Traveling by train in Europe is a great way to see the continent and can provide travel that is quick, easy, and—quite often—affordable.
But if you’ve never traveled in Europe by train or have not done so since that study-abroad program back in 1900-and-none-of-your-business, then it’s worthwhile to keep in mind these train travel tips.
1. The easiest way for Americans to prepare for train travel in Europe is to visit the RailEurope.com website. Or better yet, contact your travel agent (a.k.a., travel advisor), who can help you sort through the wide variety of travel options and tickets available.
2. There are many high-speed trains, but they come with a price. Weigh the cost, time, and benefit when trying to decide whether to rent a vehicle, hop on a bus, or fly between destinations. For instance, flying from Naples to Venice can be a less expensive and faster alternative. Do your research.
3. Many local and regional trains provide inexpensive and flexible options for day-trippers, but don’t expect new high-speed trains here.
4. Gone are the days when travelers could purchase a Rail Pass and hop on any train, any time. Depending upon the train you want to take (i.e., virtually all the high-speed trains, many overnight trains, etc.), you may be required to reserve a seat on a specific train at additional cost. Sometimes a Rail Pass is an economical choice. Sometimes you’ll save money buying individual tickets. A travel advisor can really prove helpful to you when it comes to evaluating a pass versus tickets or determining whether you will need reservations for seats along your itinerary.
5. Rail tickets are usually sold at varying prices, depending upon the class of service, much like airfare. Find a price category within your budget. Consider when, where, and why you might want to splurge.
6. On most trains, you’ll be required to heft your own luggage into the train car with you and find a place to store it above or near your seat, or at the end of the car. The smaller your luggage, the better for everyone.
7. Traveling between countries in the Schengen Zone is quite easy. If you’ve already been admitted to a Schengen country, you will likely not need to show your passport to board the train or during your trip. Nevertheless, keep your passport safely tucked away, but handy.
8. When taking the Eurostar—often called the “Chunnel train”—either direction between France and the U.K., you’ll need to arrive at the station early to go through passport control, customs, and security screenings. The U.K. is not part of the Schengen agreement, but France is.
9. There are bathrooms on trains. On newer, high-speed trains, they are much like airplane bathrooms. On older trains, they may not be much more than a hole over the train tracks, covered by an ancient commode. Lighting optional. Eat and drink accordingly.
10. Many trains provide a dining car, which may be little more than a glorified snack machine with service. In first class, you may be provided a beverage and snack, such as cookies, or an entire hot meal at your seat. Inquire when purchasing your ticket or reserving your seat. You may bring your own food on the train.
11. Look for your train’s platform number on overhead departure boards in large stations or on posters on the exterior track-side walls of small stations. The platform number may not display on departure boards until your train has arrived in the station. Be sure to look for your train number on the departure board or poster, rather than your destination, as your train may originate elsewhere or terminate at a destination beyond yours. Double check your train number on the display boards alongside the track before boarding the train.
12. Your train ticket or pass will specify the class of service you have purchased. Look for a “1” or “2” on the side of the train or on the door as you enter the seating area to be sure you’re in the right type, or class, of car.
13. If a reserved seat is required, your ticket will specify the car and seat numbers. Look for the car numbers on the outside of the train beside, or on, the door. Look for the seat numbers above the seat. They may not be in consecutive order. If you do not have a reserved seat, and want to face forward for your trip, be sure you are facing away from the train station when you sit down.
14. It is customary to be quiet on the train. Loud chatter, raucous laughter and long phone conversations may be met with disapproval or reprimand by your traveling companions and/or the conductor.
15. Many tickets require validation prior to boarding. This is a biggie. If your ticket is not validated, you could be fined 50 Euros or more. Find a validation machine in the station or inquire for assistance at a ticket desk before boarding.
16. Your ticket will be checked by a conductor on the train, so keep it readily available.
Traveling by train in Europe is usually a fun and very pleasant experience. Savvy travelers will seek the input of an experienced friend or travel advisor prior to purchasing tickets or riding their first train. It’s the best way to make the most of your Europe rail trip.