The best thing about Europe imho
*Disclaimer: I mostly travel from France/Belgium so most of my experiences are commuting to/from these 2 countries and everything I talk about revolve mostly around train travel using Belgian or French trains.
I love train travel. Ok well not for my daily commute – then I hate getting on trains, but if I had to choose, trains are the most convenient way to travel around.
You have zero problems with liquids, luggage weight (I mean except for that you need to be able to physically carry your bags), security and immigration (except if you go to UK), having to be at airports at ungodly hours. You just need to be on the platform a few minutes before, get on, take your seat and be done with it.
For some reason though, train travel – especially fast trains, can also be the most expensive and for that reason I find myself taking more planes (boo hoo). If you are able to plan 3 months ahead (normally bookings open 90 days before), then try to check out train tickets.
Note: normally train bookings (unlike planes) can only be booked 90 days ahead.
A quick overview of the biggest/most obvious train companies you will most likely need:
- Eurostar – private train company providing services to UK and Europe
- Thalys – private train company operating mostly in North west Europe (France, Belgium, Netherlands)
- NS – Biggest train company in the Netherlands
- DB (Deutsche Bahn) – Biggest train company in Germany
- SNCF – National train company of France
- SNCB (Fr) /NMBS (Nl) – National train company of Belgium
If there’s one thing you need to know is that trains here are either fast trains or normal “slow” intercity trains. In the table below I’ve illustrated all the types and companies that offer such services
|High Speed Local/ International Train||Low Cost High Speed Local/ International Trains||Local/ International |
|France||TGV (SNCF), Thalys, Eurostar||Ouigo (SNCF)||TER (SNCF)|
|Belgium||TGV (SNCF), Thalys, Eurostar||Izy (Thalys) only Paris-Brussels route||SNCB|
|Germany||ICE (DB)||Flix trains||DB|
High Speed Trains
TGV/InOui, Thalys, Eurostar, ICE
High speed trains, I mean obviously, they’re fast. Paris to Lille takes 1 hour by TGV when by bus it would take 3 hours. High speed trains are the way to go when covering long distances. Though normally they cost more and you always need a seat reservation to get on them.
Seat reservations always have a car number and a seat number. Take care to first get in the right car then find your seat number.
Note that in the TGV, it is actually possible to get on a train without a reservation. There are normally some seats in between carriages but these are extremely limited and uncomfortable if your travel is long. You can also hang out at the bar carriage (if there is one) but there are normally no seats there.
Fast trains are normally the fancy trains with a bar carriage. It’s also the one that goes mostly through international borders, but normally stop only at big cities/train stations. You won’t be able to get to small cities using high speed trains. Normally it would be a combination of a high speed train, then a local one.
If you have big luggages, you can normally leave them in some racks in between carriages. Sometimes there are also places to put them inside the car, but again, these are a bit fewer.
Note that in TGVs, trains can sometimes be double deckers. You will have to carry your bags up some stairs if you sit on the 2nd floor. For hand luggage, there is normally a rack on top where you can put your luggage. Don’t worry too much about not seeing your big bags. I’ve never had an instance where something was stolen. But still, I would suggest to not put any valuables in your big bag and to lock and label them properly.
Sockets are normally available but wifi so far I’ve only had in TGV (within France) and with ICE (within Germany). Restrooms are also available in every carriage and normally pretty clean.
As mentioned, there is always a bar in these trains so food is available.
Normally there are 1st class trains and 2nd class trains. Honestly it’s not like a plane that there is such a big difference between the two. The biggest difference is that the seats are bigger, reclinable and normally in a 2-1 configuration rather than 2-2.
TGV and SNCB International normally has seat sales wherein the price of a 1st class is sometimes cheaper than 2nd class so in those cases they are totally worth it. If the price difference is also like 1 to 5 euros, you could consider getting them as well. Otherwise, I don’t advise spending more for first class.
Trains normally leave RIGHT ON TIME. DO NOT BE LATE. It will leave without you. You have to be on that platform at least 5 minutes before as doors close right on the departure time.
Sometimes for TGVs from Paris stations, there are ticket checks before you get on the platform. In other stations, you just get checked while on the train itself. Never throw away your ticket before your journey ends especially if you are taking connections.
While trains are great, they are also more exposed to harsh weather. Recently, strong winds in the North of France and Belgium have caused big delays in train traffic. I’ve also experienced being stuck in a layover in Frankfurt from Heidelberg because trains going to Belgium were not running due to heavy snow. In this case, I had to line up for a little less than 2 hours to get a new ticket for the next day and to get a voucher for a hotel room. Hey at least there was a hotel – which is more than what you could expect from airlines nowadays.
On the other hand, these are exceptional cases and if I can find a good deal on train tickets, I’d rather take it than going by plane.
*Side note: SNCF has recently been launching their InOui trains. There is no difference with a normal TGV train – it’s just that these trains have recently been refurbished so are much newer. Price wise – it’s all the same.
Low cost Fast Trains
- OuiGo – French High Speed
- Izy – Thalys High Speed
- Flix Train – German High Speed
Recently, companies have started offering low cost options for train travel (similar to what the airline industry is doing).
Ouigo is the first one that I’ve heard about and it probably also has the biggest network. It’s owned by SNCF so it’s pretty much the same as taking a TGV, the only difference is that, like in low cost airlines, it departs from “not so convenient” locations.
For example, the Ouigo from Lyon leaves from Lyon airport instead of the city center. The same with the Paris Ouigo, it leaves from CDG instead of direct to the center. You have to calculate the cost of getting to this location along with the price of your ticket to understand if it really is worth it. For example, if you arrive at Paris CDG instead of the center, you normally have to pay 10 euros on the RER (local Paris train) to get to the center. In Lyon, there are no public transport options, only private shuttles that cost around 7 euros per ride one way.
In any case, you can still get amazing deals by going on a ouigo instead of a TGV, even with the location hassle. The only catch is that these tickets run out fast – so better to plan early when wanting to get tickets for this low cost option.
Previously OuiGo had a separate site for booking – now SNCF has integrated it to their site so you will see OuiGo options when searching normally on the SNCF site.
Izy train on the other hand is owned by Thalys. It only has one route, which Paris-Brussels. It’s also pretty much the same train, except that you have the option to go for just a folding seat (the free seat not assigned) which is the cheapest fair you can get. The travel time is only around 2 hours so if you want to get to Paris or Brussels fast and cheap, it’s your best bet.
Warning for high speed trains!
Layovers for high speed trains are like planes. You need to get on that next train identified in your ticket, otherwise you’ve lost the rest of your ticket. When you buy a ticket from say Lille to Lyon but has a stop/change in Paris, you need to get on that train that is identified in your ticket – otherwise you need to buy a new ticket from Paris to Lyon. You cannot get on another train in a different time and use the same ticket.
If you want to do stop overs – buy them separately. Buy Lille to Paris then buy a separate one from Paris to Lyon.
Local trains are obviously trains that go locally city per city. These are slow trains because they make more stops, and are just completely different trains from fast ones.
Local trains are normally commuter trains used by everyday people – so you can expect them to be not as nice as the high speed ones.
Normally for local trains, you have to take care in buying the tickets from the ticket machine. They are usually found separate from high speed trains and from experience, normally 10x harder to understand.
You do not need to reserve or book early for local trains. They normally do not do promotions and will always be the same price 1 year before or 1 minute before the train leaves.
Belgium Tip! In Belgium, there is something called a weekend ticket. If you travel anywhere within the country by train from Friday 7pm to last train of Sunday, you can buy a weekend ticket which gives you 40% off on a return ticket between 2 Belgian stations.
On local trains, there are no seat reservations. Just take any free seat but be mindful of what class you are in.
There are 2 classes usually still in local trains, 1st and 2nd. For local trains, I don’t see any actual worth in buying a first class train ticket. Just save your money. There is literally no added benefit except for bigger seats. If the train is full (especially in Belgium) they will allow you / or will not care if you sit in first class.
Note that even for local trains, there are still differences with the types of trains. For example, in the Netherlands, sprinter trains usually take more time as it goes through more stops in between 2 big cities. The same for Belgium, there are S and L trains that stop in small cities while IC trains go normally direct to big cities. If are unsure – it’s always best to just ask someone in the station.
There are some cross country services for slow trains but normally they go only as far as the neighboring country.
SNCB/NMBS of Belgium has train services reaching up to Lille (France), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Aachen (Germany), Luxembourg (Luxembourg). In the same way, NS of Netherlands has their train that reaches Brussels. As far as I know, only ICE (fast) trains from Germany go into Belgium (could be wrong as I haven’t ridden much on DB trains). There are also some trains connecting Luxembourg and France. France is huge so
Best place to book
It depends on where you’re coming from but in general – always try to book from the company itself.
As I’ve said, I normally try to check all the options from Omio first, then if I see the company offering the line, I go search for it on the site of the company itself.
I normally book tickets in either the SNCF site for travels to/from France (meaning at least one of the cities is a French city) or on SNCB International if I’m going to/from Belgium.
Tip! when searching booking sites – use cities and not specific train stations to see all options.
These sites give you ALL the options for the routes. Meaning even if you book on an SNCF or SNCB site – they will give you options with a mix of different company trains like Thalys or Eurostar.
The advantage of this is that they do not charge you any sort of booking premium.
I was asked about the site RailEurope. RailEurope as I’ve found is the US site of SNCF. The biggest disadvantage of RailEurope is that it tacks on extra fees for Ticketing Services. Honestly, if you just select a different country on the Rail Europe site, it would lead you to the normal SNCF site that I use which has no extra fees.
I would try to avoid using the US site if you can.
Collecting your Train Tickets
Normally if you have high speed tickets – they always give the option of printing your tickets or having them on the app.
Be careful though, especially for local trains, there are cases wherein you have to still go to a machine in that country to collect your ticket. Make sure to read carefully if you will receive an e-ticket or if you will have to go and collect the ticket in a machine of that country.
Looking up train schedules
If you’re going to be spending time in Belgium and using the trains – download the SNCB app. It’s the best way to know the comings and goings of local trains.
SNCF app is also great to know about train schedules and interruptions.
In general, you can also just use google maps. From experience, it’s also quite updated with train schedules.
Most of the time – announcements in train stations will be in the local language.
If you don’t understand the local language – always make sure to check out the train board on the platform itself and normally there is a big screen somewhere in the station with train schedules that updates you on delays or train cancellations.
If all else fails, ask a station personnel! They can normally speak in English.
As I’ve never really had the opportunity to be in Europe just to travel for long amounts of time, so I’ve never had the need to get a rail pass. In principle, I know how it works and in terms of hassle of planning, buying tickets – I do believe that the rail pass would be worth it just so you don’t have to worry about buying each time a ticket and worrying about the train schedules. You just need to find the next train that your pass allows you to take and go (except for high speed ones where you will need to reserve a seat). In any case, I would still advise to maybe check out other options to see if you can get your money’s worth with a rail pass.