Using the European Train System

The European Train System is very complex. Perhaps unnecessarily so. So after using it to travel France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Belgium and the UK in the summer of 2022, here are a bunch of tips to help you decipher it all

The best resources for using the train in Europe are Seat61, the Trainline and Deutsche Bahn. If you have a Eurail or Interail pass, then you will need the Rail Planner app as well.

The myth of full flexibility – The idea sold by Interrail and Eurail is that you can wake up every morning and decide where you want to go and pop on a train and just go. This is a fallacy. It isn’t so easy especially in peak season. You need to plan ahead and check for seats and reserve your tickets. You don’t have to plan months in advance as long as you leave some flexibility in your itinerary but you can’t just decide on the day where you want to go.

Optimising the cost is very hard – The system is so complex that it’s very hard to optimise your travels for the lowest possible cost for long trips with multiple countries. if you are doing a long trip with many countries. There are too many variables. An Interrail or Eurail pass is not necessarily the most economical choice. My advice is to do the best you can at all times to minimise the cost but to understand that you are unlikely to pay the absolute lowest possible cost for your trip. Just let it go and enjoy yourself.

Don’t travel in Europe in August – The trains are crowded (or sold out), the attractions are crowded, the restaurants are booked out and the accommodation is very expensive. Give yourself and your wallet a break and plan to travel at another time of the year. You will enjoy it more!

Don’t travel with heavy luggage – because inevitably, there will be subway stairs you have to tackle, gaps between the trains and the platform, cobblestones and a walk-up apartment! It’s OK to use a roller bag but just be sure that you can carry it if you have to. It is best if you ensure you can lift your luggage over your head so you can stow it on the over-seat luggage storage.

Don’t assume trains will be on-time, even German trains! – If you have a plane to catch or commitments, allow plenty of buffer time for things to go wrong, because they will. Trains are often delayed or they will pause on the track for no apparent reason for an unknown period of time. On one journey, we were all told to get off the train and then had to wait nearly 2 hours for rail replacement buses to arrive. The buses took longer for the journey than the train. There were some distressed people who had planes to catch!

Take advantage of local specials – We were lucky to get to use the 9 euro ticket in Germany this summer. For only 9 euros a month, we had unlimited travel on all German regional trains and local public transport. This saved us heaps of money and we saw more of lovely Germany!

Not all countries take Covid precautions – Germany and Italy requested people to wear masks on the train. Germany enforced it. Belgium, France and the UK did not require mask-wearing. If you are in a high risk group for getting Covid, you should minimise your risk by wearing a P2 mask even if no one else is. Considering how crowded some of the trains were this summer, Covid would certainly be spreading!

Cycling is very normalised – You will see bicycles on regional trains. It’s a very European thing to take your bike on a holiday with you. There are even train carriages specific for transporting bikes where they have special bike holders to hang up your bike. As biking is so common, there is usually a bike storage area near the train station with an astounding number of bikes present!

Is this seat reserved? – On most trains that require a seat reservation, if you haven’t made a reservation, you may not have a seat. You can sit on a spare seat but someone may come up to you with a ticket indicating that you are in their seat. You will then have to move. The great thing about German train is that there is an electronic sign that indicates whether a seat is reserved or not. This way, you know that if you are in an unreserved seat, no one will disturb you for the length of the journey.

View of Castle from the Train

People are nice – Despite how crowded and hot the trains were at times, people were nice. At various times, people translated train announcements into English for me. On a train between Nimes and Arles, when the people realised that I had become separated from my travel partner, they contorted themselves to make way for me to pass through. They were very sweet about it despite the fact that it was swelteringly hot and ridiculously crowded.

Train from Nimes to Arles – so crowded!

Seat 61 knows what even railway ticket sellers don’t know – We were in Bilbao, Spain and trying to get across the border to go to the South of France. We tried to buy at least 6 different routes at the ticket counter at the main train station at Bilbao. Each of these routes had multiple legs and we kept finding at least one of the legs was sold out. It was very frustrating and we wasted hours. The best that the helpful ticket seller could eventually do was advise us to buy a ticket to Barcelona and to ask at the Barcelona train station how we could best get across the border by train to France. The ticket seller was very apologetic that he could not help us.

We consulted the most comprehensive resource for train travel in the world, Seat61. It told us about a small border town called Port Bou. We could catch the train there, cross the border into Hendaye by local train, and then board a French train to continue our journey. It was a lifesaver. This website is also useful because sometimes, due to language, the train station names are not expected or intuitive. Seat61 ensured that we were armed with the knowledge to know what station to disembark at and what stations to look for. Valuable knowledge, saving a lot of stress!

When you go to the Seat 61 website, there is a ridiculous and overwhelming amount of information. That is because the system is really complex. They really do their best to simplify things and arm you with the best information as possible.

Mandatory Seat Reservations – In some countries, mandatory seat reservations are required for some trains. In France, this could cost up to 25 Euros per person. This is exorbitant! It’s not obvious to find but in the Railway Planner app, there is a toggle switch that you can use to ask it to display only trains that do not require seat reservations. We used these trains where possible and they were fine.

Trains are Better than Planes – Train seats are comfier, more roomy, there is no need to get there hours early like an airport, the stations are in the centre of town, the view is great and it is much better for the environment than planes.

Transfer Stops – When doing a multi leg train journey, get out, stretch your legs and explore the location where you have your train transfer. It is annoying having to lug your luggage about but it is still worth it.

Look out the window – The best part of travelling by train is the view. Look out the window and see the world go past. On our journey, we saw the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean sea, lakes, salt lakes, wind turbines, solar farms, grape vines, lush forests, dry, flat moonscapes, waterside cliffs, holiday beaches, super yachts, big rivers, fertile fields, corn, wheat, chateaus, picturesque towns, industrial ports and so much more.

Aeroplane Storage near Lourdes and Tarbes

Keep your passport handy – we didn’t get checked crossing most borders but we were checked at Freilassing, near the German border.

Toilets on Trains – on all long distance trains, there are decent toilets onboard. In fact, considering that you have to pay to use a toilet in European cities, it makes economical sense to use the toilet on the train during your journey. Note, the toilets on Italian trains have a foot operated flush and water tap.

High Speed Trains – There are often high speed trains that go between major cities. These often require seat reservations. As they can go at speeds up to 300km/hr, they are thus very efficient.

First Class Train Bilbao to Barcelona. There isn’t much difference between second class seats and first class. This was the only first class train we took. The rest were second class.

Eurostar Dynamic Pricing – if you want to travel on the Eurostar from London to Paris or Brussels, book your ticket in advance. The Eurostar uses dynamic pricing like airplanes so tickets will get progressively more expensive the closer to the travel date you get. The difference in price between tickets booked a few months ahead vs a few days ahead can be hundreds of Euros so it’s worth getting organised.

German Train from Mannheim to Frankfurt. So crowded! At least in Germany, they people are masked on public transport! The problem is people only care about themselves, the minute they get on the train, they breathe a sigh of relief and stand still. The thing is there are so many others trying to get on! The people inside should be squishing together to make room for others to move in but the people inside are in, so they have lost interest in doing anything. It’s always most crowded right by the door, if you can push in some more, there is usually more space in the isles where people are not packed as efficiently.

Don’t let this post or the complexity of the European rail network put you off seeing Europe by train. The system seems impenetrably complicated at first but as you persevere, it starts to become easier and soon you will be a pro!

Impressions about Europe – the good, the bad and the downright ugly!

As we travelled through parts of the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Germany and Belgium in the summer of 2022, I was struck by the many ways that Europe differs from Australia. These are some of my observations about Europe, the good stuff, the bad stuff and the stuff which is just plain awful! So let’s go…in no particular order…..

The Good

Cycling is very normalised in Europe. It is really so wonderful to see well designed, cycling infrastructure that keeps cyclists safe. It’s totally normal to see people dressed in their normal clothing (as a pose to lycra), riding bikes with their shopping or on their way to work. I saw parents doing school pick-up on bikes. The older kids had their own bikes to ride home whilst the youngest would be popped into a cargo bike or into a toddler seat attached to their parents’ bike. People often take their bikes on the train to go on a holiday adventure. It is so great for health and for the environment. It reduces the traffic on the road.

This seemed to be the case in continental Europe but is unfortunately not the case in London where cycling is far more dangerous. In the city, the cycling infrastructure is lacking, bike theft is rife and motorists hate cyclists and vice versa. To reduce congestion, London should invest more in making cycling safer and more attractive for everyone.

French Flower Beds – When in France, I found the way they planted their flower beds to be so delightful. They would plant a crazy unexpected mix of plants with varying types and textures all thrown together. The combinations are wild and crazy but they work! I have never seen anything like it anywhere else!

French Flower Beds

Recycling is taken seriously. In both continental Europe and the UK, recycling is the norm. Particularly striking examples include in Slovenia where there are public bins for each type of rubbish and the people do the right thing with their waste. In Germany, glass beer bottles can be exchanged for a small refund when recycled. It is therefore normal to leave your empty bottle by a rubbish bin instead of in it. This leaves it visible for someone to go past and collect it and hence get the refund. This is an easy way for someone who has come upon hard times to get a bit of money to help them by. So, in a way, you can feel good about yourself when you leave an empty bottle.

Pride in their town. Whilst traveling Europe, especially in the smaller towns, it was clear to see the pride the locals had in their town. Of particular note are the Slovenians. Ljubljana city was really spotlessly clean and the Airbnb we stayed at in Bled was a model of cleanliness and efficiency. This shows pride in doing things well and looking after their patch of this Earth. The Slovenian food tour guide spoke so highly of her country and their people. I find this really heartening to see in contrast with Canadians and the British who are in general, fast to bring up the many flaws in their country.

“Pay What You Want” or “Free” walking tours – These are wonderful and available in many of the cities in Europe. We always look them up. The guides are paid from the tips they make at the end so they are therefore incentivized to be really entertaining. They are always very interesting and give an insight into the city. They are much more affordable then any other kind of tour. Many of the cities around Europe offer these. They are an economical and entertaining way to learn a bit about a new city and orient yourself.

Actually, a noticeable difference, that may be a result of Covid, is a seeming reduction in the quantity of English language “Free” tours. On previous visits to Europe, years before Covid, these tours were mostly held in English and the majority of customers were on the English speaking tours. Now it is the Spanish language tours that draw the customers. It is a reflection that international travel has decreased and domestic travel has increased. Hopefully for the English speaking guides, this will adjust itself in the coming months.

The History! Compared to countries like Australia and Canada, Europe has some seriously old buildings. The mind boggles when walking down some of these old narrow streets and looking at these buildings hundreds of years old. What did the world look like when they were built, and what tumultuous events would these walls tell us if they could talk? If the people who built it saw the world today, the cars driving past, what would they think?

Arles Amphitheatre (Arènes d’Arles) built in 90AD by the Romans!

Covid Masks – The wearing of masks for Covid prevention was a mixed bag in the countries we visited. The best were the Italians who encouraged the wearing of FFP2 masks using signage and public announcements on Italian trains and on the ferries around Lake Como. FFP2 masks are far superior to the blue surgical masks or cloth masks for the prevention of Covid transmission. Despite the enforcement being a little lax, most people complied. On German trains, it was necessary to be masked and this was enforced. No masks were required on Belgium, French or English trains. This was disappointing as Covid is still around and still poses a threat to the more vulnerable members of our community.

Relax, eat slowly! The pace in restaurants is different in Europe where it is expected that people will take their time to chat and linger over their meal. In Asian countries, time is of the essence. Cooked meals are presented to customers at lightning speed to ensure people can eat and leave the table to allow multiple seatings over an evening.

French food is delicious – Sometimes, I am offended at how proud the French are of their cuisine. There are plenty of fantastic cuisines worldwide. That being said, when I taste proper French food, I have to admit, it is delicious. In France, even the microwave meals are excellent. The supermarket produce are high quality e.g. the tomatoes are red, ripe and flavorsome. The French like good food, so bad restaurants don’t survive and the supermarkets have to cater to their high standards.

French Frozen Meal – this was the best risotto I’ve ever had. It was so tasty and perfectly seasoned!

Menu du Jour or Menu del Dia – getting a reasonably priced lunch in Europe is often possible by looking out for their lunch specials. The restaurant knows that they’re going to sell a lot of the lunch specials, so they can scale up production of these dishes and choose them based on the freshest or best value ingredients they can acquire. It’s a win-win for the business and the customer! We had one memorable Spanish lunch special which consisted of three delicious courses and a bottle of wine each for the princely sum of €16 each.

Europeans are more comfortable with their bodies. It is not unusual to see people of all shapes and sizes enjoying the beach. Women of all types sun themselves topless. Women go about their day in the city without a bra on under their tops or ride bikes in quite short skirts. They are just more comfortable with their bodies and each other’s bodies than any other place I can think of worldwide. It’s just not a big deal and that’s nice! Everyone deserves to be comfortable, wear what they want and enjoy the beach on a hot day.

There are lots of nice people! In general people are nice. When walking in an industrial area, a truck driver leans out of his window and struck up a conversation in French and then broken English when he saw us with our backpacks. People kindly swap to English when they see us struggling. People in crowded trains are nice to each other despite the sweltering conditions because they all know that they are in it together. In France, in the most crowded train imaginable, the lovely French people managed to contort themselves out of the way to allow me to move up the carriage so I could stand next to my travel partner. When they realized we were travelling together, it was a group effort to “part the red seas” so we could stand together. It was really very sweet considering how horrible the situation was in that crowded train for everyone!

The French Baguette – the French actually buy these fresh and carry them around. It’s not just a cliché. It is not uncommon to see one of these sticking out of a backpack or tucked under the arm of a person riding the bus or walking along the street.

Compactness and Convenience – Europe is a great place to travel as there are so many diverse cultures packed together in a small space. Transport infrastructure is highly developed, with even small cities equipped with amazing train and light rail systems to allow you to get around. It is also super convenient to be able to use the Euro as you travel.

The Bad

What to do with the garbage? Life generates certain amount of waste and cities, with its high population density, generates a lot of garbage! It is always interesting how a city deals with it’s garbage. Walking along the streets of London, the garbage is in bags, or in a plethora of different types of bins. They would almost certainly have to be picked up by hand, a very manual and slow task. Australian ‘wheelie bins’ are not pretty but it does convey a certain neatness when every household has one. Plus, having trucks that can pick up and empty the wheelie bins definitely reduces manual handling. This solution isn’t possible in the center of London due to the density and the narrow streets but surely there is a better way. Garbage left out in bags is unhygienic, attracts vermin and is unsightly. If it was any warmer, it would be smelly too! It is surprising to think that we can be so advanced as a society and yet something basic like a system of garbage disposal is not optimised.

One option that we’ve seen is to have a central rubbish bin on each street, which compacts the rubbish and stores it underground until collected. Rubbish collection therefore can be less frequent and involves less stops (so is less expensive). Take a look at this: Underground garbage storage

Why does it smell like pee? – So many cities in Spain, Italy and France smell like pee. Is it because there is a high rate of dog ownership? Is it because there is no green space for dogs to relieve themselves? Is it because the summer weather just makes all smells worse? Is it because there are no free public toilets so a portion of the population is finding a secluded corner to pee for free?

Private Green Spaces – In Milan, I was sad to learn that the vast majority of green space is private. As private property, it is simply not accessible to the general population. It’s so easy to take for granted the public green space and public amenities like benches, water fountains and public toilets that we have in Australia.

Restaurant Peculiarities – In Germany, when you sit down at a restaurant, there is often an expectation that you order a main meal each and a paid drink each. The drinks are where the profit is made it seems. Tap water is not provided. Italy is similar in that you have to pay for water. Free tap water is not available. In Italy, there is also coperto and maggiorazione. Coperto is a cover charge per head of about 1 to 3 Euros to cover napkins, cutlery, salt, bread etc. Maggiorazione is a service charge of up to 15% which is charged in touristy areas. These extra charges felt like an excuse to squeeze more money out of their customers and left a bad taste in my mouth. As a consequence, we often skipped some restaurants in Italy.

In Italy, I asked for tap water by learning the Italian word for tap water and confirming that the waiter understood exactly what I meant. He came back with a bottle of water and said that they do not have a tap! (At least the bottle was glass and could be recycled!) It is annoying when restaurants do not serve tap water when it comes out free and potable from the tap. In the middle of a sweltering summer, it seems almost cruel to withhold this. In addition, the sheer amount of waste generated by all that bottled water is mind boggling and criminal!

In Australia, it is actually illegal to not serve tap water in premises that are licensed. These little peculiarities of European restaurants meant we tended to avoid them in favour of supermarket meals, takeout places or street food vans.

Hot Apartments in Summer – Except for Southern Europe, most apartments are not designed to manage hot weather. They are well insulated and have relatively small windows with limited capacity to capture breezes or allow cross-ventilation, and air-conditioning isn’t common. In some cases, apartments can be quite a lot hotter than the outside temperature, which can make sleeping difficult. Once again another reason to be careful what time of year you travel to Europe.

Don’t Travel to Europe in August – It’s too hot and way too crowded. Just don’t do it!

Navigating the Train System – The European train system is very complicated, particularly when you’re travelling between countries. It really is a head-spinner when you consider the different rail passes that are available, and trying to work out if buying a pass is worth the money is almost impossible for the uninitiated. It took us quite a while to get familiar with the operation of the passes and how to make bookings etc. It almost feels like the rail passes are a scam, particularly in countries that have expensive reservation fees (which are not covered by the rail pass) for most trains. In order for us to get from Bilbao to the Cote D’Azur, at one stage we were considering back-tracking to Madrid so we could get on a fast train to Marseille….madness!

Our saviour was the Seat61 website, which is packed with tips and is highly recommended. The tips on crossing international boarders (particularly France to Spain, Spain to France and Italy to Slovenia were very valuable!I

I just want a normal pillow! – In France, Germany and Spain, that the standard bed pillow is a square shape. Whilst this doesn’t sound so bad, these pillows are usually insubstantial and soft. They provide absolutely no support for your head and neck! Even when you fold them in half, they sink so much under your head that you might as well just lie without it. It’s astounding that an advanced country like Germany can do so many things really well but cannot get a simple thing like a pillow right! The other unusual thing is the use of two single sized duvets (doonas) on a double bed instead of a large double sized duvet. It does prevent duvet hogging!

Square Pillows in Germany

Narrow streets – Many of the old European towns and cities were built in a time well before cars. It’s quite shocking when you see cars and other vehicles squeezing down these narrow streets, mere centimeters from diners trying to dine alfresco! More pedestrian zones please!

Old buildings stifling growth? – There are plenty of stunning, well maintained old buildings of architectural significance that are worth preserving. But there are also plenty of mediocre, low-rise, drafty, old structures that might be better demolished to make way for modern, energy efficient buildings that can house more people, more comfortably. I’m not suggesting forgetting our history but merely to allow more room for modern advancement. Yes, it will change the skyline but why is that a bad thing if its good for the people? Increasing population density in the city means less sprawl and therefore less emissions as people don’t need to travel long distances into the center for work. Increasing the population density brings more business in and breathes more buzz and life into the centre.

Crowded beaches and private beaches – Private beaches are a foreign concept to Australians as all beaches are free for the public. In Europe, the prevalence of private beaches means that what remains free for the public is extremely crowded. These are often rocky and small compared to Australian beaches. We are absolutely spoilt with beautiful beaches in Australia and we are too used to not having to share our beach space with so many people!

Typical crowded beach in France in August

The Ugly

Paying for toilets – In Spain, France, Italy and Germany, it is impossible to find free public toilets. They all charge about 0.5 to 1 Euro per use. The crazy thing is that this money is supposed to pay for the the cleaning of the facilities but they are usually not that clean or well maintained. Even in a fast food chain like Burger King, there will be a person at the toilet door demanding payment to use the facility. The only way to use a toilet for free is to eat at a restaurant or to pay to enter a museum. Neither of which is without cost. Perhaps I am spoilt by the ease of finding clean, free, ablution facilities in Australia. I had associated having to pay for toilets with underdeveloped countries so I was shocked to be consistently charged all over Europe.

Using the toilet is something that we all need to do as functioning, living humans. If we all need it, then why not just set up some free, public facilities? I also feel that it is sexist because it is easier and more socially acceptable for men to find a secluded corner to relieve themselves. To be honest, that is gross too and probably explains why so much of Europe smells like pee!

Smoking – In Europe, about 1 in every 3 people smoke. This is compared to Australia where 1 in about 9 people smoke. The laws around smoking are also different. Cigarettes are highly taxed in Australia, where it costs about 26 Euros for a packet of 20 cigarettes. In Spain, it only costs about 4 Euros for a packet of 20 cigarettes. Smoking in Australia is difficult to afford whilst in Europe, it will only cost the loose change in your pocket. There is no cost disincentive.

It is socially acceptable in Europe to light up at alfresco restaurant tables despite other patrons dining on adjacent tables. The smokers would be the ones absolutely desperate of get off the train at their destination. They would be ready with their cigarette in hand. Two steps off the carriage and they would have lit up on the crowded platform. It is a callous action as they are probably well aware of the damage their passive smoke is having on other people and small children having to go past them.

It is impossible to walk the streets of Europe without being assailed by someone’s passive smoke. It is so socially acceptable to smoke in Europe unlike in Australia where it is quite frowned upon and the habit is steadily dying out.

I felt sorry for a Spanish store holder as they do not have the rules that cigarette packets have to be kept out of sight like in Australia. This poor girl had to work her hours in a shop with cigarette packets arrayed from wall to ceiling all around her. These are the cigarette packets which are emblazoned with graphic pictures of the physical health consequences of smoking.

A worrying trend is the increase in vaping. It is not unusual to see young people vaping. It is quite shocking to smell that sickly, synthetic fruit smell and then see children of about 14 using their vapes. What is worse is the way that vapes are advertised? There are vape stores throughout Europe where vapes are openly sold and advertised. Their sleek design aesthetic, modern curves and colours make them look very appealing. The way vapes are advertised is very similar to the way mobile phones are advertised. It is impossible to argue that they are not targeting children and young people. A new generation of addicts! Ka-ching! $$$

Religion – Despite the fact that Europe is one of the most secular places in the world, in every town and city in Europe, the church or cathedral would be the ostentatious centre piece. Often there were laws which restrict any buildings to be taller than the local cathedral. These cathedrals/basilicas/churches would be tall, spectacular buildings of architectural wonder. The Gothic style cathedrals would have nightmare inducing gargoyles peering down from up high. Inside, there are very high vaulted roofs, valuable paintings, expensive artifacts and relics of gold and silver. Within the building, there is a respectful hush as the sheer height of the ceilings which are designed to make a person feel small in the presence of God.

Every church you go into will be sure to have a prominently displayed donation box labelled with something along the lines of ‘for the upkeep of the church’. These buildings are enormously expensive to maintain, and many will have sections scaffolded off while work is being done. As Europe continues to change and become more secular and less Christian, what future is in store for some of the second-tier churches of Europe?

These amazing buildings were designed, crafted and made by humans. They are architectural wonders but made by determined and capable human beings. The sense of awe and ritual in a church is all designed by the church to make their flock sub-servient to God. What makes it really sickening is the value of these properties, the land, the buildings, the paintings, the artifacts etc. We were in a church that was famous for the number of Rubens paintings it owns. If the church really cared about helping the poor masses, selling just one of these valuable paintings would handsomely fund programs to pull people out of poverty. It’s hard to reconcile the stated mission of the humble church with their gaudy and opulent places of worship.

Relic – in this chest supposedly lies the remains of the Three Wise Men – a lot of people come to see this. There are about 20,000 people that visit Cologne Cathedral everyday.

In Conclusion

There is good and bad in everything. That is part of the nuance that is life. Seeing and experiencing it all is part of learning about how the world works. Europe is a “must see” destination as there is nothing else like it. For the many good things there is about it, there are things which are not so good. This can also be said for every other place on this Earth.

You may agree with me on some of these points or your may not…… that too is part of life.

French Flower Beds