How to travel around Europe by rail

Richard Mellor

The big one: to pass or not to pass


Lausanne, Switzerland

Decide in advance if you want to book an all-encompassing rail pass—called Interrail for European residents, or Eurail for everyone else—or individual "point-to-point" tickets. Predictably, each has pros and cons.

Passes can be pan-European or just single-country, and range in duration from five days to one month. There’s also the option of "Continuous" passes, which cover a set number of successive days, or "Flexi, whereby you pick and choose days.

If you’re going to rack up some serious mileage, then passes will be better value. But for trips totalling, say, ten train rides, point-to-point fares will usually end up costing less in total if booked well in advance.

Bear in mind, also, the plethora of extra costs. In France, Italy and Spain, most long-distance trains require passholders to pay additional reservation fees of up to £40. Nor are Eurostar trips covered. The superb Man In Seat Sixty-One site has full details.

The final factor is convenience: passes might cost you more, but consider too the stress—and queueing time—saved. 

Overnighting?

Sleeping on a train saves you the price of a hotel; it is also a rare, thrilling experience. You could drift off in Dresden but wake up in Warsaw.

You could also wake up very painfully if consigned to an an economy sleep. Cabins—both sleeper (private) and couchette (shared) offer flat beds, while many trains have recliner seats.

Flexi-passers should also beware a rule which states that direct trains departing after 7pm only count for one travel day, whereas services leaving earlier are docked as two days.

Know your stations

Alight at Genoa station, you say. Hang on—is that Genova Piazza Principe or Genova Brignole? Or maybe Genova Quarto dei Mille? How about Genova Quinto? Perhaps Genova Nervi?

Most European cities are like this. Double check your station’s exact name and—as lots of platforms lack signs—those of the two preceding ones.

Food tactics

Dining in restaurant cars is a classic experience, especially if that sirloin steak and glass of claret coincide with soaring alpine vistas or a run along the Danube.

It can also be costly, as can marked-up cafe cars. Bring packed-lunches, using local supermarkets, and you’ll save many a euro—and still be able to relish those vistas.

Travel light

Cumbersome trunks and train carriages are not good friends—baggage racks inevitably fill up, and aisles always seem to be an inch too narrow.

The trick to train travel is to have as little luggage as possible. Aim for portable rucksacks and/or wheelie case which are slim enough to fit every gangway or overhead rack. And look to stay relatively close to stations whenever you disembark for a night.

Learn key lingo

On top of the usual vital vocab like “please” and “the bill”, train travellers should always know a few glossary terms for emergencies.

“Platform” is a good one, as are “station”, “stop” and “ticket”.

Train-lag

You’re sitting down the whole time, so train travel can hardly be tiring, right? Wrong: the air pressure changes and momentum exert their own energy train, causing a jetlag-like effect.

Mitigate this by allowing for ample time between journeys to rest up.