By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination and River Cruise Expert
Europe train travel is a great way to get around Europe. It is usually very efficient and fast, especially the high speed trains. It does require learning some skills to help make this form of travel easier. Here are our tips from 44+ years of using Europe trains.
- Before you arrive at the station put your train info on a small notecard or piece of paper. Listing the train number, car (coach) number, seat numbers, departure time and arrival time at the destination along with the correct station will make your train travel much easier. It is amazing how many times we look at this piece of paper. It also safeguards our train tickets—we are not fumbling around trying to get the right info.
- Make sure you are at the right Station. Many European cities have more than one station and if you are making connections, a wrong station can be a real hassle or cause a missed connection.
- Train Stations in Europe have a lot of things you might need for your trip. Many have information booths, food, drinks, restaurants, shopping, room-finding services, money changing stores, lockers to store your luggage, waiting rooms, and convenient bus, local light rail and subway connections. We almost always get a picnic type lunch or least a couple of beers or a bottle of wine. It often is better tasting and less expensive than the on board food. On high speed trains, sometimes meals are included. Here was one of our meals
With all the conveniences, also comes the occasional thief or beggar scam. Watch your valuables and luggage and keep your money in a money belt or zippered pocket.
- At the Station, find the departure board to get on the right track. Most station have a big flip board or electronic board that has 10 or so departure and arrivals. The boards are organized by departure and arrival times. Find your train number and time on the departure board then wait until they post the track number. Remember Europeans use the 24 hour clock—1300 is 1:00 PM. Also the city name will often not match your English names—Prague is Praha, for instance. It can be easy to get confused—there may be identical times and similar trains—make sure you have the right one. Long distance trains are easier—often there will be this big rush to the correct platform once the track number is posted.
- Know the configuration of your train prior to getting aboard if possible. Many stations have the exact composition of your train on a display board. These are on the platform where the train will arrive. Locating this diagram can make boarding much easier.
Each platform often has letters overhead to indicate where you should stand when the train arrives. If your coach is at the diagram for letter A for example, your coach should stop somewhere near that letter.
In addition, each track will usually have a sign showing the train arrival with a train number and other information so you can be pretty sure you are on the correct train platform. Trust the diagram and local conductor–they ride these trains every day. It is not uncommon for cars to be out of numbered sequence and just last year I ran after a train car while Anne waited at the right spot–she was right, of course!
- Tracks and Platforms can change. I missed a train to Berlin in 2008 once by sitting on the wrong platform—it had changed and I was too busy talking to my friend.
Luckily, there was another train one hour later. Even if you have scoped things out beforehand, if everyone suddenly starts running to another platform or track, just start asking—someone will tell you about the new track. With the recent refugee situation in Europe, some trains change platforms or have unannounced train changes. When we questioned a conductor just last year about a train change, he would only say you will make your connection, nothing more. When we arrived at the unscheduled change point, it was clear why—all had to go through a passport control check to board our new train. In the past at every border, the crew often changed and there was a passport check. There are more checks nowadays with the recent problems but overall the hassles are minimal.
- Trains only stop for 2 to 5 minutes at most stops. If you have not been able to locate your reserved coach just get on the train. Do not waste time getting on; clear the platform as quickly as possible. Even if you are totally confused, just get on the right train and then get to the proper car and seat.
- Try to limit the amount of luggage you carry if you are using a lot of trains in Europe.
We have seen people carry an amazing lot of stuff and have been guilty of this way too often ourselves. There are 2 problems here—many platforms require you to walk down steps, go under train tracks and back up lugging all your stuff. Often there is not a lift or escalator. Heavy bags can be a real problem. The second problem is putting your stuff away while on the train. Most trains have overhead racks that will hold 21 inch luggage but larger bags can be a problem. Sometimes there are luggage storage areas—sometimes not. Also there are folks in larger stations who will try to help you for a tip—you often think they are just helpful fellow travelers. We constantly count luggage and check even if it is in the luggage area of our car. When in doubt, we carry a small chain & lock to make sure our items are secure.
- Train seats are not for your luggage. We watched an American on a very crowded train take up several seats guarding their luggage and being very confrontational to others. Store you luggage properly—do not take someone’s seat on a crowded train. If you are obstructing a seat, be prepared to move your luggage if a new passenger arrives.
- Screaming at railroad employees is rude and wrong. We watched an American scream at a reservation person because the person did not speak English well. Finally a kind man who spoke English and French stepped in and helped resolve the problem. Screaming and rudeness just makes the situation worse. Our experience is that most railroad folks really try to help and resolve problems or get you a better train or seat or car. Be patient, use short, clear words, no slang, and trust the reservation representatives. When you enter the reservation and ticketing area, usually there is a number system, so get a ticket and wait your turn (now serving #). If there is a representative at the entrance area, ask what the system is and if you have a short time to make a connection, let them know. Always ask before standing in line. Sometimes at ticketing offices in the stations you may have to wait up to a half an hour to get your problem resolved—so many travel by train, even in large stations the back log can be significant. If you have a rail pass or first class ticket, sometimes you can skip the waiting lines and get served faster.
- Do not assume just because you got on the right train all the cars are going where you want to go. Sometimes a train will split apart at some stations and part of the train will head to a different place than you want to go. Always ask the conductor if you are in the right car, right seat and right section of the train—especially if you do not have a reserved seat.
- Even if you have a reserved seat, someone may be using it. Just politely show your ticket and try & work it out. Most often it is a family with young kids or some other good reason. Sometimes it is a second class ticketed person try to score a free upgrade or just an honest mistake—right seat, wrong car. Keep your cool and if it is a real problem, let the conductor work it out.
- Most announcements on the train are in English following another European language first, especially on long distance trains. We have learned to know about how long the trip is and get up early (about 10-15 minutes or so) so we can get off quickly, especially if we have 25 inch suitcases. If the trip announcements seem to get a gasp or two from other riders, you can probably guess the train has been delayed. Just ask—most folks who ride the trains speak a little English or are willing to help. Also you often will not which side to exit the train, or in some smaller stations, especially in England, you may have to walk forward to others cars to disembark if the train is longer than the platform.
- Train Strikes do happen. We were in Brugge once ready to leave on a Monday and we found out while enjoying a small breakfast that all local trains in Belgium were on scheduled strikes on Mondays thru the month of December in protest of wages. All the locals knew, but we sure did not. We wound up splitting a cab to Brussels with another couple—an extra 80 Euros in cash we had not planned for. Our lesson learned—ask the hotel at check in if there are any problems for departure transportation.
- Overnight trains. We have had some really good results and some horrible experiences. First rule for us—get a private compartment. In 1990, during the world cup, we wound up in a sleeper for 4 with 2 guys from Argentina. We were all worried, but since I spoke Spanish, we worked it out. It was so hot and if you opened the windows, a passing train would shatter any possibility of sleep. We wound up the next day with heat rashes and were so exhausted, we just slept most of the next day. On a recent trip in 2014 from Grenada to Barcelona in a 2 person compartment, it was very good—we got some sleep and a good meal. And another good trip was from Amsterdam to Munich last year that saved us a cost of a hotel room—we arrived rested and ready to explore Munich after dropping our luggage of at our hotel. Our advice –spend a little more and arrive rested, so you can save a hotel room cost yet not be so tired the benefit of the overnight ride is not wasted.
We love train travel. Even though it is limited, it allows you to see something and not just fly over a country. Europe is so small, you can realistically cover many areas in less than a 6 hour ride. We always use a train on some portion of our trip. We hope you will use these tips to make your train travel a better experience so you can
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