For most of my life, flying was the only way to travel.
Living in Ireland, the only other options were ferries to Liverpool and then the journey to London to catch the Eurostar or a 16 hour sail to northern France.
Accumulating flights sometimes felt like a badge of honor. I celebrated by securing €4 Ryanair flights to Cologne or flying back to England the same day for a football match.
But learning more about the impact of flying emissions made me want to try and change my behavior. And moving to Lyon in France made it much easier to avoid the airport.
So when I had a break from work this May, I decided to take advantage of Europe’s impressive, if imperfect, rail network for a 10-day trip around Italy, France and Germany.
Do I need to buy an Interrail pass for a shorter holiday?
With hundreds of routes and destinations, planning an international train journey it can be daunting. Cross-border rail ticketing systems also mean you may need to purchase multiple tickets from multiple suppliers.
While activists are pushing for a more consistent booking platformfor now you will need to spend some time doing your research if you want the best deals.
A interrail ticket it may also be worth looking into depending on the trip. I decided against it as it would actually end up being more expensive.
A youth ticket to travel four days in a month would have earned me 194 euros. There are also reservation fees for many high-speed trains, and some, like the Trenitalia-operated Lyon-Milan Frecciarossa train that I took, are not included in the pass.
With a little research, I was able to book my entire trip for €245.
Visiting South Tyrol in low season is perfect to avoid the crowds
My first stop was the alpine town of Ortisei in South Tyrol in northern Italy. It’s a little difficult to get to, but the views of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are more than worth it.
I took Trenitalia’s very comfortable high-speed train from Lyon to Milan. It cost €75 and took 4 hours and 40 minutes. From there I had to take two regional trains, changing in Verona, to the city of Bolzano where I was picked up by a friend.
There is also a train from Bolzano, but having friends high up helps if you want to avoid the last leg of the journey (literally as Ortisei is 1230m in the Dolomites).
I recommend going there in May or September. The weather was around 20C during my visit, perfect for hiking the region’s wonderful trails, but still warm enough if you want to go for a swim.
Along the way I stopped at the Laghetto di Fiè. It may not be the most famous lake in the area, but it can be reached by bus and is just as lovely. There are several well-marked hiking trails, so you can really make a day of it.
Another advantage of visiting Ortisei in May is the calm between the end of the ski season and the beginning of the summer season.
The authorities of South Tyrol want to introduce limits to new accommodation facilities to combat overtourism. A local told me that in August, when city dwellers invade the city, they see tourists more as obstacles than people.
So if you want to avoid the crowds, May or September are good bets.
Traveling alone by train to Munich
After three days cooling off in the crisp alpine air, it was time to head back to the city.
I took a €19 Flixbus from Bolzano to Munich. It took us about four hours, but the time flew by as I was mesmerized by the immense valleys and endless mountains as I made my way through Austria into Germany.
I visited Munich on my own, and while it’s not possible to get an accurate idea of a city in 48 hours, I found that some places weren’t particularly welcoming to solo travellers.
Tried Augustine-Keller, one of the city’s popular beer gardens where I was directed to the inside bar. There were no seats available and I ended up leaving.
A more suitable activity for solo travelers is the NS-Dokumentationszentrum. This museum is located on the site of the former Nazi headquarters and illustrates the history of the Nazi party in Germany. Document his rise and fall before, during and after World War II in painstaking and terrifying detail. I spent a mighty two hours there.
I also saw some of the interesting architecture on Marienplatz, ate delicious ramen at Slurp Nudelbar and found a quirky solo traveler-friendly cafe called Café Bar Shakespeare near the main train station.
German high-speed trains make train travel a pleasure
After a mixed time in Munich I got back on the train, this time for four hours trip to Berlin.
Before leaving I was told to forget the stereotypes about efficiency and to expect delays but I had no problems. In fact, every train and bus I took throughout my trip was on time.
At this point, I was really starting to enjoy the travel without flight sensation. While I feared trying to fit too many destinations into one short trip, the trips themselves were a delight. I could rest between busy days listening to music and watching the European countryside whiz by.
The German high-speed trains were a particularly pleasant experience. There’s plenty of space, the free WiFi is strong and they even have a dining car if you get peckish.
I paid €35 for the ticket from Munich to Berlin and the system in Germany means you pay an optional €4.50 if you want to reserve a seat. I recommend paying for it just for peace of mind. On my return journey, I didn’t and had to stand for hours before a school tour group kindly offered me a free seat.
Visiting Berlin in spring is a must
From the moment I stepped out of the Berlin train station I loved it. The city was beginning to thaw after the cold, gray winter period.
By a stroke of luck, I was there for the Berlin Carnival of Cultures which takes place every year at the end of May.
It was the first full edition since before the pandemic and the city gave it its all as the streets were filled with color and music from around the world. The carnival culminated in a parade and street parties on every corner.
I also got to sample Berlin’s nightlife while there. I’m not a huge techno fan, so a Berliner recommended I check out SchwuZ. It’s a gay club with one room for pop classics and another for more techno music. You can guess which one I spent my time in.
It was the perfect place for a big night that wasn’t as busy as other clubs in Berlin.
Take a 10-hour train ride from Berlin to Lyon
After more than a few late nights, it was time to head back to Lyon. I bought a super cheap ticket to Europe from Deutsche Bahn for €90 which turned out to be cheaper than the flight alternative.
It took just over 10 hours with only one change near the French border. At first I was apprehensive as this was the longest train ride I’ve ever taken, but was pleasantly surprised at how it went. The good WiFi allowed me to get some work done and I had packed some podcasts and other entertainment to occupy my time.
Before setting off on my journey, crossing France, Italy and Germany by train seemed very romantic to me. And it really lived up to my expectations. I got to see so much more of each country than if I’d taken a plane and avoiding flights also meant it was more convenient.
If you prioritize speed, long-distance trains aren’t the most efficient. But if you are more interested in a comfortable journey, seeing the sights and cutting carbon emissionsthink twice before booking your next flight and see if you can take a train instead.