My love of travelling by train has been growing steadily over the past few years since I first took the Eurostar to Paris. I’m not a great fan of flying, and initially took the train to Paris in the hopes I’d get to visit somewhere without having to board a plane. Before then, the longest train journey I’d taken was 40 minutes from my childhood home into London. After a surprisingly easy and stress free journey, it pushed me to take longer journeys and start city hopping across Europe. And I haven’t looked back since!
The first European intercity train I took was Berlin – Cologne, which was scary as a train-travel-newbie as the train split off to two different destinations half way. The next year I took it a step further, bringing a ferry ride in to the equation, and last year I took my first non-direct train, meaning I’d have to tackle a connection – spoiler: wasn’t any trouble at all!
Knowing now how easy it is to explore Europe by train, here are my tips to help you get the most out of your train travels, and explore Europe by train like a pro!
Book in advance
It’s the age old line, but so true! Although, this only really applies to long distance trains, as shorter trains tend to be the same price or even cheaper if you buy them on the day. Train tickets are usually available around 3 months before travel date, though this can vary depending on the country. And you’re likely to get the cheapest price by booking as far in advance as possible, but you probably already knew that! The savings can be crazy if you find a bargain – when travelling Berlin – Cologne I picked up tickets for €35 each but if we’d bought them on the day at the train station, they’d have been €125 each.
To see if it’s worth booking a ticket in advance, search the website for the date you want to travel, find the train you’d book and then find the same train time for this week on the same day – if you want to travel on a Monday, check the next available Monday for prices. If the price is similar, you won’t gain much (other than peace of mind) by booking in advance, but you’ll also be able to see if you’d make a saving too. Fingers crossed you find savings like I did!
It’s always worth checking to see if you could save more money by getting an interrail pass. I’ve not used one yet because it’s always been cheaper to book my tickets separately, but it’s worth looking into!
Check different train times
Although the start and end point may be the same, the different time trains can have a different route. This affects not only price, but duration of the journey, whether you’ll have to change trains and also how you’ll be travelling. To travel Copenhagen – Hamburg, you can go solely via by land or opt for the train-ferry combo. Similarly, Munich – Strasbourg only has one direct train a day, which is also the quickest and (at time of booking) cheapest option. Only drawback – 6.30am train.
Find the carriage breakdown
This is one of the most important things to do before boarding the train. If you’ve got a seat reservation, your ticket will tell you the carriage you’re in as well as your seat number. As some trains split off part way through a journey, if you’re in the wrong carriage you could end up somewhere completely different than your intended destination.
At first this may seem daunting, but after a couple of train journeys you’ll be a pro! The carriage breakdown can be shown in a number of ways – on the platform information screen, on a noticeboard or on your ticket. If you can’t find it before the train arrives, don’t worry too much as you’ll be able to get on the train on any carriage and walk along to find it once you’re inside, but it’s always good to know where on the platform to wait for your carriage.
Not all trains require reservations, and for some you’ll have to pay a bit more to reserve a specific seat. For quiet trains, you’ll likely be fine not reserving a seat, but how can we really know which trains are quiet when we don’t travel on them often? I took a 6.30am train from Vienna to Innsbruck and there were only 3 other people in my carriage. A train from Munich to Strasbourg I recently travelled on also left at 6.30am, and it was packed.
Trains in Europe vary, but for those which have seat reservations you’ll find details of the seat reservations on a little sign above the seat on board. It’ll show you which portion of the journey the seat is reserved for. If you’re not familiar with the stops on the journey, there’ll be a leaflet on long distance journeys showing the stops along the way and the timing of those stops. If your journey doesn’t overlap with the reservation, you can sit in the seats. No sign = no reservation, so feel free to sit!
Each long distance train I’ve been on has had a restaurant carriage or cafe, so I could grab a bite to eat on the train. You can check whether your train will have this before you book it, but with so much food on offer in train stations, I always grab plenty of snacks and drinks to cover me for my journey. If I’m even more prepared, I’ll stop by a supermarket before getting to the train station to avoid getting ripped off. Anything to save a few euros!
Be able to lift your luggage
Not only do you need to lift your bag up the steps on to the train, but you may have to lift it to store it while on the train. Some trains have areas to store luggage, but smaller bags can go on the shelf above your seat for peace of mind and extra security. I’ve managed to fit my 60L backpack on the shelf above the seat so there’s a fair bit of space up there.
Stamp your ticket
It can be tricky to know when you’re required to stamp your ticket, but the general rule is if you’ve bought it at the station and you can see a stamping box on the platform…stamp it! If you’ve bought your ticket online and printed it off, you don’t usually have to stamp it. I’ve tried to get a printed ticket into the stamping machine for fear of getting fined, and it wouldn’t work. If you should have stamped it and you don’t, it’s a fine! If you’re not sure, ask someone at the ticket desk.
Have your ID
If you’ve bought your ticket online, chances are you had to note which ID you would produce to the ticket inspectors. Make sure you have that ID! I’ve had a variety of ID required for different tickets, all of which I make sure are things I carry with me all the time when travelling, such as passport, credit card, etc.
Keep your ticket safe but easily accessible
I can’t think of a time when I haven’t had my ticket checked on an intercity train, instead it is usually checked at least twice on one journey. There’s nothing worse than seeing the ticket inspector come and being the unorganised tourist who has to unpack their whole backpack to find their ticket and ID while people around you mutter in angry German tones. Sometimes even a smile can’t make it less awkward!
Charge your camera
In fairness, there are usually plugs on intercity trains, but you will want to have your camera handy. If there is one thing I absolutely love about travelling by train in Europe, it’s the views. I can easily spend hours looking out of the train window soaking up the changing scenery, and I’m always trying to get a good shot of the view as we whizz past.
Have you travelled by train in Europe? I’d love to hear about it!