Europe by Train

When I was a teenager, InterRail (Eurail for Europeans) was for 14 – 18 year-olds. Flying was expensive then; budget airlines didn’t exist (really, young’uns!), and InterRail was the cheapest way to get to southern Europe, sleeping on the floor all the way.

Well, things have changed. And to prove that, the good folks at InterRail invited me to try their service from north to south, from Scandinavia to Italy. So a few weeks ago, I hit the rails, along with two Dutch and three Swedish travel journalists and bloggers. We quickly discovered that InterRail in 2014 means much more than sleeping on hard train floors from Oslo to Athens. There’s even 1st class!


My three-day journey began in Copenhagen, onwards to Hamburg and then along the length of Germany to Munich, in time for a bit of early Oktoberfest celebrations. The others continued to la bella Venezia, whereas I, alas, had somewhere else to be, and had to forfeit the most stunning stretch of all, across the Alps… *mustn’t grumble*

Did I enjoy it? Most emphatically yes. I adore travelling by train. Listening to the clickity-clack of the wheels rumbling across the tracks, taking in the landscape as it drifts past my window, thinking of nothing in particular. It’s rhythmic, peaceful – and dreamily, deliciously nostalgic.

Europe by train

I feel I’m travelling again. Flying has lost that.

Todays trains are a world away from those of days gone by. Rarely is there a razor-sharp Belgian detective on board. The trains are not powered by steam (which, let’s face it, means you can open the windows and not risk various lung ailments and having your clothes covered in soot). And let’s not forget toilets. Despite the modern comforts, there’s still something inherently romantic about train travel, isn’t there? Best of all, I feel I’m traveling again. Flying has lost that.


…but let’s be pragmatic for a minute

I live in a long, thin country where distances are great, especially in the north. Driving 5 hours to go to the cinema doesn’t raise eyebrows. But even in Norway, train travel can sometimes be almost as quick as flying; it certainly is between my hometown Drammen and Bergen. In mainland Europe, the train is frequently quicker. Paris to Brussels takes about 3 hours by train. How would you rather spend 3 hours?

Option 1:

  1. travel from city centre to airport
  2. check-in and queue at security
  3. wait at gate
  4. get up in the air and then back down
  5. wait for luggage
  6. travel from airport to city centre

Option 2:

  1. relax on the train all the way

Should be an easy choice, really; even before you consider the environmental impact of your journey.

Copenhagen – Hamburg


Back to our journey: after a pleasant stay at a little family-operated hotel near the railway station, we leave Copenhagen at about 9.30am. DSB, the Danish State Railways, take us all the way to Hamburg, a 4.5-hour jaunt, broken up by… a ferry crossing!

That’s right, our particular stretch of rail includes crossing the Fehmarn Belt. At Rødby in southern Denmark, the train rolls onto the ferry, then rolls off again about 45 minutes later, in Germany. During the crossing, we cannot remain on board the train (for security reasons). We opt for a quick lunch at the buffet restaurant, an even quicker peek in the ever-present duty free shops, and a spot of fresh air at the open-air top deck. All in all, a pleasant little break.

(A fixed link crossing is in the works, with tunnels replacing the ferry link. Opening is scheduled for 2020, so if you want the train-on-the-ferry experience, you still have time).

We arrive mid-afternoon and spend the rest of the day wandering about Hamburg.


Hamburg – Munich

Next morning, I’m up bright and early for the long stretch across Germany, this time travelling with Deutsche Bahn, the German national train service. In a competition between DSB and Deutsche Bahn, Germany wins. Especially for service. Waiters bring you coffee and hand out opera mints, and there’s a proper restaurant car, with starched white table clothes and an a la carte menu: I had smoked salmon: delicious!

laks på toget


As we move south, the scenery changes. We’re leaving the flat expanses of the North European Plain behind, and enter rugged hill country, then comes Munich.

Any drawbacks?

Not really. The two trains I travelled on had no wifi, and only sporadic mobile coverage. Wifi is normally right up there with food and shelter, but once you accept there isn’t any, it feels oddly liberating. No pressure to communicate with the outside world; just me and my fellow passengers inside a bubble in motion.

InterRail practicals

InterRail has a flexible ticketing system. There are global passes and one-country passes; continuous passes, and days-within-days passes. I had a 5-day global pass, to be used within a 10-day period. Other options include 10 days to be used within 22 days. The idea is that you might not want to travel every day. Makes sense. Have a look at the InterRail webpage for up-to-date prices. My journey, Copenhagen – Hamburg – Munich, took about 11 hours. Here are a few other route examples with total travelling time:

  • Vienna – Budapest – Ljubljana, about 7 hours
  • Paris – Geneva – Milan – Venice, about 11 hours
  • Amsterdam – Nürnberg – Prague, about 11 hours

How about you? Have you travelled around in Europe by train?


Disclosure: Along the tracks of Northern Europe, I was a guest of InterRail. All opinions are entirely my own, as ever.

PS If you want to see more fun photos from around the world, hop over to Travel Photo Thursday.

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  1. I actually think this would be a great way to travel through Europe. You can check out the countryside without having the hassles of driving. Thanks for taking us along over at Travel Photo Thursday.

  2. Travelled Europe with a Eurail pass aged 21 and 24. The first time by myself and the second with my partner now husband. Both times I found it a very easy and comfortable way to travel – not so cheap nowadays though 🙂 Your photos of train stations brings back to me just how much I love them.

    • Trains can be a bit expensive, especially if booked at the last minute. But the InterRail tickets are pretty good value, I think.

    • I like Italian trains. Would like to try the line going along the Adriatic coast, from Ancona all the way to the south. Apparently it runs close to the ocean all the way; must be gorgeous views.

  3. I went to a conference in Leipzig last year and was so impressed by the German trains. I did have a Eurorail pass about 30 years ago and remember the ease of getting around. I am envious of this trip and how many places you can see in such a short stretch of time. No sleeping on the floors is also a big bonus.

  4. I love traveling by train in Europe! My very first adventure was an over-night train from Florence to Paris in our own private compartment with full bathroom! It was wonderfully exciting and I really didn’t want to sleep at all as we rolled through mountain tunnels to emerge along the shores of lakes that stretched for miles with tiny coastlines twinkling in the distance! That was a journey that I will never forget.

    I was completely amazed by the fact that the Danish line actually rolls onto a ferry!! Absolutely incredible!!

    Thanks for this fabulous read. It brought back many, many memories!

    • Jeff, I don”t know where you live but, trains have been loaded onto ferries for many years. How do you think you take a train from Calabria to Sicily or how do you (or did you) take a train from Manhattan to Staten Island? Just two examples that came to mind.

    • The ferry stretch certainly adds a bit of quirky interest; a nice way to break the journey, stretch the legs and, get some fresh sea air. As Gil says, the Denmark – Germany line isn’t the only one (though many have been replaced with bridges and/or tunnels these days). But there’s one in China I’d like to try – on the Guangdong to Hainan Island route. Takes about 1.5 hours, a bit longer than the Denmark/Germany one.

  5. Another year with a visit to Germany? That means it’s time for yet another German Rail Pass! 🙂

    Your post reminded me of the train from Stockholm to København; going over the Øresund was a big thrill.

  6. We adore the European train system and use it every chance we get but have yet to ride the rails where you did. I love the sounds of this trip and it definitely goes on the upper deck of our bucket list! Great post!

  7. I’d love to ride the trains like this! I’ve only ever used rail for shorter journeys. Modern comforts are definitely a plus point however you travel!

  8. I absolutely love travelling by train, and when you factor in getting to the airport 3 hours in advance, flying, getting out etc, YES, trains are much better.

  9. I totally share the love towards slow travel. I travel a lot around Europe by car but train is so much more comfortable! You don’t need to drive yourself and just enjoy the view.

    • If I’m going from Oslo to Gothenburg, I usually drive. But this summer I took the train instead. So much more pleasant – and with great wifi, so I got heaps of work done, too.

  10. For me, train travel is the most civilised way to travel. More relaxed and no “Be there at least 2 hours before take off.” Whenever we can, it’s always train we choose!!!

  11. Hi Sophie. I first traveled by train in Europe back in 1973, and just as recently as 2012. As you say, times have changed. The new trains are fabulous. Living in Korea, I have also gotten used to taking trains, and again always a great experience.

    That smoked salmon looks delicious.

    Thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday

  12. Overnight train travel these days is definitely a throwback to yesteryear, isn’t it? We’ve only taken short routes by train in Europe. But this summer we just took an overnight train here in Canada with VIA Rail from Vancouver to Jasper, spent 2 nights hiking in Jasper, then took the overnight train back again. We had a small sleeping cabin with sink and toilet (shower just down the hall). The meals were great and the scenery spectacular. Since we like our sleep, we wouldn’t take an overnight train though unless we had a private sleeping cabin. (It’s a bit of a luxury, however – it’s way cheaper to fly/drive.) Going to sleep listening to the clickety-clack is quite romantic…

  13. Now, you have me dreaming about train travel throughout Europe and wishing that I had chosen that option more instead of airplanes when we were in Italy last summer. I think that my brain was too full of stories of people taking questionable trains through developing countries in Asia, and I didn’t even consider how nice a European train might be. I’ve always wanted to dine in a restaurant car. I’ll have to definitely consider it the next time we are on the continent.

  14. your collection of pictures depict true culture, your article reminded me of Trans Siberian Railway. Nice

  15. I’d love to travel more by train, but every time I’ve checked the ticket prices are absurd. It really has to be outstanding, if you are to pay more and travel longer.

    • Good point; need a bit of planning ahead to get the best prices when going from A to B.

  16. Yes, I’ve traveled by rail in Europe and loved it. Wish I could say that I’ve got plans to do it again soon, but not sure — hopefully. I think I recognize your first rail station photo as being taken in Hamburg — I took a few pics there, too. Wish we had similar rail service in the U.S. We have some beautiful Amtrak routes, but not the infrastructure of Europe.

    • Yes, it’s Hamburg railway station. I lived in the USA for 5 years, but never took the train there. Next time…

    • The Interrail tickets are definitely good value, especially considering the flexibility.

  17. I love train travel especially in Europe. Everything is so efficient and really puts America’s rail service to shame. With the way air travel and security at the airport these days are, train travel is so much more appealing. What a great experience you had.

  18. What a lovely journey!! How cool that you got to do that. I LOVE traveling by train and find it, like you said, much more relaxing than air travel nowadays, but I’ve had several trips here in Germany with the Deutsche Bahn in which the restrooms were DISGUSTING. Really stinky and just too gross for what I paid for my ticket, so that was a disappointment and would truly stop me from booking longer journeys!

    • Sorry to hear that, Dana. Have encountered some unappealing train toilets before, but not in Germany yet.

  19. London to Ft William Scotland with a girlfriend in 2013. What a great trip! We loved the crossing of the great bridge which would not be viewed by other means of transport. Also we just exited at a town of interest without hotel reservations and this made the trip even more adventurous for 2 ladies over age 50. The trip I wanted to make since college days!

    • What a wonderful memory. Hope you’ll have many more – and thanks for stopping by 🙂