The rise of budget airlines has made it cheaper and easier than ever to fly across Europe, but as the world gets greener more of us are re-discovering the joys of the railway. As well as reducing your carbon footprint, train travel often offers a more direct route to the heart of the city – and you’ll usually get to enjoy some spectacular scenery along the way too. In Sweden, they even have a word for it – tagskryt – which essentially means ‘train bragging’ or ‘flight shaming’. If you’re looking to become part of the tagskryt crew with a cleaner and greener journey across Europe, take a look at our handy checklist on how to travel Europe by train before you take off.
How to travel Europe by train
1. Investigate your pass options
Companies like Eurail have made it easier than ever to tick off multiple destinations across the continent cheaply and efficiently. A railpass is best if you plan on clocking up a lot of mileage and want to keep your travel options as flexible as possible. You’ll usually have a few different pass options, either for one destination or the whole of Europe, with a certain number of ‘unlimited’ travel days. It’s a great option if you’ve got a vague outline of a trip but would prefer to decide how long to spend in each city when you’re there. If you’re under 26 you’ll get a good deal too.
However, if you know exactly where and when you want to travel it’s worth looking into point-to-point tickets too. Some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, offer very cheap advanced train fares.
2. Use a rail planning app
Train travel may have existed for centuries but, like the rest of life, things have improved with technology too. Using a rail planning app or website can help you find the fastest and cheapest routes between cities. If you’re travelling around one country, you’ll usually be able to use a single provider, such as TrenItalia for Italy. If you’re travelling to multiple countries and cities, try a railway planning app like RailEurope or Omio.
3. Make the most of sleeper services
If you’re planning on travelling long distances, consider taking a sleeper service for part of the journey. You’ll get to make the most of your valuable sightseeing time and save on accommodation too.
Just be aware that sleeper trains come in all shapes and sizes, varying from ultra-luxurious services such as the Venice Simplon Orient Express to a narrow upright chair in a rowdy compartment.
From late 2021, Europe will be getting a handful of new brilliant sleeper train routes too, five of them run by Nightjet led by Austria’s ÖBB. The first new route is planned for December 2021, linking Vienna, Munich and Paris. The Eurostar is also planned to link up Paris and Amsterdam. By December 2022, you should be able to take a sleeper train between Berlin, Paris and Brussels too.
4. Faster isn’t always better
If you’re short on time, you might want to hightail it between Europe’s blockbuster cities. There is a range of brilliant high-speed networks, such as Germany’s ICE, France’s TGV and Spain’s Renfe. In Italy, you can travel the length of the country in less than six hours.
But if you do have the time, some of Europe’s slower journeys offer spectacular scenery. The Flåm Railway from Bergen is a slow seven hours but offers incredible vistas of fjords, mountains and lakes that are hard to find even on the best hikes. Not many people take the rattling train between Limerick Junction and Waterford, but it’s one of the world’s most beautiful rural railway routes, cutting across castles, old-world villages and water meadows.
5. Reserve your seat
You can hop on and off a lot of trains in Europe, but some of the high speed, long-distance routes requires a seat reservation. Don’t get caught out before you jump aboard as it could result in a hefty fine. Even if you don’t need to reserve a seat to travel, it’s worth doing so on some of the busier routes, particularly aboard commuter trains. No one wants to spend five hours cross-legged in the bike rack.
6. Stay safe
Train travel is no more dangerous than any other form of travel, but it can be easy to forget that when you’re snuggled up inside a sleeper carriage. Stay vigilant at train stations, stow away any valuables and keep an eye on your bags. If you’re travelling overnight, you might want to secure your luggage with a basic bike lock too.
It’s worth researching your route ahead of travelling too. People will often post about high-frequency thefts or specific trains and routes worth avoiding if you’re travelling alone.
7. Travel light
Unlike planes which often come with strict luggage allowances, trains often offer generous or unlimited bags onboard. That said, overhead storage is reserved only for small bags and there are usually only a couple of larger luggage racks at either end of the carriage, which tend to fill up fast. Save yourself the hassle and only travel with what you need. It makes it easier to nip on and off trains too.
On the whole, Europeans tend to travel lighter than Americans. Standard bag sizes are smaller and most people will travel with an overarm holder or a small wheelie case.