If you live in Canada, then you know that travelling across the country by train is not ideal. Don’t get me wrong, VIA rail is comfortable, and the Rocky Mountaineer is one of the best train rides in the world, but both options are expensive! It doesn’t help that it takes about three days to get across the country which is why most travellers don’t seriously consider trains as a mode of transportation.
However, if you’ve travelled just about anywhere else in the world, you’ll know that taking the train to get around is usually an easy and inexpensive experience. In Europe, it’s easy to get around the whole continent, while in Japan you can get just about anywhere on a train. With so many different options available to you, I figured it would be a good idea to highlight some train travel hacks.
Book as early as possible
For the best prices possible, you’ll want to book as early as possible. The bonus to this strategy is that you won’t have any problems securing a seat. Now if you’re travelling in Europe, you’ll want to book at least three months in advance since that’s when you’ll see discounted fares. As you can imagine, if you’re booking last minute, prices will be higher, and there’s no guarantee that there will be any seats left.
Download all relevant train apps
This tip should be obvious but always download the local train app. The reason for this is that the official train apps will almost always have the most updated information. You’ll have the most updated schedules as well as route planners available to you. Most apps also allow you to book tickets directly through them, so you don’t need to worry about carrying paper tickets around. Alternatively, there are also train apps such as Trainline (for UK travellers) that list discounted tickets available to purchase in advance.
Use all discounts available to you
This is one of the train travel hacks that is often overlooked. Besides booking in advance, many train companies offer special discounts to students and seniors. There’s no point in paying full price when you don’t have to, so make sure you’re always carrying ID with you to prove your status. Some trains also offer a discount if you’re buying a multi-ticket so take advantage of those if you know you’ll be making more than one trip. Choosing a set return time can also save you some cash. Even if you don’t know when you’ll return, buy an open ticket since it tends to be cheaper than buying a return ticket later.
Buy a train pass
Every rail network has their own pass, so you’ll need to do some research. But they almost always pay for themselves after a few rides. Amtrak has a 30-day pass that allows 12 segments in the U.S., Japan Rail has a JR pass that offers unlimited train travel for 7, 14, or 21 days, there’s also the Eurail pass that can be used in 17 different countries. You’ll need to look into each individual pass to find out what makes the most sense for you, but the time spent will be worth it since it can save you hundreds of dollars.
Think local and national
Depending on what country you’re visiting, it may make more sense to take a local train as opposed to the national option. In Japan, you could use your JR pass to get to Osaka from Kyoto but there’s also a frequent commuter train that costs just a few dollars. In many cities, there are multiple train lines and operators that you need to consider. Some may be cheaper, but the added time may not be worth it. Trip planning can be tricky at times which is why you should download the transit apps, but Google Maps and Rome2rio are good tools too.
Don’t be afraid to pay for better seats
Most people travel by train to keep costs down, but that doesn’t mean you should pay the lowest price possible. In fact, in some countries, you should always pay for the upgrade. In India and Thailand, train travel costs next to nothing if you’re riding in first class, but it’s also very uncomfortable. As in there’s unlikely to be any air conditioning. For just a few dollars more you can get a better seat without sweating the entire trip. You’ll also want to seriously think about what you’re paying for if you’re booking an overnight train. There’s no point in saving money if you’re up the entire night. You’ll just be miserable the next day.
Always book a seat
I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to be cheap and not reserve, but I feel like that it’s a huge mistake. It’s not like I won’t get a seat, but quite often I’ll have to keep changing seats since seats are reserved by segment. For example, I booked a non-reserved seat from Munich to Salzburg which required me to keep changing seats since people had reserved their seats for certain sections. This was a huge hassle and at times I couldn’t sit beside my wife. All of this to save just $10 a person. It just wasn’t worth it.
Choose your seat wisely
Unlike airlines, figuring out the seat configurations can be tricky. If you’re going to Europe, Seat61.com has a good section explaining how seats are set up on trains in all the various countries. In other countries, you may need to ask on sites such as TripAdvisor.com for advice on the best seats. What you’re looking for are seats with the most legroom, privacy, proximity to facilities, available outlets, and even Wi-Fi accessibility. You’ll also want to keep in mind which direction you’re travelling when picking a seat. Depending on where you’re going, sitting on the left or right side of the train may provide you with better views.
Pack some food
If you’re going to be on a train a while, pack snacks and drinks. Many trains don’t offer any food service and if they do, it’s usually of pretty poor quality. The food available to you will probably be overpriced too, so just pack your own food and drinks. The good thing is that every train station will have food available, so grab something before you board. As weird as it sounds, this is one of the most popular train travel hacks out there. Having food available to you can make the difference between a relaxing or terrible trip.
Keep yourself comfortable
Train rides can be long, so make sure you keep yourself comfortable. If you’re on an overnight train, earplugs and a sleeping mask will help a bit. Having your phone fully charged with music and videos will keep you entertained. Don’t forget to pack your charger or portable charger to avoid running out of juice. Trains don’t usually provide blankets, so if you’re the type that gets cold, bring a sweater with you.