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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!