Travelling by Train in Europe

On 04/11/2010, in Informal Education, by Jordan Wilson

Something a little different today.

The school year is ending soon and some of you will be travelling to Europe for the summer. A rite of passage for many students that I attended school with, myself included.

For those planning to go, I assume you have figured out the keys to rail travel.

But here are a few lesser known points to keep in mind.  

1st or 2nd Class Rail Passes

There really is no difference between the two. Slightly better quality in 1st, as a rule. But not enough to warrant the higher cost.

The big advantage of 1st is in finding an available seat. Many more people travel in 2nd Class than in 1st. So if trying to get seats on a specific route, it is more difficult in 2nd than 1st.


Your pass is your train ticket. But for a small extra fee you can reserve a seat on a specific trip.

The advantage is that you will be guaranteed a seat on the train. This avoids you having to stand or perhaps not being able to take the train you want.

The downside is that you lose some flexibility in your travel plans by having to take trains at specific times.

On some trains, you actually require a reservation (usually the long distance trains or “bullet” trains a country may have) in addition to your ticket. So check your routes and ensure that you do have a seat and not just a ticket.

Some routes are extremely crowded with passengers. If possible, check and see how busy a particular train you will take is. It might be prudent to reserve a seat to ensure you can get a place on the train.

When I was a student, we often ended up standing in the corridors to save money. Now I like reservations as I just need to find my car on the train and my seat. There is no longer the need to get to the train early and participate in the mad dash to find any empty non-reserved seats.

You can get information on reservations from the company in which you purchased your rail pass. Or, when in Europe, check at the local train station ticket counter for assistance.

Ticket Activation

You typically must activate your rail pass prior to initial use. You need to have that done at (normally) the ticket counter (or similar) in the train station before boarding.

As ticket counters can be busy, plan on going early to ensure you are not pressed for time before your first train trip.

Ask at an information kiosk where to get processed. They will send you to the correct line and save you a lot of time from standing in the wrong place (which always happens on one’s own).

Train Legends

At most train stations, each train track in the station is divided into sectors, usually A/B/C/D/E.

Alongside your train’s designated track, there will be a sign (usually electronic) that tells you which sector on the track each train car will stop. So if you are looking for car 253 and the sign says that it will stop in zone “B”, then wait for your car in that sector of the track. This assumes that you have a reserved seat in a designated car.

If you do not have a reservation, you can still tell in which sectors the 1st, 2nd, and Restaurant Class cars will halt.

Wait in that zone for your train. Often, stops are quite brief. You need to hustle to get people and luggage on and off, especially when the train is busy.

Know where your car will stop and be ready.

If you cannot see a sign, ask a conductor as there is usually one or two wandering the area.

A Car is Not a Train

A train is made up of many cars. Interestingly, not all cars may go to the same destination.

Cars may be added or dropped from the train at intermediary stops along the way.

When I was 18, this was a problem for me, two buddies, and a few not-too-bright Frenchmen. We were taking the train from Paris to Nice, went to sleep, and awoke at 5:00 a.m. in an empty rail yard in Besancon. With no trains to Nice anywhere in sight. I guess it could have been worse, we might have awoken in Moscow.

When hopping on a car, make sure it is going to the destination you want. Usually the car itself will have a sign (electronic or otherwise) by the train doors that tells where that car is heading.

If unsure, check with the conductor when your ticket is checked.

Food and Drink

In many countries, Switzerland and Germany spring to mind, the train station in any town is the hub of activity. You always have at least one store to purchase food and drink. In most, there are food stalls for coffee, juice, pop, croissants, sandwiches, etc, etc. In fact, on Sunday, the stores and kiosks in the train stations may be the only shops that are open in the town.

And, on the trains, there are vendors that come through the cars to sell food and drink.

On my last trip to France in 2009, most of the French train stations had no food options, even in mid-size towns, and none of the trains I took had food/drink vendors on them (some had restaurant cars but I avoid them).

So while you may be able to buy things in the stations or on the trains, this may not be possible everywhere. You may want to bring some food with you, to be safe, especially on long trips.

Also, I suggest you buy some plastic, travel wine glasses and a corkscrew for your trip. Drinking is legal on most (all?) trains and you are in Europe after all!

Luggage Warning

On some trains you can put your luggage above your seat or you might be in an enclosed compartments so you can keep your stuff easily with you.

However, many overhead storage areas are pretty narrow, so if you have thick suitcases, forget it. Also, the aisles are quite narrow, so it is an ordeal to drag your luggage on and off the train. Especially if you are battling with other passengers as they try to get seats or get off the train to make tight connections.

As an aside, often when you have to change tracks for a connection or even to get to your own track, you have to lug your gear up and down stairs (many stations only have stairs, no ramps for rolling luggage or elevators), so bear that in mind with size, weight and quantity of luggage. That can be a nightmare, especially when in a hurry to get to your train.

On other trains, it is better (not enough space for your luggage beside you) to leave your suitcase near the front/back of the train section you are in. Often there are specific racks for you to leave your luggage in near the train doors. Unfortunately, it is usually difficult to keep an eye on your gear when it is by the train doors.

To prevent your luggage developing legs, bring along a bike lock (or something similar) to secure your luggage to the train (trains where you can leave your gear at the front/back will usually have poles or rails to secure your suitcase to).

Luggage Thieves

Thieves like to open bags (so make sure your bags are locked) and/or when leaving a stop, throw a bag off the train to a confederate who walks away with the suitcase while you are pulling away. Once the train is leaving the station you will never see your bag again.

Having it locked to a pole, etc. makes it much tougher to lose your bags.

A variation on this occurs as you pull into a stop on the way. If someone starts talking to you as the train comes into a station, be careful. They might ask a question and get your attention, while a colleague steals your luggage, purse, camera, etc.

When travelling, I use products by Pacsafe to secure my valuables on the trains, in hotels, or even when just walking the streets. The DaySafe series is especially useful.


I know of many instances where people were robbed by someone sitting behind them (train seats tend to go in fours, so you are backing onto two others). The person will reach between the seats and get his/her hands into your coat as it hangs on the hook by the window.

They do this completely unnoticed, or they will have an accomplice to talk to you and distract you while the thief is reaching through. So, if you hang your coat up, be careful about your phone or wallet. Most people are decent and friendly, but you need to be very careful as criminals prowl the trains and stations.

Also, watch out for someone that dumps something accidentally on you and then is all apologetic. While helping you clean, either they are pickpocketing you or their colleague is stealing your gear as you place it on the ground to clean off. A friend of mine had this happen to him in Madrid. A packet of mustard, I recall.

Hopefully this advice will help you have an enjoyable trip.

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