Traveling Europe by Train – What We Learned Along the Way

We have been to Europe a few times but never used the train until now. For this trip, it was imperative since we had a baby with us – read more about why in my “Reflections” post. There was a bit of a learning curve at first, but once we got the hang of it, we loved train travel!

 

Purchasing tickets in advance:
  • We purchased our inter-country tickets before we arrived, via raileurope.com. On their site, you can do a point by point comparison of the whole trip to decide if you want to buy individual tickets or a rail pass (http://www.raileurope.com/us/rail/point_to_point/triprequest.htm ). The difference is this – with individual tickets, you buy for a particular date and time whereas with a pass, it is theoretically good for all train travel in a particular country or set of countries for a particular range of time. I say “theoretically” because you still have to purchase “reservations” on top of the rail pass for any speed trains you want to take – basically, buy a ticket.
  • Once I compared the price of the pass plus the speed train reservations (you will take a speed train for most inter-country rides), it was cheaper for us to buy individual tickets instead of a pass. Check for yourself and see – it varies considerably based on what you want to do, so it pays to do your homework.
  • Oh, and in France – you have to validate your tickets before you board at the little yellow machine – super important!! 
Purchasing tickets for day-of travel:
  • For all of our day trips, we purchased tickets the day we were traveling. Mostly, we did this via kiosk. At every kiosk, we found an English option. If you can’t find it, ask a local to point it out to you.
  • At the kiosk, you will need to be prepared with the destination name, to decide whether you want first or second class, and if you want a “day return” (round trip).
  • We found many kiosks took only cash or bank (debit) card, not credit cards.
  • There were a few places where we had to buy from a person in a ticket window, but the process is the same. 
Finding your train:
  • Look on the big board. Find your train (your destination may be a “via point” on a longer ride, so ask if you can’t find your destination name – we found this to be the case for going to The Hague and to Arles, for example). The board tends to post only 30-45 minutes in advance, so if you don’t see your destination listed, it may be an hour or so away.
  • Look to the right and find what platform (either a letter or a number – or a combo of both) the train comes to and at what time. If you have a reservation, you have only the option that you booked, but if you have either a Rail Pass, or just general day tickets, you should be able to board any train that goes to your destination. Sometimes we saw that one was coming in a few minutes and instead of rushing, we would just go to the next one, which was often only 15-20 minutes later. 
Boarding the train:
  • Go to your platform with at least 10 minutes to spare, because once the train is there, people get on and it goes. There is no “final call,” it just leaves (perfectly on time, I should add), so don’t call it too close!
  • If you have a reservation, you will have a specific coach number and seat assignment, so look for that. Coach numbers are not necessarily sequential, we learned, so just watch for the number on the digital screen outside each little train door.
  • If you don’t have a specific reservation, just be sure to board a coach in the class you paid for (we found there were usually big “1” or “2” numbers on the outside – and locals were always willing to help), and find a seat. The shorter trains we used for day trips were never full and we always had an entire foursome to ourselves.
  • Special Note: Specifically for Eurostar (from London to Brussels or Paris), you have to go through passport check and security, just like boarding a plane, so get there with 60-90 minutes to spare. 
Riding the train:
  • We had our tickets checked on every train, that I recall. So, be ready to show your ticket when asked. If you got on the wrong coach (one time we did), the conductor will show you where to go – all coaches are connected and you can get up and move at any time, not like an airplane – so don’t stress about it. Just smile, politely say “thank you” in their language, and move.
  • One other tip is to bring food and drinks on the trains. There are lots of good options at virtually all the stations and you always have a table in front of you or folded on the seat in front of you. It means when you get to where you are going, you can just go!

One Response to “Traveling Europe by Train – What We Learned Along the Way”

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