To Train or Not to Train: Train travel in Europe is great because: a) You avoid the hassles of air travel such as having to arrive at the airport 1-2 hours early, getting thru security, and then getting to your final destination after you land. b) Trains almost always serve a city center train station – so once you arrive, you’re close to where you want to be. c) The cost of train travel is generally cheaper or the same as air travel. d) The total time – door to door – it takes to get from your hotel in one city to your hotel in the next city is generally pretty close to the time it takes to fly. Even if it is longer, the convenience almost always justifies train over air travel.
Some Basics: Regional trains (also known as local, or stopping trains) are passenger rail services that operate between towns and cities. These trains operate with more stops over shorter distances than inter-city rail, but fewer stops and faster service than commuter rail.
Inter-city trains are passenger train services that cover longer distances than commuter or regional trains. Generally, an inter-city train is an “express” train with limited stops and comfortable carriages to serve long-distance travel.
Examples: - If you want to go from Surrey to London, you would take a regional/local train, and the trip would take between 34 - 47 minutes depending on which train you choose (which determines the number of stops) and costs about $9.00.
- But if you want to go from Edinburgh, Scotland to London, you’d take an inter-city train which takes about 4 hours 20 minutes and costs $100-$200.
Tickets: You generally don’t need to book train travel ahead of time unless you’re interested in buying a Eurail pass (see Resource Section, below). Because there are so many trains covering all of Europe, I typically wait and buy the tickets I need at the station when I need them (or maybe a the day before).
That said, I advise that you stop by the local train station a day or two ahead of time and ask an agent about the need for pre-ticketing and if the particular train you’re taking requires a seat reservation. Seat reservations cost more, but do provide peace of mind… you know exactly what seat(s) on which cabin you’ll be sitting in.
Seating: Most trains offer both first and second class service. Although first class may be a little quieter, when traveling in Western Europe I generally find it overkill. If you’re going a long distance and need to sleep, and if money is no object, then first class may be best for you. Generally second class is clean enough and quiet enough for me.
Eating: Most longer distance trains have a meal car you can buy drinks and light snacks. If the trip isn’t too long, then they should have everything you need. For longer trips, I usually bring my own food & snacks on-board.
Rail Passes: A lot of tourists will stick to rail for all inter-city travel during their vacation. There are different variations on rail passes, but at the highest level, they typically give you unlimited travel on one or many rail systems (e.g., within a country, or across multiple countries), within a specific time window (e.g., 2 weeks) for a single fixed price. If your trip will involve a lot of train travel, these are worth a strong consideration. However, if you only plan to travel by rail twice, for example, over a 2 week period, then buying single trip tickets while in Europe is the best the way to go.
For additional, easy to absorb information on rail travel, or to purchase rail passes, visit Rick Steves' Europe.