Below you'll find information on planning your European vacation by rail, from the transportation decision making process to buying tickets and rail passes.
Europe's rail system is extensive--and the trains are getting faster all the time, in order to compete with budget airlines. My preference, when I'm not driving around in the countryside, is biased toward trains over airlines. The seats are more comfortable, all luggage can be carried on, and you get taken city center to city center.
If you can't decide on getting around Europe by train or plane, here's a concise guide to the considerations you'll need to take heed of for either mode of transportation.
But the major point is: don't get hung up on short flight times. Remember that you'll need to add time and expense to getting into your destination city. Trains usually get you right into the heart of things.
The answer to the question "Is taking the train better than taking a car?" is, of course, "it depends on what you want to see."
Each form of travel has its benefits. In general, the more you want to get out into the countryside and see the small hamlets or nature preserves, you'll need a car. You'll also likely need a car if you're renting a country house. But if you're alone or a couple, and are going to hit the cities, the train is probably more economical and far less hassle than driving. Read more of the arguments by clicking the link.
It's true you can save a bundle with a Eurail pass. But are you guaranteed to save money? The answer may surprise you!
Back in the "good old days" there was one rail pass, the Eurail pass, and it covered first class rail travel just about anywhere in western Europe. Today, there are a bewildering array of rail passes on the market. See our guide to figure it all out.
If you're not the type who plans every last journey, bellying up to the ticket window and buying a ticket is the carefree way to travel. You can go exactly where you want to go at a moments notice. Read our guide for more.
The Eurostar is one of Europe's best-known fast trains, running between London and Paris or Belgium. In 2008 it will start at its new home at St. Pancreas, and the journey will be faster yet. Read more about Eurostar and what it can do for you.
The Thalys trains are part of a high-speed rail network that connects Paris with Belgium and Holland. Read more about the Thalys trains and where they go.
High Speed Rail Lines Map
A new consortium of rail operators called RailTeam
has published a handy map of high speed rail lines throughout Europe, which you can see on the left. Click it to make it readable. Be aware that this map does not include the high-speed Eurostar Italia lines in Italy.
If you're planning a rail trip through Europe, a guidebook isn't such a bad idea. You'll need to know the best hotels and restaurants near the stations, or if the station is indeed near the center of town (most, but not all, are). Here are some top rail guidebooks for European rail travel.
A few years ago I took AMTRAK for a spin, just to be able to compare the system to the European one. Sure, the seats are wider to accomodate the larger sized Americans, but I didn't find the neglected US railroad all that compelling. If you've only traveled on AMTRAK and don't think you'd like to repeat the experience in Europe, read the article to get an idea of the differences.
If you've never taken the train in Europe before, here are some things you might need to know about getting the most out of the system, including finding bargain fares when buying point to point tickets in Europe.
Here's a list of train rides where the destination matters less than the journey itself.