Travelling by rail through Europe can be as romantic and adventurous as it sounds, if you know a few tips to make train travel a blast not a burden.
I had to laugh. Because to me – and to my fellow railway aficionados around the world – the vacation begins the moment we step on board the train. That’s when my heart rate bumps up a notch.
Two summers ago, I bought a Eurail pass and spent three months travelling 6,000 miles through 13 countries, mostly in eastern Europe, and I loved every minute of it. Well, ok, to be perfectly honest with you, there were a couple of long, dull stretches, and some overnight trains were a bit rough around the edges, even for me. But most of the time, it was great fun watching strange landscapes stream by and chatting with fellow passengers, even if we had nothing in common but sign language and small exchanges of gum and chocolate.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to interview one of the most famous railway travellers of our era, Mark Smith, better known as The Man in Seat 61. I asked him why more people don’t indulge in the pleasures of railroad travel. “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 told me. “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.”
If you’re thinking about giving a European railway trip a go, I’ll share with you the six most important bits of railway wisdom I’ve learned.
1. Get a railway map.
I’m talking about a proper paper map, the kind you can spread out on a café table or mount on a wall where you’ll see it every day during the time you’re planning your journey. Rail maps of Europe are increasingly hard to come by due to the way cars and planes now dominate the travel industry. My old standby, the Thomas Cook Rail Map, has just gone out of print, but I recently discovered a reasonable substitute called A Travellers’ Railway Map of Europe.
2. Think of your train ride as a hop-on-hop-off opportunity.
Unlike air planes, 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. As you study your map, you may suddenly realise 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 where you can continue your journey by sea. Your map may suggest many intriguing digressions worth considering.
3. Download a railway timetable app.
DB Navigator and iRail European Rail Timetables provide comprehensive train schedules throughout Europe, complete with details about connections, intermediary stops, maps, and the local name for stations. This can be a lifesaver; for instance, without the iRail app, I would never, ever have worked out that Glavna Železnička Stanica is the rail hub of Belgrade, Serbia.
4. Pack light.
Less luggage means more freedom and mobility when you travel. Some people are taking this all the way and hitting the road with no luggage at all, just stuffing one of those 17-pocket vests with toiletries and underwear. I like a few more creature comforts and prefer my pockets a bit less bulky. I’ve learned how to get everything I need for months on the railroad into a single roll-aboard suitcase measuring 21x13x7.5 inches (54x34x19 cm). Fully packed (see my packing list) it weighs about 22lb (10kg), which I can haul on and off trains and up and down staircases easily enough.
5. When you arrive in a new town, stop for coffee.
One of my favourite travel bloggers, Wandering Earl, advises spending 20 minutes in the station café as soon as you disembark. After the discombobulation of any journey, a leisurely cup of coffee is a great way to recombobulate. I like to use this time to sort out details of lodging and transportation, check my wallet to ensure I have enough of the local currency on hand, let my ears adjust to the local language, and generally collect my wits before plunging into unknown territory.
6. Never chase a missed train – get a pastry and wait for the next one.
This sage advice was posted on my Facebook page in response to something I wrote bemoaning an unavoidable delay in starting my eastern Europe train trip. I can only assume the fellow who came up with it is a zen master or advanced mystic.
We all know it’s utterly useless to chase missed trains, boats that have sailed, and planes that have taken off without us or been cancelled altogether. Yet that seldom prevents us from running down the station platform, shouting curses at the retreating tail lights, only stopping when we realise that we’ve lost not only our transportation and our mental equilibrium, but the last shred of our dignity as well. Sinking our teeth into a warm, flaky pastry — or pursuing some other simple, pleasurable activity that enables us to be present to the moment — has a way of putting life back into proper perspective.
And that’s what rail travel 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!”