I don’t know about you, but I was watching Michael Portillo’s Great American Railway Journeys the other day, and I heard an American say that he’d never been on a train before. Never.
For someone from Europe, this is completely unthinkable. We take trains all the time. For me, at least, it is the default way of getting around. Why go through the bother of flying when you can just step from the platform to your seat? Why chose to concentrate for hours by driving when you can just relax, watch a movie, and have a nap?
The first time I got a non-UK train was when I was seven. The last time was around four months ago. Nonetheless, despite my 15-odd years of experience and practice, I still find the process of getting trains to be kind of stressful. Nonetheless, I think I do have something useful to share – if only 15 years of odd, train-themed photos!
1. Buy in advance from a legitimate website
I cannot stress this enough. In most countries the price goes up the closer you get to departure. It also increases according to demand. Therefore, buy the ticket as soon as you know when and where you are travelling! I’ve been known to buy my train tickets before I even book my hostel. It can actually be really helpful in structuring a trip, especially if you’re going somewhere kind of obscure where the trains are quite rare.
However, you shouldn’t just buy your tickets from the first Google-sponsored website that pops up. You will inevitably end up paying more. In the UK, for example, never ever ever use the TrainLine. It’s awful and a trick. Use other sites.
In other countries, try and track down the state-sponsored train operator: Italy, France and the Netherlands have never let me down yet. NB, for the Netherlands, there is no need to buy tickets in advance: they price the tickets based on distance travelled, so it costs the same regardless of when you buy.
2. Check your route carefully
This is something that really bummed me out in Sicily. I expected there to be a train from every major city to the other, without any real hassle. In the UK, I can type in any two destinations and there will be at most two changes. This is not the case in other countries so make sure that the train you want to take actually exists.
In fact, this is something that continues to bother me. I have an excellent holiday planned that goes: Gdansk – Vilnius – Riga – Tallin – St. Petersburg. However, there aren’t actually trains between all these places, despite the middle three being major capital cities. I’d have to get a bus, and I find buses quite stressful.
Another aspect of planning your route to be aware of is the time between interchanges. I never accept a route that a website gives me where the change between two trains is less than 5 minutes. It feels like too much of a risk if the slightest delay could ruin your day. I try to get at least 20 minutes between trains, to allow for last minute disasters.
Bonus planning tip: don’t be afraid of early trains. I know 7am seems drastic, but you arrive in your new destination with a whole day to spare. Plus, you get to see the city waking up which is always a treat.
3. Think carefully before getting an Interrail pass
I know they seem great, and full of excitement, adventure and possibility, but they are also really expensive. If you’re planning on staying in each place longer than 4 days it becomes entirely pointless to Interrail, I think. Individual tickets are way cheaper, and take the stress out of the whole experience.
4. Take a moment to enjoy the train stations
There are some truly wonderful train stations in Europe. The railways used to be the most sensational and luxurious way to travel. The great 19th century stations are often described as ‘temples to travel’ and I think that’s totally fair. Off the top of my head, some real classics are Paddington, Waterloo (both in London), Gare de Nord (Paris) and Budapest Keleti.
Even the smaller, countryside stations have their own charm and character. I once spent three hours at the station in Enna (Sicily) and it was awesome. I could hear the bells around the cows’ necks and a party going on a few meters away. I could see people picking the berries that grew on the trees by the side of the tracks. A nice old Italian man gave me a pineapple flavoured sweetie. I sat in the sun and read my book and subtly threw away the sweetie because I don’t really like pineapple.
5. Follow the instructions
Sometimes train guards are lovely and great. On the train from Syracuse, a train guard gave me aloe vera cream for my hands because I had horrific heat-rash. On the train to Caserta the guard told me at every station that it wasn’t my stop yet, because he was so excited that I was visiting his home town. A nice guard is a friend for life/the few hours you are on the train.
Nonetheless, some guards are not so great. They are on the look-out for people taking advantage and being a dick. Therefore, if it says, ‘validate your ticket before boarding’, try to do that! In Italy they are very particular about it: there are little yellow boxes by the platform that you absolutely must shove your ticket in. If it isn’t stamped with today’s date, it’s stealing. Similarly, when I was travelling Prague – Vienna – Budapest, they were very keen that I sat in the correct seat and brought the identification that I’d promised I’d bring. If you say you’re going to use a passport, a driving licence just won’t cut the mustard!
Well there we go! That’s it from me, but I want to hear from you! What tips have I missed out? What is it like getting trains outside of Europe? I never managed to get a train in India so any tips about that would be greatly appreciated!
Let me know xx