Maximizing Train Travel Around Europe and Deciding When It Actually Makes Sense

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Train travel through Europe is becoming increasingly popular, despite the onset of ever more low-cost airlines. It’s usually no cheaper than flying, and sometimes takes longer. So why are Europeans consistently choosing train travel? We asked Madrid-based TPG Contributor Lori Zaino to clue us in on what is so great about train travel, and how to maximize it while traveling within Europe.

What’s All The Fuss About Train Travel?

Europeans love their train travel. However, it’s often more expensive than airfare these days, thanks to the proliferation of low-cost airlines. So what’s the big deal?

Everyone loves trains.
3 Everyone loves trains

Train travel, simply put, is easy. It’s stress-free, user-friendly and relaxing (at least compared to air travel). You arrive at a station located in the city center just minutes before the train leaves, usually having to pass through very little security – or none at all. You can usually bring along two big bags plus a carry-on, without having to deal with baggage weight limits or size restrictions. Once you board the train, you stretch your legs out – even in economy class – recline your seat, and plug in your computer. Some hours later, you arrive at your destination city in yet another centrally located train station, making it easy to get to your hotel. There are rarely delays, you get to skip both turbulence and baggage claim, and of course, you can feel free to get up and walk around as you please – there’s no fasten-seat-belt sign on a train.

How To Maximize Train Travel: Routes

Your best options for train travel are to fly from the US into a larger European city, and then use trains to see other cities within the same country or even across borders. Some countries will check your bag directly from a flight onto a train: Switzerland does this now and Spain is considering it too.

I think train travel in Europe is a great option when you intend to take a few specific routes and visit a few destinations. There are many different carrier options (such as Eurail, which many American leisure travelers may not realize is heavily marketed to students taking extended trips) and you can travel almost anywhere in Europe by train, so your choices can get pretty overwhelming. To help you get on the right track (so to speak), here you’ll find my analysis of some popular train lines and routes, both new and old.

When It Makes Sense: Paris/Barcelona

The Paris Barcelona route launched in December 2013.
The Paris Barcelona route launched in December 2013

Last December, Spain’s RENFE and France’s SNCF launched a direct service between Barcelona and Paris, which takes about 6.5 hours and runs a few times daily. Currently there is no Wifi access on this route, but each seat does have a power socket in both first and second classes. This is a scenic route, passing through the Pyrenees, but at some points the train reaches a speed of 320 km/hour (199 mph), so be advised that the view could sometimes be a blur. Other routes offered by the service include Madrid-Marseille (7 hours), Barcelona-Toulouse (3 hours) and Barcelona-Lyon (5 hours).

Spanish AVE high speed trains.
Spanish AVE high speed trains

Spain’s AVE, or high-speed trains, are quite popular, and routes from Madrid to Barcelona (2.5 hours) and Madrid to Seville (2.5 hours) are widely used. Spain’s RENFE train services have been attempting to roll out Wifi on their trains, and currently some routes have Internet, but this process is (very) slowly moving forward. The French SNCF is currently doing testing for Wifi on their Paris to Strasbourg route, and if all goes well, they will roll it out to other routes in the future. Both SNCF and AVE allow pets on some routes, for a fee.

London/Paris

The famous Eurostar from Paris to London.
The famous Eurostar from Paris to London

Eurostar operates the famous London/Paris “Chunnel” route that goes underneath the English Channel, connecting two of the most important cities in Europe. Construction of the Chunnel began in 1986, the train route finally launched in 1994, and these days the journey between the two cities can be made in as little as 2 hours and 20 minutes.The trains operate between Gare du Nord in Paris and St. Pancras in London, and some days operate routes up to 18 times per day at speeds up to 300 km/hour (186 mph). You can also take the Eurostar between London and Brussels in just over 2 hours.

Three classes are available on this Eurostar train: Standard, Standard Premier, and Business Premier. Business Premier has a roomy 2 x 1 configuration, while in the Standard classes, the configuration is 2 x 2.  Power ports are available only in some coaches, but when they are available, they offer both European and UK sockets –  no converter needed. According to the Eurostar website, Eurostar trains are not currently retrofitted with Wifi, however, this will be introduced on refurbished trains due later in 2014 and on the new fleet due in 2015. For the moment, though, it appears that WiFi isn’t available on this specific route.

Try the budget French train line OUIGO.
Try the budget French train line OUIGO

When in France, another carrier option is the low-cost OUIGO, which is owned by SNCF and offers trains between Paris and Lyon, Marseilles, Montpellier, Avignon, and a few other French cities. OUIGO is like SNCF’s discount TGV option with all second-class cars and few amenities – so no food and beverage service. Some stations are also outside cities, like Marne-la-Vallee Chessy instead of Paris Gare de Lyon, but depending on your plans, this could be a good option.

Helsinki, Finland/ St. Petersburg, Russia

The Allegro from Helsinki to St. Petersburg.
The Allegro from Helsinki to St. Petersburg

Launched in 2010, the Allegro train operates between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, with a travel time of 3 hours and 36 minutes and a top speed of 220 km/hour (140 mph). The route is presently undergoing construction in the hope of shaving this time down to just 3 hours in the near future (and supposedly as early as this summer).

The economy class in Allegro.
The economy class in Allegro

There are two classes, first and economy, and and both Wifi and power outlets are available at every seat, in both classes. Pets are allowed and there is an onboard playroom for children.

Aboard the train, be prepared for heavy security, as each passenger is visited by four officials: a Finnish passport control officer, a Finnish customs officer, a Russian passport control officer and a Russian customs officer. The good news is, this parade of officer visits actually cuts back on wait time as there are fewer pre-boarding customs procedures. However, it’s unclear what happens if your documents don’t add up, since you’re already in transit – perhaps they toss you off onto the tracks? To avoid finding out, make sure all your paperwork is in order before boarding!

Milan/Florence/Rome

The Frecciarosa trains operate many of the routes from Milan, Florence and Rome.
The Frecciarosa trains operate many of the routes from Milan, Florence and Rome

TrenItalia offers routes throughout Italy, including the popular journey between Milan (Centrale) and Florence (Santa Maria Novella), then on to Rome (Termini). TrenItalia offers several options for this itinerary: you can go directly between between Milan and Florence in 1 hour and 45 minutes, then between Florence and Rome in 1 hr and 30 minutes, or direct from Milan to Rome in just under 3 hours. Track limitations currently allow for a maximum speed of 300 km/hour (190 mph), but the train line is attempting to increase this speed.

A premium executive seat.
A Premium seat onboard TrenItalia

There are four classes on these Italian trains – Standard, Premium, Business and Executive, all of which offer Wifi via a sign-up process that requires you to enter your credit card number and pay a one-cent connection fee. Italy makes for one of the fastest and easiest train experiences, as they don’t have much security or baggage control in many of their larger stations. I took this route with TPG himself last May from Florence to Milan, and found it easy and painless. We bought our tickets about two hours before the train departed, taxied to Santa Maria Novella about 30 minutes before our departure time, had a snack, boarded and presto – we arrived in Milan in under two hours.

The Italo trains.
The Italo trains

There’s a new private operator for high speed Italian trains called Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori. Launched in 2012, this line also offers high-speed Italo trains to Milan, Florence and Rome, in addition to smaller cities like Turin and Bologna. Wifi is always free and there are three classes: Smart, Prima and Club. Prices are comparable to TrenItalia.

Vienna to Prague 

The EC train from Wien to Praha.
The EC train from Wien to Praha

This route between Vienna and Prague is very popular, as it’s quite expensive to fly between these two cities. However, the train trip is slightly longer than flying, taking just under five hours. As it crosses borders, it’s operated by the EC or EuroCity trains, which are a collaboration between several companies. Be careful and make sure you book a direct route, because several of the trains include a stop in Breclav, which will require you to change trains and take much longer. Trains on this route offer two classes, first and second.

Frankfurt/Cologne, Germany

The ICE German highspeed train.
The ICE German highspeed train

The ICE high-speed trains in Germany are known to be state-of-the-art, reaching a speed of 300 km/hour (186 mph) and taking just over an hour. First class seats on this two-class route are especially popular with business travelers, as they have power outlets, Wifi and sometimes even video screens. You can also request a car with higher cell-phone reception if you plan on taking calls. Part of ICE’s advanced technology (which was first used in Italy) is the track placement: the train tilts inwards by up to 8° when traveling through curves, allowing it to travel at 30% higher speed in curves without impact to safety or comfort of the passengers.

This route’s popularity has actually inspired Lufthansa to cease operation of its direct Frankfurt-Cologne route, and no other flight carriers have since picked up the gauntlet. The best option for traveling quickly between these two cities is to take this train.

Route Comparison: Planes Vs. Trains

Below is a chart comparing the cost and travel times on air travel and train travel. In each case, the total travel times include:

  • an average estimate of travel time from the city center to train station or airport
  • waiting time at train station or airport (arriving 2 hrs ahead at airport)
  • time of actual trip (flight or train ride)
  • and time to get to city center at new destination

Total travel costs include both:

  • the cost of train or plane ticket
  • the cost of taking a bus or train to/from the station/airport

I’ve used the date May 23 as a one-way trip, and all flights include one checked bag. I also chose the cheapest possible ticket in each case, meaning the lowest class. Please keep in mind these are only averages, designed to offer you some estimated comparisons. As you can see, in some cases it seems more worthwhile or cost-effective to fly, and in other cases, to travel by train. I encourage you to check both options during your travels in order to find what best fits your journey.

Plane travel vs. train travel.
Plane travel vs. train travel

How To Maximize Train Travel: Loyalty Programs and Credit Cards

There are two main ways you can earn points and redeem miles for your European rail travel: using certain credit cards to make your purchases that don’t charge foreign transaction fees and that either provide earning or redemption bonuses on travel purchases; or (if you plan on traveling a lot with one specific line or within one country) by joining a line’s loyalty program.

BarclayCard Arrival:  With this card, you can redeem your miles for passenger rail tickets at a rate of 1 cent per mile and get a 10% mileage refund on redemptions, so your return on spending is 2.2%. If you’re traveling by train in another part of the world, you can still use your miles to save some cash. The card charges no foreign transaction fees and the minimum point redemption is $25.

Chase Sapphire Preferred:  With this card, you receive 2x per $1 spent on travel purchases (trains included), plus no foreign transaction fees.

The Freccia card allows you to earn points for travel.
The Freccia card allows you to earn points for travel

CartaFreccia: With TrenItalia, you can get a loyalty card to earn points that you can later use to redeem for free train travel.

Eurostar Plus Points: Collect one point for every British pound spent on Eurostar tickets. When you’ve got 300 points, you get a 20-pound e-voucher – that’s a pretty good 6.7% return on spending. You also have the option to stay at selected partner hotels (earn 50 points per night), rent a car through Avis (up to 50 points each time you book) or convert American Express Membership Reward points (15 American Express point = 1 Eurostar Frequent Traveler point) if you’re a British Amex cardholder.

Karta Card: For train travel on CD trains in the Czech Republic, you can get the Karta card, which allows you to refill it and purchase, and also gives you special discounts on fares.

You pay a yearly fee for the Bahn card which then gives you discounts.
You pay a yearly fee for the Bahn card which then gives you discounts

Bahn Card: For frequent travel on the Bahn trains in Germany, get the Bahn card. There are a few different kinds, but the main concept is you pay a flat rate for the year and you then receive discounts on tickets. It’s an especially worthwhile option for a business traveler who may need to travel a several times a year by train.

Tips and Tricks

There are a few last tips to getting your train fare at a reasonable price:

Discounts: Many companies offer discounts for youth and seniors. In some countries, youth is considered either under 30, 25, 21 or 18. In Europe, discounts for seniors are generally available to those over the age of 60. Some train lines require you to have a special card, while others just need a regular ID or passport. If you think one of these discounts could apply to you, do your research so you can select the best fare for your travel.

Some companies also offer a discount for large families. Make sure to check if your preferred train line offers this, as each company has its own policy.

The four person table seating.
The four person table seating

The Four-Person Table: Several train operators will offer a discount if you purchase all four seats that face each other over a table; for instance, Spain’s AVE trains offer this option at a significant discount. When I booked all four to visit Seville with my family this coming May, each ticket was only 45 euros – instead of the usual 70 euros.

Overnight Trains: If you want to save money on hotel, another option is to book an overnight train, therefore combining your accommodation and your travel. Many countries offer this as an option, and although it may seem pricey at first glance compared to a plane ticket, when you factor in the cost of a hotel – especially in a more expensive city like London – it may be worth it.

Book Your Tickets On The Actual Website Or At The Train Station Itself: Navigating a train website in a foreign language isn’t necessarily easy, but it will ensure that you get the best price. Most of the websites do have English options, and usually show the cheapest possible ticket. A website like Rail Europe will usually show higher rates, though may be easier to navigate as it’s geared towards Americans. However, if your primary concern is price, book through the original website. Or once you’ve arrived at the station (ideally with time to spare), make your booking directly with an agent.

These are just some estimates and tips to get you thinking about train travel in Europe. Personally, I’ve had some great experiences on trains – how about you? Please share any “training” tips or experiences in the comments section below.

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