Here's what you need to know about traveling Europe on the train--from planning your trip to buying tickets to getting the most for your travel dollar.
European trains are fast, clean, convenient and take you from city center to city center. You might be amazed at all the places you can travel to, including the small cities and villages.
Buying Train Tickets in Advance
Lots of folks want to get their hands on tickets before they leave on vacation. You risk losing them, of course. But today there are some fairly safe ways to purchase tickets in advance.
Most savvy travelers have found that the DB Bahn site, the German Railways, works very well for getting tickets and information for all countries in Europe. There is a specific site for American Travelers. If you are planning a journey to Germany, it's all there for you.
DB Bahn also offers a variety of ways to use your smart phone to purchase tickets. You can either register with the site and get tickets to print out before you travel, or keep the tickets on your smart phone. As long as the battery is charged, you can show the conductor the phone with the bar code and that, plus your id card, is your ticket to ride.
Buying Train Tickets at the Train Station
Train stations can be wondrous places in Europe. Some are so chock full of stores they could rightly be called "malls" in American lingo. Even the smallest station will have at least a bar/cafe.
If a train station has an Information desk — use it to plan your trip. Don't expect the person at the ticket window to answer all your questions when there's a line of impatient commuters waiting. This is especially important in crowded stations like Venice. Find Departing Train information by consulting the yellow departure posters at the stations.
Otherwise, go to the ticket window (or stand in line and wait for a teller to be open.) Have the following information available or face the wrath of commuters: Train time or train number, class (usually first or second), one-way or round trip, and the date you are traveling on. Be aware that some express trains in some countries, like the Italian train in the picture, may require a seat reservation. Fast trains usually are more expensive and make limited stops--and you'll be charged a supplement.
These days most stations have automatic ticketing machines which are very convenient. They accept cash (euros, or the currency of the country you're in) and some credit and debit cards but many only accept cards which are chip and pin enabled. This is a relatively new kind of card in America, but Europeans have been using them for years.
Discounts and Specials
When planning your trip, be sure to ask if there are any specials. Also, take advantage of any student and age discounts that may be in force. Choosing the right rail pass may shave some costs as well.
Facilities: Eating and Drinking
Long distance trains often have restaurants or cafe cars. Medium distance trains may rely on a cart carrying sandwiches, snacks, drinks, and coffee. Regional trains often carry no food or beverages. Best bet is to check out the stores in most large train stations these days — you can often get a great variety of interesting food to take on the train and it'll probably be cheaper and tastier than the stuff they serve from a cart.
Finding Your Car if you have a Reservation
At each track in larger stations, or sometimes on the wall of the station is a "Composition of Trains" board that shows where each numbered car will be as the train pulls in. If you're late you can jump on any car and make your way through the train by their internal doors.
What if I Don't have a Reservation?
Then just sit anywhere. But be aware that if you don't want to be bumped from your seat, check the outside of your compartment for slips of paper that indicate if someone else has reserved that seat down the line. On newer trains, the reservation info is on an LCD screen above the seats.
Trains to Airports
Many cities now have airport service by train. Most go to the heart of the city (to the central train station) where you'll usually find hotels. This means that you can also get to the airport from many cities; you don't have to return to the city the airport is in on your last day in Europe as long as the train into that city stops at the airport.
Am I Valid?
Many countries have you validate your regional ticket before you get on the train. This prevents multiple uses of the ticket, especially if the ticket is regional and valid for 90 days. Validation machines are usually yellow-orange in color and your ticket will have an arrow telling you which end to validate.
So What's Cheap?
In general, trains in the southern part of Europe are cheaper than trains in the north. Slower trains are also cheaper than those slick, fast ones. Also, ask about special passes that might be available in the country in which you're traveling.
Consider taking longer trips on an overnight train. You can often buy a couchette or bunk on a train from the conductor (check when you purchase your ticket). You'll save a hotel and a day of travel.