Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

How to… plan a Euro rail adventure

Crossing continents to the hypnotic chug chug of a locomotive has been a romantic idea for since the brith of rail travel. Here's how to do it properly.
Railway adventure © Aussie Gal

Believe it or not, until a few years ago people had to plan their travels without iPhones or a vast array of hand-held technological devices that could access the internet anywhere at anytime. They had to rely on things called maps, time sheets, watches, and clocks – and a good sense of direction. A lot has changed in the world over the past ten years, including travelling; particularly travelling by rail in Europe.

Not only is the railway system efficient with easy accessibility, there is also a romantic appeal to train travelling throughout Europe because you never know what adventures will come your way, or who you will meet along the journey.

Beginning Your Journey

First you must decide whether you are going to be moving on a ‘fixed’ or an ‘unfixed’ schedule. Fixed means you know the specific travel dates and times  ? including the specific locations. Unfixed means you only know the calendar month you’ll be travelling, and a rough idea of the locations you’ll be visiting, but nothing is set in stone.

Remember to take the number of travellers into consideration, too, as there are often package deals or ‘all inclusive’ offers for groups, organisations, students, seniors, and other kinds of parties. Regardless of your plans, once you have made this decision, fixed or unfixed: you can begin to plan your European railway trip.

Do some research: many travel agencies do not offer thorough information that specifically pertains to railway travelling so it’s imperative to be knowledgeable of how train travelling operates. Check Lonely Planet, Rail Europe, and The Man in Seat 61. Students may want to look into STA Travel.

Weather and tourist seasons are also factors to take into consideration before travelling if you are looking to lower your costs and have the freedom of a more flexible schedule. According to Tom Hall from Lonely Planet in London, the best times of year to travel in in Eastern, Central, and Western Europe in regards to weather and finances are May to June, and September to October. “These months offer the best combination of low crowds and good weather,” he says. “The further east and north you go during this period the worse the weather is going to get.”

Lastly, be mindful of your budget. Tickets and passes are only half the cost of railway travelling. The other half includes food, drink, shopping, tourist attractions and nightlife. Lonely Planet estimates that the average traveller can get around spending 40 to 80 euros per day. This average spending increases and lowers depending on certain parts of Europe, but overall this is the general consensus. Look into the cost of every sight you want to see, or places you want to visit so that you will not be at the will of your budget.

Where to Start and How to Book a Ticket

There are many kinds of trains, tickets, and passes.  In regards to trains, Hall says there are three main types: local or regional services (normally prefixed by L or IR). These cover short to medium distances out of big cities and smaller towns. Then there are Inter City (IC) trains, which travel long distances but not very fast. If you have a rail pass but don’t pay supplements you’ll often find yourself on these trains. Then there are fast trains with all sorts of different names – Thalys, Eurostar, ICE, Talgo, TGV – which go very fast and are the most expensive. The only way to work out which one is best to read up about trains on the web and in guides. Remember, booking in advance almost always brings the cost down significantly”.

The most direct way to book a ticket is at the train station. (You can always consult a travel agency if you need a second opinion) However, online booking is a fast and efficient method too. One of the most knowledgeable sites with some of the most accurate information for new and experienced travelers is Rail Europe which will give you thorough, detailed information of railway travelling, passes, tips, tickets and other miscellany for a whole host of European countries.

E-Tickets and arriving at the station

Buying tickets before your travel date ensures that you will not have to wait in line at a train station, and you will not miss your ride due to overbooking. Nevertheless, it’s suggested that all travellers arrive thirty minutes prior to the train’s set departure time. Be sure to have all your money and identification in a secure place. Be on the lookout for pickpockets. Do not leave your baggage unattended and make sure to keep track of your tickets, belongings and railway passes.

If you have your e-ticket number ? a number which can be found in your confirmation email after purchasing a ticket online ? simply type in that ticket number into the self-service kiosk at the station to retrieve your tickets. Otherwise your tickets must be sent to you through the mail or after buying them at the ticket counter at a railway station. While many train rides always have seat vacancies, if you are on a set schedule: you will want to buy a ticket ahead of time to avoid delays which could possibly affect your overall schedule.

Railway Tickets

Unlike a pass that permits travellers to have a flexible schedule, railway tickets reserve a seat for travelers who are looking to secure space on a specific train ride from a predestined location to another spot. Whether you going from London to Paris, Milan to Venice, or Germany to Spain ? compare and contrast all the prices, travel times, and number of stops for each train before booking a seat. Often, two trains can be headed to the same destination and yet one train will be significantly cheaper than the other; mostly due to time of day and the class rate of seat chosen.

Early morning and night travelling can sometimes be the most inexpensive means of railway travelling, but the fees can also add up if you are consistently sleeping in first class or paying for sleeping accommodations. And for non-residents and European residents migrating via railway for more than three days, it’s advised travellers purchase a rail pass instead of individual tickets, day by day.

Hall advises travellers to book tickets ahead of time. “The only time when it might not be cheaper to book ahead is if you’re not sure of your arrangements and will prize flexibility over a cheap fare.”

The range of ticket prices are overwhelming and they change monthly, if not daily. And there are two kinds of first class (Premier and Comfort) and two kinds of second class tickets (Economy and Freedom). Meaning some of the tickets are flexible and travellers can come and go as they please, while others are fixed and unchangeable. Travellers must do a little homework to know which are which before purchasing as tickets are non-refundable.

Railway Passes

Railway passes are not the same as railway tickets. And depending on your choice of navigation and locations, some passes give travelers more freedom than others. Railway passes allow travellers to roam the railway systems freely, however, they do not always guarantee a seat reservation. Always check to see if a seat reservation is needed when booking a pass or planning an itinerary, especially for overnight travelling or crowded rides.

Railway passes are printed in accordance to a traveller’s country of residency, not their country of citizenship. Depending on your residency, not to be confused with one’s citizenship, travellers will need to buy a specific kind of rail pass. This has nothing to do with the booking agencies this is a matter of protocol set by the railway companies themselves. When browsing Rail Europe to purchase rail passes, travellers should pay close attention to details and take note of the fact that the rules and regulations for passes and tickets for local European citizens, versus foreign railway travelers, differentiate. Basically, the rail passes available for a traveler whose residency is foreign are not the same rail passes that are provided for European residents, et vise versa.

There are endless kinds of rail passes so make sure to follow the website so that it may direct you to the correct booking site for your country of citizenship. There are individual webpage’s within this site for every country; links that will take viewers to specific pages for European travelers who are looking for rail passes and tickets.

If you are a resident in Europe, the UK, Morocco, Turkey, or any of the countries of the former Soviet Union: you cannot purchase the same passes as a non-resident. Anyone who resides within the selected areas of Europe and nearby vicinities looking for a rail pass must purchase an ‘Interrail’ pass.

Almost every country has a travelling pass. And each pass has a different set of rules. Some give you three days unlimited travel. Some passes permit nine days to a full month of non-stop travelling. And then price estimates also differentiate as a result of whether you buy first class or second class.

Overnight Trains

While there are several kinds of trains that travel various navigational paths, speeds, and are of different designs. And while not all trains are overnight trains, according to Rail Europe’s website there are four general class rate tickets for overnight trains: “You have up to four choices of accommodation on overnight trains; Economy, Freedom, Comfort and Premier Classes. In Economy Class, you can relax in a reclining seat.  In Freedom Class, you’ll enjoy a ‘couchette’, in a shared compartment for up to 6.  In Comfort Class, you’ll share a more relaxing compartment with two or three beds.  Lastly, you can book a Premier Class ticket for a great night of sleep in a virtual hotel on wheels: private accommodations for one or two, usually private shower and toilets, and all food and drinks included.”

Food and Drink

Almost every train provides a dining car where travellers can eat or drink. With the exception of a few first class bookings, dining is not ever included in the cost of a ticket.
Every station does have a dining area and often the railway stations are located within the middle of a city nearby many restaurants. Either way, travellers are never without some means of acquiring food or drink. Packing light snacks and carrying water are wise ways to keep hydrated and well-fed.

Attractions, Maps, Tours, and Sightseeing

Before arriving at your destination, find a well-made map to keep in your luggage or your clothing; preferably a map that has a public transportation route on it, too. Research the city, or the country, you will be visiting before arrival to discover things that you will want to partake in during your stay so you will not waste any time once you‘re there: tourist attractions, vineyards, skiing, sailing, noteworthy restaurants, museums, cathedrals, beaches, castles, and other forms of entertainment, adventure, or historical significance.

Hall’s advice to travellers: “Don’t try and do too much. Europe may not look big but it has an incredible amount to see and do. It is best seen slowly, so pick one or two countries and see them in detail. Europe’s not going anywhere and you’ll want to come back anyway. If you try to do too much you’ll end up exhausted and unhappy.”

Deals & Discounts

Before booking a trip: always check with local travel agencies (online and locally) to check for any deals, vacation packages, or seasonal discounts. Make sure that you spend within your budget as you will not enjoy yourself if you are constantly penny pinching during your stay as a result of over-spending on railway tickets and travelling costs.

Tips for travellers from Tom Hall on how to travel in the most economical and inexpensive manner: “Look hard at whether a rail pass is the cheapest option. In many cases these passes are not the great deal they once were and by travelling off-peak and booking ahead you can spend less than you might with a pass. That said, a railpass sometimes gives you access to other good deals like discounted ferry and admission tickets you wouldn’t have got otherwise. Also, look at sleeper trains. For the price of a hostel bed you can get a bunk on a train which gets you to your next destination and saves on the cost of a night’s accommodation.”

Travel Blogging

Keep a blog or a journal whilst travelling, particularly for longer trips or those with multiple stops. It is easy to forget all the wonderful, minute details of a railway trip as your eyes will be constantly soaking in something new. Not to mention all the memories you will obtain throughout the hours of each day during your stay in Europe. Therefore, a good way of keeping track of your time away and to permanently conserve your memories: write daily recollections of your day to day experiences. Take hundreds of photographs. A digital camera is a great travelling asset. Even keep your ticket stubs if you’re feeling particularly nostalgic and want to remember each station and every train that you boarded and rode along the way.