Image: TRAIN
Cameron Hewitt
Riding the rails through Europe, such as in this panoramic train car in Switzerland, offers a relaxed way to connect with traveling Europeans.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 4/11/2011 4:09:55 PM ET 2011-04-11T20:09:55

When I travel, I still get a little rush when I settle into the right train. With each journey, I celebrate the joy of not having to drive. Riding the rails through Europe is less stressful, better for the environment, and just plain friendly — offering a relaxed way to connect with traveling Europeans.

After all these years, my train travel still comes with a twinge of stress: Do I have enough time for a cup of coffee? Is my wristwatch in synch with the official station time? Would these locals really point me in the right direction? Am I on the right train?

But after I sit back in my seat, I reflect on the ease and comfort of European train travel. European trains go where you need them to go and are fast, frequent, and generally affordable (especially in the south). You can easily have dinner in Paris, sleep on the train, and have breakfast in Rome, Munich, or Madrid.

Learn your option and choo-choose what's best for your trip. I used a railpass on my first trip to Europe, and I still use them. With a railpass, you can travel virtually anywhere, anytime, often without reservations. Fast, international, or overnight trains are more likely to require reservations, but despite that chore, a railpass is still freedom on wheels.

Although the array of railpasses seems daunting, every pass has these features: It covers a specific geographical area (regional, country, or multiple countries); it has a fixed number of travel days; and it's either a consecutive-day pass or a flexipass (allowing you more flexibility to spread out your travel days).

Which type of pass is best? If you plan to travel nearly daily and cover a lot of ground, a consecutive-day pass is the right choice. If you like to linger for a few days at various places, a flexipass is the better option.

Most travelers prefer the flexipass. You have a certain number of travel days to use within a longer window of time (for example, any 10 days within a two-month period). You can sprinkle these travel days throughout your trip or use them all in a row.

Once you've planned a route for your trip, fine-tuning your actual "moving days" will help you zero in on the best pass for your trip — and save you lots of money. (For all your options, see www.ricksteves.com/rail.)

Some tips
With careful juggling, a shorter pass can cover a longer trip. For example, you can take a one-month trip with a 21-day consecutive pass by starting and/or ending your trip in a city where you'd like to stay for several days or in a country not covered by your pass. On, say, a London/Rome trip, spend a few days in London, pay separately to take the Eurostar Chunnel train (not covered by any railpass) to Paris, sightsee in Paris for several days, then validate your consecutive-day pass when you leave Paris. Plan for your pass to expire in Rome, where you can easily spend a few days without the use of a railpass.

It can make sense to buy a longer pass for a shorter trip. One long train ride (for example, $250 first class from Florence to Paris) at the end of a 25-day trip can justify jumping from a 21-consecutive-day railpass to a one-month pass.

Stretch a flexipass by paying out of pocket for shorter trips. Use your flexipass only for those travel days that involve long hauls or several trips. If a particular day trip costs significantly less than your pass's per-day cost, pay out of pocket.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

Point-to-point tickets can be a good budget option. Probably 10 percent of railpass travelers would have traveled more cheaply by buying tickets as they went. Point-to-point tickets are often your best bet in regions where rail travel is relatively cheap (such as Italy, Spain, and Eastern Europe) and for short travel distances anywhere.

You don't have to buy your tickets at the station. Arriving at the Venice train station during the 2010 Iceland volcano eruption, I saw something I've never seen before: a ragtag line of travelers stretching from the station all the way to the Grand Canal. They were waiting to book train tickets out of town.

These people were like refugees. They stood there for the better part of the day, trying to get out. But I dropped into a travel agency and, for a 3-euro fee, purchased my train ticket. Anyone can book tickets either online or from travel agencies ... and avoid the chaos at the station.

Sure, rail travel can be pricey. But if you've never experienced 21st-century rail travel (and you haven't, if your experience is limited to rail travel in the U.S.), you may find that it's about the best travel deal going.

( Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: A European tour

loading photos...
  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments