By Sharyn Alden
It was stifling hot in France on Aug. 21 when my high-speed TGV train pulled away from the station in Lyon and headed to Paris.
After I found my reserved seat, I wrote an overdue email to family and friends titled “On High-Speed Train to Paris,” never realizing what worry that innocently titled email could cause.
It was muggy inside the train. Over the three-hour journey passengers streamed to the bar car in the next coach to cool off in the icy air. I had to join them even though it was standing-room only. In my haste I grabbed my shoulder bag but left my carry-on at my seat.
Later that day, I learned that almost simultaneously, on another TGV train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris and heading to the same station I was going to — Gare du Nord — three American passengers had helped thwart an alleged terrorist’s deadly attack.
In Paris, people couldn’t get enough of the continuous TV coverage. Travelers I talked to were openly questioning their travel smarts.
It shook me up, and got me thinking: This horrific event could have happened on any train almost anywhere in the world … even the train I had been on.
Here’s the rub: Fly to France and you and your luggage will be screened, likely more than once. Ride the rails in Europe, and you’ll have an easy time bringing on just about anything.
How can you be a safe, smart traveler when traveling by train in Europe?
There are no easy answers, especially since the borders of high-speed international-rail nations, including Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland, are wide-open to trains. It’s nearly impossible to check the luggage or IDs of everyone who rides a train in Europe. The suspected terrorist on the Paris-bound train, for example, paid cash for his ticket and showed no ID.
Train travel is highly popular in Europe. France, for example, has tens of thousands of international train passengers and millions of French residents who ride the trains daily.
In the wake of the August event, transport officials from several countries and the European Union have begun looking at ways to increase identity checks and baggage control. Some countries want to work more closely with the aviation industry and bring more international police onto trains at border crossings. The problem is that some countries, especially Germany, view a comprehensive check of people and baggage on trains as an impossible proposition.
As a traveler you can’t predict or circumvent every possible danger, but you can travel smarter on European trains. Here’s how to start.
- Get the right ticket. It can be dizzying getting the right ticket for your trip. Are you looking for first class (there’s more legroom), second class, senior, adult, or youth? Do you want flexible rail travel? That’s different than booking a ticket for a one-way or round-trip journey. Book your ticket or pass through distributors like Rail Europe, Railpass and Eurail. Keep in mind that passes must be shipped to you before you leave the States.
- What a reserved seat means. You usually have two options when you book your ticket: You can reserve your seats or just buy tickets. They’re not the same thing. I prefer to reserve seats in advance for two reasons. First, when you get on the train, knowing you have a reserved seat doesn’t leave you frazzled trying to find an open seat. Wandering the aisles also draws attention — not a good option. And if you want to enjoy the scenery, reserving a window seat will guarantee it.
- Get off at the right stop. It sounds so simple, but even seasoned travelers can get off at the wrong stop. The announcements more often than not are not in English and may be tough to understand. Plus, when the name of a stop is announced it may sound different than how you pronounce it, especially if you don’t speak the local language. When in doubt, ask or consult a map or train schedule before you head down the aisle.
- Fit in. This is a tip right out of Travel 101. Don’t — repeat, don’t — draw attention to yourself in ways that may attract thieves or con artists. In Europe I spoke with an American in Denmark who wore flashy diamond rings on every finger. Her ostentatiousness was the first thing I noticed.
- Use your “inside voice.” Many European trains have a pervasive hushed tone, a seemingly built-in respect for others. Don’t be the ugly American and scream with laughter, bellow into a cellphone or play videos or music so loud that people around you need to wear earplugs. Incidentally, because of experiences like these, I pack earplugs wherever I travel.
- Carry change for the country you’re in. It may seem obvious, but I’ve run across Americans stranded because a taxi won’t take a credit card, U.S. money or Euros in non-EU countries like Switzerland. Want to buy something on the train? Local currency — the currency of your departure country — is usually your best option.
- Don’t leave luggage unguarded at the station or on the train. If need to protect valuables when you’re napping, walking to another car, or on a sleeping train, keep them in a money belt, secure larger items to a luggage rack with a small bicycle lock, or store them in a secure locker at your departing station.
- Get travel insurance. You’ll want ample coverage for lost and stolen luggage, as well as travel assistance if your passport or other important papers are stolen.
On my Paris-bound train a couple of weeks ago, I returned from the bar car and found my carry-on and other belongings still there. In the future, though, I’ll know better than to leave behind items – even for a short jaunt to the next car — because someone may see it as their good fortune.
And knowing what I know now, I may never feel the same way about traveling on a train in Europe.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.
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