Thinking About Train Travel? Expert Tips from the Man in Seat 61

by | May 23, 2024

Famous Bernina tourist train passing under the glaciers of the Swiss Alps
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Featured image: With train travel, the journey can be just as beautiful as the destination, like the Bernina Express through the Swiss Alps / Photo by michelangeloop on Envato

Train travel tips to save you money and time

by Carolyn Ray

In March, I needed to get from London, UK to Seville, Spain for a conference. Initially, I searched flights on Skyscanner. But then, I opened my Trainline app to look at train travel. What I discovered surprised me. Not only was taking the train more affordable, it was also a much more enjoyable and productive use of my time.

First of all, the best rate on the three-hour flight from London to Seville, one way, was over 400 pounds (C$700), without carry-on luggage, at a completely undesirable time. Second, the entire journey (assuming there were no delays) would take about 8 hours, including travel time to and from the airport. Then, there was the experience of being on the plane – small seats, no carry-on luggage, limited food options, etc.

In the end, I opted for the train, thinking of it as an adventure. I started at St. Pancreas Station in London around 5:30 am, and enjoyed a delicious breakfast on the Eurostar to Lille, France departing at 7 am. That afternoon, I arrived at Barcelona Sants, right downtown, at 7:30 pm. Even though it was a longer trip, I was able to write, read, nap, eat, walk around and look out the window at beautiful scenery. Best of all, I felt no anxiety. I had plenty of time to make my connections in Lille and Lyon.

Carolyn's train travel route from London to Seville
Caorlyn’s train journey from London to Seville /  Map provided by Google

Shifting our mindset about train travel

It’s well-documented that air travel is the fastest-growing contributor to climate change. Flights produce greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) – from burning fuel. These contribute to global warming when released into the atmosphere. According to the BBC, Aviation contributes about 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). It predicts passenger numbers will double to 8.2 billion in 2037.

The EU has set an ambitious (but necessary) goal to be climate-neutral by 2050 – an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Europe has over 200,000 miles of train tracks.

Research from Eurostar shows that taking the train instead of flying can cut CO2 emissions by 90 per cent. In 2023, France banned short-haul flights, saying any trips that are possible in less than two-and-a-half hours by train cannot be taken as a flight. Similarly, Spain is proposing a short-haul flight ban for routes where a train journey is possible under 2.5 hours.

While train travel may not be our first thought in the United States and Canada, there are over 220,000 miles of train tracks in the US. Canada has over 30,00 miles (49,422 kilometres) of total trackage, with passenger options on Via Rail and Rocky Mountaineer. And with flight prices going up, train travel can be a welcome alternative for those of us who enjoy a slower, more experiential journey.

How to get started in train travel

I’ve been a fan of the Man in Seat Sixty-One ( since I started travelling by train in Europe and the UK. It’s my go-to place for accurate and detailed information about train travel, whether I’m in Italy, Spain, or Britain, or just dreaming about some of the more exotic train excursions like the Silk Route, from London to Kazakhstan.

But who IS the man in Seat 61? And is it just a marketing front for some large company, as so many websites are when you look below the surface? The answer, thankfully, is no! It’s actually a real human being, Mark Smith, working behind the scenes.

man next to train seat 16 mark smith train travel
Mark Smith, founder of the Man in Seat 61, started his website to give people the confidence and know-how to book their trip themselves s/ Photo provided by Mark Smith.   
“I had always used trains between the UK and the Continent, a far easier and more practical way than most people imagine,” Smith says. “By 2001 it had become difficult, if not downright impossible, to find anyone in the commercial world that would tell you how. And by commercial world, I mean both the wider travel industry and the rail industry itself. I thought I’d be subversive and put that information online.”

Smith, who lives in Buckinghamshire, UK, worked at British Rail as the Station Manager for London’s Charing Cross, London Bridge & Cannon Street stations in the early to mid 1990s. After working as a Customer Relations Manager for two large UK train companies, he worked in the Office of the Rail Regulator and later the Strategic Rail Authority, ending up at the Department for Transport in charge of the team regulating fares & ticketing on the British rail network. Since 2007, he has run The Man in Seat 61 full time.

Train travel can be rewarding

Smith says his site “aims to inspire people to do something more rewarding with their travel opportunities than schlepping to an airport, getting on a soulless airliner and missing all the world has to offer. It then sets out to enable people to take train or ferry by giving the confidence and know-how to book their trip themselves or call the right people to book it for them at affordable prices.”

“Many people want to cut their carbon footprint or are simply fed up with the stress of flying – and a significant number of people are afraid of flying or medically restricted from doing so,” Smith says on his website. “However, information on alternatives to flying is often difficult to find through a travel industry obsessed with flights.”

The problem with train travel, he says, is that it needs to become accessible and mainstream with travel agents, tour operators, online retailers.

“I use train operator websites, notably the German all-Europe timetable at, to check times,” he says. “Intel on what changes is found in rail industry journals, key Twitter accounts, Google Alerts set up for key words, and so on. The European railways all change their schedules on the second Saturday in December, in the run-up to that it’s a solid month’s work updating every page.”

white arch over a cobblestone path in Ostuni the white village puglia italy
From London to Prague via Munich in November 2022 / Photo by Carolyn Ray
Maintaining his website is a full-time job. “I get 30-50 emails a day, most questions, some giving feedback,” he says. “Most — 70% — of questions relate to the various rail operator booking horizons, either overseas visitors trying to book too early, or dates that should be open opening late due to trackwork,” he says. “The questions reveal what people want to know, or what they have problems with or misconceptions about, and I can quickly add or reword the site accordingly.”
Europe Train and Ferry System Map
Europe has an extensive train and ferry system that offers alternative ways to travel / Source

Train travel booking tips

Once you’ve decided to give train travel a go, here are some tips to help you make it a regular part of your travel planning routine.

1. Start at home

If you’ve never tried train travel, try something close to home. In 2023, I took a 7-hour Via Rail train from Toronto to Sudbury in Northern Ontario for a travel conference. That same year, I travelled from Quebec City to Toronto, with a stop in Montreal. In 2022, instead of flying from San Francisco to Portland, I took the overnight Coast Starlight train and enjoyed beautiful views of the mountains. Needless to say, trains have become an integral part of my travel.

2. Become familiar with each train operator’s website

Smith says that while it’s best to book on each operator’s website, there are some websites that do everything, such as and Both offer seniors discounts as well.

“These websites link to the Spanish, French, Italian, German, Swiss, Austrian, Benelux ticketing systems and can sell tickets across a swathe of western Europe,” Smith says. “But even they don’t connect to the Portuguese, Hungarian, Czech, Finnish, Norwegian, Romanian or Bulgarian systems. For example, the only place you can buy a €21 ticket between Prague and Budapest is either the Hungarian or Czech railways’ website or app.”

Smith is a fan of Switzerland’s train system. “Switzerland has the best network (SBB) in terms of frequency, reliability, integration and connectivity,” he says. “But I’ve a lot of time for the Austrian Railways, ÖBB, who have some superb trains and some of the best connectivity to neighbouring countries because of the way they co-operate with neighbouring operators.”

Trainline Banner

3. Get tech savvy

Make sure you have the apps from the train operator app on your phone, which automatically put tickets into your wallet and send alerts when there’s a change. Having the apps also allows you to compare prices with aggregators like Trainline before you book.

Case in point: while in Lucerne, Switzerland in April, I needed to book a train trip from Lucerne to Zurich. I was shocked to find a wide variation in pricing – almost $15. Take note of additional fees that are added on at the end to avoid a last-minute surprise.

Comparing train ticket prices on Trainline app
Comparing prices with the Trainline app and Switzerland’s SBB app: Same trip, same time, but $15.50 Swiss Francs (CHF) (C$23) on SBB compared to C$49 on Trainline.

4. Buy a train pass if you’re doing extensive train travel

Most countries and the RailEurope app offer train passes that might save you money, and many include free access to museums and other attractions. Renfe in Spain provides seniors with a discount on all trips (with the purchase of a Tarjeta Dorada card for 6 euros a year. The Swiss Rail Pass gives you unlimited travel by ferry, train or bus and can be purchased for single or multiple days or weeks. It also includes free admission to over 500 museums & exhibitions all over Switzerland.

Click here to save money with a rail pass to the country of your choice!

5. Book in advance, don’t wait until the last minute

I’ve learned this the hard way. Prices go up closer to the date of travel, not down. I also recommend using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) like Nord VPN or incognito mode on your browser to check prices. There are sophisticated technologies working behind the scenes and the more you search, the more prices will go up. Learn more about using a VPN here.

6. Build in time for slower travel

In November 2022, I travelled from London to Prague by train, with stops in Paris and Munich. This allowed me to experience time in these cities rather than just fly over them. Even when I missed one train, I was easily rerouted on another one.

7. Look for tours that incorporate train travel into their itinerary

Many tour companies, in an effort to improve sustainability, have replaced coach travel with public transit and trains. Not only is this more sustainable, it’s much more enjoyable to walk around a train and meet others.

For example, in April 2024, I travelled on Switzerland’s inaugural “Swisstainable” Train Tour with Trafalgar Travel, which began in Zurich and included iconic train journeys on the Bernina Express and the Golden Pass, a stunning trip that goes from Lucerne to Montreux. We started at the Zurich airport and were shown how to use public transit system by our local tour guide. On my return from Lucerne to Zurich, I was able to navigate the system easily.

Explore Switzerland with Trafalgar Tours

8. Pack light

Even though there aren’t the same luggage restrictions as on a plane, you need to be ready for unexpected changes on a train. It also helps to be able to lift your luggage above your head, down stairs, and on and off the train. Also, please don’t put your feet on the seat!

Packing light on a train has safety benefits too. “It’s important to keep your belongings close and have your passport ready at all times,” says my guide on Trafalgar Swisstainable Tour, Ellen Potters. “Most hotels will let you leave one larger bag and travel with a smaller bag.”

9. Be careful getting on and off

Often, there can be quite a step between the train and the ground, as I found out on my recent trip to Switzerland. Quite unexpectedly, I missed the step off the train and landed on my knee. Fortunately, I didn’t break my kneecap, but I was laid out for a few days recovering. Make sure you have travel insurance before you go!

10. Don’t be late

Most train stations in Europe have bag screening, and while you can bring liquids, you want to allow for security lineups. Unless you’ve bought a first-class ticket, look for the ‘2’ on the doors to avoid delays. In Switzerland, the trains leave on time, so it’s always good to arrive at the platform a few minutes early. While a plane may wait for you, a train won’t.

More About Train Travel

As the CEO and Editor of JourneyWoman, Carolyn is a passionate advocate for women's travel and living the life of your dreams. She leads JourneyWoman's team of writers and chairs the JourneyWoman Women's Advisory Council and Women's Speaker's Bureau. She has been featured in the New York Times, Toronto Star and Zoomer as a solo travel expert, and speaks at women's travel conferences around the world. In March 2023, she was named one of the most influential women in travel by TravelPulse and was the recipient of a SATW travel writing award in September 2023. She is the chair of the Canadian chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), a member Women's Travel Leaders and a Herald for the Transformational Travel Council (TTC). Sometimes she sleeps. A bit.


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