7 Tips For Touring Europe By Train

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]

Dysfunctional Tren Italia – Sempre Ritardo

If I were tasked with creating a slogan for Tren Italia, it would be Sempre Ritardo – Always Late. Perhaps it wouldn’t help sell tickets but it would be a rare occasion of truth in advertising. I have a battered wife-syndrome love affair with train travel in Italy. Tren Italia (TI) has been a mess for decades, but I keep riding because I love trains, hate buses and can’t afford to rent cars in Italy. I’m generally supportive of unions, but anyone looking for evidence to support union-busting laws could find plenty of ammunition by studying TI’s inefficiencies.

Dysfunctional Website – I tried to buy TI tickets online using every credit card in my wallet and none worked. I contacted the New York office of the Italian Tourism Board to see what I was doing wrong and they confirmed that American credit cards generally do not work on TI’s website. I recently purchased train tickets in Germany and Switzerland online from the U.S. with an American credit card without a hitch, but as everyone knows, Italy is a different beast.

Aside from the credit card hitch, the site’s search functions leave a lot to be desired. For example, I was looking to find a cheap, regional train from Parma to Modena last week and checked the box “Find the best price.” Oddly enough, when you check that box, it only displays the more expensive 11-euro trains to Modena. Uncheck the “Find the best price” box and it also shows the regional lines that cost just 5 euros. Go figure.You also need to figure out exactly how they refer to a given city in order to buy a ticket to that destination or even search the schedule. For example, I tried in vain to find the town Santa Margherita del Ligure until an Italian instructed me to type S. Margherita del Ligure.

Disinterested workers – There are some diligent, friendly, helpful TI workers, but I’ve been traveling on trains in the country for years and have encountered numerous employees who seemed to stop caring years ago.

Once, several years ago, I was sitting comfortably in a compartment in Rome, waiting for my early morning train to depart for Venice, when I heard an announcement in Italian. At first, I didn’t think it applied to me, but moments later, I noticed people fleeing the train.

In a panic, I followed them, ascertaining on the fly that TI had decided to switch platforms for the departure. Just for fun, the new platform was clear across the station and I arrived just in time to watch our train pulling out of the station. As I walked back towards the station, I noticed a group of 3-4 uniformed TI employees enjoying some laughs. I gave them a hard time for not coming on the train to inform us of the new platform but they just shrugged their shoulders. I waited a few hours for the next departure and had to stand the entire way to Venice because I couldn’t get seat reservations on the next train.

At the train station in Parma just last week, I came across an astonishingly unhelpful clerk after standing in line to buy tickets to Lucca. The TI clerk didn’t speak English but I know just enough Italian to get me through most simple transactions. But he seemed not to understand me when I said, “Orario- domani- Lucca per favore” (Schedule-Lucca-tomorrow-please). A kind man who was standing behind me in line stepped forward to translate.

“He says you have to buy a book to get the timetables,” the man said. He then added, “It’s Tren Italia, you have to understand, they are very difficult.”
The man advised me to use the machine in the station and he was right, it was more informative and friendly than the human being I had just met.

Broken or non-existent elevators – Before I had kids, I always traveled light and never noticed how many Italian train stations have broken or non-existent elevators. With two small children, it’s almost impossible to travel light and lugging kids, strollers and suitcases up and down long flights of stairs isn’t pleasant, especially when you’re making multiple connections.

Platform madness – In many, if not most, Western European countries, you can find a train diagram somewhere on the platform detailing where you should stand to board the train based on your seating assignment. But not in most Italian train stations. Again, if you’re traveling light, you can always board wherever and then make your way to the right carriage.

But many trains are extremely long and if you’re standing in the wrong spot, you might have to walk the length of the train, pushing your way through the crowds. If the train is crowded and you have kids, a stroller and lots of baggage, this is about as much fun as a undergoing a root canal without anesthesia.

Sempre Ritardo – Obviously the worst thing about TI is that the trains often run late. If you’re traveling from one major city to another and don’t have connections to make, ritardos aren’t a big deal because you’re only losing time. The real headache is when you miss connections and then have to take subsequent trains without a seat assignment. Standing in between cars with no seat for hours at a time, especially with children, can be a real hassle.

We missed a connection from Milan to Parma last week by one minute due to a ritardo and had to take the next train, which was packed beyond capacity. We walked through the entire train, struggling to get from car to car through the crowds with our kids and all the baggage and there wasn’t a single free seat anywhere until we got all the way to the first class compartment.

On this train, the only way to distinguish first class from second is that first class was almost empty. The seats weren’t larger or more salubrious and there’s no free meal. Exhausted, we plopped down and hoped for the best. But a TI conductor immediately accosted us and said we needed to pay 86 more euros to sit in first class, this on top of the more than $200 we’d already paid for our Zurich-Parma tickets. A young man came over to help us explain to the conductor that we’d missed our connection due to a delay and now had no assigned seats on the full train.

We’re traveling with two little boys, 2 and 4, and for a moment, I thought he was going to take pity on us, especially since the first class carriage was 90 percent unoccupied, but he wouldn’t relent. Suddenly, our hero, who later introduced himself as Giorgio, began arguing with him on our behalf. I didn’t follow much of their conversation, but I heard Giorgio call him a stronzo, which means a small piece of excrement in Italian, and that caused the conductor to lose it.

But as he started to shout and threaten Giorgio, a few other passengers sitting behind us began to heckle the conductor, urging him to leave us alone. He was outnumbered, but insisted on getting another 86 euros out of us – a big number for a 1.5-hour train ride. I didn’t want to pay so I got up and started gathering all of our things, but Giorgio was having none of it.

“I want to pay for you,” he said.

I declined but he was insistent. Now I had to argue with him not to pay for us. Eventually, I prevailed upon him not to pay and my kids and wife eventually found seats in second class a couple stops down the line. I stood, but the debacle gave me the chance to make a new friend. It also underscored the fact that Italy’s dysfunctional train service brings people together in a kind of shared misery.

Hire the Kids or Go Italo – Italy is filled with highly educated, friendly, multilingual young people who are unemployed. If I were the king of Italy for a day, I’d dismantle the train workers union, fire everyone and hire some of these terrific young people to fix TI, because a great country like Italy deserves a first class train system.

That’s not going to happen, but changes are afoot. TI has a new boss, who recently slashed service to Puglia and Sicily, firing numerous employees in the process. TI employees have been “occupying” track 23 at the Milan train station in protest but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to get their colleagues reinstated.

Meanwhile, a new private train service called Italo just recently launched and could give TI some competition with a Milan-Florence-Rome-Naples line that passes right through most of the country’s biggest tourist destinations. Perhaps a little bit of competition will help shake things up at TI. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

[flickr image via Hunter-Desportes]