Buying Unnecessary Rail Passes
Train travel mistakes sometimes arise out of sheer confusion. Rail passes are a good example.
The vast selection of rail passes can be both exciting and confusing.
Some novice budget travelers believe they must select one of the passes. But there are quite a few itineraries in which point-to-point ticket purchases are cheaper than buying passes.
It's important to add up the total cost of point-to-point tickets, and then compare that total to the prices of the passes. Don't skip this important step.
Even those who should buy passes sometimes buy the wrong pass.
Can you structure your itinerary so that you'll only need a five-day pass? If so, you'll save significant money compared to an eight- or 10-day pass. Sometimes, a few simple tweaks to your sightseeing plans can make this difference possible.
If most of your trip will be in one country, there's another pass decision to make...
Failing to Consider National Rail Passes
If you'll be traveling by train over a period of days in a country where rail tickets are fairly expensive, consider national rail passes.
The prices vary quite a bit by country, but in most places you can use a national pass to travel for under $65/day per person. In some countries, that's about half the price of a point-to-point ticket between two major cities.
Naturally, there are certain restrictions on these passes. In some places, you might not be able to use high-speed trains or you might have to travel in off-peak time periods. Be sure to read these restrictions and understand the limitations prior to purchase.
Booking First-Class Tickets
First-class tickets on airplanes are expensive -- especially on long trips. Many budget travelers never make it into a first-class seat on the plane.
So when they see a chance to book first-class train tickets, they think of it as a splurge and spend the extra money.
There certainly are times when a first-class ticket makes sense, and there's no blanket rule that fits every situation. But there are also quite a few instances when first-class train seats simply are not worth the extra money.
In parts of Europe, the seats in first-class and second-class are identical. But the first-class cars are quieter, with fewer people. Is that worth paying a surcharge?
Find out the key differences between first-class and the other tickets prior to making a purchase. Don't assume the perks will be worth the price.
Failing to Budget for Premium Service
You're sitting at home, shopping for train travel, when you notice there's service between two major European cities that's far more efficient than any of the others that popped up in your search. You pencil that train segment into your itinerary.
When you actually board this train days later, you find that a surcharge is required -- a fee beyond the regular fare for fast service. These can be found in Europe on InterCity trains and on any line that offers efficient travel with express service.
Many times, this surcharge is well worth paying. But if you don't budget for it, you could find yourself in a financial pinch.
Always find out what kind of train you've placed into your itinerary. If it's a fast train, plan on spending more money.
Wasting Valuable Vacation Time on a Train
It looks like a lovely day in Varenna, on the edge of scenic Lake Como in Italy. Is this the kind of day you want to spend riding a train?
If possible, plan your trips for evenings or overnights, when it's likely you'd be inside relaxing after a busy day of sightseeing.
Don't waste a perfectly wonderful vacation day sitting on a train, watching factories pass by your window.
Failing to Validate Ticket
Take a closer look at the ticket in this picture. It has a date range for which it is valid, but no time on it. The bearer of this ticket is free to choose any train leaving Edinburgh during that time period, and make a return trip from St. Andrews at a time of his or her choosing.
A conductor will punch the ticket once the trip is underway. That will prevent multiple trips on this one ticket. But some countries require a validation stamp before boarding the train. The conductor will look for it, and fine you if it isn't there.
Rail services in France and Italy frequently require ticket validation. But you should always ask at time of purchase if the ticket needs validation prior to boarding. It's easy enough to slip the ticket in a small machine on the platform at the station to avoid a fine.
Failing to Consider Overnight Options
Spending a few overnights on a train can save time and money. You travel between points of interest while you sleep, and frequently spend less money than would be necessary at a hotel.
Naturally, this option works better for some trips than others. It helps to be able to find a route with no connections. You won't want to wake up at 3 a.m. and change trains.
Some people find sleeping on trains to be difficult. The train makes starts and stops through the night, with all the noises you'd expect as brakes are applied and passengers enter the train.
It's an option that merits some thought. If you can do it, you'll save money on train travel.
Eating Expensive Train Food
The chicken dish you see here was ordered from a train menu and served at my seat. It was expensive and (being kind here) not particularly tasty.
There are many other cases when you'll be served excellent cuisine on a train. But you must decide if the convenience is worth the added costs.
Train stations of any size usually have take-away food for sale, at prices that are generally less expensive than what's on the train menu. Better yet, why not visit a supermarket on the way to the station, buy a few simple items and picnic on the train?
If that suggestion makes you uncomfortable, look around at your fellow passengers. You'll find many of them brought along a snack or a meal to eat on the train.