Every day you can read about the ever shrinking economy class on planes, passenger rage about seat recline and long delays of plane travel – enough trouble to make you want to stay at home? There is a much more pleasant alternative to travel around Europe – high speed trains and you should try them!
Air travel has become much cheaper over the year, so much so that the trip to the airport can cost you more than the plane ticket! Unfortunately, while it has made air travel more affordable, it hasn’t made it more fun! First, behind that cheap $29 ticket, there are fees at every turn: from a web fee, a credit card fee, a boarding pass fee to the very common luggage fees and charges for food and onboard entertainment. By the time you get to your destination and home, that ticket might not be that cheap anymore. But even worse is the experience that can spoil your appetite for air travel: You have to make your way to the airport, wait in lines for check-in and security, wait some more at the gate for boarding, taxiing and departure, wait yet again to get your luggage, possibly at immigration and customs and then for a train, taxi or rental car to get from the airport to wherever you are going. And while you are on the plane, you are crammed into a tiny seat with a few hundred fellow travelers, possibly without food or entertainment!
Fortunately, if your flight is less than two hours somewhere in Europe, you have a great and much more comfortable alternative: High-speed trains! Over the last 20+ years, From London to France, Spain and Germany and places inbetween, new rail systems have been built to allow for trains to travel at speeds in excess of 300km/h from downtown to downtown. They are usually tied into the public transport across metropolitan areas and regions, making point-to-point travel fast and convenient. Even better, they have made the experience ever more pleasant, while the air travel experience has been in a steep decline: There is no need for long lines or check in. Instead of trekking to the airport outside the city, you can start your journey at the train station, usually located in the heart of the city. Instead of arriving at the airport 2 hours before your flight, you can arrive 15-30min before your train leaves and walk right up to your platform and train coach for departure. You will settle into a seat that puts any economy class plane seat to shame, can enjoy food in a restaurant car or at your seat and enjoy wifi and phone reception or just experience the world around you as you zip across the country. While your overall journey from door to door might take as much time as by plane, you spend much more time in a comfortable seat enjoying your environment, a good book or a good conversation, instead of spending a few hours of running or standing around for a 1h flight!
So, how do you make this train trip happen? Fortunately, most train operators have adopted some of the good things of air travel: You can research, book and pay your trip online and you get a mobile or printed boarding pass for an assigned seat. While each European country still has their train operators, they cross borders easily and can take you across Europe without much issue. Here are some of the largest, more popular ones:
Germany: Deutsche Bahn
Deutsche Bahn offers trips accross Germany and into the neighboring countries on their slick ICE trains. A trip from Frankfurt (were a long distance train station is conveniently located at the airport) to Hamburg in the North is about 4h, to Stuttgart in the South 1h15min and to Berlin in the East 4h30min. You can travel in 1st or 2nd class, both more comfortable than the competing airline seats and with access to a restaurant car.
SNCF will take you across France and into neighboring Spain, Italy, BeNeLux and Germany, including in their famous TGV trains. A trip from Paris to Marseille in the very South takes about 3h20min, a trip to Mannheim in Germany is 3h10min making either much more attractive than a flight. On TGV trips, you will have a 1st and 2nd class, often with only a small price difference to enjoy first class travel!
London to continental Europe: Eurostar
Eurostar connects London with Paris and Brussels through they tunnel under the Channel. This is the only high-speed train that requires you to arrive at least 30 minutes before departure for security checks and immigration procedures, because the UK is not part of the Schengen agreement that removed border controls between a number of EU countries. The trip from London to Paris is only 2h30min, you can’t beat that by plane. Eurostar offers an economy class and business class, as well as a “Standard Premier”, which is a business class seat with a full meal and slightly less perks than business class.
All of the operators also copied the pricing from airlines and offer frequent sales for early-bird buyers. You can travel across the country for as little as $30 and often snatch a 1st class ticket for only a little extra! You typically have assigned seats and your luggage is free of charge.
To learn more about train travel with these operators and many more, check out what I think is the best site on this topic: Seat61! He has great information on the different trains by destination, as well as handy guides for the first-time train traveler. I found his advice to be spot on and very helpful.
So, the next time you are visiting Europe, skip that short-hop flight and enjoy a leisurely train trip instead!