Ride the Rails

You did it! You worked hard this summer, saved your pennies, ordered a tall coffee instead of a venti soy triple macchiato (add whip), and you booked your flight for your Eurotrip next summer! You’re so excited that you’ve almost started packing your bags (but wait - I’ll cover more of that in an upcoming article!).

You’re planning on staying in hostels and meeting new people while eating and drinking your way through Europe - that’s great! So now is the time when you start asking yourself “How am I going to get from Rome to London - and all the places in between - without spending a fortune?” Lucky for you, the answer to that question is what this Wanderlust article is all about.

Last year while on my own Eurotrip, I covered roughly 2500 miles via the European train system with a few of my friends. We traveled over 4 weeks through Italy, France, Spain and Portugal carrying only what we could hold on our backs. When I was there I traveled using a 30-day Eurail Pass - I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The Eurail pass is a special ticket designed for non-EU residents, and is specifically marketed towards young Americans who plan on spending a significant amount of time on the trains in Europe. It’s touted as a ‘global pass’ that will get you from Amsterdam to Venice to Prague, without the necessity of purchasing individual tickets. It sounds very convenient and cost-saving; however, I ended up paying more money on transportation than I needed to during my trip. This leads me to my first tip on how to use the train system in Europe:

Read the fine print!

When I purchased my 1-month Eurail pass, it cost $541, and sounded like a pretty good deal for a full month of unlimited train travel. However, I ended up spending a total of $825 on train travel by the end of my trip! The fine print (which, admittedly, I didn’t read until I arrived in Europe) stated that certain routes (i.e. most) required a reservation. While these reservations could be made the same day of the trip, there is a fee for each reservation, which in my case ranged between €5 and €25 each. Believe me, those fees add up! When I returned stateside, I did some research and discovered that if I had purchased the tickets individually without a Eurail pass, I would have only spent $645 to travel the same routes. I also discovered a couple of great tools while doing this research, which leads me to my second tip:

Be aware of the tools that are available to you.

While researching travel options, I came across a great website: Rome2Rio.com. This website is my go-to when researching and planning travel between foreign cities. Rome2Rio shows you several transportation options for your particular origin and destination, and lists the duration and an estimated cost of each of the options. The German railway, ‘Deutsche Bahn,' also has a great online tool. Their website has one of the best timetable search engines I’ve seen; not only does it search the German rail system, but it also includes the entire European rail network. During my recent Eurotrip I didn’t even enter Germany, but I used the DB website retroactively to research and price out what my travel should have cost me. Had I done this planning prior to heading out on my trip, I would have saved myself over $150. Those savings could have gone towards purchasing infused gin & tonics at my favorite gin bar in Barcelona (Rubi Bar located in the El Born neighborhood - you’ve got to try the roast lamb infused gin!) while waiting for a delayed train. Which leads me to my third tip:

Be flexible.

While the European train system is often more reliable and timely than air travel, don’t forget to be flexible! Trains get delayed and issues can sometimes arise. If your train is delayed - or even cancelled - this is by no means a reason to freak out! I had one particularly long day while traveling from Granada to Seville where, after several delays followed by a cancelled train, I found myself stuck late at night in a random one-road small town. The town had only one restaurant that was open, and I definitely got some interesting looks from the locals as I entered carrying a huge backpack. Before I left the train station, however, the station director allowed me to use his computer to contact the hostel in Seville, where I had a reservation for the night, to make sure they didn’t lock the doors before I could check in. While it was a bit stressful for sure, I eventually made it to my destination safely, and my delay made for a great story to tell at the tapas bar the next night! Which leads me to my fourth tip:

Keep your eyes open.

While traveling by train is a relatively safe way to travel, as with anything in life, something can always happen. There was one experience in Rome where someone posing as a train employee offered to show us to our assigned seats on the train. When we arrived at our seats he held out his hand and demanded a tip for his ‘service.’ We declined, and he made quite a scene, but luckily he took off. We later found out that he didn’t even work for the train system, and that there is a tendency in Europe to prey on unsuspecting travelers and tourists. So always keep your eyes open, be aware of potential scams, and watch each other’s backs. Be vigilant; there’s no sense in being an ‘easy target’ for someone looking to take advantage of you. This isn’t meant to scare you - far from it - it is just intended to make you aware of your surroundings and to be smart. But train travel isn’t the only way to get around, which leads me to my fifth and final tip:

There are alternatives to trains.

While I’ve talked mainly about trains in this issue, there are alternatives to supplement your train travel. The Rome2Rio website lists a few of these options in between destinations. Uber and other ride-sharing services are increasing in popularity in Europe, and I’ve had great experiences personally using Uber in multiple European cities. I’ll typically request an Uber using the free Wi-Fi in my hostel, and then use a restaurant or nearby coffee shop’s Wi-Fi network to request my return car. If you decide to utilize a taxi, if at all possible try and make sure to negotiate the fare prior to getting in the car. Some taxi drivers can take advantage of unknowing tourists, charging ‘service fees’ and bloated fares. One time in Athens, a group of us took 3 taxis from the same hotel to the same location. We all ended up paying different rates because we didn’t negotiate the rate prior to departure.

If you keep these tips in mind while planning your trip, then traveling through Europe should be a breeze! However, don’t assume as I did that your train experience will be just like Harry Potter’s journey on the Hogwarts Express; while you may very well make new friends on a train, you are on a budget, and you won’t be traveling leisurely inside a luxurious, red velvet upholstered compartment, and there won’t be a smiling woman pushing a cart full of treats up and down the aisle.

Also, be sure to keep one thing in the forefront of your mind: it’s the experiences and opportunities that you open yourself up to that really make a trip. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Even if your train is cancelled and you are stuck in a small French town at 11:45pm with no place to stay, you’re still in a small French town and the bakery down the street will open in 6 hours with delicious croissants and espresso!

Good luck and safe travels! Just go.

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