Ultimate Train Challenge: Planning the European Leg

Sharing is Caring!

Now that the mammoth Trans-Siberian part of our trip is locked down, it’s time to start planning how I’m actually going to get from Lisbon to Moscow. And Europe…it ain’t small.

This post was originally published in 2011, and has been updated for accuracy of links. 


We’ve partnered up with Eurail for this part of the trip, and as such we’ve got Global Passes, giving us access to 22 countries over 15 days of travel.

I’ve been scouring the Eurail site for information and ideas, and it has lots of useful tips and resources. However I’m also discovering that there isn’t a central hub for booking train travel in Europe; it’s up to individual carriers and countries.

Some trains require reservations (and accompanying reservation fees), some don’t. Some command extra fees (for overnight sleeper cars, for example), and others don’t. There is no steadfast rule for anything.

In fact, the more I research my choices, the more overwhelmed I’m becoming. (Hmm…this seems familiar…I’ve been here before).

My Eurail pass will likely be sent to me when I arrive to my digs in northern Sweden in just over a week, and it comes with a kit complete with maps, tips, and train schedules. I expect that these tools will be invaluable for planning my trip.

So the more I think about it, the more I think I’m going to “wing” the European leg of my trip to a large extent.

Me. Winging It.

Despite my somewhat spontaneous travel style and often not knowing my next move until I’m practically on top of it, I’m (somewhat contradictorily) not a “wing it” sort of gal.

Case in point: Fellow train challenge participant Michael asked me if I had the information for our Lisbon accommodation handy. I immediately sent him the names, address, and directions to our joint Ultimate Train Challenge accommodation in Lisbon, Moscow, and Saigon; all information that I’ve got conveniently stored in three different places for easy access on-the-fly.

And I’m not even in Europe yet.

So to leave the first part of my Ultimate Train Challenge itinerary largely unplanned is a departure from my normal ways. But practically speaking, I feel so overwhelmed by the possibilities that I’m lost as to how to even begin planning my route from Lisbon.

This is Good

Despite feelings of overwhelm, I think this is all very healthy. While it’s good to be prepared (with hostel addresses and directions, for example), travel is also about not being so prepared, and taking things as they come. Because I’ve been back in Canada for the last couple of months, I’ve gone back into “planning” mode – researching everything I possibly can, crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” before I feel ready to approach the starting line.

This is a typical symptom of preparing for travel for many people. There’s a need to control every outcome before you even know the variables. A need to ensure everything will go according to “the plan”, and to know that nothing uncomfortable or unforeseen will take you by surprise.

Preparing for Travel

I often get emails from readers asking me how to get started in this world of full-time/long-term travel, and my answer is to get started, plain and simple. Taking the first step puts in motion everything else that needs to happen.

(As a mild disclaimer, don’t take this too literally. Obviously you need to do some things to research and prepare for travel – especially full-time travel; I’ve written many articles on the logistics of managing your affairs on the road, from money to insurance to technology. But you don’t need to have every possible conundrum solved before you know what the variables are).

And yet, here I sit, sucking up a reliable internet connection for all its worth, submitting to the perils of trying to plan every aspect of this train trip.

One of the inherent advantages of the Eurail pass is freedom to go anywhere, anytime (within the constraints of your specific pass). I’ve got 22 countries at my fingertips. Why choose now?

So, I think it’s quite healthy to add a dose of spontaneity to my European leg of the Ultimate Train Challenge. It reminds me of one of the substantial benefits of world travel: to step outside of our comfort zones to learn something new about ourselves and our environments as a result. It will also leave me free to seize opportunities as they present themselves; many of which I couldn’t possibly predict.

How I’ll Choose my Destinations

And as per my typical style of travel, I don’t tend to visit a destination for the destination’s sake. Another landscape, another cathedral, another market; these things become mundane after a while, especially if there’s no context or reason for visiting these places other than to tick it off a list.

Instead, I usually travel for the people.

Despina, a long-time reader of this site, invited me to visit her in Athens after reading my last post if my route should take me that way. This sounds pretty nice; I’ve not been to Greece before, and there’s no better way to see a place than in the capable hands of a local. Maybe I’ll set my route to follow along the Mediterranean and “pop down” to Athens for a spell (despite its total lack of being on the way to anywhere). I also have friends in the south of France, and it would be nice to see them again and to revisit one of my favourite places.

Then again, I have friends in Switzerland and the Netherlands (two places I’ve never visited) that might predicate a more northerly route. With two weeks to get from Lisbon to Kiev, I don’t exactly have a lot of time, but neither do I need to hustle with no stops, especially if I’m prepared to do a few days of solid train travel to get from one destination to the next (schedule permitting).

You Tell Me! Where Should I Go?

So maybe you should tell me where to go (so to speak)! Is there a festival I just shouldn’t miss? Are you in Europe and eager to show a Professional Hobo your home town?

I’ll take all suggestions into account, but I promise I won’t give anybody a solid answer just yet. Why? Because, against my instincts, and in the name of the growth benefits that this sort of manoeuvre can provide in a travel context, I’m winging it.

Eurail is generously providing Ultimate Train Challenge participants with Global Passes for the European leg of our trip.

Sharing is Caring!

Get the Inside Scoop
Receive a FREE 2-week e-course on Financially Sustainable Travel 
Featured Image

18 thoughts on “Ultimate Train Challenge: Planning the European Leg”

  1. Nora, this sounds so awesome. I’m planning an epic train ride right now so useful to see this. Love Eurail Global Pass, have used it in the past and it was pretty badass. Have fun on the trip!

  2. I always try to travel by train when in Europe and was disapointed to not be able to see how all the different countries connected unitl I found this: http://www.europeanrailwayatlas.com/ This is an amazing resource, and VERY useful if your are not planning the route down to the last stop.

    I will be following this adventure with great interest–and will be looking for you all as I travel in Italy this fall.

  3. @Lori – LOL! O…K…. 🙂

    @AJ – Glad you had a good experience with the Eurail Global Pass. Any tips for me?

    @Sharon – Thanks for the resource! Looks pretty cool. Where in Italy will you be, and when? (A meet-up would be great)!

  4. I would love to meet up, if possible. I am in Italy from 9/27-10/17:
    Orvieto, Siena, Lucca, ???, then Naples, Paestum, Rome. I have a few nights between Lucca and Naples and no plans.

    What’s your time table? Email me and we can discuss.

  5. @Sharon – Sadly, by Sept 27th, we’ll be well into Vietnam, since we need to be in Saigon by Sept 30th! (boo….)

  6. I’m getting excited for this epic rail journey! We probably should have bought a Eurail pass for our travels this year but didn’t have time to organize it prior to entering the EU. We’re around, by the way – no idea of your specific schedule, though!

  7. @Andrea – Do you have a specific schedule of your travels for September? A meet-up could be fun….

    The most specific I can get right now (in a vague sort of way) is:
    Aug 30-Sept 1: Lisbon
    Sept 14-15: (probably) Kiev
    Sept 16-17: Moscow
    Sept 24-25: Beijing
    Sept 30-Oct 7: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh)

  8. @Mariellen – Thanks! Yes, organized is one way (a nice way!) of putting it…..”OCD” tends to be a term my rib-poking friends like to use! 🙂

  9. So sad we will not be able to meet in Italy. If you should ver find yourself in Los Angeles, let me know.

  10. Wish i could meet up with you in Beijing but I’m on another assignment during that time. Is there a chance that you’re extending your Saigon trip? that’s just a three hour flight from Manila

  11. @Sophie – Actually I’m in Sweden right now! Loving Scandinavia so far….

    @Prime – You never know! I’m not sure how long I’ll be in Asia after the train challenge finishes. Will you be in Manila in October/November?

  12. @Prime – You got it! It would be amazing to meet you. It will happen – one of these days!

Comments are closed.