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European Train Travel: Fast and Fun

By Rick Steves Modified: April 25, 2013 at 9:46 am •  Published: April 25, 2013
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Great European train stations stir my wanderlust. In Munich, about to catch a train, I stand under the station’s towering steel and glass rooftop and study the big schedule board. It lists a dozen departures. Every few minutes, the letters and numbers on each line change as, one by one, cities and departure times work their way to the top and then disappear. I’m surrounded by Europeans on the move--businessmen in tight neckties, giddy teenagers, families, porters pushing handcarts.

      For many tourists, the pleasure of journeying along Europe's well-organized rail system really is as good as the destination. Train travel isn’t as flexible as driving, but it’s less stressful. I’d rather watch the landscape instead of fixing my eyes on the road. On a train, I can forget about parking hassles, confusing road signs, bathroom stops, or Italian drivers.

     A train traveler’s biggest pre-trip decision is whether to get a railpass, point-to-point tickets, or a mix of both. It pays to do the math by adding up the approximate ticket costs for your itinerary. European rail fares are based primarily on distance traveled, so if you’ll be on the train for just short trips, point-to-point tickets are usually a better match.

     The more miles you’ll cover on the train, however, the more likely it is that a railpass makes sense. The Eurailpass is the most common multi-country pass, and many countries sell railpasses good for use in their country only. Most railpasses give you a certain number of train travel days to use within a longer “window” of time (for example, any ten days within a two-month period). You can sprinkle these travel days throughout your trip (ideally to cover long rides), and pay out of pocket for short trips.

Online schedule sites can help with planning. Each country’s national rail company has its own website, but the site operated by Deutsche Bahn, the German rail company, has schedules for virtually all of Europe and can be the best place to start (www.bahn.com).

Riding the rails is much the same all over Europe. Ticket windows handle your ticket and reservation needs; or you can usually buy a ticket at a travel agency to spare yourself the long lines. Be sure, when necessary, that your ticket or railpass is validated before boarding. Many express trains require an advance reservation; it’s smart to ask.

Wondering whether to splurge for first class? Nearly every train has both first- and second-class cars--each going at precisely the same speed. First class is cushier, generally with three seats across and fewer passengers. Second class comes with four seats across and more people. But today’s trains are so comfortable that the new second class feels as slick as the old first class--at a third to half the cost. I don’t bother to pay the premium for first class except during very busy times, such as holiday weekends.

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