If you are planning a trip to Europe, the best and easiest way to see that fascinating continent is to go by train and use a rail pass that you have customized. Our latest European exploration took us by train around Sweden, Denmark and Germany, and it was delightful.
Traveling by train is a great way to get around and really see the countryside. It is especially convenient and practical in Europe because its rail system is one of the finest and most complete in the world. It is no wonder that European trains are widely patronized by Europeans and visitors alike for business and pleasure.
European trains have convenient schedules, comfortable seats, wide windows and serve almost everywhere. They run far more often and to vastly more places than in North America. The best are state-of-the-art, fast and smooth, capable of traveling at more than 200 miles per hour. Even local and secondary trains are usually modern, comfortable, swift and on time. With tracks scrupulously maintained for safety and comfort, trains are the way to see Europe.
European trains run so frequently between most cities that you can usually go where and when you want without much advance planning.
If you miss your train on a busy main line, chances are another one will be along soon. Unless you are way off the beaten path, you can simply head for the station with your Eurail pass in hand when you want to travel. Then simply check the posted schedule for the time and track of the next train going toward your destination.
When you arrive on the right platform, a train will usually arrive in less than an hour (sometimes much less) that will speed you to your destination. Find a seat, have your Eurail Pass ready for the conductor to check and enjoy the trip. It’s a no-hassle experience without security lines, forfeiture of water bottles and other airport indignities and time-wasters.
Even if the train you want is one of the few premium trains that require advance seat reservations, they can be obtained in a few minutes at almost any railroad station or online with the free Eurail Rail Planner app.
Onboard, European train seats are much bigger and have more legroom than commercial aircraft. Also, restrooms are plentiful, and amenities such as bar or dining cars and vendors offering food and drink are common. There is room to store luggage and no checked bag fees. You can even walk around without being told to get back to your seat.
Train travel is scenic and low-stress. Looking through large windows, you can really see the countryside as you pass. It is a great opportunity to observe how people live as you relax in comfort while munching on a sandwich or sipping a glass of wine instead of dealing with traffic, foreign language road signs, getting lost and hunting for a parking space if you drive.
Additionally, if you plan well and buy the right Eurail Pass for your needs, you will add both ease and economy to your trip. Your pass usually saves you money and gives you the freedom to take advantage of the flexible schedules. With it you also avoid change fees and the inconvenience of buying advance tickets for individual trip or worrying about how to get a refund for the tickets you bought for specific trains.
A Eurail Pass is a pay-once-in-advance ticket that gives you passage on most trains across Europe. The so-called Global Eurail Pass covers 28 countries. The Select Pass is good for trains in two, three or four adjacent countries which you specify in advance, and 27 one-country passes are available, too. Each pass is available for periods from a few days to months and for as many days of actual that you think will suit your travel needs.
Simply Smart Travel European Rail Travel Tips
Do pre-travel research. Most of it can be done online. Once you know which countries you will visit, how long you will stay in each place and what you want to see, you can order the right Eurail Pass in advance and have time to familiarize yourself with schedules, which trains need advance reservations, etc. Order your Eurail Pass from raileurope.com. Rick Steves has an excellent essay about how to do it at ricksteves.com/publications/rail-guide-form. Note: Eurail passes must be bought before you leave the U.S. They cannot be bought in Europe.
Pack light. You will have to lift bags on and off trains and find a place to store them once onboard. Some smaller stations have steps and no elevators. One small to medium bag is ideal.
Mix a little. Don’t be afraid to talk with fellow passengers, especially Europeans. You might find some interesting people and learn a lot of about their home countries.
Save some money if you are on a tight budget. If you are traveling with one or more companions, a companion discount fare saves 15 percent.
You can eat and drink at your seat on most trains. Save a piece of fruit or other snack from your hotel breakfast for your onboard eating and/or buy what you want at a grocery or at the station to save on onboard prices and expand your choices.
Travel second class. The accommodations are not as commodious, but they are decent. The scenery is the same.
If you are willing to give up some daytime scenic views, sleeping in your seat on an overnight train saves you a hotel stay.
If you’re 27 or younger, you can save 20 percent with a Eurail Youth Pass. Children under 12 travel free.
Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way for Euro Train Travel: Wear comfortable clothes that are appropriate for your desired activities at your next destination.
This Destination at a Glance:
Over 50 Advantage: Relaxing way to travel. It is easy to take advantage of onboard amenities and arrive in the center of your destination.
Mobility Level: Low, with the exception of some rural stations without elevators.
When to Go: Any time; summer trains are often crowded with tourists.
Where to Stay: Near the station. Hotels within walking distance of the station save cab fares and time. Most stations are conveniently located in the City Center.
Special Travel Interests: European culture, art, cuisine and history
Jewish Train Travel in Europe
Trains are a convenient vehicle to use to travel for any reason in Europe, and they serve many of the cities and other sites in Europe that are home to significant events in European Jewish history, both positive and negative.
Even though anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe as it is in the United States, it should not deter Jews from traveling by train there.
While anti-Semitism is always reprehensible and a possibility anywhere, today’s Europe is not the Europe of the 1930s. The incidents of anti-Semitism fortunately are so far isolated and not rail-oriented. Your statistical chances of being caught in an anti-Semitic incident, particularly a violent one, are still quite remote.
What’s more, official government policies and laws, especially in France and Germany, are strongly opposed to repeating the unfortunate history of Nazi-dominated Europe. For example, Deutsche Bahn, the German national railroad, is even planning to name one of its new high-speed trains after Anne Frank.
Since European trains are amenable to passengers bringing food and drink on board, it is possible to observe Jewish dietary laws while on the rails. Most big cities and quite a few smaller ones have emporia that sell kosher food that you can buy and consume on board. Some trains, like the Eurostar, even serve kosher meals if they are requested a couple of weeks in advance.
If you are Jewish and are planning a European train trip to see Jewish historical sites and/or trace your ancestors, some recommended reading includes A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, fourth edition, by Ben G. Frank (Penguin, 2018) and Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide To Eastern Europe by Ruth Ellen Gruber (National Geographic Books, 2007).
Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Fla.