To travel by train or not to travel by train.
That is the question.
So I’m kinda stealing Shakespeare’s lines.
But really it’s a great question.
Should I travel by train on my trip to Europe?
And the answer?
And the next question: How do I navigate all the tickets, passes, timetables, train rides, etc?
Answer: Very carefully.
Train travel is really dependent on loads of different factors.
So I’m going to break things down a bit as it really is a complex issue.
My biggest piece of advice is to do your homework and/or use a travel planner (like me) to help you out.
Should I travel by train?
This is dependent on a variety of factors — which country or countries are you traveling in and are you focusing more on large to mid-sized cities?
Some countries don’t have extensive train systems. Ireland is a good example.
And some countries have a great rail network. Switzerland, Germany and France are pretty darn good.
If you are spending more time in larger cities — say Munich, Geneva and Paris — then trains make sense.
You don’t need a car in a big city — nor do you want one!
However if you like spending time in the small villages and the countryside then a train may not get you where you want to go.
So you may either have to travel by bus or rent a car.
If you are traveling to both cities and countryside see if you can start in the city (probably where you’ll fly into) then pick up a car after you’ve spent a few days in that city. You may have to go back to the airport or you may be able to train out of the city a bit to pick up that car. Just avoid driving in the city if possible.
So consider where you are traveling first.
Do I need a rail pass?
This is one of the most difficult questions to answer because again it depends.
How many days will you travel by train? Which countries?
And there are several types of rail passes so it’s so important to do your research.
Sometimes point to point tickets are actually cheaper.
And sometimes a rail pass will save you money.
You can buy rail passes to cover just one country or 5 countries.
One mistake people make is they pay for a rail pass that covers more than they need — so in the end they’re overpaying. They may have been okay with a “lesser” pass or individual point to point tickets.
I really hate to see folks wasting money.
Do you want to take those high speed trains because your time is limited?
Well guess what — rail passes often don’t include high speed trains so you have to pay an extra fee and you may need to reserve a seat as well.
Are you okay traveling in second class?
Then point to point tickets may be less expensive because some rail passes are only available in first class options.
But rail passes can offer flexibility as you often don’t have to make reservations for the train you want. Simply show up and hop on board.
There is a lot to examine and ponder.
It can take some time to do the math and the research but if you are budget-conscious then you’ll want to make that time.
Or you can always check with your favorite travel planner!
I often reserve my tickets in advance for longer journeys like Milan to Paris or more complicated trips like one I took in the English countryside.
This way I’m assured of a seat.
If you reserve in advance before you leave for Europe, you may have your printed ticket with you.
But often you have to print the ticket at a machine/kiosk at the station.
Just leave yourself enough time to take care of this and simply follow the prompts on the screen.
It’s really pretty simple. Just be sure you have all the information with you.
However sometimes you may not have set plans.
In this case just buy your ticket at the train station at the kiosk and then hop on the train at the appointed time.
In off season or shoulder season you can do this and not sweat getting a seat on a train.
But during high season (summer) and on holidays you’ll want to book in advance — just to be on the safe side.
There are some trains where you can buy your ticket right on the train.
Always double check that this is possible.
I tend to travel in spring and autumn — more shoulder season — so I’ll reserve my tickets a few days ahead of time as my plans are typically being made as I travel. But I could probably buy my ticket at the station and be fine. I just like knowing I have a ticket.
On the train
Do you have a reserved seat?
It will be printed on your ticket so be sure you are in the right carriage and then find your seat number.
If you don’t have a reserved seat then simply take a seat that doesn’t have someone else’s name on it. You’ll see cards on the tops of seats if it is taken.
When it comes to luggage I’m a bit more trusting but probably shouldn’t be because you should always assume someone might try to steal your bag.
I do use the the luggage racks at the end of the carriages but I always check on my bag — keep it in my line of sight especially at stops.
You can use a lock to secure it to the rack. I’ve seen folks do this and think it’s actually a smart idea — one that I’ll utilize in the future.
Other folks will put their larger bag in the space in between seats that are back to back which is a good idea if it fits and if there is spot near you.
My “carry-on” or small backpack usually goes in the rack over my seat. I’ve never had a problem with anyone attempting to take it. But you can certainly lock it or find inventive ways to use the straps to secure it.
If you’re going to be on the train for a few hours then use that time to do some planning for your next destination. Or maybe use the time to talk to the folks around you. It’s a great time to catch up on writing in a journal or going through your photos on your smartphone or camera.
Please note if you are on a designated quiet carriage.
Often there is at least one carriage with this designation.
Business travelers like these as they are able to get some work accomplished.
If you are in a quiet carriage then please keep your voice down and be respectful.
Getting on and off the train
First and foremost arrive at the station early. Give yourself time to wade through the mass of humanity!
Big cities like Rome and Paris have more than one station so be sure you are at the correct one.
And these stations are very busy places!!
I can’t stress this enough — arrive early.
Smaller stations don’t require the amount of time as larger ones but I’d still give yourself enough time to get there and to your platform. Better early than to miss your train.
One thing that I think can de daunting about travel by train in Europe is boarding the right train and getting off at the correct stop.
The biggest tip I have for ensuring you are boarding the right train is to double check the train number.
Just as flights have numbers so do train journeys.
Look for that train journey on the screens that are in the stations. Then see what track it is on.
But keep your ears open and double check the screens as the tracks can change — just as gates can change in airports.
And if you are not sure then ASK!
Also know that you may be going from Rome to Florence but that train may be terminating in Milan. So essentially you are on the Rome to Milan train even though your destination is Florence.
When I book my ticket online a few days ahead of time I look at that final destination so I know where it is.
And so I don’t have a panic attack like I did in Rome as I was unable to find my train to Florence — because it was indeed terminating in Milan. I eventually figured it out, but have since learned some of the nuances of train travel in Europe.
The other things to be sure of is your exact stop.
In the larger cities there are often stops to the outskirts of the city. You may actually want to get off at one of those if it is closer to your accommodation or the site you are planning to see.
Often you are going to the main train station which is great if it makes sense.
Just know where you are exiting the train and pay attention.
If you happen to be going to a little town it might be a quick stop so be ready to grab your bag and get off the train.
The joys of travel by train in Europe
Train travel is such a wonderful way to travel in Europe.
I’ve taken trains in Italy, Switzerland, England, Scotland and even Ireland.
And I took a wonderfully long and beautiful journey from Milan to Paris.
There is something romantic about travel by train.
And it’s a fabulous way to kick back, relax and take in the scenery.
You can nibble on your packed picnic lunch, read a book, plan some travel, catch up on your journal writing or make some new friends.
Note: There is much more to train travel in Europe than what I wrote here. It’s very complicated and complex but don’t let that deter you. Just do some research and seek out the assistance of someone in the know if you need to.