Most capitals in Europe are connected by high-speed rail. These don’t really take you back in time. The high-speed trains are modern and sleek. You can travel between Berlin, Prague, Rome, Paris and many other metropoles in a few days. While a TGV, Thalys, Eurostar or ICE train can set you back a few euros, you can be sure to reach your destination pretty quickly. High-speed trains cover a lot of ground in just a few hours and are perfect for capital hopping in Europe. Once you try to get more rural, you’ll have to switch to the slower, regional trains.
There are plenty of night trains between cities in Europe. This list on the Interrail website is pretty complete. The great thing about night trains is going to sleep in one place and waking up hundreds of kilometers further in your journey. I do miss watching the landscape change, but it’s still a great way to cover a lot of ground quickly and save money on accommodation. Night trains are a unique way of traveling and it reminds me of games like “Orient Express” which can get your imagination go wild.
City Night Line – Our experience – This train doesn’t run anymore
The City Night Line runs different routes in Europe. We took the CNL from Prague back to Cologne. It’s obviously newer and better equipped than the Jan Kiepura. We slept in a private double cabin which was more luxurious than a three-person cabin we took a week before. A few doors next to us was a real bathroom with a shower. Even if you don’t really need a shower, I must admit that it’s impossible to resist. Taking a shower on a train: check! It’s a bit wobbly and your shoes might get wet, but it’s a very cool thing to do.
Jan Kiepura – Our experience – This train doesn’t run anymore
We took the Jan Kiepura from Cologne (Germany) to Poznan (Poland). The train seemed pretty old but sufficient. We shared a 3 person cabin with another traveler who joined us in Berlin. This gave us time to arrange our stuff and clear the small cabin before a third traveler had to get her luggage in. Getting into the top bed is not easy. Getting out of it is even harder, especially if you’re trying not to wake other passengers. Descending three floors into a dark, narrow cave on your way to the bathroom at 3 AM: not recommended.
Regional trains vary greatly between different countries. Some countries have a wonderful railway system, like Germany. The Deutsche Bahn has a great website and a great train network. Other countries are slower to travel once you leave the capital, like Hungary or Slovakia. Try to get from Zakopane in Poland to Debrecen in Hungary. Although slow travel has a lot of charm and indulges you into local scenery, sometimes it’s easier to find a bus than to travel great detours to get to a destination.
Europe offers a lot of scenic train rides, many of which we still need to travel. This web page lists a lot of the scenic trains in one place. The Bernina Express takes you over the bridges and through the tunnels seen in the Harry Potter movies and is a must travel trip when in Switzerland. The sceneries on these trips take you through tunnels, over bridges and through all kinds of stunning landscapes.
Sit or sleep?
Most trains in Europe have options to sit in first or second class. If the train is crowded, you might be sitting on the floor or stand in between seats. This depends on the traject and the timing of your trip. We’ve been on an extremely crowded train between Budapest and Prague. For day travel, only seated options are available. Night trains have sleeping options as well as sitting options. We don’t recommend traveling a night train seated and would always choose to sleep during an overnight trip.
Sleeping car cabins are private and can have a variety of beds. You can buy tickets in 2, 3 or 4 person cabins. Tickets get cheaper if you share your accommodation with more people. So if you pay a little more, you can have a romantic night in a small, private bunk bed cabin which has everything you need. Bathrooms are usually shared.
Couchettes usually sleep six people and are the most economic way to travel by night. Like dorm bunk beds, you can buy a ticket for a bed and five random travelers will join you. Couchettes are great for budget travel and solo travelers. It’s a good way to meet other travelers on the road and save on accommodation.
Interrail – Eurail
Interrail is a European enterprise which makes train travel in Europe less complicated. While each country has it’s own railway system, website and booking system, Interrail combines everything in one pass. Not completely hassle free, the Interrail option is less complicated, but it will probably cost you more than traveling independent. If your amount of time is limited, Interrail is a good option to take care of transportation and bookings in one place, instead of losing precious time on translating different websites.
Pass prices vary depending on the formula your itinerary requires. Do you want to visit one country or more? How many days will you be traveling? This website has a nice overview of the possible passes and prices.
After buying your Rail Pass, it will be sent to you by email. You’ll still be required to make reservations for a lot of trains. These reservations are not included and you have to pay a reservation fee and an extra fee for the seat or bed you’re booking. There are options to travel just for the price of the pass, but it allows you to only travel on trips that don’t require reservations. For night trains or high-speed trains, you always pay extra.
Reservations need to be made days before the trip. This takes away all spontaneity of your travels, but most long distance trains require a reservation. The price of the reservation depends on the country and the type of ticket. Night trains and high-speed trains are more expensive. After booking your tickets, a seat will be assigned to you.
How to use it
For each train you embark, you need to write down your location and destination. The date must be entered as well. Once you started a travel day, you can get on and off as many trains as you like during the entire day. So the best practice is to make a travel day really a travel day.
The Interrail app is a great asset for traveling. You can use it offline and it has pretty accurate timetables of all trains. The app shows you if you can get on the train for free or need a reservation. We thought the app was a great resource and we used it a lot during our trip. It’s convenient for all train schedules and not just the night trains and high-speed trains.
Keeping it cheap
Taking trains without a reservation is definitely cheaper, but not always the best option. If you’re on a tight schedule, you don’t want to take 6 trains when you can do the same trip with a single train. But you’ll probably pay more.
This website is by far the best resource for train travel all over the world. We check it whenever we even think about taking a train outside of our home country. The owner, Mark, has a passion for trains. He’s put a lot of work into this great website and it shows.
If you’re European or have an address in Europe, you can buy an Interrail pass.
People who don’t have a European passport will have to buy a Eurail pass.