Ah, train travel in Europe. The irresistible romance of the Orient-Express, dining cars, and seeing a continent through your window. While all of this still exists (even the O-E), train travel in the 21st century is very different from Agatha Christie’s day. I’ve compiled a few tips to help you navigate the often-complicated system, and have you traveling like Poirot in no time!

You may or may not be able to buy online.

While almost every country in the world has a website for their train service, you may or may not be able to actually purchase tickets online. Even if they take online payments, you may encounter problems trying to make a purchase using an American credit card. This may be because they only accept chip & pin cards (a European thing), they don’t register your foreign address, or just because the train gods are mean sometimes. In the last year I’ve experienced this with both Italian & UK trains, and I’m sure they’re not the only ones. I know some people like to have all their travel plans firmed up in advance, but sometimes it really is easiest to just buy the tickets at the station when you arrive. I usually do this a few days before I need to leave my current city (I’m still an American, ok? We like to plan ahead!)

Research your options.

Even if you can’t buy online, it’s still great for researching differences in classes, travel times and routes. The differences between classes may only be a free meal, but the differences between trains could be a few hours of travel time. The absolute best place to find the info you need is The Man in Seat 61. I always begin at this site when I’m planning train travel, mostly for it’s complete list of railway websites by country, but also for info on common problems, seat sizing, ticketing and more. Before you head to the station, figure out exactly what you want for your journey, and then…

Train Travel in Europe from Venice to Rome

Nick enjoying extra space on the fast train from Venice to Rome

Write it down in the local language.

Your mom may think your Italian is good, but unless you’ve been in the country for a while the cashier at the ticket window isn’t going to be able to understand you as you muddle through the local lingo. Take out your phrasebook (or use Google Translate) to find key phrases, but approach the counter armed with a piece of paper with the following info as a backup plan: Destination (including station name if possible), Date, Time, Class, and # of People traveling.

Vital information for purchasing a train ticket in Europe

iPhones may also be substituted for paper.

Know if you want a seat assignment.

Some fast inter-country trains will force seat assignments on you whether you want them or not, but it’s more likely that you’ll need to ask for them. When it’s just Nick & I traveling around, we can gamble on being able to find a spot. But if you’ve got multiple travel companions or would rather not risk having to perch in the hallway on a 3-hour journey, be sure to get a seat assignment in advance. This also takes some of the stress out of the journey. You know your seat will be there for you, and there’s no need to rush.

DON’T BUY A EURAIL PASS.

Unless you’re European. You guys get great rates with the InterRail Pass, and I’m incredibly jealous of you. Americans, just because your Dad’s friend got around Europe with a pass in the 90s doesn’t mean it’s still a deal. $925 for only 10 days? Unless you’re going from Croatia to Scandinavia and back a few times, it is NOT worth it. Not to mention all the restrictions they put on your tickets (I’ve seen girls with passes get kicked off a train because they didn’t know they had to pay extra for that particular service). I also recommend avoiding sites like RailEurope.com, which is geared toward non-Europeans and in my experience has a huge markup on otherwise reasonably-priced tickets. I can hear Rick Steves’ objections already, but unless you’re going with grandma and really need your tickets in-hand in advance, buy online or at the station.

If you’re on a budget, take the local train for a unique experience!

This may not be as fun as it sounds in Italy (or so I’ve heard) but I did this all across Romania and it was wonderful! I remember talking to another American couple at one station who paid $30 to get to the next town, when we paid $4. Ours took about an hour longer, but there’s no real need to go fast in a part of the country where horse-carts are still a primary method of transportation. Plus we interacted with more locals and saw far fewer tourists. It made us feel extra-validated that their fancy train was 2 hours late, so we ended up beating them there anyway :)

Sinaia Train Station in Romania

Sinaia Train Station in Romania

Confirm that you’re getting on the right train.

Yes, the board says Platform 3, but I wouldn’t bet my ticket on it. If your train is supposed to arrive at noon, and around that time a train pulls up to Platform 5, find a station attendant and ask if it’s yours. Even if you can’t speak the language, just point at the train and say the name of your destination in a questioning way (“Bucharest??”). A nod or shake of the head will make sure you’re on the right track. You can also just jump on a train and ask the passengers (who probably know better than you since they’re already sitting there). People are very friendly and will want to help you, so don’t be afraid to ask! This practice is necessary in smaller stations, but I’ve even found myself sprinting for trains in major cities when the platform was changed at the last minute. I recommend vigilance so you don’t find yourself with a sudden unplanned stopover.

Consider flying.

It may not have the romance of train travel, but the proliferation of budget airlines in the last 10 years has made air travel an extremely competitive option, particularly in Western Europe. A couple years ago I needed to go from Paris to London. The train was closing in on $200, but an easyJet flight was only $30. That’s a no-brainer. However, when you’re comparing prices don’t forget to add in the cost of getting to-and-from the airport. Train stations are generally near the city centre, but airports are often a pricey taxi ride away in the suburbs. Throw in the emotional toll of having to take off your shoes, pack your liquids in a Ziploc, and generally feel like cattle, and you may conclude that train travel is still the best way to experience Europe. Not to mention the beautiful views you get along the way!

Did I miss something fellow travelers? Think I’m crazy for not buying a pass? Have more questions? Let me know in the comments!

  • space17

    if you know long before going what your travel will be, at least in France, try to get your tickets as soon as possible. prices may vary from simple to 4 times between booking one or two months in advance and buying at present day.

    • Kit

      Great tip! I did not know that about France. I’ve also heard this can happen in the UK, but it doesn’t seem to in Italy. Maybe we should ask other travelers and come u with some sort of chart? :)

      So new tip: if you’re unsure, buy early! This also goes for budget airlines.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Carole Whelan

    I know in the UK you can buy up to 3 months early and there’s a huge price reduction. Costs escalate each week closer to your travel date, even if it’s only two weeks away you’ll get a bit of a break. However, buying from the USA with our American credit cards does indeed present a problem. You can try asking your bank for an American equivalent of a “chip & pin” card, but even so, I’ve heard of difficulties.
    – Traveling last summer we found the UK clerks behind the information & ticketing counters extremely helpful, friendly, and even creative. One gentleman reduced our costs by £15 ($23) each and was able to send us first class due to a strange but friendly computer program !!! We didn’t question it, just said “Thanks so much!”
    – Sounds like an excellent plan to start creating a chart comparing different countries, but sometimes you can get different answers at different times from the same system that confound common sense. Still…Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
    – Happy travels!

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