Travelling by train in Europe

I love travelling by train. But booking trains over flights for international travel is something that I’ve always assumed is complex, difficult and expensive. I’ve taken the Eurostar a few times and I’m no stranger to hopping on trains within a foreign country, yet planning something like London to Barcelona by train, for instance, isn’t something I’ve seriously contemplated.

The discovery of a neat little website called Loco2 has helped to change this. Loco2 makes booking a train ticket between pretty much any two destinations in Europe as easy as booking trains within the UK.

Daisy and I are currently doing a stint as “digital nomads”. I’m not a big fan of that term, but given we both have remote jobs, we decided we should take advantage of the freedom we currently have to travel around. We started in November last year, and so far, so good.

As of February this year, our plan was to travel around Europe by car. Our journey started with an overnight ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Le Havre in Normandy, followed by slowly pootling south to meet my family in the Alps for a ski holiday. A spanner was thrown in the works when a work trip came up which involved me needing to get to Lisbon a week after our arrival in France.

We looked at a few options, including driving. If we’d had more time, driving wouldn’t have been so bad, but we’d always planned to restrict driving to about 2-3 hours per day, and preferably stay for at least two nights at each place we stop. So it came down to either flying, or taking the train. And with my newfound enthusiasm, I was keen to explore the latter.

Getting to Lisbon by train from outside Portugal isn’t entirely straightforward. There isn’t a high-speed link between Lisbon and Madrid, so you can either take the slow local trains, which usually include a few changes, or there’s an overnight sleeper, the Trenhotel – which seemed much more appealing. But before we started thinking about Lisbon, we first had to work out where we would begin our journey, and how much it was going to cost.

As good as Loco2 is, we were booking our trains with only a couple of weeks’ notice, and the prices were quite hefty. Via another very useful train travel website, the legendary Man in Seat Sixty-One, we discovered the existence of the Interrail 5-within-15 pass. As its name suggests, this pass grants you five days of train travel within a 15-day time period. And it was only £245 per head, which seemed pretty reasonable.

Unfortunately, the hidden cost of an Interrail pass is the reservations. Some countries, like Germany, don’t require reservations. So the 5-in-15 would literally give you unlimited travel at no further cost in Germany. However, France, Spain and Portugal all require reservations. Generally speaking, they’re quite cheap. For example, most journeys within France will only cost you €20 for a reservation, regardless of length (which can be a negative if you’re only making a short journey!). The reservations do go up in price on busier routes, and they can get more expensive the closer you are to your date of travel.

The other problem with reservations is that booking them is a bit of a pain. If you want to book them online, you can only do so at least eight working days in advance of the day you want to travel, and the process involves some back-and-forth with a real person. So you fill out a form on the website, which gets sent to an Interrail employee who checks the reservations for you, then they send back the proposed cost a couple of days after you’ve made your enquiry, then you pay for them, and then they post the reservation to you in the mail (which isn’t ideal if you’re travelling!).

The good news is, you can also book them on the spot at major train stations. So for example, we were able to walk into the train station in Le Mans and make reservations for our entire trip from France to Lisbon just a couple of days before we wanted to make the journey. The moral of the story is, try to sort all your 5-in-15 stuff a month or two in advance from the comfort of your home.

The fastest mainline route from France to Spain is the TGV from Paris to Barcelona. So we decided we needed to meet it at one of its stops. We also needed somewhere to park the car that looked relatively secure, and hopefully not too expensive. We ended up settling on Valence. It’s just a little south of Lyon and is a modern station located some way outside the town itself with a secure car park.

Our itinerary required us to take three trains each way. Valence to Barcelona, Barcelona to Madrid, and then Madrid to Lisbon. Then of course we’d do the same in reverse on our way back a week later. It was theoretically possible for us to do the whole thing in about 24 hours including changes, but we weren’t in any hurry so were happy to spread out the connections.

We ended up catching the train from Valence to Barcelona on Friday afternoon and overnighted there. After breakfast in Barca, we continued across to Madrid. We had almost three hours in Madrid, plenty of time to have a bit of dinner before boarding the Trenhotel to Lisbon. You can also have dinner on the train, and it looked pretty good! Not great on the vegan options though.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep on the Trenhotel, we arrived at the spectacular Lisbon Oriente station early on Sunday morning.

On the way back, we did almost the same but with a slight modification. We left Lisbon the following Friday evening, arriving into Madrid on Saturday morning. We spent a day and night in Madrid, and then on Sunday morning took the train to Barcelona, followed by the Paris TGV, alighting at Valence.

Lisbon Oriente station, photo taken by Daisy

All in all, it was an enjoyable experience. A hidden benefit of travelling across Europe by train is that you can incorporate city breaks along the way. For example, I had never been to Madrid before, so it was a bonus to have a little break there on the way back. And similarly, although I’ve been to Barcelona several times, I’d never turn down the opportunity to spend another night there. This does require a bit of a shift in mindset. Rather than simply weighing up the difference between going by train and flying in terms of how long they each take, I think it’s worth considering the quality of the journey. Also, going by train meant we saved more than 95% of the CO₂ emissions that would have been incurred had we flown.

Of course, it’s maybe a bit easier for Daisy and I. We don’t have any children yet and our jobs don’t tie us to a specific location – but I still think it’s more feasible than many people might assume. It’s certainly more feasible than I had previously assumed.

We’re returning to the UK for a couple of weeks next week, and we’ve booked a return journey by train from Geneva to London. As we knew we’d be doing this much further in advance, I did book the trip through Loco2, and the process was slick. We’ll see how it works out.

Featured photograph: “TGV” by Mariano Mantel is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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