It’s true that trains aren’t always the cheapest option for getting around Europe. With so many budget carriers, air travel can be dirt cheap – not to mention quicker – and then there’s always the option of taking a cheap bus. But they sure are convenient, and great if flexibility is important to you. (We lucked out in Italy, too, as Trenitalia ran a special 2 for 1 ticket deal on Saturdays all summer long.)
Here’s why I love travelling by train:
Train stations are central
They’re usually bang smack in the middle of town. If they’re on the fringe, then there are usually tons of shops and accommodation options that have sprung up around them, and connections to the metro.
Airports, on the other hand, are always a bit of a distance from the city. Sometimes getting into town is fairly straightforward, but most times, it requires fussing over multiple subway/train transfers, shuttles, special buses or taxis. It’s a hassle, and it’s usually expensive. Do you have ANY idea how much time I’ve pissed away trying to figure out the optimum route (economical and not too complicated) from an airport to the city? Or to figure out accommodation that’s close to said route? No, me neither, and I’d rather not try.
I can’t help but feel sorry for our previous Couchsurfers who’ve come to us straight from the airport – after having experienced real public transport networks in real cities around the world, I wouldn’t wish navigating between Auckland airport and the suburbs upon anyone.
Minimal waiting time
Not only are train stations quicker and more convenient to get to, you don’t have to be there three hours ahead of time. Half an hour earlier than departure seems to more than suffice. The shopping options are also pretty good at the bigger interchanges – on par with airports, minus any duty-free savings. Time saved waiting = more time to spend actually seeing/doing stuff. (Sure, some airports have wifi, but not all do – and the connection is often mediocre.)
Trains are (often) more comfortable
Budget airline seats are THE WORST. Bearable for an hour or two, maybe, and not much beyond that. By contrast, most of the trains we’ve been on have had decent legroom and reasonably comfortable seats. We’ve even been on a couple that were virtually empty!
Where it can go horribly wrong, though, is overcrowding and ventilation. We’ve had the misfortune of being on some trains with minimal air-conditioning – or in the worst case scenario, non-existent air conditioning. We’ve also squashed onto fully packed trains like cattle, wedged into stairwells and corridors.
So, no hard and fast rule here. In a nutshell: when they’re good, they’re good. But when they’re bad, they’re teeth-clenchingly terrible. Worse than Ryanair, even.
No luggage worries
There’s no need to worry about whether you’re over your luggage allowance. As far as I can tell, anything goes. If you’re a latecomer, your baggage might have to go in the corner of the carriage, otherwise the overhead shelves are a free for all.
You’ll never see someone charged 50 euros at a train station for having a single corner wheel of his suitcase protrude above the metal frame that serves to demonstrate the maximum allowable carry-on dimensions. (Shame on you, Easyjet.)