My favorite way to travel is by train. I love seeing the way the landscape changes from rural to city. I love the long journeys that give me time to reflect and relax. Oh, and I love that I don’t have to deal with airport security or turbulence! I have traveled by train all over Europe and Japan and I wish the United States would get on board with making our inner rail system better. If you are planning a trip to Europe I would strongly suggest you do it by train. Below I share some tips for first time Eurailers.
Buy your pass. There are many websites that offer rail passes for Europe. I used Eurail. I chose this pass because their website is very user friendly and they also have an awesome app that shows train times offline. Before buying, you need to decide how much traveling you will do. Will you be traveling for a month? Do you want to go to 4 countries or 10? You don’t need to plan out your route, but it’s a good idea to have a sense of where you want to go, and for how long, before deciding which pass to buy.
Figure out how the pass works. When you purchase the pass you are given access to almost all train rides in Europe. This means you can jump on a train, show your pass and your passport, and you are set. Now I said almost all train routes. There are certain routes the pass will not cover. Some trains also require a seat reservation (see below on how to do this). Eurail has an online trip planner and app that shows which trains require reservations and which ones do not. For faster trains (that also tend to be more fancy) there may also be a small fee that you can pay once onboard the train, usually ranging from 5-20 euro.
When to go. Traveling from September – April will give you a lot more flexibility and allow you to be much more spontaneous with your travel rather than going during the peak tourist season. Plus not all trains are air-conditioned and traveling by train in the middle of summer when carrying a heavy backpack can be very unpleasant.
Plan your route. It’s a good idea to plan at least the first three days of your trip out. Decide where you want to go, what trains you will take, and reserve places to stay. Beyond that I highly suggest being spontaneous and seeing how you feel. This is one huge advantage of traveling by train; if you suddenly get the urge to go somewhere you can do it! I encourage speaking with locals and asking where they recommend you head to next. Stop in cities that you wouldn’t otherwise consider going to. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised.
Make a seat reservation. Seat reservations are required on some trains. To make one go to the train company’s website. During checkout select “traveling with a Eurail pass” option (this will be different on each website) and you will be charged a small fee. Not all trains require reservations, but if you know you are taking a certain train, and it’s at a peak travel time, I would highly suggest making a reservation. This will guarantee that you and your travel buddies sit together and you can even get first dibs on those awesome train cabins that allow you to shut the doors, fold down the seats, and sleep.
Overnight trains. If you are feeling adventurous and looking for a way to save money I suggest taking an overnight train. Not only will you get a cheap place to sleep you will arrive at your next destination with the full day ahead of you. A word of caution: not all trains offer private cabins so you make sleep next to a stranger. I would also not recommend taking the night train in areas where it doesn’t seem safe to do so. Use your common sense! Thefts on the night train do happen.
Pack. Get a good large backpack that is comfortable to wear. When packing bring items that go together and can be mixed and matched for lots of outfit combinations. Also bring less than you think you need. Chances are you will want to go shopping for some clothing and souvenirs and you want to make sure you have enough room in your bag to bring it all home. Every little ounce of weight counts so also make sure to buy travel size containers and fill them with all your hair and beauty products so that you don’t have to bring so many large, heavy containers.
Have fun. Chances are you will miss a train or will get off at the wrong stop. Rather than be upset take that chance to explore an area you wouldn’t normally go to. After all you are on vacation!