European train travel might just be a destination in itself. Passing by lazy small villages its fun to find the focal point which is usually the tall spire in the middle of town, the church. Traveling next to a busy river filled with river cruise ships and small boats carrying colorful veggies and fruits is relaxing. Railing into a big city can surprise you with some very artistic graffiti or course there is also the gangland style too. But with that to see the Eiffel Tower, Roman Coliseum or even Big Ben for the first time from the large window in your car. We love traveling by rail! How can you make train travel easy? Let us give you a few tips to help your travel go smoothly.
What kind of ticket should you buy
When booking your trip do a little research then check your itinerary to see if a Rail Pass will work for you over Point to Point tickets. Rail passes are great if you are traveling through more than two countries for more than one or two days. Will you be taking lots of day trips? The rail pass would be easier than having to purchase tickets every time you want to take a train. On the other hand point to point can come out cheaper for shorter trips and if you plan on using the train for close city pair destinations. We have found many times purchasing tickets when we arrive at the rail station can be the most economical decision. To get a better idea to see if point to point will pay off for you check out Seat 61, this site is very helpful to give you local rates before you leave.
Decide on whether you want a first class ticket or second. We personally like the first class with more leg room, cleaner cars and compartments and small amenities. If you are on a budget second class on the norm is just fine.
How to purchase a train ticket
Trains in Europe now require a reservation and seat assignments. Especially Intercity and Eurostar routes. There is a small fee but just figure its part of the ride. Some regional trains do not require the reservation so it would be first come, first serve.
If you decided on a Rail Pass then you need to pick one up before leaving for Europe. You cannot pick one up once you are there. You can also pick up point to point tickets at home but like previously mentioned you will most likely get a better price at the station. How do you pick one up? There are a few ways. If you are at a smaller, less crowded station go to the desk inside the station. All in all they are the most helpful in making sure you get on a high-speed train rather than the slower regional routes. Plus if you have any questions 9 times out of 10 the clerk is happy to help out.
Second most stations have self-service ticketing machines where you put in your city pairs, then your credit card, then Walla, you have your ticket. Easy Peasy! Best part is there are usually a few machines so lines don’t build up like going up to the ticket counter. Just make sure you have the correct dates and times and most of all be careful not to get a ticket with a train leaving within the next few minutes or that the track is too far away to make it. One more thing, if you need to get there fast stay away from the “Regional” machines. Like mentioned before those trains are very slow and have a lot of stops.
Third, you can go into a travel agency near your hotel. Your desk clerk will be able to give you directions. This is especially helpful if you are not near a train station.
Getting on the train
Make sure you get to the station early. Once you get there and have your ticket in hand look for the schedule with cities, train numbers and gates hanging from ceilings and wall. Make sure you have the right train and the right track. Larger cities may have 2 or 3 trains leaving around the same time. It may look like its going to your destination but could take you way out-of-the-way and hours longer to get there. This happened one time when we wanted to go from Cinque Terre to Milan. The train we should have been on would only take about 2-3 hours. The one we took was over 8! We learned our lesson quickly with that mistake.
Look at your ticket, it will have your car number and seat number on it. Walk down the platform until you locate your car then throw your luggage up the steps and climb in. If you are running a little late you can catch the first couple cars and walk down to your seat but dragging your luggage with you can be difficult.
Beware of people wanting to help you with your luggage. You not only have to worry about theft, but there are scammers who will grab your luggage to help you make your train as you are running then hold the bag ransom until you give them a tip.
Most trains have a dining car but the food can vary from train to train. We always pick up sandwiches, chips or other munchies, or sometimes fresh-baked bread and cheese for the trip. Can’t beat European bakery’s, everything tastes so much better there.You can purchase soft drinks on board but to keep costs down we buy our water, juice, soft drinks or even beer before reaching the station.
While traveling we love to get to know the people around us. Especially the older ones who still have first hand stories of surviving WWII. We have learned so much by talking with the locals about what to see, where to eat, what not to do. It’s a wealth of information. Or you can just sit back relax and enjoy the ride to your next destination.