Train and metro travel in Europe is pretty much the same. There are probably multiple routes, called lines, that get the trip done. And there are probably multiple stations as well.
Subways In Europe
This is where the concept of endpoints and crossing lines come into play. To get on the correct line I need to know not only where the train is going, but also where it is coming from!
Suppose I am in Paris and choose the metro (subway) to get from my hotel near the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre museum. The metro routes are both numbered and color coded, so I stare at the system map to plan my route. I am at the Gold line, which is”numbered” C. I need to go to and get off at the Louvre on the Yellow line, number 1. Oops, they don’t cross each other…now what? Based on the map looks like I need to take the Gold line heading towards “endpoint” Versailles, transfer to the Purple line at Invalides and head toward Creteil, then transfer again to the Yellow line at Concorde and head toward Vincennes. Just be sure to get off at the Louvre! Maybe a taxi is easier?
Trains In Europe
Actually, train travel is not quite so bad. But you still need to know stops along the way, unless the train is a express between two cities. And sometimes you will need to change trains along the way since, like the subways, train routes crisscross each other.
My first exposure to the European train systems was a pretty daunting task. Besides the “simple” things like routes and endpoints, a few other significant subtleties must be understood. For example, in the bygone era of train travel, like what we used to see in movies, there was always a porter, a conductor, and a baggage car. Things concepts are pretty much a distant memory. You might find a conductor but only on board when they hound you for your ticket. And, oh by the way, that ticket better be “validated”. We found that out the hard way, as a many US train newbies do. Buying the ticket is not enough in itself. Each ticket, including passes like the Eurail Pass, must be date stamped…validated. Each station has several very small validation machines that you must insert your ticket into to get this all important stamp. Just finding these machines is a bit of a challenge.
Luggage is another huge train travel issue. With no baggage cars, everything you possess is “carry-on”. So pack lite or go to a gym and work out before departing. Typical train cars have luggage racks above the seats. So be ready to do the overhead lift with all your stuff. And be sure to guard that stuff or it just might disappear when you go to the toilet. That brings up another fun and interesting thing about trains in Europe.
The so called toilet is located at the ends of the passenger cars. Obviously small, like other things over there. But the real surprise hits you when you see where the waste goes. How fast can you count the wooden railroad ties going by? Maybe that explains why the toilets are closed when you’re in a station. Maybe the more modern trains today have corrected this nasty condition?
Passenger accommodations come in 2 classes. Locals normally go 2nd class since it’s cheaper, unless they go long haul. But for a small price difference you can go 1st class. And if you use a rail pass, travel is mostly 1st class. So do you need a seat reservation, and are they even available? That depends. If the passenger load is light or the train is fairly local only, no reservations are required. And if it’s the off season for tourism, you can probably get by without making a reservation on the city-city trains. Since a reservation costs an additional amount above the ticket price, you might want to take your chances. Just be ready to vacate your seat or compartment if someone comes along holding that space. So what about seats and compartments?
Both 1st class seats and compartments can be reserved. If you reserve a space in a compartment your name will be posted outside the specific one designed for your use. Assuming you reserve ahead of time. So what is a compartment anyway and is it better? First class seats are usually 3 across, just like in an airplane. They recline, are pretty comfortable, and have tray tables and reading lights. A compartment adds some level of privacy and is especially great if you are in a small group. They have 6 seats and a glass sliding door. So you get a level of security, privacy, and the ability to sleep possibly. If you’re going from Milan to Rome, a compartment is great if you get lucky enough to have most or all of it to yourself. Or if you really want to chat with other travelers, and maybe locals, these are a fun way to go. See “Strangers on a Train” for more about that.