Europe’s Trains and Rail Europe

Photography by the authors

Q. A few months back you wrote about how to save hassle and money on European car rentals, but we now realize we don’t want to drive amongst all those small, fast cars. We’d like to try train travel. Any thoughts about companies like Rail Europe?

We hear you. Europeans probably enjoy the “fun” of driving more than Americans. We’ve found Europeans tend to drive to places less than one hour apart and fly to locations more than four hours away — but, for travel between cities in the range of one to four hours away, train travel reigns supreme.

Rail has several advantages. First, train travelers tend to be gregarious. You have time to ask questions and Europeans seem more outgoing and helpful with foreigners who are fellow train travelers. They often will have suggestions regarding hotels, restaurants and attractions at your destination. You merely have to ask. Second, the trains were there a long time before the airlines. Often a city center has been laid out around the railway station. And as air travel has developed, some of those marvelous old railway hotels have become less busy and less expensive even though their convenience for train travelers has continued. Third, once you travel on Europe’s trains you learn the protocols and notice the uniformity. The names of city destinations are usually somewhat similar in all languages or can be learned; and all train travel uses the same (albeit 24-hour) clock. Numbers are the same in any language. Finally, attendants at train station kiosks perform a wonderful function: if you learn the words for “please’ and can manage a smile, they will print out all options for your journey and that absolutely simplifies life.

We have found Rail Europe consistently useful both in planning a trip and in helping you to keep costs down. Explore the website, select and price the alternatives and study the material it offers online. You need to buy before you leave the USA but if the dollar falls further — as seems possible these days in currency exchanges —
you have locked in the prices. There are rules to read about completing the rail passes before you board the train, of course, and some fast trains need reservations as well as the pass. As the experts say, Explore the website.

The one thing Rail Europe cannot do for you is downsize your baggage. Be aware some railway stations may not have elevators. Anyone trundling heavy suitcases up steep concrete steps and over “romantic” cobblestones begins to get the message: Pack light.

Europe’s train seats are comfortable. But if the train is crowded and others travel with the heavy baggage typical of Americans, things can get difficult. The bottom left image shows a rural train journey when the train was empty and allowed carefree luggage placement. Bottom right was the TGV train to Paris, so crowded during a train strike that reservations got mislaid and passengers in a rare situation had to choose between leaving their luggage behind or standing for 350 miles in a train going 186 mph and giving the seat to their luggage. Travel light!

My family doctor, many years ago when he was on his honeymoon after a year of house officer jobs, found an extra benefit to train travel. Quite used to handling every third night on call with little sleep, he arranged (without warning his bride!) for every third night on their trip across Europe to be on a long train journey, as he told me, “to save the cost of a hotel every third night!”

They are still married.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called
The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.