Local Travel within Europe… Navigating the Train System

How should I get around within Europe? This confounded me when I got to planning my 4-week, multi-city, multi-country European adventure in the summer of 2017 (I went to Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain)!

Since I was going to be on the move so much, taking the train seemed the smartest thing. I didn’t want to deal with getting to airports, which sometimes can be on the city outskirts, and didn’t like the idea of luggage restrictions. The extensive train system was the best bet, I thought. I was just… a little lost.

Unfortunately for me, I found very little helpful guidance on the web, which led to a lot of mistakes that cost me money and flexibility. Fortunately for you, the lessons learned from my “baptism by fire” will help your decision-making!

Mistakes I made planning travel from country to country

Mistake #1: Bought a train pass package

Because I knew I was going to be traveling by train within much of western Europe, I bought a Eurail global pass. Eurail offers a number of packages & price points for frequent or unlimited train travel in participating countries (I purchased the “10 travel days within 2 months” option, which was $825 at the time — you can learn about this and other packages here). HOWEVER, as I discovered, that just gets you the pass — for most routes you also have to reserve a seat (for even more moolah)!

At the time, I was attracted to the idea of buying the pass and reserving all my trains in one sitting. I like convenience and simplicity — who doesn’t, right? But what I don’t like is to pay hundreds of dollars extra for it. My country-to-country train travel, once I bought the pass and chose my itineraries and seats, was going to cost me between $1,100 and $1,200!

Days before my trip, Eurail’s online reservation system had an outage. I couldn’t reserve seats and their customer service team was super slow in responding. I complained, and they issued me a 100% refund.

Crisis averted! Right? Wrong. I made another mistake (albeit a slightly cheaper mistake). Read on…

Mistake #2: Bought each ticket individually from a ticket distributor

Now, while mistake #2 ended up saving me hundreds of dollars over mistake #1, it was still a mistake.

Since I was unable to make any reservations via Eurail’s online reservation service, I turned to RailEurope. On RailEurope, you can find schedules (as well as buy tickets) for over 50 train companies across Europe. Again, “one convenient place.”

Grand total for the individual tickets and seat reservations, where applicable? Approximately $750! Great news, right?! Not exactly… now, a middleman is taking a little bit off the top, and I lost out on some of the perks of purchasing directly from the service provider (like mobile tickets and a flexible or more affordable return/exchange policy). Plus, who wants to wait for paper tickets to be shipped? Not me!

Mistake #3: Booked most/all my trains in advance

There’s one thing I want to mention before I walk you through EXACTLY how I would do it next time. The biggest mistake I made was just booking my trains in advance. Doing so incredibly limited me. If I wanted to change my plans or switch routes (which I did — often!), I A) had to finagle a return or exchange, which took time and money or B) sometimes had no choice but to forfeit my original ticket (and what I paid for it).

Not to mention the several — cough cough — trains missed because I overslept or miscalculated timing…

My bottom line: VLP (Very Little Planning) liberates, not limits

GUYS! This has become my travel style. It may not be yours (yet). I am comfortable switching gears and not knowing where I’m going to be in a few days. You may need to adjust or completely disavow this advice depending on your comfort level and penchant for planning.

Before I began all this, to be completely transparent, I was afraid that booking last minute would be limiting instead of liberating. I figured it would cost me a lot more or that the trains I would want to take would be full. This was mainly unfounded (although I did waste a lot of money booking last minute trains because I missed the train I had booked ahead of time, which ended up costing me double… So don’t do that.)

What I’ll do next time I travel between countries in Europe (and I suggest you do too!)

  1. Download all the main train company apps (scroll to the bottom of the page for some download links for iPhone by train operator)
  2. Adopt VLP (Very Little Planning). Try to leave your schedule open if you can handle it. When you’ve decided where you want to go next, review the RailEurope app a few days in advance for timetables, itineraries and approximate costs. Consider the following:
    1. Is there an opportunity to work in any day trips? If so, you could save yourself money and time by eliminating the return leg of your day trip if it is convenient to move on to your next destination. I know for a fact I paid more for day trips that could’ve been absorbed by my itinerary.
    2. What is the ideal transit time for you? You may need to work this out via trial-and-error. For me, it was early afternoon — I had the morning to get ready for the day, eat, get to the station etc., and then once I arrived in my new location, I had a few daylight hours to orient myself and to plan my attack for the following day.
  3. Purchase via the mobile app of the train that’s operating your route. (E-tickets can be saved to your mobile wallet. Paper tickets? Fuggetaboutit….)

To some, VLP sounds really risky. I get it. I just think there’s something really beautiful in knowing you have complete freedom to go ANYWHERE. You could meet somebody amazing and decide to head west instead of east (it’s happened). Not being locked in creates room for spontaneity. 😉

I hope my “baptism by fire” will help you! Let me know if they do, and also, I’d love to hear about your planning habits. Leave a comment below!

And as promised, here’s some iPhone app download links to popular European trains & rail resources!

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