Chapter 17 Part 1
Set aside your notions of what a train should look like and how it should behave. I rode this slick InterCityExpress, appropriately named the "Amsterdam", into Amsterdam's Centraal Station while looking over the shoulder of the train pilot, or whatever you call the driver of this beauty. ICE trains are designed to run at speeds up to about 200 MPH.
This Internet edition of chapter 17 is divided into four parts because it is so big. The four parts are:
For visiting the major cities and hundreds of others, trains are the best way to enjoy travel in Europe. It's a no-brainer — the cheapest, fastest, and most convenient way to go for the capital cities. Taking the train is also the most relaxing travel this side of a rocking chair.
On the other hand, if you want to roam around Burgundy or Bavaria or any of the rural areas of Europe an auto would serve you best. For important information on renting a car and all the things you need to know see chapter 18, also in four parts. It starts at European Auto Rental: Details and Documentation.
Train service in Europe includes normal trains and the newer high speed premium service trains.
First Class, Second Class
In most normal trains there are two classes of service, first and second. First class seating is plusher and roomier, and there are usually more seats available. Second class is filled up more often than first even though it has more seats on most trains. Most people travel in the second class cars. First class costs about 50% more than second class, but you get there at the same time.
High Speed Service
In addition to the "normal" trains, there are special high speed trains available in a few countries. The first European high speed train was the French TGV, or Train à Grande Vitesse (High Speed Train). Similar trains include the Thalys which runs from Paris to Amsterdam via Brussels and the Eurostar which makes the run through the Chunnel, connecting London with Paris and Brussels. In Germany the premium high speed train is the ICE (InterCity Express) and in Spain it is the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española).
What do they mean by high speed? This is considered to be anywhere from 200 km/hr to 300 km/hr, or 125 MPH to 185 MPH. That's pretty fast, especially when you consider that the trains go from city center to city center, though not at full speed within the city limits. In addition to the high speed, comfort and amenities on board are much better than on the normal trains.
TEE (Trans-Europe Express) trains of a generation ago were exclusively first class. They were formerly the top of the line but have been phased out by TGV, ICE, and the other high speed trains. The premium trains of today normally have two classes of service.
The insides look something like a plane and it rides at least as well as one with no air turbulence. But this happens to be a train, the Train à Grande Vitesse (High Speed Train). She cruises at over 130 mph. This is a first class car with 2+1 seating. Second class has 2+2 seating. Luggage racks are above the seats, and additional luggage space is provided near the door. You can see some luggage peeping over the ledge above. Keep an eye on your luggage as the train approaches a station and NEVER leave your luggage unattended when the train is in a station. Half of the seats face one direction and the other half in the other direction. The TGV, as it's commonly referred to, is only available on major long distance lines in France, with connections to Geneva, Switzerland and to Amsterdam, The Netherlands, via the Thalys company. Other countries in Europe have similar high speed train service.
WHAT IS RAIL EUROPE?
There is some popular confusion about the term "rail Europe." Let's sort this out first.
Rail Europe is a New York based privately held corporation. The French National Railroads (SNCF) and the Swiss Federal Railroads (SBB) are the majority shareholders. Rail Europe is the marketing representative of several dozen European national railroads in the USA. It is a wholesaler and retailer of rail passes, tickets, seat reservations, and supplements.
Thus, Rail Europe does not operate any trains, none. It is simply a ticket office. You can do business with Rail Europe or with one of many other retailers of rail products in the USA. It seems that they all get their rail passes through Rail Europe. Some of the retailers offer perks to customers to enhance business.
Many people insist on having seat reservations whether they are required or not. You can buy seat reservations from Rail Europe and other retailers in the USA. You can also buy seat reservations from the national railways of Europe on-line or at ticket windows throughout Europe. Buying direct from the railway rather than from a rail product retailer in the USA is much cheaper. I think that seat reservations are a waste of money regardless, and a huge waste of money if you buy them in the USA. See more about this below.
For links to a few major European rail sites see my page at Rail Services in Europe. DIY to save money, though you'll have to go through the learning curve to figure out how to use these sites. They have English versions but some of those are not especially user-friendly.
Do not board a train without a ticket. If you do it will be embarrassing and expensive when the conductor comes around. Also, don't try to hide in the toilet. The conductors know all the tricks and have keys to everything.
This is a typical train ticket in Europe. It happens to be for my trip od/von/de (from, in Polish, German, and French) Krakow, Poland do/nach/a (to) Prague, Czech Republic. If the ticket was for a reserved seat the asterisks would be dates and times of departure and arrival but this is an open ticket Wazny/Gueltig (valid, in Polish and German) for 60 days from January 8, 2006. The price is shown in Polish zlotych and in euros. Conductors have stamped it twice. Always keep your ticket handy until you get off. In Britain keep it handy until you pass the exit turnstiles.
You might want to get an estimate of the price of tickets before you go. This can help you budget and/or indicate whether a rail pass is a good buy for your itinerary. Getting true ticket prices from the USA is difficult. The outlets in the USA charge a hefty premium, plus postage and handling cost. Reservations are also over priced compared to the price in Europe.
If you want to compare ticket prices use the web sites of the European railroads. See my page at Trains in Europe for a few links. Ticket prices, in euros, for some routings are available. For most trains it is easier and usually cheaper to buy your tickets when you are in Europe. However the premium trains like TGV do offer discounts on non-refundable tickets when bought far enough in advance. You can do this on-line on the web sites of the individual rail systems and can save as much as 60%. Tickets can be purchased as much as 90 days in advance.
This pair of tickets is for a round trip on the TGV from Paris Gare Montparnasse to La Boule on the Atlantic coast. It's all in French so let me point out a couple of significant items. First, at the top you see BILLET à composter avant l'acces au train which means that you must put your ticket in the stamping machine before your board the train. See the photo of the yellow stamping machine below. They are barely visible but you can just make out a couple of little vertical smudges on the bottom of each ticket with a nearly invisible little hole just to the right. That is what the stamping machine did to your ticket and what the sharp eyed conductor will be looking for. Next, notice that the ticket to La Boule is €76.40 while the ticket coming back to Paris is only €40.00. Why? The reason is that Stephanie took a 5:25 PM train on a Friday in August to a popular beach resort. That is known as the rush hour on getaway Friday in the USA. The ticket identifies it in French as periode de pointe, literally "peak period." Returning late Sunday the same train in period normale cost about half as much. Dates and times are in European format which you can read more about at European Time and Dates. The trains are identified as TGV 8951 and TGV 8998 respectively. Stephanie has a fenetre (window) seat in voiture (car) 19 on both trains. She has been assigned seat 66 outbound and seat 63 returning to Paris. The outbound ticket is exchangeable and refundable but not the return ticket, which is a PREM. The ticket has her name above the 01 adulte but I smudged that out for privacy.
Train tickets are sold at windows in virtually every station. Look for the symbol of two overlapping rectangles with numbers 1 and 2 above the window. There is usually a line of people waiting. In very small stations tickets are sold from vending machines. The machines may or may not accept American credit cards. Always have some local cash (euros, pounds, kroner, etc.) in your pocket. In many stations, international tickets are sold at separate windows or in a room set aside from the main hall. If you ask for an international ticket at a window where it is not available the clerk will tell you straightaway, maybe in English.
If you need to buy a train ticket in Dublin allow yourself plenty of time. Lines like this are typical in Ireland, and throughout Europe.
Save time and maybe aggravation at the ticket window. Buy your train ticket from Fahrkarten (ticket) machines like this one in Düsseldorf, Germany. Other countries have similar dispensers. These machines generally accept coins, bank notes, and plastic, but usually only European plastic. It's too small to see in this image but the price for kids is the same as for dogs. There is probably an extra charge if you are bringing a bicycle.
Before boarding a train in some countries you must stamp your ticket. In the station hall or on the platform are orange, yellow, or red metal boxes with a slot in the side. Put your ticket in the slot and the machine will date stamp it. If you forget to stamp your ticket you are liable for a severe fine. It will cost. If you tell the conductor of your error before he discovers it the penalty should be considerably less. You know how to plead for mercy, don't you? I saw one fat-butt Ameican business man in a fine three piece suit throw a tantrum like a spoiled brat when he was caught. He even tried to bribe the conductor with a Churchill cigar.
Compostage de billets indicates a ticket stamping machine in a Paris train station. It is hard to miss these bright yellow boxes and it might be expensive if you do. The little window on top shows the date and time. Look at the illustration and put your ticket like so in the mouth-like opening below. SNCF is Societé Nationale des Chemins de fer Française, the "French National Railroad Company" in English.
Supplements to normal ticket fares are required on the high speed TGV, Talgo, IC, Thalys, ICE and other trains because they get you there faster with fewer stops. If you are traveling on a rail pass you may or may not need to pay the supplement. Look carefully at the conditions of your pass.
Supplements for bunks on overnight trains are never included in rail pass prices. See chapter 17 part 3, Night Trains in Europe. Also, the supplement on the Thalys from Amsterdam or Brussels to Paris may include a meal depending on the time of day. That is a pretty good meal and the supplement price is not out of line for what you would pay for lunch in Paris.
If you pay for a ticket, reservation, or supplement, make sure that all of the information on it is correct. In paying for a supplement on an Italian train, I did not notice that the conductor had put the wrong date on it. An hour later the crew changed and a more attentive conductor noticed that I was traveling on a supplement that was apparently two days old. He tried to charge me again, but I convinced him that the other conductor had made a mistake, or at least he gave up trying to collect after my protests. Notice that dates in Europe are written in dd/mm/yy format, not mm/dd/yy as we do in the USA. See chapter 28, Time and Dates in Europe, for more information on this topic.
They could hardly make it easier. This ticket machine in Lisbon, Portugal allows you to buy tickets for 4 types of trains, Alfa Pendular, InterCity, InterRegional, and Regional using your VISA credit or debit card. Sometimes American credit cards do not work in machines like this. The tactile screen also allows you to get schedules and learn when the next few trains depart. If you don't read Portuguese press the Union Jack for English or the tricolore for French. Click on the picture to see it in greater detail.
Better than a pocketful of tickets is one of the rail passes. These take one of several forms. The best known and most useful is the Eurail Pass, now called Eurail Global Pass. It is not exactly "global" but they can call it what they want I guess.
Eurail Pass is a joint project of the national rail companies of two dozen countries in Europe. Here is the list:
|Eurail Pass Countries 2014|
Ireland, Republic of
Ireland, Northern (UK)
The notable non-participant is the United Kingdom. Britain has its own rail pass program. Other non-participants are concentrated in eastern Europe. An adult Eurail Pass provides unlimited first class rail travel throughout the member countries. You can travel from Norway to Greece to Portugal, cross the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, and Romania all the way to the Black Sea. It is all included. It is amazing.
The Eurail Pass gives you a freedom which you've never known before. Just go to a station and get on the next train to wherever strikes your fancy. When you get to wherever and if you are not happy with what you find, just hop on another train. You've got a carte blanche pass that you can use 24 hours a day. I've met travelers who have lived on the trains for months. If you can't find a suitable hotel before your bed time, just go to the train station and get on a long distance train. I have often used overnighter trains to save a hotel expense.
One significant drawback to using a Eurail Pass is that many premium trains nowadays require a seat reservation, in first class and in second class. The reservation only costs about $4.00 but you have to go to a ticket window to buy one. Trains which require a seat reservation include all of the TGV trains in France, the Thalys train between Amsterdam and Paris, the Eurostar between Paris and London, and a number of others. Trains which require a reservation are indicated as such with a capital R on schedules and departure boards.
Eurail Pass also gives you substantial discounts on dozens of ferries throughout Europe. I love that Silja Line overnight ferry between Stockholm and Helsinki.
An Irish InterCity train parked in Dublin Heuston Station. This beauty will get you to Cork in under three hours so you can get out to Blarney Castle and kiss the Blarney Stone. I have unofficially renamed Ireland. It is now Guinness Island in my book. Don't miss the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin to learn how they make it and have a pint of the freshest brew available, with a view over the city.
There are many other rail passes, varying in length of time covered and other features. Regular Eurail Global Pass is available for consecutive first class travel for 15 days, 21 days, one month, two months, and three months. The price goes up as the number of weeks increases, but not proportionally. An adult three month pass works out to less than $25 per day, while a one month pass is about $42 per day. If you are 26 or older you must use an adult pass, but anyone who wants to travel first class can use an adult pass. The youth pass allows second class travel for those aged 25 or younger. The three month youth pass averages $16 per day and the one month pass is about $27 per day.
Eurail Global Pass Flexi offers lower overall cost but restricted travel, 10 or 15 days out of a two month period. With this one you don't feel like you're wasting your assets if you hang around Rome for a few days. But it is going to cost more on a per day basis. The adult fare works out to $81 per day and the youth pass comes in at $53 per day, both for 15 day passes.
There are another half dozen types of Eurail Passes available. For example, Eurail Global Saver Pass is a special arrangement for two to five people traveling together. This family plan saves you about 15% over individual passes. Another lower cost option is to buy a pass that is valid in 3 adjacent countries if that is your itinerary.
This map in the Vilnius train station shows the rail system in Lithuania. Notice that there is no track connecting Lithuania with its Baltic neighbor to the north, Latvia. I came in on a bus from Riga. And the rail connection to the south was so poor that I took a bus to Warsaw, Poland. What an awful overnight bus ride that was, probably the worst travel experience I have ever had. Click on the picture to see the map in greater detail.
Buying a Eurail Pass
The Eurail Pass can only be purchased outside of Europe, or so they say. Your travel agent may tell you that it takes a week to get the pass. I've used Eurail Passes a number of times and my experience is that it takes less time than. I bought my 2006 pass over the internet from the Rail Europe company and it was delivered in three days. I had even better service buying my 2009 pass from the Budget Europe Travel Service (B.E.T.S.) in Ann Arbor. See their site at B.E.T.S.. Eurail Pass is not transferable and is only valid with your passport. The conductors in Holland almost always ask to see your passport, but they seldom ask in any other country.
Having given you this information, a slight correction is in order. Some American Eurail Pass issuers want you to believe that the Eurail Pass is only available in the USA. I guess it's a marketing or business approach. Not only did I buy one in Arabia, I have bought Eurail Passes in Paris, and have read that it can be done at Eurail aid offices in other cities in Europe, for a 10% premium over the cost at home. So if you are already in Europe visit a Eurail office with your passport and credit card, or cash. In Paris, the office is in the Gare St. Lazare just off the main hall. A number of other passes are also available there, most of which are less expensive but also less versatile. However if you are a resident of Europe you cannot buy a Eurail Pass. There are other passes available for European residents.
Here is my Eurail FlexiPass from years ago that I bought at Gare Saint Lazare in Paris for, as you can see, 1,330 French francs. It was also validated at that office on the same day though we didn't start traveling until two days later, a mistake. Make sure the clerk validates it for your first day f travel, not the day you walk up to the window. It was valid for 5 days of travel in a 15 day period between May 2 and May 16, inclusive. Elizabeth had an identical pass. We used them to travel from Paris to Milan, to Venice, then a night train to Vienna, then to Budapest, then back to Milan via Zagreb, and finally back to Paris. We hung out in Milan and in Budapest for a few days but the other cities were pass throughs.
As soon as you receive your Eurail Pass read the "Conditions of Use." This is the small print on the back of the pass. Follow directions, exactly. Also read the other information that comes with your pass. Whomever you buy your pass from sends along a valuable booklet titled Eurail Traveler's Guide. Do yourself a really big favor and read it! This is updated every year so make sure you have the current edition. They also send an excellent map and timetable for major trains throughout the countries covered by the pass.
Eurail Pass cannot be used and its period does not start until it is validated. It must be validated in Europe before getting on your first train. To do this, present it at the ticket window in any station and the agent will enter the starting and ending dates (in the European system: day/month/year). Have a calendar with you and check these dates carefully before you leave the window. The agent will also write in your passport number so bring your passport. You might want to get it validated the day before you plan to use it so you are not standing in the ticket window line on the day of your first trip. If you do this make sure that your actual starting date is entered, not the date that you are validating the pass.
Do not write on the Eurail Pass or attempt to erase or change anything on it yourself. If you see a problem talk to a railroad official. Any monkey business will subject you to having your pass confiscated, require you to purchase a full fare ticket for the train you are on, and payment of a fine of up to €100, about $150. Wow. This is serious stuff. I have read sad stories of people who got the triple whammy so don't be a fool.
The Eurail Global Pass Flexi allows 10 or 15 days of travel within a two month time frame. These passes do require you to write on your pass. You must enter the day of travel in ink before boarding each train. Once you enter the day do not attempt to change it. And make sure you use the European date system, dd/mm/yyyy, and not the American way of mm/dd/yyyy. I prefer to use the three letter abbreviation for the month so there isn't any question. If you are taking a train which departs after 19h00 (7 PM) and it does not reach your destination before midnight write tomorrow's date on your pass. See the detailed instructions for the "7 PM rule" in your pass documents.
This is a first class coach on the National Express company's train from Edinburgh, Scotland to London, England. I was traveling on my BritRail Pass. This train has free WiFi on board and power outlets so you don't have to run down your netbook's battery. The UK has a multitude of private rail companies, not a single nationalized rail system as in most other countries in Europe.
Other Rail Passes
Unlimited mileage passes are also issued by the individual national railroads of Europe. Many countries offer special passes to encourage visitors. Some are valid for everyone and some are designed for families or small groups. Special super deals are available to senior citizens, junior citizens, and students, generally limited to those over 62 or under 26 years old. Britain, excluding itself from the Eurail Pass plan, offers its own pass which must be purchased outside Britain. Other countries offer special passes which can be purchased after arrival. One excellent pass providing travel throughout all of western Europe and some of eastern Europe is the Inter-Rail Pass. This is only available to those who have resided in Europe for at least six months.
My BritRail FlexiPass was valid for 8 days of travel in a two month period. I bought mine at Budget Europe Travel Service. I smudged out my name on this image which was in the upper right corner above United States. Britain gives special rates for seniors so if you are a geezer or the female equivalent make sure you give the agency your age to save a fair amount of money. With this pass I went to Cambridge for a day, went to Cardiff, and then to Fishguard on the west coast of Wales. A ferry took me to Ireland (where the Pass is not valid). After Cork and Dublin I took another ferry from Belfast over to Scotland where I could use the pass again. I visited Glasgow and Edinburgh, and then south to England again visiting York and back to London. Per the Pass rules, I wrote in the dates in ink prior to boarding the train each day that I traveled.
This excellent map is issued by BritRail covering the rail services of the UK. It comes with your BritRail Pass.
Just because you have a ticket or a rail pass does not mean that you have a seat. Seat reservations are required for some trains, and are recommended for many others.
You usually buy a reservation at any station ticket window. It usually costs three euros. You can also reserve seats at travel agencies in Europe. Make reservations early (at least a day in advance) if you really want to go. Your reservation card will show your origin and destination, the train number, the car number, your seat number, and seat position, i.e., window or aisle. It will also indicate smoking (if allowed) or non-smoking. Smoking is rarely allowed so take your last puff before walking into the station.
If you are not happy with the seat which was reserved for you look around for another open seat. Just move yourself, but not into a reserved seat. Let the conductor know when he comes around.
Many of the superior trains such as the TGV, Thalys, and some others mentioned at the beginning of this chapter require a reservation. Many Swedish and a few Norwegian trains require a reservation, though if you get on without one the conductor may find you an empty seat and collect a reservation fee. Reservations are required on all superior trains in Spain (no reservation fee but there may be a supplement fee), on some in Portugal, and on International Express trains in Italy and other countries. Your best bet is to invest in a current copy of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable to determine reservation requirements. In addition to the premium trains, a capital R in a rectangle at the top of the column indicates a train requiring a reservation. You will also see this on the train departure posters in the stations.
I did not have the task of obtaining the tickets or reservations for our odyssey across the Ukraine. My host took care of that. It is reported that obtaining tickets and reservations is very difficult in Russia and Ukraine. Our travels into Hungary when it was still under communist rule posed no problems — we just got on the trains with our Eurail Passes.
Though seat reservations are generally not required or necessary, there are times when it is advisable. I would make a reservation on any route bewteen major cities on summer weekends and around the major holidays like Christmas and Easter. I have seen the aisles full of people sitting on their luggage as Christmas approached.
Additionally, I would reserve a seat on International Express and higher class trains for travel on Friday afternoons and evenings and on Sunday afternoons and evenings throughout the year. These trains are full of businessmen riding first class, just where your adult Eurail Pass will seat you.
This convenient poster directs you to all the essential services in the Santa Apolónia train station in Lisbon, Portugal. WC is the almost universal designation for toilets in Europe. The large lower case i indicates train information, not tourist information. Funny how the future world is going back to sign language.
Don't believe or obey anyone on board except the conductor, passport police, and customs police. And you'd better believe these folks.
The conductor is present on the platform before the train departs and then walks through the train checking all tickets shortly after departure. He is the law on board, and he is the best source of information for arrival times and connections. Conductors are invariably courteous and helpful. They usually speak English. Crews change on long distance trains so you may be asked for your ticket several times on a long trip.
Passport police walk through the train at some border crossings. These formalities have been eliminated at borders of most adjoining European Union countries. Switzerland is a notable non-member of the EU and will ask to see your passport on entry. Passport police work in pairs and are armed with pistols. They ask to see your passport and perhaps ask where you are coming from, going to, and why. These guys and gals are gruff because they have a job that can get a bit testy. Don't take it personally. Just show them the little blue book with your mug shot on the first page, respectfully with no joking around.
Customs police are usually right behind the passport police, if any. These gentlemen and sometimes ladies are in uniform or in business suits. Expect no problems in first class, but they'll normally ask a few questions of second class passengers. They will conduct a search if they are suspicious. If you are caught carrying illegal substances for your smoking pleasure your journey is now over. It's bracelet time. Period.
The big number 2 indicates that this is a second class train with seats 81-106 at this end of the car. Smoking is allowed and only seating is provided, i.e., no bunks. This is car 7. The white sign with red letters shows that it is going from Warsaw to Krynica, Poland. The R in the box indicates that a seat reservation is required. The Ex in the other box indicates that it is an express train.
This page is the first of four in chapter 17 on trains in Europe. There is more as listed below.
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