Traversing Europe by train: how and why

I’ve wanted to travel from Romania to Belgium (or vice versa) by train for a long time, and now I’ve finally done it! I am more than a little pleased. Initially I felt a little daunted by the length of the journey: it took me two days to get from Oradea (RO) to Ghent (BE) via Budapest and Vienna. I decided to split it in two and spent two nights in Vienna. That way I made sure I didn’t get overstimulated by the journey and was able to do some sightseeing at the same time. After all, it would be a shame to pass through one of the pearls of Europe and not see it. I could have stopped in Budapest as well but had already been there several times. In this post I will explain how to travel across Europe by train. It is a little more challenging than booking a plane ticket, but well worth the effort!

Why travel for two days if you could do it in three hours?

Many people threw a puzzled look at me when I told them I was going to travel home by train. After all, why would you travel for two days if you have the option of a flight that lasts less than three hours? To be fair, that journey would still last around six hours taking into account the trains to and from airports plus check-in and waiting time. Apart from the obvious fact that travelling by train is better for the planet than flying I found a great many reasons why the train is more fun than a plane. I don’t want to preach and I’m not exactly a saint myself, but if you want to calculate the CO2 load of your journey, try using the brilliant EcoPassenger calculator. My train journey caused just 40% of the CO2 emissions I would have caused by choosing the plane.

The main reason why I hadn’t embarked on this long train journey is my mental health. I’ve been struggling with depression for years and this has often exacerbated my high sensitivity to my environment. Until now, I simply could not imagine being able to handle such a long journey because of all the sensory input I would be exposed to. Thankfully, my time in Romania has done me much good and this time round I felt I would much prefer the slow transition that a train journey offers to the quicker one by plane.

To my surprise, it was, in fact, a much calmer journey than I had expected. I thought a longer journey would mean more exposure to noise and other potential stress factors, but this turned out not to be true. My train journey was far more peaceful than any flight I’ve ever been on. First, you get to skip the whole check-in process: instead of queueing and waiting for security and boarding, you just board the train and that is all. No waiting time, no endless walks to gates. If you do have to wait you can do so at a cozy cafe or bakery, which are ubiquitous at German and Austrian stations.

Once you’re on the train, it feels more like a living room than the sardine can that a plane is. There are far less rules: no need to listen to safety instructions or stay put in your seat during takeoff and landing. Your seat is likely to be much more spacious and, if you travel first class, you get to pick your seat in advance. First class train travel often isn’t that much more expensive: in my case a second class ticket from Vienna to Ghent was €99,90 and I could upgrade to first class (which I did) for just €19,90. First class also gives you access to the DB Lounges on German stations, which makes waiting in between trains much more comfortable. Complimentary drinks and snacks included. You don’t have to book long in advance either; prices don’t go up as ridiculously as with airlines, probably just because there are plenty of seats available. Prices vary widely per day so if you are flexible you can just find the lowest fare. Tip-off: fares are ridiculously low on the 31st of December!

Other perks: wifi, a socket next to your seat, a table that your laptop actually fits on, a quiet zone, free newspapers. You can take as much luggage on board as you can carry and keep it near you all the time, without getting charged for it. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned the food yet. ÖBB Railjets and DB’s ICE trains have onboard restaurants that serve decent food for equally decent prices. How about an Emperor’s Breakfast for €8,90, or a red vegetable curry for €9,90? Or a Viennese apple strudel with custard for €5,40? On the ÖBB trains you can even order food through their web portal which you get automatically directed to once you connect to their wifi service. Through this portal you can also access newspapers and magazines for free, as well as audiobooks including language courses (‘Urlaubsdusche’), a classical music channel and more.

Beyond all these material perks, there are advantages that are a little harder to express in numbers. There is the cadence of the train, the whistles, all the typical station sounds… They give me butterflies. One of the things I appreciated most about this slow travel mode was that I didn’t get this time-capsule feeling but slowly transitioned from one place to another. We’ve come to think that fast is good, but why? It often results in a lot of stress and irritation. For one thing, I was a whole lot less sweaty and frazzled after fourteen hours of train travel than after a three-hour flight. Also you get a better idea of the geography of Europe and the distances between cities and countries. This opens a bewildering array of options: did you know Bratislava is just over one hour away from Vienna? In a way, I think train travel simply requires a shift in our thinking. A longer journey means more value for your money: you get to travel more, see more from the window. Also a train journey is an adventure in itself. If you can get to see the journey as part of your holidays, not just as a means to get there, it becomes a whole lot more exciting.

How to do it

OK, I’ve sung the praises of trains long enough. High time to move on to the practical part. How to get on that train? There are a couple of challenges but once you know the tricks of the trade they are easy to overcome. To start with, you will probably have to buy tickets from multiple carriers if you are covering a long distance. This means you have to find out where you have to buy your ticket for which section. I’ve made this a little easier for you. I’m only going to tell you about travelling from Romania to Belgium/the Netherlands so will only deal with the relevant carriers, and not handle all of Europe in this post. For extensive info about train travel worldwide look at the brilliant Seat 61 website. Mouthwatering – it makes me want to jump aboard another train straight away!

So, let’s start in Romania. Internal tickets can be bought online at the CFR Calatori website, but once you venture across the Romanian border you will have to actually go to the station to obtain your ticket. In my case, I wanted a ticket from Oradea to Budapest, but I wanted to buy it before I got to Oradea to make sure I had a seat. In Baia Mare I was told I had to buy it in Oradea; in Cluj I asked again and they gave me the ticket straight away. Have a peek at the aforementioned CFR website for great offers; tickets to Budapest from Oradea come for as little as €13 or €15.

Update 27.07.2021: You can now also buy your tickets from Romania to Hungary (and vice versa) online and print/download a PDF ticket! You can do so here. See this page on Seat61 for a detailed explanation of how to do this.

Then, Budapest-Vienna. Tickets from Hungary can be bought online but you have to pick up your ticket from a machine at a Hungarian station – so you have to make a long enough stop at Budapest Keleti (main station) or elsewhere. Booking is fairly straightforward and goes through the Elvira website from MAV, the Hungarian carrier. Pickup is a matter of seconds. Again there are great offers – €13 or €18 in my case. Enter ‘Budapest Keleti’ as your origin and ‘Wien Hbf’ as your destination; you may not see the offers if you select other stations or Budapest and Vienna generally. Enter your date of birth and use the dropdown to see available trains and offers. You will be travelling by RailJet or EuroCity train.

I booked the last and longest section, Vienna-Gent, through Deutsche Bahn. I also use the DB website as my main planning tool. It is the one website that has all the stations in Europe listed, and you can enter many parameters: whether you have a rail pass, how long you want the transfer time to be and much more. If it says ‘Fares not available’ or ‘Determine price’ in the right-hand column then you probably need to adjust a few things; offers only apply if you book with one carrier, in this case Deutsche Bahn. So you won’t get to see any offers/prices if you enter Oradea-Ghent or Budapest Keleti-Ghent for example, but you will if you enter Vienna-Ghent. You’ll figure it out.

If you don’t feel like figuring it out all by yourself, you could consider using Happy Rail; this is the planning website of the Dutch Treinreiswinkel. Of course booking through their website comes with an additional price tag. You could also just ask me for help and I’ll see what I can do for you! Possibly against a small fee if it’s a lot of work. 🙂

Any drawbacks?

Apart from the fact that you need to have the time to embark on a journey like this, there are very few drawbacks that I can think of. The biggest for me was that a longer journey meant more hunger = more kcal = less money. Other than that, a train journey doesn’t have to be more expensive than a flight; if you are flexible on dates you can simply pick the lowest price, and you don’t get charged for luggage. You will have to be a little bit more creative when planning your journey. Whereas booking a flight is simply a matter of booking a ticket from A to B you will have to look into stops, perhaps book a night or two somewhere and do a bit of juggling when searching for the cheapest ticket. An earlier or later train than desired may save you a lot of money! Also you will have to change trains a couple of times, but if your luggage is draggable this is a good thing; time to stretch your legs and maybe even do some sightseeing! If you are flexible and enjoy planning, these don’t have to be drawbacks at all – you can add them to the long list of perks instead.

Useful websites

Here is a list of all the websites I’ve mentioned in this blog – and a few more:

CFR Calatori – the Romanian national carrier
International tickets from Romania to Hungary and vice versa (CFR)
MAV – the Hungarian national carrier
ÖBB – the Austrian national carrier
Deutsche Bahn – the German national carrier and international rail planning tool
HappyRail – book through here if you don’t want to do the hard work yourself
Seat61 – brilliant website with an incredible amount of info on pretty much any train journey
Sparschiene – the ÖBB page dedicated to special offers
RegioJet – incredible train and bus offers for trips within Europe
EcoPassenger – Calculate the ecological impact of your journey

In case you’re wondering: I haven’t mentioned InterRail in this post because it’s simply not worth it if you are ‘only’ travelling for two days straight – it might be worth it if you are travelling, say, ten days within one month. But in my opinion you won’t need this if travelling to Romania – once you’re there and you want to travel within the country you will find that train tickets are incredibly cheap – InterRail can’t beat that.

I hope I’ve kindled a little fire in your travel-loving heart and that you have itchy feet now! If you need any advice on train travel or travel in Romania in general do get in touch. I’d love to help!

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