What you need to know when taking European trains
Published: Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 4, 2013 at 3:14 p.m.
If you're planning to take trains in Europe, save this column! First of all, travel light — it's no fun schlepping around 40-pound suitcases. I prefer a backpack to rolling luggage in order to have my hands free.
Rail passes are cost effective, but compare them with regular ticket purchases. Rail Europe's "itinerary page" will do it for you. Passes usually have to be purchased in the U.S. and your departure date is required. Penalties apply for any changes afterwards, unless you buy the Rail Protection Plan. Major train stations have information desks, currency exchange, lockers, restrooms, cafes and shops; and the train systems are thorough, fast and convenient.
If a train shows a departure time of 15:32, it will likely leave at exactly 3:32 p.m. (the 24-hour clock is applied). Dogs and cats are allowed on some trains — important to know if you have allergies. Smoking is forbidden on most trains.
Cities may be in local languages (Vienna is Wien, Cologne is Koln, Florence is Firenze). Platforms are often connected to ticket offices by stairs, requiring you to go up or down to the appropriate level. Trains, destinations and platform numbers are displayed, but always double-check. Platforms can change at the last minute, and as announcements are in local languages, watch for the reactions of people around you. If everyone dashes down the stairs and over to another track, it's best to follow.
Try to confirm with uniformed staff/other passengers that the train is to your destination; and don't assume the entire train is going where you want: Specific cars can be dropped at intermediate stops. There might be signs on car doors/windows, but sometimes it's just announced over the intercom (which doesn't help you if it's in Hungarian!). Again, check with uniformed staff/other passengers.
Be sure to board the right class car ("1" is shown on first class and "2" on second). Rail passes must be "activated" by an agent at a train station before use. On "flexi passes," such as five days' travel within a specified two months, write the date in the travel calendar and fill out the "journey details" before boarding the train. If you don't, it's like traveling without a ticket.
Bring drinking water and snacks, as neither may be available. Reservations could be needed on trains at additional cost. The WC is the toilet and car exit doors usually have a button to press when the train stops.
If you see destination boards listing all the trains in a chronological order, make sure you are looking at the applicable side: One will be Monday through Friday and the other Saturday, Sunday and holidays.
Rail passes are great — simply hop on and off trains at your convenience, and if you board the wrong one, it won't cost you anything. When the weather is poor in one city, take a train to someplace else.
Train travel is relaxing and a chance to enjoy scenery and meet people. If you've had an interesting experience taking a train in Europe, I'd love to hear from you.
Claudine Dervaes' travel column is published the first Sunday of the month. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.