Rick's Rail Tips:
Here's what you need to know to use your Eurail or other European rail pass wisely. But be sure to read all the printed information that accompanies your rail pass. Do not remove the rail pass cover (with official restrictions and a Travel Report which you must complete!).
You must get your rail pass activated for it to be valid for travel. Rail passes must be validated within six months of the issue date (usually the day you bought it). For example, if May 24 is stamped on your rail pass as the issue date, you must validate (start) the pass by November 23. Never write anything on your rail pass before it's been validated!
Validation is easy. At any European train station (or some travel agencies), present your rail pass and passport to a railway official at a ticket window. The ticket agent (not you) writes in your passport number, and the first and last dates of your travel period, and stamps the validation box on the far right. For example, a two-month validity period starting May 15 will end at midnight on July 14. Agents will assume that you intend to use the rail pass on the same day you are presenting it, so if you're validating it a few days beforehand, write your desired dates (European style, e.g., 15.05.13–14.07.13) on a slip of paper to show the agent. All train trips and non-train "bonuses" (whether covered or discounted) must be started and finished within the valid life of your rail pass. If you have a group pass (i.e., a Saverpass or Twin Pass), all group members must be present when the rail pass is activated.
You may validate your country rail pass before arriving in that country. Let's say you're in Copenhagen and heading to Berlin with a German rail pass. At the Copenhagen train station, buy a ticket to the German border and have the agent validate your German pass at the same time, so that both countries are covered. Don't get caught with an unvalidated pass: If you forget to do it before boarding, approach the conductor right away to have it activated onboard (may require a fee of $5 to $30 in local currency).
Keep your rail pass in your money belt. Your rail pass is a valuable piece of paper — if you lose it, it's gone. (Even if you bought rail pass insurance, a lost or stolen pass presents a logistical headache.) While some national railways are slowly moving toward paperless ticketing, all rail passes are still only available in old-fashioned hard-copy form. Guard yours carefully.
|When traveling with a flexipass, fill in your travel date in ink before the conductor comes around. Traveling with an undated pass is traveling without a valid ticket.|
Fill in travel days (for flexipasses) and trip details. With a continuous rail pass (available for Eurail Global, BritRail, or Swiss passes), nobody counts how many days you travel during the validated period. But if you're using a flexipass, you'll have to fill in your travel dates as you go. A travel day is a calendar day, running from midnight to midnight, during which you can take as many trips as you like. On your flexipass, you'll see a string of blank boxes, one for each travel day available to you. Either just before or after boarding the train (or bus or boat covered 100% by your pass), fill in that day's date in ink in one of the blank boxes — before the conductor reaches you! (Don't fill out the dates any farther in advance, in case your plans change.) Eurail passes (both continuous and flexi) also require you to fill in your trip destinations on the fold-out sheets of your pass cover.
Show your rail pass if asked. After the train starts, the conductor heads down the aisle, asking for train tickets and rail passes, and checking that they are dated correctly. You may be asked to present your passport, too.
Night trains and the 7 p.m. rule: A direct overnight train uses only one flexipass travel day (not two) if you board it after 7 p.m. and do not change trains before 4 a.m. In that case, you just write the arrival date on your flexipass. You'll identify an overnight train in train schedules both by the timing and generally by notation that it has sleepers and couchettes available. If your route requires connecting trains, you use fewer travel days by starting with an overnight train and making connections on the day of arrival, but not before 4 a.m. If you're starting in a small town where the night train doesn't stop, you'll use a different day of your flexipass (or buy a separate ticket) to travel to the night train departure city (for instance, Füssen–Munich $30). Some smaller countries or regions don't offer qualifying night trains (and the rule does not apply with Swiss, Czech, Central Scotland, nor London Plus passes). If the very first use of your flexipass is for an overnight ride, you write the arrival date as the date of travel, but your rail pass will be validated starting with the actual date you board. All rides must be started and completed within the validity period of the rail pass. There is no 7 p.m. benefit with continuous passes. An overnight boat ride also uses just one flexipass travel day if the route is covered (e.g., ferries between Italy and Greece), but you get to choose whether to count the date of departure or the date of arrival.
Discounts don't use a flexipass day. Some private trains, ferries, or sightseeing attractions (listed in the materials that come with your pass) offer a small discount to rail pass travelers. When a "bonus" trip offers a percentage discount, you show your active pass when you book or pick up the ticket, but need not count a flexipass travel day.
Print the Reservation Fees with Rail Passes price list for handy reference and much more detail.
Depending on the route and type of train, reservations (which guarantee you a specific seat) can be either required, a good idea, a pointless hassle, or not even an option. The Deutsche Bahn's train schedule is objective and complete — it's your best resource for identifying trains that require a reservation. "Subject to Compulsory Reservation" means what it says, while "Please Reserve" is optional, and no news is good news. Reservations typically cost anywhere from $5 to $35 (with a few expensive exceptions, but they're free in Britain). When a seat reservation is required, the cost is included in the price of a point-to-point ticket, but rail pass holders pay extra for it. When it's optional, it costs extra with either a point-to-point ticket or a rail pass. Slower, regional trains do not accept reservations.
When reservations are required: Certain types of trains always require reservations and can sell out (much like an airplane). These include privately run high-speed trains such as the Brussels-based Thalys and the London–Paris/Brussels Eurostar, certain country-specific high-speed trains (especially in France, Italy, Spain, and Sweden), some of Switzerland's just-for-tourists scenic trains, and beds on overnight trains. These trains generally don't allow extra passengers to board.
When reservations are optional but a good idea: Most of the time, there's plenty of seating for everyone. But it's wise to reserve at least several days ahead if you are traveling during a peak time (summer, weekends, holidays); on a route with infrequent service; if you need several seats together (a family with children); or for a train you simply cannot afford to miss. If your train doesn't require a reservation, you can just hop onboard with your validated rail pass and find a seat. On crowded trains of this type, the worst-case scenario is that you may stand a while before finding a place.
How soon to reserve: Dates, times, and seat assignments are built into some point-to-point ticket train tickets at the time of purchase. If you have an unreserved ticket or a rail pass, you can purchase seat or sleeper reservations anywhere from a few hours to a few months in advance. Most trains that require reservations limit the number of seats available to passholders (most notoriously France's TGV trains, which can sell out weeks ahead), saving the remaining places for full-fare ticket buyers. Your decision of how soon to reserve depends on how firm your itinerary is (do you have hotel reservations or a flight to catch?), how many departures in a day could get you there on time (2 or 20?), and other factors mentioned above.
Where to reserve: If you're ready to reserve specific departures, you can order through the link for Pass Reservations at www.raileurope.com and indicate what type of railpass you have (or will have). For an additional fee, you can also reserve by phone at 800/438-7245 (or 800/361-7245 from Canada). In most cases, a printed reservation ticket will be shipped to you, though Rail Europe now offers e-ticketing for most reservations departing from a French or Spanish train station and for Eurostar (Chunnel) tickets. Reservations made in the U.S. may cost a little more than in those made in Europe. Most reservations are not changeable or refundable. Or www.euraide.com charges European rates (e.g., €4–5 per basic reservation instead of $11–13), plus about $30 if you need schedule advice and $30 for delivery from Europe (ordering is not online; research train schedules first, then email your list of departure choices and class or sleeper preferences to email@example.com). You can also get reservations in Europe at train stations or at travel agencies there, when rail pass holder space is still available. Pay before boarding for any required fees, or the conductor will charge more en route. Rick Steves' Europe does not make reservations.
Taking a Night Train
|For about $35 extra, you can reserve an overnight couchette bunk. You'll have roommates, but also a conductor/cop who keeps out the riff-raff.|
Taking long train trips at night makes sense. Every night spent riding the rails gives you an extra day to sightsee, saves you the cost of a hotel, and allows you to arrive early before the cheaper hotels fill up. The scenery missed is usually insignificant when you consider the time you gain — a day to bike in Holland, hike in the Alps, or sunbathe on an Italian beach.
Major stations may have shower facilities where you can freshen up after your morning arrival. You can try to sleep in your seat, or rent a couchette (berth) or sleeper (more private compartment). Whether you have a train ticket or a rail pass, you must pay extra for a couchette or sleeper.
Seat sleeping: If you're in an open-style car (with airline-type seats) or in a crowded compartment, you'll sit up miserably all night. If you're in an uncrowded compartment, you may be able to pull out the seats to make a bed. Expect frequent interruptions. Wear your moneybelt and clip your bags to the luggage rack for security. When they offer seats, many overnight trains require a seat reservation ($5).
Couchettes: One of Europe's great bargains is the $35 couchette (pronounced koo-SHET). It's a bed in a usually lockable compartment with two triple sets of bunks (with a blanket, pillow, clean linen, and up to five compartment mates). Some routes have co-ed compartments; others are single gender. As you board, you'll give the attendant your couchette voucher, rail pass or train ticket, and passport. He deals with conductors, thieves, and customs officials on your behalf as you sleep uninterrupted in relative safety. (Border checks are rare in most of Europe these days, and even more rarely will a border agent need to wake you up for personal inspection.)
Book your couchette in advance, either before you go, or through a European travel agent or at train stations. Night trains often fill up, but if space is available, unreserved couchettes or sleepers can be rented onboard from train attendants. Some routes offer roomier 4-person couchettes for about $50 per bunk (may require a 1st class train ticket or rail pass on routes in France.)
Private sleepers: Sleeper compartments offer more privacy and comfort than couchettes. Compartments with two or three beds range from $40 to $150 per person on top of your ticket price, most with a tiny sink, or the pricier options with a private shower or toilet. Single sleeper surcharges range from $70 to $190. A few overnight trains (London–Edinburgh sleeper, Spain-to-France "hotel trains") offer only more expensive sleepers ($70+) and no cheap couchettes.
|Don't worry; even though the clock says 4:42, the sign at Track 4 says the train will leave 20 minutes late today. Note that it will stop at three different stations in Berlin. Make sure you know which station is your destination!|
Major train stations are great places to take care of your basic to-do list, with ATMs, grocery stores, restaurants, bike-rental kiosks, and shops selling calling cards and/or mobile-phone SIM cards.
Schedule and train information: Even if you've already looked up your train schedules online, confirm your plans at the station. Every station has some kind of schedule information available, whether it's in printed or electronic form, or at information counters staffed by people eager (or at least able) to help you. It helps to consult the timetables first, write down your plan, then confirm this with the information desk. Written communication is easiest and safest. Multi-lingual computer terminals are common and can save you time.
Tourist information: Many stations have a tourist information office either in the station or very nearby. Pick up a map, find out about local transit, and double-check the hours of your must-see sights.
Bag storage: Virtually every major station has storage lockers or a luggage-holding service where, for about $3 to $8 a day, you can leave your bags. People traveling light can fit two bags into one storage locker, cutting their storage costs in half. In some security-conscious train stations, lockers are no longer in use, and travelers can leave their bags at a luggage-deposit desk — often after going through an airport-type security check. This service can cost $5 to $15 per bag. Lock your bag and don't leave valuables inside — both for your own security and because some luggage desks won't accept unlocked bags. In extreme cases, they don't take laptop computers.
|This says "train strike": sciopero ferroviario. Knowing this, I made sure to get to my next destination before 9p.m., when it was advertised to start.|
Internet Access: You can usually get online at major train stations throughout Western Europe, often for a fee. Internet cafés offer Wi-Fi for those with mobile devices and computer terminals to those without. Wi-Fi is sometimes free in the first-class lounge; some bars and cafés may offer it free to paying customers. Finding Wi-Fi on trains is still more serendipitous than reliable, with the exception of high-speed trains on some of the most common business routes.
Rail strikes are a fact of life. Strikes can affect rail service anywhere in Europe (especially in Italy). They're usually announced long in advance in stations and online. Most last just a day, or even just several hours. Anticipate strikes — ask your hotelier, talk to locals, look for signs, check online — but don't feel bullied by them. In theory, train service shuts down, but in reality, sporadic trains lumber down main-line tracks during most strikes (preserving "essential service"). If a strike occurs on your travel day, head to the station anyway, where the few remaining station personnel can tell you the expected schedule. You'll likely find a workable train to your destination, though it may involve a wait (stay near the station). While it's usually possible to get a refund for reservations affected by a strike, there are no refunds for partly used railpasses.
Scheduling Stopovers Smartly
|This display maps out the locations of cars on major trains leaving the station — first-class cars in yellow, second-class cars in green, and dining cars in red (with a knife and fork symbol).|
Get yourself to the right station. Many cities have more than one train station: Paris has six, Brussels has three, and even Switzerland's little Interlaken has two. Be sure you know whether your train is leaving from Interlaken East or Interlaken West, even if that means asking what might seem like a stupid question.
Allow time to navigate the station. Train stations are generally laid out logically, with numbered tracks lined up in a row. But the biggest stations can take time to cross and may have separate sections for local trains and long-distance trains. For example, Madrid's Atocha station is divided according to which kind of train it serves: cercanías (local trains) and AVE (high-speed, long-distance trains). A Paris train station might have some tracks devoted to Grandes Lignes ("grand lines" to other cities), and others for Transilien (local milk-run trains). At the Frankfurt airport, regional trains depart from the Regionalbahnhof, while long-distance trains use the Fernbahnhof. Many large stations also have vast sections devoted to local subways or regional buses.
Find your track. A few countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) publish track numbers in advance in printed or online train schedules, but other regions post that detail in the station about a half hour before the train departs. Look for upcoming departures displayed on computer screens or mechanical boards that flip over as they're updated.
Expect no-hassle boarding. For the vast majority of Europe's trains, you stroll (or dash) right to your boarding platform, ticket or pass in hand, without any check-in formalities. The main exception is the Eurostar Chunnel train, which has an advance check-in deadline (30 minutes before departure) and an airline-style security procedure. You may find simple preboarding security or ticket checks in a few other places. In Spain, for instance, your tickets will be checked and luggage scanned before you access the platform to board fast AVE trains. Many stations in Britain require you to slide your paper ticket or tap your barcode on a turnstile reader both to enter and exit the boarding areas. (Railpass travelers show their passes to the attendants at these gates.) Some night trains have conductors checking tickets at the doors to each car.
Where required, validate your ticket or reservation before boarding. In France and Italy, many point-to-point tickets and seat reservations (but not rail passes) must be validated by inserting them into a machine near the platform.
Ask for help. I always ask someone on the platform if the train is going where I think it is. Uniformed train personnel can answer any question you can communicate. Speak slowly, clearly, and with caveman simplicity. Resist the urge to ask, "Pardon me, would you be able to tell me if this train is going to Rome?" Just point to the train or track and say, "Roma?"
Be observant. If the loudspeaker comes on while you're waiting for your train at track 7, gauge by the reaction of those around you whether the announcement affects you. If, after the babble, everyone dashes over to track 15, assume your train is no longer arriving at track 7.
Scope out the train ahead of time. The configuration of many major trains is charted in display cases on the platform. As you wait, study the display to note where the first-class, second-class, restaurant, and sleeping cars are, and which cars are going where. First-class cars are always marked with a "1" on the outside, second-class cars with a "2." Knowing which cars you're eligible for can be especially handy if you'll be competing with a mob for a seat. When expecting a real scramble, I stand on a bench at the far end of the track and study each car as the train rolls by, looking in the windows to note where the empty places are.
Never assume the entire train is going where you are. For long hauls, each car is labeled separately, because cars are usually added and dropped here and there all along the journey. To survive all of this juggling easily, check to be sure that the city on your car's nameplate is your destination. The nameplate lists the final stop and some (but not all) of the stops in-between. Some train schedules will say, in the fine print, "Munich-bound cars in the front, Vienna-bound cars in the rear."
Train and bus connections are easy. When your route requires changing trains, be ready to hop off upon arrival at the transfer point. An organized traveler can get through a small station in five minutes, but allow 15 minutes in larger city stations. The Deutsche Bahn's train schedules assume you want fast connections but allow you to request longer layovers for more peace of mind. Train stations are also major bus stops, so connections from train to bus are generally no more difficult than crossing the street.
|Overhead luggage racks are standard on every train, and some even have bike racks.|
Find a seat. If you have a seat assignment (car number and seat number), locate it and plop yourself down. If you're traveling without a seat reservation, you can claim any unreserved seat. If these are in short supply, take a closer look at the reservation tags posted above the seats or on compartment doors. Each tag shows which stretch of the journey that seat is reserved for. You may well be getting off the train before the seat owner even boards. For example, if you're headed from Luzern to Lugano, and you see a seat that's reserved from Lugano to Milan, it's all yours.
Stow your luggage. In more than 30 years of train travel, I've never checked a bag. Simply carry it on and heave it up onto the rack above the seat or wedge it into the triangular space between back-to-back seats. I've seen Turkish families moving all their worldly goods from Germany back to Turkey without checking a thing. Many faster trains don't have baggage cars, so luggage checked as cargo may not travel on the same train as you.
Be savvy with your bags. I assume every train has a thief planning to grab a bag. Store your luggage within sight, rather than at the end of a train car. Before leaving my luggage in a compartment, I establish a relationship with everyone there. I'm safe leaving it among mutual guards. I don't lock my bag, but to be safe, I often clip my rucksack straps to the luggage rack. When a thief makes his move in the darkness of a train tunnel, and the bag doesn't give, he's not going to ask, "Scusi, how is your luggage attached?"
Pack a picnic. For the best dining value and variety, stock up at a local deli, bakery, supermarket, or wine cellar before you board; most train stations offer at least one of these. Food sold on the train costs more, with options ranging from a basic coffee and sandwich cart to a more extensive bar car or sit-down dining car (noted on most schedules when available). A few trains offer a "complimentary" meal, in first class only (Eurostar to/from London, Thalys through Belgium, and some fast trains in Britain, Spain and Scandinavia), usually covered by a higher seat reservation fee.
Follow local train etiquette. Pay attention to the noise level in your car. If everyone else is speaking in hushed tones, follow suit. Watch for signs indicating that you're sitting in a designated quiet car, where business people come to work and others to nap. No matter where I'm sitting, I make an effort not to be the loudest person in earshot (easily done on the average Italian train, but takes extra awareness in, say, Germany). Resting your feet on the seat across from you without taking your shoes off is perhaps an even graver faux pas. Smoking is not allowed on trains or in stations in most of the European Union.
Talk to locals or other travelers. There is so much to be learned. Europeans are often less open and forward than Americans. You could sit across from a silent but fascinating and friendly European for an entire train ride, or you could break the ice by asking a question, quietly offering some candy, or showing your Hometown, USA, postcards. This can start the conversation flowing and the friendship growing.
Use train time wisely. The time you spend on long train rides can be an opportunity to get organized or make plans for your next destination. Read ahead in your guidebook, write journal entries, delete yesterday's bad photos, double-check your connection information with the conductor, organize your day pack, or write an email home (you don't have to be online to write one).
Strategize your arrival. Know what you need to accomplish in the station before heading out — e.g., looking up the schedule (and perhaps making seat reservations) for the next leg of your train trip, picking up a local map, hitting an ATM, buying a transit pass, or grabbing provisions from a grocery store. If you'll depart from the same station later, pay attention to the layout.
Watch for your station. Know which station you need before you arrive — check your guidebook or train schedule or ask fellow passengers. When arriving in a city (especially on a commuter train), you may stop at several suburban stations with signs indicating your destination's name and the name of the neighborhood. Only jump out at a suburban station (e.g., Madrid Vallecas, Roma Ostiense, or Dresden Neustadt) if it's closer to your hotel or is the only station that train serves. Otherwise, wait until you've reached the central station (Madrid Chamartín, Roma Termini, or Dresden Hauptbahnhof). If you do find yourself at the wrong station, don't despair: It's a safe bet that a city's stations are connected by frequent trains, and probably subway or buses as well.