On the rails: 6 tips for taking the train in Europe

Traveling by train in Europe can be as romantic and adventurous as it sounds. Make sure you heed these six tips to make train travel a blast, not a burden.

Train in Europe

By Adam Nowek

Updated 29-2-2024

“I love trains, but I never take them. I’m always in too much of a hurry to get where I’m going so I can start my vacation.” It’s a common refrain from many residents of Europe, who have unparalleled access to dense railway networks across much of the continent but often forgo taking the train in Europe for cheap airfares or uncomfortable bus journeys. But for train aficionados around the world, the vacation begins the moment you step on board the train. Traveling across Europe with a Eurail or Interrail pass is a rite of passage for nearly every backpacker. Sometimes, you’ll encounter a couple of dull stretches and some overnight trains can be a bit spartan. But most of the time, it’s great fun watching gorgeous landscapes stream by and chatting with fellow passengers.

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Who is the man in seat 61?

Enter one of the most famous rail travelers of our era: Mark Smith, better known as The Man in Seat 61. Mark is baffled as to why more people don’t indulge in the pleasures of taking the train in Europe. “People don’t understand that by train (and, for that matter, ship), the journey itself can be interesting, fun, romantic, adventurous, and an integral part of your experience,” he surmises. “It’s not just about getting there. For those who have only experienced watching the hands on their watch go round on a long-haul flight, or droning down an eyesore motorway, that can be hard to grasp.”

Forget driving in Europe; if you’re thinking about taking the train in Europe, learn from these six important bits of rail travel wisdom.

Get a railway map

No, not a downloadable app for your smartphone; get a proper, paper map.

Train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof
A high-speed train waiting at a platform at Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Photo: Daniel Abadia / Unsplash)

Get the kind of map that you can spread out on a café table or mount on a wall; make sure you can use it every day during your journey. Your phone might not always get a signal; it never hurts to have an analog backup on hand if you need to change routes. Printed rail maps of Europe are increasingly hard to come by. Eurail maintains a fairly comprehensive map of the continent, though.

Think of your train ride as a hop-on-hop-off opportunity

Unlike airplanes, which zip you from city to city, or major motorways, on which you see little but petrol stations and fast-food chains, trains allow easy stopovers along the way.

Train at Praha hlavní nádraží
An intercity train at Praha hlavní nádraží (Photo: Olia Nayda / Unsplash)

As you study your map, you may suddenly realize there’s an interesting town, lake, friend’s home, or UNESCO World Heritage site lying right along your route. As most railroad systems were installed when ferry travel was commonplace, they often connect seamlessly to ports. Your map may suggest many intriguing digressions worth considering.

Download a railway timetable app

In addition to your foldable map, it doesn’t hurt to have a good app installed on your smartphone, either. Many of the mobile apps provided by national railway authorities have limited access to timetables outside of their own country.

Trains at Amsterdam Centraal
Passengers leaving a train at Amsterdam Centraal (Photo: Bruno van der Kraan / Unsplash)

The major exception to this is Deutsche Bahn (often referred to just as DB), the German carrier. Their DB Navigator app, which is available for iPhone and Android, has access to timetables all the way to China, so it’s easily the best app you can have when it comes to navigating your journey. Keep in mind, though, that you can only buy tickets in that app for a journey involving Germany. Eurail/Interrail also has their own app, which is especially handy for travelers using a rail pass.

Pack light

Less luggage means more freedom and mobility when you travel. Some people are taking this all the way to the extreme; travelers are hitting the road with no luggage at all, just stuffing multi-pocket vests with toiletries and underwear.

Train platform at Wien Hauptbahnhof
A train departs a platform at Wien Hauptbahnhof (Photo: Daniel Minárik / Unsplash)

Most people prefer a few more creature comforts when they’re taking the train in Europe. Learn how to get your packed essentials down to a single roll-aboard suitcase that could act as carry-on luggage at the airport. Fully packed, one of these suitcases won’t slow you down or make staircases a hassle.

When you arrive in a new town, stop for coffee

If you’ve just spent a number of hours sitting on the train and making multiple connections, you’ve earned the right to slow down a little bit.

Night train selfie
A passenger takes a selfie from the compartment of a night train (Photo: Simon Tartarotti / Unsplash)

Once you get to your destination station, sit down for a leisurely cup of coffee for 20 minutes. Use this time to sort out lodging and transportation details, check to ensure you have enough of the local currency on hand, adjust your ears to the local language, and collect your wits before plunging into unknown territory.

Never chase a missed train in Europe – get a pastry and wait for the next one

We all know it’s useless to chase missed trains, boats that have sailed, and airplanes that have taken off without us.

Torre Annunziata Centrale train station
Empty train platforms at Torre Annunziata Centrale (Photo: Ciro di Lauro / Unsplash)

Yet that seldom prevents us from running down the station platform, shouting curses at the retreating taillights; we only stop when we realize that we’ve lost our transportation, our mental equilibrium, and maybe the last shred of our dignity. Sinking our teeth into a warm, flaky pastry — or pursuing some other simple, pleasurable food or drink (a beer with a local couldn’t hurt, either) that enables us to be present to the moment — has a way of putting life back into perspective.

That’s what taking the train in Europe is all about. “A good chill-out trip,” says Mark Smith, “on a long daytime train is a wonderful opportunity for reflection, away from doorbells and phone calls. If you can’t learn about yourself there, perhaps you never will.”