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Smooth rides on the rails of Europe

By Ann Lombardi and Wendy Swartzell, Special to CNN
Traveling through Europe by train is one of the best ways to soak up the scenery.
Traveling through Europe by train is one of the best ways to soak up the scenery.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Choose rail passes carefully; you don't want to pay for more (or less) than you need
  • Standing up on a train isn't fun, so make seat reservations in advance
  • Check and re-check the names of your destinations and know them in the native language
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Editor's note: Ann Lombardi and Wendy Swartzell are The Trip Chicks, long-time travel agents and adventurers.

(CNN) -- Europe by rail is hard to resist. Who hasn't dreamed of soaking up eye-popping scenery and old world charm, all from aboard a sleek European train? With Rail Europe's current promotions, you might be tempted to cross the pond sooner than you thought.

Train travel is fairly easy, but the rail school of hard knocks does dole out some tough lessons. Here's what to know before you go:

Ignorance ain't bliss

We used to count the kinds of rail passes on one hand. Now choices can be baffling. For the biggest bang for your train pass buck, trust an experienced travel agent. Don't pay for rail pass days or countries you won't need, and avoid shelling out money for point-to-point rail tickets in Europe because -- oops -- your pass ran out too soon.

Map out places you want to visit and look up routing online before you buy. Trains can cross borders en route to your final destination, so it's important to know which countries are included in your pass. Two user-friendly websites for checking stops are www.sbb.ch/ (Swiss Rail) and www.bahn.de/ (German Rail).

Multi-country passes must be purchased in the U.S. before you leave for your trip. Single-country passes can offer savings and are available in the U.S. and Europe, but prices are higher if you wait to buy them when you get there.

The Swiss Rail Pass is a bargain, including transportation on Switzerland's federal and private trains, lake steamers, and postal buses, plus admission to 400-plus museums.

Make sure to check validity dates carefully so you're not unexpectedly shelling out more money for transportation. Another tip on train pass validity: When taking an overnight train after 7 p.m., write in the next day on your pass. You have until midnight a day later (up to 29 hours) to reach your destination, and it uses just one day's validity.

Locally purchased regional transportation passes can be an excellent value. In Germany's Black Forest, the Konus Card, issued at your lodging with a two-night minimum stay, lets you ride local buses and trains for free.

Guard a rail pass like your passport or credit card. A lost or stolen pass is a hassle. We're big fans of money belts, provided they're worn around waists and not stuffed in handbags or pockets. Rail Europe sells pass insurance -- without it, you're out of luck if yours disappears.

Do leave home without it

Excess luggage, that is. Do you really need snorkeling fins, five pairs of jeans or red stilettos? You'll be schlepping things alone, so test your load and your fitness. "When in doubt, leave it out" is the mantra.

Whopper baggage might not fit into train station automated lockers and storage in luggage rooms costs more. Limit yourself to one wheelie flight attendant-style suitcase. Caveat: Wheelie bags don't always fare well on cobblestones. All the more reason to lighten the load. Ann can vouch for that. Her suitcase wheels fell off as she walked to her Prague hotel.

Playing musical train seats is no fun

Sitting in first class on second class tickets is risky. Recently we saw a German businessman get the boot by rail security guards. He decided not to stay in his standing room-only second-class car where he belonged. Break rules and risk a hefty fine or reprimand.

Sitting during long rail journeys is smart. Standing for hours in crowded cars is not. Bumpy stops can bruise if you're on your feet and caught off guard. Reserve seats seven days ahead for longer distance trips, especially during holidays.

Gone are the days when we opened sardine cans and put fake plastic barf on train seats to scare off other travelers. Now we realize seat reservations are worth every Eurocent. Determine which European trains require reservations by checking handy timetables at www.seat61.com/.

Don't ride trains to nowhere

Carriages connected at the start of trips may disconnect later. Some end up heading in different directions; others are parked on tracks. Since each car doesn't always have a posted destination sign, point and ask a uniformed employee before you board.

Ann wishes she had. One night she woke up in a deserted rail car somewhere in rural Scandinavia. Falling asleep on a train then getting stranded in the middle of nowhere is not our favorite path to serendipity.

The early bird catches the train

Reconfirm your departure and expected arrival schedule. Allow enough time to reach the platform. More than once we missed our train because the connection was too tight. Making a train on Track 24 can be a sprint if your first one arrives on Track 5.

Trains in small towns may stop running after 9 p.m. After missing the last connection to our Dutch village in a downpour, we convinced a farmer to let us crash in his barn. Though the cows didn't mind, we endured a sleepless night in a prickly loft near our noisy bovine buddies.

You snooze, you could lose

Wendy wore silicon earplugs on the French TGV, and slept right through her stop. Ann missed her flight home after conking out on a train in Spain. Set your alarm or ask someone to wake you. Trains can lull you to sleep, and stops sometimes go unannounced. Station signs are hard to read in the fog or dark.

Look before you leap

Watch out for uneven track platforms and steep train steps as you exit. Twisting ankles or bruising knees are "souvenirs" to avoid. Don't assume if train doors open automatically on both sides, picking either door's OK. Ann did, and fell neck-deep into an alpine snowdrift.

Beware of mistaken identity

Before you train it to Villeneuve, France, confirm which one. France has over 60 of them! Our friends went to Freiburg in Germany's Black Forest when they planned to stay in Freiburg/Fribourg, Switzerland.

Learn to recognize train stops in the local language. Ask a native to write down names. ( i.e. Vienna, Austria, is Wien in German; Firenze is Italian for Florence). Learn to spot your destinations in different alphabets too.

Eat, drink and merrily prepare

Some long-haul trains, like those in the Balkans, don't have food service. After major dehydration on a 16-hour ride from Romania, we started carrying 10-liter water bottles.

Though train restaurant meals are a lovely splurge, they put dents in budgets. Pack picnics, snacks, drinks and you're set. On high-speed trains like the Thalys, rides may include food.

Munching peanut butter crackers on the train to Amsterdam, we were surprised when a cabin steward appeared with complimentary dinners.

Pack an easy laugh, patience and an adventurous spirit

Smile at curveballs. Enjoy people and sights. Savor the most sublime of travel freedoms: riding the rails of Europe.