Tips for rail travel
Before airplanes and automobiles exploded onto the scene, rail travel was the ideal way to travel cross-country. In some parts of the world, such as Europe and much of Asia, it's still one of the standard modes of city-to-city travel, and in others (e.g. North America) it remains as a fairly popular alternative. It lacks the speed of air travel and the flexibility of driving an automobile, but compensates with space to move around while someone else does all the driving. It's also more comfortable than air travel, especially in terms of legroom and to those who don't like the thought of being suspended 30,000 feet above the ground. For distances between about 100 and 800 km it may be the fastest method of travel, especially if you need to go from city center to city center. A rough first estimate is that a train is faster than a competing air-service if it takes three and a half to four hours, as getting on a train usually doesn't require being at the station more than some fifteen minutes prior to departure. For longer distances it takes longer than travelling by air, but provides you with a ground-level view of the territory you're visiting, and allows you to stop on the way. Prices range from cheaper than even a full car in some countries that highly subsidize public transport to comparable to (or even higher than) cheap airline-tickets in other countries that want their railways to generate revenue or have privatized them.
- Be aware that it can be very expensive in some countries to travel by train. Especially high speed trains can be as expensive as — but more convenient than — flying. When comparing prices read the fine print carefully, as both trains and no-frills airlines sometimes charge (unreasonably high amounts) for things such as seat-reservations, baggage, boarding passes or certain forms of payment. Generally speaking trains are cheaper the shorter the distance and while planes show a similar dynamic it is much less pronounced and longer airfares are (usually) cheaper per kilometer than shorter airfares.
- If you can, book in advance. In many countries you benefit from a substantial discount, and on popular routes at certain times longer-distance trains can be fully booked. Reserving a seat, on the other hand, will usually incur a small surcharge — in these countries, you will have to decide whether or not the train will be empty enough for seats to be readily available.
- Fares might be calculated by distance, speed, type of train or by market demand (with more popular routes and times being more expensive) or of course any combination thereof.
- Many countries offer passes, allowing several journeys to be made within a region. Inter Rail (for Europeans) and Eurail (for others) are good value for those who qualify and wish to travel extensively through Europe. Otherwise, typically, the value gained from such a ticket is in inverse proportion to the area covered (unless you spend the whole period of the pass on trains). Amtrak and the state of California offer similar deals for non-residents.
- In some countries tickets can be bought on the train, in others they must be bought before boarding to avoid fines. In some countries, both systems exist depending on the type of train. Buying tickets on the train might incur a surcharge, or mean you can't buy a discounted ticket that would have been available from the ticket office. Generally speaking the best that can happen if you buy tickets on the train is that they are as expensive as if you had bought them any other way.
- Some stations (such as a few French TGV stations) are not really close to anything, but most of the time the station is in or very close to the center of the city and certainly closer than the airport (if there is one)
- Some tickets may be bought via a Smart-phone App and are usually checked by scanning your screen. Note that a ticket on a Smart-phone with a discharged battery usually can't be checked
- Many airlines in North America, Europe and Asia have entered cooperations with railways to offer through-tickets from the airport to some or any stations of the national network. While the exact specifics vary this can work out to be a steep discount compared to separate tickets or a flight on the last leg of your journey instead of a train-ride. For more on this see Rail air alliances
Many countries with high-speed rail services (especially Germany, France, Taiwan and China) offer various types of combined rail/air tickets to cut down the number of domestic flights and/or increase capacity on crowded airports. For more on this topic see rail air alliances
When to travel
- If possible, try to avoid business rush hours. For local trains, this typically means travel on trains due to arrive at a reasonably large town or city between (roughly) two hours before and one hour after the traditional start of work, and departing the same town between one hour before and two hours after the traditional end of the workday. On the other hand trains in the rush hours are more frequent, and if you don't mind standing, you're more likely to have good connections in peak periods.
- In western countries, Friday evenings, Sunday afternoons and public holidays are also not good choices of time. Please be particularly careful when travelling on Sundays and public holidays, as services are often reduced or non-existent.
- Some lines, especially high speed lines, are frequently used by "weekend commuters" and thus particularly prone to overcrowding on Friday evenings and Sunday evenings but almost empty the rest of the week.
- The days immediately prior to "family-holidays" (Thanksgiving in North America, Christmas in Europe) are especially prone to crowding as well as higher prices
- Services in the late evening or early morning are often sparse and may not be as safe.
- Sometimes there is a limited amount of discount tickets or special discounts apply for certain days, times of the year or hours of the day. If this is the case it is usually wiser to travel at off-peak times, or plan well ahead if you are reasonably flexible.
- Night trains often have sleeper accommodation, but nearly all of them also have normal seats as well. Many sleeper- routes can be boarded "along the way" (i.e. between either terminus) but the departure/arrival time may well be something uncomfortable like Thursday night at 2:34 am
In most countries there will be sleeper services at night. While you will usually pay a premium for the accommodation, you also possibly safe on a hotel and "lose" less time in transit even if the total travel-time might sometimes be higher (in some countries sleeper-trains have lower maximum speeds than regular trains). Consider investing in a couchette or sleeper compartment, which are often cost-competitive with lodgings for the night. A couchette cabin has around 6 beds for sleeping and no other facilities, while a full-fledged sleeper will have two to four beds and possibly bathing facilities like a sink or shower.
Using sleeper services may have some drawbacks:
- Because of the noise and the shaking of the train, the quality of the sleep may not be as good as in a real bed. Some people, however sleep better while on a moving train.
- Having several persons in the same tiny room could make the atmosphere smelly.
- If no bathing facility is available, you may not feel comfortable the next day of your travel, and it may prevent you from using such a service several days in a row.
- When arriving at your destination, you may have to find a place where to store your luggage (such as a coin locker) for the day, for example if you plan to visit the city.
- Your time of departure/arrival may be in the middle of the night or the early morning. This is especially true for connections between second-rate or minor cities that are along a route but not on either terminus.
At the station
- If required, check that you have validated you ticket. You may have to pay a fine or a supplement on board if you forget it. There are often machines for that on the platform and/or in the train
- Be on time, or early. In many countries, if you have bought the tickets in advance, turning up 10 min before departure is more than enough, but allow more time if the departure station is large and unfamiliar. Longer distance (inter-city) trains often lock the doors 30-60 seconds before departure. Sometimes an earlier arrival is necessary, for example in China where there are security and identity checks before boarding, or for the Channel Tunnel between England and France/Belgium, where customs checks are done before boarding.
- Many trains call for very brief intervals at smaller stations, sometimes as short as 30 seconds. Have all your luggage at hand and be prepared to board quickly. Tuck away loose pieces of luggage like drinks, maps, guidebooks and coats before the train arrives to ensure a smooth boarding procedure.
- Don't run if you can avoid it.
- Do not walk on the tracks except at an authorized, controlled crossing or under the direction of staff. Look both ways before crossing, even if warning devices are operating. Do not cross against warning devices.
- Stay behind any yellow lines on platforms except when you are actually boarding.
- Stand well back from the platform edge when express or through trains pass the station. They can generate a lot of turbulence as they pass.
- Face the platform edge if you are wearing a backpack, so the pack won't be caught by a moving train.
- If you have a pram with you (or, for that matter, anything else with wheels or rollers), keep an eye on it, make sure the brakes (if any) are engaged and position it parallel to the tracks. This will minimize the risk of rolling on platforms which slope slightly towards the tracks.
- A radio controlled watch can be a useful device for frequent rail travellers. Trains in Western nations normally depart pretty much on the second of timetabled time, and "railway time" is synchronized with "atomic clock time", which radio controlled watches use. A normal watch is often wrong by a couple of minutes, which can make a big difference in the world of trains. Knowing in confidence that you still have 120 seconds to get from platform 1 to platform 12 will save you from having to run and experiencing unnecessary stress. Radio controlled watches can be purchased cheaply online. Synchronized mobile phones and PDAs will also do the job.
- Pay attention to announcements both over loudspeaker and via (electronic) boards if you don't speak the language/ can't read the local alphabet ask railway-staff.
- Before boarding a train, wait until all passengers getting off at your station have alighted. Trains will not depart if there are still people queuing to get on, even if it means they're a minute late. (The exception can be very frequent services at rush hour, where a few seconds delay can cause many following trains to be delayed, but in this case the next train will not be far behind.)
- When boarding, stand on either side of the doors when other passengers are alighting.
- Find out if the class or car you are boarding is in the front, middle or rear of the train and position yourself on the platform accordingly. Ask the staff on the platform. In some countries, stations are divided into zones and diagrams show you what zone your coach number corresponds to; for Japan and China's high-speed trains, even the exact positions of the doors are painted on the platform.
- Give way to encumbered passengers, such as people with lots of bags, people with children and people in wheelchairs. Offer them a hand if you can if they're struggling.
- Do not enter or leave any train that is moving or while the doors are closing. If someone is caught in the door, alert the guard or operate the emergency stop/door release lever/button if the train begins to move. (Do this only in an emergency as once the train is stopped this way it may need to be inspected from end to end — which may cause a considerable delay. There are often fines for stopping a train inappropriately and you may be put off the train where it is stopped and handed over to the police. Missing your station is not a valid reason to stop the train.)
- Trains offer a wide variation of amenities. Some trains offer airline style entertainment systems (when working and when the passenger has a seat), WiFi and power sockets. Others offer very little by way of facilities, some not even offering toilets.
- Train toilets are also to widely varying standards; some may not flush and others may be extremely unhygienic, while others are spotless and extremely modern.
- Tuck away your luggage as much as you can. Don't let it block the aisle or the seats for other passengers. There may be luggage racks at the ends of carriages for larger items, or overhead space for smaller bags.
- Some trains are fairly safe as far as petty criminal activity is concerned. Others are not. When in doubt, ensure that your luggage is kept in your sight at all times. If you have your own compartment, lock the door from the inside when sleeping, preferably with your own lock.
Accommodation on board
- If the train is lightly loaded, just sit anywhere (preferably where the seat is stable).
- More typically, there will be some seats remaining. Double (or triple) seats are usually fairly hard to find (although there may be some at the far end of the train)
- If you are on a peak time train you may find that all the seats (if any) are taken. Do the best you can to find a safe place to stand or squat. Do not occupy the roof, the toilet, the luggage racks or the space under the seats or tables.
- Many trains have first class accommodation. This can be affordable in some cases, or very expensive in others. You are paying (typically) for a wider seat and a much emptier compartment. The "perks" offered to first class ticket holders are usually fairly minimal (for example, free tea and coffee, better entertainment or newspapers). Do not travel in first class unless you have a ticket or other permission to do so. In some countries (such as Belgium), pregnant women have first class access at no extra cost.
Food on board
- Almost all railways allow you to bring your own food and eat it en route. For cost conscious travellers this is often the best option
- In some developing countries people may enter the train for the sole purpose of selling food. It may also be sold through windows or on the platform during a (short) stop. This is usually cheap but at your own risk of travellers' diarrhea.
- In most long distance trains there is some form of Dining car (labeled any number of terms) with food ranging from microwaved junk-food to freshly cooked local specialties depending on the train. Of course expect to pay more than you would for comparable food outside a train
- In some trains (usually the "premium" category i.e. high-speed first class) you can get food served at your seat. If it is included in your fare, don't expect too much. Sometimes you will have to pay more than in the dining car.
Speed of travel
- Trains travel at widely varying speeds. High-speed trains travel at around 300 km/h on dedicated lines, making rail the fastest travel mode for fairly long distances.
- Conventional trains may travel at 150-250km/h in countries with decent infrastructure, or significantly slower in others. The same country may have both modern, fast lines and older, slower lines.
- Many countries have medium to high-speed tilting trains (sometimes called Pendolino) that allow for higher speeds on curvy tracks than normal trains. Some travellers get "trainsick" due to the movement of the train. If you fear this might be the case, try using another train.
- When crossing major urban agglomerations trains are usually faster than road transport as the tracks are less congested than roads
- Trains are typically, though not necessarily, faster than buses.
- When comparing speeds of air-travel to train-travel, keep in mind that getting to/ from the airport also figures into your travel time. In Europe most airports are outside of city-centers (especially those of low-fares airlines with Hahn (IATA: HHN) being more 100 km from the city of Frankfurt it claims to be close to) and travel to/from them can take well over an hour in bad circumstances
By region and country
Further information is available about rail travel in specific countries.
- Rail travel in Benin
- Rail travel in Cameroon
- Rail travel in Egypt
- Rail travel in Ethiopia
- Rail travel in Gabon
- Rail travel in Ghana
- Rail travel in Kenya
- Rail travel in Madagascar
- Rail travel in Mauritania
- Rail travel in Morocco
- Rail travel in Namibia
- Rail travel in South Africa
- Rail travel in Sudan
- Rail travel in Tunisia
- Rail travel in Zambia
Further information is available about rail travel in specific countries.
- Rail travel in Bangladesh
- Rail travel in China
- Rail travel in India
- Rail travel in Indonesia
- Rail travel in Iran
- Rail travel in Israel
- Rail travel in Japan
- Rail travel in Kazakhstan
- Rail travel in Kyrgyzstan
- Rail travel in Malaysia
- Rail travel in Mongolia
- Rail travel in Myanmar
- Rail travel in Pakistan
- Rail travel in Phillipines
- Rail travel in Russia
- Rail travel in Saudi Arabia
- Rail travel in South Korea
- Rail travel in Sri Lanka
- Rail travel in Syria
- Rail travel in Taiwan
- Rail travel in Tajikistan
- Rail travel in Thailand
- Rail travel in Turkmenistan
- Rail travel in Uzbekistan
- Rail travel in Vietnam
Further information is available about several specific routes:
- Trans-Siberian Railway (crosses the Europe-Asia border)
- Jungle Railway in Malaysia
- Palace on Wheels in India
- Baikal-Amur Mainline
- Moscow to Urumqi (crosses the Europe-Asia border)
Especially in Western and Central Europe, trains are fast, efficient and cost-competitive with air travel. High-speed trains like the French TGV, the German ICE, the Spanish AVE and the cross-border Eurostar and Thalys services speed along at up to 320 km/h (200 mph) and, when taking into account travel time to the airport and back (as well as security and tediously long boarding procedures), are often faster than taking the plane. The flip side is that tickets bought on the spot can be expensive, although there are good discounts available if you book in advance or take advantage of various deals. In particular, the Inter Rail (for Europeans) and Eurail (for others) passes offer good value if you plan on travelling extensively around Europe (or even a single region) and want more flexibility than cheap plane tickets or advance purchase train tickets can offer.
The most extensive and most reliable train travel planner for all of Europe is the one belonging to the German railways (DB) .
For further details of European rail travel, see:
- Rail travel in Europe
- Rail travel in Scandinavia
- Rail travel in Albania
- Rail travel in Armenia
- Rail travel in Austria
- Rail travel in Belarus
- Rail travel in Belgium
- Rail travel in Bulgaria
- Rail travel in Croatia
- Rail travel in the Czech Republic
- Rail travel in Denmark
- Rail travel in Estonia
- Rail travel in Finland
- Rail travel in France
- Rail travel in Germany
- Rail travel in Greece
- Rail travel in Hungary
- Rail travel in Ireland
- Rail travel in Italy
- Rail travel in Kosovo
- Rail travel in Latvia
- Rail travel in Lithuania
- Rail travel in Luxembourg
- Rail travel in Macedonia
- Rail travel in Montenegro
- Rail travel in The Netherlands
- Rail travel in Norway
- Rail travel in Poland
- Rail travel in Portugal
- Rail travel in Romania
- Rail travel in Russia
- Rail travel in Scotland
- Rail travel in Slovakia
- Rail travel in Slovenia
- Rail travel in Spain
- Rail travel in Sweden
- Rail travel in Switzerland
- Rail travel in Turkey
- Rail travel in Ukraine
- Transylvania triangle train tour
- Rail travel in the United Kingdom
Information about specific routes:
Although it once held much of the continent together, and remains useful for local travel in many metro areas, intercity train travel in the U.S. and Canada now ranges from relatively convenient in the Northeast Corridor, to manageable in California and parts of southeastern Canada, to sparse in other parts of the continent. If you prefer to travel by rail, it's still possible (depending on where you go), but it offers neither speed nor convenience. Passes allowing several journeys to be made within the same country are available, but cross-border passes have been phased out. Many train stations do not have ticketing agents, or have agents for brief periods at the time the train is scheduled to arrive. At smaller unmanned stations, you may be able to use a ticketing machine, or may be required to purchase your ticket onboard. You may also purchase tickets online or by telephone.
- Rail travel in North America
- Rail travel in Canada
- Rail travel in Mexico
- Rail travel in the United States
Trains still serve an important role in some parts of the Caribbean. In addition, tourist and scenic trains can be found on St. Kitts and Jamaica. Almost all trains on the Central American mainland have ceased operations and those that do still exist provide touristic rather than transport benefits to most travellers. However talks to revive some lines or build new ones have only been cut short by the recent global economic downturn, and this might change again in the future.
Information about specific routes:
- Rail travel in Argentina
- Rail travel in Bolivia
- Rail travel in Brazil
- Rail travel in Paraguay
- Rail travel in Peru
Information about specific routes: