Based on a journey riddled with inconveniences.
This one is going to be a very comprehensive guest post about train travel in Europe by Nejc Geržinič, who was actually my classmate in primary school. Nejc has always been fascinated by trains and he’s been spending a lot of time onboard commuting between Slovenia and the Netherlands, where he’s currently studying sustainable mobility. So I figured, who better to ask about all the tips for train travel in Europe than him? He kindly agreed to write a guest post for my blog and here we are (thanks Nejc!):
My my, how things have changed, since I first wanted to write this. COVID-19 was still an obscure disease that hardly anyone knew, international travel was a thing and you could still hug people. And now, it seems like a bygone era that we are nostalgic for: ‘Oh, in the good old days…’ Did we turn into our parents and grandparents through this? But the global epidemic and shutdown of society showed us a few glimpses of what our world can look like in the future if we take better care of it. Sticking to the topic of this post, a world where reducing air and road traffic can drastically improve the quality of air that we breathe. So in the hopes of life normalising soon, and people travelling more by train in the future, I have prepared this short guide on train travel in Europe. Quick disclaimer: this list is in no way complete and based solely on my own experience and the advice I have been given over the past years.
In February 2020, I was on my “commute” between my Slovenian home and my Dutch home – a journey I have undertaken multiple times in the past year, having given up on flying this route. On Sunday the 23rd of February I was on the second leg of my trip: from Zürich to Delft. As per usual, I had made a rough plan of the trip a few weeks ago, and decided on the exact trains I would take on the day before. I can afford to take such a last-minute planning approach because I travel with the InterRail ticket. So:
TIP #1: Use an InterRail pass
If the pass is even close to the same price as separate tickets, I suggest using InterRail when travelling by train in Europe (or EURail, the equivalent for those from outside Europe). Although it may be a bit more expensive (especially if you are above 27 and fall into the ‘adult’ price-range), the pass gives a lot of freedom when travelling. And in many cases, you will be grateful for that freedom later on. The different global pass options (valid in most European countries) range from 4-travel-days-in-a-month, to 3-months-continuous travel, so you are sure to find one that fits your travel. On the day the pass is valid for travel, you have unlimited use of most train types.
If you want to travel only in one country, InterRail has one country passes as well, but rail passes offered by the national rail operator might be a better option then, as they are often better value for money. /Edit: I have a travel guide listing all national train providers with some general information on getting around Europe with all kinds of transport here./
So, as I was saying, rough plan a few weeks before (when you but the InterRail ticket), exact plan a day early (you can do it more or less spontaneous, depending on your own level of spontaneity). As the Zürich-Delft route is quite frequently served, I see no need to make the detailed plans earlier on. Making travel plans these days is very easy. All you need is a smartphone and a travel planning app (or in my case, seven). You can also use a computer to look-up timetables, and a notebook may be handy to write down the 13 different options and compare them.
Tip #2: Download a few travel planning apps
Depending on which country you are travelling in, you want to download that countries national rail planner: SNCF for France, SBB for Switzerland, Trenitalia for, you guessed it, Italy (Congratulations. 10 points to Gryffindor), etc. In addition, I highly recommend using InterRail’s own ‘Rail planner’ app. While not always being up-to-date, it can come in super handy, as it combines the timetables of all the participating countries, and even better, they are available off-line. So if you are stuck in a country without roaming data (looking at you, Switzerland) or somewhere with bad coverage, this can be a lifesaver. If possible, it is always good to double check with the official planners. From my own experience, the app is always correct for Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands, whereas for France and Italy, some trains are not listed in the InterRail planner. Some apps also have nice additional features, like platform numbers (good for quick transfers), train car layout and real-time delay updates (you will need it more than you think).
Having my rail pass and travel plan (noted down in my notebook), I was all set to go. I made it to Zurich main station some 20 minutes before my train, giving me enough time to get some food for the trip. We departed for Basel punctually, as I have gotten to expect in Switzerland, but not even fully getting out of the suburbs, our train came to a grinding halt, with the smell of burning brakes entering the train. We stood still for a few minutes, when the conductor greeted us over the PA system. Apparently, there was a technical fault with one of the train doors, and we could not continue travelling until it was resolved. With my ‘safe’ connection time of 20 minutes in Basel, I was starting to get more and more worried. We eventually started moving and if all went well, I could still catch my connection. Maybe they would hold the connection for a few minutes (they often do, especially with long-distance trains and infrequent regional services)? But 10 min later, we stopped again and I kissed my well-tailored travel plan goodbye. And immediately set out on making a new one, while also throwing an angry glare to anyone looking in my direction. Here is where both the InterRail pass and the their travel planner came in handy (and no, this isn’t an InterRail-sponsored post. Would be nice though). Anyway:
Tip #3: Things WILL go wrong, so TRY and stay calm
I say try, as I often fail in this myself, having to vent for a while, snapping at anyone that is unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity, before I accept my fate. But yes, accept things will go wrong and try to work out how to adapt your plans. Often times in case of delays, the train staff will give travel advice over the PA and at bigger stations, staff are there to help you with getting to your destination. Most regular train tickets allow you to continue your journey on other trains if you encounter a delay, but they usually have to follow the same route. Check the specifics of your ticket at the station or online.
I arrive in Basel, still fuming, but with a new travel plan ready and a 30 min waiting time until my next train: to Frankfurt. As I said, this corridor sees very frequent services, so encountering a delay here is not a big issue (for now). But if you are travelling on a route where the services are less frequent, make your plans more carefully.
Tip #4: Take an earlier train
When making your plans, check the transfer times. The apps always show the IDEAL connection, but that may not always be a good idea (because DELAYS!). So check how frequently the trains on each leg of your trip are running. If you see that trains on one leg run very infrequently and with a tight connection, it may be a good idea to get to that station earlier. For example:
Going from Delft towards Germany, I usually travel via Utrecht and take the ICE towards Frankfurt. From Delft to Utrecht, trains run every 15 min, but the ICE runs roughly every 2 hours. So I usually arrive in Utrecht 30 to 60 minutes before the ICE.
I boarded the train in Basel, bound for Frankfurt (and Hamburg) and continued my journey north. We had a fairly uneventful 3-hour trip to Frankfurt, arriving at the Hauptbahnhof on time. On longer train stretches, especially if the countryside is uninspiring, flat, boring (*cough* Netherlands *cough*), you will need something to pass the time.
Tip #5: Bring a book
Many train trips in Europe are amazingly scenic and you will find it difficult not to look out the window, or be annoyed that you are sat in an aisle seat and having to peer over someone else’s shoulders to see the amazing views. BUT, there are also many bland and, frankly boring train trips found in Europe as well. So, a good way to pass the time is with a good book. You can also do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, work or play games on your computer, people watch,… Have something prepared for those boring sections where for hours, you will be driving along corn fields.
In Frankfurt, I was on the lookout for my initial connection for Amsterdam, in the hopes it would be delayed enough for me to catch it, but alas, it was not meant to be. So I continued with my Plan B and boarded a second ICE train (German high-speed train) to Düsseldorf. The train was super busy, so I was very happy to have made (another) reservation, once my plan had changed. In many countries, this is even compulsory for long-distance trains, like in France, Spain or Italy.
Tip #6: Make seat reservations
If you bought a ticket specifically for a route, a reservation will often be included in the price or only cost a coffee’s worth extra. But in most cases, you can also make seat-only reservations for your InterRail pass. For German, Austrian and Italian trains, you can even do that through their app or website, while for some, going to a ticket counter at a station is the only option. Seat-only reservations cost up to €5 for the entire journey (including all transfers) and can save you the hassle and anxiety of trying to get a seat on a crowded train.
Thanks to seat reservations, you too can be one of those people, that have to ask others to move out of your seat. Which you have reserved! Because you are prepared! And it’s clearly labelled on the seat! “How did you not notice it? I will get the conductor then, if you won’t move.” Sorry, what was I saying. Oh yes, POLITE. In 95% of cases, people will happily move, or maybe ask if you can sit in their reserved seat, because they were late with reserving and wish to sit together with their family / friends. But if they refuse, the conductor will be able to help, you just need to be a bit patient when looking for them.
Having my reserved window seat, at a table (yes, you can select all that, like on a flight), we raced over the high-speed line towards Cologne and Düsseldorf. During the trip, we got an announcement that due to a storm raging in Northern Europe, our train would be terminating in Düsseldorf, and not continuing to Essen as scheduled. Phew, already got worried there. But a storm is always a bad sign for your travel plans. My connecting train in Düsseldorf was a local train to the Dutch border town of Venlo. I got on the platform and waited. And waited. AND WAITED. The departure time was approaching and the train was nowhere to be seen. People were piling up on the platform, looking desperately at their phones, at the display boards, hoping to see a member of staff to attack them with their concerns. Our train finally showed up and with a few minutes delay, we departed. As trains often have enough buffer time in their schedule, I was not worried. Also, all my further connections ran every half hour, so I was quite calm making it this far. We were slowly recuperating our delay and were almost back on time when reaching Mönchengladbach. And then I saw. My Frankfurt-Amsterdam ICE train. The one I had planned to get before I got delayed in Switzerland. And the one I was hoping was delayed in Frankfurt. It was here, with an hour of delay, due to a technical fault in Cologne. But as we were going in the same direction, my local train had to wait for my previous ICE train to leave first, making me delayed, again. So in an ironic twist of events, the train that I missed due to a delay, was now delayed itself, and was making me delayed on a different train. At this point, I had no more anger in me and just enjoyed the irony of the situation.
In Venlo, I had 4 minutes to transfer, in the rain (welcome back to the Netherlands!) and the train was stood on the farthest possible platform (WHY?!). After some light jogging (which to be honest, was actually nice after a full day sitting on a train), I caught the connection to Eindhoven. There transferring again, to Rotterdam and again for the final leg to Delft. What a day. 10 hours, 6 transfers, 7 trains, 3 countries, 1 missed connection, 1 storm, 2 technical faults and countless searches for timetables on my phone, I made it to Delft (but hey, who’s counting). One final bus ride and I was home.
To say that this day was very unfortunate would be a lie. Although on the bad side, experiencing a travel day like this is not out of the ordinary. in the past few years, many of the trips turned out as eventful as this one (that’s a nice way of putting it, right?):
- Having to get a replacement bus after 30 min into a 10 hour trip because the overhead wire was damaged.
- Changing trains at an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere (that nowhere being Oberhausen) because of a technical fault.
- Terminating the train one stop (5 km) short of the final destination (at Basel Bad, instead of Basel SBB) and then requiring a 16-car ICE train of people to crowd onto a 4-car commuter train for that final leg.
- A 1-hour delay due to vandalism.
- Abandoned 1st class and reserved seating due to an overfull train.
Not to mention the countless smaller delays, platform changes and the infamous ‘geänderte Wagenreihung’ in German-speaking countries, where the train is operating in reverse formation, meaning that first and second class coaches are not where they are supposed to be (at the front or back of the train). This happens because train stations have printed posters of PLANNED train layouts and sometimes (often) the trains are operating in a reverse order, so they try to inform you ahead of time, so the chaos can start (and hopefully sort itself out) before the train arrives.
Finally, one thing that I was not able to cover in this particular trip, but is a very useful piece of information when travelling through Europe by train: night trains.
Tip #7: Take night trains
When I used to travel by train for adventure purposes (adventure sounds more authentic than tourist, right?), I was seeking out overnight trains, as they are a great way of saving time (sometimes also money). You spend the night on the move, ready to explore a whole new city / country in the morning. Unfortunately, many overnight trains have ceased to operate in the past years, and the remaining ones require a compulsory reservation (single digit for seats, €20-50 for a shared couchette (4 or 6 berth) and €100+ for a private compartment. “In the good old days when our parents would travel” (ah, there it is), night trains were much more common, and seats were free with an InterRail pass, so you could just jump onto a night train and be somewhere else the morning. Still, here is a map of night trains in Europe.
Nowadays, having a “job” I decided I am too fancy for night trains, and rather go to a hotel (or a private room in a hostel) and pay the price of a shared couchette for a bed large enough to fit me, a breakfast and a shower. But if you want to get somewhere fast (and avoid flying), night trains are still the better option. And there is something magical about being on a night train, whizzing through the dark countryside, struggling to fit into the tiny berths, sharing the lovely smells of everyone else in the compartment,… Maybe I’m mistaking magical with something else?
In the end, I will leave you with a few useful links:
- InterRail official website
- Man in seat 61, a fantastic website with train travel advice, examples and travel posts.
- Rail network maps of European countries (basically a railway atlas, for the Geography nerds out there), to check where you can go and which alternative routes you can use.
Photos from N. Geržinič.
Share your thoughts with me