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Getting On Track

After a multiday train journey through Europe, AAA Travel’s online marketing manager shares her experience and tips for traveling by rail.

I recently had a chance to take a rail vacation through Europe, and it changed the way I think about traveling by train. The first time I went to Europe, in 1990, most tour books described train travel as the best and most inexpensive way to see Europe, but I was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless options of rail passes and regional tickets, so I avoided train travel.

Fast-forward to this year, and now I’m convinced that train travel is a great way to see Europe, particularly if you’ve been there a few times and are looking for more flexibility than an escorted tour can provide.

While it can be intimidating at times to travel by train, here are several things I learned during my recent trip.

Your AAA travel agent is a great beginning resource. There are a lot of rail options, and each has its own rules that need to be followed. A travel agent can help you sort through the options and choose the right ticket.

TIP: Seat assignments are necessary on high-speed trains, night trains and scenic trains even if you have a rail pass. Talk to your AAA travel agent to ensure that your reservations are complete.

Trains wait for no one, and allowing extra time to navigate an unfamiliar station will reduce your stress. I recommend arriving at least 20 minutes prior to departure time if you’re traveling within one country. If you’re traveling between countries, you may need to go through passport checks. In that case, you should arrive at least 45 minutes prior to departure time.

If you have a rail pass such as BritRail or Eurail, ensure that you validate your pass at a ticket counter prior to boarding the train; if you don’t, it won’t be valid for travel, and you could end up having to purchase a ticket on board—or even be fined by the conductor for traveling with an unactivated pass.

Depending on the type of pass you have, you are required to fill out the date and route of service for each day of use. You can fill it out at your hotel the morning you travel or on the train before the conductor gets to you. You could be fined if you don’t fill out the ticket properly. Conductors collect the fine when they issue the violation so that an unscrupulous person can’t just skip paying.

TIP: Fill out the ticket for only the current day of travel. If you fill out the ticket for every day of your trip, you’ll invalidate the ticket. Plus, travel plans can change. It’s better to keep your options open.

Read your ticket or seat assignment slip carefully. It tells you which train, which coach and which seat has been assigned to you as well as whether you’re in a window or aisle seat. The departure boards will tell you from which track your train departs.

Depending on the type of train and class of service, there may be limited space for luggage. Packing as little as you can is crucial to enjoying your vacation (trust me: you’ll thank me later).

TIP: Smaller carry-on luggage may fit between the train seats.

If you’re like me, you want to be connected on your phone or other personal devices. Depending on the route and class of service, power outlets may not be available on certain trains, and you may have to pay for Wi-Fi access.

TIP: If your device is dual voltage, bring or purchase an adapter to charge your phone using the train’s power outlets. Also consider purchasing a portable charging device at your AAA Store before you go so that you won’t ever find yourself without power.

If you’re prone to motion sickness, take medicine. Most trains have seats that face both backward and forward, and there’s no guarantee which one you’ll get.

Some routes or classes of service do not offer food for purchase. Before you board, buy your food and beverage from a local store, and enjoy a picnic at your train seat. Alcoholic beverages are permitted, and larger train stations in major cities may have storefronts or snack stands to purchase your favorite refreshments. Stations in smaller towns may not have this amenity, so plan to pick something up before you arrive.