If you’re an eco-conscious traveler or a hopeless romantic, trains are definitely the best way to travel around Europe. Sure, the occasional low-cost flight might save you time and money, but nothing competes with the thrill of gliding out of Paris and into Amsterdam a few hours later or roaming around the Swiss Alps en route to Italy.
We’ve put together a quick guide on how to travel Europe by train, covering all the essentials to help you plan a wonderful vacation on rails.
Trains Around Europe
First things first: not all European trains were created equal. Some countries have a state of the art train system, with a fast and (most of the time) reliable service, while in some other places trains are best avoided if practicality and convenience are what you’re looking for.
The rail network of Scandinavia, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands is generally good, save for the odd strike here and there. Trains are clean and run on time, connections can be trusted, and staff on board usually speaks English.
A rail trip across these countries is likely to be an awesome, stress-free experience. Swiss trains are highly recommended if you love panoramic journeys!
Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland also have good networks; however, you might come across some really old and uncomfortable wagons, especially in rural areas, and the staff is less likely to be fluent in English.
Travel southwards to Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece and trains become much slower and more unreliable than elsewhere in Europe—with the exception of high-speed train services, which are usually good. Strikes are also common, but more on this later.
Train travel around the Balkans is not recommended unless you have a yen to get off the beaten track and take close to a day to travel a few hundred kilometers. But if you’re an adventurer, you’ll enjoy it!
Rail Passes or Single Tickets
If you’re planning a trip to Scandinavia or Central Europe for extended periods of time, say three weeks or more, a rail pass will definitely save you time and money. With a rail pass, you won’t need to line up at the station every other day to buy tickets for your next destination—just go to the station and hop onto the next available train. (You may still need to reserve a seat, though: see the next section for details.)
On shorter trips, you’ll probably be better off purchasing single tickets for each separate leg of your journey. True, this does require a bit more advance planning if you want to save money, as train tickets are cheaper when bought ahead of time. Alternatively, just opt for local lines, which are usually affordable even when purchased on the spot. But be prepared for a really slow journey!
To Reserve or Not to Reserve?
Several types of trains in Europe can only be accessed with a valid seat reservation in addition to the ticket. Usually, this includes night trains and high-speed trains. Rules vary depending on country so ask locally or research in advance to be sure. You’ll need reservations even if you’re traveling on a rail pass.
Keep in mind that even when reservations aren’t compulsory, they’re advisable when traveling during peak times or public holidays, or if you’re on a really tight schedule.
You can usually book your seat online, through a travel agent, or in person at the station.
Night Train Dos and Don’ts
Night trains can be a great way to save cash and travel time—and they’re usually fun!
DO reserve your seat or sleeper, and make sure you have plenty of water and snacks for the trip as not all trains will have a restaurant car. You’ll probably be sharing a compartment with others, so keep your gear safe by locking your luggage and keep money and documents in a money belt or on your person.
DON’T be rude to your travel companions. While basic courtesy goes without saying, there are other little don’ts including packing smelly food, turning on the lights after lights-out time, listening to loud music (beware of leaky earbuds), and speaking loudly. A little consideration goes a long way—you may even make lifelong friends!
What to Pack
If you’re planning to travel on long-distance trains, make sure you pack some comfy clothes. Loose pants, leggings, and sneakers or flats will definitely be more suitable than heels and dresses. Don’t forget to bring a blanket and maybe a travel pillow if you wish to snooze between one destination and another, or for night trains if sleeper cars are sold out.
Music, books, magazines, and games like chess or cards are useful to keep you entertained on long journeys, and they’re definitely a MUST if you’re traveling with kids.
Last but not least, try not to overpack. There’s nothing more annoying than carrying chunky suitcases on crowded trains. A backpack or small wheeled bag are much better choices (just keep in mind that wheeling a suitcase of any size along lovely historical cobblestone streets can be a nuisance).
Dangers and Annoyances
European trains are usually safe, thanks to the onboard presence of conductors. However, petty crime does occur, both on the trains themselves and in crowded stations. Try to keep your belongings as close to your body as possible and never lose sight of your luggage.
In stations, especially in Italy, Spain, and the Balkans, you may be approached by unofficial “porters,” offering help with your luggage or directions to your train. They’ll then proceed to ask for a hefty tip for their services and may get aggressive if you refuse. If you need help, always approach uniformed station staff.
The number-one annoyance on European trains are strikes. These are more common in Southern Europe, but even countries like Germany and France are not exempt. Strikes can bring the rail network to a total standstill, and there’s not much you can do to avoid them besides not planning to travel when a strike is on. Always try to have a plan B and pad your travel schedule with a few “extra” days to play with in case things grind to a halt.
Other than that, a European train holiday is sure to be a memorable experience. Settle into your seat, grab a book, or simply enjoy watching the world go by—a new, exciting destination is just around the corner.
Wherever your European rail adventure takes you, use Inspirock’s itinerary planner to save time planning and see and do more on your trip.