Practical Tips for Touring Europe Free of Drama and Hassles
I have just completed a 75 day tour of Europe that included Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Monaco, Spain, Czech Republic, England (London), Denmark, and the Netherlands. I travelled by train using a Eurail pass and stayed at hotels, mostly located close the the railway station.
Stays were one to six, with a travel day providing an extra have day at the source or destination depending on check-in and check-out times. Below is a summary of the things that worked for me in travelling safely without undue hassles, and staying online, and connection to the internet and phone systems.
People planning a similar trip may find the tips useful.
Others may care to share their experiences or to add other tips that worked for them.
The Eurail Network in Europe
Rail Planner App for Eurail
Train Travel Using a Eurail Pass
The trains in Europe are universally fabulous, especially the international intercity ones. They are very comfortable reliable and generally run on time. There is a fabulous Eurail app that works offline and is very reliable and easy to use. The same trains run every day so you will not be confused by weekend timetable changes. You can buy a eurail pass before you leave. Allow a week or so for delivery . The pass is a paper document and so it needs to be mailed to you or your travel agent. Otherwise you can buy a eurail pass at any of the major railway stations. You need to show your passport as the pass is not transferable. I managed over thirty train trips and never missed a train of a connection in multiple countries over 75 days. There are many many trains and so even if you miss a connection there are many other options. The passes are relatively expensive but they allow first class travel. Or you can travel second class if you like. You save about 60% of the ticket prices and you avoid the hassles of having to buy tickets for each journey.
There are basically two types of pass:
Flexi Pass -For this pass you nominate how many days you want to travel within a period of time (say two months) and the number of countries you will be visiting. You can use as many trains as you like on these days. You are required to fill out details for each of the days travelled. This is cheaper than the second option, but compare the prices as as the number of days increases the global pass becomes more economical. You could only get a first class pass overseas.
Global Pass - This pass allows unrestricted travel within the period specified (say one month). This pass covers the cost of all train tickets for an unlimited number of journeys. It may appear expensive, but it will save you 60-70% of the ticket costs. It suits longer trips for people visiting many countries.
Tips for Travelling with a Eurail Pass
Reserve Seats for Every Trip - For some trains reservations are compulsory. For others it is an option. I suggest reserving seats well in advance for every trip. This provides peace of mind that you will have a seat of the train and that you can look after your luggage. It also guarantees a seat. Certain trains can get booked out very early on and so it pays to be well organised and reserve your seats as early as possible. You have to make the reservations at the information counter rather than using the ticket machines. Sometimes there can be long queues so do your homework and make a batch of reservations well in advance. Use the Rail Planner app to make you plans. You can generally reserve seats in one country for travel in another country. The cost is generally about three euros per reservation. Some stations set limits of when reservations for Eurail pass customers can be made (1000-1800 hours). But you can do it well in advance and so just make use of a friendly one. Some reservations for trains for which reservations are not compulsory, can only be done within the country you are travelling (for example, Germany)
Travel Early in the Day - Provided you do not arrive at your destination hotel too early to book in, the early trains are less crowded and there will be lots more options of you miss a connection. It gives you more time to deal with a missed train or delays.
Minimise the Number of Train Changes - Scan through the options on Rail Planner and find options that have no changes required or the minimum number. This is common sense as it reduces the risks of missing a connection and having to deal with your luggage. The app is very easy to use and shows you the number of changes required for each option.
Allow at Least 30-60 minutes for Changing Trains - If you miss a connection your reservations will be null and you will be faced with having to find other trains and make new reservations. This can be very traumatic and should be avoided. There are many trains as options and so use the Rail Planner app to find ones that have 30-60 minutes for changing trains. Twenty minutes is the bare minimum. Though the trains are mostly right on time, ten to fifteen minutes delay is common. This can leave you insufficient time to get off, return to the main area of the station and find what platform the next train is leaving from. Incidentally the platforms are usually announced twenty minutes before the scheduled departure and so you will generally have to join the crowd in front of the timetable and scheduled departure board waiting for the platforms to be announced.
Fill Out the Travel Diary - You are obliged to fill out the travel dairy for each journey, which is one of the conditions for the pass. If you don't you can be fined on the spot. Some countries also require that the reservations are activated when you enter the platform area. The machines put a date stamp on the reservation. You can be fined if your reservation is not activated.
Use Zipper Locks and Keep a Close Eye on Your Luggage - How to Avoid the Pick Pockets - Unfortunately pick pockets are common throughout Europe, not only stealing wallets and purses, but also stealing items from travel bags. Avoid crowded places including crowded trains. In one instance I was sitting in a single seat near the stairs in a double-decker train with my bags right next to me. Someone yelled out as they saw someone sitting on the stairs inserting a hand into my bag. So always use zipper locks and be extra observant on crowded trains. Putting your bags in the storage areas away from your seat is always a risk. Avoid all crowded trains if you can and the intercity ones that require a reservation are safer.
Special Trains to and from London to Paris and Brussels
There are special trains to London and return from either Paris or Brussels using Eurostar.
Getting to Denmark from Germany is very easy to do and no booking for the ferry is required. The train simply rolls onto the ferry and continues its journey on the other side.
Internet Connection - Portable WiFi
Before I left I did a lot of research on how to stay connected and use a computer while travelling in various countries. The option that worked best for me was a battery operated Pocket Wifi, fitted with a data only international SIM. These devices work very well and seamlessly connect to different service providers as you move between various countries. They can be used as a back-up WiFi source for your phone. You can carry them switched on in your luggage or carry the device in your pocket. The data-only SIMs offer the best data rates. The big advantages of these devices are:
- Security - Hotel WiFi services are not secure.
- Relatively easy to set up at home before you go overseas
- Very Reliable
- Rates are quite low and you can set up automatic payments
- Can be used as a Wifi source for your phone
- Supports multiple devices (check but generally 3-5 devices is OK)
- Back-up battery packs can be used to extend the life of the devices on long train trips with no access to power
Travel SIM for Mobile Phone
Roaming changes for you home SIM and provider are ridiculously expensive. The best option is to buy an international travel SIM that works in all the countries you want to viist. Like the data SIM for the pocket WiFi device the connections for various countries generally happen automatically. Sometimes you have to try various available networks to find the best one for your SIM provider. The costs for phone calls using these devices is still quite expensive, but much cheaper than roaming using you home phone and SIM. If you can get a separate phone for use overseas and take your home phone with you, with roaming switched on as a back-up. One extra benefit of using an international SIM is that the data rates are high but manageable. You can use the portable hotspot facility on your smartphone as a backup internet connection for your computer. This works well, but remember the costs are high and the power use is quite high, so it is best done when your phone is plugged into a charger.
© 2014 Dr. John Anderson