Unlike the United States, travel by train in Europe is convenient, commonplace, and fairly inexpensive. With rail lines linking every country on the continent, as well as the underwater Chunnel between France and England, you can get just about anywhere you want to be.
If you need to make time, you can catch the Train à Grande Vitesse, commonly called the TGV (the high-speed French train), or a Thalys; if you'd prefer a slower pace, hop on any of the regional trains and enjoy the view from the big windows as you make your way across the countryside. Besides the beautiful view, train travel does have practical advantages over automobiles or airplanes. It's easier to catch a train in a hurry or on a whim than it is to catch a plane, and you don't have to worry about learning the rules of the road, renting a car, or paying for gas. All you have to do is plan your trip, buy your tickets, and you're set.
- When it comes to buying your tickets, you can do it online at any number of sites ahead of time, or buy them at the nearest train station. In Germany, this is called the Hauptbahnhof; in France, it's the gare. The larger the city, the more likely the employees are to speak English. Check to make sure they have a Eurail office at the station before you go; you'll find them at the stations in most major European cities, but it's best to be sure before showing up ten minutes before your train leaves.
- Eurail is probably the easiest way for US citizens to buy train tickets in Europe. You can purchase passes for single countries, set regions that include multiple countries, or even the entire continent. These passes are either for unlimited use within a certain amount of time, or have a specific amount of travel days. Choose your option depending on your needs. If you're using the train to get from one destination to another, you might want to buy a set number of trips. If the journey itself is your aim, get an unlimited pass. With sleeper cars, you can fall asleep in French and wake up with Dutch, stopping to look around whenever the mood strikes you. Eurail also offers student and family discounts.
- For U.S. citizens living in Europe for extended periods of time (at least six months), and citizens of all European Union countries, check out Inter Rail. This organization has trip deals similar to Eurail's, with student discounts on most ticket options as well. You can buy these passes at train stations as well, and you don't need an official ticket broker to do so. You do, however, need proof of your European residency (of at least six months) in order to purchase them.
- With Internet access available at most airports, hotels, hostels, and lots of cafes, you can buy your tickets by visiting the website of an individual country's rail system, go directly to Eurail or Inter Rail, or check out a broker site like Rail Europe. You can download timetables, plan a trip, and make reservations. Remember, many trains (though not all) require seat reservations for rail pass holders. This often costs a few euros extra, but it's a necessary step!