I always harbored that teenage dream of buying an unlimited rail pass and spending the summer touring Europe at my own leisure. I never ended up fulfilling that dream, but given the awesome experiences I had traveling around Scandinavia by train as a college student and then when I visited Switzerland for a week a few years ago, I wish I had followed through on that whimsical desire. On more than one occasion, I’ve pulled out a European map and studied the many places I’ve never visited on the continent. Europe is a big place, and I’ve seen so little of it. The pull to buy an open-ended train ticket, pack a backpack and just follow my fancy still dances at the edges of my mind.
This desire was driven home a few weeks ago when I took a whirlwind trip of London, England; Brussels, Belgium; and Amsterdam, The Netherlands, all tied together by train, courtesy of Rail Europe and Eurostar. What I learned while on this trip is that, while traveling by train in Europe is the way to get around the continent, the choices can be a bit daunting.
The thing is that European rail lines are run by dozens of different companies, and trying to navigate all of these companies and tie multiple destinations together can be a nightmare. Enter Rail Europe, a one-stop shop for North American travelers that helps tie together the amenities, facilities and services of more than 50 train companies across Europe. For example, Eurostar, which is the only high-speed train the directly links the United Kingdom with France and Belgium via the Channel Tunnel, provides connections from the British Isles to mainland Europe and to a few cities beyond, but to reach deeper into Europe, travelers need to use the services of another train company. Using Rail Europe, it’s easy to piece together the trip you want to take with a variety of flexible options in regard to geography and time.
For those who haven’t traveled on European trains, you should know that it’s nothing like getting around the United States by train. They are efficient and on time, employees are helpful and polite, and accommodations are comfortable. (Our experiences riding Amtrak from Los Angeles to New Orleans were miserable compared to any and every encounter I’ve ever had with a European train.) Taking the train is far easier than driving, and, by the time you figure in all the prep time for flying, it’s often faster than going by train.
It’s also worth noting that obviously visiting Europe is more than just getting from place A to place B, and Rail Europe has thought of that too. The company combines the maps, schedules and fares for the more than 50 train companies it represents in Europe, but it also offers rail ‘n drive passes, sightseeing passes, hotel and rail packages and more. And, everything is reported in American dollars, so there’s no need to try to convert prices during the booking process.
I haven’t given up the dream of strapping on that backpack and letting my travel bug lead the way around Europe. When I do finally take the plunge and get ready to buy my tickets, I’ll be using Rail Europe to do it.