After spending the past six weeks speeding through Europe by train on a spontaneous, zigzagging, once-in-a-lifetime adventure, I think it’s time to make a list of train travel pros and cons. (Eeeeee! Do you like a good list as much as I do?! If your extremities are tingling in anticipation right now, then yes, you do. Want to join my support group?)
Eurail.com generously provided me with a first class pass (automatic for those of us over 26) valid for 10 days of travel within a 2-month period. I confess I’ve always been a bit intimidated by train travel and having now experienced Europe this way, I think I can fairly blame NYC for that. Confusing schedules, unpredictable route changes, delays and breakdowns made me quite content to stay on the island of Manhattan forever, thankyouverymuch. Europe by train was exponentially easier – even in countries where I didn’t speak the language.
Since departing Berlin on April 2 I’ve visited 8 countries, hit up everywhere from Bratislava to Bologna and Switzerland to Slovenia, taken countless photographs and met hundreds of amazing fellow travelers. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Train Travel Pros
Time. The hours spent on trains are just more relaxing than hours spent on planes. The difference in vibe and allowance for electronics meant I went wild writing posts, editing photos and making lists on my iPhone — like the one you’re reading right now – while whizzing through lush yellow fields and past glistening lakes and mountaintop chateaus. Plus, Europe is relatively small and easy to get around, so after just a couple of hours of comfy downtime on a train, I’d find myself in the middle of a new city/country, fresh and ready to explore – not worn down to a hollow shell of my former pre-air travel self.
Time 2.0. Every train I’ve taken has been on time. Had I flown all these places, can you imagine how much of my life I’d have wasted sitting in airports, dealing with delays and going through security? (As I edit this post, I’m sitting in Stuttgart Airport for an unpleasant, WiFi-less three-hour connection to Barcelona.) And think of all the customs and immigration shenanigans you miss! Within the Schengen empire there is no passport control when travelling between countries. The only time I had to deal with entry/exit while training on this journey was from Ljubljana, Slovenia, to Zagreb, Croatia, because Croatia is outside Shengen jurisdiction but still inside Eurail pass benefits. It’s not as confusing as it sounds, I promise, and the entry/exit process was easy. It all takes place on the train – you don’t even have to do anything!
Sightseeing bonus opportunities. I don’t have all the time in the world to travel around – well, I sort of do, but I don’t have all the money in the world – so it’s nice to be able to slide in some extra countryside sightseeing while traveling from hub to hub. A benefit of this train travel experience: I’ve learned to stare out the window at passing lakes and castles while typing accurately on my computer simultaneously. My favorite journeys? Berlin to Prague and Milan to Lausanne were both breathtaking!
Train naps are the best. After about 20 minutes of gentle rocking on a train, chances are I’m cuddled up with my blankie and snoozing like a baby. I just made sure to set my alarm for 15 minutes before scheduled arrival so I wouldn’t miss my stop.
Freedom to go wherever you want. Once you’ve got your Eurail pass and a train schedule in hand, you can map out a strategy with a couple of hours at a cafe. The only barrier to ease of use is your own brain. (See Analysis Paralysis below.)
Mega-confidence booster. You might think I have this whole solo travel thing figured out, but truthfully I’m just as nervous as anyone rocking up to a new country. Each destination comes with butterflies and typically some confusion upon arrival. If there were a camera crew following me on this journey, there’d be a heap of footage of me wrinkling my brow and scratching my head as I tried to figure out what in the world ASFAHRT means or how to find my departure platform at Berlin’s massive train station. Once I did figure it out, I felt like a real world-conquering traveler, capable and independent and empowered. I could go anywhere I wanted, anytime I wanted. There was so much freedom!
Train Travel Cons
Trying to cram a lot in. Europe’s relative itty-bittyness means everything’s so close you can almost taste the local delicacies of the next country from over the border, so every location on the map has an allure all its own. If I hadn’t had prior engagements – a social media consulting project with Berlin Tourism and TBU in Umbria – I would’ve planned my route much more sensibly. This time? I was winging it based on what looked close and fun on the map. Scenic route? Sure, I’ll take it. Overnight train? Why not, I don’t have anywhere else to stay! Of course the downside of such a rapid schedule is not really getting to know each place as well as I’d like but let’s be honest – I’ll be back to explore my favorites in more depth.
Analysis paralysis. They say if you don’t know where you’re going you’ll never know if you get there, and my current trip indicates to me that quote is alright. My brain hurts from analyzing train schedules and trying to figure out the best possible way to maximize the value of the Eurail pass. (After much head scratching, I finally determined that Wein is Vienna and Praha is Prague and Venezia is… ok, that one was a bit more obvious.) Sometimes I just had to make a decision without really weighing if it was the best way to use a day’s journey — and in the end, it all worked out.
First Class Air ≠ First Class Train. While the first class option was undoubtedly more comfortable than 2nd class, don’t make the mistake of comparing it with first class on an airline. Only twice (in Italy) did I have a snack or drink offered to me during the ride. On some trains I think the only difference in 1st and 2nd class was upholstery. Even still, with my first class pass in hand I sure felt like a big deal with many leather bound books and an apartment that smells of rich mahogany.
Inconsistency. One thing that makes me bonkers as a traveler is inconsistency and since the Eurail network is comprised of dozens of different train companies in the countries, each journey is bound to be different. Will this first class cabin require a reservation? Will the train make announcements about stops? Will there be food? Internet? A power plug? Air conditioning? Will they check tickets once or 15 times? The Type-A publicist that still occasionally tries to claw her way into my laid-back traveling lifestyle prefers consistency, but in the end it’s the surprises that make travel fun. Right? (And it’s actually not difficult to figure out the answers to any of those questions – IF you have the time to look into it in advance.)
No passport stamps. I’ve visited seven new countries on this journey and only have two stamps to prove it – my airport entry in Berlin and my entry/exit from Schengen-land. What if someone wants proof I visited Prague?! Oh, I guess I could just show them the pictures…
Mine are up on the Angie Away Facebook page – check them out here. (And click Like if you’re so inclined!)
I have much more Europe coverage on the way, but for now I hope you’ve enjoyed this little list. For more information on the Eurail – Italy Rail Pass, Eurail – Spain Rail Pass or other passes throughout the continent, click here.
Disclaimer: My Europe train passes were provided by Eurail.com. As always, all photos, opinions and bad jokes are my own. If you’re considering traveling in Europe via train, check out the extremely helpful Eurail.com Facebook page or send them a message on Twitter. They’re happy to help and super friendly!