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Letting the Train take the Strain: On Holiday in Europe

Are you thinking about taking a holiday to the sun… without flying? Can it be done? Would you want to? As people whose carbon budget is deeply in the red after a life of business and pleasure flying, this summer we are experimenting with train travel in Europe.

Beyond Paris or Brussels on the Eurostar, there is a vast network of high-speed routes across Europe. Barcelona is easily within reach for example. But how easy is it to get a train to Italy? We decided to find out.

Continuing with our low-carbon theme, we booked a self-guided walking tour in Tuscany and then set about the travel arrangements. Despite much enthusiasm for trains, the travel company were unable to book these, they just said they’d like to, but every client varies the route they take. Intrigued, we looked at the map, and quickly realised that by adding a couple of days we could visit some old friends in Bari (that’s 1466 miles away, over 24 hours driving by car) and also drop in on other friends in Paris on the way back.

Back to the computer to book tickets, and going there and back to one place seems to be best done with direct tickets from Eurostar, Trainline etc. Alternatively, the easiest way to travel long distance for us was to get the modern ‘Eurrail Pass’ which comes in many flavours and is no longer limited to students, though they (and older people) still get a hefty discount. Rather than a month of trains, there are now options for 2,5 or more days of travel in a 30-day period.

Armed with five-day passes and the app, and some more apps and websites, with a big shout out to the ‘man in seat 61’, who seems to live on trains and knows which metro to take to cross Paris and even which platform is next to the taxi rank in Milan, we started booking our route.

Using Eurrail, you use an online planner to find a train and add it to your list in the app. Some, like Eurostar require you to make a paid seat reservation in advance to secure the trip. This means that you need to budget more than the pass for the full cost, and if you can book early, direct tickets may be cheaper, especially for the Eurostar. In Italy the reservations are relatively cheap, which was handy when we decided on the day before to take an earlier train to make the change between stations in Milan simpler; we just had to pay for more reservations and happily there were still some seats. Local trains off the main routes often don’t need a reservation at all. It’s all very flexible as you can add and remove the segments from the pass if your plans change, or you take a different train.

It was also quite challenging to book some of the trains well in advance, until we realised that the main timetables are only released for booking at a fixed period before the travel date. The Paris-Milan train was AWOL initially and we got a route via Strasbourg, but we were able to swap back to the direct train later once the dates were closer, around 12 weeks out. Remember to check what the rules are as it’s different depending on the country.

We set off early on a Tuesday, feeling that our holiday had started when we were quickly surrounded by European voices.

We grabbed a picnic (with wine) between trains in Paris; and arrived in Milan about 10pm where we had a hotel booked near the station. Next time we hope to connect with the sleeper in Milan and wake up in Southern Italy. For most trains a copy of your reservation as a printout, or on the phone will open the gates, the only time we needed the Eurrail pass was getting the Eurostar home from Paris.

In the morning we got pizza and cake from a very impressive bakery, and by Wednesday afternoon we were sipping a glass of wine in Siena. The walking was spectacular, and if that’s too much effort we saw plenty of people on electric bikes, and lots of bike charging stations on the popular routes.

Generally, trains were easy, comfortable, relaxing and even surprising. I am happy to read for hours, and I knit, or listen to podcasts. WIFI is available, and the seats have power sockets, we share a European plug with two USB ports between us. Scenery includes beaches and the alps and everything in between. You can wander about, and there is always a buffet, but we like to find a supermarket and put a local picnic together of bread and cheese and fruit, or focaccia and the amazing pastries from the bakery. We are the kind of traveller who takes wine or beer along too, just look for the screw top wine bottles if you can find them.

Although the trip is a bit slower, the trains run from the centre of towns, so no airport transfers, or long check-ins apart from Eurostar; and the air is less recycled.

This trip has even shifted my thinking about what kind of travel I want to do in future.Rather than point-to-point with single flights, you can do as we did: a day in Siena before our walking tour started, then a diversion down to Bari for a weekend with friends after it ended.Then, rather than heading straight home, we got an early but fast train and travelled 1000 miles Bari to Paris, stayed overnight, and then had a day strolling the boulevards and a lovely lunch with one of my friends there.

It all works on the same rail pass, and it was cheaper than making three trips by air to different places. We may be avoiding weekend city breaks, but we are still enjoying city visits. Or you could go ‘old-style interrailing’ and use a pass to travel in a loop around Europe, spending a few days in several places on the way.

Doing this for the first time was quite a learning process. Getting seat reservations from three countries was a bit fiddly until we found all the sites, but it could be done from the comfort of our kitchen. The systems and apps are improving rapidly, even since we started organising the trip, and in time there will be more trains, and more sleepers to streamline the routes. You might find, as we did, that the train numbering changes between printing the reservation and the departure. Eurostar will notify you automatically if you use their app. In Italy, where at one station Coach 9 simply didn’t exist, we always found a staff member on the platform, and if approached politely but firmly, they will scan the reservation into an iPad and tell you the new coach number. Announcements were often in English on the express trains too.

We are going to tackle a short route to Bruges next and then we are looking at the London-Stockholm options. We’ll let you know.

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