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An easy guide to European train travel

by Staff

(Pete Seaward/Lonely Planet)

Here’s a fun fact for anyone looking to be more eco in their explorations to the continent this summer: taking the train instead of flying can cut the carbon footprint of your foray by up to 90 per cent. What’s more, if you follow our headache-free hacks, it needn’t be as costly or complicated as you’d imagine – and we guarantee that your trip will be all the more magical for it.

Trust us, it’s easy

A world away from the queues and stresses of airports, travelling by train in Europe is a breeze by comparison. After a speedy, centre-to-centre Eurostar from London to Brussels, Paris or Amsterdam, the continent’s rail lines are a map of possibilities, making their way to the north of Norway, the banks of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, the far south of Spain and thousands of exciting stops in between. Convenient online booking, fast trains, reasonably priced fares and incredible landscapes await — as does a journey with no carbon conscience.

See Europe’s cities from a different perspective (Shutterstock /)See Europe’s cities from a different perspective (Shutterstock /)

See Europe’s cities from a different perspective (Shutterstock /)

Book in advance

Booking is one area where you have to think the same as when you’re flying. For the broadest availability and cheapest fares, book early. Most services open three to four months before travel, with Eurostar bookable six to eight months ahead. While restrictions vary, seat reservations are always a good idea and mandatory on high-speed and premium services in many countries. Peak season sees many popular trains, such as TGV Lyria trains from Paris to Swiss cities and Nightjet sleepers, sell out well ahead. Advance bookings will also cut the cost of many inter-city and regional trains on which you can’t reserve seats. Trainline.com is handy for many international journeys, but compare the booking sites for the national carriers, too.

Pass us a pass

An Interrail pass to explore Europe as a continent, or individual countries, still works as a system largely as it has done for generations, offering flexible, unlimited travel for the duration of the pass. Usually, it is easiest to access via apps on your phone but they’re not always the best option: point-to-point fares can work out cheaper than a pass, especially if booked far in advance, and some fast trains have prohibitive supplements and restricted availability, especially in high season, so check whether a pass will even grant you access if you’re travelling at peak times on popular routes. But, in addition to the unbeatable sense of freedom, Interrail does also offer free or discounted travel on many ferries, cable cars, museum entry fees and more.

Try a night on the rails

The new generation of night trains has transformed cross-continent travel. Nightjet routes, radiating out of Austria and run by its national railway (ÖBB), offer up-to-date, comfy couchettes and swanky sleepers, some of which come with showers. Newer trains running between Hamburg and Vienna offer innovative private mini-suites — cabins for one — with more coming soon on other routes. There are other fantastic sleeper trains across Europe — try Zurich in Switzerland to Ljubljana in Slovenia for a nighttime odyssey of moonlit rivers and snowy peaks, or our very own Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston to the Scottish Highlands.

Dining cars and in-carriage picnics

In addition to their excellent network of comfortable, affordable trains, Czech Railjet services are among Europe’s best bets for meals in a well-stocked dining car. Sirloin, dumplings and cranberries washed down with a draft Czech beer or Bohemian sparkling wine sound nice? Look for good value happy hour prices. Polish, Swiss and Austrian inter-city trains and Spanish start-up Iryo are also reliable choices for eating well on the rails. There’s always the option for in-seat picnics: considerate passengers might like to avoid particularly fragrant cheeses and scattering those baguette crumbs.

Allow extra time

Delays happen, so plan for them and allow plenty of time when connecting. They’re rarely a big drama: most key routes offer many services daily, so you’re unlikely to fall far behind in your plans. Night trains, with their complex journeys and addition or removal of carriages along the route, can be especially prone to slowness. Wherever you are, if your connection hits the buffers, track down the guard on your train to get advice on whether you can travel on the next service or if you need a new ticket. Make sure you have travel insurance, just in case. A lot of the apps, such as Rail Planner or Omio, will let you reconfigure cascading connections in no time.

 (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Branch out and gaze out

One of the loveliest parts of travelling by train is finding yourself on a quiet branch line and seeing unexpectedly beautiful scenery. Little-known treats are everywhere — the slower route from Florence to Rome via Perugia passes a succession of Umbrian hill towns. In contrast, the route from Barcelona to the French border at Latour de Carol is three hours of rolling Pyrenean scenery. Travelling down the Moselle in Germany from Koblenz to Trier is a delicious detour into this corner of Europe’s spellbinding wine country. Try detouring off the main line in Slovenia to enjoy views of the Julian Alps, the Soča River and glimpses of Lake Bled on the lovely trundler from Jesenice to Nova Gorica on the Italian frontier.

Pack light on clothes, heavy on gadgetry

The best packing strategy remains to pack as light as possible — lugging bulky bags on to crowded trains is never fun — but make sure you have everything you need to stay connected. Wifi is increasingly common, if often unreliable. While many trains come with power points, a battery pack is a helpful back-up and sound-cancelling headphones can double as earplugs if you share a couchette. For an extra-rewarding experience, take them off to chat with friendly fellow passengers; they are probably as happy as you not to be on a crowded plane.

Tom Hall is a writer and rail obsessive at Lonely Planet. His happy place is pulling into Zurich Hauptbahnhof in summer, knowing a dip in the Limmat River is but a few minutes’ stroll away. He has written and contributed to many Lonely Planet titles, including Flight-Free Europe, Guide to Train Travel in Europe and Best in Travel. He has also contributed to the forthcoming Lonely Planet’s Amazing Train Journeys of the World.   

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