Difference between revisions of "Rail travel in Europe"
Revision as of 14:28, 10 March 2008
This article is a travel topic
Trains are a convenient mode of short, medium and long distance travel across Europe. Western and central Europe has a dense and widely used railway network spanning the entire continent.
For short distances, European trains are fast, reliable and frequent. For longer distances they can be preferable to flying for several reasons. Trains have more spacious and comfortable interiors, may offer scenic routes, and do not require long waits at security like at airports. They usually run more frequently as well, and take their travellers to railway stations located in or very close to city centres, whereas airports, especially the ones that budget airliners fly into, can be up to 100 km away from the city centre, requiring expensive and time-consuming connecting services. Ultimately, many people may choose the train over the plane for the feeling of romantic travel they provide.
Trains are flexible in modern day society, the oppurtunities for destination travel in Europe are endless. Virtually any town larger than about 50,000 inhabitants has a railway station with frequent connections. The towns that aren't served by trains have good bus connections that are normally integrated with the railway system - railway stations normally also serve as hubs for local buses. Transfers are fast and convenient all over Europe; you rarely need to wait longer than 2 hours for a connecting service.
The quality, speed and price of train travel depends on the country, Western European countries generally offering higher speed and more luxurious trains at higher prices than Eastern European countries. When bought on the spot, trains tickets can be more expensive than cheap flights over the same distance, but this difference may disappear when the tickets are booked in advance. Not to forget the costs to get to the airport. Train travel is getting faster every year through the construction of new high speed lines which travel up to 300km/h (190 mph), and upgrading of conventional lines to 200 km/h (125 mph). Especially Germany, France, Belgium and Italy have extensive high-speed networks.
The one problem with rail travel is security. Railway passengers need to be alert about pickpocketing and luggage theft, especially on crowded commuter trains. Since baggage isn't screened, there is also the remote danger of terrorism, though the rarity of such attacks in Europe should not cause worries to the occasional traveller. Another problem with rail is overcrowding. Increasing numbers of commuters in Europe are switching to rail travel to escape congestion on the roads, and it is often impossible to find a seat at rush hours. Overcrowding is especially common in urban agglomerations such as South-East England, Benelux, The Ruhr region, and the Po Valley.
All trains have coach seating or often labeled as 2nd class in the local language. Most long distance trains travelling from one large city to another large city will have first class seating too. In some countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, trains have so-called "silent" compartments, where you're not allowed to make noise or use mobile phones.
Planning your trip
Most countries have timetables and travel planners available on the sites of their national railways. The website of the German national railways () has a very convenient route planner  that covers the entire European railway network (and beyond), as well as bus, metro, and ferry connections in Germany. Price information is available for train rides which go through Germany only, however: for that information you still need the national websites. Locally, look for the departure timetables posted in the station. Staff at the ticket counter may be able to help you out with planning your trip.
When planning your trip, Mappy () is a good online tool for discovering if your hotel is near the train station. Mappy always indicates the location of the station with an engine icon. On other maps the station may be hard to find.
Tickets and Passes
The cost of rail travel varies greatly by country. Eastern European countries tend to offer very cheap travel. Italy is comparatively cheap as well. The most expensive country is the United Kingdom.
If you can, try booking in advance rather than walking up to the ticket desk on the day of travel. Train fares booked in advance are usually competitive with airlines fare, or cheaper. E.g., return tickets from Edinburgh to London are just 25 pounds if booked in advance, a 75% discount on the walk-up fare of 94 pounds. German return tickets are 25% cheaper if booked 3 days in advance, 50% if you stay on your destination over a Saturday night, and up to 5 fellow travellers get another 50% off on top of the advance ticket fare. Three people travelling Cologne-Munich and back could thus pay 224 rather than 672 euro for their entire trip.
Advance booking can be done from home if you want to, through the websites of the national railway companies. For international tickets use the railway website of either country you are travelling through. Compare the fares, as they may differ. Tickets can sometimes be printed at home, they may be mailed to you or made available for collection at a railway station. You will usually be offered the option to reserve seats or sleepers; seats may be free or cost 2 euro; sleepers are usually 20 euro. Reserved seats are recommended especially on long trips.
To save money on a multiple destination trip you may want to look into purchasing Inter Rail passes (for Europeans only), BritRail Passes or Eurail passes (for non-EU citizens/residents). Rail passes work just like tickets. After validating the pass, the pass holder is free to board any train that does not require reservations and is within the area/countries specified on the pass. Aside from the small reservation fee, the pass holder can get free transit on most trains that require reservations. Note that with these passes, you may still need to reserve seats or sleepers on some trains; on international and high-speed trains, reservations are often obligatory. In eastern European countries Interrail tends to be bad value for money as the local cost of point-to-point tickets is very low.
Ticketing in most of Europe is based on a trust system: You simply buy the ticket on the station or online and hop on the train. Once you're on a train, a conductor will come around to check your tickets. Getting on a train without a valid ticket could land you with a fine, but purchasing a ticket on the train is often possible at a higher price. The UK is an exception to this system, where tickets are often required to get on and off the platforms. In some countries you yet need to date stamp your train ticket before boarding. Otherwise, the ticket is not valid and you will be fined (eg. a 108€ fine in France).
For decades, basic international rail fares have been subject to the TCV (Tarif Commun pour Voyageurs - Common Fare for Passengers) which provided a common basis for calculating fares (normally based on distance) and conditions of carriage (how much luggage you can carry, what you're entitled to if your train is delayed or cancelled, etc). In recent years more and more trains have been introduced whose fares are not TCV-based e.g. Thalys, CNL, Cisalpino, many of which are "global priced" - you pay the same fare regardless of how far you travel on the train. Global-priced trains are often problematic when you try to use a pass like Eurail or Interrail on them, as they may require you to pay a "passholder" fare to get one of a limited number of seats made available for pass holders.
On weekends in Germany get the Schönes Wochenende ticket, which is valid for unlimited travel on all regional (RegionalBahn and RegionalExpress) trains across the country, local public transport in most cities and even a few international trains. The ticket costs just 35 euros and is valid for groups up to five people. It's a bargain, especially if you can get a group of people together. During weekdays there are similar tickets available, which offer the same unlimited travel but are limited to one Bundesland.
In France, you can make use of iDTGV  offers, which allow travel on selected high speed routes for as little as €19 one-way if booked in advance. France offers a 12-25 youth card for 50€, which gives a 50% discount on off-peak trains (25% for peak trains), valid for one year.
If you stay a long time in the Netherlands it might be interesting to get yourself a 40% discount card for 55 euros. It is valid for 1 year and it allows 3 other passengers travelling with you to benefit from the same discount.
In the UK, Supersaver tickets are a cheap way of travelling if you can get hold of them. They are however sold in very limited numbers and often sell out months in advance. The advisability of booking long-distance travel in advance in the UK cannot be over-emphasised: advance-purchase fares are available at many different rates in different quantities on particular trains - the cheapest fare may be only 10% of the full unrestricted walk-up fare, and in many cases return (round-trip) tickets may cost only £1 more than a one-way ticket. It is also possible to buy a 'young persons', 'family', 'senior' and 'disabled persons' railcards, which entitle the holder(s) to a 33% discount. These are available from train stations for £20.00 and are valid for one year.
If you have a national discount card, like for example the Bahn card  or a Voordeeluren card you can buy an additional RailPlus-pass which which you will receive 25% discount on all border crossing train travels in: Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Great Britain, Italy, Croatia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Ukraine and Hungary.
In Belgium, you can buy just a railplus card for €20 or (€45 >26) .
Nb. In France, Ireland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain and Norway the railplus scheme is only for < 26.
When travelling, you need to watch your luggage and stay alert. This is true when you're on a train as well. Theft can be comparatively common on metros or trains with a lot of stops in short succession, since this will allow a thief to get off the train quickly. Trains that cover longer distances are usually safer; on high speed trains passengers routinely take laptops on their journeys. Late in the evening and on nights in the weekends, travel in well lit areas of the train and if possible in the same car as the conductor.
Always, report suspicious characters to the conductor and move to a more populated and lit area.
Passenger rail companies