Some people need to reach their vacation destinations as quickly as possible. They opt for speedy flights and avoid layovers wherever possible.
For others, this is not the way they want to experience Europe. The journey itself is as much a part of the adventure as the destination, and what better way to take in that journey than the humble elegance of train travel?
European rail systems are ideal for this model of slow travel. You don’t have to worry about booking rental cars. Instead, you can sit back, relax, and take in the stunning views each country has to offer.
Here are 25 tips to help you have a fun, relaxing time exploring Europe by train.
Plan a Light, Flexible Itinerary
Europe is such a huge continent. With so many beloved destinations, you might feel compelled to see as much as you can in as little time as possible. Tom Meyers at Eurocheapo cautions against that, though. Instead, to save money and time (you’ll probably have to book several train trips), keep your itinerary light. Also, be flexible. If a city catches your eye and you want to explore it more, don’t hold yourself back.
Pack as Little as Possible
One good way to keep your valuables safe is to bring as few valuables as possible. Karen McCann at expat news resource Expatica recommends that you stick to a single roll-aboard suitcase for your trip.
Know the Most Popular Travel Days
Elissa Leibowitz Poma at IndependentTraveler enjoyed her time exploring Portugal by train, and she has great based on her experiences. Poma notes that some of the busiest travel times are Monday mornings and Friday afternoons; Sunday afternoons are also cramped. Either avoid these times or book your seats way in advance so you’re not left standing for hours.
Know Which is the Safest Place to Sit
Many trains won’t have assigned seating, particularly if your trip is within a single country’s borders. In that case, be careful about which part of the train you choose. Some seats are safer than others in the event of an accident, which isn’t common but is certainly possible.
“A passenger’s best bet is sitting one or two cars back from the center car, with aisle seats being safer than windows due to the possibility of broken glass,” Jessica Festa at Road Warrior Voices writes. “If a collision occurs, a rear-facing seat can limit your chances of being propelled forward.”
Be Aware of the Bathroom Situation
Train bathrooms vary wildly from country to country and sometimes from first class to second. Travel blog Face Tourist says that the newer, high-speed trains have bathrooms akin to the ones you’ll find on an airplane. On older trains, particularly regional commuter trains, bathrooms are simpler, smaller and may not even have lights.
“Eat and drink accordingly,” the blog warns.
Single-Journey Tickets or a Eurail Pass?
Eurail is the European train pass system. Sean Keener, editor at travel network BootsnAll, suggests you consider your own itinerary to determine whether a single-journey ticket or multi-trip pass is appropriate.
If you and your travel companions plan for a long trip with many stops, Eurail passes are probably best because they let you enjoy “the convenience of one purchase for all your journeys, so you can avoid queues at ticket counters, and they give you flexibility in changing your travel plans without further cost — for instance, scrapping one city for another in the same day without paying for a whole new ticket.”
However, Keener also notes that a Eurail pass is expensive, so think about how much traveling that you plan to do. Perhaps a single-journey ticket would be better for your needs. You can buy these online or once you reach the train station, and sometimes there are discounts available.
Take Advantage of the Perks of Your Eurail Pass
If you do decide to get a Eurail pass, you’ll unlock access to plenty of other discounted modes of transportation, Pro Travel Tips points out. If you need to ride a connecting bus, boat or ferry to get to your destination, you can often save money on this extra transportation via Eurail discount. Some hotels even offer discounts for Eurail pass holders.
Activate Your Train Pass Ahead of Time
Rick Steves has a tip that may seem like common sense but is easy to overlook when you are dealing with jet lag and unfamiliar languages. You’ll need to activate your train pass before you board. You have to do this at the train station, and you have six months from the time you purchase the pass to activate it. You just have to find a railway official, give them your passport and your rail pass, and they will stamp the pass and fill in your travel itinerary and passport number.
Get the Most Out of Your Train Ticket
Theresa Caruso at Venere Travel Blog reminds you that your single-journey pass is good for 24 hours, so you might as well make the most of it. In a small country such as Belgium, you could get breakfast in one city, lunch in another, then arrive at your hotel in a third, all the while taking in the sites from your cozy train seat.
Know the Different Train Classes
Many European trains have at least a couple of class options, Katie at Traveling Panties notes. These include:
- Economy — The cheapest ride money can buy. However, for the lower price, you don’t get as much room, and the seats aren’t as nice.
- Comfort class — A step up from economy. “Your accommodations may be in 5-6 person compartments or in airplane style seating (three across, separated by an aisle),” Katie writes. Also, you’ll typically found power outlets in comfort class seats so you can charge your phone.
- Premier class — The best you can get. You can sometimes enjoy concierge services, but Katie notes that these vary. “When booking your ticket, simply click the ‘Details’ button below the fare to see a description of what deluxe services you can expect.”
“You Must Pay Extra for That” — Watch out for Scams
Stephan Popescu at tour company G Adventures wrote a piece about traveling by train in Romania, but his tips apply to anywhere.
Particularly in crowded train stations, scammers try to take advantage of confused travelers. Popescu says these people might say they work at the train station and ask you to pay an additional fee.
Always remember: As long as you buy your tickets from a real railway official or online, you won’t have to pay any additional fee before boarding.
There Might Be Discounts Depending on Your Age
Dean at World Travel Inspiration notes that if you’re 26 or younger, you can often receive a youth discount on your rail tickets. This varies by country, but Eurail passes offer youth discounts. Seniors can also get money off their train ticket.
Validate Your Ticket Before You Go
Marcel and Theresa at European rail travel blog RailTravelCats do note that in certain European countries you have to get your ticket checked and validated by a machine before you can get on the train. In other countries, a conductor will walk from car to car to check passengers’ tickets. When in doubt, simply ask a station employee.
Give Yourself Plenty of Time
As a rule of thumb, Stephanie Yoder at travel insurance site RoamRight suggests that you arrive at least a good 30 minutes before your time of departure. This gives you plenty of time to locate your platform and be ready for the train. In most countries, being even a minute late means missing the train…
…So Have a Backup Plan If You Do Miss Your Train
Jo Ostgarden at Pacsafe writes that if you do happen to miss your train, check to see whether any other trains that day will take you to your destination. If you must wait after dark, he writes, “choose a well-lit area and wait as close to other people as you can.”
There Are Apps to Make Train Travel Even Smoother
Jim Vail at Reflections Enroute wrote a great post recently about his own experiences taking a train through beautiful Eastern Europe. During his travels, he used a few apps to make his time on the Eurail easier, including Rome2rio, which lets you input your starting point and destination to figure out the best car, ferry, bus, plane and train routes.
Eat or Grab Some Food Before You Get to the Platform
Before you embark on your train trip, definitely bookmark Seat 61, a site with all the information you could ever need for European train travel. The site has a great guide to train travel in France, which brings up a tip many people fail to consider in their rush to the platform: Trains don’t necessarily offer food or drink service.
“Most long-distance trains have a cafe-bar, serving tea, coffee, wine, beer & snacks,” the guide says. “French domestic trains no longer have restaurant cars.”
To be on the safe side, you should eat a before hopping on a two-, three- or four-hour train ride — or just bring food with you onboard.
You’ll Get Your Passport Back from the Ticket Controller
Here is a source of anxiety for many travelers: You’re finally on the train and in your seat. You’re ready to relax and drink in the various sights until the ticket controller comes by and takes your ticket and your passport! What?
Travel blog Global Roaming says don’t worry. “Some trains have registries required to be filled out by local law enforcement, so they are just doing their job and will have [your passport] back to you by the final half hour of the trip.”
Book Your Bed Ahead of Time
Many countries in Europe have are sleeper trains to make long, overnight voyages more comfortable. These certainly beat napping in a standard train seat. However, to make sure you get a bed for the night, travel insurance company Talk to TIM notes that you should reserve a spot in advance. On most overnight trains, you can claim a reclining seat, a couchette (which has six beds per cabin) or a private sleeper.
Lock Your Luggage
If you plan to do all your European travel by train, then you will probably have some valuables in your luggage. To keep these safe, Kevin Coffey at Corporate Travel Safety writes that you should get a cable or a lock for your bags, backpack and luggage. This is especially important if you plan on sleeping on the train.
Keep Your Money and Passport on You
Erick Prince at Minority Nomad recommends you stash your cash and your passport somewhere on you such as in a coat pocket or pants pocket. You’ll know where these important items are, and you are far less likely to get robbed than to have a thief simply go through your stuff.
Buy Travel Insurance
No matter what precautions you take, accidents can still happen. That’s why Scott and Christy at Ordinary Traveler highly recommend getting travel insurance. This insurance can cover the cost of your valuables if they are stolen. Even if you don’t need the insurance (and hopefully you won’t), knowing that you have it gives you added peace of mind.
Figure Out Whether Kids Can Travel Free Ahead of Time
The Bender family travels the world and writes about it on their blog, Travel with Bender. They have enjoyed the beauty of European train travel and mention that sometimes kids under a certain age can get on the train free. However, this isn’t always the case. Make sure to check on the trip information online or ask the railway official at the train station. Free travel for kids is a great way for them to experience the world and for you to save money.
Consider the Time Needed for Connections
If your journey requires that you change trains at some point along the way, heed the advice of Kerstin Hammes at the Fluent Language blog: “Allow for at least 20 minutes of connection times, and take advantage of your train manager — if your train is running late and you’re worried about missing a connection, they can often help out by notifying the train you are connecting to or giving you a ‘hop onto the next one’ stamp.”
Here is What You Should Pack
Travel agency Gapyear.com has a comprehensive checklist of train travel essentials you should double-check ahead of your departure:
- A European map
- Ear plugs
- A language book
- Luggage locks
- Chargers for your electronics
- A light backpack you can carry during the day
- Other ID besides your passport, such as a driver’s license
- A train timetable
- A photocopy of your passport
Charles Forerunner, Ales Krivec, Mario Calvo, Kholodnitskiy Maksim, Dwayne Paisley-Marshall