First Timer’s Guide to Train Travel in Europe

Hannah Miller

Most of us are familiar with air travel. Long lines, the need to arrive hours before the departure time, security pat-downs, and strictly enforced luggage regulations. To make things even more complicated, nailing a cheap flight deal requires tons of online research and the ability to book well in advance. Sure, we make do with the airline system when we have to. But, when in Rome…

The European rail system is a great alternative to booking flights across Europe. Travel by rail is far more flexible, with the ability to hop on and off, on a whim, to destinations across the continent – no advance booking. The ability to arrive twenty minutes (or less) before departure time, avoid a security line, and carry my baggage myself is something I love.. The time saved on check-in and pick-up means more time exploring gorgeous little towns along the way. The best part? Trains have access to almost every destination in Europe. No more costly transit to and from the nearest airport!

Eurail Pass Options

Rail passes are the most popular way for travelers to ride the rails in Europe. A Eurail pass comes with a certain number of travel days and access to a subset of European countries. Unlimited rides during a travel day make it easy to see as much as you can.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all rail pass option. Choosing the ideal rail pass for an adventure comes down to picking destinations, deciding how many travel days to include, and ultimately tallying up the costs to find out whether a pass will actually be cheaper than buying individual tickets. In my experience, a rail pass saves money only if I plan on traveling long distances multiple times within a two-month period. If you won’t use the pass often enough or over long distances, buy individual tickets instead.

When it comes to picking a rail pass, most travelers go with one of these two options:

Eurail Select Pass

The Eurail Select Pass is a great way to save money when traveling between just a few European countries. Choose two, three, or four countries that border one another. Travel by rail within these countries for 5, 6, 8, or 10 travel days within a two-month window. Prices vary widely depending on the popularity of your chosen countries, number of travel days on the pass, number of countries chosen, and whether your travel dates fall on peak season (mid-June through August).

Get a Eurail Select Pass

If you plan to travel several long routes through a few specific countries then the Select Pass is worth it. Keep in mind that the Select Pass is only cheap when taking long routes that cost more than the per-day cost of the pass. 

Don’t Get a Eurail Select Pass

If you’re only going to travel by train 1-3 days during your tour, are day tripping from a central location, or want to train-hop across more than four European countries. You’re probably better off buying tickets one by one.

Eurail Global Pass

The Global Pass is, essentially, the Select Pass on steroids. For an additional $10 per day, travelers on the Global Pass have rail access to 28 European countries. The Global Pass has a 3-month option, making it popular with student backpackers on a summer adventure. Choose either a continuous pass and travel as often as you’d like for 15 days, 22 days, 1 month, 2 months, or 3 months — or a flexipass for either 10 or 15 travel days within a two-month window, or 5 or 7 travel days within a one-month window.

Get a Eurail Global Pass

If you like flexibility and want to be able to travel anywhere within Europe on a whim, the Global Pass accomplishes that. Research your dream route ahead of time to find out whether the cost of the Global Pass is cheaper than buying individual tickets to your must-see destinations.

Don’t get a Eurail Global Pass

If you won’t travel enough to use it optimally; this pass can be a waste of money. When traveling to just a few countries, use a Select Pass and maybe take a day trip separately across a nearby border.  The Global Pass can save hundreds on transportation if its heavily used. But, I found that the Select Pass was cheaper when traveling to just a few countries within a 1-2 month period.

The fine print:

  • Youth passes are for travelers under 28 only – adult passes are slightly more expensive
  • Adult and youth travelers on 2-country Select Passes both have access to second-class seats
  • However, adults traveling to 3+ countries on Select or Global Passes are obliged to buy a first-class seats
  • Youth passes always have the second-class option
  • A 20% group discount is available to groups of two or more people traveling together
  • Up to two children ages 4-11 travel free with an adult on any Eurail pass
  • Children under 4 travel free regardless

Do I Really Need a Eurail Pass?

Whether or not a Eurail pass is your best option comes down to the kind of trip you’re planning. How often do you intend to ride the rails?

I used a Eurail pass when I did a summer trip through Europe a few years ago. I was taking multiple long, cross-country routes which would have cost more individually than the cost of one day on the pass. Fast-forward a few years and I’m living in the Netherlands for a year. Now it makes more sense for me to buy individual tickets, since the cost of a day trip is less than the cost of one day on a rail pass.

Take the time to research the cost of your trip, with and without the pass, to determine whether it’s worth it.

Tips for Train Travel in Europe

Getting hang of the rail system in Europe might take a couple of tries, but you’ll be a seasoned train traveler in no time! Stations operate differently than airports in a few key ways. I love that boarding a train requires less buffer time, since customs and security checks are uncommon. Still, there are a few things you’ll need to know to avoid accidentally landing a fine, or ending up in Brussels instead of Prague.

Making Reservations

Making advance reservations is not always necessary, especially on regional trains. However, high-speed trains will often require travelers to reserve seats in advance. If a train absolutely requires a reserved ticket to ride, it’ll be obvious when booking online. 

Even if reservations aren’t required, I always make them if my travel day is going to be longer than 3 hours, to save time and ensure that I’ll get a seat. Reservations can be made up to three months in advance, but for flexibility’s sake, don’t bother booking more than a few days ahead of time. I’ve occasionally been able to pick up same-day reservations on a whim.

Note that reservations are not covered in Eurail passes and will need to be purchased separately! The cost varies from train to train, prices can be found when booking online here.

Tip: Book online to save cash. Use bahn.de to quickly check train schedules across Europe.

Show Up on Time

European trains are famously punctual (well, except for France and Spain!) you should be as well. The departure time listed is when the train pulls out of the station, not when it loads. However, without the customs and security lines we have to deal with at the airport, arriving 20 minutes before the departure time is usually fine. Upon arrival at the train station:

  • Pick up your tickets, if necessary OR get your Eurail pass stamped at a ticket machine or desk before riding; riders without stamps may be fined heavily
  • Ask for a print-out of your schedule at the desk: I discovered that the attendant will print out a page with information on which coach to board (if relevant), which tracks to transfer on, and what the arrival times look like; trust me, it cuts down on stress, especially during those 7-minute transfer stops at unfamiliar stations!

Is Taking a Night Train Worth It?

Some claim that traveling overnight is a great way to save cash on accommodations and get the bulk of your travel out of the way while you’re asleep. Whether this actually works is up for debate. While it’s true that there are comfortable night-time accommodations aboard, they tend to be expensive. In my experience, the only way to save on accommodation overnight is to ride in a cheap seat and try to sleep sitting up. If that doesn’t work for you on an airplane, it’s not going to work for you on a train. Although it will save you a few bucks, you’re going to arrive at your destination exhausted and rumpled.

My advice? Stick to day-time travel and avoid the hassle. Night trains require reservations, are more expensive, and traveling overnight costs two travel days on the Eurail passes, which run on calendar days. Instead of taking a night train, try starting the travel day earlier in order to arrive at your destination with plenty of daylight left for exploration.

Packing for Rail Travel

Luggage restrictions are much more relaxed for rail travelers than they are when flying. That said, there are still rules. Passengers can take a maximum of three items of luggage aboard. These items must be easy to handle and compatible with the space provided on the trains. The greatest dimension of each item must be less than 85cm.

I’ve found that these rules aren’t strictly enforced and are mostly in place to allow officers to boot those folks who travel with 12 suitcases and 3 cats. Travelers who pack reasonably won’t have a problem. Luggage is stored in compartments overhead and large compartments near the doors. Keep an eye on your bags, as it’s not uncommon for strangers to walk off with the wrong bag.

Ultimately, the goal is to pack light. Think travel backpack, duffle, or carry on luggage. I carry my Tortuga V2, which is more than enough space for all of all my packing needs. If you are a first time train traveler in Europe, the Setout travel backpack is perfect for your adventures. In fact, the bag was designed specifically for this sort of trip after the Tortuga co-founders, Fred and Jeremy, became frustrated with their luggage on their European adventure. If you want to go lighter, the Outbreaker duffle and daypack combo are the ultimate light travel combo.

Setout Travel Backpack

The Setout travel backpack was, quite literally, designed for train travel in Europe. This bag is just right for that kind of trip.

Comfortable and padded hip and shoulder straps distribute the weight of your pack to your hips and make navigating train stations a breeze. A water resistant coating will take Europe’s changing weather in stride and the sleek, grey, low profile design will help you blend in, instead of looking like a tourist.

There’s plenty of space to bring everything you need, and it’s still carry on sized for your flights over and back.

 

In addition to your capsule wardrobe for Europe, first aid kit, and electronic devices, bring:

  • A hobby:  whether it’s a good book, a knitting project, or a sketchpad, you’ll want something to do during the longer trips
  • Good headphones or ear plugs: focus, take a nap, or simply zone out for a bit
  • A travel guidebook: or an offline e-guide; make awesome plans to adventure upon reaching the final destination
  • Your own wifi, if possible: while the trains are high-speed, their free wifi is not; you can rent a wifi hotspot easily in Europe.

Now relax, enjoy the European countryside speeding by outside, and get ready to explore your next destination.

TL;DR

European rail travel is an easy way to see the countryside while speeding towards your next destination. It’s often less painful than flying Europe’s budget airlines, and it goes places the planes don’t.

When planning a trip through Europe, consider purchasing either the Eurail Select or Eurail Global passes, which provide flexible travel days within European countries. Wondering whether a pass is actually cheaper than going without? Add up the cost of your planned travel days vs the cost of the pass to be sure. The passes can save money when used to their utmost potential over long distances and multiple travel days.

When using the European train systems, be sure to:

  • Make reservations in advance, where necessary (reservation costs are not covered by Eurail passes)
  • Arrive at the station 20 minutes before departure
  • Validate tickets with a stamp before traveling
  • Print out transfer schedules for easy stopovers

Pack light when taking the train, up to three pieces of luggage are allowed, though luggage restrictions are rarely enforced. Be sure to bring a book to read! Digital nomads should carry their own wifi sources when possible, though free wifi is often available on high-speed trains.

 

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