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Is Cheap Train Travel the
Best Way to See the World?

Cheap train travel isn't a pipedream anymore - it's becoming more of a reality each day. It is actually possible to travel the world by train, or at least most of it.

And why shouldn't you? Train travel is comfortable... you can walk around, go to the bar, stretch your legs, and make new friends. You get to see the scenery, which is why it's one of my favorite ways to travel. There's something wonderful about watching suburbs grow into cities and back into countryside, of forests giving way to swaying fields, and mountains gliding into valleys. And the list of great railway journeys is growing.

And then there's the issue of the cheap ticket: train travel, especially if organized ahead of time, is often cheaper than flying (although air prices are coming down quickly with the proliferation of low-cost air travel).

In many cases and for short-ish journeys, taking the train is faster than flying, especially on some of the major bullet train routes. If you have to battle traffic and long airport security waits, rail travel might get you there sooner.

There's also the issue of climate change, with increasing concerns over the carbon footprint left by flying. According to studies by Eurostar, the London to Paris train under the Channel, a flight between the two cities produces ten times as much carbon dioxide as the same journey by train.

Swiss railwayTaking the train: changing sceneries
Kecko via Flickr CC

A slightly less optimistic (and perhaps less biased) assessment by The Guardian says that on average, trains emit a third of the CO2 emissions of a plane. A flight from London to Paris is responsible for 348kg (767lb) of CO2; if you catch the Eurostar, it will emit just 75kg (165lb). The figures may not always tally - but the trend is clear: trains pollute less than planes.

Train travel: Europe and the rest of the world

Railways are doing what they can to compete with low-cost airlines and offer cheap train travel, often with notable success.

Swiss railwayEuropean rail travel

Europe, of course, is the home of cheap train travel, with its multicountry railpasses and individual country deals. There's hardly a European town of any decent size that isn't linked by rail.

Rail travel in Britain is no longer the nightmare it used to be but does still leave a lot to be desired. Trains are often late or cancelled, with passengers left to fight their own way home. Tinny loudspeakers that announce cancellations almost guarantee that if there is a bus relay, you probably won't hear it. On major routes, things are much better and, in truth, a lot is being done to upgrade both the rolling stock and tracks. Still, cheap train travel in the UK is the best way to get around if you want to see the country up close.

Train travel in Africa is often possible. The continent's colonial legacy has left behind its share of trains, from Mali to Morocco and Senegal to South Africa. One of my favorite train journeys was taking the overnight train in Kenya from Mombasa to Nairobi, and waking up to the vision of giraffes gracing the savannah along our route. On the other hand, travel from Pretoria to Maputo in Mozambique and you'll be sitting on top of bales of cloth bound for market.

Train travel in the USA is a bit more hit and miss than in Europe... Trains travel major routes between cities, often along some of the world's most incredible scenery. New services are often introduced so check to see what is offered before you reserve, as trains can range from the greatest comfort and luxury to graffiti and broken down seats. All in all, though, it's a wonderful way to see the country.

Rail travel in India is plentiful and cheap, dirt cheap. If you can handle the heat, the crowds and the stares from men, there's no better way to see the land. There are news reports of spectacular rail accidents, since trains carry so many people in India, but in fairness the safety record has been improving yearly.

The Train Travel Ticket and Railpass

You can still buy a point-to-point train travel ticket from one city to another, and if that's all you're doing, you won't be needing a railpass. Travel on train passes remains the most common method of cheap train travel, but it can be confusing. Gone are the days of a single rail pass: today, you almost need a degree to calculate the best train travel deals.

When should you consider a rail pass?

In two instances. First, if you plan on making a number of journeys - if you're just traveling from one city to another, a single ticket will probably cheaper than a rail pass. And second, if you're somewhere with decent train connections, like Europe. Otherwise, you'll have to make a greater effort to take the train, and the ultimate result might not be cheaper.

It's best if you live outside Europe

Cheap train travel in Europe is most accessible if you live in North America, Oceania or certain other countries. Most European rail passes are not available to residents of Europe - you have to live overseas to buy them.

Many countries have their own railpasses but most of these are only available for purchase outside Europe so always check to make sure you are eligible.

If you plan a broad European trip and still want to keep train travel costs down, a Eurail Pass is probably your best bet. If you're planning on visiting several countries but not the entire continent, there are plenty of regional passes - ScanRail for Scandinavia, the Balkan Flexipass or the Benelux-Germany Pass, to give you just a few examples.

If you've narrowed it down to two countries, you'll have plenty of duos as options, such as the Austria-Germany Pass, the France-Switzerland Pass, or the France 'n Italy Pass.

And finally you can get single country passes such as Britrail, German Railpass, France Railpass, Eurail Spain Pass and many others.

In its early days, cheap train travel in Europe meant Eurail - a simple first-class pass valid for one or several weeks. Today it has many variations, including the Eurail Flexi Pass (if you don't want to travel every day), Eurail Youth Pass, senior passes, Eurail Selectpass (for a few contiguous countries), as well as the single and combo possibilities mentioned above.

It's a bit more complicated than it used to be but to narrow down your choices, try using RailEurope's Pass Finder, especially useful if you have an idea of which countries you want to visit.

Non-European Rail Passes

Europe isn't the only region with relatively cheap train travel passes though.

If you want to spend time on trains in Canada, VIA Rail's Canrail Pass or Amtrak's Rail Passes are both worth investigating.Other countries or regions with rail passes for cheap train travel include Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia and Japan. The best all-round website for train travel anywhere is The Man in Seat 61.

Train Travel Tips for Women

In most countries, train travel is quite safe for women on their own. A few precautions are needed, as with any kind of travel. These train travel tips should help:

  • Don't lose sight of your backpack, for any reason at any time, especially when the train is stationary.

  • Once the train is moving, lock your pack to the luggage rack if you need to leave your compartment. Use carabiners and special metal wiring (a number of commercial brands exist), or a padlock.

  • Of course, always keep your valuables on your body, including at night, preferably in a travel money belt.

  • If you're in a compartment overnight, jam the door with the ladder so it can't open inwards. On a train to Zagreb one night I did this - and awoke to find all other compartments had been robbed. Not ours, because thieves couldn't get in! If the ladder isn't moveable, use a portable lock or doorstop.

  • Travel in all-women compartments in countries where these are available. In some other countries, reservations clerks will try to pair you off with other women if you ask for it - so do. If that fails and you're in an all-male compartment, as happened to me in Italy once, ask the controller if he can help. In my case, he switched a few people around to make up a single-sex compartment. If you're unsuccessful, at least try for an upper berth - it will be more private than a bottom one.

  • Don't step off the train at station stops. If you must, keep your compartment and berth in your line of sight.

  • If you're crossing international borders, you may have to hand your passport over to the controller for the duration. Make sure you keep a photocopy on you. I've never lost a passport this way, but I like to make sure I have a copy, just in case.

  • Make any reservations as far in advance as possible for cheap train travel fares, and check for holidays. I was once stranded for days in southern France during a long weekend I'd failed to anticipate, because all trains were full, and no standing was allowed.

  • Carry small change. In many countries, vendors will lean in through windows or board the train to sell food and drinks. On long journeys with no eating stops, this could be a lifesaver. On a long trip in Burma I spent more than 24 hours on the train, and would have starved without street vendors. Of course it would have been even better if I'd remembered to take food with me!
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