Want to head straight for a look at cabin photos? Scroll down!
My glass of wine arrives and I lean back to admire sunlight bouncing off a river. Its path bisects grassy fields ascending to a horizon of jagged mountain peaks. All in all, it’s a quintessential Alpine view in all of its Sound of Music glory, complete with cows and tiny wooden homes scattered about. If only my camera could capture the pristine perfection of it all, but I doubt it. After all, I’m inside a train and travelling nearly 300 km/h.
Rail service in Europe
Europe travel has become ridiculously inexpensive in the last decade thanks to discount airlines like Ryanair and easyJet. They keep their costs low by using secondary airports that are often located in isolated areas far from their host city, and often there is no rail service available, only busses or cars.
Trains, meanwhile, reach most towns (ideal for off-the-beaten-path travel). Trains require no security check-in, have no baggage restrictions, and are generally stress-free with quick connections. Plus, they afford glimpses of rural and small-town life unavailable from the bird’s eye vantage point of air travel.
Generally, you can expect two classes of service when travelling in Europe by train (some of the smaller local train lines have just one, and others, like the “Ferrari train” mentioned below, have three). Long distance trains provide the nicest cars, where even a second-class ticket gives you comfortable, clean seats and access to amenities like wifi internet.
Are first class trains worth it?
So is it worth travelling first class on European trains? We think so, given the right conditions. For one thing, the price difference between train classes (usually 50%) is far less than the equivalent jump in air travel. Then again, you don’t get the same service: no warm cookies, no free meals or drinks (unless you’re on the Eurostar between London and Paris), and you’ll be stuck paying for wifi like the second class passengers.
However, you will have more leg room, plusher seats, sockets to charge laptops and cellphones, access to first-class lounges in train stations (offering free wifi and refreshments), and better air conditioning in the summer months (Don’t get your hopes up: it’s still Europe. For second class, think the equivalent of “no AC” – and that can get smelly – compared to a tolerable temperature in first.)
On some trains, you can have meals delivered to your seat or compartment, while others have a food cart that passes down the aisle. Either way, it saves you from jostling for a table in the dining car or standing up in the bar area.
With fewer people per cabin, you can also expect quieter cars (on Germany’s Deutsche Bahn http://www.bahn.de/i/view/USA/en/index.shtml you can choose quiet and cellphone-free cars), more room for luggage, and fewer people travelling (meaning you can usually get away with not reserving a seat and still avoid the dire consequence of standing throughout your journey, as has happened to me several times in second class).
Unfortunately, sometimes you will end up sharing a car with a group of loud American tourists, who have purchased a discount Eurail pass to travel Europe (people 26 and older get first class tickets). I’m allowed to be blunt about this, because I am one (American, not loud)! Yet you’ll find the exact same in second class, although here the people are under 25 and there’s likely to be more of them because there are more people per cabin. Case closed.
First class vs second class – in photos
Here’s a breakdown of what to expect so you can make an educated decision about first class versus second class train tickets.
Local Swiss trains – CBB CFF FFS
Local trains don’t offer meals and the seats aren’t too different between classes:
Regional Swiss trains – CBB CFF FFS
We noticed a marked difference in cleanliness between first and second class, plus far superior air conditioning. A snack and drink cart will pass through the aisle for refreshments, and a dining car is available to all.
German regional trains – Deutsche Bahn
The Germans put some love into their trains: both classes offer leatherette seats, though first class gives you more cushion and legroom. Meals and drinks are served individually at your seats. Not to be missed: the warm ham and cheese baguette, with thickly cut ham and stone-ground mustard. Mmm, but I digress. This is an article about trains, not food….
French regional trains – TGV
The plushest seats of all, plus meal service at your seat.
When you should choose first class rail service
1) If you know the train is going to be packed: You can avoid seat reservation costs and the hassle of finding luggage space (sometimes you might be forced to leave your luggage unattended in a different car) by upgrading. Unfortunately, you often won’t know in advance unless you ask a local.
2) If you need to work: In first class you will have a tray table for your laptop and an electrical outlet. You can also use down time in train stations to work in the first class lounge with free wifi. (If you’re lucky and the service provider is the same as the train’s provider, you can continue with the free connection even after moving to the train, as long as you can maintain the wireless connection.)
3) If you have a headache: Peace and quiet can be a beautiful thing…
4) If you’re exhausted: Reclining, comfortable seats and quieter cars can help you get some shut-eye.
5) If you want to treat yourself: Sometimes there are cute perks involved – like German chocolate soccer balls dispersed during the European Championship. Plus, on the right trains, people bring you food. Enough said.
6) If you have several connections: If it’s annoying to jostle for space on one train journey, it’s absolutely aggravating when you have three or four connections.
Travelling in Europe by train is already far more civilized than air travel. But with such competitive pricing, trains are forced to up the ante. Enter the Italo train of Italy, lovingly called the “Ferrari train” for its dark red color and Formula One speeds. It is a private train that offers a cinema carriage, free wifi, and leather seats, and is surprisingly affordable (45 euro for the 3.5 hour trip from Milan to Rome). “Club” (first) class here will get you an individual TV at your seat and access to private “salottos”: conference-room like salons for four people.
easyJet, watch out!
The final word
Still undecided? Here’s our general rule of thumb: If we have over three hours of travel or more than one connection, we opt for first class.
Either way, we’re still train-travel winners every time we step into our local station, walk straight to the parking lot with our luggage, and arrive home in no time, rested and stress-free