This rail rider answers the most frequently asked questions about train travel in Europe for families, and reminds travelers of what else they need to know.
No statistics are readily available, but as the busy spring holiday travel season approaches, it’s apparent that the numbers of Americans who choose train travel to Europe is on the rise.
Below are some of the most-asked questions — and my honest answers — about train travel in Europe.
Q: What are the best European countries for trains?
A: A matter of opinion, but probably Britain and Switzerland, both of which have modern trains that offer many passes where children ride for free.
Q: Do European trains run often and is it easy to figure out the schedules?
A: Because so many people use trains in Europe, they run far more regularly than America’s Amtrak system. In countries where English is not as common as others, Italy, for example, there is somewhat more of a challenge to figure out the schedule, but almost all stations have large timetables. The bright yellow ones are the departure timetables; the white ones are generally arrival times.
Q: What will our family do about missing our stop?
A: That does concern me as well, I have to admit, so I generally look at the schedule to see the time of my stop. Since European trains are generally on time, you should be able to look at your watch to know where you are. It’s true announcements can be brief, and in another language, but you can always ask the conductor or other passengers about the stop. Train people are generally friendly.
Q: What if the railway’s ticket agent does not speak English?
A: This does happen, but if you know your family’s destination and when your train leaves, you should be able to handle it. Hand signals might help.
Q: Are there really some advantages in buying Eurail passes? What are some of them?
A: Buying Eurail passes puts travelers in first class with more space than second class. That is a major plus with antsy children. First class seats can also be reserved in advance; another major plus in busier seasons. Children under 4 ride free. Children ages 4-11 are eligible for half price fares.
Q: What about sleeping on the train?
A: My daughter in her 20s loved European train travel because she could travel while she slept, saving money on hotels. Families might not want to do that (or me either, for that matter) but sleeper cars are an option, though they cost more than regular seats, of course. A trip by sleeper car (imagine a horizontal phone booth) is also an adventure in itself.
Q: What about our family’s personal safety and security?
A: You do have to be careful, which is true anywhere of course. Night trains in Eastern European countries are often cited as particularly potential problem areas for theft, but risks are reduced with normal security precautions. Be sure to lock up all bags and luggage – even if you’re only going to the dining car — and lock the doors to your compartment if you’re on a sleeper train.
Q: What is Eurostar?
A: Sometimes called the “Chunnel train,” Eurostar is a popular high-speed rail link between London, Paris and Brussels. Train riders go from city center to city center in less time than an airline flight. Eurostar has gotten so popular it carries more passengers than all of the airlines combined on both routes out of London. The kids will find out that Eurostar also has a Disneyland Paris service.
Q: What are the so-called Thalys trains?
A: These high-speed trains reach Paris, Antwerp, The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Liege, Aachen and Cologne. They’ve been so successful in Europe that Air France cancelled its Paris-Charles-de-Galle airport to Brussels route, writing tickets for Thalys instead. There are 27 trains a day just on the Paris to Brussels route, making the trip in less than 90 minutes. Another high-speed line, TGV Est, serves France, Luxemburg, Germany and Switzerland. Europe is now home to many of the longest and most sophisticated High Speed Lines across the globe. “France, Spain and Germany feature in the ‘Top 5’ globally (Japan has the largest network.) A Eurail Group spokesperson adds, “We predict that these trends will continue with the introduction of several new High Speed developments in Italy, Spain and Finland, making traveling through Europe by train easier than ever.”
Q: What about the various single country and multi-country rail passes?
A: Travelers must sift through some information here because there are a variety of passes: some for single countries, multiple countries, seniors and students. There are also “flex” and “saver” passes. Books have been written on this topic, but one generality is that you can still buy a pass through Eurail, which offers consecutive day first class travel in 22 European countries for 15 days, 21 days, a month, two or three months. Prices per day decrease with longer passes. Also, many passes require supplements for high-speed trains, so you will have to decide whether it is less expensive to buy single tickets (which is often the case if you know exactly when and where you are traveling).
Q: What’s the best way to buy train passes?
A: It depends on what you’re buying. You can purchase them from a travel agent in the US or from a European travel agent, but that will normally cost you a commission.
Q: Can tour operators or travel agents help me take care of my trip?
A: There are various operators in Europe and the US. These websites will be most helpful in your research: www.eurail.com is the site for the Mother of all rail pass systems: Eurail. The site www.eurostar.com covers the London to Europe high-speed rail service specifically; and www.raileurope.com for Rail Europe, a tour operator that is one of North America’s largest rail pass vendors and can arrange rental cars and more. Other authorized Eurail Pass vendors for 2011 include ACP Rail International; Flight Centre; Octopus Travel; and elsewhere – www.raileurope.fr and STA Travel.
If you find any of these tips helpful, please email me at [email protected] with any updates you encounter while riding Europe’s rails this season.
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