Train is the most iconic way to travel throughout the European continent. Not only is it smooth and convenient, there is just something nostalgic about it. Once you’ve spent a vacation sitting on a train with the countryside blur by, you’ll understand.
European travelers choose various ways to travel by train from individual tickets to long-term rail passes, depending on the journey and length. No matter how you do it, here are a few tips for Europe by train:
- Reservations are the first and most important detail to be aware of with trains, especially if you have a rail pass. People can wind up very upset if they aren’t aware of reservation needs beforehand. There are plenty of European countries which require no train reservations and allow you to travel freely with your purchased pass, but a few main countries require paid reservations on high-speed trains. This means travelers can’t jump on and off trains spontaneously, and instead need to pay for a reserved seat. This can be frustrating during peak travel months like the summer, when the reservations are more expensive and add cost to your (already expensive) train pass. All schedules and times can be looked up with the rail planner app, but note that most high-speed trains require reservations in popular countries like France, Spain and Italy. You can research slower trains routes with no reservations in these countries if you have more time and want to stick to a budget.
- Pay attention to train classes when boarding, as almost every train is different and you don’t want to end up in the wrong section. You can buy first class, comfort class, or economy class with Eurail. First class ticket holders can use the first class lounges in larger train stations and will be served food on many routes. Free wifi and quieter settings are also perks of premiere class tickets. Comfort class is just right between the two.
- Before your train ride, be sure to have your tickets in hand or know how to print them at the station. Double check the actual station location, as some cities have multiple large train stations. Arrive about 20-30 minutes early just to be safe with finding the platform and details. There are large departure boards which list the trains and times by destination. Note that your actual destination city might not be listed, since the final destinations are posted. Double check transfer times with the conductor before boarding. You’ll also normally want to activate your pass at the ticket window, validate it at a machine, and/or write in the date you are using before boarding the train. This is important as you can be penalized if it’s not filled in on the train.
- Keep your train ticket out and ready on the board. Don’t pack away your ticket after boarding the train. It will be needed soon after departure when your ticket is checked. Keeping it handy will make things easier on everyone and avoid holding up the train.
- Connecting trains are key. Many itineraries through Europe will connect or make transfers. As you plan your rail trip through Europe, try to use the planning tools and schedule to make your route the most efficient. For example: if you want to go all through Austria, check the transfers and schedules and use that to determine the order of your travel. Also be sure to plan feasible connection times. You only need time to step off the train, find the new track and board the next train, but all stations are different so allow yourself ample time. Use the rail planning app to suggest connection times. Anywhere from 10-60 minutes is a common layover time. Set alarms on your phone before the train ride begins for a few minutes before each transfer time.
- Overnight trains can be ideal for budget travelers, as you can travel through the night and save money by not paying for a hotel that night. Just note that you will need a reservation for anything overnight. You can book economy class which gives you a reclining seat or shared compartment. Comfort class will be a small compartment and your own washbasin, and first class offers private, lockable compartments with your own shower + restroom. These will also mostly include breakfast and/or dinner.
- Map it out and pair routes together. If you’re using a rail pass which counts by the day, try to use your pass to see as much in one day as possible before getting to your next destination. You’re using up a day anyway, so you may as well plan to stop in a tiny town somewhere. For example: go to Hallstatt from Salzburg before connecting onto Vienna. As long as it’s all within 24 hours, you’ve only used one day but seen more. Be sure to use maps when booking tickets so you can train right into the station nearest city center/your hotel.
- If you book beforehand online, you can print a ticket at the station as an e-ticket. Just go to a self-service kiosk on your day of travel or anytime before. Just be sure to bring your confirmation code. If the tickets are print-at-home, be sure to print them beforehand as some train stations don’t have the kiosks.
- When it comes to refunds and exchanges, most rail passes are 85% refundable if they haven’t been used or activated. However with individual journey tickets, it depends on the policies of the train line in that country (fares range from non-flexible, semi-flexible, to fully-flexible). It is best to plan carefully to ensure your timing, or else get insurance:
- If you’re worried about changes in your travels, you can get the rail protection plan which gives you flexibility to change or cancel any ticket or reservation prior to travel, no penalties or questions asked. You can either change your reservation or get credit for a future trip. It takes out a lot of stress if you want flexibility.
- Be aware of safety and security. Trains are an easy and common way to travel in Europe, and there hasn’t been much security in the past. Given recent events throughout Europe security may tighten, but as there is still no formal security process at the moment, be very vigilant. Be sure to notice who and what are around you, observe anything out of place, and report anything suspicious. We want to keep train rides safe and fun.
- Luggage is surprisingly flexible on European trains. Passengers aren’t truly limited on the amount, but you should keep it light for loading on and off trains. Certain train lines have policies of two suitcases per traveler plus a carryon, but it’s not strictly enforced. Let’s hope you don’t have more than that anyway, for your sake. Smaller sized bags, or anything with valuables, should go right near your you, above or below your seat. Larger suitcases can be stored on racks by each train door.
- Most trains in Europe will have food options for purchase on the train, but it’s always smart to bring some of your own food along. There are also markets inside of many train stations where you can buy some items for the journey. On the train, expect the food to be a bit pricier but decent. The dining car or food cart will offer things from sandwiches, salads, snacks, and drinks. There are also usually some local foods offered depending on the train line.
- Make a rail pass worth it. While rail passes are definitely convenient for a lot of European travelers, make sure you are using it the smartest way. Some areas such as Eastern Europe offer such inexpensive train tickets from city to city that you may be better off buying them straight out for certain areas, and then using a rail pass for a major bulk journey where it is worth it. Don’t spend a day of your pass when it isn’t worth it.
- Enjoy the journey. Train travel is a time to truly enjoy the journey: kick back, relax, and watch the world pass you by. Bring books, bring cards, bring podcasts, bring a journal. Soak in the time. Look out the window. Speak softly and don’t disturb other passengers. Just enjoy. Some of my very fondest memories have been aboard European trains. I hope yours will be too!