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Europe by Rail Part 3: Enjoying Your Ride on the Railroad


When you’ve finally finished researching your rail pass options and planning your trip, the only thing you have left to do is travel! Once you are off and on your way, you can focus entirely on having the time of your life. Keep these travel tips in mind to make the most of your rail experience.

---Meet Your Seat-Mates

Incredible people take the train every day. One of your seat mates might be an expert on your next destination, or a fellow traveler, excited to share stories of amazing places they’ve visited. Or the person sitting next to you might just turn out to be incredibly interesting. I once sat next to a member of the International Olympic Committee who was touring cities to select the host for the 2012 Olympics (he was all huffy about Madrid; I guess he went with London). Whether you get a travel tip, a new idea, a great conversation or a new friend, you never know what doors a simple “hello” will open.

---Ask the Locals for Advice

On that note, if you happen to meet locals from the area you are about to visit, be sure to ask for advice on the best places to see. Local people often have inside information that you couldn’t find in the best travel guide.
If you are really hunting for insider advice and you don’t happen to meet any locals on your train, consider checking out the closest tourist office. Often tourist offices are located right in the train station, or just a short distance away, and the helpful staff are usually full of great suggestions.

---Making Reservations On the Road

The beauty of the rail pass is that it gives you the freedom to hop on and off most trains. But some trains routes, especially those running between major capital cities, are very popular in the summer. If you don’t reserve a seat in advance, you may end up standing in the aisles. And remember that all high speed trains require reservations: Eurostar, Thalys and TVG.
When you need to make a reservation at the station, don’t let a language barrier intimidate you. Rail employees are used to seeing all manner of hand gestures, and most ticket agents in major cities speak some English. Just make sure you write down a few key pieces of information to give to the ticket agent: the train number, departure time, destination, class, the date you want to travel, and whether the trip is one way or return. And be sure to approach the right ticket window, usually a choice between national and international rail tickets.

---Without Reservation

If you do get on a train without a reservation, and you notice little paper slips above the seats, avoid those spots like the plague. Those paper slips (or small computer screens on newer, northern trains) indicate that someone has reserved that seat, and if you take it, you will inevitably be bumped.

---Two Key Tips for Night Trains

If you decide to take a less expensive night journey sans couchette or sleeper, and you are on an older train with compartment style seating, it’s likely your seat slips out into a lying down position. Many non-European travelers don’t realize their seats lie down until they’ve passed a few nights sleeping upright.
And if you decide to splurge for a couchette, do your best to avoid the top bunk, especially if you book an overnight train in southern Europe in summer time. Some trains in the south are not airconditioned, and it can get mighty hot and humid.

---Stay Safe on the Train

Train travel, especially in Europe, is fairly safe, but you still need to be careful. Keep your valuables, especially your cash and passport, on your body. Be mindful of where you store all of your belongings, especially if there is a chance you might nap on the train. You can usually tuck cameras and other expensive belongings under your seat, where the items would be hard to reach without waking you.
If you are taking a late night commuter train and end up alone in the train car, consider moving to a different section of the train. You might feel silly, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

---Remember to validate!

If you have a flexi pass - whether a Global flexi, Select, Regional or Single Country - remember to write your travel day in your pass before the conductor gets to you. If you forget, it looks like you were trying to get a free travel day and holds up the conductor – they don’t take very kindly to that.
If you opt for point-to-point tickets, remember to validate your ticket before boarding. Many countries have a system where you need to put your ticket in a machine to be validated before boarding to indicate that the ticket is being used. Forgetting to validate means you could re-use the ticket, and there’s often a hefty fine if you get caught.

---Don’t forget to bring a bottle of water and snack on board

Most trains have food options on board. The longer your journey, the more likely you can find a restaurant car on board, or at least a snack-cart service. However, the on-board restuarant might be many car lengths away, and in any case, on-board snacks are pricey. At the very least, remember to pick up a bottle of water before you board.

---Feel free to take pictures from the train

Some people forget to take pictures from the train, or worry that the jiggling of the train on the tracks or dirty windows will distort their photos. In the age of digital cameras, you should feel free to snap away. Train pictures are an amazing way to capture your favourite memories of riding the rails. Trains often pass through gorgeous, scenic regions, and your train snap shots may end up being some of your favourites. If you plan your trip well, you will want to remember every minute of it.

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