I still recall the first time my mother mentioned ‘backpacking across Europe by rail’ before our big trip when I was 11. I pictured us hanging off the side of trains like I’d seen in documentaries about India, because I figured backpacking meant we wouldn’t have a proper train ticket, or that the cheapest tickets didn’t afford us the luxury of a seat, inside the train.
It was quite the surprise when it turned out many trains were air-conditioned, had tables between seats, and in some cases the chairs slid down to form a bed. I was particularly impressed with the room-like cabins, some with automated doors.
It was that first trip around Britain and Europe by rail, which instilled a love of rail travel which has influenced many trips since.Buy a global SIM card and avoid roaming charges.
Even for a first time traveller to Europe, the train network is relatively simple to figure out. Trains depart for most destinations regularly, most railway stations are centrally located in town (unlike airports) and you can often save a night’s accommodation by taking a sleeper train, waking up in a new city, without wasting any daytime hours travelling.
Whilst budget air travel in Europe has become the norm, a cheap flight isn’t always a cheap flight. Many airports that service budget airlines are far from cities, often with limited transport options, so you’re stuck paying €40 for a crowded bus to take you into town, where your flight was only €5 to begin with.
I had a moment of panic, flying from Dublin to Kaiserslautern in Germany for a football match during the World Cup, (I was carrying my mates tickets) and when I arrived, my phone received a text message that read ‘welcome to Vodafone France‘. I thought I’d booked the wrong destination or caught the wrong flight, but thankfully I was just close to the border between France and Germany.
Then there’s the luggage restrictions, the drunken English lads on a bucks weekend, having to arrive 2-3 hours early–the money saved isn’t worth the stress received.
Meanwhile when catching trains, you can arrive 15 minutes prior to departure (except Eurostar across the Chanel), there’s no luggage restrictions, often there’s quiet carriages, you can watch the scenery, read a book, take a wander up to the snack car. It’s far more civilised.
Once, whilst in Zurich, I had planned to travel to Paris. The train to Paris left in 30 minutes, but the train to Florence left in 15 minutes, so I went to Florence instead, ending up in San Gimignano, a beautiful walled city on a hill, overlooking the vineyards of Tuscany.
I stayed in a guesthouse with wooden shutters and it was exactly like every movie set in Italy you’ve ever seen. Plus I was the only tourist in town.
It’s memories like that, that further instil my love of rail travel. Here’s ten fond memories of travelling Europe by rail:
- Seeing snow for the first time on the Oslo to Bergen railway, in a village called Hell
- Eating Toblerone and seeing glaciers from huge scenic windows from the train in Switzerland; before catching the cable car up to stay at the Grindelwald Youth Hostel, on a cliff top, overlooking mountains with snow
- Travelling to Arles in the south of France thinking it was where Van Gogh was buried, (because I didn’t check the guidebook) but stumbling upon the Café de la Gare (from the painting, cafe at night). The next morning, we caught the train back up to Paris, then onto Auvers-Sur-Oise where he’s actually buried and thus also saw the real Church at Auvers, standing where Vincent Van Gogh stood to paint it
- Catching a train to the north of Denmark where the North Sea and the Baltic Sea meet and seeing waves crashing together. The two seas were different colours
- Listening to PJ Harvey’s, Is This Desire on my discman incessantly whilst travelling through Scandinavia, and now whenever I hear it, I’m magically taken back to snow filled pine forests
- In the middle of winter, (so it was perpetually dark), getting off the train in Kiruna, Sweden to see the Ice Hotel. It was too expensive to stay at, so we had a drink at the bar, and then had lunch at a cafe opposite
- Being pushed back into my seat, by the G-force on the TGV trains in France, or the ICE trains in Germany, watching the world blur past
- Eating black bread with cream cheese, Vegemite and cucumber because it was cheap, and lasted a long time. Every time I eat that, I’m instantly taken back to travelling Europe by rail.
- My first trip to Russia, and catching the train from Helsinki to St Petersburg and having the border guards count the money in my wallet entering and leaving Russia
- Being the only person in 1st class on a Virgin train in England and so the attendant kept bringing me snacks and drinks every 20 minutes because she was bored.
These aren’t the only memories, but just a sample to portray how different rail travel is in the memories it creates.
That initial trip around Europe has led me to travel Japan extensively by rail, China, India, Vietnam, USA, New Zealand and the Trans Mongolian Railway; all of which I have great memories of, far more than the plethora of budget flights I’ve taken.
So if you want relaxation, stunning scenery, comfort and stress-free travel around Europe you must ask yourself, is the money saved on a budget flight really worth it?
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