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So you’re planning a European vacation and you’re trying to decide what the best way to get around Europe is, right? For those who want to travel in comfortable, save money and enjoy a range of benefits no airline could ever compete with, train travel in Europe is the most underrated form of long-distance travel out there; and without a doubt the best way to travel around Central Europe.
Having lived in Prague for over 6 years, I can’t recall the number of train journeys I have taken around Central Europe. If I start planning a trip to another European city, I will almost always check if I can travel there conveniently by train first.
Of course, trains can’t get you everywhere in Europe – they can’t cross oceans (though they can go underneath them), and many remote areas or countries don’t have access to them. But for traveling between most popular European cities within the continent, travel by train is the way to go. But if you’re still in doubt, here are a number of reasons why you should consider traveling by train in Europe.
The views are magical
Views of fluffy white clouds at sunset, twinkling city lights at night and glistening peaks of snow-capped mountains below are pretty impressive from the aeroplane, but unless you’ve bagged yourself a window seat on your flight, you’ll be uncomfortably leaning over your fellow passenger to get a sneak peek or you’ll only catch a glimpse at take off and landing.
Travel by train in Europe and you’ll have not only a good chance of getting a window seat (in fact they can be pre-booked), but depending on the route you take, you’ll see mountains, cities, river, lakes and more through the train window and up close, rather than from 35,000 feet in the air.
In my experience, flying has always been a method of travel that has gotten me from point A to point B, but traveling by train is much more about the experience. Like Hemingway said, “It’s not about the destination, but about the journey”.
You can skip the tedious airport security
Talking of stress, one of the worst things about air travel is the ridiculously long queues at check-in, security, and boarding, and those lines alone can drive even the most patient of travelers, like me, to insanity. Recent studies have shown that the “transit” of air travel is more stressful than moving house and most travelers find it the worst part of taking a vacation. But you don’t have half this stress with train travel.
With terrorism on the rise in Europe, some train stations have implemented security checkpoints where you will have your ticket checked before proceeding to the platform, but these are very efficient, quick and painless. For the most part, you can count on skipping the TSA-style security checks, passport checks, luggage check-ins, and all the other annoying procedures that seem to make flying so stressful. There’s also no take off, landing rules or seat-belt signs, and you’re not stuck in your seat if there is turbulence 🙂
You can turn up 10 minutes before departure
Forget the 2 to 3-hour wait at the airport, with train travel you can rock up at the station just 10 minutes before departure. However, if you’re unsure of where you are going, it can be useful to turn up a little earlier to get some orientation and find the platform so you’re not sprinting for it or getting stressed if you can’t find the right train.
You get a better feel for the countries
Hopping by air from one city to another and it’s hard to get under the skin of the countries you are visiting. Travel by train in Europe, crossing an entire country in a day or multiple countries, you’re more likely to get a better sense of the landscapes, and perhaps even a feel for its culture, people or sights.
On numerous train journeys that I have taken solo in Europe, I have found people to be much more friendly and talkative on trains than on planes (perhaps they are less stressed). I have met many locals on board trains who have shared valuable insights into their home countries, shared their food (and in Poland their vodka!) and some have even offered to show me around their cities.
Flexible flight tickets come at a high premium, not to mention the amount of pre-planning involved when booking flights, often having to book your tickets weeks if not months in advance. Most train journeys in Europe can be booked less than 24 hours in advance and most even on the day. The only exception to the rule I have found are overnight trains and taking the train on bank holidays when booking ahead can be useful.
Most rail companies have reduced fares for those who do book in advance but watch out as those are often the tickets that are non-refundable and non-exchangeable, but even standard tickets are relatively inexpensive if you’re looking for more flexibility.
There are also rail passes you can purchase such as the Eurail train pass that lets you take a variety of trains within a set period of time. Although there are pros and cons to Rail passes which you should definitely look in to before purchasing.
Cheaper than flying
Although budget airlines have made hopping around Europe on a budget much more accessible, trains are often cheaper than flying. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but in general, you can purchase a cheaper train ticket last minute than you can purchase a last minute flight. Reserving your seat is also cheaper and of course, luggage is free in most cases (excuse the pun) 😉 You’ll also find many train companies offer heavy discounts for families, with some even offering free travel for children.
You can move seats
We’ve all been there – we’ve skimped and saved for the extraordinary airfares airlines charge and prayed for weeks before the flight that you get seated next to a decent human because you didn’t pre-book your seat. You board the flight and you play the “is it him/her?” game as passengers board and approach your row of seats.
On trains, not only are pre-bookable seats cheaper than on planes but empty seats, a rarity in the sky, are commonplace on trains which means if you happen to find yourself next to a rather unsavoury passenger, you can simply pick up your bag and relocate. And if you’re one of these people who hates being seated around children, you can even more carriage!
No hidden fees
Air travel is synonymous with hidden fees. Book through a third party website (i.e not direct with the airline) and you risk them adding a hidden “admin fee”. Book with a budget airline and you’ll be charged everything from picking your seat to early boarding, the ability to bring luggage in the cabin and even printing your boarding pass.
Travel by train and there are no hidden fees. Most are not worried about how much luggage you bring, tickets can be printed at home or simply shown on your mobile phone along with a form of ID, and you can board at your own leisure (unless you’re running late). However, most train companies do charge extra for pre-booking specific seats.
Unless you’re paying top dollar for business or first class seats, plane cabins and economy seats are rarely very comfortable, and with many airlines looking to save money, things are about to get even more cramped and squished, with many budget airlines cramming in even more seats into an already claustrophobic space.
On trains, you tend to have a lot more sprawling space and far more leg room and you haven’t got to be so worried about reclining your seat either.
It is a bonding experience for families
When you go on holiday either with your partner or family, you’re going for a fun, memorable and bonding experience. I strongly believe train travel was meant for bonding. Thanks to the variety of seating arrangements on trains in Europe, you can choose to either sit in a row of two seats if you’re traveling as a couple or across from each other so you can converse and look at each other.
If you are traveling as a family, there are quite often seats of 4 around a table where you can play card games, talk and eat together or smaller compartments if you’re a larger family that you can reserve seating in so you have your own exclusive area.
Given the extra comfort and space available (and the fact you can get up and walk) travel by train is definitely a better option for families. Children are free to move around, you don’t have to worry so much about them kicking the seat in front and they have plenty to look out of the window to keep them occupied and interested.
You can stay connected with free WIFI
While some airlines are introducing WiFi on board their flights, it is often very unstable and an extra expense to pay for. Most modern trains are coming equipped with free WiFi on board, making it a great option for those wishing to stay connected and for business travellers.
I have used WiFi on a multitude of trains and it is a hit and miss whether the connection is reliable or not. It also heavily depends on the route you are taking as some areas in Europe have poor reception. But for the most part, I have found the WiFi services to be free which is an added bonus.
You can use your mobile phone and charge it too!
Most modern trains in Europe now come with fitted charging sockets and or USB points so you can charge your electronics. You do not have to pay extra for them and they can be found in second class, not just first class. You can also use your phone data for the whole journey. No airplane mode!
You can get first class luxury for a lot less
First Class airfares, even within Europe are enough to give you heart palpitations, with tickets often costing hundreds if not sometimes thousands. I have flown business class a few times but they were only saved for special occasions or times when I could use my air miles as part payment. However, I have frequently travelled first class on trains in Europe, as the cost of first-class tickets is considerably lower than on planes.
In some cases, the fare difference between second and first class is minimal, maybe even as low as a €10/$12 difference. In first class, you will receive wider and plusher seats, more elbow and leg room and sometimes a more formal atmosphere. Some trains even offer a bar/dining service, bringing meals and drinks to you as well as newspapers and magazines.
Central locations in cities
One of the biggest advantages to traveling by train in Europe is that most of the central train stations are located in the heart of the city, bringing you right into the city, instead of being on the outskirts like many European city airports. That means you won’t have to pay additional money for a taxi or an extortionate fare such as the Heathrow Express in London, which currently stands at £25 for s single one-way fare per person. It also means you can step right off the train and begin exploring straight away!
No luggage issues!
Generally speaking, most trains aren’t picky about how much luggage you bring on, as long as you can manage it and store it without taking up a seat space. There are a few exceptions which you can read about here.
Most trains have luggage racks and luggage storage spaces, sometimes between seats, overhead or specific large racks in the middle of the carriages. You also don’t have to worry about your toiletries. The 100 ml rule doesn’t apply on trains, so you can bring all the cosmetics and liquids you want.
You get to admire some wonderful train station architecture
Before air travel became as accessible and as cheap as it is now, train travel was the preferred and popular way to travel around Europe.
There would be a train station at the beginning and end of your journey, prompting architects to build beautiful train stations for the passengers that passed through. In Europe, you could say each city took it as a competition to build the most extravagant station as almost each European city has a grand central station with some beautiful architecture to admire. It really adds to the romance and elegance of train travel, an aspect of travel that, had it not be for rail journeys, would be lost.
There is often a dining cart
If you travel in economy class within Europe, you rarely have meals included. Most airlines offer a bar or snacks service on board but the choice is limited to cold snacks or sandwiches. On some trains within Europe, you’ll find a dining cart selling hot cooked meals. Not only is it great for long train journeys, but its an opportunity to get up out of your seat and enjoy a few drinks with your fellow travellers or mingle with other passengers.
No traffic jams or tired eyes
Driving in Central Europe can be a stressful experience, especially if you haven’t driven extensively in Europe before. We’ve driven thousands of kilometres around Europe and given the opportunity, would much prefer to sit back and relax on a train and let someone else take the wheel (do trains have steering wheels?!).
Continually checking the sat-nav, or trying to understand foreign road signs and not to mention the awful traffic jams makes traveling by car a miserable experience and physically draining. So I’d highly recommend travel by train over driving any day unless you’re specifically driving as part of a road trip where you’re making multiple stops and enjoying the scenery.