Monday, October 26, 2015
Train Travel in Europe
There are a number of options to consider when traveling through Europe by train. Should you buy a train pass, what class, should you buy an open ticket, or specify the time, do you need a reserved seat? Whether making specific plans for your chosen itinerary, or flying by the seat of your pants, even if you choose to do that on a train, there are many things to consider.
Eurail passes: you can travel to any country or select specific countries, when buying a pass, but what advantage is it to have one? If you want to save time and not stand in ticket lines, or try a self service machine, they can save you time, but can they save you money? That only happens when you consider the cost of the tickets if purchased separately. For years I purchased the pass and forced myself on day trips, so I would be using up all the money prepaid for the pass. The convenience of the pass fell apart when traveling during peak hours and the only way to sit on the train was to have a seat reservation, which required standing in long ticket lines. The romance of having the pass and hopping trains at will soon faded.
Rail pass classes: which class offers the most benefit? When I was single, my answer was based strictly on finances. 2nd class was good enough and took me to the same places the 1st class passengers were going. Perhaps it was more crowded, but it was comfortable enough and would still allow me to take the fast trains. When I married, my husband wanted to travel 1st class on the trains, because the cars were less crowded and therefore quieter. Even though I groaned when buying those passes, thinking of all the money I was wasting, I could understand his logic...until cell phones were invented and until we discovered that many places we wanted to visit were not serviced by trains equipped with 1st class cars. My groaning continued, until my spouse realized that 2nd class cars, had become perfectly adequate.
Open tickets or specific times: what are the advantages of each? When purchasing a ticket with no specific time on it, if you change your mind about when you want to leave, you can use it for up to 2 months, or exchange it and travel to a different city. Sounds good until you discover that you cannot use it on every train traveling to your desired destination. That usually happens when the conductor tells you that your ticket is for a regional train and you have just boarded a Eurostar, requiring you to purchase another ticket on the spot, at an increased price. Another disadvantage of an open ticket is that you have no seat reservation, so if you are traveling at peak times, or have boarded a Eurostar going to a popular travel destination you may discover that most seats are reserved and unavailable, and you have nowhere to sit. Worse yet, you may be unable to move to another car, seeking an open seat, due to the throngs of other travelers who also boarded without reservations, most of them holding Eurail passes, wondering why the train was so overbooked, and thinking how inefficient the European system is.
Buying a ticket with a specific time takes away many of the risks involved with an open ticket. You know the specific time to travel, and the specific train. If you miss your train, the worst thing that happens is that you will have to exchange the ticket by standing in another ticket line. Just remember to book a seat when you do that, especially if you travel during peak hours. The ticket sellers can advise you about whether or not you may need the reservation.
About paying for that reservation: what can you do when it's too late to book one? Here are a few tips. It's generally a 2 class train that has the potential for restricted seating. If you can move through the cars, you can also look for unreserved seats and take one. Seats will either have a reservation ticket on the top of the seat, or in the case of compartments, the position chart on the door will have the reservations inserted on reserved seats. Once the train starts moving, assume the reservations are for people getting on at the next stop or two and take the seat until that person boards the train. Since you cannot determine if seats are reserved, before entering the train, try getting on the train near the dining car if you are holding a 2nd class ticket. You can sit in the dining car and it may have a closet for your luggage, while you are ordering and dining. Since it would be impossible to eat enough to justify staying in the dining car on a long distance ride, try asking the conductor if there are available seats in 1st class, and ask if you can upgrade your ticket. 1st class ticket holders seldom have problems finding an available seat.