Tales on Rail: How to Make the Most of A Quick Trip Through Europe


#TalesOnRail is an ongoing series in which Rail Europe staff share stories and tips from their travels through Europe. To kick off 2015, the Rail Europe team is traveling from London, England to Zurich, Switzerland, and Marketing & Community Manager Jackie will be blogging about their experiences. You can also see photos on Instagram at Twitter by following @raileurope!

View out of our Trenitalia train window on the ride between Nice and Ventimiglia. Jealous of us?

And we’re back! The Rail Europe team is back in Europe for another whirlwind trip, and we’ve restarted our #TalesOnRail series to bring you tips and stories from our personal experiences on European trains.

This trip is a big one: over a dozen European cities and over a dozen different types of trains in just over a week. Since we’re covering so much ground and seeing so much in such a short time, I thought this would be a great opportunity to offer some advice on how to make the most of your time when you’re trying to see as much as possible during your trip to Europe, since this seems to be a popular question when travelers are planning their trips.

I should first note that the main goal during our staff trip here is to experience as many different train companies as possible, and I realize that the main goal for most of you reading this is to see as many European cities as possible – so we differ slightly there, but I hope that many of our experiences and tips will still be relevant for you since we all want to make the most of our time.

So here we go! How to make the most of a quick trip through Europe. (By the way, I’m writing this from the first class seat of a TGV train headed from Marseilles into Nice. Really nice view of the French Riviera right now — not going to lie, it’s a bit difficult to concentrate.)

Planning the next leg of our trip with the WiFi & refreshments in 1st class on our Thalys train

1. Think about your schedule beforehand.

It requires a lot of luck and last minute stress to try to accomplish a jam-packed itinerary if you’re a plan-as-you-go type of traveler. If you genuinely want to make the most of a short amount of time, you’ll need to think about a few things before you leave: for starters, pick a route that makes sense logistically (we knew we wanted to see London, Brussels, Paris, and Barcelona, so it made sense for us to start with London and head south from there, rather than flying into Paris and backtracking to London and then having to head back through Paris down to Barcelona).

You’ll also need to think about train times. We knew our flight arrived in the morning and that the Heathrow Express airport train left every 15 minutes, so that was a good start. Eurostar trains from London to Brussels and Thalys trains from Brussels to Paris leave frequently enough that we knew we could accomplish both in the same day. The new high-speed France-Spain train between Paris and Barcelona leaves early in the morning and takes 6 hours, so we knew we’d have to start Day 2 with that part of the trip and then create the rest of our schedule from there.

First class on the Heathrow Express!

2. Multi-task.

On our first day, we had breakfast in London, lunch in Brussels, and dinner in Paris – three countries in about 12 hours. While I do wish we’d had a bit more time in each place, I was also really impressed by how much we managed to accomplish in that period of time. A large part of this was because we used our train time wisely: we ate on two of the trains so that when we arrived in the cities we wouldn’t spend most of our time sitting inside a restaurant. We edited photos, reviewed the itinerary for the next day of our trip — and as I mentioned before, I’m writing this blog post on a train so that I’ll be free to go frolicking in search of croissants in Nice when we arrive.

Milan Central Station. Connect here with Italo or Trenitalia trains to all major cities within Italy.

3. Comfort is key.

On a busy schedule, you have to allow yourself a few moments to relax and regroup. We’ve been traveling first class, which is great because not only were those meals I mentioned in #2 included in our ticket price (for Business Premier on the Eurostar and Comfort Class on the Thalys), but we also were able to enjoy bigger seats, more room for our luggage, and power outlets (my phone battery literally has yet to reach anything less than 50% so far – so many power outlets in first class!). Bonus: first class on a European train is generally way more affordable than first class on a plane, so if you ever want to treat yourself to first class without hurting your budget too much, a train is the place to do it!

View of the London Eye from the tour we took with our Golden Tours guide! Golden Tours does day trips from London to places like Windsor, Stonehenge, and Bath. Click on this photo for more info!

4. City Tours are your friend.

Whether you’re a fan of bus tours, walking tours, private tours, free tours, expensive tours, or what – tours are your friend when you want to see a lot. Also, it doesn’t hurt to learn some background information about that church in the city center or that narrow street that looks like it came straight out of medieval times.

We took a bus tour of the main London sights and a walking tour through Barcelona. A few of our favorite gems from these tours:

  • There are 3,000 churches in London… compared to 8,000 pubs!
  • Many of those fancy new versions of the classic red double-decker buses in London are hybrid vehicles
  • In Barcelona, April 23 is St. Jordi’s Day, a Valentines-Day-esque celebration during which people show their affection by giving roses and books. Yes please?
Please enjoy this lovely selfie we took in front of a church in Marseilles during a layover on our trip from Montpellier to Nice.
Please enjoy this lovely selfie we took in front of a church in Marseilles during a layover on our trip from Montpellier to Nice. Photo cred to the lovely Alyssa Van Asselt.

In Conclusion

Sometimes it’s nice to travel more slowly and spend some time really getting a feel for a new city or country. We agree and we think slow travel is great – it’s generally pretty relaxing and it gives you more of a chance to mingle with locals and feel like you really absorbed some of the culture of the city.

But sometimes you don’t have much vacation time to use, or you want an overview of several cities rather than an in-depth view of only one or two. Sometimes you’ve already traveled to a few European cities and you just want a quick reminder of why you loved them so much the first time without having to go back and do exactly everything you did the first time. We agree with this too! We don’t think that slow travel is better than fast travel, or vice versa.

We think the best choice for travelers is to make the most of the time they have to spend in a new place, whether it be a long weekend or a three month summer vacation. We hope this post has inspired those who want or need to work within the fast-travel mindset. Happy traveling!

PS: Here are a few of the train routes we took that we really love and would recommend:

Heathrow Express airport train, every 15 minutes (and only takes 15 minutes to get to city center!)

Eurostar, London to Brussels (about 3 hours)

Thalys, Brussels to Paris (about 1.5 hours) (Bonus: first class has wifi)

France-Spain High-Speed Train (about 6 hours)

TGV Lyria (double decker) from Marseille to Nice

Frecciarosa train from Milan to Turin (about 1 hour)

Italo train from Rome to Turin (about 4 hours)

PPS: We’re still on the road! Or the tracks, technically. Follow along with us on Instagram and Twitter @raileurope, and specifically with the hashtag #TalesOnRail. We’ll be posting pretty photos and travel tips everyday.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Avatar southern spain itinerary says:

    This is just gorgeous !*love* it all as the messages, the pictures and the quality of the writing. Thanks !

  2. Hey Jackie , Thanks for sharing such an awesome list tips . Very useful for travel enthusiast like me.

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