In 2016, Chris and I took the plunge and did something different. We both love Europe and having seen many wonderful sights on our cruise itineraries, we decided the time was right to do some touring inland, and under our own steam. We had a basic itinerary in our heads and a selection of places that we wanted to visit – it was then a question of how to get to see them all. Rather than hurtle across the continent by air and spend our time shuffling between airports, or to battle continental traffic in a hire car, we decided to focus on traveling by train.
To anyone unfamiliar with the concept of a well funded and efficient mass transportation system, then take a look at Europe. A huge amount of public investment over a long period of time has resulted in a continent-wide system of national and international services that for the most part is efficient, reliable and affordable.
Pass or not?
If you are visiting from outside of Europe, the thought of train travel might be a little unnerving, especially if Amtrak or VIA rail are your benchmarks. You may have already looked at travel options and may be considering one of the bewildering arrays of inclusive rail passes for sale. So what is a rail pass? Essentially, the rail companies and systems operating in Europe collaborate and offer comprehensive rail passes that allow travel across different parts of the continental network. The two basic options for a pass would be either:
- Unlimited travel within a set period (for instance a month’s worth of endless rail journeys) or
- A flexipass that allows a certain number of days worth of travel within a set period (for instance, 5 days worth of train travel on any chosen days within a month).
I can see the huge advantages of using a pass – simplicity, clarity, ease of booking; but for me, the whole point of this adventure is to create a tailored experience that works for the individual traveller. I enjoy planning and researching so this was a no-brainer; creating your own itinerary gives you the ability to plan and book ahead and take advantage of the best discounts, and will most likely work out cheaper than a pass. You also have the creative freedom to get what you want and where you want to be, without being focused on the small print and terms and conditions of a pass.
Not only are rail passes limiting in their scope and conditions, but in many cases longer distance journeys require compulsory seat reservations, which may carry a charge; this in itself involves committing yourself to a time, place and route – which I think negates the ‘freedom’ that rail passes give you. I’d also be wary of too much on the fly decision making in Europe during the busier months of the year, as accommodation in most European cities popular with tourists will be extremely limited.
Researching the rail networks in Europe isn’t difficult; it may just seem overwhelming at first glance. One thing that does surprise me though, is how often ‘RailEurope’ seems to find its way to the top of search listings. RailEurope is a marketing agency that may not be offering the most comprehensive products or the best pricing. A quick search of a comparative journey using both RailEurope.com and the rail website of a carrier country can show some eye-popping differences in pricing, with RailEurope coming in consistently higher. It is true though, that doing it yourself involves more planning and research, familiarising yourself with train networks and services, and getting to know a number of quirks and ‘interesting’ anomalies of European train travel.
So how was the experience?
We both loved our trip, and can’t wait to explore more of Europe. Trains are a very relaxing and freeing mode of travel; you can enjoy the scenery, close your eyes and snooze, check out your fellow passengers (which can be very entertaining), sample food and beverage offerings. You have the freedom and leisure to get up and move about as you please, which makes for a very enjoyable mode of travel.
If you are interested in researching your own journey, here’s perhaps one of the most valuable sources of information out there: The man in seat 61. This website is run by an Englishman by the name of Mark Smith, who has spent a lifetime working in the rail industry. It’s a little geeky (he would be known as a bit of an anorak in Britain) but everything you need to know about travelling by train can be found here. This website may just fry your brain with information overload, but it is an incredibly useful resource when planning train travel. Here, for instance, you can discover that the best rail tickets on European trains are bookable in advance, and that different networks release their pricing at different times. Some may offer fares 90 days in advance, some 60 days. This kind of thing is important to bear in mind, as this can save you a fortune by booking your perfect seat ahead of the crowd.
It was on the Seat 61 website that I discovered a wonderful tip than enabled us to travel First Class on the Bernina Express for a fraction of the Swiss Railways price (and all perfectly legitimate!!) utilising train travel inbound from a neighbouring country. This segment of our journey was a highlight, and should be on any traveller’s bucket list. In this instance, I would highly recommend the upgrade to First Class as it gives you that little more space to move around. As the Bernina Express is not just a tourist trip, the service transits the Alps from Switzerland to Italy and many travellers are bringing their luggage with them as they travel across the continent. This makes for a cluttered and crowded carriage in second class, but up in the fancy seats, it’s much less crowded.
If you are in the potential planning stage, another great resource for timetable and station information is DB Rail. The link is the english language version of the website for Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail system. It carries not only timetable information for Germany, but also for the rest of the European rail network; this makes cross-border researching so much easier, and will save you time and effort. As is usual with such a complex network of timetables and countries, it always pays to cross check the uploaded data with the originating country’s rail website once you have organised your itinerary.
Next: The Reality