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10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Long Train Ride, ...

Dec. 06, 2023
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I checked the schedule on the train platform in Gdańsk, Poland for the umpteenth time and looked up and down the track again. I was quite sure my train should have been here by now, when a local came up to me and asked, "Warsaw?" I nodded. She pointed to the opposite track behind me.

Despite having traveled by train on four continents, the rail systems around the globe differ so greatly that they can be challenging to navigate, especially when there's a language barrier. There was the time a train came to a standstill in a small town between Berlin and Prague, and everyone got off except me and my friends (turns out, there was construction and we all had to take a bus to the next stop). There was also the time I tumbled to the ground while getting off in Puno, Peru (clearly my motion sickness didn't gel with the elevation), and the time I was given a child's ticket for the Taiwan High Speed Rail when I was well into my 30s (well, I was asking my dad annoying questions in my elementary Mandarin).

But the reward of experiencing slow travel on a train journey is well worth a few mishaps (which can make for great stories later). And there's arguably no better way to connect with a place than by sitting back and relaxing as you take in the sights between destinations.

"Plan, plan, plan," Eurail's head of marketing Nadine Koszler tells Travel + Leisure, on preparing for your first ride. "But allow for spontaneity and flexibility."

To ensure that your trip stays on track, here are 10 common mistakes to avoid on your first long-distance train ride.

Teresa Severson/Courtesy of Alaska Rail

1. Not Booking Tickets in Advance

Booking a train ticket is similar to purchasing an airline ticket in that the early bird gets the worm. "The earlier you book, the better your chances of getting the lowest cost tickets, especially if traveling over a weekend or holiday when demand is very high," a Eurostar spokesperson says. "If you can, plan [ahead] and snap up your tickets 120 days in advance for the best possible prices. The cheapest tickets tend to be midweek — Tuesdays and Wednesdays." While last-minute tickets are often available, there's no guarantee since popular routes and times do sell out.

2. Arriving Too Late

Hopping on a train isn't quite the same as running into a subway at the last minute. While you don't have to arrive as early as you do for a flight, still give yourself a buffer. Amtrak recommends 30 minutes before departure (or 60 minutes, if you need ticketing and baggage assistance), Japan's Tobu Railway suggests 30 minutes, Eurostar recommends 45 minutes, and Alaska Railroad advises an hour at its main stations and 30 minutes for the smaller depots.

Matthias Scholz/Eye Em/Getty Images

3. Not Boarding Quickly

While getting on a train at its origin or getting off at its destination usually allows for ample time, the bulk of the stops usually falls somewhere in between. "Trains only stop at stations for a few minutes, so make sure you get ready to board when you see or hear the train coming," Amtrak's executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer Roger Harris tells T+L. Even a major station, like New York Penn Station, can be a midpoint stop on the longer route between Boston and Washington, D.C.

4. Packing Too Much

One of the perks of train travel is being able to keep your belongings with you at all times. But it's still essential to pack smart. Koszler suggests using bags with wheels and packing light. "It's important to anticipate stairs at the train station or [for] navigating through a few train cars once on board," she says. "Having an easy-to-move, light bag will make your life easier and also those of your fellow passengers." Like a plane trip, check the baggage allowance before boarding. For example, Amtrak allows two 50-pound carry-ons but also offers checked bags, while Eurostar allows two large luggage cases and a smaller carry-on. Storage options may also vary by area. "On European railroads, there is a large luggage storage area, but this is not always the case on Japanese railroads," Tobu Railway's inbound strategy officer explains. "Japanese [railroads] usually use the overhead racks. Therefore, it's better to keep your luggage as compact as possible."

Getty Images

5. Sitting in the Wrong Seat or Car

Seat assignments vary greatly between train systems, so it's essential to understand the particulars of the one you're on. In general, Amtrak's seats are first-come, first-served, with the business car in the front and a designated quiet car (think: library-level conversation only), which usually has signs hanging overhead. Internationally, some services will give you a specific seat in a specific car — arrive early to see where the car numbers are located. "Sometimes, trains can be split and sent in different directions, so make sure the car you're in is going where you want to go," Koszler adds. In the current pandemic, Harris suggests considering Amtrak's private room, available on many routes. "To ensure everyone's safety, Amtrak is requiring that all customers and employees in stations and on trains wear face coverings throughout their trip," he says. "Face masks can be removed when customers are in their private rooms — it's the perfect option for customers seeking privacy and space on a short trip and added comfort and amenities when traveling overnight."

6. Expecting to Be Fully Connected

Many trains do have power outlets at every seat, but others may not, so definitely check ahead of time. "Make sure cell phone batteries are at full charge or bring a power pack — you don't want to run out of battery and miss a photo opportunity," Alaska Railroad's marketing communications manager Meghan Clemens says. Also, be ready to go through pockets without cell service, especially in tunnels or remote areas. "Many trains have Wi-Fi available, but don't expect to find the same connectivity on board that you'd expect at home, especially while you are traveling through rural areas," Koszler adds. "Bring your own hot spot if you really need to be online."

7. Not Bringing Snacks

Depending on the kind of journey, onboard dining options can range from included gourmet meals served in a dining car to carts with snacks for sale being pushed down the center aisle to a cafe in a separate car. Madi Butler, field organizer for the Rail Passengers Association, which has been advocating for safe and improved train service for more than 50 years, suggests packing your own snacks since oftentimes food or drinks will be sold out. "Bringing non-perishables or instant food that only requires hot water is always a good call," she says.

8. Staying in Your Seat

While the default mode on a plane is to buckle up and stay in your seat, train travel allows you the freedom to roam on board. "Feel free to get up and walk around to the various cars and stretch your legs," Clemens says. On certain trains, there are specific cars to take in the landscape, like Amtrak's observation cars and Alaska Railroad's GoldStar Service second-level viewing platform. For those who are prone to motion sickness, staying seated may be best. "Looking out further across the horizon as opposed to at closer items passing by can help one adjust to the feeling of movement and the rocking of the train car," Butler advises, adding that using the onboard restroom while the train is at a stop may also help.

9. Missing Your Stop

Make sure you're familiar with your itinerary and the full name of the city and stop you're getting off at since some big cities have multiple stops. "Station stops aren't always announced or may be in a foreign language," Koszler says. "Take note of your scheduled arrival time and the names of the last stations before your stop, so you'll be prepared to exit the train when it arrives at your destination." And if you tend to doze off, setting an alarm 10 to 15 minutes before your stop will give you time to fully wake and be ready to disembark.

10. Not Understanding the Local Train Culture

As is the case when traveling through any country, respect for the local culture is key. "Trains in Japan are basically very quiet and almost no voice is heard," Tobu Railway's officer says. "There may be dedicated cell phone talking areas, so don't be too loud, and don't let children run in the car." She adds that cleanliness is also expected: "You can eat and drink alcohol on the train, but be sure to take the garbage with you and put it in the trash box inside the station — it's [good] manners not to leave trash in the car."

By Rick Steves

A train traveler's biggest pretrip decision is whether to get a rail pass or stick with point-to-point tickets (or use a mix of both). Many travelers make a costly mistake by skipping over the details of this decision, as rail passes are no longer the sure bet they once were. It pays to know your options and choo-choose what's best for your trip.

Point-to-Point Tickets vs. Rail Passes

Point-to-point tickets are just that: tickets bought individually to get you from Point A to Point B. It's simplest to buy these in train stations as you travel, but they're becoming easier to purchase online (especially handy if you need to secure an advance reservation for a certain train).

By contrast, a rail pass covers train travel in one or more countries for a certain number of days (either a continuous span of days or a number of days spread over a wider window of time).

How to Know If You Need a Rail Pass

To figure out whether you want to buy a rail pass, sketch out your itinerary, then answer the following questions:

  • How many days do you expect to ride the train? If you'll be on the train for just one or two days, you almost certainly won't benefit from a pass. The more time you expect to spend on the train, the more likely you'll want a pass.
  • How many countries will you be visiting by train? The more countries you plan to visit, the more probable it is that you'll save money with a pass. If you're planning a whirlwind trip all around the continent, a pass (specifically, a Global Pass) is almost certainly the way to go.
    No matter what, it's smart to figure out...
  • Roughly how much would your point-to-point tickets cost? You don't have to laboriously look up exact train fares — to get a rough idea of what you'd pay for tickets if you didn't get a rail pass, check my cost-estimate maps.
  • How does your point-to-point ticket cost compare to the price of a pass? Look up the cost of a pass that covers the region you'll be in and the number of days you'll be on the train (see the country-specific pages linked in the sidebar, and see my tips for choosing among passes). Several countries, mostly in southern and eastern Europe, have train fares so low that rail passes rarely beat out point-to-point tickets. If you're sticking to moderate distances in Italy, for example, it's unlikely a pass will save you money. If you're traveling in Germany, however, a pass is likely a smart move.

Still Not Sure?

If your price comparison doesn't produce an obvious winner, take a closer look at factors that could tilt your decision one way or another, such as:

Sparse rail coverage: In some areas, such as southern Spain, coastal Croatia, much of Scotland, and all of Greece and Ireland, rail passes make little sense because trains don't reach a lot of places you're planning to go. (To learn whether your destinations are served by train, check online train schedules.)

Pricey fast-train supplements: Passes lose their luster when fees are tacked on. In some countries, passholders are required to pay extra for each trip on a high-speed train. In Italy, for instance, it costs about an additional $15 per ride for mandatory fast-train reservations on the most convenient connections between major cities. On the Thalys train that monopolizes direct service between Paris and Brussels (and Amsterdam), passholders pay extra fees of up to $35 in second class and $45 in first class.

Advance-purchase discounts: If you don't mind forgoing some spontaneity, you'll probably be able to save money with advance-purchase discounts on point-to-point tickets. But what you save in dollars you will lose in flexibility, as these discounts are usually valid only for nonrefundable, nonchangeable reserved tickets.

Convenience: In countries or regions where reservations usually aren't required, a pass allows you to hop on and off trains without fussing with buying multiple tickets; if all other things are equal, a pass can make sense for ease of travel.

10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Long Train Ride, ...

Should I Get a Rail Pass?



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