Chapter 17, Part 1
HOW TO EUROPE
The Complete Travelers Handbook
Internet edition. By John Bermont.
Photos by the author except as noted.
A page from
with photographer and author
I rode this InterCityExpress (ICE), 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. Welcome to Holland.
On the rails is the way to go in Europe!
Trains are the
best way to enjoy travel in Europe, and the most relaxing
travel this side of a rocking chair.
Train service in Europe includes normal trains and the newer slick
high speed premium service trains.
First & 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?
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 represents 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. 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 below. For links to a few major European rail sites see my page at
Rail Services in Europe.
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 Rail Services 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.
Train tickets are sold at windows in 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 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.
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
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
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,
however sometimes American 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 24 countries in Europe. Here is the list for 2013.
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's 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 overnighters to save a hotel
expense. Eurail Pass also gives you substantial discounts on dozens
of ferries throughout Europe.
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 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. Click on the picture to see it 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
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.
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. Whoever you buy your pass from they
send 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 the 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
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
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.
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.
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.
NOTE TO READERS
I welcome questions and comments. If you have any concerns about your trip to
Europe that have not been covered well enough in this chapter do not hesitate to write and ask.
My email address is
When you write please include as much detail as possible. There are about 50 countries in Europe.
It will help me answer if you mention the countries and/or cities you plan to visit.
I will reply in a day or two.
Don't forget to scroll through the Table of Contents below. The other 29 chapters of
HOW TO EUROPE
are also available, free to read on line.
For a check-off punchlist of everything go to The Finale,
Packing List and Last Call:
For Travel In Europe
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This internet edition of chapter 17 is in 4 parts due to its large size.
This is part 1. Click the part numbers below to see more about trains in Europe.
classes of service, train tickets, Eurailpass, other rail passes, reservations, official business
finding your station, finding your train, finding your car, luggage, on-board train facilities,
eating on the train.
sleeping on night trains, night train reservations, night train facilities,
departure and destination procedures, potpourri, train station facilities.
international buses and ferry services. Sometimes there are no train tracks!
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