A story on how to travel through Europe by train
I live on an island. Well, kind of. I moved from Brussels to Stockholm ten months ago, so technically I moved from the continent to an island. At least that’s how I heard many Swedes referring to the rest of Europe.
Usually, it’s easiest to fly from islands, because well, it’s an island. I don’t like flying too much, I love taking the train and for environmental reasons, I think that if there is a train connection, why fly. Of course, it’s debatable where the electricity trains run on comes from and yes, factors like maintenance and material play a role, too. Most of the time, though, taking the train simply is the option that’s environmentally friendlier.
Right now, I’m sitting on a train from Sylt to Düsseldorf. 5 minutes in, 7 hours to go. I got here from Berlin, by train: 4 hours. Before Berlin I was in Stockholm. The two are separated by a 14-hour drive. Yes, 14 hours sounds a lot, but it isn’t really.
1. The journey is the destination
That’s my approach to long trips. What’s nice about travelling by train? First of all, I love looking out of the window. You have time to think and above all, you watch the landscapes, the weather, even the people, who get in and out of the train, change. On a plane, you get into an airplane at an airport that will most probably look very similar to the airport you will land at. You might see some mountains from above, maybe the sea, but everything in between you miss. Second, I really enjoy working on a train. Many trains have Wifi by now and you have nothing better to do anyways, so why not get those emails answered, that article written or that presentation done. Then, there’s so many other things that you can do. Finish a book you wanted to have finished three months ago. Listen to all the podcasts that are lined up on your playlist, achieve the next level of your Italian duolingo course. Maybe you wanted to write down some thoughts, map out what you want to achieve in the next five years, write job applications. If nothing of this applies, then you can always, always do one thing: sleep.
2. Include personal highlights to your journey
Do you need to change trains in a city, which you always wanted to see? Because of its architecture or to go to a cafe or restaurant there? Plan in a bit of extra time and do those things. You can always lock in your luggage at the train station.
I like to add such highlights to my train rides. When I travel from Stockholm to Berlin, there is a stop in Copenhagen and in Hamburg, both very cool cities. In Copenhagen, I sometimes have a layover of two hours, which leaves me a bit of time to explore the city. There’s this bakery for example, Hart bageri, which sells the most amazing cheesecake, flaky cardamom buns and the sourdough loaf of your dreams. It’s 15 minutes walking distance from the station, so easily incorporated into the two hours layover, leaving time to sit at the bakery and enjoy a coffee with that cake, too. One time, I took the metro to the restaurant Baest, a spot that’s been on my to-do list for a long time. I had some of their homemade charcuterie and a Pizza that will stay in my memory for a while. My list of restaurants to go to in Copenhagen is long and until visiting the city properly for a full weekend, I’m going to stick to my train layover method.
Otherwise, a highlight can be as simple as a fun snack that I bring, or a fresh coffee to start my train-day. If I jump on a train in the morning, I always get to the station a bit earlier to buy coffee and a nice breakfast if I hadn’t had time to prepare something at home. Might sound boring to you, but a cup of good coffee is a highlight for me, something nice to look forward to when starting the day. Other than that, I always have a lot of snacks with me, something to nibble, while I’m reading or watching a movie.
Finally, since we live in a connected and globalised world, it happens that I have friends all over Europe. Therefore, if I can manage to plan an overnight stop (or longer) at someone’s place, I always try to do that.
3. Is it really the best option to travel by train?
Of course, it happens that a train breaks, there’s difficulties on the route or you have to run to get your connection. Even if this can get highly annoying, there usually is always a solution to this, be it another connecting train, or a taxi paid by the train company.
Ok, flying sometimes is faster and if you don’t have the time to travel from Paris to Barcelona, from Berlin to Budapest, from Warsaw to Stockholm by train, I get that. But is it really necessary to take that flight from Brussels to Frankfurt, or from Berlin to Cologne or from Amsterdam to London? It takes you some time to get to the airport, usually longer than to the main train station, you need to be there quite some time in advance and once arrived you need to get from the airport to your destination. In-between you fly. Getting into a train is much easier (with some exceptions) and in the end you’ll arrive at the same time or earlier.
4. Where to book trains?
I always book my trains through Bahn.de, since I’m always travelling through Germany. If travelling internationally, outside of Germany, I usually check local train pages, such as Thalys, Eurostar, TGV (France), PKS (Poland), SJ (Sweden) and so on. If you want to book longer rides that go through different countries these websites are useful: omnio.com, trainline.com, raileurope.com, interrail.eu,
Check out this website for tips and tricks when travelling by train: seat61.com
A few final tips for travelling by train
- Book early. Just like flights, trains get more expensive and sometimes even sold out.
- Bring water and some snacks. Usually, trains have a little shop or a restaurant, but it happens that they’re out of food or their card reader is broken or whatever. That’s why I always make sure to be prepared.
- Save money. Make sure to get a BahnCard, which gives you discounts on tickets and is really worth the 40 Euro a year. Even if I travel from Berlin to Warsaw, or somewhere else starting in Germany, I save a lot of money on tickets. Also, don’t bother making a reservation. Some trains include it in the price, some
- Travel during non-peak times. If you’re flexible, book a train at non-peak hours. It will be cheaper, emptier and less stressful for you.
- Bring a book. Download that series or movie on Netflix, a podcast. Load you laptop, bring a power bank to recharge your phone, although there usually is always electric outlets. But you never know.
- Make yourself comfortable. No, you shouldn’t behave as if you’re at home, because you’re simply not. But if you’re sitting alone and you don’t have a smelling-feet syndrome, take off your shoes. If you have two seats for yourself, there’s no bother with sitting down a bit more comfortable, or rolling yourself together while trying to take a short nap.
- Be respectful. Maybe it’s not the right time to eat the aged soft cheese you brought as a souvenir from Paris on the train. Having a break-up call with your boyfriend or a fight with your sister can possibly wait a bit until you’re off the train. Don’t behave like you’re alone in the wagon if you’re not.