My friend Levi has just returned from her 2-month (!!!) European backpacking trip, and was generous enough to share the things she learned about traveling across Europe by train! Read up on her very useful tips, and then head over to her site if you want to read more about her trip or just to browse through her beautiful travel photos. Enjoy!
Tips When Traveling Across Europe by Train
The best way to go around Europe is through trains. It’s the most hassle-free way to venture off from city to city. It also gives you a series of eyegasmic views showing sneak peeks of your final destination. I’ve recently traveled to 43 cities in 18 European countries in 62 days! Don’t be overwhelmed with the numbers. It is not at all exhausting. European trains are very reliable that you can just hop on and off. Pick a destination and it will take you there.
My most memorable train experience is the trip from Copenhagen to Amsterdam. The train goes inside a cruise ship for 45 minutes until the next port. We had a delightful cruising and dining experience on the second floor deck overlooking the Baltic Sea! I didn’t see the entire ship so I was imagining how two trains consisting of eight long cabins and other private vehicles fit in. It must be huge! However, as relaxing as it was, this Baltic Sea experience was not the most scenic. Switzerland wins because of its mountainous regions (Swiss Alps), rolling hills, panoramic lakes and charming villages. Swiss trains offer a seat to the best landscapes.
My favorite train line, on the other hand, is the DB ICE (InterCity Express) Hauptbahnhof of Germany. It’s the most reliable and efficient among all European trains. Among its many merits are fast speed wifi connection, on-time schedule, affordable tickets, no seat reservation necessary (except night trains), clean bathrooms, accommodating staffs and free meals with wine or coffee (1st class). You can’t find all of these in a single train in other rail networks.
To further help you on your future train travels, here are some important tips that I noted from my own experiences:
1. Train Pass vs Point-to-Point Tickets
Whether one is more costly than the other depends on your travel plans and considerations. Travel pass gives you convenience and flexibility – no queuing on counters and running after fixed departure times. This is the preferred choice for the on-the-go type of travellers. However, it can be expensive. I recommend buying a train pass if you intend to visit a good number of cities to maximize its value. It is not advisable if your travel is limited to one or two cities.
A train pass can cover one country, a selected group or all the Schengen states for different durations (days/weeks/months) either on consecutive days (consecutive pass) or flexible periods (flexi pass). It is available from two websites (eurail.com and raileurope.co) so far. They cannot be purchased over-the-counter so don’t attempt buying at train stations. I recommend eurail.com because I find their website more informative and user-friendly. In addition, their exchange rates are better if you’re paying on non-euro currencies. I used eurail pass for €1,036 (excluding delivery cost) for two months covering 28 countries. A great deal for someone on a shoestring budget.
2. Seat reservations
Some trains require all passengers to have seat reservations. Don’t overbuy. It’s a smart move to buy only when it’s compulsory. High-speed trains (notably Italy, Spain and France) and less high speed (Scandinavian and Poland) require paying for seat fees. For other countries, you can avoid it by changing your train routes or timetable but at the cost of longer duration or unpleasant schedule.
Italy averages €10. Spain has a fixed price of €4 on short distances while €10.55 on long distances. France varies on destinations and timing. In November, Paris to Barcelona is €70 while in December, it’s €26.5. Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland) cost between €5 to €15. Poland (to/from) is only €3 [prices are correct during the time of writing but may be subject to change].
I don’t recommend advance booking. We never encountered fully booked trains except for Venice to Milan. I met a traveler who paid €200 for advance seats only to have it wasted. Things happen and plans change. However, there are more travelers during the summer season or spring breaks so advance booking may come in handy. Anyway, the worst-case scenario is to stand for some time before a seat is available.
3. Rail Planner App
Download this offline app. It shows all train schedules of all European countries and estimated time of train stops. Your trains may be cancelled, delayed and/or get stuck so this app will help you find possible new routes to take. It essentially becomes your travel buddy. Trust me, it’s a lifesaver.
4. Train Pass Coverage
Train pass does not cover all inter-city trains. Always check the details on the rail planner app. We were on a train bound to Zermatt when we were asked to pay CHF 55 because the pass covered 25% only. You don’t want to be surprised when it comes to expenses!
However, it covers some local metro lines (Germany, Denmark and Norway), boats (Spain to/from Greece/Turkey) and buses. We did not try it on all countries as we prefer walking and hiking but you can always ask before boarding. There are also discounts on establishments like Hard Rock Cafe, hotels and some museums. The list is available on the rail planner app.
5. Take all freebies
This is my favorite part. If you are on a 1st class cabin, some trains offer free meals from breakfast to dinner (Germany and Denmark), drinks (Germany, Denmark and intercity Czech trains), wifi (almost all) and earphones (Spain). The train pass for one month or more is only available on the 1st class so effectively, you have no choice. Still, the comfort and services attached to it are worth it.
6. Additional Discounts or Reduced Prices
You can buy train tickets in advance from the operator directly. They have reduced price promos at certain periods, so watch out for it. For the train pass, there is a 15% discount (autumn) if you have a travel buddy but you have to travel together all the time. I got an additional 20% season discount but it required travelling within September to April.
Finally: Don’t worry too much. Traveling in Europe is actually very convenient and you’ll learn the basics of survival easily.
Just remember to have fun. In the end, it’s not the quantity of countries covered but your experiences that will count. It’s about the travel stories that you’ll be bringing home or the unforgettable moments that’ll make you smile whenever the thought of them pop into your mind. Just travel and take it from there.