After a couple of brief train trips, at speed, in Italy and France, I thought we’d lost our minds deciding to (mostly) train it around Switzerland, Portugal and Spain for 10 weeks.
But after an ‘initiation of fire’ in Tokyo’s efficient maze of subways and metro lines, we were well-prepared for our train adventures in Europe. And now we are huge fans…
Here’s five great reasons to take the train – and five tips on doing it stress-free. All aboard!
Reasons to ride
On past Europe adventures, we’ve always hired a car and hit the road. Taking a train around Europe just seemed like too much trouble. Who wants to be tied to train schedules and stuck with booking seats, dragging baggage off and on trains – and up and down stairs?
In fact, it’s super convenient and relaxing. This was confirmed for us when we hired a car to drive from Oporto to Estoril – when the hire car people didn’t set up our GPS to recognise the streets of Portugal (read how to fix that problem here). Give me the train anytime…
The best thing about train travel is you can both sit back and enjoy the ride. There’s always a restaurant car if you’re peckish, and the toilets are usually clean (especially on Swiss trains).
There’s no traffic, tolls or fuel stops and you arrive at your destination ready for the next adventure.
It seems expensive to go by train, especially because you pay for your ticket, then you can pay up to €25 (for domestic travel) to reserve your seat for each trip.
But compared to the cost of hiring a car, insurance, fuel, tolls and a GPS – and finding your way around when the GPS has a hissy fit or the fuse blows – then train travel is a pretty good deal.
We had the ‘select pass’ which lets you travel in 2-4 bordering countries of your choice, for a specific number of ‘travel days’. Read all about it here.
It makes you travel light
Knowing you have to be mobile and flexible is a great incentive for lightening your load. So you pack what you’d like to take, and then you take half of it out. There is nothing better than streamlining your stuff (this from me, your classic over-packer) and feeling an incredible lightness of being.
It gets you out of your comfort zone
At first, train travel can be daunting. You’re in unfamiliar territory, you don’t speak the language and, when you arrive at your destination, you have to find your hotel. It helps to have a decent street map (see tips below) and to leave the station at the right exit!
But after you’ve been doing it a few times, you really get into the swing of it – and even enjoy the process.
Tips to keep you on track
Book your seats
Ignorance may be bliss, but not when you jump on the train, find a great seat – and discover it belongs to someone else. You end up standing uncomfortably near the doors, wondering what to do next…
While the guards were friendly and helpful to us two crazy Aussies, we made sure to reserve seats for our next trip each time we arrived at a destination. You can reserve your Eurail seats up to three months in advance, which is my ‘note to self’ for next time!
Fill in your travel document
Before the train leaves the station, always complete the travel details on your Euro-pass, with your name, passport number and (most importantly) the date you’re travelling.
Yes, the guards will check it… carefully. No, never change a date or the information. We saw someone caught out and it wasn’t pretty. It would be hard to swift talk these guards (who have heard it all) when you speak the language, let alone when you don’t. As the hapless couple found to their peril (and a dent in their travel funds).
The biggest thing I noticed on our train travels was the ridiculous amount of luggage people had with them. I swear some of them were moving house.
The size and weight of their bags made every entry and exit a drama – and I was so glad we travelled light.
It meant we were flexible and mobile – and our backs didn’t cave in with all the lifting.
It’s surprising how little you need – especially in Europe where the women have turned flats and loafers into high fashion.
If you want to spot the touristes femmes, look for women hobbling across the cobblestones in killer heels, while the locals are striding out in their stylish flats looking supremely elegant.
Know where you’re going
After peering at the black & white maps our travel agent printed off for us, we decided there are two types of maps you’ll need:
- The train line maps, available at any station, so you know the route and the stops – even though it’s announced on the train, it’s good to keep track so you’re not scrambling to get off at the last minute
- Colour maps showing your hotel and the station, so you know where you’re going when you get off the train – and the exit to take. Sometimes you’ll take a taxi, but if your hotel is easy walking distance, it’s great to hit the ground and get your bearings (as long as you’re travelling light!).
Get there early
We only got caught out once in Portugal, when we weren’t prepared for a huge line-up to get onto the train. We missed it and had to wait almost two hours for the next train. Cheap lesson – and we weren’t caught out again. It’s not unusual to see people rushing to their carriage, dragging massive bags, but that’s more like hell than a holiday!
There will always be train-travel skeptics, but we absolutely loved the whole adventure. So don’t be put off – but do travel light and be prepared. Then sit back and enjoy the ride…