Enjoy the ride! How to plan your first overseas rail adventure

From money saving advice to overcoming international timetable trouble, we share tips and tricks for making your first overseas train journey stress-free

7 mins

Hopping on your first rail adventure can be thrilling, with epic landscapes viewed from your cabin and the ability to pit stop in captivating places along the way. That’s the simple part, but how do you go about planning it all? And can you save money by looking in the right places? Read on…

Where do I start?

Where exactly to begin is a problem most would-be rail trippers have. “The first thing you need to consider is what type of journey is right for you,” says Matthew Lucas of traintravelexpert.com. “No two journeys are alike – the beauty of the Glacier Express in Switzerland provides a different experience to spending long days on the Trans-Siberian railway, as Europe melts into Asia.”

Working out your budget and timeframe, however, can help narrow down your options significantly, says Mark Smith of The Man in Seat 61 website: “You can also start planning at any time, there’s no need to book years ahead. Most trains only open for bookings 90 days before travel although some, such as the Eurostar, open up to 180 days ahead.”

Plus, in this digital age, train travel is finally catching up with flights and hotels, and now you can book seats for most rail journeys across the world with a simple press of a button. That in itself offers you flexibility as to when you book – you could seal your seat as soon as they’re made available, right up to (in theory) the day the train departs, without having to queue for hours at the ticket office.

If you’re still unsure where and for how long you’ll be away, then a rail pass is the best option for you. It lets you move about flexibly during any period of time. The Interrail Pass is the best known in Europe, but many others exist worldwide.

How can I save money?

If you look in the right places, there are plenty of ways to penny-pinch when booking a rail adventure. Rail passes may be a fluid way to travel but they’re often not the cheapest.

“If you can commit in advance to specific dates, look for budget train fares booked directly through the relevant operator,” says Mark. “They’re exactly like budget flights, but for trains.” These low-cost alternatives can also often be found tracing the same routes as their luxury peers, meaning you get the same eye-popping views for practically a snip of the price.

Shopping around can be key. There is no one website that sells every route at the cheapest price, so it’s best to start with the direct operator before moving on to any third-party ticket providers (to avoid any extra booking fees). Bear in mind, too, that seats are going to be more expensive at times when there’s more demand, as well as far likelier to sell out.

“Plan in advance if you’re booking at times during festivals or big celebrations, such as Chinese New Year,” adds Matthew. Getting in early and going off-season helps, too, says Mark: “Midday on a Wednesday in February is often cheaper than a Friday night in June.”

Consider night trains as part of your itinerary as well. On face value they might be pricier, but they’ll save the cost of a hotel room and often have food included.

Top tip: If you're travelling in Europe, arm yourself with the European Rail Timetable or the German Railways journey planner.

Moscow train ticket and Russian money (Dreamstime)

Moscow train ticket and Russian money (Dreamstime)

Bear in mind...

“The booking process isn’t as smooth as it is for airlines and hotels,” explains Matthew. “Different countries have very different systems – most trains in the US, Europe and Australia can be e-ticketed, while in China and Japan you’re required to have a paper version.” Often, the operators that need a physical ticket won’t mail them internationally to you, so that throws up a headache. Getting them delivered to a hotel you’re staying at or picking them up at the ticket office can sort that.

Don’t worry if one website (or even a few) aren’t showing a route or train you’ve had your eye on. “Train booking systems are often very regionalised,” adds Matthew. “If you’re travelling across regions, you’ll need to research and book across two – or more – different websites.”

Plus, if you are travelling long distances or overnight, do your research first. Don’t assume your train will have a dining car (or even a food trolley) or a shower. Also, be aware that booking a single spot in a multi-berth cabin means you will be sharing with strangers; if you want one to yourself, you will have to pay a supplement.

Prepare for the worst

No journey is guaranteed to go smoothly: “Make sure you have travel insurance to cover you for any delays,” says Mark.

If you get stuck or delayed at any stations – especially if they’re remote – arm yourself with a phrasebook or Google Translate to quickly assess the situation. Buying a local SIM card or having a data roaming package on your phone can allow you to quickly look at timetables or potential rerouting options.

“But if you are truly stuck somewhere, a good book, a corkscrew and a bottle of wine will help to ease the pain,” adds Mark.

Whether there’s hiccups (wine induced or otherwise) or not, there’s no denying that rail trips are unique. “No form of travel provides the connections with people and cultures that you make on the rails,” says Matthew. He’s right. Once the planning is out of the way, all that’s left to do is enjoy the ride.

Case study: Ellie Kinsella

VIA Rail train stops off in Jasper, Alberta (Ellie Kinsella)

VIA Rail train stops off in Jasper, Alberta (Ellie Kinsella)

Wanderlust website assistant Ellie talks about planning her first big train trip...

Tell us about your trip.

I travelled Canada coast-to-coast, arriving in Vancouver in early June to avoid peak season. I didn’t book a return flight so that I would have greater flexibility for planning rail adventures as I went.

How did you plan your first rail trip?

I went on VIA Rail’s official site to plot their map of stop-off locations, then looked into cheap coach transport and tips for exploring places in between. Reading personal blogs and speaking to friends and family for recommendations was worthwhile, whether to learn from their experience or mistakes. It was only after I spoke to my father that I found out he had made the same trip aged 19!

Did you find any money-saving tips?

Most countries with good rail links offer discounted passes that last a number of days. Make the most of a local rail card and set the valid date for the first train you plan to board, not the arrival date in your start location – it’ll give you time to explore that first area and allow for any delays. Also, if you find yourself stuck for hotels or travelling through expensive or less interesting areas, overnight trains are a cheap alternative.

What should first-time bookers know?

Know your luggage capacities and find out which resources are available on the train. Hot water and microwaves are sometimes offered as complimentary services on long journeys, so a food shop before boarding is worthwhile.

What do you wish you’d known before setting out on your rail adventure?

It wasn’t until I rode the eastern Corridor route that I realised many city residents take their holidays in Nova Scotia and neighbouring New Brunswick. So I’d recommend speaking to locals to find out what’s popular in the peak season and booking a seat as early as possible. Also, try not to plan every minute detail – you never know who you’ll meet, and the places they’ve discovered can often be a good guide for your own travels.

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