Europe Rail Star : Help You Travel in Europe with Ease

The Rail Experience

At The Train Station

At The Train Station

If you’re travelling Europe by rail, you’ll spend a lot of time in train stations. That’s not a bad thing. Many European train stations are masterpieces of architecture, glorious palace of glass and light that will inspire your wanderlust. In practical terms, European stations are generally clean, safe and well kept, though you should keep an eye on your bags in any public place.

Many European cities have more than one train station: Paris has six, London has nine, and Brussels has four. Make sure you know which station your train leaves from, as they can be miles apart and stations aren’t necessarily connected to each other by efficient means. If you have to transfer between stations in a major city, check the appropriate country guides to see how long it takes to switch stations.

In some cases, the station most trains come into isn’t the most convenient one for downtown tourist attractions. See if you can hop a short distance train to get to the more central station. In Madrid, for instance, you can take the local cercanias trains (valid with a pass) between the Chamartin and Atocha stations.

If you’re just in town for a few hours, most train stations offer lockers for around $5 per day, but the lockers only take coins, so make sure you’ve got plenty of change on you. Train station lockers can fit even sizeable suitcases. Some stations that lack lockers have luggage checkrooms where you can leave your bags. If a station has porters, they’ll be uniformed. Never hand your bag over to a guy on the platform who isn’t wearing a clearly identifiable uniform.

Feeling hungry? Most train stations have fast-food restaurants (or at least a vending machine or two). Larger stations have sit-down restaurants and pubs. Some stations have mini groceries, ideal for buying picnic essentials. If you need cash, stations generally have ATMs and (in major cities) currency exchange windows. ATMs offer the best exchange rate and the work just like at home; if you need to use an exchange window, local banks generally have a better rate than train stations.

When you need to use the restroom, check your pockets. While European train stations have bathrooms, they almost all cost money to use. (Usually, the price is around 50c). Paid toilets mean clean, safe and well attended toilets; the pay turnstile will often be handled by a live attendant, who makes sure things are kept neat and tidy. Larger stations offer showers, also for pay.

As you go to buy your ticket, remember that many stations have separate domestic and international reservations counters. Even though some European countries are tiny, “International” still means just that, a ticket from Netherlands to Belgium must be booked at the international counter.

To help you find the right train, stations offer printed schedules and departure boards. Printed schedules are usually posted up on gigantic boards, both by the tracks and in the main hall of the station. Departure schedules are usually on a yellow background; arrival schedules are on a white background. On the schedules, train times are shown according to a 24-hour clock, with fast trains in red and slower trains in black. Larger stations have computerized departure boards.

You’ll find local transport, like trams, buses and taxis, outside the stations. Taxi touts working inside stations may be scam artist. Walk past them to the official taxi stand instead.

Getting on board

etting on board

Be on the platform a few minutes before your train is due to arrive. European trains are seldom early; don’t worry if you see no sign of your train 5 minutes before its departure. On the other hand, trains wait for no one, and stops can be as short as a minute.

When your train shows up, don’t just jump into the first door you see (unless you’re in a real hurry). While you’re safe with most short distance trains, some long distance trains tend to split and rejoin, with different cars going to different destinations. Ask a conductor on the platform which cars are going your way. If you’re in a hurry, get on board and ask the conductor once the train leaves which car you need to be in, you’ll be able to move between cars using the connecting doors (except on some high speed trains).

You’ll also need to pay attention to whether you’re in a first-class or second-class cars Classes are marked by a big “1” or “2” on the side of the carriage. There may also be a yellow stripe on the car for first class, and a green stripe for second class. And if you are sensitive to smoke, be sure you get yourself into a non-smoking car or section (just be advised that non-smoking signs tend to be ignored a lot more in Europe than they are in North America).

If you have a reservation, you can locate your car by checking the train diagram (composition de train) on the platform so you’ll know just where to stand when the train pulls into the station. Once on board, you’ll need to match your car number and seat number. Car numbers are listed right by the outside car doors. Sear numbers are usually over the seats inside the train. If you’re in a hurry, jump onto the train and sort things out after the train gets moving.

Most train cars have a space for luggage near the entrance and baggage racks above the sears. If you have more baggage than you can handle, check it; we don’t recommend letting your bags out of your sight. Theft is common enough that you’ll need to be vigilant. If you’re travelling by rain in Europe, also remember that you’ll be walking up and down a lot of stairs and along a lot of long platforms. Pack as lightly as possible.

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