Travel Europe by Train: A Guide

I’m going to start this off like so many other articles that extol the merits of train travel, by quickly highlighting all its obvious advantages. To begin with, if you travel Europe by train pretty much every major city and town is serviced by a train station. So, no airport transfers. Pull into the station and “boom,” you’re in the hustle and bustle of a city. And, all major cities have international links that connect up different countries. London to Paris, no problem. Marseille to Milan, sure thing. Berlin to Prague, why not?

 
Then there’s the fact that train travel isn’t air travel. So, no check-in times, no luggage limits or ridiculous excess baggage fees. Kiss goodbye to that 6 euro 20 cl bottle of water and the 12 euro cheese sandwich, the cardboard box of which it came in, you’re sure would taste better. You can’t get out of your seat in a car and anything more than 3 hours on a bus, and you start to go mad.
 
These are all true, and the make a strong case to travel Europe by train for train travel, but they also reduce the lush comfort and experience of it to practicality. And, train travel is so much more than that. What of the romance, the magic, “those whistles [that] sing bewitchment.”
 
In the words of esteemed writer and novelist Paul Theroux, “railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed and never upsetting your drink [...] If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to” (Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar). This. This is what it means to travel by train.

 

#DiscoverEU

 

For those recently turned 18 or soon to turn 18, I would like to direct your attention to a fantastic opportunity to travel Europe by train and discover all the continent has to offer at the cost of absolutely nothing. The European Parliament, working in conjunction with the European Commision, allocated € 12 million to cover the cost of 15,000 DiscoverEU passes. In short, free Interrail tickets. With this, thousands of young Europeans, like you, will be able to travel across the continent totally free and experience exciting new countries, languages, foods, and cultures.
 
If you’re wondering why, it’s part of an initiative to help young people understand and experience what it means to be European.

  • What are the conditions


They’re pretty straightforward. If you’re 18 years old on July 1, 2018 and a national of one of the 28 EU member states, then you’re eligible. Better yet, you can travel as an individual or in groups of five.

  • When and Where does it Start?


You can travel between 1 and 30 days anytime between July and September. Naturally, you have to begin your journey in one of the 28 EU member states and can travel between up to 4 countries. 

  • How to get my hands on one? 


You have to apply via the #DiscoverEU website. Applications will be open between 12-26 June. 

Also worth checking it out is how to become an official #DiscoverEU ambassador where you’ll be tasked with reporting on your travel experiences via social media.  

 

Interrail/Eurail


 

For those of us not lucky enough to still be on the cusp of adulthood, but who still want to travel Europe by train then we’re going to have to bone up for an Interrail or Eurail pass. And, I can already hear you wondering, “what’s the difference?”
The difference 

It’s very simple really, an Interrail pass is reserved for European travelers. A Eurail pass is reserved for non-European travelers. That’s it; there ain’t nothing else to it.
 
Interrail and Eurail tickets come in several forms.

  • Global Pass 

The most popular of tickets is the Global Pass. This is valid in the following 30 countries:
 
Austria - Belgium - Bosnia-Herzegovina - Bulgaria - Croatia - Czech Republic - Denmark - Finland - France - Germany - Great Britain - Greece - Hungary - Ireland - Italy - Luxembourg - Macedonia - Montenegro - Netherlands - Norway - Poland - Portugal - Romania - Serbia - Slovakia - Slovenia - Spain - Sweden - Switzerland - Turkey
 
This ticket can be bought in two forms: consecutive travel or flexible travel. Consecutive travel means you can travel every day that the pass is valid. Flexible travel means that you have a set number of travel days across the length of time that your pass is valid. These can be used whenever you want so long as they are used within the time frame specified on the ticket. For instance, 10 days of travel across a period of a month.
 
If you plan to travel somewhere new every day, then a consecutive travel Global Pass is great. You can zip between countries without losing out on a day’s worth of travel. However, if you plan on hanging around in some of the cities, you travel through and exploring them, then consider a flexible pass.

  • One Country Pass 

A one country pass limits your travel to within one of the 30 available countries. These tickets only offer flexible travel.


Discounts


 
If you are 27 or younger on the first day you begin using your Interrail pass, then you can buy a discounted youth pass. This applies to both 1st and 2nd class.
 
If you plan to travel with your family on an Interrail pass, your kids are eligible for either free travel or discounts. For families with kids below the age of four on the first day you use the pass, they can travel free. However, on crowded trains children are not guaranteed a seat and may have to sit on a parents lap. If you plan to travel on a night train and would like your child to have their own bed you have to reserve and pay an extra fee for an additional couchette or sleeper.
 
Children who fall between the ages of 4 and 11 on the first day you use the pass also go free. But, you must travel with a child pass. These can be ordered with the adult pass. Two children can travel free with any one adult. The adult does not have to be a family member just any adult over the age of 18 at the time of travel.
 
If you are 60 years or older, you can purchase a pass with a 10 % discount.  

Eurail Additional Options



For non-Europeans traveling on a Eurail pass, you have several additional options when booking your pass. Unlike with the Interrail pass, you can book a select pass. A select pass allows you to travel between 2, 3 or 4 countries.  

Have a Pen Handy 



This may seem like a small detail, but it's VERY IMPORTANT. You have to fill in the travel pass calendar that comes with your pass. Failing to do this is equivalent to not riding with a valid ticket and will result in a fine.  
 
Your travel calendar is on your pass. It is easily identified by a series of empty spaces labeled by day and month. These correspond to the number of journeys attached to your ticket. Fill this in accordingly before you board a train. My recommendation is only to fill it in right before you board. Doing this means that if you have a sudden change of plans, you haven’t accidentally wasted a travel day by preemptively filling in your calendar.  
 
Most Important of all:

 
Don’t lose your pass. This is your ticket (literally) around Europe. And, as the old adage goes, “no ticket, no travel.”  
 

Travel Tips



 
Download the Interrail Rail Planner App. You might be traveling with friends, friends you’ve known your whole life. But, in all honesty, by journey’s end, this little app will be your new best friend. The Rail Planner App allows you to look up all relevant train information on the go. That’s right. No matter where you are, in the palm of your hand you’ll have access to all the train information you need. Departure times, arrival times you name it, the apps got it.
 
Your Interrail or Eurail pass does not guarantee you a seat unless you reserve one. If you’re traveling solo, most of the time this won’t be an issue. However, for those traveling in pairs or larger groups and who are keen to sit together, consider this before traveling. It’s also worth noting that reservation fees apply and they are not included in your Interrail or Eurail pass. The fees are often nominal, exceptions do apply (for example the Eurostar), and in some countries, seat reservations aren’t even required.
 
Also worth bearing in mind, for those who have booked 1st class Interrail or Eurail passes, you can sit in second class. Why you would want to is anybody’s question, but you can. Unfortunately, the same rule doesn’t apply for those of you traveling on a 2nd class Interrail or Eurail pass. You can’t sit in 1st.  
 

What about Point to Point Train Travel?



Is a European rail pass worth it? Is it the best way to travel Europe? Why not just travel point to point? These are all good questions and ones that are often asked. The short answer to all of them being, there is no best way to travel Europe, and a European rail pass is only worth it if it works for you.
 
The longer answer goes a little like this. The reality is, an Interrail or Eurail isn’t the cheapest way to travel Europe, they are expensive. And, if you’re trying to travel by train through Europe a lot of the time point to point can work out much cheaper. The upside of the pass is that you can relax knowing you have an “access all trains” pass and don’t have to worry about slogging through ticket websites looking for the best prices. But, the truth is, getting your hands on tickets is actually reasonably straightforward. And, most country’s national rail services have very user-friendly websites.
 
If you’re staying put in a particular country and only plan on making short journeys to towns and cities within that country, then point to point travel will work great for you. Italy, for example, boasts a great high-speed train service in Trenitalia’s Frecce trains. These will take you the length and breadth of the country and stop at most all major cities. The best part is Trenitalia utilizes an airline ticket pricing system. This means that if you book your tickets online in advance, fares are fantastically cheap. You can travel from Rome to Venice for as little as € 19.00. These tickets are often non-flexible or refundable, but at those prices, who cares, right?
 
Eastern Europe also enjoys cheap train fares. So, a rail pass in this part of the world isn’t strictly necessary either. You may have to spend a bit more time at ticket offices and be prepared to live without amenities such as air conditioning. But, the trains will get you to where you’re going, and that’s what really counts counts. 

Night Trains





I’d like to round this off by singing the praises of the night train. The first time I took a night train I traveled from Barcelona to Paris. It was the end of a long summer and I was on my way to London. I had never taken an overnight train. In fact, European rail travel wasn’t something I’d ever really done. 

But, as a great fan of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and the train travel accounts of Paul Theroux, I decided, on a whim, to give it a go. Now, it wasn’t as ornate as Anderson’s opulent Darjeeling Limited. In fact, it was fairly basic. I had a 4 berth couchette which I shared with another solo traveler who’s final destination was Helsinki. There wasn’t an onboard bar or a restaurant carriage. If there was, I definitely didn’t have access to it. And, yet, it is still an experience I am not soon to forget.  

I packed a small bag of supplies. This largely consisted of cheeses and cured meats, an Opinel knife for slicing them, bread and, of course, a bottle of wine. I took a regional train from Barcelona up into the Pyrenees towards the international train station, Latour-de-Carol. Here, I transferred, with a handful of other passengers, onto the night train where we were whipped away further into the Pyrenees before beginning our descent down to Toulouse. When night fell, I read, ate and eventually fell asleep to the gentle swing of my carriage. When I woke up the sun was cresting the horizon and Paris was, but an hour away.

So, not much a travel tip as a recommendation. But, where possible and when possible try and get yourself on a night train. It is an unforgettable experience, and no European rail travel adventure would be complete without it.

Here are some night train suggestions:

  • Madrid to Lisbon 


9 hours and 45-minute journey across central Spain and on to Lisbon, this route is serviced by Spanish rail RENFE’s Trenhotels. If you’ve got the cash, splurge for Gran Class which comes in at approximately £ 180. Gran Class sleepers are ensuite and come complete with access to the club lounge and fine bed linens. Failing that, Tourist class is inexpensive and perfectly serviceable. It comes in the form of four bed couchettes, great for people traveling in groups.

  • Paris to Venice


Leaving from Paris Gare-de-Lyon, Thello trains, owned by Trenitalia, make the 14-hour overnight journey down to Venice. Tickets, if booked in advance and dependent on class, are surprisingly affordable. A single for a 6-bed couchette comes in at € 35. The first class experience entitles you to a single, two or three person sleeper and comes with access to the restaurant car and complimentary toiletries.   

  • Berlin to Malmo 


Not the most luxurious of the night train options, but the Berlin to Malmo sleeper does cross the Baltic Sea on a special ferry. I mean that’s worth the journey alone. The trip takes about 12 hours, and you can book shared or private couchettes. If you plan to travel Europe by train over the summer, know that this route only runs for a short period during this season. So, with prices beginning from € 39, why not seize the opportunity.
 
I’ll round off with this, “anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories” (Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar). So, jump on a train and make for anywhere, Europe’s for the taking. And, remember, the journey is as much the adventure as the destination. 

Happy travels!






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