Top tips to have the best European train trip

Catching a sunset in Ceske Budejovice

Who has never dreamed of exploring Europe by train?

There is something so romantic about train travel, nowhere more so than through the European countryside.  This was a huge bucket list item for us, and was a dream come true for us to partner with Eurail and discover the beauty of this old continent together.

 

It was also the perfect way to end our 15-month adventure around the world!  With so much to see and do, here’s how we made the most of our train trip through Europe, and how you can too!

Why choose the train?

There is nothing better than sitting back in comfy seats, and enjoying the view out your window.  Watching the scenery change from one stop to the next, from one tunnel to the next, from one country to the next.  You don’t have to worry about strenuous security checks, long lines at customs, or any of the usual hassles that come with flying.

Best of all, train travel can be super spontaneous!  You can show up at a train station on a whim and grab the next train to your location.  We loved having the flexibility to change our plans and take off to a new location without the heavy planning and expensive cost of plane travel!

Passing by the cutest Austrian town on our way to Salzburg
Passing by the cutest Austrian town on our way to Salzburg

In fact, one of the best things about taking the train, is that it’s one of the more eco-friendly ways of traveling.  By now you should know how we love being eco-travelers.  Trains emit between 66 and 75 percent less carbon than cars and airplanes.  Trains are also more sustainable in terms of energy consumption, use of space, and noise levels.

And finally, train travel is by far the most comfortable way to travel across borders.  With smooth turns and solid rails, you can forget the bumpy bus rides or turbulent flights.  With plenty of leg room, and handy tray tables (or even actual tables), working on the train is so much more pleasant that trying to get work done on a plane.  Regardless of if you want to work or just enjoy the ride, the atmosphere in the train feels less crammed and is more enjoyable than any other mode of transportation.

Crossing the river by train on our way to Salzburg
Crossing the river by train on our way to Salzburg

This is why, the train is our all-time favourite!

What Eurail pass to get?

The best choice for your Eurail pass will depend on how many days you want to travel, how many countries you want to explore, and your style of traveling.  For example, the Global pass is available for a few days, up to three months, and can be used all throughout Eurail’s network of 31 countries.  Or, you can opt for a country pass that is valid from one to four countries.

Passing by The Cologne cathedral in Germany by train
Passing by the Cologne cathedral in Germany by train

You can also choose to buy your tickets individually, but this might mean that you spend more money than you expected.  It will also mean that you need to be either very loose with your itinerary, or plan it all out.  Yes, that seems like polar opposites, and there’s a reason for that.

By keeping your itinerary loose, you can show up at the train station and pick your next destination on the fly (which you can also do with a Global pass or a country pass).  Or, you will have to know exactly when you want to go where.  However, you will only be able to buy your ticket to the next destination once you get to the city you are leaving from.  So it really depends on your style of travel.

Passing by Austrian mountains
Passing through the Austrian mountains

When we were debating on what pass to get, we found that the tool on the Eurail website was super helpful to see what pass was best suited for our needs.  We could input how many days of travel we wanted, and what countries we wanted, and voilà!  We were presented with the best option for us!  The 1-month continuous Global pass was it.

Now, we had the flexibility to travel to as many countries as we wanted, when we wantedfor up to 30 days.  If that’s not the ultimate freedom, we don’t know what is!

How to plan your trip?

Our goal was to get the most out of our Eurail pass, but we also wanted to enjoy the cities we visited.  Even if a part of us wanted to do 30 cities in 30 days, we figured that might not be so wise.  Our crazy idea was to visit as many countries as possible, without killing ourselves, so we opted for 13 cities in 30 days (well, 32 days, but you know what we mean!)

Being silly at the Budapest train station, Hungary
Being silly at the Budapest train station, Hungary

Once again, the Eurail website and their Rail Planner app were the best tools we could have asked for!  We could not recommend them highly enough, regardless of what type of traveler you are.  You can pick what city you start from, where you want to go and at what time.  Both tools will show you all trains from start to finish, the number of stops in between, train transfers and if you need a reservation.

So to make your ultimate itinerary, start with the countries you want to visit.  Then pick the cities you want to visit in each country.  Obviously, this is the simplest way to get started.  Now, let’s start having some planning fun!

Looking out the window on our way to Prague
Looking out the window on our way to Prague

Pull up the handy timetables available on the app or on the website and start with your first city (where you’ll be leaving from or where your plane lands).  Then, pick the second city you want to visit.  We found it helpful to look at Eurail’s map and see what the closest connecting city was.  This was done to ensure that we don’t spend too much time on the train, and to check if we could get to the next destination (city #3) easily.

Going one city at a time, you’ll be able to build your itinerary quite quickly.  Just make sure you keep the next city in mind when building it.  This will help you be more efficient with your time on the train.

As for the number of days in each city, that depends on your style of travel and your goals.  We spent two days in each place, knowing we would come back to these countries or cities.  If you want to take your time, then feel free to do that.  This is not a race.  Just go at a pace you are comfortable with!

Day trains vs night trains

Sometimes going from one city to the next via train can take some time, like when we traveled from Prague to Krakow, and then again on towards Bratislava.  That’s why in some cases, your best bet might just be to take a night train.

Our bed for the night on our way to Bratislava
Our bed for the night on our way to Bratislava

By doing this, not only are you saving yourself one night’s accommodations, but you’re also not missing out on time to explore your destination.  You’ll arrive early in the morning, ready to go on your next adventure.

If you have a long trip, usually 8 hours or more, do yourself a favour and take the night train.  You’ll get to your destination nice and rested the next day.  We would recommend grabbing a sleeper car and getting in a good night’s sleep.

Working on the sleeper train on our way to Bratislava
Working on the sleeper train on our way to Bratislava

You could always opt for a regular seat, if you are the type to sleep sitting up easily.  But the seats don’t always recline too much, and you’ll have your head bop around all night (yes, even with a neck pillow), so go ahead and spend the extra money.  Get yourself a cabin, get some good shut eye, and go out to explore the next day!

Cabins are comfy, safe and clean.  The beds are pretty spacious, enough so that Derek (and his whole 6’4″ frame) could even almost fit in them!  You can even choose between a private cabin, or shared cabins (between four and six people).  To us, it was a no-brainer – it made night travel so much fun!

First class vs second class

The price difference between first class and second class on Eurail’s network is not significant.  So if you’re not strapped for cash, we highly recommend opting for first class.  Traveling with the added service and comfort will justify the extra cost, without a doubt!

Our first train ride, heading to Ceske Budejovic
Our first train ride, heading to Ceske Budejovice

If you’re wondering what the differences are, here’s what to expect.  In first class, the seats will recline and are more spacious.  This means there are less people per wagon, making it more comfy and quiet overall.  An added bonus for long-term travelers like us, is that first class wagons usually have more room for luggage as well!  Sometimes, on some high-speed trains, the first class ticket will include a meal.

Second class train tickets are going to be more affordable, but you have a lot less space, because the seats are smaller and there are more per wagon.  Also, because most people travel second class, you may need to reserve your tickets in advance.  Having first class tickets, we never had to worry about pre-booking our spots as there were always seats available on our trains.

 

If the majority of your train trips are going to be short (1-2 hours long), you may not need to splurge on first class tickets.  Because we had a few days where we spent 5-6 hours on the train, it was well worth it for us to choose first class tickets!

Tips to make the best of your train travel

We learned quite a few things while we were on the train, things we wish we knew before we embarked on this adventure.  We hope these tips will help you avoid some of our mistakes!

Walking through the streets of Bratislava
Walking through the streets of Bratislava

Bring water

This will always be our #1 tip for any type of travel.  Always bring water with you, because water is life!  But being the eco-warriors that we are, we would recommend you bring a reusable water bottle so you can easily fill it up, or get yourself a LifeStraw Go so you can turn any water into drinking water!

Checking out Prague
Checking out the sunset in Prague, Czech Republic

Bring snacks

Not all trains are created equal!  Some trains have a restaurant in them, where you can get drinks, snacks and actual meals.  We tried quite a few items on the train menus across Europe, and we can attest that they are delicious!

The most magical view ever at Lake Bled in Slovenia
The most magical view ever at Lake Bled in Slovenia

But in case you take a train that doesn’t have a restaurant integrated in it, make sure you bring snacks.  This is our #2 rule in life, in travel, and in relationship advice.  You never want to travel with a hangry person, so avoid the situation altogether!

Give yourself time

When you are building your itinerary, check if you have a connection.  If you do, leave yourself enough time between the trains.  The trains are very punctual, so if the change is tight, make sure the connecting train comes often so you don’t have to spend a night in a city if you miss the second train.

A beautiful day in Prague
A beautiful day in Prague

Luckily, we never ended up missing a train, but we did have to run between one platform and the next to make the next train.  Often, we were ok with having 5-10 minutes between them.  We did get lucky however, in the fact that none of our trains were delayed.  And although we ran into some maintenance issues with some trains, the Rail Planner app made it easy for us to get back on the right track, so it was fine!

Make your reservation early

Most of the trains we took did not require a reservation, so we would just hop on the train and pick an empty seat.  However, some trains to more popular cities require reservations.  If they do, make the reservation as early as you can!

Jumping for joy in Amsterdam
Jumping for joy in Amsterdam

For us, it was our train to Paris that needed a special reservation.  We thought we would be ok reserving our seats 24 hours ahead of time, but we were wrong!  We couldn’t get on the specific train we wanted, so we had to take a few connections to get to a location that had 2 free seats into Paris.  We made it all the same, but having known this, we would have made the reservations online much earlier!

Enjoying the sunset in the main square of Ceske Budejovice
Enjoying the sunset in the main square of Ceske Budejovice

Also, if you are traveling in the high season (summer in Europe is a dream), make sure you reserve your tickets in advance.  Trains tend to fill up faster, especially in second class.

Not all trains are created equally

Depending on the country you’re in, if it’s a ‘international’ train or a local one, you will notice that there is sometimes a huge difference in services, comfort, and amenities.

Working and chilling in 1st class on the train
Working and chilling in 1st class on the train

Before you get on the train, you can always check what is included online or on the app.  This will help you be more prepared for the trip to come.  We sometimes found out the hard way that a train was not equipped with Wifi or power outlets (even in first class), which made working on it a little harder.

Validate your tickets

Before you board your first train, make sure you get it validated at the station.  You will also need to fill out the travel form so the staff can stamp it.  These are not long to do, but to avoid any problems and save time in the long run, make sure you do them!

Kissing in front of the Hundertwasser house in Vienna
Kissing in front of the Hundertwasser House in Vienna

Find a hotel near the train station

Going from one city’s train station to the next every other day meant finding a hotel near the train station.  Being able to hop off the train and simply walk to your hotel means you don’t need to find transportation after your train ride, and makes for easy timing when you need to go catch your next train.

 

Seemingly every European city’s train stations are usually situated close by to the old parts of town, where you will likely be spending most of your time.

Ask the staff

The staff on the train, and working at the counters were probably the nicest people we have met!  They were all so helpful and accommodating, especially when it came to getting those reserved tickets to Paris.

Wandering through Ceske Budejovice
Wandering through Ceske Budejovice

Don’t be shy, just go ask them if you’re confused about your platform, your wagon or seats.

Count your days

This mainly applies to Canadian and US residents.  We found this out the hard way, though luckily, not the expensive way!

 

As Canadians, we have a limit as to how many days we can stay in Europe, and more specifically, the Schengen area.  This area is a made up of 26 European countries that created common entry and exit requirements to remove the need for internal borders.  This same agreement allows us foreigners to travel freely between these countries without having to go through border controls.  This is super convenient for sure!

We don’t need a visa to travel to these countries for stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period, so 3 months out of 6.  If you leave the Schengen area and return within the same 6-month period, the previous stay counts against the permitted 90 days.

Enjoying the view on our way to Prague
Enjoying the view on our way to Prague, Czech Republic

If you plan to stay for longer than 90 days, you have to contact the high commission or embassy of the country or countries you are traveling and obtain the appropriate visa before you travel.  If you don’t obtain the appropriate visa and you stay longer than the 90 days in the Schengen area, you may be fined or deported.  So count your days and make sure you avoid any troubles!

Our itinerary

Just in case you were curious, or crazy enough to attempt the 13 cities in 30 days, here is what our itinerary looked like.

Our one month itinerary through Europe
Our one month itinerary through Europe

We ended up staying two nights in each city.  This gave us about two days to explore each city.  We started our adventure in Vienna, Austria, then headed to the Czech Republic to visit České Budějovice and Prague.  We then took a night train to Krakow, Poland and after two full days there, we were off to Bratislava in Slovakia.

We took another night train to head to Budapest in Hungary.  Then, it was Zagreb, Croatia, followed by Ljubljana in Slovenia.  We then made our way back to Austria, checking out Salzburg this time.  Then we met up with friends for 3 days in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Romance in Bratislava
Romance in Bratislava, Slovakia

As our month was coming to an end, we spent a single night in Frankfurt, then four days in Amsterdam, two days in Maastricht and finally made our way to Paris, where we headed back home from!

If we were to redo the trip, we would probably take an extra day in each city.  Not that we didn’t have a blast doing it this way, but it did get tiring after a while, and we would have loved to visit more of each place.

No visit to Budapest is complete without hitting up the baths
No visit to Budapest is complete without hitting up the baths

We loved our month long adventure though Europe.  We discovered so many cities.  We traveled in comfort and style the whole way through.  We were able to get work done easily, either catching up on blogging, or even planning the itinerary for the city we were getting to.  Overall, we could not have imagined a better way to end this 15-month trip.


Disclaimer:  This article is produced as a part of our collaboration with Eurail.  We were given 2 one-month Global passes that allowed us to travel by train through Europe.  However, all the opinions and commentary in this article are our own unbiased account of our trip.


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Top tips to have the best European train trip. Lessons, tips, recommendations and knowing the basics before discovering Europe by train #traintravel #eurotrip #traintrip #traveltips #traveladvice Wediditourway

5 thoughts on “Top tips to have the best European train trip

  1. This is such a comprehensive post – thank you! I’m really interested in train travel through Europe as an alternative to flying, but I haven’t done it yet. Your tips will really come in handy – especially the one about the snacks! – Laura

    Liked by 1 person

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