General European Train Tips
- Travel during the week.
- There may be a few stations around the one you’re headed for that sound similar to it. Make sure the name matches exactly.
- If you reserve seats on a train where the locals don’t, someone will probably be sitting in them. You have to decide whether to kick them out, which is made harder if you don’t speak the same language. The conductor won’t care if you sit somewhere else.
- On the other hand, if you don't reserve a seat, you may have to sit in a free reserved one and move when someone claims it.
- The earlier you buy, the cheaper the tickets.
- You don't typically need to validate an e-ticket that has a specific date on it. Just be sure to follow the directions on the ticket as to whether you can show it on your phone or need to print it out.
- There's a fee to access the bathrooms in stations, but they're free on board.
- Check the holiday schedule of the country you're arriving in. For example, I arrived in France on May 1 and no public transit was running.
Getting Around the UK by train
London to Bath & OxfordTrips taken March 2012 & February 2016
You can catch these from Paddington Station if you're already in London, or from the airport you fly into. Use the National Rail website to figure out when the train times are, but buy them in person on the day of departure. If you’re in a group of two or more people, you will get a group discount. This significantly reduces the ticket price. There are usually ticket gates for validating your ticket.
Oxford to York to Edinburgh and back to LondonTrip taken February 2016
I booked trains from Oxford to York and York to Edinburgh through virgintrains.co.uk. I picked up my tickets from the machine at the station. Coach class is pretty comfortable, if crowded. I stayed in York for a night and and went to the National Railway Museum as per Seat61's recommendation. It's a beautiful town, though there was flooding when I went that made walking from the station to town confusing.
When I got on the train from York to Edinburgh, my reserved seat...didn't exist. When I finally located the conductor and informed them of the problem, they said the cars had changed, found my seat, and turned the occupant out of it.
To get back to London I booked a discounted first-class ticket through Virgin Trains East. Their first-class tickets are bizarrely affordable compared to first-class everywhere else and the complimentary wifi, sandwiches (there aren't any hot meals on weekend trains), and cocoa were great.
Traveling from the UK to Europe
London to ParisTrip taken March 2012
- The Eurostar leaves from St. Pancras International and arrives at Paris Nord. The trip takes almost 2.5 hours (you lose an hour).
- Buying tickets: Use the Eurostar website. You reserve seats in advance. It was pretty crowded on a Sunday. We paid €216 / $285 for two people.
- Departure: Get there a couple of hours early if you’re planning to turn in your Oyster card, exchange money, pick up lunch, etc. You can forget taking a picture with the Harry Potter trolley on the same day -- the line was huge (at least on the weekend). See the timetables for your check-in deadline; it’s at least half an hour earlier than the departure time. You’ll also need to find a working ticket machine, print your ticket, validate it, and head through airport-style security. There’s a passport stamp and everything.
- Arrival: If you haven’t yet picked up some Euros, there’s a currency exchange booth on the main floor. There’s an ATM / “guichet automatique de banque (GAB)” on one side of the booth. To leave by foot, walk out of the main entrance on Place De Napoleon, where a bunch of people are hanging out.
London to AmsterdamTrip taken March 2016
I booked a Stena Line Rail & Sail ticket to get from the UK to the Netherlands, which included a crowded and then eerily empty train ride to Harwich, a cruise trip over to Hook of Holland, and then a train ride to Amsterdam. I had to book a private cabin since I was taking the overnight ferry. I also made a dinner reservation but I wish I hadn't. The food was eh and by the time I was finished eating I only had a few hours left to sleep. The cabin was very comfortable, though, and you can tune into some interesting channels on the TV, like a live feed of people's pets in the onboard kennel. In the morning I had the buffet-style breakfast and then went through immigration and validated the train pass Stena had given me (by swiping it at a yellow pole) and got on a train. I had to transfer to get to Amsterdam.
Traveling Around Europe by Train
Amsterdam to Brussels to DusseldorfTrip taken April 2016
I booked this Thalys train trip through SNCB. They have a mobile app that saves your ticket barcodes so you can show/use them (including to get through the ticket gates at Amsterdam Centraal). Thalys trains arrive at Bruxelles-Midi / Brussel-Zuid Station but you can hop on another SNCB train for free to get to Bruxelles Nord or Brussels Central.
I booked a ticket to and traveled to Dusseldorf pretty much the same way, although I had to change to a local RER train in Cologne and there were delays (apparently there are always delays in Cologne). I regretted not reserving a seat on the Brussels-Cologne train because it was packed, but I did find one eventually.
Dusseldorf to Munich to VeniceTrip taken April 2016
I booked this ticket through DBahn as per Seat61's instructions. I took a day train to Munich, arriving in time for dinner, and the night/sleeper train to Venice. Waiting for the sleeper train in Munich was kind of a pain, since I wasn't able to board until almost 11pm and the station was freezing. I slept in a 6-berth 5-person couchette compartment with a family from Germany. It was very very tiny and there's basically nowhere to be except in your bunk, which was too narrow and small to do anything but lay down in. Before we went to sleep a conductor came and checked our tickets and took our orders for breakfast, which was a few euros extra. He also warned us not to leave the compartment door unlocked, and to wake a fellow passenger if we had to unlock it to use the bathroom in the night, as "there would be thieves on the train." Make sure you're in the right car on this train, as it splits to Budapest, Zagreb, and Venice.
Also there's supposedly a women-only compartment option on the overnight train to Venice but I wasn't able to get a clear answer about this from anyone.
Venice to Milan to NiceTrip taken May 2016
I had to make an early start to catch a train from Venice to Milan that connected with a train to Nice. Luckily the Vaporetto and connecting buses on Lido run pretty much 24/7. I booked my ticket through CaptainTrain and they offered "Premium Economy" on the first Thello leg for the same price as Economy and it was terrific. It was empty and clean, and they came through and gave us chocolate for breakfast. Best European train experience ever. I did some food shopping in and around the gigantic Milan train station and then got on the next train, which was much more crowded. It slowly emptied out as we got to the French border and through Monte Carlo to Nice.
Nice to ParisTrip taken May 2016
I booked this ticket on CaptainTrain too. Most of the trip is along the coast, through mountains that look like they could be in Arizona. The toilet was pretty much used as an ash tray on my trip. Everyone ate lunch at 12 sharp. The seating is a little cramped and I made the mistake of sitting downstairs (upstairs has better views).
Paris to ZurichTrip taken March 2012
- The TGV leaves from Paris Gare de Lyon and arrives at Zuerich HB. The trip takes about 4 hours.
- Buying tickets: If you're from the USA, you'll need to follow these tips (basically, don't say you're from the U.S. until check-out to avoid being redirected to a more expensive website, and always say you want to stay on tgv-europe.com if asked). The form is also a little tricky. I ended up putting my last name where my first name belonged and vice versa, but no one ever checked ID so it didn’t matter. You can choose your seats in advance and print the tickets at home. We paid €132 / $174 for two people.
- Departure: Use the signs to figure out which part of the station your train will be leaving from. Ours was a long trek from the metro. There are food stands open early, but we had stocked up at a supermarket the day before.
- Arrival: Zuerich HB is enormous. We took out 20 Swiss francs (ATM is one level down) and managed to get a decent lunch with snacks and drinks at a tiny grocery on the main level. If you keep going down you end up in a giant mall filled with chocolate stores and bakeries. The bathroom here was the most expensive station bathroom we saw (2 francs).
Zurich to SalzburgTrip taken March 2012
- The ÖBB train leaves from Zuerich HB and arrives at Salzburg Hauptbahnhof. The trip takes about 5 hours (we did Paris to Salzburg in one day, and it was a lot of train travel.) This is one of the most scenic train journeys in the world because it goes through the Alps.
- Buying tickets: The ÖBB website was the hardest to use. First, search for available trains. Try to pick a faster RailJet train from the list of results and click "Tickets and Prices." Non-flexible tickets are cheaper and marked with a four-leaf clover. When you click on a price, the site asks you to search again and reverts to German. Change back to English and continue the process. You'll be given the option to print your tickets. You can also reserve seats, and when you get on the train a little screen above the seats says where you’re going. It’s extra, but comforting. Try to get a seat on the right side; we sat on the left and it was also beautiful, but the right looked positively dramatic. Of course, it could’ve just been a case of “the grass is always greener...” We paid €84 / $111 for two people.
- Departure: Know your platform number in advance; the distinction between regional trains and international trains was confusing to me. Our train was upstairs. There is an English-speaking information desk on the same level.
- Arrival: Salzburg Hbf is small, thankfully. It’s easy to find your way out. We got there in the dark, but somehow managed to stumble upon our nearby hotel.
Salzburg to PragueTrip taken March 2012
- This is a tricky route because of all those big mountains in the way. You can either take a train to Linz and then a train to Prague, or head to Munich and get a bus to Prague. The train to Linz takes about an hour, and then the train from there to Prague takes about six hours.
- Buying tickets: Back to the fun ÖBB website. You can reserve seats on the first leg (not worth it), but not on the second part. I bought the tickets together, which led to the nerve-wracking situation I described above: you only get six minutes (if that!) to transfer. There was an earlier train from Salzburg to Linz, so maybe it’s possible to book them separately and gain more time in-between. We paid €137 / $181 for two people.
- Arrival: Get off at Praha hl.n if that’s your destination (you may pass through other Praha stations). The station is fairly large, with an ATM, currency exchange desk, bookstore, and other shops. The metro is a little difficult to find (look for Red Line C) and the machines look like this. Be sure to timestamp your ticket in one of the little yellow machines.
Prague to BerlinTrip taken March 2012
- Leave from Praha hl.n and arrive at Berlin Hbf. Trip takes around 5 hours.
- Buying tickets: Buy at the DB Bahn website. You can reserve seats, but our train was a compartment train so it didn’t really matter. They insist on mailing your tickets to you, at your expense, so order well in advance of your departure date. We paid $92 for two people.
- Arrival: The main Berlin station may be an architectural feat, but I just found it huge and confusing. We had to go up a few floors to find an ATM, and we never did find a metro / S-Bahn ticket machine. We ended up going to the grudgingly helpful and very crowded ticket desk. Know your line, end stop, and U-Bahn transfer point in advance.