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The Benefits of Train Travel

By Clive Shearer

Bounding down the stairs to the platform at Copenhagen's main station - familiar territory. And there, waiting with me on the platform for my first train of this vacation, faces - familiar faces. The school children and their teacher, a sprinkling of office workers, a group of elderly folk on a day trip, an elegant couple. Individuals I had never seen before, yet all somehow familiar - train travelers.

The magic of trains. Imagine yourself sitting comfortably watching splendid scenery slipping past while you are sipping a fine wine, or a hot cup of strong European coffee. Imagine stopping at stations, noticing people on the platform, faces uplifted - to travel, to greet or to say farewell. A high state of emotion, ready for moving on, in location - and perhaps in life.

Imagine yourself enjoying the gentle rolling of your carriage while you quietly drift into a warm dream of sights soon to be seen. Imagine yourself in a tunnel, beneath the bed of the ocean, or on a bridge high above a magnificent alpine valley, traveling at 70 miles an hour - or more. Imagine getting off in the heart of a great city, ready to join the bustling crowds, ready to start a new adventure!

Train travel is relaxing, very fast, usually highly reliable, and, for less than three people, usually cheaper than a car rental. More comfortable, and more convenient. No worries about where to park, where to get gas, how to get into and out of cities.

But, dear reader, don't allow me to dissuade you from renting a car. Renting a car is a fine way to explore the little nooks and crannies of the countryside, the hidden villages tucked away in the shadows of mountains and perched on the rims of quaint lakes. Yet if you want to get to know the heart of Europe - the places of history, music, art, and entertainment, the grand cities, trains are undoubtedly the way to go.

Passes vs. Point-To-Point Tickets

I like the utter freedom of a full 15 or 21-day Eurail Pass. I can travel anywhere, any time - and I can be as adventurous as I wish. No need to be concerned about using up a day's travel for this or that journey, making my choices day-by-day, based on the weather, my mood, and my desired pace. If you will travel less frequently, one of the Euro Passes or Flexipasses might be more suitable. Or investigate special passes for youths or for two adults together. Point-to-point tickets are undoubtedly best if you will only make a few trips. How to decide? Plan an outline for your trip, and then discuss your plans with your travel agent. Or contact RailEurope or DERrail for a brochure, giving sample point-to-point prices. Passes must be bought before your travel. Point-to-point tickets, sleeper and seat reservations may be arranged from home (an experienced travel agent will help), or bought in Europe, allowing for greater flexibility. If you buy a ticket, or need to make a seat reservation in Europe, study the easy-to-read timetables, jot down exactly what you want on a piece of paper: destination, departure time, first or second class, smoking or non-smoking, window or aisle seat, and pass it to the ticket clerk. With this information, most ticket clerks will be able to help you obtain the ticket you need.

Stations in Europe - City Landmarks

Every major city in Europe has a heart. The stations, however, are the stomach of the city. They are all about movement. People arriving and departing, day and night, passing through, feeding the soul of the city. All major cities have several stations - each serving a set area, the north, the west, the local region, the commuters.

Large European stations have everything: banks, hairdressers, places to buy food, flowers and stamps, and places to store your luggage, get your shoes polished, and people-watch.

Noticing a well-dressed middle-aged lady, with a wide-brimmed hat, searching one train timetable after another with a puzzled and anxious look, in Hamburg, Germany, I offered assistance. I helped her discover that the train she sought does not run on a weekday, only on Saturdays. She did not realize that one must examine the bottom of posted timetables. The symbols reveal key information regarding reservations, exceptions and connections.

Train Travel Tips

Before you leave the station, check timetables for your outbound journey train times. This will save you from rushing to the station, only to find that there are no trains for several hours - hours that you could have spent elsewhere. Also, before you leave the environs of the station, visit the restroom. You may not find another for a while, so go when you have the opportunity. (By the way, Europeans call it a toilet or a WC. If you ask for the "restroom" you will be shown to the "waiting room.") Don't expect to find a porter. Most stations have luggage carts that you can use - but you will still need to lug those heavy suitcases, packs and duffel bags up and down stairs. Yes, a few stations have elevators - and some of the larger German stations now have a handy luggage-only conveyor belt, running alongside the stairs for you to rest your luggage upon when going up or down those stairs. But for the most part, it is still muscle power all the way. By the way, have loose change ready. Luggage carts need a deposit, in order to free the cart for your use. You get your money back when you return the cart.

What to Expect on the Train

Walking coach to coach, on a regional train in France, looking for a suitable place to sit, I see a lady ahead of me seat herself carrying two canaries on her wrist. Children flock around her and squeal with delight as the birds hop onto their hands. One of the onlookers is an elderly lady whose pet poodle sits regally in a baby car seat. Suddenly the poodle hops out and tugs commandingly at a frisbee tucked in the side of its chair. The elderly lady dutifully places the frisbee on the floor, and the dog now sits on the frisbee to watch the birds and the children. I move on to the next coach, pleased that all is well with the world.

Trains are marvelous places to feel the pulse of a country. How wonderful to relax as you travel swiftly through your holiday plans, enjoying your journey while readying yourself for the next stop and the next adventure. With my Eurail Pass, I am entitled to sit in either 1st or 2nd class. And it depends on my mood of the day. If I feel like meeting native Europeans, or just blending in, 2nd class is the ticket. If you want to be alone, to study a map, enter notes in your journal, or take a quiet nap, 1st class is the place to be.

Incidentally, if the train is "full," there will always be a seat in 1st class. If seat reservations are obligatory, you are generally at liberty to move around to another, more suitable unoccupied seat, once the conductor has checked your ticket or pass. All of this presupposes that you are traveling light. Otherwise, it is a case of dragging your belongings onto the train, hoisting them onto an already bulging storage shelf, and limiting your movement in order to keep an eye on your possessions.

For Your Safety

Is it safe to travel on European trains? In my experience - and I travel on 50 to 90 trains each year in Europe - I have never encountered a problem. Yet, I do know that night trains in some countries such as Italy and Eastern Europe can be somewhat risky, not to your person, but to your belongings. Nevertheless, with the right precautions, coupled with good instincts and common sense, one should not have to worry.

Food - On the Go

Feel like a snack? With the exception of commuter trains serving the suburbs, there will be several choices. A regional train will most likely have an attendant in charge of a food trolley, selling snacks to passengers in their seats. Perhaps there will be a snack bar too. Long distance trains usually add a "bistro" car - a place where you can sit down for a light meal. International trains will, in addition, have a restaurant car where one can enjoy a full meal.

Despite all these choices, it is not uncommon for Europeans on long distance trains, especially those in second class, to bring along their own snacks. And this is what I frequently do too. Local super markets stock a wide variety of foods that can be used to compose very enjoyable meals: rolls, cheese, sliced meats, yogurts, bottled drinks, and, of course, fruit. Eat at your leisure, and while away the day.

Have Fun With Language

I greet the Danish conductor with a "Godaften," a salutation which he returns. I then say "Vaersgo," as I proffer my ticket. He lifts the peak of his cap with his finger to acknowledge that all is in order, and I thank him with "Mange tak." Wow, I just used four Danish words as smooth as silk! That is fun! Learn a handful of basic words. If traveling by train, include words such as "station, arrive, depart, ticket, and track". The English word, 'train,' is understood everywhere. Using a sprinkling of foreign words is fun! Don't worry too much about pronunciation. You will be amazed how much it will add to the pleasures of travel. In fact you will often find Europeans ready to practice their English on you, despite your wish to practice their language. Between gestures, mime, mutually understood English words, pointing, the foreign words you do know, and little sketches, it is amazing how much information can be exchanged between two strangers who do not share a common language.

Meeting People

Trains are great places to meet Europeans. You are traveling in the same coach along the same tracks, and in the same direction - so already you have several things in common. Ask the person sitting opposite you how far he or she is traveling. If they are local folk, ask about your destination. A year ago a lady sketched a street map for me on the way to Magdeburg, Germany. Our conversation then strayed to her thriving electrical contracting business, started after the fall of Eastern Germany. With the construction boom, she no longer works as a government electrical engineer, she now gets picked up at the station by her own chauffeur! After an enjoyable conversation, I often give one of my hometown postcards as a keepsake. People invariably enjoy this gesture, and I feel gratified at their pleasure. I find it is the little incidents and interactions that often leave us with the best memories.

Train Travel Contacts

Rail Europe
Rail Europe offers sample fares and schedules in their brochure; they also have an automated phone recording system giving some route and fare information. And they offer a fax service (get the details when you call). Their web site is also handy.
To contact Rail Europe: 1-800-387-6782
Web site: www.raileurope.com

Schedules
For a comprehensive schedule on every train running in Europe, including Great Britain, go to German Rail's fabulous web site.
Web site: www.bahn.de

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