There’s nothing quite like train travel. No airports, no stone-faced airport security, no waiting around at the boarding gate praying your flight won’t be delayed (or worse, cancelled). No person in front of you reclining their seat ALL THE WAY back before they plane has even taken off (don’t get me started).
While even low-cost airlines can appear to be a cheaper way to travel through Europe, add in the taxes, booking fees, baggage charge, meal charge and suddenly it’s not as ‘budget-friendly’ as it appeared.
Yep, trains, particularly through Europe, have come a long way. Bigger seats, more space, WiFi, and most have a power point in the seat (a luxury you don’t get in many economy seat flights). Then there’s the view, ah the view. It’s significantly more impressive to watch the scenery passing by rather than staring for hours at clouds, darkness or a window blind. Not only that, taking a train through Europe often means you start and finish your journey in the central part of the city. No more lengthy journeys to and from the airport to the city; just get your luggage, disembark and voila, you’ve arrived.
If you organise it just right, you can also travel cheaper with far fewer dramas. Want to know how to make the most of your travel journey? Here’s what you need to know.
1. Don’t be a rookie
If this is your first trip to Europe, it’s easy to make a huge rookie error by looking at a map and falling into the “I want to see as much as possible trap.” The truth is, you’re never going to see ALL of Europe, not even over several trips. There are just too many possibilities. It’s also easy to make the mistake of thinking that two days in each city is plenty. Between arriving in a new destination and moving onto your next one, you’ll never get the chance to genuinely explore and enjoy the city you’re in when you have less than a day to see it.
Best bet? Find a focus of what you want to experience and plan your trip around exactly what you want to see and do. If you’ve never been before, sticking to the more popular destinations (Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Berlin etc.) will give you a great introduction. If you’re keen to get off the beaten path or have a particular passion (food, art, history, etc.) you can find some great destinations to suit whatever it is you love.
2. Plan and book trains ahead
As with most things in life, planning ahead pays off. Be that person, get out a calendar and work out where you want to be and when. Booking your dates early will be kinder to your budget. It’s also important to keep in mind that once you have your rail pass, doesn’t mean your seats are guaranteed for the entire trip. So log in as soon as your dates are available (often up to 2-3 months in advance) and reserve your seats.
Additionally, planning your travel off season can be a great way to save cash and avoid crowds and long queues everywhere. European summer is the most crowded (June-August) and as many Europeans leave for their own holidays over these months, you’re likely to encounter fewer locals and significantly more tourists. Not really as authentic of an experience you might be hoping for.
Train passes can be booked via Rail Europe as country passes (e.g. France) as regional passes (e.g. a BritRail including the U.K. only) or a Eurail Global Pass including 28 participating countries. Depending on how frequent your travel will be will determine the best pass for you. There’s also discounted passes available for couples or groups travelling together (just make sure your group is together for the entire journey as your names are listed on the pass.)
3. Be travel savvy
The Schengen Agreement is a handy agreement set up between many European countries to allow easier travel between borders. While you might not need to remember its name, you do need to understand what it means. Essentially most countries, particularly those within the European Union, have an open border policy so you won’t need show your passport each time you cross. However, here’s where it gets confusing. Not all countries in the European Union participate (such as Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania) and some countries that aren’t part of the E.U. so participate (like Switzerland and Norway). Also the United Kingdom is a whole other region that doesn’t participate, but once you enter the U.K you won’t need to keep showing your passport as long as you remain traveling within the U.K.
Sound confusing? It can be. Our advice; have your passport handy so that no matter what, if and when train inspectors need to check your tickets and documents, you’re ahead of the game. Also do your research in advance and check that you have all necessary travel visas in place on your passport. You’ll need a valid passport with full 6 months validity throughout your travels. You don’t want your passport even being close to expiring while you travel. Get it renewed before you go, it can save you a lot of headache.
4. Overnight trains for the win
Work out which trips are going to be your longest and make those journeys overnighters. It’ll give you time to catch up on some sleep, save you a night of paying for accommodation and you won’t lose as much daylight travelling. Most European overnight trains are pretty damn comfy, and come with showers and options for dining. It’s not quite the Orient Express, but it’s still a lot of fun. Book these legs of your trip in advance though because overnight cabins can book out quickly.
Sometimes with overnight trips you’ll be required to provide the train attendant with your reservation voucher, rail pass and passport as you board (only if you’re crossing over into a country where you’ll need to show your passport to enter during the night). This allows the train conductors to sort out the details with customs officials as you snooze away in dreamland.
4. Safety first, people
It’s obvious advice when you travel anywhere that you should always watch your belongings. While Europe is generally a safe destination, it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings and where you put your belongings. Especially if you’re planning on power napping on the train. Keep your most important travel items (passport, tickets, money) in a safe place. Have a plan and back-up plan for your money and perhaps consider keeping your important items in separate places so that if a backpack is pickpocketed you haven’t lost it all.
5. Validate, validate, validate
Before you start your journey, you’ll need to validate your pass or risk being fined (often heavily) by the ticket inspectors. Look into the rules for your particular train ticket and make sure you arrive at your station early enough to find your platform, grab some snacks and have your ticket validated via stamp, touching it onto a reader device or having it hole-punched. Research your ticket rules and make sure they’re validated for use every time you board a train.
Want to see the real Europe? Check out our classic small group adventures.
Feature image c/o The Common Wanderer