Pre-trip research is, of course, a good idea, and I did a little, but I kind of liked just going out there, taking it a step at a time and learning the train system in my own way.
There’s something really exhilarating and liberating about thinking, “I want to go there, there, and there – now, or tonight, or tomorrow” and then looking up a train schedule and just doing it. Unless you’re in Greece, the trains are almost always on time. The efficiency and organization is almost scary compared to most rudimentary American transportation systems.
If you’re having trouble finding a path to your destination, especially if it’s a multi-stop route, you can always turn to the online, searchable version of the timetables through DB, the German rail system here.
We’ll talk more on timetables in timetable specific post. They’re so much fun!
A Must Have Train-Travel Skill
The ability to sleep on trains is a paramount skill to either already have or hastily procure if planning a two-month, non-stop, city-to-city tour of Europe on the glorious rail system. Luckily, I think my aforementioned affinity for transportation stems from my insatiable need to sleep through most of any train, plane, car, bus, or boat journey. Something about the steady ebb and flow of my transporter triggers my inner infant and whisks me back to my rocking crib days.
But sleep, although necessary, has its risks. As safe as I will profess the trains in Europe are, you can’t avoid horror stories of belongings being stolen, people being drugged asleep, and personal space being invaded during some train ride, in some place, at some bad time.
In general, these aren’t issues you should dwell over, but at the same time you can’t completely ignore them. As I’ve said before, keep your belongings as close to your body as possible and you should be perfectly safe.
Speaking of other people on trains, something that took a little getting used to on European trains was the seating arrangement. There were numerous different seating patterns in the train cars.
Some trains had all compartments with six seats in each compartment, three facing the other three (like on the Hogwarts Express). Others were like airplanes; with two columns of three seats all facing the same way. But many had seats facing each other. It would be two columns again, but instead of facing the back of a seat you would be facing other seats that were facing you with a space between, and your back to another quartet of seats facing each other.
This method provided more legroom, but took some getting used to because you had someone unknown in your face. It turned out to be a great way to meet people, but at the same time, if you or the other person wants to have nothing to do with the other, it creates some awkwardness. Or at least that’s true for us uncultured Americans…
A Center Cut Advantage
Another great thing about train travel is that you’re almost always taken to the center of your destination. Unlike airports, train stations are central pieces to almost every European city. There wasn’t one train station I visited that wasn’t easily accessible to wherever I was staying by walking, or when it was necessary, easy public transportation.
This feature can save a lot of transportation money. Although everyone hears a lot about huge discount airlines like Ryan Air and others around Europe, what you may not realize is that they fly mostly to secondary airports, which means you can end up wasting all your air ticket savings on getting from the airport to your lodging and back again.
This scenario played out perfectly when I flew from Sydney to Melbourne for a few days. My friend Jeff and I booked a wickedly cheap round-trip ticket to an airport outside of Melbourne. We probably saved around $50 on the flight. Unfortunately, when we landed we quickly realized it was going to cost us $40 each way to get from the airport to Melbourne.
Always check airport to lodging transportation rates before booking flights. Or, just travel by train.
The Bottom Line
I met a lot of really nice and intriguing people on trains throughout Europe. Whether they were backpackers like me, Indian travel agents, German workers traveling back to their families, American tourists, or blue-eyed, blonde haired, gorgeous Swedish boarder agents waking me up from my quick nap, they were all very friendly and more than happy to be trekking (or working) by train.
For anyone who remotely enjoys, or thinks they would enjoy, train travel, the opportunity to journey through Europe looking out the windows of safe and comfortable trains into the beautiful mountains, lakes, fields and cities of Europe is a must. Whether it’s for a week or months, you’re guaranteed an exceptional travel experience.