In my last post I wrote about how I started to plan my itinerary and book hostels for my backpacking trip across Europe. While both are important, they suck if you don’t have a way of getting there. So this is my ‘how to book trains in Europe in a nutshell” post.
Step 3: I priced train tickets between each destination separately
Once I knew that I had cool places to stay in each city, I started looking for a way to get from one to another. As a Canadian, especially a Newfoundlander, the go-to is flying, but this isn’t always the best idea in Europe. And I tell you this from experience. While flights within Europe are dirt cheap (seriously. I went London –> Dublin for my 25th birthday for $45 return), airports are not conveniently located. Sure it only cost me $45 to get to Ireland from London, but I had to take a 30 minute bus ride 3 hours before my flight left in or to get to Stansted airport. Generally airports in Europe are not close to city centre so you end up shelling out for further transportation to get you to your final destination. Even worse, budget airlines like RyanAir and Easyjet (that offer $45 flights to Dublin) sometimes don’t even have an airport ANYWHERE near where you want to go. Take Munich, Germany for example. I REALLY wanted to go to Krakow, Poland to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, but the closest airport I could get to from Poland is 1.5 hours away from Munich. Total bummer. The short flight time might seem attractive, but all the wait times add up. 2 hour wait before, 3 hour flight, 1.5 hour bus ride into the city. What’s the point? So I fell back on my favourite method of transportation, trains.
There’s two options for backpackers that I’ve found. The most common is the Eurail pass; this is essentially an unlimited ride ticket that lets you jump on a train whenever you want for a certain number of days. The cost of a Eurail pass depends on how many days you think you’ll be travelling via train, and it seems to average about $1200 to get one that’s useful. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a pass that fit my travel schedule, so I decided to buy each ticket separately through the local train service providers. This saved me almost $600!! Half of my tickets are even 1st class! So it wasn’t so unfortunate in the end. But going with this method took me AGES to do. I literally had to visit a separate website for each country and find the best fare. Then I had to make sure the times worked with the dates that I would be in the city. This is important. Train travel through Europe can be longgggg. I’m talking 6-8 hours long. I hoped to be in Prague for two whole days, but I won’t get into the city from Berlin until 1:30 pm because the train ride is so long. You might be thinking, “why didn’t you just stay longer”… but pushing back that part of my trip would mean that I end up in Venice over a weekend. Venice has to be the most expensive city in the world and even a hostel room there costs almost $150-$200 a night on a weekend. NO THANKS! I’ll power through an do all of Prague in 1.5 days. I love a good challenge.
So if you have the time and enjoy planning trips as much as you enjoy taking them, booking trains yourself is definitely the way to go. Who doesn’t want to save $600? That’s money I’m going to spend taking a gondola ride in Venice and bungee jumping off a bridge in Bavaria. JOKE! Mom and Dad, you can breathe now.
Step 4: I researched the best seats to reserve on the train
There are so many reasons to travel via train in Europe, besides saving money: you don’t need to show up two hours before the train leaves (more like 10 minutes!), you can bring alcohol on board with you, there’s often a wifi connection and the best part, the view is often SPECTACULAR. But sometimes, in order to get the most out of the view, you need to be sitting on the best side of the train.
One day while living in London, I was reading a travel guide about train journeys through Scotland and I came across a passage that recommended sitting on the left side of the train in a journey from Glasgow to Oban as this provided the most scenic views of the two sides. Months later when I found myself booking exactly that ticket to start my volunteering stint in the Highlands, I made sure I booked a seat on the left side. And jesus was it ever gorgeous. I could have stayed on that train all day looking at the lakes and mountains we passed by.
So I used the website www.seat61.com to look into seating tips for each train that I’d be on. I also did this so I could pick a seat that would face forward for as much of the journey (if not all) as possible. I’m not a big fan of travelling for four hours backwards.
While I might be used to train travel, there will be a few new experiences for me on my trip. I’m taking my very first sleeper train from Salzburg to Venice in a female-only bunk compartment and I finally get to ride a double decker train from Nice to Paris that has party cars with live music. You don’t get that on a plane, do you?
Step 5: I had to come to terms with changes to my original plans
I discovered fairly soon into my planning that Poland would be a no-go, for transportation reasons. Flights were unreasonably expensive between Krakow and Munich (my next destination) as were the night-trains that I would have to take. Overall, I wasn’t comfortable with the transportation options, so I listened to my gut.
I also did more research into Vienna and realized that I actually wanted to go to Salzburg and sing The Sound of Music songs with a group of strangers in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the film.
This also means I’ll get to visit Augustiner Bräustübl & Biergarten, the “best Beer Hall in the World”. WIN WIN!
I also decided to add locations to my journey! Upon hearing that Brussels is a bit more industrial than it is hip, I’m going to take a day trip to Bruges and prove to Colin Farrell that the city isn’t just for hiding from the law!
I’m also going to spend a night in Florence to break up a potential 8 hour train ride between Rome and Nice. No complaints here!
Next post will be able the iPhone apps that will save my life while I’m in countries where I can barely say “Hello, my name is Kayla” in their language. Cause that’s important I hear.