Train travel is the quintessential way to travel through Europe. Unlike the United States where destinations are spread far apart and are easier reached by plane, car, or train, Europe is a cluster of rich cities and countrysides that are often best experienced by train. Even though it’s rare to take an overnight train ride across Europe now, there’s still something awfully romantic about trains. The gentle rocking of the train as it races along the tracks and comes to a stop at each small town gives a unique perspective of the country you’re visiting. Now, it’s easy to hop on a train for two or three hours and hit up the next town or the next country over.
Taking the train is also an excellent way to save money since it’s often cheaper than a plane, and it’s a great way to get more for your buck because you get to experience and witness more of the countryside. For all its glory, travelling by train is very different from traveling by plane or even travelling by train in America. If you’ve never travelled by train in Europe, there are some tips you’re going to need to know before you start planning your trip that will save you money, time, and a headache.
According to USA today, rail passes aren’t for everyone. If you’re thinking about purchasing one, you need to first take into account your trip itinerary. If you’re only going to take the train a handful of times, then the cost of your travel might be cheaper if you simply purchase point-to-point tickets. Rail passes make the most monetary sense if you’re wanting to cover a lot of ground by visiting many different European countries on your travels. It also makes it easier to be impulsive about your travel decisions because your train travel becomes unlimited with the purchase of a rail pass. Sit down and map out your trip and the potential cost before deciding if you should skip the rail pass and go straight for the point-to-point tickets.
Wherever you can find free WiFi, you should download a map of the train’s stops and save it to your phone for use when you don’t have access to the Internet. This is especially useful for complicated trains systems such as London’s Tube or for countries with a primary language other than English. It becomes difficult to simply listen to the conductor announcing the station stops in a foreign language. Keep track of which station you’re at and how many more stops you have before your own stop. While there are digital screens inside the train cars that tell you which stop you’re at, you need to be ready to dash out the door at your stop so the doors don’t close on you before you can disembark.
Most commercial airlines recommend that you arrive at the airport at least two hours before your scheduled board time. If you think of the train station in a similar manner, then you won’t have an issue. Frequently, you won’t know which platform your train until you arrive at the train station. Make sure that you get there with time to spare just in case a wrench gets thrown in your plans and your platform is changed at the last minute or the time of departure changes. Often, stations are rather large and you may need to spend time getting from one side of it to the other.
As previously mentioned, train stations can be large, confusing places filled with people who are rushing towards their destination and refuse to spare a thought to anything other than their time of departure and finding their platform. If you’re having trouble locating your platform or specific train, don’t be afraid to pull someone aside who works at the train station and ask for help. Chances are that even if you’re in a non-English speaking country, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. If not, show them your ticket and see if they will escort you to your train. Just make sure to be polite and thank them.
While this isn’t practiced in the States, you cannot simply purchase a ticket and board a train in Europe. In order for your ticket to become valid, you must validate it in the train station. There are often booths or sections of the train station dedicated to allowing you to validate your ticket. There should even be signs stopping you from making the mistake of boarding a train without validating your ticket. For whatever reason, if you can’t find a place to validate your ticket just by looking, don’t hesitate to ask for help. This essential step is the equivalent of checking into a flight and is absolutely vital to your train adventures.
More often than not, public restrooms in Europe—and especially those in train stations—cost money to use. If you can hold it, try to wait until you’re on the train and you can use the free of charge restroom there instead. If you’ve been traveling a lot or your hostel didn’t have stellar bathrooms, then it might be worth the cost of ten cents because the restrooms cost money for a reason. They are well kept and very clean. Oftentimes, they may even feature a shower on both the men’s and women’s side. But if not, then keep your ten cents and put it towards a different purchase on your trip.
The last thing you want while traveling is for you phone, tablet, or game console to die just when you need it—whether that be looking at a map of the train stops or listening to music to pass the time. Sometimes, trains will have outlets for you to charge devices during the train ride, but it’s not a guarantee that the train will have them or that there will be one near your seat. Instead, you can opt for a power bank. This is a great traveling tool to begin with, and can keep your train travel from becoming boring.
While finding your train station or waiting for your train to begin boarding, be careful of your surroundings. If there are other tracks, there might be trains speeding through the station. In Europe, not all trains slow down through stations, and it’s the equivalent of being blasted with a strong wind when one blows past at full speed. If you stand too close to the tracks, it can be rather startling. While it’s tempting to put your headphones in and shut out the rest of the train station, just make sure to keep track of your surroundings. Don’t forget to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform itself even though not all countries warn you.
Withdrawing money while traveling can always cause a bit of anxiety. There could be foreign transaction fees and ATM fees, but most important of all, it could be unsafe depending on where you are. By far, the safest place to withdraw money is at a bank that has an ATM inside a vestibule. These allow only one person inside closed doors at a time. Train stations can be hectic places, and it can be challenging to keep track of your bags, withdraw money, and keep an eye over your shoulder all at the same time. Moreover, ATMs in high traffic areas in Europe could run out of cash when you need it most.
Once you have boarded the train:
Ticket conductors are the train’s friendly policemen who make sure that travelers are on the right train at the right time. They come around often to make sure that the passengers belong on that particular train and at that particular stop. Don’t stick your ticket in your bag and forget about it. For long haul trains, they will become annoyed if they have to wait for you to dig your ticket out every time they check on you. Keep it out and ready for the conductor. If your train has a spot for it in the back of the seat in front of you, you can keep your ticket there and the conductor will know to check it.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but if you easily become motion sick, the last thing you want is to sit facing the opposite direction that the train is heading. As soon as you figure out which direction the train is heading, make sure to sit facing forward. This way, your body isn’t thrown off by traveling a different way than you are facing. The tracks can often toss the train around a bit, and therefore the passengers inside as well, so make sure to do everything in your power to keep yourself from feeling sick. This little trick should also save you from spending money on motion sickness drugs.
Skipping the restroom in the train station will save you money, but there’s a catch. You have to time your bathroom visits just, especially if your train ride is a long one. Make sure to use the restroom towards the beginning of your journey. The longer the train is in motion, the dirtier it’s likely to become. It’s also possible that toilet paper may run out or that the smell could become particularly awful. Using the restroom at the beginning of your long journey is masterful and is a mark of an experienced traveler who knows what to expect from train rides.
Trains can be comfy places to fall asleep if your train car is quiet and you’ve brought a neck pillow for support. Falling asleep is a dangerous game because it could result in you missing your stop. If you’re a light sleeper, you may be able to set an alarm on your phone so that you wake up with enough time to pack your bags and depart at your stop. Otherwise, if you’re a heavy sleeper, perhaps you should refrain from sleeping at all. If you end up missing your stop, it will result in paying penalty fees for staying on the train longer than you should have.
You’ll want to make sure that your bag can fit in an overhead luggage rack. If the train isn’t crowded, you may be able to keep your bag on the seat next to you. But you want to make sure you can tuck your bag away just in case the train is busy. You may even want to have a smaller bag with items like your phone, computer, or journal so that you can keep track of those while your larger bag is stowed away above you. If you pack heavily, you may run the risk of having to check your bag, which will end up costing you more in the long run.
Don’t wait until you’re in the train station to find food and water. Buying sustenance there is much more expensive than simply packing snacks and a bottle of water. Bring something that won’t easily perish and that will last you several hours. Finding reasonably priced food is challenging while traveling, but it doesn’t have to be. If you can find a grocery store on your way to the train station, you could easily make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for much cheaper than the greasy food you’ll most likely find in the station. There will be some snacks available on the train, but the markup prices are absurd.
If your train is passing through beautiful country sides, it can be rather alluring to want to capture as much of it as possible from the train. You can spend a significant amount of time trying to photograph the beauty of it, but it can be rather difficult to get even one photograph out of hundreds that isn’t blurry unless your camera is expensive. It’s best to simply sit back and enjoy the scenery. Focus on committing the country side to memory rather than spend all of your time killing your phone battery by trying to get a few good pictures.
Even if a train does have Internet readily available free of charge, it’s not uncommon that it runs too slowly to stream videos or only works intermittently. It’s easy and doesn’t add too much weight to your travel pack to bring a backup form of entertainment. An audiobook, a few podcasts, a novel or two, a journal and a pen, or a sketchpad all go a long way to save you from boredom. It’s also vital to take advantage of fast Internet wherever you can find it whether that’s at your hostel or a coffee shop to download music or even a movie on Netflix.
Listening to music is a pretty universal way to pass time, but you have to be conscientious of the other passengers on the train with you. Don’t let what you’re listening to disturb other passengers. This rule also goes for people with handheld game consoles. Headphones are an excellent solution to this problem and can give you a sense of privacy. Make sure, though, the volume isn’t still audible to people besides yourself. Make sure the noise isn’t bothering anyone, and learn to read the train car—if you’re the loudest person on the train, then there is an issue.
As long as you are using your inside voice, most people are happy to chat with a fellow traveler on the train. You can meet some rather interesting people on trains. Ask them where they are from and where they are heading and what they are interested in. Storytellers can garner quite a lot from random people’s stories that they meet on a train. If you’re lucky, you may even befriend someone going the same place that you are and then you’ll have a friend to meet up with for drinks later or someone to go on that kayaking adventure with.
No matter how tired you are and how much you’d like to recline, don’t put your feet up on the seat in front of you. If you leave your shoes on, you are likely to leave dirt on the seat. If you take them off and leave your socks on, then you may end up stinking up the train car in a way that no traveler enjoys. If you go barefoot, that is equally gross even if you are painting your toenails. This behavior is taboo in many European countries, and the conductors or other passengers may take personal offense at your actions.
References: USA Today