Community: How to cross Europe by train — or not

The Brenner rail network in Italy | Photo by Lorenzo Buzzoni

The story of European rail is also a story of millions of Europeans — their commitment to more sustainable travel, their adventures on the road across borders, their struggle booking tickets, disappointment at lost connections and also the memories that are there to stay.

Below you will find a variety of readers’ entries, loosely grouped into themes and topics. And even though we were only able to spotlight a selection of them, we are grateful to everyone who decided to participate and let us hop on board their train journeys in all corners of Europe. We hope you’ll enjoy Investigate Europe’s first community publication as much as we do!

Excerpts from reader submissions, edited for clarity:

What could have been a train ride, but wasn’t

“Back in 2019 I went to Asia twice, which meant two long hauls one way because I live in Lisbon and there are no direct flights. Total: eight long hauls. This felt very wrong and I decided to commit myself to travel more mindfully, and less. As I returned, I had to go on a trip to Barcelona for work. I was really uncomfortable with yet one more flight mere weeks after I came back from a very heavy carbon footprint trip, and decided to look for trains. This process was just depressing. I ended up flying because I couldn’t afford going by train.” – Cristina, Portugal 

“A couple of years ago, as a regular(ish) user of the Eurostar, I received marketing trumpeting the new London-Amsterdam route. We were really keen to visit friends in the Netherlands, so we clicked through to the booking page. We quickly found that there was one train a day which would get us there, but no direct train back to London. We waited in case more trains were put into the system. A week or two later, there was still no direct train back. So, fired up with the idea of a Dutch break, we booked (somewhat cheaper) return plane tickets to Amsterdam: thanks, Eurostar!” – Jonathan, UK 

“Norway, incredible as it may seem, considering its wealth, is not much better. Norwegians see the long distance train as something touristy. It upsets me that I don’t have a direct connection to at least Copenhagen. I don’t think I would have this feeling of living on an island. There are two lines out of the country: one to Stockholm and one to Gothenburg. I was searching the Internet for the trip to Gothenburg and came across a page where the trip is shown as being by train. Now put in the search fields Oslo -> Gothenburg and you will end up on the RAIL.NINJA page. Interestingly enough, it is a bus! I did a search on Google images and captured the attached image (see below). In the image, you see the VY logo — this is the Norwegian train company. So the train company advertises and describes a train line, but at the end offers VY-bus4you!” – Gabriela, Portugal/Norway

Screenshots showing that a railway booking from Oslo to Gothenburg results in bus seats | Photo courtesy of Gabriela

“I am a Portuguese living in Finland, married to a Spanish. Every year, we try to find a train that would take us from Barcelona to Lisbon when we go visit our families. A trip that could at least be done easily with an overnight train is just impossible. It would take us a generous 12 to 14 hours to do a trip that could probably be shortened to six hours if there was a fast train connection from Madrid to Lisbon.” – Duarte, Finland  

One delay too many

“I stopped flying in 2008 and have travelled a lot by train in Europe since then, starting from Stockholm. Most of the time it has worked out well. Sometimes not. Like when I was going to Vienna for a conference. I left Stockholm at noon and the plan was to change trains in Copenhagen, and then take the night train from Hamburg directly to Vienna to arrive the next morning. Separate tickets for Stockholm-Copenhagen (SJ) and Copenhagen-Hamburg-Vienna (DB). In Gnesta, not even an hour from Stockholm, the train stopped and stayed for over two hours. I started Googling alternative routes even then. SJ, of course, had no help to give. The Danish DSB had no information — they were not part of the booking. And Deutsche Bahn has no staff in Copenhagen. I knew from previous experience that if I could get a stamp on the ticket,  I would be able to continue on the trains that were available. So I took a few other less-travelled passengers with me and went to DSB’s customer service. We made it just before they closed for the evening.

“In an ideal world, I would have been offered a train to Hamburg, a hotel night there and then a fast train the next day to Vienna. The option I was offered involved five different InterCity/regional trains (i.e. without sleeping places), and would mean that I arrived “only” four hours late at my final destination. Thus I took the train from Copenhagen. Changes in Fredericia, Neumünsterand and Flensburg I think. Since the trip involved a three-hour change in Hamburg, I was able to check into a hostel at the station there and sleep for a while. Then changes in Fulda, Wolfsburg and some other place. So I arrived in Vienna at noon. Lesson learned: there are trains. It is possible to get around. But if I hadn’t known how to go about it, I might still have been standing there in Copenhagen.” – Joakim, Sweden

Joakim’s journey involved a three hour delay in Hamburg | Photo: Ingeborg Eliassen

Sidetracked by Interrail 

“Brussels in November — I had planned not to fly. There was a moderation at the European Rural Parliament in Candás, Asturias, on my agenda, preceded by a meeting with seed initiatives in Porto. Back and forth as the crow flies Brussels — Porto about 3,000 km; distance by train about 4,000 km. If I had taken the cheap airline, I would have been on the road for a total of seven hours including check-in and check-out for usually less than €100 euros for both routes. My travel time by train and bus, including missed connections and waiting times, was about 70 hours. With Interrail-Pass plus reservations. I was still €150 below the normal price of around €500, still five times as high as the usual cheap air tickets.

“No more railways? Non, je ne regrette rien. If I had not tried not to fly, I would not have had the conversations with Ahmed, the disabled man from Morocco; I would not have haggled with the Basque hotel manager at one o’clock in the morning to buy Ahmed some sleep; I would have missed the bus that never came and the night with the homeless and the seasonal workers who told me incredible stories about their lives; the hard but somehow longed-for place on a park bench when you’re really tired; the equally hard waking by the police and the warming up and scent in the bakery café; the deeply-felt feeling of gratitude to be able to lie in the night train to Coimbra for a few hours and the early arrival at the beautiful station of Porto in the pouring rain. 

“I would have missed the robots of artificial intelligence on the other side of the line when I was at a loss and they were testing my patience, with endless options for no solution; but finally also the long friendly conversations at the counter and on the phone with dedicated train crews who were as desperate as I was to find a way through the jungle of conditions for participation in rail travel.

“Finally, I would have missed the short moment when I fell completely out of the comfort zone, unexpectedly. From the world in which everything seems predictable, but exists only for a few and not always really. I had just decided not to choose the cheapest or fastest way to get to where I wanted to be. To travel by train through Europe instead of getting on a plane would have remained without all that pure theory, spinning, as long as you don’t try it yourself. 

Non, je ne regrette rien. I got a different idea of distance and time, of connections and non-connections between places and people, which I would otherwise not have met or ignored. Travelling by train is a discovery of slowness and unpredictability, but also the disillusionment that, politically and structurally, we are still pretending to be able to go on with business as usual. We cannot do it. The railways, the means of transport of the future, leave too many people, especially in rural areas, on the sidelines and mock ordinary people with a price level that cannot oppose air travel. And by reducing the number of secondary routes throughout Europe, it is arguing that there is no alternative to what the car industry is telling us.” – Hannes, Belgium

Most wonderful journey and unforgettable memories

“I rested in Zagreb for an extra night than planned and cut a city out of my plans. Having an Interrail ticket and flexible booking meant I could do that. During my stay, I managed to take in the Plitvic Lakes — which I never knew existed before a fellow traveler informed me — and the Museum of Broken Dreams. Such memories.” – Danny, UK

“In 2018, I travelled for a few months via train from Greece back to Germany, crossing Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, using just slow, local trains. Each country would be worth telling stories about, but it was probably Ukraine that I liked most. Travelling just a short distance through the southwestern part, from Solotvyno to Chop with a stopover in Khust, I got in contact with such a beautiful country and open-minded people. Luckily, I found a young couple (Maxem and his wife) who helped me get a ticket in Solotvyno, before we entered the train, fleeing from the rain‎. Maxem studied in Germany for a few years before he went back to Ukraine to live with his family. Almost immediately they invited me to Lviv, a town he described as rich with cultural history, with to a lively cafe scene. Because I was in no hurry, they recommended me to make a stopover in Khust. Overnight, I pitched my tent in an abandoned castle above the city. Up there, I met young people who watched the sunset. I’m definitely going to return to the Ukraine and of course, via train.” – Falk

Travelling through Ukraine, one reader discovered a beautiful country | Photo courtesy of Falk

“An interesting journey was the trip from Moscow to Chisinau, Moldova. I was the one and only Western passenger on the train and every one of the train staff wanted to welcome me. For my provodniza (carriage conductor), I had to bring some bags through the border control. Without any words she left some bags in my compartment. I wonderedwhat I had to do with it. My compartment neighbour told me that this is normal procedure on the train to Moldova. He also ordered some Moldovan Cognac for the next week. One station before the Russian-Ukrainian border, I got off the train to take some pictures and get some food from the Babushkas at the platform. I saw many people with body cams at the station. One of them came to me and checked my documents. At the border station I was a bit afraid of , what to say to the officers because of the bags filled with women’s clothes and shoes. But no one asked [about them]. The same at the Ukrainian side. It became dark already, the train was entering Kiev. The corridor became noisy, many people [who] entered the train were searching for Ludmila, my carriage conductor. They gave her some bags or boxes tor bring to Moldova or picked up some stuff from her. The unofficial post system is working very well. Another time,the train staff invited me to have breakfast together. They were really nice. When they saw thatthat I had a camera with me, they persuaded to me to do a photo shoot with them. So I took my tripod, placed it in the corridor and for about half an hour and I took some photosof Ludmila. In the last hours of the trip, I talked the whole time to thetrain staff andthey even allowed me to hold the yellow flag while departing from a station, which shows that everything is okay. It was the most interesting and most wonderful train journey of my life.” – Eastern Traveler, Germany

“I am an 80+ year old traveller. Prior to Covid restrictions I travelled from my home in the UK to Northern Italy using a 1st class Inter-rail Pass. I used the Eurostar service London St Pancras to Brussels, compulsory seat reservation cost about £30, but 1st class pass entitles you to a premium seat with drinks and snacks served at the seat. I then made a connection using a DB (German) service to Cologne. I arrived at about 4 o’clock, giving me adequate time to check into a hotel close to the station. Day two, departing about 8.30 am on a long but very scenic journey to Villach, Austria. I was on the train until 6.45 pm, passing through the Rhine Valley, onto Stuttgart, Ulm, Munich, Salzburg, through the northern Alps to southern Austria. During this journey, I shared a compartment with a German family on their way to Salzburg to meet their prospective in-laws, They couldn’t believe I travelled on my own from England. It was a most interesting few hours, they kept me informed of much of the geographical features we were passing. I enjoyed a pasta meal served at my seat after leaving Salzburg, a very reasonable €8. Unfortunately on arrival at Villach, my ongoing connection to Gemona had been cancelled.With typical German efficiency, a double decker coach was provided for onward travel. It took rather longer than expected but I arrived all in one piece. A long day but wonderful views throughout and some shared good company.” – Roger, UK

Night train ride: bring some time and wine

“I boarded a sleeper train by Austrian railways, which is an exciting way of travel that I absolutely recommend. To be honest, it isn’t that cheap, most times more expensive than a plane ticket. But because I love the environment (and trains) I gave it a try.
“Well, back to the train: I shared a compartment in a sleeper’s coach with three middle-aged people from south Germany. They were going to a wine tasting holiday in Italy and started the tasting immediately after entering the train. Because they had some standards, they all carried wine glasses in their luggage. I was invited to drink the “best wines from Rheinland-Pfalz”. I hate wine, but I joined anyway. We had a good time. A few glasses later, everyone in the compartment went to bed.

“While a night train connection itself is a wonderful idea, the comfort was medium. The coaches were clean, but rather old, so we were shaken a lot. At the border between Austria and Italy, they had to change the locomotive for some regulatory or technical reason. Which was a pretty harsh bump in the middle of the night during coupling. When I woke up in the morning, I was already in Italy.

Italy by train | Photo: Lorenzo Buzzoni

“The great thing about going this distance —around 1,700 km, by train — is seeing the landscape change. From flat northern Germany via the mountains of Austria and the Mediterranean countryside. I had my breakfast – included in the train ticket’s price – while the sun went up and watched Italy moving along the train windows. What a view. If European areas were interconnected more frequently, faster and more comfortable via train, it would be the perfect mode of transport. Right now, it took me 24 hours to go from Hamburg to Rome – including a three-hour break in Munich.
“Nevertheless, I recommend travelling Europe by train already. Just bring some time – and maybe some wine.” – Paul, Germany

“My next train was to Bratislava. Another night train. I cant remember the departure time, but I certainly remember the arrival time. 05.30. The nightclubs were just kicking people out. There’s me walking around with my rucksack trying to find a coffee, while there’s a guy next to me vomiting his guts up. My hostel check-in time was 1 pm. It was a long few hours. I changed my future reservations after this to not include any more night trains.”  – Danny, UK

Local means canceled?

“I would so much like that an old night train from Paris to Florence or Rome (via Genoa, my hometown) could exist again. It was cancelled in the early 80s and now that I live in Paris, I would do anything in the world to have it back!
“Under the not so great experiences in cross-border train travel, I could file the train connecting the French riviera to Italy: up until 2005 or so, there used to be higher speed trains connecting Nice to Genoa several times a day. Now they all sadly end in Ventimiglia and the only train connection between Italy and France is a slow one hour train ride from Ventimiglia to Nice.
 It is still unknown to me why we got to this point. To me train travel, is the future of travel for Europe and I cannot wait for more train lines to be opened.” – Giulia, Italy/France

“Take the Venlo border for example. Not so long ago, a regular through service ran from Cologne to Den Haag via Venlo. It then got progressively shortened to Cologne – Eindhoven, before simply becoming an extension of a German stopping service to the far end of the platform at Venlo. To travel from Cologne to Eindhoven now requires a train to Monchengladbach, an interchange (which may or may not be missed) to another train to Venlo, a brisk walk and tight change to an Intercity to Eindhoven, then a further change for Rotterdam. It requires four trains plus at least an hour of ‘delay time’ to make a trip that used to be possible in one go. I don’t even dare think of the best way of arranging tickets.

“It’s great to see high speed trains connecting European capitals, but the European railway network needs to get the basics right.” – Philip, UK

Tickets for cross-border travel? Good luck! 

“I’ve been travelling around Europe by rail for 27 years, since I was 18 years old, and during this time, it has become progressively more difficult. On the positive side, the Internet has made finding information and buying tickets easier – but not always. I remember being able to go to my local station in Germany (where we lived at the time) and buying a return ticket to Oxford, by rail and sea, for immediate departure. I remember easily getting a ticket to London at Barcelona Sants, to Paris at Richmond travel centre, and making a Polish couchette reservation to go with an Interrail pass at Norwich station. Just try doing that nowadays – even online. It isn’t easy.”  – Philip, UK

Getting a ticket to London from Barcelona’s Santa station is no longer an easy task | Photo: Ingeborg Eliassen

“This summer, my partner and I spent two weeks in Italy. We started with a few days in Rome and then travelled northwards with several stops of two to threedays in different places. If there was one thing I was sure aboutconcerning our trip, it was that we should go by train. But I realised that you need to really want it to make it happen. When I started my (hours of) research, the price for a flight from Berlin to Rome for that time was at €18. In the end,we ended up paying €105 each for the same trip by train, and it took us almost one day instead of two hours. Nevertheless, it was great travelling southwards through the Alps and watching how the climate and landscapes are changing.” – Ulrike, Germany

“Since three years back, I only travel by train, no more planes for me. What is really tricky is booking a train trip through Europe. Even if there are several websites offering train bookings (like, it’s not easy to get a good overview of the lines, the different schedules in the different countries and what to do if things go wrong because of delays. It takes several hours ordays to be able to book, in that sense it will be really difficult to persuade people to use the train to travel abroad. People simply don’t have the time.“ – Isolde, Sweden

Border controls

“The border between Ukraine and Hungary takes so much time to process the passengers/border control. Even if the train is close to empty, it still takes about four hours to get into the EU. This makes flying a viable alternative.”  – Berd

“So far, I’ve made 17 border crossings by train in Europe. Overall it has been a pleasant experience.Some crossings, however, are less than comfortable. For instance, thrice now I have crossed a border in a regional train as that was the only offering. There’s a second thing that could be improved: I’ve been checked for passport before, which requires stopping the train. We’re in the Schengen region, this should be unnecessary. This makes crossing the border by rail less convenient than by car in this example because I’ve never been stopped at the border in a car. Looking at you, Denmark. And concerning passport controls, I’ve seen it twice now that German police in Passau have gotten on the train, armed, to check only some people’s passports on the train coming in to Germany from Vienna. And the people they check are always either hijabis or men with Middle Eastern looks and beards. I’ve never been checked as a white person. They said to them: “Weil Sie Ausländerin bist müssen Sie ein Ausweis haben.” Even though I’m an Ausländerin as well, I’ve never had to show my Ausweis to them.” – Luna, Netherlands 

Edited by Joanna Kopacka and Sindhuri Nandhakamur.