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Travelling by train starts before you arrive at the station
Travelling by train starts before you arrive at the station

Travelling by train can be great fun but before you get to go anywhere you need to find your way around the station. If that sounds pretty simple to you then you’re right. It really shouldn’t cause you a problem at all. A bit of planning and a few tips and you’ll easily navigate any station.

Obviously, stations come in all shapes and sizes so a universal guide is impossible. However, there are some basics which will serve you well wherever you are in the world.

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Plan ahead as much as possible

Book tickets online before you go

Navigating the station will be much more straightforward if you sort out some of the essentials before you even get there. If possible book your tickets online and print them at home. Sometimes, you don’t even need to print them anymore. On Italian railways, for instance, you just show your booking reference. Additionally, quite a few rail companies now accept a mobile ticket on a smartphone.

For European train tickets, I use Loco2 to book online. You can buy tickets for most European train journeys through them and there’s no mark-up so you get the best price. They come on sale at the same time that they’re released by the train operators. For me, the best bit is that they store details of all your tickets in one central place. You can go back and reprint if you lose an email, which is so handy as I’m always having email issues. Better still, when our train to Zurich was delayed they gave me clear instructions on how to get compensation online which made it all very easy. I use them all the time and highly recommend them.

When travelling by train you may be able to show a ticket on your smartphone
When travelling by train you may be able to show a ticket on your smartphone

Of course, not everyone has entered the digital age and this is also true of rail companies. If you can’t book online you can sometimes book over the phone or through a third party. The absolute best place to get this information is from The Man in Seat Sixty One. What that man doesn’t know about travelling by train isn’t worth knowing. As I may have pointed out before, this isn’t an affiliate link. I get nothing for sending you to his site. It’s just a personal recommendation based on the fact that I used his site repeatedly to plan my own trips and it’s great.

If you need to buy tickets at the station

Sometimes it really isn’t possible to book ahead. Particularly tickets for small regional trains and commuter-type services will often need to be purchased at the station. If this is the case look for any automated kiosks. These will usually be in or near the main ticket hall. You’ll find them particularly useful in countries where you don’t speak the language as they almost always have a button to display in English.

However, on some occasions, you will need to approach the ticket booth and speak to a real live human being. Generally, in Europe, you’ll find that the ticket sellers will speak enough English to sell you what you need. If you’re in a country where this may not be the case look for a ticket counter with an ‘English spoken here’ sign over it. You’ll be surprised how often this is offered. We travelled a lot in China, for instance, and there is usually an English speaking desk.

If you don’t speak the language plan ahead

Of course, sometimes none of this will work. There were stations in China where nobody seemed to speak English and no signs indicated an English speaking counter. A bit of advance planning works well though. Before we went, I printed the names of the stations we needed in Pinyin and Chinese characters. We only needed it once, in Nanjing. When all else fails just hand over your piece of paper with a smile and a thank you (preferably in their language). We always learn the words for Please and Thank you in the language of the country we’re visiting at it really is appreciated even if your pronunciation is terrible. Failing that a smile goes a long way.

Look up the station layout online

Before you go, do a google search and see if the station you’re going to has a website. If it does, it will probably have a map or diagram with a layout of the station. This can be particularly helpful to familiarise yourself with where everything is. It’s a good idea to save a copy or the link on your smartphone if you have one as it will come in handy while you’re travelling.

Allow plenty of time when travelling by train

If you’re booking connecting trains, always allow plenty of time to make your next departure. Honestly, it may only take 10 minutes to walk across from one platform to another but in my experience, things rarely go that smoothly. Allow time in case your first train is delayed, in case the station is huge and you get lost. Or just so you can have a wander and stretch your legs, buy some snacks or a newspaper. You’ll be glad you did.

Make sure your connections use the same station

When you’re travelling into a city it’s easy to assume that the railway station you arrive into will be the same one you depart from. However, big cities and even some smaller ones have multiple stations and so you need to double-check that this is the case. If you do have to change stations it’s easier to manage if you plan ahead and do some research before you go. Find out if you can walk or if you can use a subway or bus.

Do you need to validate your tickets?

Just one more thing that you’ll find it useful to know before you set out for the station. If you are buying your ticket at the station, do you need to validate it before you board your train? It’s very unusual to have to validate a ticket bought and printed online, in fact, I can’t recall it ever happening to me. However, you’ll quite often find that tickets bought at the station will need to be validated. This often applies to subway, metro, tram and bus tickets too. It’s well worth checking it out before you go as the fines for failing to validate can be huge and being a tourist is no excuse.

When travelling by train know whether you need to validate your ticket
When travelling by train know whether you need to validate your ticket

When you get to the station

You’ll notice that I suggest you do masses of planning before you even head out to the station. Planning is definitely the key to travelling but with public transport of any kind, it really does pay to know the ropes before you head out. Arriving at a large station can be quite overwhelming. It may be laid out over several floors and it’s not always obvious where you are. We got lost at Beijing West station and wandered around for ages before we realised we were still in the subway system and needed to keep going up to reach the main station.

Travelling by train: finding your way around the station

Firstly, don’t panic. No station is that big and you’ll find out where to go eventually. Look around for an information kiosk as they will be able to help you. If they don’t speak English show them your ticket as that will help them understand where you want to go. Look for signs which are universal, for instance, a train symbol indicates where the main station is. A symbol with chairs or people sitting in chairs will be the waiting room. You get the idea. Symbols are definitely your friend in countries where you’re not familiar with the alphabet such as China and Russia.

Look for universal symbols to find out where to go
Look for universal symbols to find out where to go

Find your departure platform first even if you’re going to do other things at the station

We always find our departure platform first if that’s possible. In China, you’ll be sent to a waiting room and will only be allowed on the platform when your train arrives. That’s unusual though so normally heading to the platform first is the best plan. Once, we know where we need to be we’ll take a look around the station, grab a coffee or check out the shops. You’ll find a lot of stations are actually worth a look in their own right as tourist attractions so if you have the time it’s worth a wander around.

You may need to scan your bags when travelling by train

Be prepared to show your ticket to gain access to the platform. Although this doesn’t always happen you’ll find it does occur particularly on high-speed train routes. If you’re travelling internationally by train, such as on the Eurostar, then allow time to show your passport as well. You may also have to go through some kind of security scanning, even on domestic trips. This varies a lot from country to country. In Russia, China and Japan we had our bags scanned before we were allowed into the station. On the Eurostar, you scan baggage before you enter the dedicated terminal within the bigger station. In other places, Amtrak stations in the USA, for instance, or in European stations, then this is rarely done.

Kolkata station in India was very busy but there's plenty of signs
Kolkata station in India was very busy but there’s plenty of signs

Look for your carriage

Be aware that trains are often very, very long. So you need to find out which platform you’re departing from and be ready to walk quite a long way to find your carriage. If you’re able to gain access to the platform then look for any indicators as to where each carriage will stop. For example, in India, you can look up your train configuration online so you know if your carriage is at the front, middle or rear. They also quite often have indicators on the platform too although we found they didn’t always work.

It’s not always possible to walk all the way through the train if you get into the wrong carriage. We noticed in Italy last year that our train was actually two trains connected together. The two engines met in the middle so if you were in 9A you needed to get into the front train, if you were in 9B, the rear train. There was no way through from train A to train B. That’s pretty unusual though. Another more common occurrence is that on some trains, they lock the sleeper compartments, or particularly the 1st class sleeper compartments. That means you can’t walk through on your way further up the train. So, it’s best to look for your carriage from the platform and get into it directly.

Be prepared to carry your own luggage when travelling by train

Something else to be aware of is that many stations offer no porter service at all. We noticed this in Europe. You rarely see a porter. In other countries, it’s much easier. So if you’re travelling by train in India or the USA for example, you’ll easily find a porter if you want one. It’s worth checking out ahead of time if this is an issue for you. I strongly advise people who’re travelling by train to be capable of carrying their own luggage just in case. If you’re stuck look around for someone to help you out. We always try to help our fellow passengers if we can.

Travelling by train in India is an experience. You can always find a porter though.
Travelling by train in India is an experience. You can always find a porter though.

What if you have a long wait?

Travelling by train can be a great excuse to schedule in a long stopover and take a look around the cities on your route. Train stations are often right in the middle of big cities and so provide easy access for a couple of hours sightseeing between trains.

Most big stations will have some kind of left luggage facility. Sometimes this will be lockers and sometimes a cloakroom type facility where you hand over your bags and get a receipt to retrieve them later. It’s very rare that there is no such facility but it does happen. We’ve found that there is usually somewhere that will keep your bags for a small fee. Try any small shopkeepers in or near the station or ask a porter as there is often someone running an enterprising left luggage service.

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