What I Wish the Internet Had Told Me About Riding Trains in Europe

When I lived in Lille, France for the summer, I bought a 10-day flex Eurail pass for myself and my two kids (age 14 and 16).  We used our pass for several day trips and for a trip to Munich, Germany.  I'd like to share with you what I learned about riding on trains.  Most of this information comes from making mistakes or trial and error.  I've decided to pass this information along to you since I couldn't find it on the Internet.

Is a Eurail Pass worth it?

I had a difficult time determining if a Eurail Pass was worth it.  Here's what I discovered.  If you are a spontaneous traveler and like to go where the wind takes you, then a pass might be for you.  The pass allows you to hop on and hop off as many trains as you'd like in a single day.  One day the kids and I left Munich, Germany and went into the Black Forest.  We probably rode 10 different trains that day, so the pass was definitely worth it on that day.

If you are someone who likes to plan out your trips in advance, the pass might not be worth it.  My pass cost me 60 Euro each day I used it.  One day I went from Lille to Brugge.  I later found out that was 17 Euro each way. That day the pass wasn't worth it.  

If you plan touring Europe by going from one city to the next, the pass might be worth it.  Especially if you don't know in advance which city you want to go to next.  Tickets get more expensive the closer you purchase them to the departure time.

If you plan on staying in one location and going on day trips (my favorite way to travel), you can't get very far using the rail pass because it doesn't include the high-speed bullet trains (unless you pay extra for a reserved seat or take a chance that a seat is free).  We ended up using our pass to go about 3 or 4 hours at the most outside of Lille, spending 4 hours at our destination, and then turning around to come home.  That is a 12-hour day with 8 hours of train rides.  You might be better off to just buy a bullet train ticket and forgo the pass so that more of your day is spent at your destination.

So the bottom line is that I loved the flexibility that the Eurail pass gave me, but I'm not convinced it saved me money in the long run.  It really depends on what your travel personality is.

Entering a Train Station

Once you arrive at the train station it can be quite overwhelming trying to figure out which train to board.  The best thing to do is to try to find the departure board.  It usually is in the middle of the train station or close to the entrance depending on the size of the train station.  It reads like the departure/arrival board at an airport.  

Each train arrives at a platform that has a number.  Once you find the train you want to board, look to see which platform it will be arriving at and wait at that platform.  You're safest to wait in the middle of the platform.  But that can be quite crowded with people trying getting on and off.  Some stations have maps that show you how long each train will be and which letter to stand under to get to the car you want.

If you don't like the smell of cigarette smoke (then why did you chose to go to Europe?) you can avoid the smell in two ways.  Some stations have a tiny enclosed waiting area for nonsmokers.  (Sort of like what you see at airports in America)  You can wait in there but in the summer time it will get quite hot and stuffy.  Some airports will have a designated smoking area outlined in yellow.  This area is out in the open, but if you stand away from it, the smell isn't quite so bad.

Getting on a Train

When boarding a train make sure you know whether you have a first class or a second class ticket.  First class cars are usually closest to the station, while the second class cars are further away.  I recommend buying second class tickets, you get to your destination at the same time as first class, and it really isn't that different.  If you want a nice quiet ride with no kids around, definitely buy first class, but I loved riding the trains with the locals.

If you are riding a train that has both reserved seats and unreserved seats; e.g., TGV, Ter, ICE trains, usually the unreserved seats are towards the back of the train and in the middle of each car away from the doors.  You can tell whether a seat is reserved or not by looking above the seat on the luggage rack.  It will tell you when the seat is reserved for example Liege to Frankfurt. If you are boarding in Brussels and getting off at Liege, you can sit in that seat even if you don't have it reserved.  Move quickly as most people are trying to find unreserved seats just like you.

Once you board the train (no need to show your ticket to anyone, that comes later), put your luggage above you on the rack or down by your feet.  It isn't nice to put it in the seat beside you.  Someone might want to sit there.  Once the train is moving, you can place the luggage beside you if you need to.


Riding on a Train

Once you are settled in your seat and the train takes off, look to see if your train has a display announcing the different stops.  Conductors rarely make announcements in English so you need to pay attention as to when to get off.  Sometimes I would figure out in advance how long a trip was going to be and set a timer on my phone to go off 5 minutes before so that I wouldn't miss my stop. 

The next thing you want to do is look to see if you are in a quiet zone or not.  Some areas are designated to be quiet zones so that people can work on the train.  This is usually indicated with a picture of a cell phone.  A red line through the phone means it is a quiet zone.

Once the train is moving, eventually the conductor will come by to check your ticket.  Be sure to have your ticket ready as he or she has many tickets to check during the ride.  If you have any questions about your ticket or the destination, the conductor is a great person to ask.  They know these routes very well.

Note: Just because you are on the right train, doesn't mean you are in the right car.  Sometimes trains separate their cars at a stop.  If you aren't sure, ask the conductor if the car you are in is going all the way to your destination.  This was only a problem for us getting from Kortijk to Lille and the conductors were always good to make sure we were in the right car.  

The bathrooms are marked with the letters WC and are usually where two cars meet.  When a bathroom is in use, usually you'll see a WC sign light up close to where the next stop is displayed.  Otherwise it will show on the door.  The bathrooms are very similar to what you find on a plane.  I'd rather use a bathroom on a train than at a train station.  Train station bathrooms typically cost money and are quite busy.  

If you want to relax and put your feet on the seat in front of you, take off your shoes first.  They train conductors don't like it when they see shoes on a seat.

Getting off a Train

When the train is about 4 or 5 minutes away from the stop, the conductor will announce that the train will be arriving shortly.  If you need to make a connection to another train, you'll want to gather your stuff and leave your seat and wait by the door.  Otherwise you might be stuck in a long slow line to get off the train.  If this is your final destination, be courteous and wait to get off the train after others.  Some only have just a few minutes to find and board their connecting train.  

If you need to make a connection, try to get as quickly as you can to the front of the station to find out where your connecting train is.  If you only have a few minutes, you might want to save time by asking a train conductor near by.  Usually the larger the train station, the longer time they give you to make a connection.  My kids and I never missed a connection, although we came close a couple of times.


Leaving a Train Station

If you have never been to this city before, leaving the train station can be quite overwhelming.  Here are some things to consider before you go.

Do you need to use a restroom?  

Bathrooms are not easy to find in Europe and your train station will have bathrooms that are easy to locate.

Are you hungry or thirsty?  

You are better off purchasing a water bottle or sandwich at the station.  The price goes up the closer you get to the tourist part of the city.  Remember, Europe does not have drinking fountains.  Water isn't free in Europe.

Are you just going to be there just for the day?  

Consider finding a locker to store your backpack.  The kids and I would read books, work on the computer, or play card games while on the train.  It was nice to not have to lug all that around town all day.  Lockers range in price from 2 to 6 Euro (from what I found) for the day.  They are pretty simple to use.  Just look for a sign with a picture of a piece of luggage with a box around it.  

Do you know where to go?

Most train stations have an info booth.  They will help you buy bus tickets, give you maps, or answer your questions.  Every train station I went to had buses and taxis waiting outside, unless it was a tiny town.

Hopefully your train riding experience is a good one!


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