Everything to know about Train Travel in Europe

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If you’re planning your first European trip, you will need to know about train travel through Europe. Europe has an amazing and extensive train system that makes it easy and affordable to get from place to place with all your luggage in tow. Trains are a primary form of European transportation and thus are (mostly, lol) state of the art. Because there is no baggage check, security checks, or baggage weight limits, getting on and off trains and train travel is a pretty painless process. Train travel can, however, be a bit confusing and overwhelming for first time travelers. I’ve put together what I believe is a helpful guide for train travel in Europe:

  1. There are different types of train tickets

a) Individual tickets which are good for a single trip between 2 cities. You can either get reserved tickets or “open tickets”. If you have a reservation ticket, you will receive a single combined ticket that has your train number, time, and seat number specified. This means you have to sit in your seat and ride on the specified train. Open tickets can be used for a specific route but on any train that doesn’t require a reservation- and you can sit anywhere.

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b) You can also get a rail pass, depending on how long you will be in Europe and how many cities/countries you are traveling. If you are planning a “backpacking” trip, or traveling through many different areas of Europe, consider a rail pass. Rail passes can let you take unlimited rides in a specific area for a certain number of days.

  1. There are differences between 1st class (“comfort class”) and 2nd class tickets

The biggest difference is the seat size, leg room, and number of people around. The price difference between the tickets aren’t that great- so if you want a little more comfort, and a little more quiet book a 1st class ticket.

  1. Look around for deals

Like plane travel, train travel prices will vary depending on where you buy the ticket and how good you scout out deals. You will find ticket prices are cheaper during “off season”. Time of day can also influence ticket price. Children, students/youth, groups, and seniors often have discounts available. Note that tickets can be issued in 3 ways: paper tickets (come to you in the mail), print tickets (you print at home and bring with you), and e-tickets (then you print at kiosk at train station).

  1. Look at your ticket before you board

This is so you know what car to get on and where your seat is (if it’s reserved). There won’t be too many people standing around to direct you (unlike airports). Get to the station about 30 minutes early and find your track. Note the chart on the platform for where each train car will be located (look at your ticket to see which car you should board on if you have a reservation ticket).  Make sure you board the right class car (1st or 2nd will be noted outside the train car) if you have an open ticket.

  1. They serve refreshments, but you can bring your own

While long haul trains have a refreshment service (and some a dining service), you can bring your own food and drinks on board. So grab that fresh French baguette, Norwegian Krumkake, or Swiss chocolate and hop on.

  1. Many cities have multiple stops

This seems pretty straightforward, but in the heat of the moment (and worried we would miss the city) we’ve jumped off the train a little too early (a couple times lol). Trains don’t stop for too long, and being a non-native speaker means it’s pretty easy to miss the announcement for your stop. As you’re coming to a stop, look at the platform signs and make sure that not only are you getting off in the right city, you’re getting off at the right station.

  1. Sometimes it is cheaper (and easier) to get a regional flight

Looking back there are certainly times that we probably should have just taken a regional flight. For instance, traveling from Prague, Czech Republic to Krakow, Poland seemed a great idea to see the beautiful scenery and enjoy a travel day. If you look at a map it’s not that far, right? Wrong. It came down to 4 different trains, layovers in the middle of nowhere (kind of like plane travel), a 9-hour travel stretch (whole day lost to travel), AND the last train was an extremely old, less traveled one (which the heat was broken on). In hindsight, a flight would have been less than an hour and saved us our entire day. But, now we know.

  1. There are sleeper trains

There are some popular train stretches that are rather lengthy that have designated “night trains”. Night trains have reclining seats, private sleeping cabins, etc., depending on your budget. If you think about it- you’re saving yourself the price of a hotel night- so it’s really not too bad. Definitely look into a night train if you are going to 2 popular cities that are a pretty good ways apart (Berlin-Sweden, Serbia-Greece, Italy-France, etc. etc.)

  1. Trains can get crowded…

And this can happen fast. Certain stretches will be much more crowded. So crowded, in fact, several people may end up standing (they’re usually the ones not staying on the train for too long). So get your seat and don’t be afraid to ask someone to move their coat or luggage if you need want to sit.

  1. Not all trains are created equal

Some trains are state of the art. Some even have family cars with a play corner for young children with slides. HOWEVER, some are very dated and are much less comfortable. Luggage compartments vary in size and as mentioned, trains can get crowded leaving little room for your luggage, coats, etc. I’ve found that it really depends on where you’re traveling. Popular destinations and stretches tend to have the updated trains.

11. You will be responsible for your own luggage

Most stations do not have porter services. Some have luggage carts that you can pay for, then get your money back once you return the cart (but these are hard to find). The best plan is to make sure that you can manage your own luggage. Remember that you may be contending with a good bit of walking, layovers, escalators, stairs, etc. You will also be stowing your luggage on the racks above your seat; thus, you will have to lift them above your head and put them up there (kind of like on airplanes, but the luggage racks are larger and can accommodate up to medium sized suitcases). Read about packing tips for European travel here.

Those Switzerland train views are hard to top. 😍

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