Train travel: 8 tips for long distance train trips

Lessons learnt from riding the rails

Ample leg room, no security lines, traffic free and eco-friendly? Travelling by train definitely has its perks. For me, train travel once evoked thoughts of old-fashioned charm, epic journeys and romantic imagery. The trans-Siberian, the Orient Express, the 8:45 from Berlin to Potsdam. Ok, maybe not the Potsdam train, but you get the picture.

After tripping across two continents, you come to realize train travel is not all glitz and glamour, especially in developing regions of the globe. What it does offer is an opportunity to get a closer look at life as a local while saving a bit of money. 

Take it from a long distance train travel veteran, travelling by train will always be an experience. To ensure that experience is a good one, I want to share with you my top train travel tips.

train travel tips

1. Arrive with time to spare (on both ends)

You are going to have to find the station, the platform, the train, your carriage. Sounds simple, but often it can get complicated, especially when you’re dealing with a foreign language.

For a stress free train trip, ensure your on local time and arrive at least 30 minutes before your train departs. Trust me, there is nothing worse than sitting on a train for hours after a mad dash through the station, except maybe missing it. 

You should also know, long distance trains in many regions are notorious for running late. Give yourself some breathing room so a delayed arrival won’t spoil your trip.

Train travel tip - bonus points: If it is not assigned seating, by arriving early you can choose the best seat. Staring down the aisle while majestic scenery rolls by the opposite window sucks.

2. Turn long trips into overnight train rides

Overnight train rides

Personally, I am a fan of the overnight train. Sure, day time travel has the scenic views. But catching a evening train saves a night’s accommodation and gives you more time in your destination.

If you’ll be on the train for longer than one night, or value a good nights rest, get a sleeper compartment. Seats on a train are roomier than their airplane counterparts and many couchettes even recline slightly, but you are still unlikely to wake refreshed after being balled up in the fetal position most of the night. Depending on your budget, it is probably worth the extra cost for a flat bunk bed and decent night’s sleep.

3. Stay fresh

After a long day on a train, you’re going to want a shower. Don’t count on it... While some long distance trains have shower facilities, often you won’t be able to use them (for economy class tickets) or won’t want to (cold water!). It will always serve you well to bring toilet paper, dry shampoo, wet wipes and hand sanitizer to stay fresh during the ride. Painkillers are also a good precaution. If you do have the luck of a warm shower, bring something to wear on your feet.

4. Be prepared for all climates

It is a truth universally acknowledged that long distance trains are either stifling hot or freezing cold, despite the temperature outside. While packing your own blanket may be a little much, a warm, comfortable, jumper and a pair of socks is a good idea. 

Another thing. When pillows are provided for overnight train travel, rarey expect them to be more than wafer-thin. So an inflatable travel pillow may also be a good precaution.

5. Pack a snack

Depending on the train, food will be one of three things: astronomically overpriced, unappetizing or non-existent. When you’re on a train track 8 hours from anywhere, the last things you want to be is hungry. Don’t take the risk, pack a variety of snacks. Personally I favour muesli bars, apples and peanut M&M’s. Bring plenty of liquids as well, most trains do not have free drinking water. 

Train travel tip - bonus points: Having a snack oversupply to share is a sure-fire way to make new friends. Bringing us to our next point...

6. Get your social on

Don’t be the quiet guy - having companions to talk to will make the trip much more enjoyable. A long train journey is the perfect place to swap travel tales, pick someone’s brain about the next destination or learn a little more about the country you are travelling through.

Even if you are unlucky and have a horror train ride (the sweltering hot train between Serbia and Bulgaria springs to mind); as the saying goes, shared pain is half the pain. So take the opportunity and strike up a conversion with some of your fellow travellers. 

Train travel tip - bonus points: Bring a bottle of the favorite local spirit is also a great way to make new train-mates (and the journey more... or sometimes less... memorable).

7. Bring along an array of entertainment

Long distance train ride entertainment

Watching scenic landscapes roll by can be entertaining for a while, but it will not endure an entire long-haul train ride. And come night time, you won’t be able to see a thing.

I am sorry to say, that mammoth novel you have packed, you will probably finish before you know it. I swear by my e-Reader, so I can download new books on the go. But don’t reply on books alone. Often you will be on the train for hours on end, so you will need some variety.

Load your phone with games and a playlist (you can theme it for the country you’re visiting) and invest in some comfortable, in-ear headphones (this will save you from both crying babies and loud snorers). If you have your laptop or tablet along, load it with movies, etc.

Fully charge all devices before leaving, on many trains you will not find any available outlets. And as a backup, a deck of card is always a good option, especially for socialising over a drink as above.

8. Keep your valuables close

Sadly, long distance trains sometimes attract petty thieves. But a little common sense will keep your belonging safe. Even if you are in a private compartment, keep your items secure and out of sight in your bag (which you should keep zipped close). If you plan to wander the train or are going to sleep, locking your luggage to an immovable part of the train is a sensible precaution.

Train travel tip - bonus points: Bring a smaller bag for your valuables (money, passport, electronics, etc) and keep this within reach at all times. For overnight trains, this means sleeping with it as if it was your childhood teddy bear.

A word for women travellers

Be smart. If you are travelling in a closed compartment, do your research. The one time I did not take my own advice, I ended up in alone and locked cabin with a strange man all the way from Krakow to Berlin. He turned out to be lovely (apart from the snoring) but I should have checked prior that it was a mixed gender compartment and sought out another female traveller. 

If you picked up some good tips for travelling by train in the past, tell me about them by commenting below. Have great trip!

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