Recently I made the decision to try train travel, and headed off on an absolutely wonderful 21 day solo train trip to seven cities and four countries in Central Europe. The last time I was on a European train I was five, I loved it then and I loved it this time. I can’t imagine why I didn’t try this sooner!
I relished the fact that I didn’t need to waste valuable vacation time sitting in an airport lounge, instead I would arrive to the train terminal in the center of town about a half hour before departure, and with no security checks, taking off of shoes, emptying pockets, or decanting computers, I would hop on the train and we would head out of the city within minutes of our scheduled departure time. While on the train, I loved watching the scenery unfold in front of my eyes, I saw deer, foxes, horses, rolling countryside and quaint little towns.
At first I found booking, schedules and all the attendant intricacies a bit daunting, but like everything new, you just need to go for it! Here is a little primer for anyone who is thinking of trying train travel for the first time.
Buying a European Train Ticket
There are two ways to purchase train travel in Europe:
1. Buy a Rail Pass.The pass must be purchased before you leave home, visit the Rail Europewebsite for information about the various kinds of rail passes available. If you do end up purchasing a pass DON’T forget that you will also need to make a seat reservation for your train travel as well.
For my recent trip to Europe I traveled on a Eurail Passand when I arrived in Copenhagen Denmark I went to the train station, validated my pass and made all the reservations needed for my trip through Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. I wouldn’t recommend doing this for train travel in the summer. You may end up not being able to secure a seat during the high season. In February, the only problem I ran into was that I could not reserve a private sleeper for one of my night trains in Poland and was placed in a six-berth sleeper. Luckily for me, because I was traveling midweek and in the off-season, I got the entire six-berth sleeper (chouchette) to myself. Looking at that tiny space I couldn’t imagine having to share it with five other people! Also remember that these berths will not be assigned by gender!!!
2. Purchase Point to Point European Rail Tickets.This is usually the cheapest way to travel by rail, as it allows you to take advantage of any sales and discount tickets offered. Remember though, like the rail pass, you will most likely still need to make a seat reservation for your travels.
In most circumstances ticket purchases can be done online through individual train companies (Bahn.com in Germany) or at any train station in Europe. A word of caution about booking while abroad, this means you’ll be dealing with some potential language barriers and if you wait until the last minute you may be out of luck especially if you’re traveling during high season.
*Hint: go online and figure out your train schedule through the various train companies operating in the countries you are visiting. Also have a look at the The Man in Seat 61 website, it has excellent instructions on how to book train travel in Europe.
Which is Better – A Rail Pass or Point-to-Point Tickets?
This is entirely dependent on where in Europe you’re going, and what kind of travel you are planning on. If you’re planning on taking the train every few days and traveling mostly in Western Europe, a Eurail Passmay be the best bet. Another point to consider, if you’re a newbie to European train travel, a rail pass may be easier to deal with then trying to figure out how to book each travel destination. But if you’re only going to be visiting a couple of countries, taking the train infrequently during your stay, and you are relatively comfortable booking your own travel, then tickets would be your best option.
Paying for Rail Tickets (or anything) with Bank Cards in Europe
If you’re from North America, please be aware that if you plan to pay for tickets or seat reservations using debit card, or Visa, it may not be accepted in some European train stations. Debit cards need to have a chip but even then it does not guarantee that the card will be processed.
I had problems in Copenhagen’s main train station when I tried to pay for my seat reservations with my Visa card. It was rejected so I tried my other credit, card, it too was declined, I then tried my debit card (with a chip) also a no go. Thankfully I did have enough cash to cover the payment. This happened even though before my trip I called my bank and credit card companies to let them know I was going to be overseas.
Traveling through Europe I soon learned that my cards would work with no problems in some stores/restaurants/businesses and not in others. There didn’t seem to be any logic behind where it worked and didn’t. I would be in a tiny little shop in the middle of Poland and think to myself, hmmm there is no way my credit card will be processed here and surprise, no problems. Then I would be in a large bustling restaurant in another city and nope, no luck with the plastic. So I was always very careful to ensure that I had enough cash to cover my purchases just in case or, at the very least, prepared for the possibility of not be able to buy that little item that I totally fell in love with! I always, always had cash on hand for restaurant meals.
Before You Get on the Train
Unlike traveling by plane you only need to get to the train station about 1/2 an hour early to orient yourself and to figure out what track you will be leaving from. I would not recommend getting to the station any earlier. There aren’t many amenities available in most European stations and you will end up being very bored and either really hot in the summer or really cold in the winter while waiting for your train to arrive.
When you arrive at the station, you will need to find out which track your train is leaving from, look at your ticket to find your train, car/seat number and departure time. Most stations have a large electronic bulletin board with all the departures and arrivals displayed in order of departure. Look for your train number and departure time on this board and you should be able to see the track number on the same line. If there are no boards, then there will be paper notices posted with this information. You should find out beforehand the word for ‘track’ in the country you are traveling in. For example the word for track in Poland is peron.
Most of the time it’s quite easy to find what track your train is leaving from but I had troubles finding this displayed on the electronic bulletin board in the Warsaw Station. If this happens to you, the information booth on the main floor of each train station should be able to help. But be careful! I first went to an Inter City Commuter (ICC) ticket booth in Warsaw and the ticket agent didn’t understand what I was asking, I think she was telling me the time the train was leaving. ‘10’ But I knew there was no track 10 in this station. So I went to the main information booth and the woman there was able to give me the right information…track 3.
Once you get to the track platform the next thing you might need to figure out is where your particular train car will stop on the train platform (this is usually only a concern in large stations). This information is sometimes displayed on the platform if not then you need to check the side of the train when it arrives and board the correct car, don’t worry if you mess up, you can then just go through the cars until you get to the correct one.
On the Train
Now that you’re on the correct car you’re almost done, all you need to do now is find your seat number. These are displayed above all the seats in each compartment on the train. Find your seat, load your luggage on the rack above, or maybe ask that cute guy in the same compartment to help, then sit down and relax, you’ve made it! The conductor will be by at some point to check your ticket, if you’re on a long trip, your ticket will be checked several times as people get on and off and new conductors board the train. Passports are also sometimes asked for.
Refreshments such as coffee, juice, and snacks are served during the trip. Bare bones toilets are located at each end of the train car. Some trains are lovely, some are not as well appointed. Most are very quiet, I was very surprised with the lack of track noise on all the trains in Europe.
Large cities in Europe may have more than one train station, so be sure to ASK if unsure about when to get off the train. My biggest boo boo during this trip was that I got off one stop too early in Warsaw. No biggie because I had disembarked just outside the center of the city and it was an easy and inexpensive cab ride to the hotel.
After You Get Off Train in Europe
Remember that most train stations will have more than one exit, if you’re planning to use city transit or walk to your hotel/hostel, you will need to figure out which exit is the correct one. In some cities the train station is not located in the best part of town, be aware of your surroundings and if you do arrive in the late evening, it may be safer to hire a taxi then to stumble around in the dark trying to orient yourself in a strange city, Budget accordingly and be sure to have local currency available, most large train stations have bank machines. If you decide to take a taxi, all stations will have clearly marked signs for taxis.
If you have any great tips for train travel in Europe please let us know in the comment section below!
* Train travel provided by RailEurope