Return to Europe

Nice Ville Train Station
Nice Ville Train Station

It probably takes an actual Europe rail trip experience before you comprehend why everyone says that the train is the best way to travel Europe. Their trains are frequent, comfortable, affordable and reliable. The reservations you need for certain high speed sections add significantly to the cost, but at speeds of up to 300km/hr, it’s often worth the extra expense.  For example, the TGV (French: Train à Grande Vitesse, meaning high-speed train) from Avignon to Paris travels 463 miles in 2 hours and 40 minutes for an average of 174 miles per hour.  By contrast, the trip by car will take you 6 hours and 40 minutes.

TGV Highspeed to Paris

TGV Highspeed Nice to Paris - reservations required.

TGV High speed train running at 300km/hr (180mph)

High Speed from Naples to Rome

The first step in traveling by train is to work out your stops along the way. The best web site for train schedules is www.bahn.de It's a Germany web site, but it operates in many languages. The initial downside is that you need to know the names of many cities according to their local name, but this is something that you need to learn anyway if you are traveling in a country like Italy. For example, when you enter Venice for a location, the web site indicates no match. Once you know your local geography better, you’ll find that “Venezia San Lucia is what you are looking for.   Also, get used to Hbf as the abbreviation for "station" in German even on their English version schedules.

For Italy by train, it's a good idea to know the Italian city names, as most of them vary from English:

  • Venice – Venezia San Lucia or Venezia SL

  • Venice mainland – Venezia Mestre

  • Florence – Firenze

  • Rome – Roma

  • Naples – Napoli

  • Pisa – Pisa

  • Turin – Torino

  • Milan – Milano

Here are some other familiar cities throughout Europe:

  • Brussels – Bruxelles

  • Bucharest – Bucuresti

  • Geneva – Geneve

  • Copenhagen – Kobenhaven

  • Cologne –  Koln

  • Lisbon – Lisboa

  • Moscow – Moskva

  • Munich – Munchen

  • Prague – Praha

  • Warsaw – Warszawa

  • Vienna – Wein

  • Zurich – Zuerich

Chamonix Station

Chamonix Station

Mont-Blanc Cogwheel Train

Mont-Blanc Cogwheel Train

For  Germany, there's also a twist related to the umlaut.  Since most keyboards can't cover this, the web uses "ue" for "ü". The same applies to Germany passports.  So expect to find Munich under Muechen on bahn.de even though you will see it spelled München when you actually arrive and expect the Müller's to have a passport that says Mueller.

Munich Station, Munich, Germany

Munich Station

The www.bahn.de site provides the travel time between two locations and an indication of sections that may require reservations. It also indicates whether a regional train or an express is involved. You can click on the route information to see a drop down of all the stops along the way, which can be numerous on a regional train. The drop down feature is the best part of www.bahn.de.

Use the bahn.de web site to:

  • Set your overnight locations

  • Set your travel time by train each day

  • Determine the transfers you’ll need to make on travel days

  • Print detail of the stops, so you’ll have better advance warning when your stop is coming up

  • Confirm by internet that your schedule for the next day is still OK

Step 2 is to count up your train travel days and the number of countries, so you can purchase your ticket(s). The purchase can be done online but a travel agent can save you a lot of courier charges if you have reservations in addition to the Eurail Pass. You can find out the pricing at site www.eurail.com and they have sites customized for different countries that you may be purchasing your tickets from.

Pisa Centrale

Pisa Centrale

The main types of tickets are:

  • Global Pass – Good for all 21 countries for various periods of time up to 3 months.

  • Select Pass – Choose (select) 3, 4 or 5 bordering countries. Also select your number of train travel days from 5, 6, 8, 10 or with 5 countries you can select 15 travel days. The travel must be completed in 2 months.

  • Regional Pass – select from small areas and fewer countries than a Select Pass

  • One Country Pass – available in daily choices up to 10 days.

Eurail Pass categories are Adult, Youth and Saver:

  • Adult Passes are first class only and are required for those over 25 years of age.

  • The Youth Passes, for those up to 25, are second class. Youth must buy an Adult pass if they want to ride first class. The difference for Youth is not worthwhile, as they are gaining slightly more space per seat and slightly quieter surroundings.

  • Saver Passes apply to 2 or more people who always commit to travel together. Don’t try to travel separately as there can be substantial and immediate fines when your ticket is checked.

Venezia San Lucia

Venezia San Lucia (Venice)

The purchase of a Eurail pass requires you to understand your itinerary very well. It forces you to finalize your plans. Since you can also mix and match these tickets, it also taxes your brain power in determining what the best deal is.

After you've figured out which Eurail pass(es) you need, it's time to check all the routes in detail on bahn.de and determine how many reservations are either required or preferred for certain sections. Reservations may be preferred because they guarantee seating or put you on a faster train. Part of the experience of travelling Europe by train is a significant amount of planning.

Using your Pass:
Once you have your ticket, you will need to validate it at the station before your first use. Staff at the ticket counter will check your passport and then mark the starting date of the pass. After that, you are responsible to fill in the day and month that you use it before you get on the train that day. You are subject to substantial fines if you don’t enter the date before you travel each day.

Reservations must be validated too before use in Italy and no documentation makes you aware of this. There are yellow ticket validation machines in every train station in Italy. Slide one end of your reservation into the machine and make sure it prints a validation stamp. There is no signage or explanations so don’t look for help, just do what everyone else is doing. Don’t put your Eurail pass in though, only your reservation. Failure to validate a reservation results in a fine payable immediately on the train and can run in the range of $50 Euros. It’s a strange experience on Italian high speed trains to have attendants offering free newspapers, drinks, snacks and candies while others go about in military fashion imposing fines.

Circumvesuvius Line to Pompeii

Circumvesuvius Line to Pompeii

Finding Your Train
The experience of finding your train is similar no matter which train station you are at. You will find large departure and arrival boards. In small stations, they are printed. In the large ones there are also large electronic boards. The departure board shows your destination, train number, departure time and track number. In larger stations, the track number often isn’t known until just before the train arrives. Check your train number on the electronic arrivals board instead and you may get an early hint of where your train will be.

Once you know the track, you need to determine the car. For Eurail adult remember it’s first class, so look for the big “1” on each car instead of a “2” for second class. For reservations you will have a specific car number. At larger stations the electronic boards at the gate will tell you where your car will be when the train stops.

When you board the train, reservations are often marked on compartment doors, so find your seat if you have a reservation or find a seat that isn’t marked if you don't.

Lastly, be prepared for the unexpected in some smaller stations in Italy. My reservation from Verano to Venice ended up being in a car labelled second class and was only as good as my ability to convince someone to get out of my seat. There was no reservation label on the seat and no one around to mediate. On leaving Venice, there was never an announcement for my train. I got on based on the departure board and the train left without any indication of where it was going – trust the board.

Eating at train stations is part of the travel experience. Even small stations will have fast food chain service with reasonable prices. The larger stations have restaurants, grocery stores, sandwich shops and even book stores. The station in Munich is so interesting that I wanted to spend all my time there instead of touring the town. You’ll find that lattes and pastry are very easy to find in the morning and tasty sandwiches of every variety are available throughout the day. When you’re at your B&B for the night don’t forget to consider going back to the station for dinner.

Munich Station, Munich, Germany

Munich Station

Munich Station, Munich, Germany

Munich Station

Munich Station, Munich, Germany

Munich Station

Where to Stay
Once you’ve got your rail route, it’s time to search accommodation near the stations. The main challenge is getting familiar enough with the station locations so that you can search places to stay within walking distance. Most often in Italy the station has Centrale in the title. For Germany it’s Hbf for Hauptbanhoff.

Use Booking.com to make tenative reservations as many hotels allow you to cancel without a charge up to 48 hours before arrival.

Europe doesn't tend to prepay accommodation but reservations are properly held. Make sure you are aware of the payment practice at smaller B&B establishments, as some of them may be cash only. It's very common practice in Europe to leave your passport with the front desk until you check out and to leave your key at the desk when you aren't in your room.