The train is a great way to explore Europe in a relaxed manner. There are many reasons to prefer trains over planes, cars and buses for travel in Europe. Nearly every city has one or more stations which are served by trains many times each day. There are no time-consuming check-ins and often you arrive in the heart of your destination. While traveling you can admire the view, talk to fellow passengers, go for a stroll or read a good book. Plus you can eat any time you want without the hasstle of finding a good place. And you can meet interesting people that always seem willing to share travel tips and ideas.
This article will cover the following topics:
> Tickets, Passes & Stations
> Reservations & Seats
> Classes & Cars
> How to read timetables
> Planning your route
> City Names
> Special Trains
> Food & Drink
It’s important to note that many European cities have multiple train stations. Cities like Berlin, Paris, or Madrid use different train stations for different travel directions. So it’s critical to know which station your train departs from before you head out to catch a train. In general major railway stations are centrally located and well served by public transportation – trams, metros or busses. Just be sure to go to right station.
On all stations you will find signs in the station and at platforms showing departure times and train number listings. At major stations huge computerized boards offer up-to-the-minute schedule and platform listings as well. After checking the schedule and departure platform, it’s time to find your train. Numbers posted near the train’s door or on a window show if the car is 1st or 2nd class; some trains have both classes in one car. Also, destination placards and car numbers are placed near the door of each car. Trains can be split and sent in diferent directions, so make sure the car you’re in is going where you want to go. You should be ready to board the train the minute it arrives; station stops are often very short unless boarding is done at the beginning of the train’s route.
If you have made a reservation, you have to check the car number and seat number printed on the ticket. Once the car is found, finding the right seat is easy. If a seat is reserved in a compartment, a sign on or next to the compartment door showing the seat’s number must match the seat number on the ticket. For open-car seating, seat numbers are on the headrest. Travelers have to be prepared to vacate a reserved seat that does not belong to them if the rightful seat-holder arrives.
Regarding luggage, trains have either overhead storage racks throughout the car, storage room behind the back of your seat or luggage areas at the end of the car. You will have to carry the luggage yourself and luggage placed in the luggage racks remains under the sole responsibility of the traveler. Its is advised to clearly and legibly label your hand luggage with your name and address. Most stations provide left luggage offices or lockers, and major railway stations will have luggage carts for your use. Very few stations still have porters. In the stations there will be pictograms showing where luggage rooms or luggage carts can be found. So pack lightly!
TICKETS & PASSES:
Obviously you need a ticket to travel on the train. You can buy individual trip tickets on-line or at each train station. If you only want to go from A to B then a simple ticket is OK. But if you plan on lots of travel to many places then consider a pass. Eurail Passes (also known as Eurorail Passes) offer a flexible European rail travel experience that allows stopping anywhere, anytime you like: you choose your number of countries and your number of travel days. They need to be purchsed prior to the trip and have various limits as to how many countries and how many travel days you can use. Passes are available for either 1st or 2nd class travel…we recommend 1st class since the price is not much higher. For example you can buy a 3 country pass for 5 travel days for under $500.
One very important thing to know about tickets and passes is “validation”. Just because you have a ticket/pass doesn’t mean you can travel on the train. Each ticket and rail passes MUST be validated each time you board…or you face a possible stiff fine by a conductor. Somewhere in each station, usually near the platform where the train departs is a small (sometime yellow) machine used to time stamp the ticket. This is called “validation”. It tells the conductor you are OK to be on the train for a specific date only. Make sure you understand this and know how to validate the ticket/pass.
A Eurail Pass does not guarantee you a seat! Most rail journeys do not require advance reservation, but for some popular trains a seat reservation is compulsory. Night trains require a supplement (additional fee) for the sleeping accomodation. Seat reservations are required for some trains, for others it is recommended. You can book train seat reservations up to 90 days before the travel date. Advance reservation is recommended during high-season, holidays and rush hours. Reservation costs are not included in a Eurail Pass. They vary widely depending on the country, type of train and class. Seat reservation is usually not possible for local or regional trains.
During high-season (summer months) we advise you to reserve far in advance. Some popular trains, like the Thalys, TGV or Alaris, have a limited number of seats for Eurail travelers. Advance reservation is also recommended if you must reach your destination on a certain day and time, for instance to catch a flight. Most high-speed and overnight trains require an advance reservation. In the Eurail timetable that you receive with your Pass, trains with compulsory reservations are indicated by the symbol R. For example, the Thalys from Brussels to Paris is subject to compulsory reservation. Online timetables also indicate when reservation is necessary.
Night trains or sleeper trains take you over large distances during the night, saving you the cost of a hotel. There are several sleeping options for comfortable traveling overnight. These options may differ per train type, and could be a sleeper seat, or a 1 or 2 person compartment (couchette). Reservations are usually compulsory. They can be made in advance at a train station (especially in the summer season, on holidays and in weekends). Off-season, during non-peak times, you can also ask train staff if there is vacant accomodation.
TIMETABLES, ROUTES, AND CITIES:
A good rail timetable is absolutely necessary to plan your rail trip. Schedules come both printed as well as online, and you should use them to look up the departure and arrival times of trains. Also, the duration of the trip and the type of train is mentioned. Be aware that train schedules change regularly, so it’s recommend that you always consult online timetables in addition to the printed ones. Eurail travelers receive a free Eurail Timetable booklet (including a rail map of Europe). This compact train schedule contains a summary of the main European train routes. You can also download this timetable.
Some rail companies in specific countries offer printed timetables, and also on-line ones. In these timetables, you can find the various options for traveling between main European cities. In the details of your trip, you can see whether a train needs a reservation, and you can compare trains and travel times. In the DB (Germany) timetable you can also look for regional trains only. By doing this, you will be looking for trains which take longer, but generally require no reservation or supplement. You can consider ordering one of the renowned rail timetables from Thomas Cook Publishing. They offer a European Rail Timetable (monthly updated) or the European Rail Timetable – Independent Traveller’s Edition (published twice a year).
Many trains make multiple stops, unless they are “express” trains. So it’s critical to know which train goes to which city. Obviously local trains can be very slow and take a long time. Also be aware that European cities may not be spelled the way you think. For example what Americans know as Turin, Italy is actually Torino. So you gotta know the right names.
CLASSES AND CAR NUMBERS:
Numbers posted near the train’s door or on a window show if the car is 1st or 2nd class; some trains have both classes in one car. Destination placard and car numbers are also placed near the door. Trains can be split and some cars sent in different directions, so make sure the car you’re in is going where you want to go.
FOOD & DRINK:
Many European long-distance trains have full-service restaurant cars offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Others trains offer light meals, snacks and drinks in a buffet car. You could check an on-line timetable to see if a specific train will carry a restaurant or buffet car. At the station you will often find small shops where you can buy drinks, snacks or sandwiches. Some larger stations will even have a small supermarket within the station. It is quite customary to bring your own food or drink on the train, and we encourage that option.
You can travel by train through Europe on a large variety of special trains. Would you like to flash past European cities? Cross high cols with snow-capped mountains, along deep ravines, seeing the most beautiful crystal-clear lakes? Or reach your next European destination while dozing away in your private compartment? Here are some special trains.
High Speed Trains:
* up to 187.5 mph (300 kmph)
* comfortable 1st and 2nd class seats
* widespread high speed network throughout Europe
* sleep comfortably while you travel
* 1, 2 or more beds per compartment
* breakfast included
* travel on Europe´s most scenic routes
* breathtaking views
* some scenic routes are part of UNESCO World Heritage
Special trains mostly require a supplement and a compulsory reservation. The prices vary per train and per country, but will normally be somewhere in between EUR 3 (approx. USD 4) and EUR 16 (approx. USD 25). If you want to book a bed on a hotel train there will be an extra charge that varies from EUR 13 (approx. USD 20) to EUR 67 (approx.USD 100) mainly depending on how much privacy you would like to have. Also note that the number of seats available can be limited. Therefore advance booking is highly recommended. Most trains can be booked up to 3 months in advance.