Comfortable, frequent and reliable, trains are the way to get around Europe; whole trips can be organised purely around rail travel. France, Germany, the Low Countries and Switzerland score highly in quality and quantity of railways.
Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) links London’s St Pancras International station with Paris’ Gare du Nord (2¼ hours, up to 25 a day) via the Channel Tunnel; Brussels’ international terminal (one hour 50 minutes, up to 12 a day); and Amsterdam Centraal Station (three hours 40 minutes; up to two daily) via Rotterdam. Some trains also stop at Lille and Calais in France. There are also several trains a week from London to Disneyland Paris; and seasonal service from London to Marseilles via Lyon and Avignon (May to September); and London to the French ski resorts (December to April).
The train stations at St Pancras International, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are much more central than the cities’ airports. So, overall, the journey takes as little time as the equivalent flight, with less hassle.
Eurostar in London also sells onward tickets to some Continental destinations. Holders of Eurail and InterRail passes are offered discounts on some Eurostar services; check when booking.
Within Europe, express trains are identified by the symbols ‘EC’ (EuroCity) or ‘IC’ (InterCity). The French TGV, Spanish AVE and German ICE trains are even faster, reaching up to 300km/h. Supplementary fares can apply on fast trains (which you often have to pay when travelling on a rail pass), and it is a good idea (sometimes obligatory) to reserve seats at peak times and on certain lines. The same applies for branded express trains, such as the Thalys (between Paris and Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam and Cologne), and the Freccia trains in Italy.
If you don’t have a seat reservation, you can still obtain a seat that doesn’t have a reservation ticket attached to it. Check which destination a seat is reserved for – you might be able to sit in it until the person boards the train.
If you’re covering lots of ground, you should get a rail pass. But do some price comparisons of point-to-point ticket charges and rail passes beforehand to make absolutely sure you’ll break even. Also shop around for rail-pass prices as they do vary between outlets. When weighing up options, look into cheap deals that include advance-purchase reductions, one-off promotions or special circular-route tickets, particularly over the internet.
Normal point-to-point tickets are valid for two months, and you can make as many stops as you like en route; make your intentions known when purchasing and inform train conductors how far you’re going before they punch your ticket.
Supplementary charges (eg for some express and overnight trains) and seat reservation fees (mandatory on some trains, a good idea on others) are not covered by rail passes. Always ask. Note that European rail passes also give reductions on Eurostar, the Channel Tunnel and on certain ferries.
Pass-holders must always carry their passport with them for identification purposes. The railways’ policy is that passes cannot be replaced or refunded if lost or stolen.
Eurail (www.eurail.com) passes can be bought only by residents of non-European countries and should be purchased before arriving in Europe.
Similar to the InterRail pass, Eurail issues a ‘Global Pass’ covering 28 countries – the UK (except Northern Ireland) and North Macedonia are not included. While the pass is valid on some private train lines in the region, if you plan to travel extensively in Switzerland, be warned that the many private rail networks and cable cars, especially in the Jungfrau region around Interlaken, don’t give Eurail discounts. A Swiss Pass or Half-Fare Card might be an alternative or necessary addition.
The pass is valid for a set number of consecutive days (up to three months) or a set number of days within a period of time (for up to two months). Those 27 or under can buy a Eurail Youth pass. For over 28s a full-fare Eurail pass is required. First and second class options are available and up to two children aged between four and 11 can travel free on an adult pass.
Alternatively, there is the Select pass, which allows you to nominate two, three or four bordering countries in which you wish to travel, and then buy a pass allowing five, six, eight or 10 travel days in a two-month period. The five- and six-day passes offer an attractive price break, but for more expensive options, the continuous pass becomes better value.
There are also Eurail National Passes for just one country.
Two to five people travelling together can get a Saver version of all Eurail passes for a 15% discount.
InterRail (www.interrail.eu) offers a 'Global Pass' to European residents for unlimited rail travel through 30 European countries (limited to two journeys in the pass-holder’s country of residence). To qualify as a resident, you must have lived in a European country for six months.
Passes come in four types: youth (aged 27 and under), adult, senior (aged 60 and over) and family. They are valid for up to one month.
While an InterRail pass will get you further than a Eurail pass along the private rail networks of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region (near Interlaken), its benefits are limited. A Swiss Pass or Half-Fare Card might be a necessary addition if you plan to travel extensively in that region.
InterRail also offers One Country passes valid in the country of your choice for up to one month.
National rail operators might also offer their own passes, or at least a discount card, offering substantial reductions on tickets purchased (eg the Bahn Card in Germany or the Half-Fare Card in Switzerland).
Such discount cards are usually only worth it if you’re staying in the country a while and doing a lot of travelling.
There are usually two types of sleeping accommodation: dozing off upright in your seat or stretching out in a sleeper. Again, reservations are advisable, as sleeping options are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Couchette bunks are comfortable enough, if lacking in privacy. There are four per compartment in 1st class, six in 2nd class.
Sleepers are the most comfortable option, offering beds for one or two passengers in 1st class, or two or three passengers in 2nd class. Charges vary depending upon the journey, but they are significantly more costly than couchettes.
In the former Soviet Union, the most common options are either 2nd-class kupeyny compartments – which have four bunks – or the cheaper platskartny, which are open-plan compartments with reserved bunks (54 per coach). This 3rd-class equivalent is not great for those who value privacy.
Other options include the very basic bench seats in obshchiy (zahalney in Ukrainian) class and 1st-class, two-person sleeping carriages (myagki in Russian). In Ukrainian, this last option is known as spalney, but is usually abbreviated to CB in Cyrillic (pronounced es-ve). First class is not available on every Russian or Ukrainian train.
Sensible security measures include always keeping your bags in sight (especially at stations), chaining them to the luggage rack, locking compartment doors overnight and sleeping in compartments with other people. However, horror stories are very rare.