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Train Tips for European Traveling

Bill Malchisky  March 27 2013 02:00:00 AM
Train travel is fun and certainly exciting. You can easily get to anywhere with enhancements to the multi-country rail network in Europe. Here are a several tips (hardly plenary, I'll add) to aid you on your way.

1. Rail travel is expensive on mainland Europe (UK is quite reasonable comparatively); with the advent of cheap (for some travel situations) airfare like Easy Jet, but if you have luggage you need to move around, rail can be by far the easiest and most cost effective way around Europe (e.g. with two checked bags and two carry-on bags, my US$83 Easy Jet ticket ballooned to US$931; suddenly, the 'high-priced' rail ticket was US$700 cheaper; so ALWAYS read the fine print on discount airlines' agreements before purchasing);

N.B. Some of the individual high-speed lines have special offers, like DB ICE (see below), but are not offered on the European rail wholesaler sites; so, if you are creative, you may be able to piece together a trip to meet your needs and save some cash in the process or find a deal for precisely where you want to go.

2. Swiss trains are simple, no-frills, but are impeccably on-time; so if you want to catch your target train, you must be ready before it arrives. No power at the seats and no WiFi -- Switzerland is a small country after all, so this reminded me of the NYC commuter trains -- in terms of time and services;

3. The prestigious French TGV, is fast--nothing else. If you are in second class, you don't exist; the trains are tired, worn-out, quite filthy overall (the amount of dust on top of litter under the seats and along the insides should never be seen on any train--especially at their prices); you only get power in first class (double the cost), there is no WiFi on-board and the few tables that do exist in second class, tease you with one power outlet per side -- which didn't work in the three cars that I tried. Also, when your final destination is a city other than Paris and you are traveling through, you will need to change train stations in most cases;

If you take their subway called the RER, know that you will be quite challenged to get through the gates with your bags, not all exits have elevators or escalators and the turnstiles are very narrow. I only saw one baggage assist window in Gare de Lyon, to push my garment bag through the window, but (Gare de) Paris Nord lacked any of these. People may offer to help while you juggle your luggage, but if someone takes your bag from them while you are engaging in creative yoga moves with your laptop bag or shopping bags, will they stop that person? Too much risk for me. Your mileage will vary here.

If you have to change stations and have luggage, take a taxi -- hardly cheap, but much easier. As your larger/wider pull bags may physically be unable to fit through the turnstile and you could miss your connection while trying. In New York, they have active handicapped doors at almost all of the Manhattan and larger outer borough subway station turnstiles, allowing for an easy entrance/exit to/from each subway station; quite surprised that Paris lacked this capability in 2013.

4. The Thayls from Paris (for example) to Brussels and The Netherlands offers more comfortable seats and enhanced decor over the French and Swiss trains, but are more cramped for seating. You will have power at each seat, one receptacle per passenger, but do not count on the WiFi. As a Parisian gentleman confided, "[WiFi] never works on this train, as I take it regularly. If you get a connection, you will finish replicating when you arrive in Brussels." Also, you can only get WiFi access in second class with the more expensive "semi-flex" fare. WiFi codes are unique and printed on your ticket -- except if you purchase your ticket in Switzerland, where their train ticket machines are disconnected from the Thayls computer network and no matter how much you pay, you won't get a proper code. The Swiss ticket agent will not tell you this (perhaps as they don't know), so avoid an unpleasant surprise. Save your money here;

5. If traveling from Brussels to one of the suburbs like Leuven, ensure that you get the IC trains (express) rather than the IR trains (local); the time difference is quite dramatic; also know that if you lack a Belgian bank card, then you are considered international and will be unable to purchase your tickets via the ticketing machines, necessitating you to make a cash only transaction on the train for EU3 more. I would also check the machine first, to get an idea of the fare and ensure that the conductor charges you the correct amount, plus the EU3 more. I would also check the machine first, to get an idea of the fare and ensure that the conductor charges you the correct amount, plus the EU3 penalty, or you can easily get overcharged;

6. The Netherlands --- like most countries --- offers comfortable regional trains, to complement their high-speed cousins; overall, they are slower than the high-speed Thayls but are comfortable and lack WiFi; as The Netherlands is also a small country, their trains will lack some additional features, but this is balanced by their offering lots of trains throughout the Benelux region; those that are heading to BLUG 2014 in Breda, NL, can take note;

7. The German Deutsche Bahn (DB Bahn)'s ICE offers limited WiFi service, but only on select domestic runs. If you are traveling through Germany to another destination, expect to not have WiFi access; though their website indicated they are looking to improve WiFi coverage, no additional details were available at the time of this writing;

Note: Train Deals -- Deutsche Bahn offers a London -> Germany [Cologne,Frankfurt,Hanover] special for EU59 http://www.bahn.com/i/view/GBR/en/prices/europe/london-spezial.shtml
or offers to other Central European cities for just EU39 -> http://www.bahn.com/i/view/GBR/en/prices/europe/europa-spezial.shtml

8. Though the USA is not known throughout the world for its prevalence of high-speed rail, the Amtrak Acela rail service in the northeast is phenomenal overall, completely eclipsing the French TGV, IMHO. Acela offers WiFi in all cars, multiple power receptacles at every seat, clean comfortable cars with plenty of legroom, well maintained cars despite years of heavy usage by travelers, and it is fast -- not as fast as the TGV, but I'll forgo some speed to dramatically improve my productivity when traveling. Also note, that on routes from NYC to BOS or WAS (DC), Amtrak's Acela moves about double the passengers of all the airlines combined -- their service is that good. {Source: fact provided during Rail Day 2012, GCT, NYC}

N.B., Amtrak also offers WiFi on most regional trains in the Northeast corridor as well; their website's booking section puts a Wireless signal icon next to each train that offers their free WiFi service.

Rail Sites of Interest

Eurail.com http://www.eurail.com/trains-europe/high-speed-trains
Raileurope.com http://www.raileurope.com
DB Bahn http://www.bahn.com
Thayls http://www.thalys.com/be/en/
Swiss Railways http://www.swissrailways.com
TGV http://www.tgv.com/en
BritRail http://www.britrail.com
Eurostar http://www.eurostar.com/
Heathrow Express https://www.heathrowexpress.com/

UPDATE -- "The Man In Seat 61" -- http://www.seat61.com/ -- Thanks, Mike Smith, for the suggestion.

Hope this helps and saves you some time when traveling overseas. Have fun and "All aboard!"

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© 2010 William Malchisky.