My favorite way to travel around Europe is by rail; I am usually a pretty quick and fast traveler and on a train from Milan to Amsterdam you have no choice but to slow down and soak in the world around you. If you are considering riding the rails this year but haven’t decided, here are some basic tips to get your mind on the tracks. All Aboard!
EUROPE BY RAIL
• Rail travel is slower and more romantic; it gives you a closer look at the countries you are visiting and forces you to take your time and enjoy the journey for travel’s sake.
• Many train stations are located in the very center of the European city, a big advantage over airports which are often over an hour away from the central area.
• Train travel is better for the environment than air travel
• On trains you are more likely to be encounter and engage locals, not just foreign travelers.
• The rail system in Europe is vast and efficient, getting you to a huge number of locales in a quick time.
• Traveling by train, you avoid the security delays that often arise at airports.
• Traveling long distances by train (Paris to Venice, for example) can be very time-consuming and costly. Overnight cabins are expensive and will not be the best sleep of your life.
• The European rail system may be confusing for Americans who are not used to public transportation.
• In some areas of Europe (like the Loire Valley, for example) the train just doesn’t go where you want to go. Rent a car.
• In some cases, air travel can be cheaper and definitely faster than rail travel.
TIPS FOR RAIL TRAVEL
• PACK LIGHT. Have you heard this one enough? There are no porters in European rail stations to help you lift your bags onto the train, and there is precious little space inside for you to put them. Most of the room for luggage is overhead your seat.
• GET RESERVATIONS FOR HIGH SPEED TRAINS. This is required, and costs about $15 per seat. Overnight sleepers or private cabins will also cost you extra.
• USE YOUR TIME. Find yourself waiting on the platform for a delayed train? Welcome to the world of travel. Read a guidebook, write in your journal, or even get to know the stranger next to you.
• Couchettes are cabins that fit six travelers and are often used on overnights as the seats lay down. Note to self: if you get a couchette all to yourself and want to keep it that way, take this to heart: nobody wants to share an enclosed space with someone who has a hacking cough.
• Your rail pass will also work on most busses and ferries, or at least will get you a discount. Be sure to double-check.
• In certain cases, point-to-point tickets might be the best deal for you. Consult your travel agent.
• 1ST CLASS vs. 2nd CLASS: Not worth it in my opinion, but it does get you away from screaming children, gives you a slightly cushier seat, and sometimes a free meal.
• Youths under 26 and groups of two or more get discounted passes (Youth/Saverpass)
EURAIL PASSES: THERE ARE SIX BILLION OF THEM, HOW DO I CHOOSE?
The most difficult part of planning your trip (or your life) is to understand what you want and what you like. I talked to a guy who had a horrible weekend in Paris because he spent most of his time at the Louvre, and he didn’t like art. Don’t just listen to other people’s ideas of the “must-sees”, be honest with yourself and if you don’t like the beach then maybe the Greek islands aren’t the best destination for you. If you are traveling with others, this becomes a little more difficult, but still doable. Grab your travel buds and:
DECIDE HOW LONG YOU WILL STAY: Are you going for a long weekend in the south of France or a three month Eastern European sojourn? Figure it out.
DECIDE WHERE YOU ARE GOING: Get a map of Europe and spread it out. Make a list divided into three columns: Places that you MUST go, places that you would like to go, and places you really don’t care about going that much. Compare lists if you’re traveling with others, and circle on the map all the places that everyone MUST see, and then hash out the rest. THIS IS THE HARDEST PART! While you can always amend your itinerary once you get to Europe, you must purchase your rail pass BEFORE you leave the States. The more specific your itinerary, the more likely you will get the best deal on your rail pass. Make a list of the countries to which you will be going.
DECIDE HOW OFTEN YOU WILL BE TRAVELING: Do you like to be on the move a lot when you travel, going from place to place just about every day? Or are you slower, preferring to soak in one city for a few days before moving on? The number of days you will be traveling affects the price of your rail pass. Please note that overnight train trips only count as ONE DAY as long as you leave after 7PM.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS! Look at the rail passes in the booklet and see which one best fits your itinerary, allotted travel time, and personal travel style.