Want to ride like a local? Here’s how

04/20/2014 12:00 AM

04/16/2014 11:33 PM

So you want to ride the rails in Europe.

Now all you have to decide is where, when, for how long, on what kind of ticket, whom to buy your ticket from . . . and probably a bunch of other things that never cross your mind when you’re planning a trip along Amtrak’s Northeast Regional corridor.

But don’t let Europe’s vast railroad system intimidate you. Frederic Langlois, president and chief executive of Rail Europe, a North America-based distributor of European rail products, says that riding the train is “part of the authentic European experience. It is the best way to travel within Europe and the best way to mingle with the locals.”

To help address questions that readers often ask us, we turned to Langlois and rail expert Laura Terrenzio, travel information manager of Rick Steves’ Europe, for advice. Their tips:

– Plan in advance. “Plan and book everything while you’re in the U.S.,” Langlois advises. European rail systems have been designed with domestic, not North American, travelers in mind. Advance scouting at home will be less stressful and allows you easier access to experts and English-language sites on this side of the pond, including those of outfits such as Rail Europe and Rick Steves.

“Planning is getting easier and easier online,” Terrenzio says. She recommends the Web site of the German national railway, the Deutsche Bahn, at reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/en, as a one-stop shop for your initial route research. The site has schedules for all of Europe and is comprehensive for the sake of being useful, not because it’s trying to sell products to travelers, Terrenzio says. Also be sure to check out the rail sites of your destination country, although some are easier to decipher than others.

Another advantage of advance work: You might get a cheaper price. (Keep in mind that while it’s easy to succumb to the romance of the train, you might also get a better price and a faster trip by flying, Terrenzio says.)

You'll want to make reservations ahead of your trip if you plan on taking an overnight train, a high-speed train or a train in popular destinations where inventory sells out, such as Spain, France and Italy. According to Langlois, the ideal lead time for making reservations and buying tickets and passes is 60 to 180 days.

Familiarize yourself with your routes. Are there express or high-speed trains that can get you to your destination faster? Will you be traveling through a country not covered by your rail pass on your way between two others? If so, you'll need to buy a ticket for the uncovered portion.

– But don’t feel as though you need to plan everything in advance. You can almost always buy a point-to-point train ticket – though not a pass (we'll get to that later) – in Europe. You need to worry less about routes with frequent trains, as long as you don’t have tight connections or another commitment to make. You might also want to wait to buy tickets for day trips from major urban areas. Interested in an excursion from London to Windsor Castle? No sweat. Show up at Paddington station and choose a train.

– Decide whether a rail pass makes sense. “Passes, I would say, mainly are designed for people who have time, who don’t know exactly what they’re going to end up doing and plan to take at least three different rides,” Langlois says.

There are passes designed for a few countries or many countries. There are passes for quick jaunts or long journeys. There are flexi-passes or passes designed for consecutive days. The options can be overwhelming, which is why it’s important to price out your itinerary. It’s tempting to think that a pass will offer all kinds of flexibility to flit here and there, but there are restrictions, and single point-to-point tickets may be cheaper.

Here’s where advance planning comes in again. Rail passes are aimed at foreign travelers, so if you think that you'll be able to buy one once you’re in Europe, think again. Buy them while you’re still in the States.

It’s also important to understand that rail passes don’t necessarily allow you to hop on any train you want. Even with a rail pass, you'll need to make reservations for some trains. TGV trains in France, for example, limit the number of seats available to passholders, so plan ahead. Look into your routes to see whether reservations are recommended or required. Some trains don’t take reservations at all.

Pay careful attention to information about validating your pass once you’re in Europe and are ready to use it. If you make a mistake, you might be out of luck.

– Avoid common on-the-ground mistakes. Don’t get caught on a train without a ticket, reservation or a validated pass. It could cost you a pretty penny.

Be prepared for disruptions in the form of strikes or delays. Have in mind alternative routes, and avoid tight connections, especially if the service on the second leg of your trip is infrequent.

At the train station, and on the train, pay attention. At the station, you should track down a reader board listing departure times and tracks, Terrenzio says. And even after you’ve found your track, stay alert. Last-minute changes can send you scurrying to a different platform. When you’re on the train, make sure that you get off at the right stop. Major cities can have multiple stations with similar names. Pay attention to your estimated arrival time so that you can be ready to get off at your stop.

“Not packing light is a mistake that many people make,” Terrenzio says. Except for some accommodations for people with mobility issues, you’re on your own when it comes to hauling your luggage. And once you’ve stowed your bags on the train, keep an eye on them.

Although most train stations have signs with English or universally understood symbols, you can still find yourself confused. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Terrenzio recommends.

– Relax and have fun. Most American travelers will be bowled over by the smoothly run European railways. Langlois says that trains aren’t old-fashioned anymore. They’re trendy (Christian Lacroix designed the interiors for France’s new TGV trains) and full of locals you can turn to for advice and conversation.

“It’s fun. It’s pleasant,” Langlois says. “When you travel by train, the ride itself is part of the adventure. . . . You enjoy the ride, you enjoy the landscape, you enjoy the company.”

Rail Europe offers answers to frequently asked questions at www.raileurope.com/rail-help. You can also download the comprehensive Rick Steves’ Guide to Eurail Passes at www.ricksteves.com/publications/rail-guide-form.

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