We love Europe’s efficient and well-organized rail system and trains are our favorite way to travel while visiting there. Trains are very convenient when traveling with kids. They’re less stressful, more comfortable, have built-in bathrooms (no stops!) and we can enjoy the passing scenery. We hope these tips and lessons we’ve learned can help with your train travel in Europe.
1. Buying Europe Train Tickets
Book your Europe train tickets in advance to save money and time and to avoid hassles, especially when you’re traveling on popular routes and high-speed trains. A great and comprehensive site to start train travel planning is The Man In Seat 61. It lists train information by country and provides recommended routes, train times and approximate prices. Also, check German Railways’ site, which has an online schedule for all of Europe’s trains.
We’ve usually booked directly with the country’s railway company like Italy’s trenItalia, Spain’s Renfe and Britain’s National Rail for the best routes, travel times and discounts. There are also third-party sites like Rail Europe or Loco2 to buy tickets, but prices tend to be higher. Shop around to get the best deals and look for family or weekend specials. Research your options.
If you’re unsure about your itinerary or if your destination’s weather is a huge factor, tickets can also be purchased on the day of departure. However, you also risk that tickets may be sold for your desired departure time. Most ticket sales close 15 minutes before departure. We’ve bought tickets for day trips from Madrid on the day of travel on two separate trips. However, we weren’t traveling during holidays or summers.
Most trains also have first- or second-class seat options. First-class cars are roomier, less crowded, quieter, and may include drinks, meals and newspapers on some of the high-speed trains. We’ve always ridden second-class to save money and still found it roomy and comfortable.
2. Secure Seat Reservations When Possible
Check to see if your train ticket includes seat reservations. If it does not and you have the option, it’s worth paying extra to secure seats in advance when traveling a long distance, especially with kids. You won’t need to rush to the train in hopes of finding open seats, and your whole party can be seated together. Seat reservations also eliminate the risk of standing for an extended time. And if your kids are like mine, window seats are a premium to watch the scenery.
Family compartments on some trains are convenient and more secure. Trains within cities that are to/from airports don’t usually have seat assignments available, but high-speed trains typically do.
3. Tips for Overnight Trains in Europe
The biggest appeals for overnight trains are the savings on hotel stays and having more time to sight see during the day. There are sleepers (private cabins), couchettes (shared cabins with bunk beds) and reclining seat options. We haven’t booked an overnight train trip, but friends who have suggest booking in advance and getting the sleepers to ensure safety and comfort.
Book non-stop trains so you won’t have to transfer, allowing you to sleep longer and undisturbed. Keep valuables within reach and locked up. Remember that sheets, blankets and pillows incur extra charges. Bring eye masks and ear plugs in order to sleep more comfortably.
4. Eurail Passes
Rail passes include train travel in several countries for a certain number of days or months. Eurail passes are for non-European citizens, while European citizens use Interrail passes. For anyone planning a multi-country, extended trip around Europe, rail passes may be a good option.
Do a price comparison on your itinerary’s total rail cost versus a rail pass to see if it’s worth getting. Be aware that some high-speed trains (e.g. Italy, Thalys) have surcharges for rail pass holders. Check Rick Steve’s site to see pass options and what’s not covered.
5. Eating on Europe Trains
While many trains have bar-buffet cars or food trollies, we usually bring our own snacks and drinks to save money. Station food shops will still be cheaper than buying food aboard trains. I always stock up on snacks because well-fed kids make for better travel companions. Rail Europe’s site describes the food options available for trains.
6. Bring Additional Entertainment
The scenery can be pretty, but after a while kids will want to do something else. Bring books, activity sheets and electronic devices to keep the kids occupied.
7. Double-check Everything
Schedules sometimes change. Check online a couple of days and a few hours before heading to the station. Look for the train station’s electronic signboards to double-check departure times and platform/tracks. Be alert, especially for last-minute changes.
8. Verify Your Stops
Know your station names and double check station stops. Some cities can have multiple stations with similar names. Pay attention to your estimated arrival time so that you can be ready to get off at the right stop. Some regional trains don’t have signage or announcements telling you what is the next stop.
9. Storing Your Luggage
Most trains have overhead racks above seats that are ideal for carry-on baggage. Larger bags can be stored at a section at the end of carriages. Passengers are held responsible for their luggage. Lock your bags and keep a close eye on them. For extra precaution, use bike locks and attach luggage to the racks. Allot extra time to get your larger luggage off the racks before your stop.
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