I blame luggage for all my troubles on trains — whether I’m whizzing down to Washington, D.C. or wending my way through Wallonia. I try to avoid clunking other passengers in the head with my elbow as I navigate tight aisles and haul my wheeled carry on over my head, but it’s not easy.

Despite these challenges, traveling by train is by far my favorite mode of transport — especially when I’m in Europe.

Trains are more civilized there, and more convenient. The extensive network of interconnected tracks makes it a breeze to zip around the continent (a notable exception for me has been in Italy, where departure times seems to be merely a suggestion).

On a recent trip to Europe, I boarded a Thalys train in Amsterdam to discover a vibe that was refined and polished, and fellow passengers who were courteous and quiet. As I opened my laptop to take advantage of the free WiFi, a full breakfast was served to me in my Comfort 1 seat. When I arrived relaxed and calm in Brussels two hours later, I didn’t want the journey to end.

Antwerp Train Station

A train prepares to take off for Amsterdam from the station in Antwerp. (Photograph by Vincent Brassinne, Flickr)

Though there are plenty of low-cost flights available in Europe (which can be good choices for longer distances), why deal with airport security and extra luggage fees if you don’t have to? And you can learn so much about a place on a train by watching the landscape change — from the snow-capped mountains in Switzerland to the hills and rivers of Austria.

A Eurail pass is almost a rite of passage for American college students of some means. It was certainly the golden ticket that ignited my abiding love for travel. My friends and I would sit there poring over maps, making tough decisions like whether to stay longer in Cinque Terre or move on to Paris.

Eurail passes are sold by Rail Europe, so I connected with the company’s CEO, Frederic Langlois, to learn more about the vast patchwork of train companies they collaborate with, and the tantalizing products they offer.

Here’s what you should know:

Europe is shrinking: Langlois says the high-speed rail network is expanding, which means you’ll be able to get where you want to go even faster. The focus for them is improving connections to major cities with Brussels as a hub (right now, you can zip to the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and France from the Belgian capital).

Pick the right pass: A lot has changed since I left college ten years ago. Certain passes allow for unlimited travel to 24 countries like France, Spain, and Ireland. From this network, choose a Continuous Pass (available for 15 or 21 days, or one, two, or three months), a Flexipass (10 or 15 days of travel within a two-month span), or a Select Pass (choose up to 15 days of travel within two months in three, four, or five bordering countries). Note: France is no longer part of the Select Pass, but can be added on.

Or stick to one or two countries: You can also buy two-country or single country passes. Want to focus on eating pasta and exploring the “Boot” top to bottom? The Eurail Italy pass is for you. They also offer a France, German, and Swiss Rail pass. Bonus tip: The Swiss Rail Pass includes free entry to more than 400 museums in Switzerland.

Make use of mobile: Like many people these days, I access nearly all of my travel information on my smartphone. Eurostar, Thalys, TGV (France), RENFE (Spain), ICE (Germany), and Italo (Italy) already offer e-ticketing, and the trend toward mobile means there will be even more options to come.

Good news for WiFi: WiFi is such a huge factor for travelers today and will continue to be a hot button issue until it’s free and fast everywhere. According to Rail Europe, it’s becoming available on more and more European trains, like Thalys and Italo, and will continue to expand in the coming years.

In good company: The number of people who choose to travel by train is on the upswing. According to Langlois, trains now have 75 percent market share (versus airlines) on connections that are fewer than three hours. When that drops to two-hours connections, rail is the clear winner with up to 95 percent of the market share. And rail travelers will only win as companies continue to focus on making trains even more comfortable and efficient.

What’s your favorite train experience in Europe or anywhere else in the world? Do you have any tips for fellow travelers? Leave a comment to share the love:

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Comments

  1. Jim
    United States
    November 7, 2013, 6:04 pm

    Another nice article Annie! I completely agree that train travel is highly preferable to any other mode in Europe (for moderate to short trips especially). And things are only getting better with the inclusion of wi-fi on many routes as well as more high-speed routes.
    One thing I wanted to make sure people were aware of though. In many cases it does not make financial sense to purchase any of the Eurail Passes. In fact, I have done a ton of research on this and it seems that really one of the only ways it’s financially viable is if you don’t have set-in-stone travel plans (meaning you need utmost flexibility) and your expected number of travel dates fall more in line with the pre-set passes available.
    For instance, I am planning a 12-15 citiy 4-5 week trip next summer and there is no pass that even comes close to as low as what the sum of buying individual tickets would (and that’s the max, day-of ticket prices, not the pre-purchased discounted ones. It took a while to figure this out though because of a lot of mis-leading info on the net.
    Beware: many of the “all of europe” sites or ones selling the Eurail or Interail passes are NOT good research tools for pricing out individual trips to compare to passes. That’s because these sites want you to buy the passes, so they listed only the highest or inflated fares on most routes to make it look like the pass is a better deal than it actually is.
    When researching this, you should always only be looking at the individual country’s national carriers or in some cases, private companies who have penetrated domestic markets (like Westbahn in Austria). As an example, my individual fares from a sampling of Eurail-pushing sites totalled $700 (2nd class – all fastest possible routes ). The exact same 14 tickets came to only $450 using legit national sites like bahn.com, cd.cz, etc. So, buyer beware! Do your research and you can really save some money!

  2. Canyouship.it
    Shanghai
    July 20, 2013, 9:20 am

    Great post, as you say, Train has this magic je-ne-sais-quoi that plane and car do not have, see the landscape change, understand borders, why they make (or do not make!) sense, and hear the rhythm of rails that make the whole trip a soundtrack!

  3. Dave
    Liege, Belgium
    May 26, 2013, 2:59 pm

    If the time and money is reasonable, one should always opt for the train over the plane. Last year I missed a Ryanair flight from London-Stansted because I was made to wait 25 minutes in a queue for a passport check that took 2 seconds. Ryanair ‘kindly’ offered to put me on a later flight for a ‘small’ fee of 110 pounds. I said thanks anyway, got the next bus to St. Pancras station, and caught the Eurostar for around the same price. After my scary I’m-going-to-miss-my-plane! ordeal, I was so relieved to be on the train, and slept the whole journey from London to Liege. Dave 1, Ryanair 0.

  4. Chinmay Disale
    Maharashtra, India
    May 24, 2013, 9:57 am

    Hey, thats an awesome post. Check out my Indian Rail journey article here http://accentric911.blogspot.in/2013/05/travelling-in-indian-rail-is.html

  5. Andrew Johnston
    Fleet, Hampshire, UK
    May 12, 2013, 6:06 am

    So many to choose from:
    TGV in mid winter Paris – Bourg St Maurice – high speed rail through snow drifts
    ICE from Germany through the Swiss Alps to Interlaken
    Norwegian railways from Oslo to bergen stopping off for the sensational Flam Line – Europe’s Grand Canyon
    AVE Madrid to Seville – breathtaking in speed and beauty at any time of year
    The yellow train through the Pyrenees
    The Glacier Express Zermatt-St Moritz
    Train des Pignes France (check website with sound effects!) http://www.trainprovence.com/
    I could go on and on and on….

  6. Linda
    France
    May 12, 2013, 5:05 am

    I prefer taking a train much more than flying. With no security lines and checking in, it’s a pleasure. Taking the TGV from Paris will get you to Aix or Avignon in the south in three hours. Always a pleasure.

  7. Ismo Leppänen
    Finland
    May 4, 2013, 3:41 am

    One way to see the Swiss alps is to ride the the train over them, not through a long tunnel. For lovers of luxury, the Rhätische Bahn offers Bernina Express and Glacier Express. The regular service from Tirano in Italy via St. Moritz to Chur are just as comfortable and probably less crowded.

  8. Travelturtle
    April 25, 2013, 5:25 pm

    Did not know that about France and the select pass. I was pretty happy that I knew the train station pictured was Antwerp. It’s the little things. I recently posted about using the German rail with kids. We’ve opted to fly instead of rail twice and both times, due to delays or making sure we were at the airport early enough, trains would’ve been faster. I love the longer rides and any of the more scenic routes on the slower trains.