Taking the Train 101: Lesson Two -- International Trip in Western Europe
The first article in this series covered the basics for taking a domestic train trip. This second article describes tips on taking an trip by train to another country within the European Union or Switzerland. Such trips are very easy now since the train companies throughout Western Europe are working in partnership with each other, providing tremendous service for the would-be traveler.
There are great advantages over the automobile. By using the train, you avoid all the country-based tolls, the constant changes in speed limits and variances in speed enforcement, and the problems with congestion and construction on the autobahns.
Tip #1. Buy International Tickets from the Counter
International tickets often contain discounts that are only available at the counter. This is especially the case for major destinations (like Paris), or for major events (like Salzburg’s Mozart Festival).
However, it is worth noting that German train stations often have separate counters for international travel. These lines tend to be longer and move slower. I normally buy international tickets several days in advance.
Tip #2. Know the ‘Critical Path’
The ‘critical path’ is the leg of your journey that you can’t afford to miss. This is critical to know because if your train is late and you miss an international connection, you may not have a reasonable backup available.
Example, if you are traveling from Heidelberg to Amsterdam, you will likely have to connect at Cologne. Dozens of trains run daily from Heidelberg to Cologne, but only a few run from Cologne to Amsterdam, so the latter is the ‘critical path’. Therefore, if you are uncomfortable with the connection on your given itinerary, then take an earlier train to Cologne.
Also, given a choice between a faster itinerary with more connections versus a slower one with fewer connections, I prefer the latter.
Tip #3. Avoid Regional Trains
In Germany especially, regional trains are often delayed because they have lower priority than long-distance or premium trains. Most of the connections I have missed (and I haven’t missed many) were due to riding a regional train that was forced to stop and make way for a long-distance train on the same track. I’ve not experienced this in any other country.
Tip #4. Don’t Deviate from the Itinerary
You have less flexibility to change your itinerary when you travel internationally. If you are following the same sequence of cities that is printed on your ticket, no problem. However, if you decide to go by a different route completely, you may incur additional charges when the conductor checks your ticket.
An example: One time I visited southern France. My itinerary called for me to enter and exit via Strasbourg, but due to a delay I returned via Basel, much further south. Although the overall distance was the same (slightly shorter, even), my distance on the German system was longer, so the German conductor charged me an extra thirty Deutsche Mark (15 Euro nowadays).
Bottom line: Once you’ve committed to a travel plan, stick with it if you can.
This lesson was originally published on 30 May 2002 with a travelogue on my trip from Heidelberg, Germany to Lucerne, Switzerland.
(c) 2002 Tom Galvin