Train travel in Europe tips: 10 things you need to know
Crossing Europe by train is enjoyable, but the ride is easier if you acquaint yourself with the network before the train leaves the station.
1 TRAVEL LIGHT, SANS WHEELS
Travelling on Europe's rail network will be a breeze when you have a bag you can pick up. Not only will it be easier to carry it up and down the stairs in many European stations, you'll be able to lift your bag into the overhead racks to keep an eye on it (instead of having to store it at the end of the carriage). Compact, wheel-less bags are also easy to store in coin-operated lockers when you have time to stretch your legs by wandering outside the station.
2 KNOW YOUR TRAINS
Europe is criss-crossed by high-speed trains with names like fashion labels, most of which require seat reservations, even if you're travelling on a rail pass (see #5 below). In the beginning, there was the TGV and the Eurostar, now there's also the SJ, RJ and AVE, not to mention the ICE (Intercity Express trains in Germany), the Euromed (in Spain), the Thalys (Belgium), the SuperCity (Czech Republic), the Railjet (Austria) and Le Frecce (Italy), just to name a few.
3. SLEEPER OR COUCHETTE?
Travelling overnight can save you paying for accommodation, deliver you to your destination early in the day and be an experience in itself. Just remember: "sleeper" compartments have one, two or three beds, proper bed linen, toiletries and towels and a washbasin; a "couchette" is a dorm room on rails, with four or six bunk beds and shared amenities at the end of the carriage; and a "day" officially runs from midnight to midnight on Europe's trains, so an overnight trip will use up two days of your rail pass.
4 BRING AN E-READER
Scenic as many European rail journeys are, particularly in Norway and Switzerland, mountain landscapes have a dark side: tunnels. An e-reader or tablet will enable you to keep reading even when your compartment is repeatedly plunged into darkness, or when your bunk on an overnight train doesn't have a working reading light.
5 BUY A RAIL PASS
There's a multitude of rail passes available. Visiting only one country? Opt for, say, a multi-day German Rail Pass (bahn.com) or France Rail Pass (francerailpass.com). For maximum range and flexibility, Eurail passes are hard to beat: they're valid in 28 countries and can offer multiple days of rail travel in various classes (youth, economy or "comfort") over extended periods such as a month or two. See eurail.com, railplus.com.au or raileurope.com
6 TO RESERVE OR NOT TO RESERVE?
Not all trains require you to reserve a seat before you travel, but hopping aboard and hoping for the best has a downside: you can be turfed out of your seat mid-journey if someone else has booked it. The goods news: some trains don't charge for seat reservations; use Eurail's free Rail Planner app to find out which (eurail.com). Note: if you're travelling in uber-popular countries such as France, Italy or Spain, it's always a good idea to reserve seats, as far in advance as possible; French trains in particular offer limited seats to Eurail pass holders.
7 TRANSFER TIME
Technically you need only a few minutes to transfer from one train to another, particularly in countries where punctuality is a matter of national pride, but it's a good idea to allow at least an hour to transit after a long train journey in case of delays and to find your way through mega-stations such as the multi-storey Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
8 TRAIN EAR
Pressure changes on mountain trains when you pass through tunnels and change altitude can be uncomfortable for those with sensitive ears, head colds or sinus infections; earplugs designed for air travel, such as EarPlanes, can help. Or try to travel in a carriage with windows that open, so the pressure changes aren't so extreme. Motion sickness is another common train ailment, particularly as you can't always book forward-facing seats (seat direction depends on the coupling of carriages on each route); bring travel sickness medication.
9 BEWARE PICKPOCKETS
European train travel is generally the epitome of civility and safety. It's when you disembark, particularly at major cities, that you need to watch for pickpockets and keep an eye on your belongings. Consider putting your luggage in a locker to make yourself less of a slow-moving target; some large stations also have lounges for passengers with first-class (also called "comfort" class) tickets.
10 RESPECT TRAIN-LAG
Even the longest train journey won't cross any time zones – most of western Europe, except Britain and Portugal, occupies the Central European Time Zone – but you'll know train-lag exists when you're sitting in a cafe after a 30-hour, five-train journey feeling fatigued and holding onto the table to stop it rocking. Try to get plenty of rest during each trip, give yourself time to recover and you'll be back on the rails in no time.
Louise Southerden travelled on a Eurail Global Pass valid for 15 days of travel over two months, courtesy of RailPlus. See railplus.com.au