Our first train ride, the Eurostar from London to Brussels, confirmed that trains were the way to go. We had facing seats with a table between us, which made us feel more like we were in a lounge than on a train - except for those wonderful views. It was thrilling to emerge from the 20 minutes of darkness in the Chunnel and be greeted by the bucolic
Belgian countryside, with its gently rolling fields.
The London-Brussels trip took just over two hours (plus a one-hour time zone change), less time than we would have needed to get to the airport and clear security. In less than 15 minutes (clients should allow more time at rush hour), we printed our tickets and checked in at the rail station kiosk, sailed through customs and immigration, and found our seats.
The train trips turned out to be an enjoyable part of our odyssey. We generally spent two or three nights in each city and departed just after breakfast. We’d get on board and settle in to journal our impressions and digest the previous city. Then we would review our plan for our next destination, usually arriving in time for lunch. Along the way, the landscape created a strong connection between the cities.
One of the best things about traveling by train was the large picture windows that made it easy to sit back and view the passing countryside. We loved the windmill-dotted farmlands of Brussels and Holland, and one of the highlights of our trip between Bruges and Amsterdam was changing trains in Antwerp, one of Europe’s most beautiful train stations.
From Amsterdam, we took a train to Frankfurt where we rented a car to drive Germany’s “Fairy Tale Road,” an area of small towns with half-timbered homes and castles with lots of links to the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales that is best explored by car. We loved the region, but I was relieved to drop off our car and road maps and board the train in Bremen.
The best train scenery lay ahead though. The route from Berlin to Prague winds through the dramatic Elbe River Gorge, where ancient castles and fortresses perch atop rocky cliffs, and then the spired roofs of Prague appear. The Prague to Vienna trip, equally scenic, continues along the Elbe River.
Our most stunning and longest train trip was the seven hour bus/train ride from Vienna to Venice. I wasn’t happy that the second half the journey would be by bus and considered taking an overnight train or flying, but as it turned out, both the train and the bus were quite comfortable and the scenery was stunning. Tiny villages nestled at the base of steep mountains, castles perched atop cliffs along deep river valleys, and lovely riverside towns made the time go quickly. We wished we had more time to take some of the spectacular Alpine train journeys such as the Switzerland’s Glacier Express, but this was quite beautiful.
The joy of travel
In addition to the scenery and the convenience of traveling city center to city center-in most cases, within walking distance of our hotels - we found train travel extremely comfortable. Instead of buckling in and being confined to a tiny airline seat, we were able to stand up comfortably and stretch our legs, walk to the dining car, and mix with other travelers. Some cars had Wi-Fi; other didn’t, but most had outlets so when we got tired of the scenery, we could watch movies or work on our iPad and iPod. We traveled first class, which was a bit more spacious, and often had more empty seats, and it was only slightly more expensive.
Logistically speaking. I determined that Eurail Global Passes were our best option, since we planned to visit more than twelve cities in eight countries. For some travelers, individual city-to-city tickets will be a better buy and the RailEurope.com site actually will calculate this for you.
Point-to-point tickets generally are for specific train departures and include seat reservations. Many travelers, especially those like me who haven’t used a rail pass in decades, may be surprised to learn that reservations (usually around $12 per segment) must be purchased in addition to the pass. While many inter-city trains do not require seat reservations, most high speed trains, such as the TGV, Thalys, ICE and Eurostar, do. These trains are clearly marked “reservations required” on the Rail Europe site. The cost of reservations can add up, so it’s important to consider this when comparing prices.
While reservations can be purchased on the spot, popular routes often book up in advance, especially in the height of summer, so the earlier you book, the better. We ran into one couple with a rail pass who had to re-route their journey because they couldn’t get reservations for the route they wanted to travel. Point-to-point travelers also need to book tickets as early as possible because like airline seats, many trains offer significant discounts for advance bookings.
Some popular routes do not require the purchase of assigned seat reservations, but they are advisable during busy periods. These trains are marked “reservations recommended.” We found that in first class there were usually open seats, but not always; coach class generally had fewer open seats, and in some cases, almost none. Most routes also had non-high speed trains that did not require reservations. For clients with more time than money who don’t want to be tied down to reservations, these trains can be a good option.
One other consideration with reservations: for the most part, they are not refundable if clients miss a departure, change plans, or lose their tickets. Rail Europe’s rail protection plan can save a lot of stress in these cases.
As a travel writer, I felt the need to do my own research, and I probably spent a full work-week planning the rail portion of my trip. The level of detail in booking train travel is enormous. Which stations will I leave and depart from (in many cities these change depending on where you’re headed)? Do I need reservations? Will there be food, Wi-Fi, and electrical outlets on the train? What’s the difference between the classes of service? Before my final booking I ran my itinerary by a rail expert to make sure I hadn’t missed anything important. In fact, I had, and it’s easy to do. That’s why I always advise consumers to use a travel agent.
For agents who don’t know European rail, both Rail Europe and Vacations by Rail offer plenty of support. Rail Europe specializes in point-to-point tickets and rail passes. Vacations by Rail packages train travel with hotels and sightseeing. Both offer plenty of support to help agents avoid the pitfalls and maximize the benefits of rail travel.
“Many agents think of rail as a low-margin product, but the reality is that it can be a very profitable part of their business,” asserts Todd Powell, president of Vacations by Rail. “The key is to bundle rail into a meaningful package and that is where the real service of the agent comes into play. It allows agents to provide expert service to their client and make some decent money off the sale for their time.”