Before we discuss types of transportation and other issues dealing with transportation we want to stress the utmost importance of being able to use a GPS. Be sure to download country maps before your trip. If you are using old fashioned paper maps be sure you know how to read these or if you are traveling with a small group of people in a foreign city in a foreign country, be sure someone knows how to read maps.
If you are a good map reader you will be able to easily find your way around an otherwise confusing city. Your map reading skills will also help you or hurt you in the often crowded and sometimes confusing subways. An excellent idea is to photo copy ahead of time street maps of areas and cities that you know you will be visiting or download these to your smartphone .
For the most part we made our way around Europe on trains. We did take several boats and ferries in Greece and in Italy. Let us first start with the ferries and boats. For All European Train Schedules visit: www.raileurope.com
Trains are certainly one way to get around Europe. Note ticket prices tend to be significantly cheaper in Eastern European countries versus Western Europe. Trains are usually on time, and they usually leave on time. If they happen to be a little late most connecting trains will wait a little while before departing. In Italy the trains are notorious for being a bit late. One thing We HIGHLY RECOMMEND is that you get all possible train routes and train schedules of any place that you will be traveling to, before you actually leave on your trip. A good site for European trains schedules and other rail information is: www.eurail.com or www.railteam.eu
This way you can print out your arrival times, departure times, stopping times and connecting train arrival and departure times. You can also print out all the train stops, times between each stop, and other train information. The closest connection I ever made was a time of 2 minutes between trains. I stood up and waited next to one of the doors and as soon as the train stopped I jumped out and hurled the stairs and landed roughly on the concrete platform. I sprinted for a certain gate number (which I already knew because I had gotten this information off of the Internet). I sped like a road runner onto the platform of this certain gate and saw my departure train. Quickly I vaulted the steps as the sound of the departure whistle was howling in the background. Nine seconds later the train departed. It is useful time specific information such as this that makes the Internet so powerful as an informational tool.
After spending a week or at least several days in most locations we were ready for a “day” off and a long train ride was just the solution. We timed the train rides so that we would have between 5 to 8 hours between locations. During the train rides we would read newspapers, books, or travel information about an upcoming city or sight. We also used the train to catch up on much needed sleep. A number of trains in Western Europe now have WiFi (extra cost) Click here for a list of train companies that offer WiFi & related pricing.
Traveling by train is a great way to meet people of all ages and International travelers. It is usually a good forum for practicing the language of the country that you are traveling through. It is also a great place to talk to other tourists and find out what they enjoyed about a certain location – from both tourists and locals alike.
We took only one night train and it was a mistake. It took us several days to recover. First of all we were in a non air conditioned bunk bed couchette with 6 bunk beds, all filled. It was extremely warm and crowded with people, noise, nasty smells and luggage. Needless to say we did not sleep very well that night.
Some of the trains contained toilets which emptied right onto the track. In most of the trains you were forbidden to flush the toilet when you were in a station. Sometimes, all the bathrooms automatically locked when you were parked in a station. This caused irritation on several occasions.
One excellent feature of European trains is that they have many non smoking cars for non smokers. These cars provide some welcome relief for non smokers. The trains are also separated by class. They have first and second class. These two classes are usually separated by the restaurant car. The first class cars are in the front of the train. Most trains also have certain cars that contain 4, 6, or 8 seater cabins. These are a great place to meet people, because you are sitting closer and are facing people (most of the cars have seating like in a bus – all one way). Only one or two of the trains that I took were completely full. In this case there are fold out chairs in the isles, and people were sitting down on these.
Most European trains travel at speeds greater then 100 mph. Some of the French trains cruise along at 186 miles an hour. The French train called “train a grande vitesse” holds the world speed record for a train at 320 mph. Unfortunately it does not travel that fast in normal every day travel. We found that in many of my shorter travels the trains probably weren’t traveling much more then 100 mph. The reason for this is that there were a lot of stops at train stations along the way. On our longer trips, especially those without many stops, the trains were really zipping along.
Some of Europe’s passenger trains are as follows. The high speed trains are called AVEs, Eurostar and Thalys TGV. These are international trains. The Inter City trains are national trains that provide transportation entirely within a country’s borders.
There are two types of Eurail passes, on is a “consecutive – day”, and the other is a “flexible” pass.
–Consecutive Day Pass
This allows you to travel as many times as you want during a specific time period. For example if you purchased a 21 day flexible pass you could travel as many times as you want in those 21 days. You start your first day on your first day of travel by getting your pass stamped with the date. This consecutive day pass is valid for first class travel and is good in the following 17 countries:
Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland
You have you five choices of times for using the flexible pass. You can buy a pass that is valid for 15, 21, 30, 60, or 90 consecutive days. One important note is that this pass does provide FREE access to many ferries, boats, and or buses. Sometimes instead of being free, your flexible pass allows you to travel for reduced rates.
The Eurail Youth Pass is available to those people under the age of 26. This provides unlimited travel to all of the 17 countries listed above.
This works well if you are going to be in one place for quite a while. You choose the number of days that you want to travel during a certain time period. For example if you wanted to travel 10 days during a one month period, you would purchase the cost for 10 days. You would then be given a pass with 5 boxes on it. Ever time you travel you write the date of the travel day in one of the boxes. The flexible pass is valid in the following 17 countries.
Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland
The Eurail Flexipass provides unlimited first class rail travel and you can purchase either a 10 day or 15 day pass.
The Eurail Youth Flexipass is good for second class travel and you can purchase a 10 or 15 day travel pass. This pass is good for passenger under 26 years of age.
There are several other options for the Flexipass. The book Europe by Eurorail is the best source of information. See the More Information section for more information about this book.
One advantage of traveling by train is that you can travel at your own pace, and you can stop where and when you want, provided you do not have hotel reservations waiting for you in a particular city. The flexible pass is a good value for people who are visiting several or more countries in one trip.
Other Train Info
If you want to travel to some of the other European countries not included in the Flexipass you have to purchase “supplement passes”. These can be purchased at the train station on the day of your travel, but preferably you may want to purchase them a day ahead of your travel day. We often found long lines at certain train stations. Purchasing tickets a day ahead or getting to the station very early before your departure time is a good idea, especially if you still need to purchase supplement passes. I had to purchase supplement passes for both Slovenia and The Czech Republic.
Several trains require reservations. These are mainly for the 4 to 8 seat cabins in the train cars. We never purchased reservations. Very few had reservation signs outside the cabins. We never were asked for reservations by the conductor. As long as we had our Euro passes we had no trouble with the conductor. With all the travel between countries, especially with the shorter distances between countries in central Europe, have your Europass and passport easily accessible. As you are ready to leave one country you will be asked for your passport and Eurorail pass. Then as you enter another country you will be asked for the same information again.
Before you enter a particular train car:
1. make note of the final destination city that will be printed on the side of the car. The reason I say this is that some cars will split off when you stop in certain train stations.
2. Tell the conductor your destination as you enter the train car. If you are entering the wrong car, ask them to point you to the “right” car.
All train schedules are listed in the 24 hour format. NOTE: at the train stations the DEPARTURE times are printed on YELLOW background, and the ARRIVAL times are printed on a WHITE background. You will always see a digital display board above the tracks in the train stations. These list the current departure and arrival times within the next few hours. These digital displays are normally found above each track in the station as well as in the station itself.
For security precautions in trains and in the train stations see our section titled “Thieves“.
Note: Trains only stop for a very short while at intermediate train stations. They usually stop longer at the major train stations, such as where the tracks end, usually in larger cities. At the intermediate train stations, most trains stop for between one and two minutes.
Luggage storage was quite plentiful on the trains, no matter where you sat. It is a very wise idea to place your luggage very close to where you are sitting, so that you can keep an eye on it.
We noticed that many of outsides of the trains contained a fair amount of graffiti. Some of this graffiti was actually pleasant to look at, but others were reminiscent of American type graffiti.
A good book that lists all types of information about traveling Europe by train is called “Europe by Eurail”. See the “More Information” section for more information about this book.
Ferries were usually not filled to capacity. Certain boats called the “hydrofoil” (in Greece) were much nicer then the usual ships. These were air conditioned and were less crowded (see the article on Paros for more information about the ferries and hydrofoils). Another nice feature of the hydrofoils is that they moved at about twice the speed of the regular ferries. They also cost twice as much.
always had a meter in their car. If you see one that doesn’t have a meter, either do not get in, or FIRMLY agree on a price before you start driving. It is always a good idea to know ahead of time an approximate price for the distance you expect to be traveling. Depending on where you are, you can ask at your hotel, at the train station, or at the airport. To read more about Taxis and what to look for when taking a taxi, please visit Dave’s in depth Article on Taxis.
For those people renting cars, driving your own vehicle on European roads can be fairly easy. One problem we foresee for driving your own vehicle is the difficulty in driving and negotiating the large city roads. Some cities such as Rome are extremely congested, there are no lanes marked, and people are rushing around in all sorts of vehicles, darting in and out of traffic. Think twice about driving a rental car in a large congested European city.
Gas prices are much higher in Europe then they are in North America especially with today’s increased oil prices. Gas at highway stations costs more then gas at a self service station. Gas in Europe is split into two categories; normal octane and super octane.
In France, Spain, Greece and in Italy, most of the roads are toll roads. In Italy you can buy what is known as a “viacard” in advance from toll booths and gas stations. There are also toll roads in Austria and in Switzerland.
Most car rental companies in Europe will not rent cars to those people under 21 years of age. This differs slightly from the US where most car companies will not rent cars to those under 25 years of age. To rent cars in Europe you need to be above 21 years of age (as mentioned above, have a valid current US drivers license, and also have an International Driving Permit. European cars are on average much smaller then the cars driven in the US. Most are manual transmission and many do not have air conditioning. However, if you want air conditioning you can request it. The prices for rentals vary dramatically between countries. Some countries have high local taxes for car rentals.
You will want to check and verify that your car insurance provider in your home country covers you in the case collision damage when you are in Europe. If not, you will want to purchase some collision insurance or use a credit card that provides coverage for auto insurance. Make sure the rental company knows your plans for the rental car. They will need to know if you plan on driving it through several countries.
Metros are a good way to get around in large cities. Some metros are worse then others. For example Rome’s metro was a notch below the Paris metro, both in efficiency, cleanliness, and number of routes. All of the metros require tickets. However, no one ever purchased tickets for the Rome metro. Fines can be quite hefty for not having a ticket regardless of the metro you are in. All of the other metros had people checking for tickets at strategic parts of the metro. The Paris metro had gates that would only open into the metro if you passed your ticket through a certain slot. However, some of the locals were hurdling the gates without paying for tickets.
When you first enter a metro you will see ticket machines. These usually accept only certain denomination coins. Be sure to have some coins on you. On first glance these machines may appear quite confusing. Confusion tends to breed confusion, especially if you see a bunch of confused tourists standing around trying to figure out how to use the machines. Usually there will be directions in several different languages on the front of the machine. Read these carefully, as this is the best way to figure out how to use the machine. There will ALWAYS be one or two broken machines. We were never in a metro that didn’t have at least one broken machine per station.
Usually there are several price increments. We always purchased the lowest cost ticket, which was good for either several stops on the metro, or it expired after a certain time period. We recommend purchasing more tickets then you expect to use during your stay in the city. This way you can get all your tickets at one time, instead of waiting in the metro machine lines every time that you want to use the metro. Sometimes if you are in the more popular metro stops, there will be metro vendors selling multiple tickets. Purchase these only from the people who are legitimate, that is those who are behind a ticket window. There are some vendors who purchase tickets from the legitimate vendors and then sell the tickets for a huge mark up.
In all the metros we visited you buy your tickets and then you get them stamped at the machines which are located at the entrance to all the metro stops. These stamping machines put the date and time on your metro ticket. This means, should you run into any ticket police they can look at your ticket and verify that you are using a legitimate ticket.
If you have never taken a metro before, there are metro maps located all over the metro stations. There are also small metro maps located in most tourist guides, or you can pick one up at the metro station. To find the direction of your destination, find your destination metro stop on the metro map. Then find the LAST destination metro stop listed in the direction that you want to travel.
We always felt safe in the metros even at night. However, they are not a great place to hang out in, or a place that we wanted to spend any extra time in. Sometimes they smelled, or were dark. During the day time sometimes you would find street vendors selling their wares between metro stops. By far the most crowded metro that we used was in Paris. As soon as the metro would stop and the doors would open there would be a mad rush for any available seats.
Another neat feature (depending on your point of view) was the local entertainment that we saw on some of the metro trains. For example, on several trains we watched a puppet entertainer set up a large towel in the back of the train, and then promptly begin a short puppet show. He would finish his show after a few short metro stops, and then he would walk up and down the train demanding money.
Then there were those who would get on the metro trains and start yelling at the top of their lungs about something. After this loud outburst would pass, they would pull out some flyers, or magazines and walk around the train trying to get money.
Walking is the way to go for the most part in Europe. This is especially true of the big cities. Even if you take the metros in the large cities you will do your fair share of walking. In cities such as Paris and Rome many of the major sights are within a several mile radius. A combination of walking and taking the metros is the best and fastest way to see the sights. In some of the bigger cities I would walk from the early morning until the late evening. We probably walked between 10 and 20 miles a day when we were in the major cities.