10 reasons to travel Europe by train

Posted by Andrew Thompson on 27 August 2014

Forget about intimate security frisks, clear Ziploc bags, toilet-less busses or searching the continent’s busiest streets for a place to park that over-priced rental. Here are ten reasons why there’s no better way to explore Europe than by train.

Also read: Choosing the right Eurail pass
Also read: How to use rail pass to travel Europe


village, europe, train travel

Some of the best views of Europe are found from the window of a train. Photo by Andrew Thompson.


10 reasons for train travel in Europe

1. The scenery

The Golden Pass Express, from Lucerne to Montreux, serves up breathtaking vistas on every turn. Photo by Andrew Thompson

The Golden Pass Express, from Lucerne to Montreux, serves up breathtaking vistas on every turn.  Photo by Andrew Thompson.

There’s something incredibly fulfilling about silently gazing out of a train window as stunning vistas unfold before you, only to quietly dissolve into the distance. Rural farmsteads set against snowcapped peaks, milky blue lakes dotted with two-person yachts, forests with trees of the deepest green, even the busiest cites make for fascinating viewing. Train speed is perfect for taking in the scenery at ground level, which in Europe can change in a matter of minutes; there’s no need to keep your eyes on the road as large windows offer up panoramic views, and many routes will arrogantly take you through otherwise impassable terrain, often for no other purpose than to serve up the most dramatic scenery possible.


2. Convenience

Traffic? Security checks? Border control? Ditching your water bottle and prized Swiss Army knife? Not on the train. You’d be forgiven for thinking that flying or driving will get you there faster, but if you choose your routes and schedules wisely, you can almost always beat all other forms of regional transport in a hotel-to-hotel race.

Without arduous security checks, customs, 90 minute pre-departure deadlines and costly airport taxi trips, train travel will almost always be quicker, and significantly more hassle-free than flying. There’s something quite satisfying about rocking up last-minute at a Swiss railway station, hopping directly into a spotless carriage, and departing for Austria, all in a total time of 10 minutes. And with a Schengen visa and rail pass in hand, chances are you’ll only have to pull out your passport, and deal with border bureaucracy, when you’re heading back home.


3. Station location

Trains will deliver you into the heart of the city, or at the very least to major transport hubs, often within walking distance of accommodation. Your tight budget will thank you for the money saved on expensive cab rides and over-priced airport coffee.


Trains that would look more in place in a theme park will take you to Austria's most remote and picturesque valleys.

Trains that would look more in place in a theme park will take you to Austria’s most remote and picturesque valleys. Photo by Andrew Thompson.


4. The most social way to travel

In May I flew from Johannesburg to Paris on an 11 hour flight and I spoke a single word to my neighbour – a courteous ‘Hello’, which received a polite grunt in response. Despite permanently rubbing elbows and awkwardly shoulder jousting through multiple inflight meals, there wasn’t so much as an obligatory “Work or holiday?”. And for some reason, we were both happy to keep it that way.

Within ten minutes of departing from Budapest to Vienna by train, two weeks later, I’d had an inspirational conversation with an octogenarian couple from Miami who’d just spent weeks cruising across the ocean and were now slowly crossing the continent by rail. A week later, on a deserted platform somewhere in southern Austria, I met two 19 year old American girls who had only a vague idea where they were heading – “somewhere south” – and we ended up sharing a carriage, and dozens of travel tales and recommendations, into the heart of Slovenia.

In fact, during my last three month rail trip, some of the most genuine conversations, best travel tips, and even a few offers of accommodation, came from various inter-city rail trips.


5. The ability to escape

Two weeks later, en-route from Slovenia to Italy, I landed up in a compartment with a drunk Italian man intent on shouting at me in loud, broken English. When he wasn’t trying to converse, he was coughing violently and projectile sneezing across the seat next to him, or wagging his bleeding right index finger in my face. But unlike air, car or bus travel, it’s easy to uproot yourself and subtly find refuge elsewhere in the train, which I subsequently did.


6. The space

train travel,

Carriage on a European train. Photo by Andrew Thompson.

Trains are spacious. Travel first class, and chances are you’ll seldom have to share a row or a cabin. And even second class inter-city trains offer enough space to stretch out, read a book, watch a movie on your laptop, and wander the aisles in a level of comfort far greater than any other comparable mode of transport.


7. The facilities

Europe’s high-speed trains are in a constant state of evolution and improvement – many now come equipped with WiFi, fully-equipped dining carts, and power sockets at your seat, so you can catch up on emails, or brag about your trip to friends back home, while consuming a reasonable, albeit costly, meal – if you can tear your eyes away from the world outside, that is.


8. Cost and flexibility

With the exception of the fancier high-speed and popular scenic lines, trains are still cheap and very flexible. Many travellers opt for point-to-point tickets bought at the station, but arm yourself with a Eurail pass (which you can purchase before you leave) and with a clear strategy you can save cash, maximise on flexibility, embrace your inner spontaneity, and cover some impressive distance.


9. The vast European rail network

Remote villages pop up on rail routes throughout Europe, and are perfect for escaping those serviced by airlines.

Remote villages pop up on rail routes throughout Europe, and are perfect for escaping those serviced by airlines. Photo by Andrew Thompson.

Europe has an incredible rail network, and you’ll be able to reach even some of the continent’s most remote corners by train. Forget following the crowds who’ve gorged on the low-cost airfares to Prague, Ljuljana or Krakow – take the train to Olomouc, Lake Bled or Zakopane, and revel in the tranquility of Europe’s best small towns, free from pub-crawling British stag parties.


10. No wasted days

All practical benefits aside, opting for train travel in Europe turns what’s often the most dreaded aspect of a trip – that of getting from city to city – into one of the most enjoyable. Whether you’re going slow or on a tight schedule, take the train, and it’s quite likely you’ll be as excited about the travel days, as those spent exploring Europe’s most celebrated cities.

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