By Rick Steves
Great European train stations stir my wanderlust. Stepping off a train in Munich, I stand under the station's towering steel and glass rooftop and study the big, black schedule board crowned by the station clock. It lists two dozen departures. Every few minutes, the letters and numbers on each line spin and tumble as one by one cities and departure times work their way to the top and flutter away.
Surrounded by Germany on the move, I notice businessmen in tight neckties, giddy teenage girls, and a Karl-Marx-like bum leaning on a Bierstube counter. The fast and the slow, the young and the old, we're all in this together — working our way up life's departure board.
There's plenty of romance here, but the hustle and bustle at train stations can also be confusing. Here are some tips on navigating Europe's temples of travel.
Nearly every station has old-fashioned ticket windows staffed by human beings, usually marked by long lines; avoid them by using ticket machines, which almost always offer instructions in English.
The downside to ticket machines: Some won't take American credit cards (even if they claim to), or accept them only if you type in your card's PIN. If the machines aren't cooperating with your card, try cash (most machines are labeled according to the kind of payment they accept), or head for the ticket window.
If you do opt for using a ticket window, be sure you select the appropriate line — larger stations may have different windows for domestic, international, sleeper cars, or immediate departures. When buying tickets, you can most clearly communicate your intentions by writing them out and showing them to the ticket agent: destination, date, time, how many people, first or second class. If there's a problem, she'll solve it.
It's often possible to buy tickets aboard the train, but expect to pay an additional fee for the convenience. Be sure to have enough cash in case the conductor can't use your American credit card. If you're buying on board, find the conductor before he finds you; otherwise, your "fee" could turn into a much heftier "fine" for traveling without a valid ticket. Be aware that on most local trains (especially commuter lines), all trains in Switzerland, and many others around Europe, you can be fined for traveling sans ticket, no matter what. Look for warning signs on train doors.
(For tips on buying tickets from home, see here.)
Even if you've already looked up your train schedules online, always 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. All European timetables use the 24-hour clock.
Learning to decipher printed schedules makes life on Europe's rails easier. Posters list all trains that arrive at and depart from a particular station each day. This information is clearly shown in two separate listings: Departures are usually in yellow, and arrivals are normally in white. In some stations, you'll find free schedule booklets listing all their daily departures.
Familiarize yourself with the symbols in schedules that indicate exceptions: Crossed hammers, for instance, mean the train goes only on workdays (daily except Sundays and holidays); a cross signifies that it runs only on Sundays and holidays. Most other symbols are easy enough to guess at: A little bed means the train has sleeping compartments, and crossed silverware indicates a dining car.
Many stations also have either video screens or big flippy boards that list the next several departures. These often befuddle travelers who don't realize that all over the world, the same five easy-to-identify columns are listed: destination, major stops along the way, type of train, track number, and departure time. I don't care what language they're in; without much effort you can accurately guess which column is which.
Stations may also have self-service computer terminals — many of which are ticket machines — where you can look up schedule information. These computers are almost always multilingual and can be real time-savers. Use them to understand all your options. Many even print out a schedule tailored to your trip.
Of course, your best authority is the person at the train station information window. Uniformed employees on the platforms or on board the trains can also help.
Besides offering travel-related services, most stations are great places to take care of your basic to-do list, with ATMs, grocery stores (usually with longer hours than you'll find in the town center), restaurants, bike-rental kiosks, and shops selling calling cards and/or mobile-phone SIM cards.
Most major stations have storage lockers and/or a luggage-checking 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 must check their bags at a luggage-deposit desk — often after going through an airport-type security check. This service is expensive; you'll pay $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. (I once spent a day in Marseille carrying around my laptop.) Allow plenty of time to retrieve your bag before boarding your train. Bag-check desks come with lines, can close for lunch in smaller stations, and usually aren't open all night — confirm opening and closing times before storing your bag. If the station doesn't offer a place to leave your bags, head to a nearby tourist-information office, hotel, or gift shop: Ask nicely, offer your most charming smile (or a small fee), and you'll likely find someone willing to keep an eye on your things for a few hours.
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.
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.
Most stations have comfortable waiting rooms, and travelers with fancy tickets often enjoy fancy business or VIP lounges. Before you spend hours idling in one of these rooms, take advantage of the station's services (look up schedules for the next leg of your trip, get groceries) or explore the area around the station. You may well find yourself within a short walk of something really cool. For example, if you're changing trains in Cologne, even on a tight schedule you can easily pop outside for a jaw-dropping look at its cathedral, just across the square. Waiting rooms can be decent last-ditch sleeping options (but guard your valuables).
Train stations are also major bus stops, so connections from train to bus are generally no more difficult than crossing the street. Buses go from the stations to nearby towns that lack train service. If you have a bus to catch, be quick, since many are intended for commuters and are scheduled to connect with the train and leave promptly. If an airport is nearby, you'll find bus or rail airport shuttle services (usually well marked) at the train station.