10 Tips for Seeing Europe By Train While Studying Abroad

by Rachel Murphy-Banks

All aboooooard! While we SO wish we were talking about the Hogwarts Express, the Eurail is second best for train travel across Europe for study abroad students. Its’ extensive rail networks allow students to travel on high speed trains between Europe’s most popular cities, from Madrid to Barcelona to Rome and Munich and from cityscapes to landscapes to seascapes and beyond. Unlike when you fly above (and miss it all), traveling via train allows you to become part of the scenery (your cloud pics are getting old anyway guys).

Gaze out your window for extended glimpses of the picturesque lakes of Switzerland, the snow covered mountains of Norway, the colorful villages of France, the olive groves of Italy, and more; these are the perfect backdrops for insightful journaling, (admittedly meager) attempts at doodling, or general life-contemplating.

Without a doubt, traveling by train is the best transportation option if you want to experience and witness the European way of life while studying abroad. The locals do it and you should too!

Read on to find out everything you need to know to navigate the rails like a pro while studying abroad in Europe, and on a student’s budget too! 

1. Train Names

Each country has their own national rail network, many of which are known by acronyms. Some countries have multiple rail carriers that specialize on certain routes within the country, while other rail carriers focus on international journeys. The first step to learning the ropes of train travel in Europe is to be sure to read schedules closely as you become familiar with the names used for each train line.

The main international trains operating in Europe are:

  • France: SNCF
  • Spain: RENFE
  • Portugal: CP
  • Belgium: SNCB
  • The Netherlands: NS
  • Germany: DB
  • Switzerland: SBB, Glacier Express, Bernina Express, BLS
  • Austria: OBB
  • Italy: Trenitalia, NTV  
  • Ireland: Irish Rail
  • England/Scotland/Wales: East Coast, Virgin, First Great Western, Scotrail, Southwest, Southeastern, Cross Country, Arriva
  • Sweden: SJ
  • Denmark: DSB
  • Norway: NSB

Other rail carriers which focus on international journeys include:

  • EUROSTAR: London to Paris or Brussels, and vice versa
  • THALYS: Paris to Brussels, Amsterdam or Cologne to name a few, and vice versa
  • LYRIA: Paris to Swiss cities such as Zurich and Bern, and vice versa
  • CNL: Overnight trains in and out of Germany

2. Railway Schedules 

Luckily for newbies, train schedules remain consistent throughout most of the year, with changes normally occurring only in peak seasons, aka June and December. Railroads are not like airlines in that schedules and tickets are not available far in advance. Most train tickets become available for purchase just 60 to 110 days prior to the date of departure.

If you want to start your planning further in advance (look at you, little miss prepared!), take a look at a train on the day of the week you think you may wish to travel and plug in an earlier date. This will give you a general idea of length of the journey and current pricing options.

3. Ticket Prices

Train fares are separated into various tiers, and if the lowest priced tickets sell out, the next lowest priced ticket becomes the new cheapest ticket. While seats may remain open for purchase up until the date of departure, it is extremely rare for the actual lowest price to ever become available again. Therefore, there is no financial advantage to booking last-minute train tickets in Europe!

Railroad companies in Europe distinguish trains as “peak” or “off peak” depending on the time, date, and popularity of each specific route. Determining which train is considered “peak” in advance, and then booking an alternative route, can keep extra Euros in your pocket (which will be perfect for those sweet treats you’ll want at the end of a long transit day).

Money Saving Tip: Book as early as possible and travel at midday.

Try to travel after the morning rush hour of commuters and tour groups. Choosing journeys that depart around 10 a.m. or later are usually safe bets. You can also try to choose a route that will allow you to arrive at your destination after 3 p.m., which means you’ll be able to check into your hotel right away (instead of meandering the streets towing around your luggage for a few hours). Try to stay away from rush hour travel on Friday and Sunday nights especially, and remember that European holidays are different than American holidays! All of these factors affect pricing and availability.

4. Seat Selection

You will generally be required to select your seat either at the time of purchase or upon arrival at the train station on the day of your departure. Be aware that coach means car, not second class. Also keep in mind that your seat number refers to the letter or number of the car your seat is reserved in. Most trains have an open seating plan, which sadly means the private compartments romanticized in old movies are rare in most of Europe; so much for reenacting North by Northwest! However, you’ll still want to reserve your seat ahead of time. Not all seats are created equal, even if the level of privacy is limited across the board.

5. First Class vs. Second Class

Most trains have both first and second class cars, which both have an aisle that runs down the center. In first class, there will be one seat on one side of the aisle and two seats on the other side of the aisle. First class has bigger, more spacious seats, but still has somewhat limited amenities. There are only a few trains in Europe that offer a complimentary beverage or meal in first class cabins.

In second class, there are usually two seats on each side of the aisle. Second class is perfectly comfortable, and is most popular with locals, especially those who travel by train frequently.

If you are looking for more space, a more reserved atmosphere, or a quieter ride, first class is the way to go, otherwise second class is the better deal for study abroad students on a budget.

6. Reservations

Reservations are required and included in the price of all high speed trains in France, Spain, Sweden, and Italy, as well as on high speed international trains. On the other hand, reservations are an additional addons for train journeys within the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland, for those who prefer to confirm a seat. There are also some trains (usually regional) that do not accept reservations at all.

Insider Tip: Whether or not you should make a reservation depends on how much of a guarantee you would like that you will be able to put your butt in a specific seat, on a specific train. If your funds allow, advanced booking is generally recommended for train travel in Europe.

7. Rail Passes

If you plan to travel Europe extensively by rail, a rail pass is a good option. The Eurail Pass is the most well known rail pass, and comes in a variety of options, which are dependent on the countries you plan to travel to and the number of days you plan to travel. Beyond regional options, there are also find country-specific rail passes. The cost of rail passes ranges from the low hundreds to over $1,000, for a month long Eurail Global pass.

All train passes come in two formats: consecutive days or flexi days. The cheaper option is always consecutive days; however, if you plan on taking your time to soak in each stop, the flexipass is the better choice. Consecutive means your pass is only good for a specific number of days from the date you first use your pass, whereas flexi allows you a specific number of days that you can choose to travel on within a one or two month time limit.

Rail passes should be purchased before the start of your study abroad program if possible, which can be done online through Eurail directly or through rail suppliers, like Rail Europe. Travel agencies, like STA Travel, can also supply rail passes. You will need to choose an exact pass, including the number of days, the countries you’ll travel to, and the class of service you want when booking a rail pass. Keep in mind that the majority of passes are paper documents that must be shipped in advance, hence the reason you should purchase them before your departure.

Money Saving Tip: Don’t purchase a pass for days that you may not use it, it is better to purchase fewer days and pay for day trips here and there than to have a pass that you do not fully use.

8. Rail Pass Usage

Prior to boarding your first train, you must take your rail pass to the ticket counter at the station and have it validated. Be sure to keep your passport handy! After receiving an authorization stamp, you will not need to check in or validate your pass at the station again. Simply show your pass and applicable seat reservation to the conductor on board the train when he or she comes around to check tickets.

Insider Tip: Even if you hold a pass, you will likely be required to purchase an additional seat reservation ticket, especially on high speed trains. Make sure that you ask for a Passholder rate when purchasing a seat reservation to ensure you get the most out of your rail pass. Plan ahead if possible, especially in the summer months in France, Spain, and Italy, as Passholder fares can sell out!

9. Departure Etiquette

Many stations have electronic track boards in or near the main entrance of a station that list upcoming train departure times, destinations, and stops. Also displayed will be a figure of a train showing car numbers and correlating letters. The letters indicate where to stand on the platform, so passengers can be ready to board the correct car as soon as it arrives at the station.

No electronic board in the station? Look instead for an encased timetable board. Here, you should be able to track down a diagram of the train configuration, which will direct you where to stand on the platform. 

Many trains will have the car number displayed on the outside of the train car either electronically or on paper; check the doors of each carriage for additional confirmation.

10. Luggage

Many people in Europe use trains as their way to get to and from work or to take day trips on their days off. Luggage space, therefore, is sometimes a concern for travelers embarking on longer journeys (especially for international students who just had to pack an extra pair of shoes).

Railway passengers are highly encouraged to travel light. The best rule of thumb is to bring what you can carry, and no more. Regional trains have limited luggage space and sleeper cars are surprisingly small. It’s unlikely that you’ll have to travel with your luggage on your lap, but be prepared to get creative with your luggage placement if you are riding a popular train or route (or if it is peak tourist season).

Luggage space on many high speed trains is located in a designated area at the end of a car or between cars. There is also typically luggage space available over seats, which can look deceptively small but actually fits most suitcases (perfect for importing Swiss chocolate or Spanish olive oil back to your study abroad home base).

Insider Tip: A great place to store carry-on size luggage is in the space created by seats that are back to back, which is hard to find but extremely convenient.

Final Notes: Save time, Euros, and your headache meds for other troubles

  • Be at the station 30 minutes prior to departure, and if you are traveling with a group, plan to arrive even earlier.
  • Give yourself extra time before boarding if you are traveling on EUROSTAR or in Spain, as additional security checkpoints are common in these stations/locations.
  • Many stations have take away food stalls, shops, and toilets, but plan your food-game in advance to avoid hungry tummy rumbles on long journeys.
  • Be prepared to pay for the use of bathrooms at stations, but don’t worry, bathrooms are free to use on trains.
  • Consider booking overnight trains to save money on accommodation. But, while your wallet may be happier, you may have to sacrifice some gorgeous sightseeing en route.
  • Travel with a friend or two to unlock a Saver rates for group bookings.
  • Take advantage of bonuses that come with the purchase of rail passes, including local discounts on tasty food or cultural activities.

Taking the train will no doubt enhance your study abroad experience in Europe. On your way to your next exciting destination you can watch the landscape flash before your eyes, read a book about your travel destination, learn the basics of the local language, or have a picnic with a stranger from the comfort of your seat. Gallivanting around Europe and maximizing your weekend study abroad adventures will always be more fun when train travel is included, and you’ll be able to literally experience a classic facet of the European way of life along the way too. Though there may not be any choreographed hot chocolate ensembles, the adventures will be sweet nonetheless.