Europe by Rail Part 2: Getting Ready for Your Rail Journey
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to preparing for a train trip across Europe. Depending on your choice of rail pass, trip length and personal tastes, you may have different planning needs. But some train travel tips apply across the board. You can keep the following considerations in mind to help you get ready for your journey.
* Plan on Your “Must See” Places
You don’t need to plan every bit of your trip in advance, but you should at least know the places you can’t miss. Use those high points to form the backbone of your journey and they will give you ideas for spots you might not have thought to visit.
Perhaps you’ve always wanted to see Paris, Geneva and Florence. You can plan this as one leg of your trip, and then consider what you might like to see along the way. A short jaunt from Geneva lies the medieval town of Annecy, a breathtakingly beautiful place that combines the romance of Venetian-style canals with the crystal blue waters of Lake Annecy framed by the French Alps. Discovering such incredible detours can deeply enrich your rail experience.
* See the Schedule
A great resource for trip planning is the DB Bahn rail schedule, found at http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/.
Don’t worry if you don’t speak German - there is an English language option at the top of the page, and the whole site is very user friendly.
Checking train schedules can help you plan for how long you would like to stay in each place. The more planning you do in advance, the smoother your trip will be. Then again, you can’t plan for everything, and it’s fun to leave room for spontaneity.
* Consider Dropping in for the Day
Short city layovers can be a lot of fun, and don’t be afraid to book into an interesting city or town for only five or six hours while you’re en route somewhere else. This is an especially great option for travelers on a flexi pass, who crave the adventure of a continuous pass.
Most train stations are located downtown, and most offer lockers or a left luggage service, making it easy to enjoy a brief layover. For example, perhaps you want to travel from Amsterdam to Brussels. Consider a short five or six hour stop over in Den Hague, a beautiful beach city and the epicentre of international law in the world. Check your bags, take the trolley up to Schevigan beach, stroll past the Kurhaus Palace, then make your way back along the lovely stone streets to the station and board a train to Brussels. Even if you are using a flexi pass, your brief sojourn will keep you within a single day of travel.
* Plan Your Shut Eye, Including On the Train
It’s always a good idea to book your first few nights accommodation before you arrive. But with an epic train adventure ahead of you, it’s also worthwhile to consider if you would enjoy a night crashing on the couchette of an overnight train. Sleeping on the train is a unique experience and a great way to optimize your travel time.
There are many options: first class sleepers are the most expensive, and even second class couchettes require a reservation and top up fee for pass holders. Some overnight trains are free with a rail pass, such as the late night journey between Rome and Munich, but you won’t have much space to stretch out.
Try to book overnight trains at least a few days in advance, especially for popular routes. I dare you to try to book a last minute reservation on an overnight train between Paris and Rome in the middle of July. Right. And maybe the Pope will be there to greet you.
* See A Scenic Route
Certain train routes are so dazzling that sleeping would be impossible or crazy. Imagine the breathtaking views you could experience gazing out panoramic windows as your train skirts the edge of Montreux’s rolling vineyards before curving up through the Swiss Alps to reach the medieval town of Gruyeres and its stunning lake. Now imagine if this sensual experience was topped off with a chocolate sampling.
The Chocolate Train is one of many special scenic routes that can enrich your journey. Scenic routes are first class, must be reserved in advance, and are generally more expensive than regular trains; however, many are available to pass holders for only a small supplement fee. Others, like Switzerland’s Glacier Express, are discounted for pass holders. There are many incredible scenic travel options, including the “Norway in a Nutshell” rail tours along the country’s magnificent fjords, and the Golden Pass Line between Central Switzerland and Lake Geneva.
* Bring Reading Material
A page-turning paperback and a journal are great for a long train ride, but an especially important item is a good travel guide. To help you plan your accommodation en route, consider picking up a copy of Bakpak’s Europe Hostels & Travel Guide, which consistently ranks #1 in search results on Amazon.com. Mini-language guides are also handy, particular if you are visiting rural areas in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal or anywhere in Eastern Europe. And there are also plenty of great travel books specific to rail travel: Frommer’s and Thomas Cook both publish popular Europe By Rail guides.
* And while we’re on the subject of packing . . .
There are a few key items that every rail traveler should remember to pack to make their rail experience smoother.
If you are bringing any re-chargeable electronics, like a digital camera or ipod, don’t forget to bring a universal adapter. Electrical outlets vary between European countries, and an adapter can be purchased before you leave from any major hardware store.
Trains are international germ traps. Stay healthy by keeping your hands clean with some hand towellettes or sanitizer. I’ve even seen some travelers use baby wipes.
Consider a small alarm clock, or a watch with an alarm. Napping during train travel is a great way to catch up on your rest, but you don’t want to sleep through your stop!
For passengers traveling on a Flexi pass, erasable pens are a must have item. Occasionally, on busier trains, the conductor may be too pre-occupied to stamp your pass, in which case you can erase your way to a free travel day.
And remember, even if you forget something, Europe is a highly developed region and you will be able to buy almost anything you need en route. The only things you can’t do without are your passport, rail pass, cash and your sense of adventure.