Traveling by Train in Europe

by Gray Cargill on October 21, 2010

When I thought I might be traveling to more than one European country this fall, I found myself struggling to figure out whether to get from place to place by inexpensive regional air carrier, train, or bus. There were so many factors to consider–price, comfort, and speed, among others.  Sadly, for me, the decision was rendered moot when I realized I could only afford to go to one city this year.  But, should you find yourself struggling with the same decision for your European travels, today’s guest blogger, Linda Martin of the Indie Travel Podcast, has some advice.

trains

Traveling by train is a great way to get around Europe if you’re traveling solo. You’ll see more, have more flexibility, and it’s a great place to meet people if you’re so inclined.

These days, air travel is gaining more and more momentum, especially because budget airlines are flying more routes for ever-smaller prices. Suddenly destinations you’d never heard of are becoming popular because it’s easy to get to them. But flying from one destination to another means you miss a lot of the journey – you don’t get to see the country you’re traveling through, and tasting the street food is completely off the cards.

Sadly, traveling by train is no longer the cheapest way to get around, though it can be cheaper than traveling by car or bus, and of course it’s usually more economical than a last-minute flight. If flexibility is what you’re after, train travel is a great option. And if you’re traveling solo, flexibility is all-important – who knows when you’ll fall in love with a place and want to stay, or suddenly have a great opportunity to go somewhere new and exciting?

You have two major options when it comes to buying tickets – you can buy point-to-point tickets or get a rail pass. Point-to-point tickets can be bought in advance, and are sometimes substantially cheaper if you do so, or you can buy them on the day for full price. A rail pass (Interrail if you’re from Europe, Eurail if you’re not) gives you a lot more flexibility – most of the passes available allow you to travel for a certain number of days within two months in a certain number of countries within Europe – the price goes up as you add more days or more countries. It’s most worth your while if you’re planning long journeys through the more expensive countries – Switzerland, Germany, and Scandinavia especially.

train tracks

I recently Eurailed through Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia and Spain, and I loved the freedom it afforded me. I could hop on most trains and jump off again when I felt like it, and could plan my schedule on the fly – I quite often decided to spend an extra day or two in a place that I liked, and I didn’t have to worry about altering pre-bought tickets.

I find train travel very relaxing as well – no stuffing around getting to the airport and going through the hassle of security every time. You just hop on the train (and if you miss it have a coffee while you wait for the next one in an hour or two) then sit back and enjoy the usually stunning scenery. I prefer traveling by train rather than by bus or car because although the roads in Europe are very good, they’re often separated from the countryside by sound barriers – large fences which effectively block the view. Plus, trains often have tables and power sockets so I can work if I want to. Usually though, I put on some music or a podcast and just enjoy the scenery.

I’ve also found trains to be much more social places than buses. Of course you can keep to yourself if you feel like it, but starting a chat with someone else in your compartment is often the natural thing to do. Maybe it’s because many trains have six-person compartments, with three seats on either side facing each other, which means that you’re looking at the other travelers – if you catch their eye, it’s easy to start a conversation. I’m still in contact with a girl I met on a train in Austria three years ago – I can’t say the same for anyone I met on a bus.

Train travel is the best way to see Europe – it’s flexible and you’ll see a lot more than you would from the window of a plane or bus. And it’s perfect for solo travelers – safe, comfortable, and often social.

Linda Martin can be found at the Indie Travel Podcast — check out their breakdown of Eurail Pass vs. buying point to point. She was also the editor of the Art of Solo Travel (See my review of it).

Photo credits:  Passing Trains by Jurvetson and Going Back Home by David Haberthur.

Anonymous April 6, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Buying point-to-point tickets on the day of travel. Without doubt, the Eurail pass would have saved us money a although on some days didn’t get our money’s worth.

Hotel Thirty-Thirty

Nomadic Matt October 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Training through Europe is one of my favorite things to do. Destinations are so close that there’s really no reason to fly. The train is much more scenic.

GRRRL TRAVELER October 26, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I’ve never purchased a Eurail pass before, but I hear it’s the way to go, especially if you can plug in! But train vs bus, I’m kinda torn. When I traveled Europe though, I took the bus often because I was traveling to smaller towns and villages where there’s no rail access. The bus makes local stops so it usually allows me to take in extra sights I might not ordinarily get via train & the local flavor on the bus can be interesting as well, depending on where you go. Buses are also cheaper.

But I do love trains for when I just want to shoot from point to point or get somewhere quickly. They can feel chic and the bullet trains in Europe definitely give you more of a spacious and posh feeling!

Anonymous October 26, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Good point! Not every town is accessible by train.

zablon mukuba October 23, 2010 at 6:16 am

i agree with you, travelling by train is one of the fun way to travel and see a country, the hill side views, the animals its awesom

Linda October 24, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Hi Zablon – it’s great, isn’t it? I love listening to podcasts and audiobooks while looking out the window – there’s always something to see.

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