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10 Tips Worth Knowing About European Train Travel

Taking away much of the confusion around rail travel in Europe, these tips will help you have great journeys by train

If you're confused by any aspect of European train travel and what we're talking about below our unique frequently answered question guide should tell you what you need to know.

1 - IDENTIFYING AND UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF TRAIN

This is a concept that travellers from outside continental Europe can find difficult to grasp, but virtually all long distance trains on mainland Europe are placed in specific categories.

Within these categories/types of train the trains share:

  • ticket prices
  • whether discounted advance tickets are available
  • conditions (rules) for rail pass users
  • whether seats have to be reserved
  • whether non-compulsory reservations are available
  • if they travel on high speed lines for all/part of the journey
  • tilt when travelling around curves in the track
  • catering and other facilities such as air conditioning.

Having an idea of which types of train operate between two destinations can make a huge difference when planning a journey by European train.
When more than one type of train is available it is likely that one will be faster/more expensive than the other.

The trains within a specific type/category may not look the same.
Meaning that there can be differences in the type of seats, for example not all the trains may/may not have seats in compartments with doors to a corridor etc.
However, we’ve simplified some of the categories on ThereByTrain.com to make it easier to assess the options when travelling by train.

Many overnight trains, particularly in western Europe also have a specific category, which defines all the overnight trains that operate on each route.

2 - RESERVATIONS ARE COMPULSORY FOR SLEEPING CABINS, COUCHETTES AND RECLINING SEATS ON OVERNIGHT TRAINS

When booking any point to point journey ticket for an overnight train the reservation will be included in both the ticket and the price.

Rail pass users need to make these reservations and pay the costs of doing so. A rail pass does not entitle its holder to travel in any sort of flat bed or special reclining seat on overnight train at no additional cost.

Try to avoid booking any overnight train travel until the last minute/day of departure, many European overnight trains can sell out completely days in advance, hence the need for reservations.

Never think, ‘I’ll skip that reservation, they’re not likely to kick me off the train in the middle of the night are they?’, the answer is ‘yes’.

3 - RESERVATIONS ARE COMPULSORY ON VIRTUALLY ALL HIGH SPEED TRAINS IN EUROPE

You cannot board the following high speed trains without having made a seat reservation:

  • Alleo AEO trains between Paris and Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich and between Lyon/Marseilles and Frankfurt

  • AV 'Frecciarosa' and 'Frecciagento' trains in Italy between Rome and Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, Turin, Venice and Verona

  • Eurostar EST trains between Britain and Brussels, Lille and Paris.

  • Lyria TGVL trains between Paris and Switzerland

  • Spanish high speed trains including Alvia (ALV), AVE and Avant (AVA) trains.

  • TGV trains within France , TGVFI trains between Paris and Italy, and TGVR trains between Brussels and France

  • Thalys THA trains between Paris - Brussels – The Netherlands/Cologne
  • ELP trains between France and Spain

The major exception to the above list is ICE trains within and to/from Germany (Alleo trains excepted)

When buying point to point tickets for travel by these trains the reservation fee is included in the ticket price.

This reservation fee is often referred to as a supplement, in other words a premium fare for the savings in journey time.

Rail pass users have to pay this reservation fee as a supplement in advance of boarding the train.
Our at a glance supplements guide has supplement prices and our suggestions for talking alternative trains if you do not want to pay these supplements.

Between certain destinations there can be alternative slower trains that don’t use the high speed lines and these trains have lower ticket prices (fares).

For travel by Eurostar trains, rail pass users have to purchase separate tickets.

4 - HOW TO OBTAIN CHEAPEST (DISCOUNTED) TICKETS

When travelling between two destinations in Europe heavily discounted advance tickets are often available which can make for great travel bargains.

Such tickets are generally made available for 90 days ahead of the travel date, (Eurostar tickets are available 120 days ahead).

The most heavily discounted tickets are usually extremely limited in number, so sell out quickly but is possible to travel from London to Berlin for only €59 or between Rome and Venice for only €9!

However, discounted tickets are virtually always sold with stringent terms and conditions, the cheaper the ticket the more likely that will be ONLY be valid on a SPECIFIC TRAIN departure and no other.

If you have a heavily discounted train specific ticket and can't subsequently take that train because you missed a connection, or because you’ve had to change your travel plans, you’re unlikely to be able to claim a refund and will have to pay again for a separate ticket, likely to be only available at a much higher price.

However, IF these most heavily discounted tickets are still available when you’re considering purchasing a rail pass, it is much less likely that a rail pass will save you money (though  a rail pass will of course save you the inconvenience of having to track down and purchase the discounted tickets.

5 - TAKING INTERNATIONAL TRAINS

We’ve produced a uniquely in depth guide to European international trains because such a small percentage of European trains actually cross borders.

Planning an pan-European rail based holiday can therefore be tricky, we once wasted an hour online trying to find times of a train from Amsterdam to Vienna and gradually concluded that there are no longer direct trains between these two cities.

Within the 'Trains From' and 'Trains To' guides in the International Section you will details of direct international trains between countries.

Taking one of these direct international trains is actually little different to taking a train that doesn't cross borders.
You can book tickets online relatively simply and the journey itself will be little different, you're unlikely to be asked for your passport (though have it to hand as spot checks can be carried out) and you won't be informed when you've crossed from one country to another.

What can cause complications is when you need to change trains, when making a journey such as Frankfurt to Milan during the day.
For such non-direct journeys you may have to purchase separate tickets for each train that you will be taking (it can be also be a cheaper option even when direct tickets are offered)
The relatively few exceptions to this multi ticket rule are the (1) 'Europa Spezial' tickets for travel between London and Germany when making connections in Brussels/Bruxelles; (2) when travelling between Britain and The Netherlands via Belgium and (3) tickets that can be booked on TGV Europe.com for trains between France and Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

You can remove as much stress as possible from planning a multi-country holiday by train by following one of ThereByTrain's itineraries to follow and a unique guide to the multiple options when travelling by train on Europe’s most popular rail routes

The multiple options and trying to work out which train travels where can be confusing (hence the interactive maps that we hope to launch in 2013)
So there’s a lot of information to absorb, but taking a few minutes to take in our advice should save you both time and money!

6 - SOME CITIES HAVE MORE THAN ONE MAJOR STATION

In certain European cities trains to/from specific other destinations can leave from different stations, other trains only call at certain stations and not others.

We once wasted more than an hour online trying to look up departure times from Prague/Praga to Vienna/Wien becuase we didn't realise that there were two stations in Prague used by long distance trains.

Hence our unique guide to the most potentially confusing destinations that have more than one station.

7 – THE LANGUAGE OF EUROPEAN TRAIN TRAVEL

The majority of the information given to train travellers in Europe is in the domestic language only.

Don’t be alarmed because major stations are much like airports meaning that signs pointing out key information such as ‘this way to the trains’ or ‘lists of departures’ is also translated into English.

However, more detailed and useful information, such as the notes as to which days of the week trains operate that are listed on printed departure sheets at station, is rarely translated, so allow more time at stations than you'll think you'll need.

The names of destinations will also be listed in domestic languages only.
Avoid scenarios in which you’re staring up at a departure board thinking ‘I can see the information for the 11:00 train to Koln, but I’m looking for the Cologne train?'.

Where this can matter most is when disruptions occur to the normal service, information announcements at both stations and on the train about train delays and other schedule changes are often in the native language only.
We’ve yet to experience a multi-trip rail journey across Europe without at least one train running very late or being cancelled (don’t let that stop you making your trip!)

Look out for information on departure boards that’s in a different colour to the other text or information that is flashing, it often indicates a delay or last minute cancellation.
If you see this listen out for announcements that are being broadcast in the station.
If you think that this information concerns the train you will be taking, ask a fellow traveller or station staff and try to find out what this information is telling you.

8 – MANY TRAINS ARE 2ND CLASS ONLY

You don’t have to travel by fast express trains to travel long distances in Europe, but the slower alternative trains are often 2nd class only – which is particularly relevant to holders of 1st class rail passes looking for alternatives to paying the more expensive supplements

Long distance 2nd class only trains are particularly common in France, Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe. They:

  • are comparatively slow calling at all or most stations between two destinations
  • have cheaper ticket prices than the alternative express trains
  • have seats that can’t be reserved
  • are often crowded, particularly in the summer months
  • may not have air-conditioning
  • won't have any catering facilities

But such trains also have less obvious advantages:

  • You can often travel long distances for less than €15 (journey mainly by these trains and a rail pass is much less likely to save you money)
  • the lack of reservations give you greater freedom
  • they often travel through scenic areas, which are often best appreciated from a slow train.
  • When travelling by the coast or rivers you have the freedom to choose to sit on the side of the train with the more spectacular views

For these reasons we often plan to take journeys by these trains in spring/autumn, when they’re less likely to be hot and crowded and the landscape is at its best.
Such journeys can be so much memorable than rushing by high speed trains that spend a high percentage of their journeys in tunnels, wedged between sound barriers or travelling across flat and frankly dull countryside.

9 – MAKING THE MOST OF THE SCENERY

Travelling through an amazing landscape is often the great advantage of travelling by train in Europe, in comparison to flying hence our comprehensive guide to the continent’s greatest journeys.

We can get a tad obsessed by taking the most scenic route possible between two destinations and we suspect we’re not the only ones?!?
Whenever possible our itineraries include the most scenic routes between two destinations.

However, as you will also see we’re also a tad obsessed with pointing out which side of the train you need to be sat in order to make the most of the landscape.
On many scenic routes you can see the coast, rivers, mountains from one side of the train, while from the other you will see nothing special and wonder why the journey has been singled out

For this reason try to avoid travelling by trains on which you have to reserve seats on scenic routes.

10 – CHANGES TO TRAIN TIMES

The majority of countries have an annual major change to their railway timetables in early December (Great Britain is an exception).
Many countries including France, Italy and Spain, also make minor alterations to their respective timetables at the beginning of June, but these summer changes usually involve the addition of extra trains that will operate in the summer months.

The December timetable is more important because it is the one day of the year on which major revisions are made to international train services.
New services will be introduced on this date, but others will be withdrawn completely - the 2013 timetable change will be introduced on 

Yet more tips and helpful information

Our Top 10 Tips for taking the stress out of travelling by train in Europe

Considering a multi-journey holiday by train whether you want to be spontaneous or need to know exactly where you will be when.

Yet more tips and useful information will tell you more about, train catering, overnight trains and tips that will enhance your journeys by train

Tips for InterRail pass users Worth reading before setting out on an InterRail holiday.

Tips for Eurail pass users Worth reading before setting out on a Eurail holiday.