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5 Tips on How to Find, Book & Board a Train in Europe

1. Know when your train opens for sales and be first to book. The best deals (especially in high season) are the first seats sold

  • French trains typically open 90 days before travel. Italian and Spanish trains are less strict but tend to open 60-90 days before travel, with some of the Spanish trains opening only 30 days before travel.
  • In some cases you can go  online to SNCF and look up a train well in advance of sale, click on “train non ouvert” and it will prompt you to give your email. They  will send you a reminder when the ticket sales open.

2. Choose your seat in advance. Note that many French trains have an upper level. That’s great for viewing the countryside, and the bar car is on the upper level as well. However, if you have heavy luggage, that can be more difficult and you might prefer lower level. "Bas” refers to the lower level and “haut” refers to the upper level. 


3. How to find your car and your seat on a train. In France and Spain there are lighted diagrams (see photo). First you locate the train by it's number (not by its destination). The train number is usually 4 digits. Confirm this by the original departure time. Then look for your train car number. The LED will have train car numbers in the diagram. The number will correspond with a letter below the train diagram. That letter will be on the track as well. Look up! Find the letter that corresponds to your train car number. That is where you stand to board.  Your seat will be marked and is easily identified.

            Note on Italy: I wish this were the case too in Italy. It is not normally posted.  If you do not see a diagram, then you will need to ask someone where to stand in order to board near or at your train car. The people who work that track do know.

4. How to manage your luggage on European trains. Luggage racks are customarily in the front of the car.  Sometimes the luggage racks are between the cars. If you wish to keep an eye on your luggage then keep it your train car. If you don’t see room on the front of  racks, check mid car (there are often second racks there) or check between seats when seat direction changes (i.e. where the seat backs touch each other because one seat is going direction of travel and the other is going opposite direction of travel). There is a V that forms, and there is room for a fairly large suitcase in that spot. Remember, none of these racks are sized to hold extra large hardshell cases. The best choice for travel is either a large carryon or a medium case.

5. When to get ready to get off at your stop. Trains, unless you are end of the line or it's a major hub, will stop only 1-3 minutes. Make sure you have your luggage and are lining up in the entry or between cars (wherever the door is) a few minutes before your scheduled arrival time.  If you have a tight connection or want to get off quickly, go up about 5-7 minutes before arrival. 


5 Tips for Getting the Best Value for Your Travel Dollar and Making Your Travel Easy

1. Book early. Airfare is at its lowest very early on. Airlines often offer great deals for travelers willing to book early. Many tour companies also offer advance booking discounts.

2. Money matters: When you budget, remember that your services are paid for in another currency. And the Dollar and the Euro are not 1 to 1 in value. The exchange rate has averaged around 1.25 dollars to the Euro in the last 2 years, with some variations.

  • Note that there are two exchange rates --the wholesale bank rate -which is what you see published, and which applies to interbank transfers of millions of dollars. You don't get that!  Travelers get the "retail" rate: That is the rate that your bank or credit will change money for you. It is usually about .1 to .2 more costly than the wholesale rate.
  • Note also that the Euro typically gets more expensive during "high season". So whatever you can book and prepay in advance will save you some money. 

Last, remember to count any fees you will incur into your budget:  if you are on a DIY trip and doing your own banking, cash withdrawals, hotel payments and the like then you will incur these things. If you book something that is prepaid, then you won't have these fees.

3. Compare "apples to apples". Consider all of your travel expenses and all of the inclusions when deciding how to book your trip. Here are some questions to ask yourself and some categories of items to check:

  • Rooms: if a hotel or "discounter" offers a great rate, make sure that you are getting all the other things the other company or agent might be including?
    • Can the booker tell you if you are you getting the same type of room or is the 'bargain room"  a less desirable room (something against the stairs (noise) or smaller than normal) or facing the street (possible noise) ? 
    • Are you in a good neighborhood? And are you in an area central to the things you want to do and see?  These can be two different things. There are many wonderful "out of the way" neighborhoods and some centrally located "not so nice" areas.
      • If either of these is not the case, then you will need to budget time and money to get "to and from" everything via taxi, metro or Uber.
    • Are you getting the same services and add ons with each sort of booking (DIY, discounter like Expedia or travel company)?
      • Wifi
      • Breakfasts
      • Tips
      • Other hotel extras (early check in, late check out, upgrades, in room gifts, evening wine...) ?

That said, a hotel is not everything! Here's a list of other things you will need for comparing tour companies and to consider in planning and budgeting for your DIY trip:

  • transfers to/from airport
    • Does this need to be planned in advance or is it easy to do when you arrive? What are your options and how do they vary in cost and convenience?
  • meals (plus tips). Review both the number and the quality of the included meals --a sandwich is not equal to a Michelin starred dinner!
    • If you are DIY traveling look up local customs: Do you tip? Do they charge a per person "cover"? What is the average meal cost in a place you want to eat at? 
  • museum and tourist admissions. Are they included and what sort of access to they provide?  Will you have to book a time when you arrive ? Wait in line 2 hours with the ticket or will you get some form of priority access? What will you pay for delivery of these items if you purchase them in advance?
  • guided tours or walks or tastings: Are they public? Private? How many people are the maximum? What's included in your tour/tasting? How long is it?
    • And very importantly: does the vendor have the right to cancel if he/she doesn't get the minimum # (i.e. will you be left last minute with no tour?)
  • wines or other alcoholic beverages (quality and quantity): what is included?  If you are a DIY traveler, then look up regional pricing. It varies widely.
  • taxis (and tip) or metro
  • international cell with data and roaming (for maps functions). This is important especially if you are doing a discount or DIY trip because you will be in charge of planning, navigating and communicating. Maps and applications like Uber can use a lot of data.

What to ask yourself to determine what sort of trip you would like

  • Is your time at a premium?
  • Do you have the ability or desire to plan things on your own?
  • Do you know where to look for the things that are important to you (certain sorts of restaurants, neighborhoods that you like, historical info or art....)?
  • Do you speak the language of the country you are visiting?
  • Do you want to drive in the countryside or have someone manage that for you?
  • What do you like and how do you like to get your information? From a local or a guide? or perhaps a book and your own research? 
  • How important is is to you to have a resource to answer your questions while planning and while traveling?
  • How important is it to you to avoid lines or waiting time? 
  • How much or little do you want to be involved in organizing day to day items like where to find the taxi, what time to get tickets for something, how to get to that restaurant?

4. Travel with others. Travel with friends or a group, or at least overlap your trip with one or the other. Often you can get a discount for booking multiple rooms or a better deal for 3 to a room. These things things will reduce the per person price. Plan a trip that is part "on your own" and part with a group. You get the benefit of some extras like wine tastings, guides, transfers without paying 100% of the cost for these items since the costs are split among the group when the trip is priced.  If you do this at the beginning of your travel, it can also set you up for a better informed, fun, relaxed "independent" portion. You will have gotten acclimated, had resources upon arrival to answer questions, and also gotten an overview of what else you can see and do.

5. Pack lightly and stay mobile: In Europe space is at a premium. Often you must navigate stairs or train stations without the help of porters, and car trunks are smaller. Keep it manageable and your trip will be less stressful. How do you do that though?  Dress in layers so that you can accommodate a variety of weather conditions without having to pack your entire closet. Pack things that mix/match. Pack tightly (put your socks inside your shoes in the case for example). Wear your largest items on the plane (your jacket, those bigger sneakers/boots...) And don't forget to pack a nice folding bag, so that you can bring home all of those cool purchases. 

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