“Oh, you came here by train? Magnifique!”

Woman on train. Photo.
Heading to Versailles for a meeting.

Written by:
Pernilla Borgström and Cheryl Sjöström, Centre for Environmental and Climate Science

When we applied to go on an Erasmus+ staff training trip to Université Paris-Saclay, train travel felt like the obvious mode of transport for both of us. Primarily for personal reasons of wanting to travel as sustainably as possible, but also since the Erasmus+ mobility programme offered a (modest but welcome) funding bump for those choosing not to fly.

Planning our trip

Booking the trip was easy thanks to the university’s newly procured train travel agency. We sent them an e-mail specifying our preferred dates and modes of travel, and they got back to us quickly with a suggested itinerary. We chose to travel with Interrail passes (this is often the cheapest option), but with reserved seats on each connection, and the agency took care of the otherwise time-consuming task of getting us those reserved seats. It’s good to keep in mind that the prices the agency gives you are in DKK (Danish Krone), and given the current eye-watering exchange rate, you or whoever holds the budget will want to avoid ugly surprises when the bill ultimately shows up in SEK (we may or may not be speaking from experience…). 

An unexpected Brussels holiday

We set off from Copenhagen bright and early on the 3rd of December, with a smooth and sleepy ride to Hamburg. The “adventsfika” we’d brought along went nicely with the crisp, snowy views outside the window. Once in Hamburg, however, the chaotic energy of Deutsche Bahn kicked into gear, and our next connection to Köln was announced to have a 15 minute, then 30 minute, then 45 minute delay. We watched our intended connection time in Köln shrivel and disappear, which created some timeline tension as we wanted to be in Brussels in time to catch our Eurostar connection to Paris (the Eurostar Interrail seat reservations are mandatory, and quite pricey, so switching to another departure isn’t as straightforward as it is with the regular trains). 

The dream of catching that connection stayed alive through our trip to Köln, and a pleasant stop-over there, wandering through a snowy Christmas market just outside the station, and a potato noodle dinner. But the dream dwindled and died on the next train (to Brussels), also delayed. And so, we built a new beautiful dream, of catching the very last Eurostar from Brussels at 22.15. But alas, once again: dwindling, and death. We arrived in Brussels shortly after that train’s departure, and so booked a hotel for the night near the train station.

Woman reading on a train. Photo.
Time for reading on the train to Hamburg.
Take away food, Christmas market in the background. Photo.
Potato noodle dinner in Köln.

RER you ready for Paris rush hour?

After a few sweet hours of sleep, we caught the first Eurostar from Brussels to Paris the next morning. Thanks to friendly onboard staff, it was no problem to travel with our expired seat reservations on the “wrong” departure. We arrived at Gare du Nord on time, treated ourselves to a pain au chocolat breakfast, then got tickets for the regional RER train that was to take us straight to our first meeting at Université Paris-Saclay. Traveling from central Paris at peak rush hour turned out to be a true baptism of public transport fire; we not so much lined up as squeezed ourselves into the mass of people waiting by the doors, drifted with the crowd onto the train, then stood squished and unable to move for several stops before people started filing off. (An important lesson learned: don’t bring a cup of takeaway coffee to RER rush hour, your fellow passengers won’t be amused).

Train travel as an ice-breaker  

The RER trains became our friends during the week, as they took us to the different places we needed to go. Université Paris-Saclay consists of several different campuses, with quite large distances to travel between them, and with our handy Navigo ‘semaine’ pass (30€ for a week) we could easily travel between them on both trains and buses, jumping on and off with a blip of the card on the reader. In our meetings and interactions with staff at Paris-Saclay, we found that people were very interested to hear the why and how of our chosen mode of travel, and it proved to be a pretty good ice-breaker (especially in that first meeting, when we showed up sleep-deprived and frazzled yet very enthusiastic and happy to have arrived!). 

We were staying in the town of Massy, roughly midway between central Paris and Paris-Saclay, and with our Navigo passes, it was easy to go into Paris for a short visit when we had the time. The passes were also valid on the Paris metro – great value for money!

Smooth training through Switzerland

Our trip back home went much smoother than on the way down. A TGV got us to Basel in good time for our night train; perhaps too good, as we ended up waiting there around three hours with very little to do when the Nightjet towards Hamburg was delayed. This frazzled our nerves a bit and we started dreading a repeat of our involuntary Brussels holiday, but thankfully it was only a modest delay, and we were soon comfortably settled in our small Nightjet cabin, with complementary goodie bags of slippers, chocolate and – ojoj – fizzy wine!

In Hamburg we had just enough time to buy some pretzels, then stepped aboard our train towards Copenhagen, which departed beautifully on time and brought us smoothly back to Copenhagen.

What we’ve learned (or re-learned)

All in all, it was a great experience and one we’d happily repeat. Reflecting back on the journey, here are some things we think are useful to keep in mind when deciding to embark on a longer train journey:  

  1. Travel time and expectations: we’ve both done enough long-distance train traveling to know that unexpected things can happen, and this time we were a bit unlucky on the way down, but we were also mentally prepared for possible issues arising. As Jessika Luth Richter put it nicely in a previous blog post, long-distance train travel does require you to think of time differently – of course it will take you longer to reach your destination than if you would fly there, but that extra time can be filled with useful and interesting things and experiences, such as work, books, long conversations (with both travel partners and strangers), music, day-dreaming, potato noodles… And from these things, new perspectives and ideas might arise. Accepting, but ideally also appreciating, the added time and the opportunities you get from it is key to a pleasant journey. Which brings us to a practical point of…
  2. Turnover times: time pessimism is, sometimes, your friend. Especially the German trains are notorious for being delayed, so if you’re a nervous traveller it can make the journey more pleasant if you add some extra time at each stop, and at most of the big stations there’s enough to keep you entertained in or around the station for an hour or two if you end up having to wait. 
  3. Extra expenses: it can be good to check beforehand how it works if you end up having to pay for hotels, taxis and more because of missed connections – this is especially unclear when traveling on an Interrail pass, and we found that the onboard staff on our delayed trains couldn’t really guide us through the process, as they referred us to station staff for answers, with the station staff in Brussels in turn referring us back to Deutsche Bahn. This would have been a bit easier to navigate if we’d known our full rights beforehand, and what sort of documentation (e.g. proof of delay) that we would need to ask for.
Two women on the street, houses in the background. Photo.
In our temporary home base of Massy.
Exterior of a train station. Photo.
A misty morning at the station in Versailles.
Exterior of a train station. Photo.
At Gare de Lyon, getting ready to leave a rainy Paris.

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  1. Lars Nieradzik

    Hi, great you made it there (and back) and thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Just because you haven’t mentioned it, there is a chance to get compensated here: https://www.interrail.eu/en/support/delay-compensation . And yes, always try to get as much documentation on the delay as possible. It is easier though if you are travelling on a standard ticket purchased through deutsche Bahn.

  2. Cheryl Sjöström

    Thank you Lars! I remember looking at that option for compensation and it seemed a bit cumbersome at the time. But we appreciate the reminder to review it again, and within the window of two months after the date of departure.

  3. Cheryl Sjöström

    I can follow up on the comment about compensation – it was not as difficult as I thought! We were treated kindly and in the end have been granted compensation for our delay. An extra lesson – take photos of your delays (screens at the station or on the train), it helps your delay compensation case!

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