My first time stepping off a German train and being greeted with a sign for “Ausgang City”, I reacted with panic at having gotten off at the wrong stop. Ausgang, while charming, I’m sure, had no prepaid Airbnb waiting for me. I often experience unwarranted panic, and it turns out that “Ausgang” just means “exit” and the Germans have not conspired to make every train drop you off in the same, incorrect city. It is fairly easy to start getting the hang of the terms it takes to navigate foreign train stations, as the announcements and signs are much clearer than anywhere else. Consequently, my understanding of foreign languages is extremely limited and largely train related. While it’s fun to throw “uscita” and “nächster halt” into my conversations, I now end up cycling between 4 words for “thank you” before giving up my attempt to courteous in the appropriate language.
Travel by train is the heart of the GTL experience. Europe is known for its public transportation, but above buses, cheap flights, and all else, I praise the train. Flights take hours to ensure enough time to get through security and not miss boarding. Buses get held up by traffic, skip stops, and are usually ahead of or behind schedule. The train never leaves early, and only occasionally leaves late. At this point, students are scheduling trains that leave half an hour after their last class, assuming a 20-minute bus ride and an easy stroll to the platform. As long you get off the bus with about 2 minutes to spare and a Eurail pass, you can meander to the train with confidence that it will be waiting for you.
This consistency can be additionally beneficial if you get a bit creative. When the cold became unbearable, we noticed that the train waiting next to us was scheduled to leave after our actual train, though ours had not yet arrived. Ignoring the fact that this train could take us in the entirely wrong direction if it left early, we hopped on for its luscious warmth. At least our Eurail passes made this technically allowable, though the potential to miss our Monday classes would be frowned upon.
That said, the consistency is occasionally heartbreaking. A Viennese tram held me hostage at red light as I watched my train leave precisely on time, while I arrived about 30 seconds later. This led to taking the last train home, leaving no room for error. Even after finally making it onto my last train, I ended up napping slightly and missing the stop. At least Nancy has a bus that arrives at Metz at 1:30 in the morning, but this then requires a 40-minute walk in the cold back to the dorm. The Metz buses stop running sometime around 10 pm, and this should be factored in when planning return trains.
On the occasion that a train is late, much more caution should be taken. I’ve sat through so many announcements changing the time estimate that I believe my German is perfect, if just for that one phrase. One group had a train delayed by 20 minutes, so they decided to go grab food. These delay estimates are notoriously awful, leading to an unexpected arrival and the group having to find a last-minute hotel while the one member who had stayed behind got to attend his Monday classes.
As our experiences build, we get riskier. A day trip to Luxembourg is certainly an option, but if we left at noon on Thursday, we could take 5 trains over 8 hours and be in Berlin before 9. These decisions should not be made too hastily, however. For the longer legs, I highly recommend looking for German ICE trains, as they tend to come with a café and free wifi. These seats are commonly reserved, but you can sit in pretty much anywhere that doesn’t have a sign above it listing specific cities where it is reserved. The comfort makes a long ride tolerable. On that note, night trains are wonderful and often include breakfast, but the beds are a bit too stiff for my back.
The comfort and freedom of the rental car when we got upgraded to a Jaguar may be unparalleled, but trains are by far the easiest, most affordable, and consistent means of transportation. When in Rome, the buses would often take longer than walking would. The metro did lose power once, but I will never underestimate the benefits of having exclusive tracks, except in the case of a tram: the unfortunate mix with the traffic of a bus but the restrictions of a train. I am now preemptively dealing with the sadness that MARTA will bring me.