Riding the Rails around Europe: The Reality vs. the Romance
If you have dreamed about riding the rails around Europe, I highly encourage you to go for it! Trains are an economical way to get around but are also so much more enjoyable than flying. You will see things along the way that you would never see from an airplane. You won’t have to deal with security at the airport and can arrive minutes from when the train departs rather than hours. Train stations have lots of good food options; you can buy food to bring along or buy a meal on the train. You can also bring your own beverages, whatever your preference may be!
After having spent two months traveling around Europe using a Eurail Pass, we definitely learned a few things along the way. Though there are many advantages to train travel, there are some things that would be helpful to know before you go. These are my top tips for a successful train trip:
- Pack light. If you think that there will be porters to carry your bags for you, you are mistaken. You will be carrying them up and down multiple flights of stairs, and dragging them along cobblestone streets. You will be lifting them up onto overhead racks on the train.
- Download DB Navigator. It is the most useful app we found for finding train schedules. That being said, also download the train app for the country you are in. There were times that the local app brought up trains that the DB app did not find.
- Your train ticket will not be checked on every single ride. If you are crossing international borders, it may be checked multiple times. You never know; be prepared. And, be sure to sit in the correct class. We saw many people taking the “walk of shame” because they had been sitting in first class when they had second class tickets. They were escorted to the correct seats when their tickets were checked.
- Most train lines will claim that free wi-fi is available. This is not true; we had wi-fi on very few routes.
- First class tickets do not mean that you will be provided with free beverages or food. We looked up ahead of time what to expect from each train line. We found that the information on the websites did not necessarily match what actually was provided on the train. We always brought sandwiches along if we were going to be on the train for 4 or more hours. We were always happy that we did. Virtually every train station has multiple places to buy food.
- Pickpockets are common. I always kept a “death grip” on my purse and kept money and credit cards in zipped pockets when walking through train stations, just in case. I was not pickpocketed, fortunately, but I was groped on an escalator at a train station. I was not sure if it was a garden variety pervert, or a ploy to distract me so the groper could grab my purse.
- Though places to stow suitcases are provided at the end of each car on the train, it is safer to keep your bag with you. If you leave it out of sight, it is so easy for anyone to take your suitcase and debark the train before you are even aware that it is gone. Another reason to pack light. We saw quite a few people with enormous suitcases that could not possibly lift them onto the overhead racks, putting their personal belongings at risk.
- There is no smoking on the trains, but it is allowed in most train stations. You can also drink on the trains if you wish.
Here are some general tips for European travel:
- Download a couple of taxi apps before you leave home. My Taxi was commonly used in western Europe; Taxify in eastern Europe. It is really helpful to be able to arrange a cab and pay using your credit card, especially in areas where it is unusual to find a cab driver that speaks English. Just like with Uber and Lyft, you can watch your cab’s progress toward you, and follow the route that they should be taking to get you to your destination. Taxi scams are very common in many European cities – avoid unmetered cabs that are not affiliated with a company.
- Depending on your location, Taxify may work like Uber – an independent driver will pick you up in their personal vehicle. In other cities, you may be picked up in a cab. Both worked just fine for us.
- Always have some Euro and .50 Euro coins. Pay toilets are everywhere. The last time we were in Europe, we could depend on being able to use a toilet if we purchased food. This did not seem to be the case on this trip. Even when we ate meals at some restaurants, we had to pay to use the toilets. Even in McDonald’s!
- Smoking is very common everywhere in Europe. It is no longer allowed inside restaurants, but if you like to sit outside (and you will!), you will be surrounded by cigarette smoke.
- Graffiti is everywhere, marring the surface of most buildings, walls, and trains. That being said, Germany wins the award for the most artistic graffiti.
- Tipping can be confusing. Some restaurants automatically add on a service charge. Tipping is not common in some countries but expected in others. If you are visiting multiple countries, it is worth spending a little time online before you go to look up how much to tip. I also believe there is an app for that!
- Speak slowly and clearly. Several people commented that it was difficult for them to understand our American accents. They told us they were more used to British pronunciations. Makes sense, given the geographic proximity of Great Britain.
- It is uncommon for European hotels to provide washcloths. If this is something you like to use, bring your own.
- Most hotels provide a combination shampoo/body gel. I wasn’t too crazy about this and wished that I had brought my own shampoo.
- Speaking of hotels, we really enjoyed staying in the old town areas of the eastern European cities. We were in serviced apartments, which had its positives and negatives. The quality varied dramatically; you don’t know until you get there how well maintained the place will be. But some had nice amenities, such as washing machines. Some had air conditioning, but too weak to keep up with the temperatures in the upper 90’s (very abnormal temperatures for Europe).
- The streets in the old town areas tend to be quite loud at night – lots of people at pubs, eating out, or just walking and having a good time. If you keep your windows open to try to stay cool, the noise may keep you awake.