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How to plan a railway journey across Europe

The EU has designated 2021 as the European Year of Rail and it’s great timing as more people look to train travel as a way of diversifying their journeys across the continent. Here, we offer advice on planning an intrepid railway adventure across Europe.

By Monisha Rajesh
Published 22 Apr 2021, 09:31 BST
Discover advice and tips to help you negotiate train travel around Europe. Pictured: Stockholm Central Station, ...

Discover advice and tips to help you negotiate train travel around Europe. Pictured: Stockholm Central Station, Sweden.

Photograph by Getty Images

As more and more travellers yearn for slow travel and seek ways to reduce their carbon footprint, it’s high time to embrace the railways. Unlike the airport experience, there’s no need to remove shoes, unbuckle belts, collapse buggies, empty bottles and endure all manner of pats, pokes and scans when travelling by train. On trains you’re unhurried and can take as many bottles of liquid as you like — a prerequisite for many a long journey. There are no hidden charges for wider seats, excess luggage or early boarding, and increasingly there’s digital connectivity, making it easy to send emails, make phone calls and finish work before winding down with dinner and a good book. Before you set off, discover advice and tips to help you negotiate train travel around Europe.

How to book

There’s no umbrella operator offering tickets for all European train services. But Trainline and Rail Europe deal directly with multiple European operators, allowing you to book trains from the UK to most of western Europe. Both charge a small booking fee, but the websites are in English and accept all credit cards making them a simple and safe option. Bear in mind that different local operators have varying booking horizons of anywhere between 90 days to six months in advance.

Read more: Seven new luxury train routes for 2021

Note that neither Trainline nor Rail Europe has links with operators in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Greece, Poland or the Czech Republic, so you'll want to investigate each country's national and/or private rail operators. The easiest way to book tickets is with the operator based where your journey begins. Be aware that local booking websites may not be in English, and may not take payment from all credit card types or in pounds sterling.

How to bag the best deal

If you’re planning on taking a long-distance international journey or a series of high-speed trains, book in advance to guarantee seat reservations and cheaper fares. Flexible fares are more expensive but will allow you to chop and change before departure. For local and regional trains, it’s fine to turn up at the station and buy tickets on the day of travel. In countries including France and Italy, locally purchased paper tickets need to be validated before boarding via stamping machines located on platforms. For longer, more complicated international journeys, it’s best to book with a pan-European agent (Trainline or Rail Europe), or if travelling to a destination not covered by them, break up the journey and book individual tickets for each segment through each country’s operator website. 

Seek out sleeper trains

A resurgence in overnight trains means you no longer need to spend money on a hotel when you can curl up in a comfy berth and arrive fresh to face the day. Four of the best overnight routes in Europe include Nice to Moscow, the longest trans-European route; Stockholm to Narvik, where you have a good chance of spotting the Northern Lights; Brussels to Vienna on the plush Nightjet service; and Budapest to Bucharest, which includes glorious scenery.

Read more: 52 of the best flight-free weekend escapes

Investigate Interrail options

If you plan on taking a number of unplanned flexible journeys, consider buying an Interrail pass. Post-Brexit, UK citizens can still travel on these tickets, as opposed to the Eurail pass available to non-Europeans. While they may be no more economical than individual tickets, they do give you the freedom to travel at will through 33 countries. Bear in mind that on top of the cost of the pass you’ll have to pay a supplement of between €10 and €20 for high-speed trains, international high-speed trains and night trains. 

Remember to pack essentials

Invaluable items for increasing comfort while you ride include an eye mask, ear plugs, warm socks, bottled water, toilet roll, hand soap/sanitiser and, if you can, a silk sleeper sheet that will keep you cool in summer and warm in winter. Don’t forget to buy snacks to keep you going in between stations, as not all train services have dining cars or trolleys.

Monisha Rajesh is a British journalist and author of the acclaimed Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure, which won the Travel Book category in the National Geographic Traveller Reader Awards 2019.

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