Friday, September 14, 2012

Travel Europe by Train

Here's what you need to know about traveling Europe on the train -- from planning your trip to buying tickets to getting the most for your travel bucks. Also know as, things I wish I would have known before my trip to Europe and all the travel I'm doing.

1. When you need information

If a station has an Information desk -- use it to plan your trip. Don't expect the person at the ticket window to answer all your questions though, especially when there's a line of impatient commuters waiting. Also, don't expect them to speak any English and be happy when the speak a bit. This is especially important in crowded stations like the station in Frankfurt. Find Departing Train information by consulting the yellow posters at the stations, or if traveling with the Eurail pass, the time tables given to you with the pass.

2. Buying That Ticket

Go to the ticket window (checking first whether you need national or international tickets) with the following information: Which city you want to go to, train time or train number, class (usually first or second), one-way or round trip, and the date you are traveling on. Be aware that some express trains in some countries may require a seat reservation, and these reservations usually cost money. Fast trains usually are more expensive -- you'll be charged a higher supplement.

3. Discounts and Specials

When planning your trip, be sure to ask if there are any specials. Sometimes, just by taking a slightly slower train, that leaves at the same time, can save you lots of money. Also, obviously, take advantage of any student and age discounts that may be in force. Choosing the right rail pass may shave some costs as well (though, I wish I would have found out about this before I bought the pass.)

4. Facilities

Long distance trains often have restaurant or cafe cars. Medium distance trains may rely on a cart that would carry sandwiches, snacks, drinks and coffee. Regional trains often carry no food or beverages at all. It is best bet is to check out the stores in most train stations -- you can often get a great variety of interesting food to take on the train and it'll probably be cheaper. Or travel like me and pack your own lunch. I often stop at a bakery and buy some bread as well as packing some fruits and vegtables to munch on. I sometimes find that I will splurge on something to drink, but I really cut down on costs by packing my own food.

5. Finding Your Car if you have a Reservation

Somewhere on each track (in larger stations), or sometimes on the wall of the station is a "Composition of Trains" board that shows where each numbered car will be as the train pulls in I think I showed a picture of this from my last trip to Paris, but I'll make sure to take more pictures while on my travels. If you're late you can jump onto any car really and just make your way through the train by their internal doors.

6. What if I Don't have a Reservation?

Then just sit anywhere. But be aware that if you don't want to be bumped from your seat, check the outside of your compartment for slips of paper that indicate if someone else has reserved that seat down the line. On newer trains the reservation info is on an LCD screen above the seats. (All the ones I have been on so far have had the LCD info.)

7. Trains to Airports

Many cities now have airport service by train. Most go to the heart of the city (to the central train station) where you'll usually find hotels, hostels, food, and drinks. This means that you can also get to the airport from many cities; you don't have to return to the city the airport is in on your last day in Europe as long as the train into that city stops at the airport.

8. Am I Valid?

Many countries have you validate your ticket before you get on the train. This prevents multiple use of the ticket, especially if the ticket is regional and valid for 90 days. Validation machines are usually a yellow-orange color and your ticket will have an arrow telling you which end to validate.

9. So What's Cheap?

In general, trains in the southern part of Europe are cheaper than trains in the north. Slower trains are also cheaper than those slick, fast, new ones. Also, ask about special passes that might be available in the country in which you're traveling such as the German Rail Pass or Swiss Pass, good specifically for travel in that country.

10. Save Money (or at least touring time) on Overnight Trains

Consider taking longer trips on an overnight train. You can often buy a couchette or bunk on a train from the conductor (check when you purchase your ticket). You'll save a hotel and a day of travel. But keep in mind that this can get quite expensive! It's also an option to take an overnight train and sleep in your seat, it's not an issue, really.

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