Milan Central Railway Station

Getting around Europe by train

Eurostar, St Pancras London
Boarding the Eurostar at St Pancras, London

With the exception of the km we rode by bicycle, our point to point travel in Europe was by train.

Having spent 4 months driving a private vehicle around large tracts of Europe in a more insane stage of my life (especially considering the state of the vehicle), I did not even contemplate getting a vehicle, there had to be a better alternative. It appeared trains could be the solution. Our train network in New Zealand has largely disappeared, so there was a big novelty factor in trains as an option.

Trip pre-reading, particularly on web sites like “The Man in Seat 61” convinced us that there were also practical reasons for using trains. Sure they may not always be the cheapest or fastest mode of transport but considerations for us were:

  • The stations appeared to be centrally located in most cities and,
  • coupled with accommodation near the station, we could easily and cheaply (by foot) get from and back to the station.
  • We would get to see the country in between, well, more so than from a plane at 30,000 ft. Getting to and from Europe involved 50 hours of flying time, how much more time did we need up there?
  • We could make an effort to “balance” our carbon miles ledger, well sort of.

We had a limited amount of time so were on a predetermined travel schedule, pre booking as much as we could seemed the way to go.

Bookings generally did not open until three months before the travel date, but I checked prices by entering similar travel days on booking sites in order to estimate costs and compare point to point tickets against a Eurorail pass.

There was little difference in cost but with an additional cost for reservations which were required on many of the routes we were travelling we decided to opt for point to point tickets.

Milan Central Railway Station
Milan Central Railway Station

I quickly figured out that the best option was to use the rail web sites rather that a booking engine such as Rail Europe, the latter charged a booking fee.

The tickets were a mix of self printable (which were great) or a booking number which allowed you to redeem the tickets at a station when you got to the country of travel. Most gave you a seat reservation, but for “local” trains we simply got an open ticket which gave you any seat but also had flexibility on the train you caught. Our very first train from Frankfurt Airport to Saarbrucken was on this ticket which proved to be helpful after we missed our connecting flight in the USA. We had been a little concerned about the lack of an allocated seat as there were three of us for part of our travels and our preference was to not be scattered around the train. Generally, it was not a problem and even when we were separated, the passenger churn tended to be pretty high and you soon found seats together.

Collecting the tickets at a station was not a hassle but with these “open” tickets you did need to validate them in the little machines at the station. Just follow the locals and you will be fine.

The stations, while large and potentially scary by NZ standards, were easy to find your way around and pending departures are displayed on numerous monitors around the station.

Connections and how long to allow was another conundrum pre-trip. The German site Bahn was good for working out the options, on a couple of connections we did not have a lot of choice and did risk tighter transit times than we would have liked. A more challenging transfer was when we travelled from Avignon in the South of France to London, we needed to get from Gare du Lyon to Gare du Nord. Again, seat61 was a great resource and we opted for the metro rather than a taxi. It was a little hunt to find the right metro line but generally it was much easier than anticipated. All part of the adventure.

Don’t skimp on the transfer time, things do happen and trains, even DB (as we found out), can run late. A train change in Basle, Switzerland where we had allowed 45 minutes, turned out to be one of our tightest connections. The initial Deutsch Bahn train arrived on time and had no apparent unscheduled stops but as we got closer to our destination we were obviously running at least 30 minutes behind schedule. There had been numerous announcements during the journey but in German so we were oblivious of the delay until our scheduled arrival time passed without any sign of Basle.

One further warning, if travelling on Eurostar you do need to arrive earlier as indicated on your ticket. Furthermore, we travelled back to Paris on a Saturday morning and were pleased we had allowed plenty of time. You have to go through customs and we found St Pancras on a Saturday morning to be pretty chaotic compared to our trip from Paris earlier in the week.

Zurich ti Milan by train
The trip from Zurich to Milan passed through some stunning mountain and lake scenery

So what did we think of the trains?

They were great, plenty of leg room, comfortable, and by booking early I scored some great deals and in the end our costs were considerably below a Eurorail pass and, we got to make several trips in first class as there was little difference in price. Second class was fine and was our preference as it was generally a much cheaper option, comfortable enough for us and significantly more enjoyable than flying economy.

We were able to walk to and from our accommodation which was a cost savings over flying. The once we did catch a taxi, we realised it was not as far as we thought and walked to the station when departing. One warning though, if you insist on travelling with suitcases the size of small containers (we saw many doing this), you may find them a hassle on many trains. Some have luggage racks, on some you can place more modest bags between the backs of the seats. A more convenient option is to have a bag that you ( don’t ask the attendant to help) can heft up into the overhead luggage racks which removes the worry of being separated from you bag. Those with oversize bags sometimes had to leave them by the seats, particularly on some of the trains we travelled on in Italy, and they often deserved the grumbles other passengers threw their way.

Sites we used for bookings
SCNF (France)
Bahn (Germany)
Bahn iPad App
Tren Italia (Italy)
SBB (Switzerland)
EuroStar (London, Paris, Brussels)

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