm in the Austrian countryside and now loved living in the bustling city. I figure he talked with us to practice his English, and he was such a delight.
On another trip out of Prague, the man seated next to me pored over his tour book, studying the entry on Dresden. I didn’t speak a word of his language, but when I said “Dresden!” he began smiling and pointing to the photos in the book. We “conversed” without sharing a single understandable word, and he got off the train grinning and waving. I think we brightened each other’s morning.
7. Plan Ahead To Travel Light
If you plan to travel by train in Europe, think seriously about packing carry-on only. Many stations require you to navigate steep stairways up or down to tracks. And sometimes you arrive just in time, no matter how well you plan. If you are trying to lug a large suitcase up and down stairs while rushing to catch your train, you are not going to be happy.
Do pick up snacks and drinks before you board. Train stations usually have cafes where you can pick up takeaway breakfasts or lunches. Food is not always available during the trip. If you’re traveling several hours, pack a sack with foods to keep hunger away and add pleasure to your journey.
8. Be Smart About European Currency And Train Travel
When you train from one country to another, you may be moving from one currency use to a different one. If you travel from Budapest to Vienna, you will need euros on your arrival instead of your money from Budapest. Plan to use most of your money before you leave. Buying snacks in the train station is a good way to spend the last of your currency if you have a small amount of money left.
If you don’t already have currency from the country of your arrival, you will likely find ATMs in the station or at banks near the station. You can also go to your bank and order spending money in each currency of the countries you will visit before starting your trip. This will prevent a mad hunt for an ATM in a large station like Brussels that requires euros for the toilets.
9. Decide If A Train Pass A Good Idea
Remember the days when a Eurail Pass was the go-to way to travel in Europe? My daughter and I bought our passes on our first international trip and trained around Europe with ease. We hopped on and off trains and if we went to the wrong destination, we simply got off at the next station and caught another train with no need of those pesky one-way tickets. We met people who meant to go to Amsterdam and ended up in Venice, but they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The last several years, it’s generally more economical to buy point-to-point tickets or passes for a country. But if you are going to many countries and staying a while, you may want to check out the Eurail Global Pass. Do the math and see if it will save you money in the long run.
If you are going to Switzerland, you can choose from train passes. Whether these save you money depends on where you are going in the country and what other kinds of transportation you plan to use. Discounts apply to some cable cars and boats. In planning a trip to Switzerland, I researched the options. It’s telling that the website provides a detailed Excel spreadsheet you fill out to see what is cost-effective. The problem is you likely don’t know exactly which cable cars and trains you want to include, as travel in Switzerland can be affected by weather. I decided to buy point-to-point train tickets. The outlay may be slightly higher, but it was worth it to forgo the worry of complicated math and changing terms. That said, train travel in Switzerland is breathtaking and highly recommended.
When you travel by train in Europe, read up on the places you want to go, including the stations and the types of trains and schedules. Then don’t worry if, even with lots of planning, you find yourself frantically searching for the right track or rerouting with the help of friendly locals. Trains are such a grand adventure and can be a memorable part of your trip.