Traveling through continental Europe by train is easy, convenient and reasonably priced. If you are thinking about taking a trip and seeing more than one city or country, it is definitely an option you want to look at. When coming from the United States it’s not necessarily the first mode of transportation we think of, especially if you’re coming from the west coast where most people have cars and rarely use public transit. However, when you are traveling you often don’t want the hassle of a car. The likelihood of using it much when staying in a big city or small town is not great, and it is often expensive to park it overnight. Here are some of the tips and tricks you might want to know before you take your first international train trip.
You can reserve tickets in advance, or buy them at the train station. In all of our travels we have never encountered a full train, but trains are not like airplanes. In talking to other passengers I have heard horror stories of cramming train cars full of people and their luggage with no where to sit. Standing for 3-4 hours trips, holding your luggage across country in a tiny space between cars. Doesn’t sound like fun to me, so I would always book ahead of time.
When you book a ticket, you not only book a space in a car, but you have to reserve your actual seat separately. The ticket websites don’t always prompt you to do this, so look around when you are on the site buying tickets to make sure you are reserving a spot on the train AND an assigned seat. This is especially important if you are traveling with your family and want to make sure you can all sit together.
Print your tickets before you leave, or make sure you have the train’s app installed on your smartphone so you can easily pull your tickets up online. We had an experience where we booked tickets from Prague to Vienna. Because the train was operated buy an Austrian company, there weren’t any ticket booths at the train station in Prague. Oops! We had a bit of a panic attack when we realized we had to pull up our tickets on the train’s app, but had no wifi. Fortunately we were able to find a café with wifi and download the app, but it was a lesson learned.
Boarding the Train
There are NO customs, passport checks, nothing to board the train. Because of the EU agreements traveling by train across Europe is much like driving across state lines in the US. I you are traveling in a place where you don’t speak the language…arrive early. At least 30 minutes. Each station is very different. Signage isn’t always very good and there are no guarantees you will understand the signs that are there. Look for the giant board listing all the train destinations and which platform they are leaving from. It is not uncommon for the platform that your train is leaving from to not be announced until minutes before the train arrives. There may be a very large group of people standing around (all passengers from your train) anxiously awaiting the announcement. As soon as it appears on the board there will be a mad dash to the elevators and escalators.
There are usually three classes on the train First Class, Business Class and General. The price differential between classes is usually not huge…sometimes as little as $15, so it doesn’t hurt to check prices on all classes. Traveling in First Class definitely makes boarding and traveling with luggage much easier. It usually isn’t full, and therefore boarding isn’t as much of a trampling experience. In my experience it has always been easy to find spots for your luggage there too. There are places for luggage just outside the car in between cars, but don’t be fooled by the overhead storage space. It doesn’t look very big, but on most trains I have been able to put my very large Samsonite suitcase up above. Lifting it up and down from there isn’t any fun, but it does fit. 🙂
If you have assigned seats look on your ticket for the car number you are assigned to, but if you board elsewhere, you are able to move in between cars even after the train has started moving.
The train classes vary widely by company. We have had first class seats where we were served full meals and had free wifi, and we have had first class tickets where we weren’t given anything. My advice is to always take a drink and a snack with you because you never know what to expect. Because we had free meals on our first train trip, for our second trip I didn’t pack any snacks or drinks. Oops! Needless to say, when they didn’t provide any food or beverages on our 4 hour train ride the kids weren’t too happy.
A few other tips
Another word about food on the train. Most do have dining cars, but if you think you want to eat on the train order your food early on in your journey. They do run out of food quite often and then you are out of luck.
Many cars don’t have A/C. Many have little windows, but they don’t let much air in. You may want to bring a small hand held fan with you in your back pack just in case. Again, this may not be an issue for you, but we had a ride from Vienna to Salzburg once during an unprecedented heat wave and it sure was nice to have.
I’m sure I haven’t covered everything here, but hopefully you can learn a little bit from our experience and it will take a little bit of the mystery out of traveling by train through Europe.
If you’re heading to other places in Europe, here are some more posts you don’t want to miss! You can check out our entire Europe Travel Gallery to see all of our posts and helpful info.