Train Travel in Europe: Tips for Surviving Those Long Day Trips

TGV high-speed train duples in the French countryside. Photo Copyright SNCF – Mediatheque

TGV high-speed train duples in the French countryside. Photo Copyright SNCF – Mediatheque

Americans are notorious for being in a hurry. We are always on our way to the next errand, the next appointment, the next deadline, the next kid’s soccer game, the next promotion — we are the nation of endless “nexts.” Our main form of long distance transport is the airplane, something that has come to represent stress, fear, and inconvenience rather than excitement or relaxation.

I think that’s probably one reason we idealize the European train ride so much — it emphasizes the actual time spent in transport rather than the need to get somewhere as quickly as possible. A train ride forces us to pause, look outside the window, and appreciate the luxury of taking our time. And it is a luxury — I mean, outside of vacation, when else would we sit on a train for eight hours when we could fly the same distance in one and a half?

Europeans seem to have no problem taking their time on an everyday basis. I doubt that this is because they have more free time than we do — most of the Europeans I’ve met have been pretty busy people. I just think that culturally, for whatever reason, they grow up with a different notion of time than we do, one that encourages people to slow down, relax, and appreciate the journey as much as the eventual destination.

Typical French countryside scene via the high-speed TGV train. Photo Copyright SNCF – Mediatheque

Typical French countryside scene via the high-speed TGV train. Photo Copyright SNCF – Mediatheque

The first aspect of my survival list for long day train journeys deals with this mindset of slowing down.

I think people underestimate the importance of maintaining the proper mindset when entering travel situations that will be long or stressful. We worry so much about packing, tickets, delays, and the other physical aspects of the journey that we forget to prepare for the stress that inevitably comes with traveling anywhere.

Things may go wrong at some point. You may feel bored for two of the eight hours of the journey. Maybe there will be a delay. Whenever I begin to feel stressed out because something didn’t go the way it was supposed to, I try to remind myself that I am in Europe — one of my favorite places in the world. I am on vacation! I am riding a high-speed train through the beautiful French countryside! It is a slow, long, quiet way to spend eight hours — but it sure beats a lot of the other things I’ve done in the span of eight hours.

Once you’ve prepared yourself mentally for this trip, you’re going to need to pack.

Train ride photo courtesy of Christopher Hill who entered it in our Picture Perfect Contest.

Train ride photo courtesy of Christopher Hill who entered it in our Picture Perfect Contest.

What to Pack for a Very Long Day Train Ride

I love packing. I especially love packing for unusual situations or time frames. Here is a list of items that I packed into my carry-on for my 50 hour train journey two Christmases ago:

Non-electronic reading material. Most trains have power outlets now, but on the off chance you catch one that doesn’t — or you catch a train in which the power outlets aren’t working, as I once did — it’s important to have non-electronic entertainment at your disposal.

Snacks — and bring extras! Food is almost always available for purchase onboard, however travelers are also permitted to bring outside food and drink items along. I generally try to bring a few pieces of fruit, something salty, and something sweet. And if you bring along extra treats, it’s a great way to start conversations and make a few new friends. People always love the person with extra snacks.

Music and headphones. The headphones are the most important part of this. I use music as a form of entertainment as much as I use it to ward off small talk. While I do enjoy meeting new people on the train, I am not someone who enjoys participating in small talk for eight hours. Whenever I feel like I want some time to myself, I put in the headphones and people generally don’t try to approach me. If they do anyway, I give them snacks.

Valuables. Trains generally do not offer a check in service for luggage like the airlines do. Whatever you bring, you carry with you. There are racks for storing luggage at the end of most train cars, and places to stow smaller bags near the seats. As I do with my plane carry-on, I pack all of my valuable items and an extra day’s worth of clothing into a smaller bag and keep that at my train seat at all times, because I don’t like the idea of putting something valuable in my suitcase and then leaving that suitcase at the end of a train car, out of my sight. I’ve personally never had any problems with theft on the train, but you can never be too safe.

Camera. It’s difficult to get great photos out the train window when you’re speeding by (especially on a high speed train), but I figure it never hurts to try. I also like to take pictures of more than just monuments or scenery when I’m traveling somewhere — depending on the characters in your train car, sometimes the things happening inside the train can be as interesting as anything happening outside the window.

Make-up/toiletries. This is more about comfort and less about looks. By the end of a really long train ride, I always have the urge to wash my face or brush my teeth. Freshening up a little revives me and gets me excited about stepping off the train and re-entering the world.

How to Pass the Time on a Really Long Train Ride

Before my very first long train ride (Cannes to Paris on the TGV — about seven hours, if I recall), I imagined a list of activities I could perform to keep myself entertained with or without my electronic devices, since I didn’t know if I’d be able to charge them onboard. Obviously, if you’re traveling with friends or family, you have it a bit easier. You can entertain each other. Since I was traveling on my own, I needed to be slightly more resourceful. Here are a few of the things I came up with, mostly based on things I saw my fellow travelers doing:

Socializing. If you travel alone, it is inevitable that other lone travelers will approach you. I’ve met some interesting people on these long train rides, and I’ve even made a few friends that I spent some time with once we all got off the train together in a new city. I always carry playing cards, too, and aside from carrying snacks, this is one of the best ways to make new friends.

Being productive. Turns out you can get a lot of work done when shut up in a train for a day. Take advantage of the lack of Facebook and whip out your computer to get that report written up. I wrote blog posts, edited photographs, updated my calendar, organized my computer desktop, and drafted a few emails. If you really can’t bear the lack of Internet, I noticed a few travelers who managed to pick up a Wi-Fi signal while we were passing through certain towns.

Drinking. There was a couple who rode the train for about 15 hours of a 50 hour train ride I once took, and I’m not sure they stopped drinking the entire time they were onboard. They were having a great time with each other and were a riot to talk to. When in Rome, right?

Planning ahead. If you’re the type of person who likes to plan on the fly, this is a good opportunity to take out your guidebook and map out the next leg of your trip. On this same note, you can catch up on photo editing and journal-writing from the most recent leg of your trip, and that way you won’t have to worry about going back through everything at the very end of the trip.

Popular Day Train Routes in Europe

If given the choice, I would take trains from the top of France to the bottom over and over again until someone forced me to stop. But there are several other long day train routes outside of France that are worth the haul, and these are a few of the most popular, along with their high-speed train companies:

Paris to Milan: 7 hours, TGV trains

Berlin to Munich: 6-7 hours, ICE trains

Milan to Salerno: 5.5 hours, Italo trains

Budapest to Salzburg: 6 hours, OBB railjet

Glacier Express Scenic Swiss Train: 7.5 hours, Glacier Express

Inverness to London: 7-8 hours, UK train system

If you plan to travel these distances or any similar routes during your time in Europe, and if you’ve been thinking you should just take a flight or an overnight train to save the time — I recommend taking a day train for at least one of the trips. I know you’re in a hurry to get to the next beautiful place, but you’re in Europe — do as the Europeans do and slow down for a second. I promise the view outside your window will be worth it.

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