The heyday of rail travel in North America is long gone, but trains are still
a popular form of transportation in many other parts of the world. And no
wonder: With speeds that approach 200 mph and stations located conve-
niently m city centers, modem railroads put airlines and interstate high-
ways to shame for trips of under 500 miles.
In the United States and Canada, intercity rail travel falls into two categories:
• Business/commuter travel, with frequent service on routes such
as Washington-New York-Boston and San Diego-Los Angeles
• Leisure travel, often following routes that were pioneered by
classic trains like the Super Chief and the Empire Builder
Rail travel isn't necessarily cheap. In fact, a coach ticket on Amtrak
between New York and Miami may cost more than an excursion airfare—
and that's without a sleeping berth, which can cost hundreds of dollars more.
Still, rail travel does offer certain advantages: It allows sightseeing-
it's faster than driving on long trips; and it's a new experience for many
travelers. If you think of a rail trip as a cruise, not as a means of trans-
portation, the price isn't so bad.
A few tips:
• Ask about discounts and special packages. Off-season reductions
are common, and Amtrak has a "Rail Sale" page on its Web site
that offers savings of up to 90 percent on last-minute ticket
• To avoid backtracking, buy an Amtrak Air Rail package, which
combines a rail trip with a one-way flight on United Airlines.
• Compare ticket prices carefully on routes in the Northeast. The high-
speed Metroliner trains may not save you enough time to justify
their high ticket prices unless your employer is footing the bill.
America's National Railroad Passenger Corporation has had its ups
and downs over the years, but for most Americans it's the only train
game in town.
VIA Rail Canada
Canada's passenger lines run from Nova Scotia and the Gaspe
Peninsula to British Columbia, with a route extending north from
Winnipeg to Hudson Bay.
This site is loaded with articles and links for travelers and railfans,
with an emphasis on North America.
In Europe, trains are often the quickest way to get from city to city. Many
European railroads are adding services at a time when North American rail-
roads are cutting back. A good example is the new Eurostar, which uses the
English Channel Tunnel to connect Paris and London in three hours. (New
track and local tunnels will shave another 25 minutes off that time by 2003.)
Most European railways are government owned, with notable excep-
tions in a few countries like Britain (which has sliced British Rail into 26
private companies) and Switzerland (where the Swiss Federal Railways
and many smaller private railroads are integrated seamlessly into a national
transportation network of trains, buses, lake and river steamers, finiculars,
cable cars, and chairlifts). Even in countries where a trip may involve travel
on two or three different railroads, you can plan your itinerary with a com-
mon timetable and buy a ticket for your entire journey at any railroad sta-
tion or travel agency. The same rule applies to trips involving railroads in
several European countries.
What's the cheapest way to travel by rail in Europe? Let's examine
European Rail Passes
Eurail Pass is the best-known option in this category; the standard pass
provides unlimited first-class travel in 17 European countries for periods
that range from 15 days to 3 months. Variations such as the Eurail Youth
Pass are also available.
Europass is a newer option. It includes 5 days of travel in five "base"
countries (France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain) plus one or more
"associate" countries, with up to 10 more travel days available at extra cost.
Other possibilities include rail/drive passes that let you take the train
between major destinations and use rental cars for local excursions.
Pro: Eurail Pass and Europass are easy to use, and they're cost-
effective if you plan to cover a lot of territory by train.
Con: You're paying a premium for first-class travel (which is
overkill on most routes), and discounts on some services may be less than
you'd get with a national rail pass.
National Rail Passes
These should be called "transportation passes" instead of "rail passes,"
because in some countries—such as Switzerland—they include unlimited
travel by train, bus, boat, and local public transit, with steep discounts on
private railways, funiculars, cable cars, and chairlifts.
Pro: If most of your trip will be spent in one or two countries, a
national rail pass is likely to be a far better value than Eurail Pass or Europass.
Con: You'll need more than one rail pass (or you'll need a rail pass
plus point-to-point tickets) when you visit more than one country.
Trips over limited distances or between just a few cities may be cheaper
when you buy standard rail tickets. Local discounts for family travel, day
excursions, and so forth, can also make point-to-point tickets a better deal
than rail passes.
Pro: You pay for what you use.
Con: You may find yourself struggling with a foreign language
while a dozen local commuters line up behind you at the ticket counter.
(The antidote, if that happens, is to buy your tickets at a local travel agency
where the staff speaks English.)
For more information on European rail travel, or to buy passes and
tickets ahead of time, visit these Web sites:
Design your own Europass, buy Eurail products, or purchase
national passes. Free on-line maps and schedules are also available.
This subsidiary of the French and Swiss national railroads sells
passes and tickets for 60 European railways. Its FAQ answers the
most common questions about rail travel in Europe.
Rick's Railpass Guide
Rick Steves, Europe by the Back Door author and TV host, sells rail
passes in his spare time. His "rail pass worksheet" helps you decide
what kind of pass to buy.
SBB Travel Online
The Swiss Federal Railway offers a streamlined timetable for
connections throughout Europe
Travel in style from London to Paris or Brussels in less time than it
takes to watch Titanic.
Plan a rail trip in Britain with an on-line query form.
European Rail Timetables
This collection of annotated links points to local journey planners
and home pages for 17 European countries.
Rail Travel in Other Countries
Click the menu window and scroll to the "Passenger and Urban
Transit" listings for railway pages and timetables on six continents.