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Thalys's most popular high-speed route runs between Paris and Brussels. (Photograph courtesy Rail Europe)

The Power of Train Travel

I blame luggage for all my troubles on trains — whether I’m whizzing down to Washington, D.C. or wending my way through Wallonia. I try to avoid clunking other passengers in the head with my elbow as I navigate tight aisles and haul my wheeled carry on over my head, but it’s not easy.

Despite these challenges, traveling by train is by far my favorite mode of transport — especially when I’m in Europe.

Trains are more civilized there, and more convenient. The extensive network of interconnected tracks makes it a breeze to zip around the continent (a notable exception for me has been in Italy, where departure times seems to be merely a suggestion).

On a recent trip to Europe, I boarded a Thalys train in Amsterdam to discover a vibe that was refined and polished, and fellow passengers who were courteous and quiet. As I opened my laptop to take advantage of the free WiFi, a full breakfast was served to me in my Comfort 1 seat. When I arrived relaxed and calm in Brussels two hours later, I didn’t want the journey to end.

Though there are plenty of low-cost flights available in Europe (which can be good choices for longer distances), why deal with airport security and extra luggage fees if you don’t have to? And you can learn so much about a place on a train by watching the landscape change — from the snow-capped mountains in Switzerland to the hills and rivers of Austria.

A Eurail pass is almost a rite of passage for American college students of some means. It was certainly the golden ticket that ignited my abiding love for travel. My friends and I would sit there poring over maps, making tough decisions like whether to stay longer in Cinque Terre or move on to Paris.

Eurail passes are sold by Rail Europe, so I connected with the company’s CEO, Frederic Langlois, to learn more about the vast patchwork of train companies they collaborate with, and the tantalizing products they offer.

Here’s what you should know:

Europe is shrinking: Langlois says the high-speed rail network is expanding, which means you’ll be able to get where you want to go even faster. The focus for them is improving connections to major cities with Brussels as a hub (right now, you can zip to the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and France from the Belgian capital).

Pick the right pass: A lot has changed since I left college ten years ago. Certain passes allow for unlimited travel to 24 countries like France, Spain, and Ireland. From this network, choose a Continuous Pass (available for 15 or 21 days, or one, two, or three months), a Flexipass (10 or 15 days of travel within a two-month span), or a Select Pass (choose up to 15 days of travel within two months in three, four, or five bordering countries). Note: France is no longer part of the Select Pass, but can be added on.

Or stick to one or two countries: You can also buy two-country or single country passes. Want to focus on eating pasta and exploring the “Boot” top to bottom? The Eurail Italy pass is for you. They also offer a France, German, and Swiss Rail pass. Bonus tip: The Swiss Rail Pass includes free entry to more than 400 museums in Switzerland.

Make use of mobile: Like many people these days, I access nearly all of my travel information on my smartphone. Eurostar, Thalys, TGV (France), RENFE (Spain), ICE (Germany), and Italo (Italy) already offer e-ticketing, and the trend toward mobile means there will be even more options to come.

Good news for WiFi: WiFi is such a huge factor for travelers today and will continue to be a hot button issue until it’s free and fast everywhere. According to Rail Europe, it’s becoming available on more and more European trains, like Thalys and Italo, and will continue to expand in the coming years.

In good company: The number of people who choose to travel by train is on the upswing. According to Langlois, trains now have 75 percent market share (versus airlines) on connections that are fewer than three hours. When that drops to two-hours connections, rail is the clear winner with up to 95 percent of the market share. And rail travelers will only win as companies continue to focus on making trains even more comfortable and efficient.

What’s your favorite train experience in Europe or anywhere else in the world? Do you have any tips for fellow travelers? Leave a comment to share the love:

Related: 

  • Travel with National Geographic by Train