I've collected my top tips and tricks about train stations and train travel in Europe, what to wear on a train, and what to bring with you on the train! All aboard!
Disclosure: some of the links below are affiliate links. If you purchase a linked item, I will make a commission, at no extra charge to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Post updated March, 2020.
Exploring train travel in Europe?
Maybe it's a bizarre thing to have a bit of a passion for, but let's just say it! I love trains. Europe's light-rail and high-speed train system is efficient, eco-friendly, and just plain fun! And, no matter how modern the train, I do always feel a bit retro. We always spend at least a few days of every trip to Europe hopping around whatever country we're visiting and getting to know the train system, all of which we've found to be exemplary. So, how do you prepare for a train trip in Europe? What to wear? What to bring?
And, depending on where you're going to be visiting, be sure to check out my two other fully-train-related posts, England & Scotland by Train and France by Train, both of which contain general train travel tips, such as how to get tickets and navigate ticket machines, as well as easy day trips from the major cities, that rely solely on public transit for those countries!
Buying Train Tickets in Europe
If your plans are set in stone, buy your train tickets ahead of time. You'll ensure you have a seat, and you'll often save money. I generally use Rail Europe. We'll discuss which seats to pick and more, as we move on!
What to Expect on a Train in Europe
European Train Stations
As far as eating and drinking, like airports, train stations in Europe generally have both take-away stalls and sit-down restaurants/bars. The big train stations in major cities also have everything from bookstores to clothing shops (but don't expect to find that in a little town!).
Train Station Security
Often, in Europe, there is generally not significant security in train stations, at least of the type that each passenger has to path through, of which we've become so accustomed over the years in the U.S., though it will depend on the country. You often have to show your train ticket to get past a certain area once you're really close to the trains, especially if the station contains sections for both trains and Tube/underground/Metro, but even that is not always required.
As far as individual screening, there is often a significant police/military presence, but they are just for general safety, not individual passenger screening. That said, Spain, which experienced a significant train-based terrorist attack, did implement museum-style security (metal detector, coat removal, etc.), so allow some extra time, if you'll be taking the train in Spain!
Train Seating in Europe
If you are on a light-rail train not traveling a terribly far distance, you generally will not have an assigned seat, but will sit in the carriage of the class of ticket you've purchased (aka don't try to sit in First if you don't have a First class ticket), and in seats that aren't marked as "reserved." For longer distances, or most high-speed travel of any distance, you will have an assigned seat.
Train seats on trains in Europe are normally padded, squishy, and fabric-covered, a bit like airline seats, however I have been on a few really short journeys were the seats were more like Tube/Metro seats. Often, you will sit in a grouping of four seats arranged around a small, shared table.
Whether or not you have assigned seats, after a bit of time (it varies wildly and rarely, but sometimes, they don't come at all - don't try to skip fares!), a conductor will generally come by and check everyone's tickets. I find this super stressful and I have no idea why, but all they do is ask for your ticket, mark it in some way, tell you to have a nice trip, and move along. In some countries, such as the UK, you can hop on a train without a ticket and buy it from the conductor. This is not the case in all countries, so don't rely on this approach as a tourist.
Are there bathrooms on trains in Europe?
There aren't bathrooms on the Metro/Tube, but there are bathrooms on every light-rail/high-speed train I've ever been on in Europe. They're generally clean and perfectly adequate for the trip.
That said, some of the doors are sort of difficult to open/ close. They're usually button-based, meaning that you push an "open" or "close" button when you enter and exist. If you don't lock it properly...well, you get it. Additionally, you generally aren't allowed to use the train bathrooms when the train is in the station.
What to Bring on a Train in Europe
One wonderful thing about train travel in Europe is that, within reason, you can pretty much bring what you need with you on the train. There are just not the same restrictions as airplanes, so bring that water bottle!
Train travel essentials: Food and drink
One of my favorite parts of train travel in Europe is loading up on delicious food and drink to take on the journey! Nope, they don't hold you captive and force you to buy food and drink on the train - nice, isn't it?
Additionally, due to the prevalence of public transit in and among European cities, the train stations are often well-stocked with train-friendly snacks and drinks. The fact that they'll load you up with pre-made, canned gin and tonics before you hop on a train never ceases to make me love everything about being across the pond.
That said, if for whatever reason you pass up shopping in the train station, then yes, you can generally buy food and drink on the train, if you're traveling any significant distance. On our recent trip to Spain, we got a full meal the minute we sat down, included in our ticket.
I have been on one train that did not serve food, but it was the train from Paris to the Chateau de Fontainebleau, and the trip was quite short that it was technically a local train. Either someone will come by, like the Trolley Witch in Harry Potter, or there is a bar car with a permanent bar and one staff member serving food and drink. It's not cheap, obviously, but it's also not so expensive that no one buys it.
Pro tip: In some countries, such as Spain, you have to go through security right before you reach your platform and certain foods aren't allowed through security. If this is the case, wait to make purchases until after security.
Train travel essentials: Necessities
First, you can't go wrong with a good pack of cleaning wipes. The trains are generally clean, but they're heavily used, so why not give it a quick clean-up before you risk your gin and tonic?
I always stick a pack of tissues in my purse. Most train restrooms are well-stocked, and if they aren't, you can normally sway your way down to the nearest restroom in the next carriage. However, later in the day, even the best trains sometimes run low on supplies, so just in case, or to share with a friend, bring some tissues!
Train travel essentials: Entertainment options
What to do on a train trip? Well, unlike planes, trains in Europe almost never have entertainment options, beyond those you supply yourself. The only train I've been on with a TV was the high-speed from Madrid to Barcelona - and we also got a full meal, so I think that just counts as an outlier.
But no built-in entertainment shouldn't be a problem! First, you will have the lovely scenery to take in! Our trip from Edinburgh to Inverness showed off the most stunning views of Scotland I've ever enjoyed. I always find train travel an excellent way to truly enjoy a country's landscape, especially since there's nothing else to do.
As far as other entertainment options, I like to bring a book about/written in the place we are exploring. I started this tradition by reading David Mitchell's Back Story on our way to Oxford, and laughed out loud like a weirdo a few times, to the horror of everyone around me.
A note on high-speed trains.
Train travel essentials:
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies