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Yes, There IS Such A Thing As Cheap Train Travel
A beginner's guide to rail travel in Europe and beyond
Cheap train travel isn't a pipedream anymore - it's becoming more of a reality each day.
You can actually travel by train at prices that won't kill you.
Not so cheap but one of the great railway journeys of all time - the original Orient Express (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
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 as rails are restored and trails blazed.
- And then there's the issue of the cheap ticket: train travel, especially if organized ahead of time, is often cheaper than flying (although discount airlines are turning this into a major challenge).
- 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.
- Train travel gets you downtown. It's not just about speed but about convenience. Rather than end up at an airport an hour or more out of town, you're delivered right into the center of the city. For me that's often the most important advantage.
- Train travel can be more flexible. Often you don't need a reservation, which means you can take a different train than the one you'd planned. Try doing that on an airline. For free.
- Then there's baggage. If you've ever hurriedly tried to stuff your handbag into your carryon at the airport before the agent catches you, you knows what I mean. Imagine the luxury of packing whatever you want, in a backpack or suitcase the size you want. Bliss.
- Speaking of bliss, don't forget the legroom. Even a short flight will leave you cramped and creaking. On a train, you can... spread out, stretch, and get up and walk whenever you want to. No Fasten Seat Belts signs here.
- Trains leave from stations that are often magnificent, historical, remarkable.
- There's a quality to train travel - I'll call it atmosphere. Unless you're flying through the countryside at high speed, you'll chug along leisurely, taking in the scenery, your fellow passengers, and a dollop of culture. On a recent trip to Sri Lanka I rode an ancient train through the mountains and it was one of the highlights of my journey.
- And finally there's 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. A slightly less optimistic (and perhaps less biased) assessment by The Guardian says that on average, trains emit one-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.
Travel by train lets you experience places not everyone gets too - like this lovely train station in the hills of Sri Lanka
It's all about the money - well, somewhat
Train travel can be cheaper than air - sadly it's not usually the case.
Still, I wanted to compare some popular routes on a single day. In this case I used 28 July (high season and therefore relatively expensive and crowded), with one-way travel only. I looked for direct flights, both regular and low-cost airlines, with prices quoted in US dollars.
Here's what I found (at early 2016):
- Geneva-Paris ‣ $95-$100 (3hr 13m) by train ‣ $95-$100 (3hr 13m) by air
- Washington DC-NYC JFK ‣ $190-$210 (4hr) by train ‣ $155 (1hr 25m) by air
- Madrid-Barcelona ‣ $80-$90 (2hr 35m) by train ‣ $78 (1hr 15m) by air
- Los Angeles-Chicago ‣ $170-$210 (41hr) by train ‣ $190 (4hr) by air
- Shanghai-Beijing ‣ $150-$160 (6hr 45m) by train ‣ $210 (2hr 20m) by air
One site I like for checking train and bus costs and times (they're less reliable when it comes to flying) is Rome2Rio.com. For flights I tend to look at eBookers.com but there are a zillion others.
And now, welcome to the rail pass
Traveling to Europe? Planning on seeing several countries?
Then a Eurail Pass may be what you need. Before I go any further, you must live outside Europe to buy one.
Live in Europe? Click here for Interrail passes!
Both systems are relatively simple and similar: you can visit any number of countries (up to 30) for one or more days (some passes can last up to three months).
The passes are good for one country, several countries or all countries.
You can buy passes that are useful for consecutive days, or for individual days within a certain time period. Your choice.
One last thing: there are discounts in some countries, which is why you have to check individually. In some cases the discounts are for the young, and in others for senior citizens.
A quick proviso first: always check and compare prices first. It could cost you a lot less to buy an individual ticket from A to B, especially for short distances, than adding days to a rail pass.
Train travel beyond Europe
Europe is the perfect place for train travel: There's hardly a European town of any decent size that isn't linked by rail, and even some tiny villages have a working train station.
European trains are clean and fast, and there are plenty of them.
Frankfurt Central Train Station
But Europe isn't the only place you can travel by train.
Train travel in Africa is often possible yet we often don't think of it because of the distances. This list shows the major railway companies in Africa - you'll be amazed at how many there are.
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 from Mombasa to Nairobi, and waking up to see giraffes munching on the savannah at sunrise.
I've ridden from Pretoria to Maputo in Mozambique (sitting on top of bales of cloth bound for market) and across Morocco (much like train travel in Europe).
There are plenty of picturesque trains across the continent, often in poor shape and over short distances, but there is also a revival of flashy (and super-expensive) luxury trains.
Train travel in the USA is more hit and miss than in Europe and while it has significantly improved, this is one place I only take the train when time isn't an issue. Trains travel on 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 and yes, Amtrak has rail passes, as does VIA Rail in Canada.
Rail travel in India is plentiful and cheap, dirt cheap. If you can handle the heat, the crowds and the stares from men, check out the Indrail Pass - this is one country I don't know so I'm not talking from experience. I do hear the news reports of spectacular rail accidents, since trains carry so many people in India, but in fairness the safety record has been improving.
Thailand and Malaysia have great trains, and I've traveled in Myanmar by train, which I hear have been vastly upgraded since my valiant efforts in the 1990s.
A few other train passes of note: Japan, Australia and New Zealand. For the most in-depth information on train travel absolutely anywhere in the world, head for The Man in Seat 61.
If you're a woman and love taking the train
In most countries, train travel is quite safe for women traveling on their own.
As with any kind of travel, a few precautions are needed:
- Don't lose sight of your luggage, for any reason at any time, especially when the train is stopped at a station.
- Once the train is moving, lock your pack or your suitcase handle to the luggage rack if you need to leave your compartment. Use carabiners, a padlock, or a special backpack protector (like the much-loved Pacsafe anti-theft wire protector).
- Of course, always keep your valuables on your body, including at night, preferably in a travel money belt wrapped around your waist while you sleep.
- 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. Some reservations clerks will try to pair you off with other women if you ask for it - so do. Unfortunately it's not always the case and if you're in an all-male compartment, as happened to me in Italy once, ask the controller if he can help switch things around (he did). 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. 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 (sad, isn't it...) during a long weekend I'd failed to anticipate, because all trains were full, and no standing was allowed.
- Calculate the cost of a normal train journey and compare it to the daily cost of your pass. You might end up wasting a day of your pass if the direct train journey costs less.
- 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 through 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!
- Read the fine print. I once got on an overnight train at 11pm fully expecting my pass to remain valid for the full journey. It didn't - it ended at midnight and I had to pay nearly full fare for the journey. It was a shock and cost almost as much as the train pass itself! Read the fine print and you might get discounts on a few other things as well, like museums or boats...
- And finally, stay up to date with the latest situations on travel forums. Some countries have safer railways than others for women and recent travelers will be able to share their experiences with you.
What's your take on train travel? Is it worth it? Let me know in the comments below!
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