European Train Stations

A Station Is More Than the Sum of Its Trains

A European train stationEuropean rail stations are much more than just place to hop a train. They have ATMs, hotel booking services, photo booths, luggage lockers, cafes, tourist info offices, newsstands (best place to find city maps, bus/metro tickets, stamps, and books in English), restrooms, and in bigger cities often shops and 24-hour pharamcies.

Like the trains themselves, European train stations tend to be clean and user-friendly.

Most come complete with tourist info, hotel booking service, lockers or offices where you can store your luggage, and snack bars better than you'd expect (in case you forget to pick up train picnic supplies in town).

If you know how to use the train station for all it's worth, you can spend 20 minutes there when you first arrive in a city and come out of it well-oriented and fully armed for your visit.

Arriving in Town

  1. Stop by the station's ATM or bank for a bit of local cash (not too much; a downtown branch might have better exchange rates).
  2. Hit the tourist board kiosk or desk and milk it for all the free info, maps, and brochures you can get.
  3. Visit a newsstand to see whether the city maps for sale are better than the free one from the tourist office (usually the answer is yes, and the investment is worth it). Pick up a phone card (if you'll be in the country long enough to use it), grab a few city bus or metro tickets to get you started, and buy the local English-language information/events magazine.
  4. Now that you have some pocket change, you may want to dump your main bag in a locker or left luggage office for $2 to $10 a day and keep just your daypack. If you're just dropping by town for a half-day visit, the bags will stay there. If you're spending the night, go hotel hunting without your pack, and you'll have more stamina and bargaining leverage to get the best deal.
  5. Head to the phones and call around for a hotel, or use the station's hotel booking service.
  6. Before you exit the station upon arrival, check out your train options for leaving town a few days down the line (as well as for any day trips you plan to make). That way, you can swing by a day or two before you leave to buy your tickets and reserve seats or couchettes rather than wait until the last minute when the lengthy ticket lines may thwart your precision-timed plans.

Getting out of Dodge

The rail information desk—not to be confused with the city tourist board's desk, because the two won't answer each other's questions—usually has a long line, and the staff was born harried. Use the do-it-yourself information sources as much as possible.

Modern stations in big cities often have computerized rail information kiosks and automatic ticketing machines, but both can be on the fritz (or feature lines as long as those queuing to talk to a flesh-and-blood ticket agent).

In smaller towns, the tiny station bar may double as the ticket office, but most stations have banks of ticket windows. Try to figure out which window you need before getting in the invariably long lines. The bulk of windows will be for purchasing regular tickets; a few windows will be for people who just need reservations (if, for example, you have a Eurail pass but plan to take a reservations-required train or want to reserve a sleeping couchette). A few windows may be for international or special high-speed trains only.

I know it's hard to see, but those are two train schedule posters. All of Europe uses this system; on the left are arrivals, on a white poster; on the right are departures on a yellow poster. For a detailed close-up, go to the European Rail System page.I know it's hard to see, but those are two train schedule posters. All of Europe uses this system; on the left are arrivals, on a white poster; on the right are departures on a yellow poster. For a detailed close-up, go to the European Rail System page.

Almost all stations (except, annoyingly, some in Paris) have schedule posters that list the full timetables and regular track numbers for all trains that pass through. Usually, but not always, arrivals are on a white poster and departures are on a yellow one, as in the picture to the right. (There's a close-up shot of the "departures" half, along with detailed explanation of how to read the poster, on the European Rail System page.)

These posters show how many trains a day go where you want to go, when precisely they leave, whether you need a reservation (marked by a prominent "R" in the column detailing the train's car options—1-2 class or just 2 class, sleepers available, bikes allowed, etc.).

The poster also shows you what the ultimate destination on that train will be. For example, you may want to get from Paris to Pisa, but the train will be marked to Rome; Pisa is merely a stop along the way (and these posters do list all the major stops along the way, including what time the train arrives at each).

Finding your train (sometimes trickier than it sounds)

Train car and line posters in teh window of a European rail carThe route cards posted in each train car list the start and end station of the line, along with major stops en route. In some cases, such as in this picture, the car—number 273—is going from Munich all the way to Zagreb, but it will be dong so as part of two different train lines. The train called "EC 113" goes from Munich to Villach, where it will probably join up with (or lose cars to) another train called "EC 213 'Mimara'," which makes the run from Villach to Zagreb. If you want to get to Zagreb and are sitting in this car, it doesn't really matter what the train's technically called before and after the station at Villach; you'll get where you're going anyway.

Track assignments may change on a daily basis. In larger stations, check those big electronically updated departure boards. Then seek out a conductor on the indicated platform and blurt out your destination in a questioning voice while pointing at the waiting train for reconfirmation before boarding. Once on board, I also triple-check with passengers who look like they take this train every day.

Make sure you get on the right car, not just the right train. Each car may very well be splitting off down the line, uncoupled from the rest of the train at some junction station and then joined up to another train headed to an entirely different destination. Yes, this has happened to me before.

Even though a track number will be printed on that schedule poster, track assignments can change on a daily basis. In larger stations, check those big electronically updated departure boards for reconfirmation—but realize that those, too, can occasionally be wrong.

At any rate, getting on the right car is especially important when you're getting on a night train (if you have a reserved spot, you needn't worry). It's not hard to find the right car, though. Each car has its own destination placard, posted either in the window on the doors (as in the picture on the right picture), or slipped into a display plaque on the wall of the little entry/exit vesitbule where the doors are.

There might be another kind of informative poster once you get to the train track itself (pictured below to the right). It shows you the compostion of each train that regularly uses this track, including the locations of its numbered cars. A few seconds' perusal will give you have a sense of (a) where on the platform to wait for the car with your seat reservation, or more importantly (b) where the couchette cars are if you're planning to crash for free.

Rail car composition posters in European train stationsThese are not as prevalent as they once were, but on many station platforms there are wonderful signs that show you the composition of each train that regularly uses the track.

For example, in the poster pictured (hard to reproduce on a tiny computer screen; you'll have to squint and/or just take my word for it here), the second-from-the-top train—the one headed to Napoli—has seven second-class cars (green), followed by a handicapped one (green with a wheelchair), a dining car (red), and then three first-class cars (yellow).

That one's easy. The bottom train to Budapest is more complicated. It's composed of a sleeper car (blue), a second-class couchette car, and four regular second-class cars (the type where you might be able to sleep for free) all going to Budapest (the names of these destinations are written under the train, hard to see in this tiny image, but trust me, they're there). Then there's a second-class car that will end up in Timisoara, followed by two sleeper cars at the end that are going to Bucharest.

This is the sort of vital information that can help you avoid ending up at the wrong end of Eastern Europe, arriving in the capital of Romania when you meant to go to the capital of Hungary.

Again, always check with the conductor and fellow passengers. You may look like an obsessive compulsive dweeb, but at least you won't end up on a train bound for Marseille when you meant to go to Venice.

This article was last updated in January 2008 . All information was accurate at the time.
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