Trains are generally a cheaper alternative to air travel for short distances. Railroads usually run on very precise schedules and they do not experience the weather delays that affect the airline industry.
Trains in Europe
I recently went on a cruise of the Baltic Sea. I took a train from Berlin to Warnemünde to board the ship. At the end of the cruise, I rode the train from Warnemünde to Hamburg to catch a plane. The cost for one person was about 14 Euros (approximately $16 dollars), which is less than it would cost to take a taxi from a hotel to an airport. The train ride took slightly less than four hours.
European rail cars have a landing area with folding seats that allows passengers to strap bicycles or luggage along one wall, and sit alongside. Beyond the landing area there are comfortable seats, and some cars have toilets marked W/C. I was lugging a carry-on bag and a regular suitcase, so I opted to stay in the landing area with the luggage close to my legs. Most of the other travelers just carried backpacks.
Be ready to get on or off the train
The trains make very brief stops at intermediate stations. You may have one or two minutes to board or get off the train. To get on the train, be on the platform by the assigned track a few minutes before departure and be ready to load your luggage into the landing area of a car when the train stops and opens the doors. Once you are inside, you can figure out where to sit and where to put your luggage. When you approach your destination go to the landing area of the rail car with your luggage and be ready to get out when the doors open. You may need to press a button to open the door.
Keep track of time
Wear an accurate watch set to the local time and know the name and time of your station stop. The trains keep a strict timetable, and one of the best ways of knowing whether you have reached your destination is to look at your watch. The name of the station is usually displayed in the rail car. The announcements of the next station over the PA system are usually not in English, except for major stations.
Trains and platforms
Watch your step when getting on and off the train. Some platforms are at the same height as the rail cars and there is just a small gap between the train and the platform. However, some platforms are higher or lower than the train car and you may need to step over wide gaps. When boarding unto a higher rail car, it is better to lift your luggage into the car before you get on. Some passengers may give you a hand if they see that you are having difficulty.
First Class and Express
You pay extra for first class and express trains, but you may not get what you pay for. A couple sitting next to me was going to Warnemünde on the same cruise. They had bought first class tickets, but they could not find a section marked first class, so they were sitting on the folding seats on the landing area of the rail car with their luggage.
Verify your ticket
When I checked in Warnemünde with the station clerk about the status of my train to Hamburg, I found out that the express train I had booked in the U.S. had been cancelled, and I was going to have to change lines four times with transfer times between 7 minutes to 13 minutes between trains. It is good that I checked when I got to the rail station, otherwise I would have been stranded waiting for a cancelled train.
Carry 1 Euro and 50 cent Euro coins with you
In most of Europe, you have to pay for toilets. This is true even in the main train stations of Berlin and Hamburg. Perhaps you can find a restaurant like McDonald's that has a bathroom, but it may have an attendant for whom you need to leave a tip. The toilets in the train cars are free, but they may not be working. It is a good idea to make a bathroom stop before you board the train. You will have one less problem to worry about. In Hamburg, you deposit one Euro into a box that prints a ticket. Then, you place the ticket on a scanner that opens the door.
Transferring between one train to another can be easy or very difficult, depending on how far the tracks are from each other. Normally, tracks 1 and 2 share the same platform, and subsequent pairs like 5 and 6 will also share a platform. If you need to transfer between track 1 and 7, you may need to go to the upper level of the train station, cross over to the proper track and go down to the platform. There are stairs and elevators, but the clock is ticking. Women with baby carriages may occupy the elevator and leave no room for you and your luggage. You may need to carry your luggage up or down a long flight of stairs to get to the platform on time.
Rail Trip from Warnemünde to Hamburg Airport (Germany)
My trip from Warnemünde to Hamburg required four transfers. The first stop was in Rostock, where I had to take the train to Bad Kleinen. I had 7 minutes to go from track 1 to track 2, but that was easy because it was on the same platform. The next stop at Lübeck required a transfer from track 1 to track 7 within 12 minutes. I had to take the stairs in order to make the connection. I only had 13 minutes to go from track 6 to track 3 at the main station in Hamburg to connect with the train to the airport. Rushing up and down two flights of stairs with heavy luggage is not fun. I got to the platform as the train was pulling in. I boarded the train and found out that only the first 4 cars of the 8-car train would go to the airport. The last four cars had a different destination. A frequent train passenger told me that I would have to get down and move to the first four cars when the train made an intermediate stop where there was enough time to change cars. When the train stopped, I ran on the platform rolling the luggage behind me to get into one of the first four cars. I made it! I had bought an express train ticket, but I did not get express service.
Rail Trip from Gouda to Amsterdam (The Netherlands)
Some Dutch friends met me in Amsterdam and took me on a picturesque tour that included windmills, The Hague and Gouda. The plan was that we would get some supper, and then I would take the 9:18 PM train to Amsterdam.
We arrived at the train station at 9 PM, but the ticket machine only took coins and no credit cards. The attendant window was already closed. There was no way to get a ticket. Fortunately, my friend had a rail card that opened the gate that allowed me to get to the platform. Upon entering the train, I explained the situation to the conductor who spoke fluent English, and he said "No problem." I expected to have to pay the conductor, but when I arrived in Amsterdam he said, "I will accompany you to the gate because without a ticket you cannot get out of the station." The conductor used his card to open the gate, and he said "Good night" without asking to pay for the trip. I thanked him and realized that I had just saved 24 Euros. I got a free trip! I love Holland!