It's a great way to travel.
Americans are often tempted to rent a car when they go over. Control or something familiar, I suspect. Fight the urge. If you want to tour rural areas rent a car for the day. Better yet rent bikes. The only thing better than the trains in Europe are the walking and biking trails.
When a business meeting took us to Southern France, followed by a meeting in Paris a week later, we decided to rent a car and take a vacation in the middle. We reasoned that a car would work out better since we'd be stopping to see friends along the way.
Driving the car was kind of fun, especially since ninety nine percent of the rental cars are compacts with manual transmission, which I love. But there are driving rules to figure out (some odd) and, more importantly, the constant challenge of trying to park.
By the time we approached Paris I'd had enough and opted to drop the car off at the airport rather than trying to navigate the streets of Paris. We took the subway and trains the rest of the trip and had a blast.
For vacation travel now Faith and I typically buy something like Selectsaver Passes. A six day, three country pass for two people, which works out to about sixty seven dollars per travel day.
Notice I didn't say six train trips. Six days. You can hop on the train and travel from one side of a country to the other and back again, eating up the whole day in the process, and still only use one travel day. Some mountain trams, buses, and boats are also covered by the pass.
Figuring out the train schedules is really easy. Train station ticket offices will also help work out schedules. There are also large yellow posters with a list of departure times and destinations for the station.
When our schedule wasn't set in stone we'd just start hopping trains and check out schedule posters at the stops. For longer, more complicated trips, we'd either plan online using Die Bahn or spend a few minutes talking to the nice folks at the train station. They'll even print out the schedule.
Track platforms usually show the next train on a board, like the one pictured to the right. This is Track 6 in Geneva, Switzerland and the next train on this track will depart at 13:18 (1:18pm) with stops in Nyon Morges, Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux, Sion Sierre and finally Brig.
This sign even shows that the train is configured with two first class sections in the front, followed by a half dozen second class cars. There will also be posters along the track which show the train configuration and the approximate part of the track where each compartment will stop (i.e. 6B in the background).
As to the types of trains, well there are all shapes, sizes, and styles. There are older, boxy trains with windows that slide down and stiff, upright bench seating. Newer trains have work tables, comfortable bucket seating, and sometimes power jacks for your laptop.
Some of the trains are very fast, primarily for the busy, longer routes. And there are specialized trains like the Switzerland Golden Pass Panorama line with extra windows and up-front seating. For longer trips there are night trains with sleeping compartments, something we haven't tried yet.
Train cars come in a variety of configurations. Almost always there's a first and second class, with first being a little roomier and less crowded. There are smoking and non-smoking sections. Quiet cars (no cellphones), compartments with private seating for up to six, and dining cars.
In France the TGV we took ran from Paris to Provence with a few stops along the way. The TGV is a fast, smooth running, modern train. They require a reservation (a few bucks) to board, even with a rail pass. The reservation can be made just before you get on the train.
We've taken a few of the ICE trains in Germany. Great trains, very comfortable, and some of the routes run up to 155mph (and tilt!). In fact the one we took cross-country to Munich had digital displays in the passenger car showing the current speed.
The photos below are from the ICE we took between Freiburg and Frankfurt. There's a glass compartment behind the conductor and, as you can see, the conductor has a great view. His console looks more like a spaceship than a train.