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More Money-Saving Tips for Rail Travel

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Book the penthouse suite

On overnight trains, always request one of the uppermost bunks. This really isn't a budget tip, more of a safety one, but it'll help. Yeah, the top bunk can be hotter, but it has its advantages.

You can keep a closer eye on your luggage, which you stuffed securely into the niche above the doorway (and then prudently strapped to the low railing that's there so a thief can't quickly pull it down in the middle of the night).

You and your moneybelt (which you secretly moved from your waist down to wrap around your thigh—under your pants—while in the bathroom) are pretty much safely out of reach of pickpockets who might slip inside the couchette and rummage for goodies (assuming the thief isn't eight feet tall).

Also, since there's no bunk above you, that drunken dude in lederhosen who needs to hit the head at 3am won't step on your face as he scrambles down from his bunk.

While we're on the subject, remember: don't flaunt your valuables, and always remember to lock the door when you're inside the couchette, especially after returning from a mid-night stumble down the corridor to the bathroom.

Don't be afraid to remind your couchette-mates of this, using pantomime if necessary. I've been in couchettes where this simple rule wasn't followed and some of my temporary roommates awoke to find their unsecured stuff missing (mine was always untouched, strapped into the railings, next to my sleeping head on the top bunk, way up near the ceiling).

For more on basic train safety, click here.

Middle Age Sucks; Youths and Seniors Rule

Those of us past our mid-twenties are almost always stuck paying the full, "adult" price on everything. Same goes for train tickets in Europe, where students and seniors can get discounts if they know where to look.

Most countries grant 10% to 20% off all train tickets for students (sometimes only under 18, sometimes under 26 with proof of student status) and 20% to 50% off for seniors (the cut-off age varies between 60, 65, and 67).

The catch is, in some countries these student and senior reductions are automatic with proof of age/student status—for example, in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France (though a $40 card gets you a higher discount) and Norway.

However, in other countries (Austria, Great Britain, and Italy come to mind) you must purchase an annual card for a small fee of $20 to $30 before you will start getting the discounts.

That means you have to do (ugh) math again to ballpark whether the student/senior card would cost less than the collective discount it'd get you on the total amount of money you expect to spend on rail travel, and hence would be worth your while. If it is, you can buy such cards from the ticket agents at most major rail stations.

Buy before you board

Purchase all tickets—or, if you're using a railpass, any necessary supplements and seat reservations (usually $10 to $30)—before boarding the train. You can usually buy any of this from the conductor once on board, but you'll pay a stiff penalty, often of 50% to 100%.

If you're buying your tickets as you go, any high-speed or other supplemental charges will be included in the ticket cost. If, however, you're using some form of railpass, you will still need to purchase a reservation for any train marked with an "R" on the schedule (most stations display big schedule posters).

Also, read the pass's fine print carefully to find out whether certain trains require you to purchase a "high-speed supplement" on the faster trains, or whether a seat or couchette reservation is necessary.

The concept of high-speed supplement is a bit complicated; your pass's fine print should spell out any concerns or special procedures you need to take. In brief, such supplements are often needed to ride the fastest trains, as well as ones which stop infrequently. For more on this subject, read the section on the European train system.

(Don't) Hop on the bus, Gus

Explanative disclaimer: Buses do, indeed, have to do with train travel in that the trains are better. OK, that's a bit of specious reasoning, but this bit didn't fit well anywhere else and it is germane to the discussion of connecting the dots on a European itinerary.

With rare exceptions, an inter-city coach is not going to be any cheaper than the train or a no-frills airline. It will only (a) take longer, and (b) be less comfortable. These are not bonus factors when considering your options.

Coaches—in British English, a "bus" operates within a city, a "coach" between towns; use those terms to help avoid confusion in Europe as many Europeans learn a more British form of our lingo—are really only useful for getting to places where the trains don't go. Then again, these sorts of places—ones literally off the beaten (train) track—can make excellent destinations.


Intrepid Travel

This article was last updated in October 2006. All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2010 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.