By Captain And Clark, on December 12, 2014

Train travel through Europe

When it comes to exploring Europe, few options are more exciting or rewarding than traveling by train. This option gives you the opportunity to experience as many countries as possible in a short amount of time. It also is incredibly easy. We’ve traversed the European continent by train a couple of times, and most recently completed a route from Athens to Rome. After all of these experiences, we boiled down a few of our hard learned lessons to help you in planning your next rail trip.

Know before you go

Both times that we’ve traveled across Europe we used our handy Eurail passes. Our personal recommendation is the Global Pass. This particular pass allows you 10-15 days of travel through eligible countries during a two month period. One day of travel comprises a 24-hour period where you can hop on as many trains as possible. The 10-15 travel days don’t need to be consecutive, but they do need to fall within the two month period you specify. They best way to use your Eurail pass is to figure out where you want to go (or at least a rough sketch of it) and budget your time accordingly.

The nicest part of the Global Pass is that you don’t need to fill out the pass until you’re on the train. This gives you flexibility as to when you travel.

Not all countries fall into the Eurail program. For example, Poland, Serbia, and Montenegro currently will not honor the Eurail pass. Some legs of travel are so popular that they require you to book in advance. Ljubljana, Slovenia, to Rome, for example, is an overnight train that fills up so regularly that you are required to book your spot online. Afterward, you may use your Eurail pass as the ticket itself.

Our advice: Order in advance. Eurail will mail you physical passes, and it takes a couple of days to get them. Those residing outside of Europe should not attempt to buy them the day of travel.

Viewfinder Tip: Download the Eurail Rail Planner app to get the most current information on European train departures and arrivals.

Our experience using Global Pass

Using your Global Pass for the first time can be a bit daunting, but, really, is a cinch. You simply arrive at the station and jump on the train that you want. (Or, if you’re like us, you’ll miss the first train by 30 minutes because you’re working with outdated information.) Once on board, fill out your pass with your full name and the date you’re traveling.

For example, if we were traveling from Paris to Munich on November 1, we’d fill out our pass with “11/01.” For the rest of the day we could use the pass to ride any train that honors it. When we first tried this out we forgot to fill out our pass. As the conductor came down the aisle he stopped and kindly explained the process to us. Some of the things we’ve learned over the years:

  • Make sure you always carry your pass and that you fill it out once you’re actually on the train, but before the conductor comes to claim your ticket.
  • Keep your pass on you at all times.
  • Do not lose your pass.

Our experience with the quality of trains

We jumped off the platform in Paris and boarded a sleek, immaculate train bound for Vienna, Austria. As we slipped across Southern France with the grace of a shadow over the water, we bought beers in the food car and drank a toast to travel. From Vienna, we jumped on a train for a day trip to Budapest. The soft, reclining chairs in first class were more like Barcaloungers than train seats. We were so accustomed to luxury that we didn’t think twice when we booked our passage from Greece to Croatia. These particular trains have no first class cars and offer very different standards of luxury. We spent a long 34 hours sitting in a six person cabin, knee to knee with the people sitting across from us.

Of course the lessons from this experience were simple. First, always book first class. The price difference is mild and the difference is quite large. When you’ve been on a train for 14 hours, you’ll want the seat that reclines fully. Also, not all trains are created equal.

Depending on where you are, the quality of the train (and the presence of first class cabins) will differ greatly. Be mindful of where you’re train is. On your Eurail map, blue and purple rail lines denote nicer trains, while red and grey lines often symbolize those with more vintage cars.

Our experience crossing borders

Our objective was simple. All we wanted to do was travel from Athens to Zagreb. Greece only had just recently reopened its rail lines. As such, there was little information on how to travel from Thessaloniki (in the very northern region of Greece) to Belgrade, Serbia.

We boarded a train in the evening that we hoped was bound for Serbia. Unsure what route it was going to take, we found ourselves awakened in the middle of the night by uniformed men demanding our passports. As they scooped up our most precious documents and jumped off the train, we looked out the window to figure out exactly where we were. The snap of a yellow sun on a red flag was our only indication that we had entered Macedonia, a country not covered by our Eurail passes. As the officers came on board and redistributed our passports, they glanced at our destination tickets.

Next, they pulled out a tabulation book and demanded €30 apiece.

We paid the fee. And the experience taught us some pretty important things about how border crossings work. First, be sure to carry Euros. When you cross a border to a country that doesn’t honor the Eurail pass, you’ll need cash to buy your ticket for that leg. Euro is acceptable on all routes, even if the country itself isn’t on the Euro. Also, don’t stress. At each border crossing a customs officer will inspect your passport and give it back. Then your passport will be taken again by local police a few yards down the track. They are two different agencies and they both need to see your documents.

The trains in Europe are really well run and super fun to ride. If you want to explore Europe and see as much as you can, there really isn’t a better way to do it.

What are your favorite places to explore by train?