Top 10 tips for Train Travel in Europe
Discover our top 10 tips for train travel in Europe and learn why the train is one of the most relaxing, comfortable and cost-effective ways to travel. You can reach virtually every part of the continent on Europe’s rail network and experience much of the beauty and charm of this part of the world from the comfort of your carriage. Here are our top ten tips for getting the most out of your European rail adventure.
1. Rail pass vs point-to-point tickets: decide which option suits you best
Point-to-point tickets are tickets purchased individually and take you get you from Point A to Point B. They can be bought at the train station you are leaving from, but in many cases, it is easier to purchase point-to-point tickets online, especially if you want to reserve your seat/s in advance on a particular train.
Point-to-point train tickets are ideal for single journeys and travellers who have a pre-planned fixed-itinerary trip around Europe. On the other hand, if you intend to take quite a few long-distance and/or spontaneous trips around Europe, or need flexibility in your train travel itinerary, then a rail pass is most likely the best choice for you (especially for Eastern Europe).
A rail pass entitles you to unlimited travel on all the normal scheduled train services run by the various European country train networks. However, if you are intending to travel on high-speed or night trains you need to be aware that seat and sleeper reservations are required and incur an additional cost.
If you are interested in purchasing a rail pass for Europe as an overseas visitor, the product you are after is called a Eurail pass.
There are several types of European rail passes to choose from. The right rail pass for you depends on the number of countries you want to see:
The entire network (5 or more countries)
4 bordering countries
3 bordering countries
2 bordering countries
When choosing your rail pass you just need to know how many countries you want to visit and the number of travel days you require for your European itinerary. You also need to consider whether you require a continuous span of days or a number of days spread over a wider time-frame.
Don't forget to book seat reservations on high-speed trains (France, Italy, Belgium/Netherlands/Luxembourg, Switzerland scenic trains and Spain) which require supplements, and if you can it’s a good idea to book them in advance (especially during peak times).
It’s important to consider that a rail pass has a fixed price no matter which journeys you choose to use it for, whereas point-to-point prices vary greatly in price. The price you end up paying for a single journey ticket could be quite cheap or extremely expensive, depending on the distance you travel, the country you visit, and when you purchase them (including whether you book in advance or on the day you travel).
If you’d like to learn more about Eurail passes you should visit our Rail pass or train tickets page which has lots of helpful advice from our rail experts.
2. Consider whether First class or Second class is the best option
The price difference between first class and second class European rail travel is a fair bit less than the difference between economy and business/first class air tickets. However, the difference in terms of service and comfort often makes the added expense worth it.
In 1st class, the seats often recline, there are fewer seats per car, the level of cleanliness tends to be higher, and you may find more space for luggage. On some high-speed trains, the price of a 1st Class ticket includes a meal. 1st class tends to be quieter as there are more business and adult passengers. 2nd class train tickets are less expensive, but the trade-off is that you have a lot less space, as there are more seats per car.
For trips over 2 hours, you should definitely consider booking first class. If you intend to book your rail travel once you arrive in Europe, first class is usually easier to book as the majority of Europeans tend to travel in second class. However, you should always pre-book your seat reservations in advance if you know your travel dates, especially in high season.
3. Sleep safely and comfortably
If you are planning to travel at night you might assume it will be easy enough to sleep sitting up. But once you have spent more than 10 hours trying to stop your head from falling onto the passenger next to, you are unlikely to put yourself through that again. When taking an overnight train you have a variety of much safer and more comfortable options including reclining seats, sleepers (private cabins), and couchettes (shared cabins containing up to six beds). Sleepers are the safest and most comfortable option as they are like small hotel rooms on rails.
By travelling overnight you can save money on hotel accommodation and give yourself more time to see the sights during the daytime at your holiday destination.
4. Pack the right supplies for the journey
Make sure you bring a few key items to help you pass the time such as a good book, your tablet, or a travel journal, especially if you are embarking on a journey of more than 2 hours. While the views are sensational and there are often plenty of other passengers who will be happy to strike up a conversation, it’s always good to have a book on hand to escape to when you need it.
A lot of trains now provide power outlets for passengers onboard so you can charge your laptop or mobile device (some trains offer this facility, even in second class). Some trains are equipped with Wi-Fi (but you may have to pay for it).
Most trains have either a restaurant or café cars or, at least, snack carts that come by selling sandwiches, soft drinks and the like. If you are on a tight travelling budget or you have specific dietary requirements, it is wise to purchase some snacks at a local supermarket before you leave and bring it with you on your journey. Snacks at the train station can sometimes be quite pricey.
5. Travel light
It’s important to remember that there is limited storage space on most European trains. The overhead racks are often not big enough to fit more than a small overnight bag so you will have to put any larger luggage in the shelving or space at the end of the cars. In peak season, this can be a challenge with the number of people all competing with you to get a spot for their luggage.
The ideal luggage is a small trolley-style case. If your itinerary doesn’t permit you to do so, it’s better to bring a few small bags or cases rather a very large one as they will be easier to find spots for onboard and less troublesome to get on and off the train due to their lighter weight.
6. Plan your rail journey
Make sure you print out any tickets or confirmation emails you need for online bookings you have made and bring them with you on the day. Check how long it takes to get to the station and work out how you are going to arrive at the station the day before so you don’t end up being late on the day of your journey. Get to the station early on the day of your journey so you can truly enjoy your trip and have enough time to carry out all of the important steps listed below.
7. Validate your ticket
Some European train tickets need to be validated before you can board the train. In most cases, there are machines at the train station (normally on the platform) and all you need to do is insert your ticket and the machine will stamp it with the date and time.
You could end up with a heavy fine if the ticket inspector discovers your ticket hasn’t been validated so it isn’t worth risking it. If you do by some chance forget to validate your ticket you should look for the inspector right away and explain the situation and they may let you off with a warning (if you are lucky).
If you are using a Eurail Pass you will need to get it validated at the ticket counter or booth by a rail official (not the conductor) at the train station in one of the countries that your pass is valid in.
If you forget and have to ask an onboard inspector or train conductor to validate it for you, you will be required to pay a fee. You need to validate your Eurail Pass within 11 months from the date of issue.
8. Locate the right platform
There are a few places in Europe where platform numbers are published in their train schedules, but in most countries, you can only find out which platform your train is leaving from once you arrive at the station. It may sound like the simplest thing to do but when you arrive at the station you can sometimes discover that the platform your train is leaving from is quite a walk or run (depending on how much time you have) from the entrance to the station.
No one wants to miss their train simply because they couldn’t get to the platform in time so make sure you allow yourself enough time to do so. Occasionally, platforms can be switched at the last minute. So, if you happen to arrive quite early and check your platform on the departures board or screen, keep an eye on it just in case there is a last-minute change. Platform numbers generally come up on the departures board half an hour prior to departure.
9. Locate your train car and seat
Some train tickets will have assigned seating, in which case you need to work out which train car you are in and then locate your seat. The car numbers are usually displayed on the side of the train near the doors.
If there aren’t assigned seats or you have not reserved a seat then you will just need to find a car with the right class – either 1st or 2nd, which are normally distinguished by a large number 1 or 2 on the outside. Then all you need to do is grab yourself a seat.
Keep your ticket within arm’s reach as the ticket inspector is likely to come by not long after you have departed to check and stamp your ticket. You may encounter border patrol (not that common in Western and Central Europe) so it’s also a good idea to have your passport readily available.
10. Enjoy your journey
Now that you have done all your planning and considered everything you need to know to have the ultimate European rail adventure, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Get ready to see some amazing sights and meet some very interesting people along the way. Don’t be scared to mingle with other travellers and friendly locals. Just make sure you keep your valuables close to you at all times.
Who knows, you might even make some new friends and travel partners! If you are looking for more European train travel information head to the helpful Europe by rail section of our website. Bon voyage!