Hitting the open road might be the most iconic way to see the United States, but riding the rails is certainly the most romanticized way to journey across Europe. And who wouldn’t enjoy taking in the views as you sweep past rolling vineyards in Spain or ride the rails across water to reach Venice? As you plan your travels across Europe, here are some tips and tricks that will make sure your dream trip runs smoothly.
Plan Ahead: Rail Pass or Single Tickets?
The first big decision you’ll have to make is whether buying an unlimited rail pass or purchasing as you go is the best option for your trip. The former is a great choice if you’re planning to hop around to a lot of places, while the latter is a better decision if you’re not covering a whole lot of ground. No matter which method you choose, being strategic about how and when you buy tickets can save you a lot of money in the long run. Purchasing tickets online in advance is cheaper, as is buying tickets the day of at train stations, but with either option, you might have to sacrifice some flexibility.
Rail Europe, a company that combines schedules and fares from more than 50 rail companies, makes it easy to buy tickets all across Europe. Still, it might be worth your while to shop around and buy directly from the companies within the countries your traveling (such as Trenitalia in Italy or DB Bahn in Germany). Shop around, as it could pay off big in the long run.Get to the Station Early
This one might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t allow enough time to merely get to their train. Be sure to arrive early enough to be able to get your tickets validated, decipher the signs at the station and find your gate. And just because you’re going to a small station doesn’t mean you’ll have an easier time getting to your gate. Smaller stations are not only less likely to have English signage, but some are notoriously maze-like. This would be a good time to point out that you should be able to lift your luggage, as some stations don’t have elevators or escalators. If you don’t think you can lift your luggage up and down several flights of stairs, it’s time to learn to pack lighter!
Study the Seating Guide
Another thing you’ll want to allow time for is checking out the seating guide, which is usually posted at the end of the platform. These guides tell you which class each carriage will be, and where the dining cars or silent cars will be. Even more importantly, you’ll want to make sure the train car is going to your final destination. On some routes trains split in two, with one section continuing in one destination and another section hooking up to another engine to go to a completely different place. Taking the time to look at the seating guide will ensure you don’t make these types of mistakes. If you don’t see or understand a guide, double check with the conductor or an attendant that you’re in the right place.
Pack Some Snacks
Besides packing some things to do to bide your time (an iPod, a deck of cards, a magazine, etc.), it’s a good idea to pack something to snack on during long trips. This is especially true if you are passing through one or more countries, because each country often comes with a different snack and beverage service. On many trains in Italy, for example, free soda and snacks are offered multiple times (even on short trips), but once the same train crosses into Switzerland passengers are asked to pay outrageous prices for bottles of water and candy.
Since snacks vary and might come in unrecognizable packaging, an easy way to ask for something is by specifying whether you want something “salty” or “sweet.” Which brings us to the next point.
Don’t Assume the Stewards Know English
This is a common mistake amongst American tourists, and it is often met with rolled eyes and annoyed looks. In each country you’re traveling to, make sure you know how to ask if the steward speaks English. Learning some simple phrases – please, thank you, excuse me, etc. – can make the experience much more enjoyable for you and the people serving you.
Lock Up Your Luggage
On the train and at the station, take precaution with your baggage. Whether you are traveling with a backpack or a suitcase, it’s a good idea to get a lock for your luggage. You may even want to pack a separate bag that is easily accessible inside your main bag, allowing you to take anything you really care about with you to your seat when luggage is stowed. Sometimes, you’ll be able to place your luggage in overhead bins where you can keep your eye on it, but other times you might need to place your luggage in racks at the front or back of the train car.
If you’re making a lot of stops on your trip, some train stations do have places where you are able store your luggage for a few hours or the day for a fee. This allows you to leave your bags at the station and explore, and the attendants are usually used to English speakers storing things (again, it’s nice to approach the porter using the most-used language of the area you’re in). Although this system tends to be reliable, it’s still a good idea to keep a lock on things and keep your valuables with you – or leave them at home to begin with!
Have an Exit Plan
European trains are known for their efficiency and adherence to strict timetables. That being said, many trains don’t wait for long periods of time at stations – especially those in small towns. After stopping, the conductor looks to see if anyone is boarding or departing, and if they don’t see any action trains can take off within a matter of seconds. With the knowledge in mind, it’s important to note that some doors on trains do not automatically open and require you to push a button (or use force) to exit. A good rule of thumb is to sit somewhere that allows you a vantage point to watch how passengers are exiting the train. That way, you won’t get stuck.
[Photos by Libby Zay]