[Update: Our article previously included the Eurail Select Pass under the types of Eurail passes available. A reader has helpfully pointed out that as of 2019, the Select Passes have been discontinued. We have amended our article to reflect this and have provided more details below, so do read on! 😊]
Ever fancied glancing out a comfy train compartment and seeing Swiss snowy mountains or quaint villages in the French countryside? The train is a quintessential way to travel across Europe and is a must-try!
It’s can be a romantic experience 😍 But what’s not so romantic is missing your train. Or misplacing your bags. Or ending up in Munich when you were supposed to go to Zurich. But fret not, with this first timer’s guide you will be able to understand the European rail systems and see that they are actually a breeze to use!
1. To get a rail pass or not?
If you are thinking of exploring a fair chunk of the continent, it could be wiser to invest in a Eurail Pass! There are different types of Eurail Passes available for different needs based on class, length of your adventure and countries covered.
There are two broad categories:
- One Country Pass (only in a single country) priced from €51
- Global Pass (for covering more than one country) priced from €168 (for 3 days) all the way up to €689 (for 3 months)
[Update: Please note that the Select Pass, which was previously offered as a pass to use to explore up to 4 bordering countries has been discontinued starting in 2019, and only the Global Pass and One Country Pass are available on Eurail’s website. But don’t worry, this has largely been offset by reductions in price for the Global Pass (previously priced between€434 – €1794), with Global Passes also now available for shorter validity periods 😉].
Credit: May Dimalanta on Facebook
On top of that, your Eurail Pass has heaps of benefits – in some cases, it can also offer discounted fares on cable cars, hotels and ferry routes. Some may even be free; just check the benefits carefully before you reach the intended destination. Not too shabby eh?
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Apart from these two passes, if you’re looking to maximise your exploration of one particular country, you could potentially save even more with a One Country Pass! Pick one out of 27 countries that have this pass such as the France Eurail Pass (€127) or the Italy Rail Pass (€105). The pass gives you access to regional and high-speed trains within the respective countries to let you get around its cities easily.
If you choose not to get any Eurail passes but rather single journey tickets instead, you can simply buy them from automated ticket machines or ticket service counters available in whichever country you’re exploring.
2. Buying European Train Tickets
Where to buy: Single Journey Tickets
Europe’s rail network is very vast, so it’s definitely possible to travel to the countryside and other towns by trains! You can buy tickets at any train stations from the service counters or the automated ticket machines. You can also buy them directly from the country’s national rail website, or through third-party booking sites such as Loco2, Trainline, GoEuro, and Rail Europe. At times you may be able to score better deals from the third-party sites, so it doesn’t hurt to cover all bases!
Where to buy: Eurail Passes
Eurail Passes can be purchased at ticket offices when you arrive in Europe. However, the ticket offices tend to be crowded – to skip the crowds we recommend buying your passes online from sites such as Klook or Rail Europe (bonus: they usually include helpful extras such as maps, free ticket delivery, and more!).
Credit: Mike Green on Flickr
Not all trains will require you to make a reservation. However, if you are travelling in popular countries such as France or Spain, it is wise to book seats as far in advance as possible. For long haul journeys, it is also recommended to reserve your seats as trains can fill up over peak periods. Ticket reservations can be done online or at the train station itself. Some online reservations can be made up to three months before, so do take advantage and plan ahead accordingly! If you didn’t have enough time to book online, you can reserve seats at the train station itself but you would need to arrive at least 1 hour before departure.
Travelling overnight can help save on accommodation, plus you would be awake and ready to hit the ground running when you arrive at your destination. Taking a night train is in itself quite an experience 😊 You usually have the option (depending on the route and train operator) to pick from reclining seats all the way to couchettes and sleepers, depending on how much you are willing to spend. Costs can vary from as low as €3 to more than €100.
3. Travel light
In many European trains, there is limited storage space. The luggage spaces near the doors may not have enough space for huge baggage, especially when it is during peak season and many passengers will be looking to get a spot for their luggage (hence, arriving early is always a good idea!).
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Travelling across Europe by train will also be easier for you if you have compact luggage that you can lift into the train carriages and store in the overhead compartments. It will also be easier to keep in lockers, meaning you’ll be able to wander around the towns you visit without lugging big bags around! Here are 10 smart packing that can help keep your luggage to a minimum. Personally, I use packing cubes or air-tight ziplock bags to store more things, and I also roll my hijabs and clothes!
4. Planning your routes
It pays to do some research before you embark on your European adventure. Sites such as Rome2Rio, Seat 61 and Loco2 are just some of the many resources to assist you in planning your trip around Europe. All you need to do is key in your destination and voila, they will present you with the estimated travel times and costs. If you would like to research on departure details for a specific route, you may use the Eurail Timetable or the Rail Planner App. Don’t forget to refer to a map of Europe so that you have an idea of which cities to cover, keeping in mind the time and distance to each destination.
It’s also worth noting the importance of setting reasonable expectations on time and budget, especially for first-timers! You may plan to visit many countries in a short period of time, or many locations in one day, when in reality that might not be quite feasible😅 To get started, first-timers can consider popular routes such as London-Paris-Amsterdam or Zurich-Lucerne-Interlaken-Bern. For more adventurous travellers, why not attempt these Muslim-friendly itineraries for your epic Europe adventure!
5. Navigating the Train Station
Now that you have gotten your train ticket, what next? Well, many tickets have to be validated (i.e. stamped with time or date) before you get on your train. Search for the machines at the train station to get it validated, or just ask the friendly train staff! If you hold a Eurail Pass, you will need to stamp it at a ticket office by a railway official for it to be validated.
Once you are ready to go, be sure to head to the right platform at the correct time, at the right train station! When you are certain that you are on the correct platform, double check before you board the train. This is because there can be multiple trains that depart from the same platform! Also, don’t forget that the trains are usually quite punctual so it is wise to be there early.
#HHWT Tip: Download the Rail Planner Mobile App to information on train departure times.
6. Bring your own entertainment
Scenic as many rail journeys are, it helps to have something to occupy yourself with, whether it’s a Kindle, your favourite book or a laptop – especially if you are on a journey exceeding two hours. Some trains provide power outlets so that you can charge your electronic devices. If you are lucky, some are even equipped with Wi-Fi (though some require payment, so do check!). If you are with a group of friends and family, don’t forget a pack of playing cards! Just be sure not to make too much noise when playing and be considerate of other passengers 😉 You could also head to the café compartment for a coffee or just to stretch your legs.
Generally, if you’re on a backpacker’s budget, it’s wise to stock up your stash of snacks before embarking the train. Hit up the supermarkets for cheap chips or pack your own sandwiches the night before! Some European Muslim-friendly snacks that you can get before getting onboard include fresh bakery treats or stroopwaffles (a Dutch speciality) 😋 Nevertheless, foods with strong smells (such as rendang) is a big no-no in trains. Save that for when you reach your destination!
You won’t need to worry when taking trains in Europe; just make sure to be sensible and exercise regular precautions. Be sure to keep an eye on your bags and be aware of your surroundings and where you place your belongings. Keep the most important travel items including your money, passport, tickets and handphone in a safe place. Another handy tip might be to keep important items and money in separate safe places.
Credit: Whitney Danielle on Facebook
You could even invest in a carabiner, a luggage lock strap or bike lock if you want to sleep on overnight trains without fear of losing your backpack and luggage! Rail companies typically make a disclaimer that they will bear responsibility for lost or stolen luggage and bags, so it doesn’t hurt to get a lock to feel more secure. Also, watch out for pickpockets, especially when disembarking.
8. Recommended Scenic Routes
Credit: Roderick Eime on Flickr
There are certain legendary routes that bring you across picturesque villages and rivers throughout Europe. While they may not be the fastest way to bring you to your intended destination, some scenic routes are definitely well worth the detour! Here are some routes you can consider for a beautiful train adventure (P.S. these routes are covered under the Eurail pass 😉):
- Cinque Terre, Italy (Train journey from Levanto and La Spezia)
- Vienna (Austria) to Ljubljana (Slovenia)
- Golden Pass Switzerland (Lucerne to Montreux)
- Bergen Railway (Oslo to Bergen)
- Black Forest Line, Germany (Offenburg to Lake Constance)
For some more inspiration on epic and breathtaking train journeys, check out these 6 routes!
9. Enjoy the ride (and view!)
Now that you’ve finished your planning and know everything you need to consider to have that ultimate rail trip, just sit back, enjoy the ride and take in the breathtaking views. The train is also a good time to write in your travel diary, plan for future travels or write a postcard! There’s just something oddly magical and relaxing to ride the train in Europe. Who knows, you might even make some new friends on the train!
Personally, when I was on a mum-and-daughter trip three years back en-route from Florence to Venice, a friendly elderly couple sitting nearby struck up a lovely and insightful conversation with us. They were very chatty and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations with them. And when they found out that it was just the two of us on a trip – me and my mum, they gave me some advice that moved me immensely. They told me, with such genuine smiles, to take good care of my mum as our parents are all growing old fast without us realising it sometimes. It got me reflecting and I definitely felt a rush of gratitude to my parents as well as the elderly couple for imparting such wise words. And I can only hope that you will also have your own incredible stories to share when you are travelling the globe! #truestory
Travelling by train in this continent is already an experience within itself. Now with these tips, your European rail adventure awaits. Bon voyage!