On the Train: Tips for a Smart Ride

Use your train time to organize your day bag, plan your arrival, or make a new friend.
By Rick Steves

Once you’re on board, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the journey.

Find a seat. If you have a seat assignment, 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 only 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. People complain about the porters in the European train stations. I think they’re great — I’ve never used one.

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?”

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 daypack, or write an email home (you don’t have to be online to write one). If the train has power outlets (rare but becoming more common), charge your gadgets. Don’t, however, get so immersed in chores that you forget to keep an eye out the window for beautiful scenery around the next bend.

Use WCs — they’re free. To save time and money, use the toilets on the train rather than those in the station (which can cost money, and are often less clean). Toilets on first-class cars are a cut above second-class toilets. I “go” first class even with a second-class ticket. Train toilets are located on the ends of cars, where it’s most jiggly. A trip to the train’s john always reminds me of the rodeo. Some toilets empty directly on the tracks, so never use a train’s WC while stopped in a station (unless you didn’t like that particular town). A train’s WC cleanliness deteriorates as the journey progresses.

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.

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 a friendship growing.

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, usually covered by a higher seat-reservation fee.

Strategize your arrival. Use your guidebook to study up on your destination city while you’re still on board — it’s far more time-efficient and less overwhelming to arrive in a station already knowing how you plan to reach the city center (or your hotel). If you’re trying to make a tight connection, it’s good to know which platform your next train leaves from. If you don’t already have that information, flag down a conductor, who either knows the answer or should be able to look it up for you.

As you approach your destination, have a game plan ready for when you get off the train. 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 map from a trackside information office, hitting an ATM, buying a transit pass, or grabbing provisions from a grocery store (especially if you’re arriving late, after most city-center shops and restaurants have closed). If you’ll depart from the same station later, pay attention to the layout.

Know where to get off. In Dresden, I twice got off my train too early — at two different suburban stations — before arriving at the central station. Know which station you need before you arrive, and be patient. 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 (e.g., Madrid Vallecas, Roma Ostiense, or Dresden Neustadt). Don’t jump out until you’ve reached the central station (Madrid Chamartín, Roma Termini, or Dresden Hauptbahnhof) — ask fellow passengers or check your guidebook to find out which name to look for. Learn the local word for “main station.”

Be aware that some trains (especially express trains) stop only at a major city’s suburban station — if you stay on board, expecting to get off in the center a few minutes later, you’ll bypass your destination city altogether. For instance, several trains to “Venice” leave you at Venice’s suburban station (Venezia Mestre), where you’ll be stranded without a glimpse of a gondola. (You’ll have to catch another train to reach the main Venezia Santa Lucia station, on the Grand Canal.) On the other hand, it can be handy to hop out at a suburban station if it’s closer to your hotel than the main station. Many trains headed for Barcelona’s big Sants station also stop at the Plaça de Catalunya subway station, which is near many recommended accommodations. 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.