Can we travel Europe by train in 2021?

By Edward | Coronavirus

Feb 11

Remember 2020? Back when we were all "well in 2021 I will be travelling Europe by train again"?

How are those plans looking?

In this post we are going to examine the outlook for European train travel in 2021.

We can't look into the future, but we can look at signs and describe tendencies.

  • Half-arsed lockdowns across Europe have not dented the second wave of Covid, though they have probably prevented it from being even worse
  • Mutated variants of the virus have emerged, making travel restrictions fashionable again.

On 21st January the leaders of the European Union met to discuss borders and travel. They agreed to the following recommendations to member states:

  1. The internal borders in the Schengen zone are to remain open
  2. Leisure travel is to be discouraged
  3. Only essential cross-border travel is to be allowed.
  4. No exemptions for those inoculated against Covid.

What has happened since then?

  1. Most EU countries have closed their borders
  2. Leisure travel is restricted to day trips at home
  3. Each country has its own definition of "essential"
  4.  Some countries have opened their borders for those with Covid jabs.

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Here are 5 factors likely to affect 2021 European train travel:


Quarantines

Each European country has its own take on Covid risk areas, and its own set of rules on who has to do what entering from where. Furthermore, these rules change every few weeks. It is impossible to keep up with it.

This is a strong incentive to stay either in your own country, or to visit one particular country and stay put for longer.

Mutations

European politicians are scrambling to contain mutations of coronavirus, such as the British and the South African variants. As I write, the Tirol is under strict lockdown and nobody is allowed to leave unless they have a negative test. Meanwhile, in Britain most infections are now with the British variant.

This suggests that massive travel restrictions are still going to be with us in 2021.

Train to Prague

Somewhere in winter Czechia (© Martin Pavlík)

Covid jabs

Covid vaccinations are being rolled out across the world. As more and more people have had their jab, they are going to start demanding back their unrestricted travel. 

As the ranks of the vaccinated increase, we will almost certainly be looking at some form of...

Covid passports

You know they are going to happen because of all the politicians loudly rejecting them. 

Countries that tend not to overthink ethical dilemmas, such as Poland and Georgia, have gone ahead. Anyone with proven Covid immunity can come to Poland or Georgia without going into quarantine. Come spring, the likes of France and Italy will follow.

Unless it turns out that the vaccines don't protect against the new variants of Covid, or that the vaccinated can still infect the un-vaccinated.  Then we are back to square one.

Serious Facekit

If we do set off, we are still going to need our face-masks.

The rules about face-masks are likely to get stricter. Bavaria recently raised the bar and insists on FFP-2 masks on all public transport, while in the rest of Germany it has to be at least a medical mask. France, too, demands proper medical masks and not just a scarf or handkerchief. 

Expect other countries to follow suit. Even Sweden now "recommends" face masks "during rush hour".

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4 ways to get your fix (now)

Embrace your own country

cherepovets

What's not to love?

If you seriously want to go on some train journeys, you may have to make do with your own country as restrictions ease. 

Why not get out a map of your country and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes? Think: If I had to stay in England (or Belgium, or wherever) what would I like to see by train?

Explore local trains

Berlin S-Bahn

Just get on the wrong train on purpose

Local trains are going to be key. I discussed this with Nicky Gardner at our webinar last year, and 2021, even more than 2020, is a year to discover local trains.

What is exciting about local trains is how much closer they are to the country they are passing through and the people they serve. I once went from Munich to Venice on local trains and the memory of it is vivid because of how quickly everything changed - the people, their language and their faces.

So how about going right now and finding yourself a local branch line to use, as soon as restrictions ease? Even a different line on the London Overground or the Berlin S-Bahn can be exciting. 

Just get on the wrong train on purpose

Rural travel

Local train tickets italy

Ferrovie del Sud Est railbus at Otranto

Avoiding crowds and big centres is still a thing. If you do manage to go abroad, consider one of the less hyped destinations, or somewhere completely unheard-of. 

In their take on travel in 2021, the Economist pointed to fewer, but longer stays. Once in a particular country, there is much incentive to stay there because of quarantine rules. 

So if you get to plan something, and want to do train stuff, find somewhere with a good station and a decent timetable.

Read Europe by Rail

This is the easiest and safest way to get your fix.

Though it covers 50 routes throughout Europe, Europe by Rail is very strong on local and rural travel. Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries have found the most interesting and gratifying train journeys for almost every European country.

Why not wander over to my review of Europe by Rail and have a look?

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About the Author

After crisscrossing Europe for 6 years as a train conductor, I guide intrepid travellers roaming Europe by rail.

  • Dagmar says:

    Thank you, Edi, great outlook, examining all feasible ways to get back on track, though I´m sure, I won’t be back on a train before I’ve had my jab.

  • Rowena says:

    Excellent piece Edward thanks. Have taken several super-cheap, empty and spotless local train trips here in Puglia in the last couple of months.

  • Liam Doyle says:

    I had to cancel an Interrail trip I had planned to do in September 2020. I was armed with my ‘Europe by Rail’ book and also a European train timetable. My trip was planned for the most part however COVID-19 put an end to that. I hope that by next September the trip may go ahead.

  • Derek Fay says:

    Hi Edward,

    Unfortunately here in Ireland we are not allowed travel outside 5km from our home address unless on an essential journey so at best in my home town I can travel by bus into the city centre and that’s it!

    The reason I travel to Europe 2 or 3 times a year is to experience exactly as you mentioned, to be able to hop on a random train and explore another country off the beaten track.

    Hopefully in a few months you’ll have plenty to write about again on Rail Guide Europe.

    Regards.

    • Edward says:

      Hi Derek,

      That sounds depressing. In my part of Germany we’re not restricted to a certain radius, but I don’t think I’ve gone any further from home than 20 km anyway. There is no opportunity. I hope very much you’ll be allowed to come to the continent again soon. Stay safe!

  • cjh hunter says:

    Much appreciated Edward. The more of us who realise the (increasing)irrationality of the restrictions and agitate for relaxation the sooner we can get back to civilised interaction and travel within borders and outside them.

    • Edward says:

      Thank you for your comment! It’s not for me to judge the rationality, but as someone who works on trains I do look forward to having passengers again.

  • Michele says:

    Thank you for the update!!
    I am booked and ready to visit. What took me a year to plan, took 1 day to dismantle for the summer of 2020, but I began rebooking soon enough. (Its a 2 month solo trip through 5 countries, by rail) Again, I will hold out canceling until the last minute. I’ve had covid, I’m an American and I just want to visit Europe by Rail!

  • Viktoria M says:

    ….this too shall pass…have hope everyone…

  • Lance says:

    Glad you are still there Edward. For years we traveled Europe, moving every month to a new country. This year we bought a car and will be moving every month in the USA. I am planning a train trip to NYC. We miss Europe.

  • Albert says:

    Edward – thanks for this. I’m glad you’re still sending your thoughts round, even though we have no idea when “normal service” – any recognisable service – will be resumed. At the moment, I’d even be pleased to rediscover the (sometimes awful) “normal” rail travel we often have to put up with here in the UK. I’d _even_ celebrate being able to sit in the excruciating “ironing board” seats they have on lots of the London-Brighton trains now!
    I’ve just bought the latest European Rail Timetable, hoping that moving around will be possible later in the year; meanwhile, it’s an aid to my fantasies.

    • Edward says:

      You’re welcome, Albert! Yes, I hope you (and we) can be off again soon. Are you referring to the new Thameslink trains? I still remember the old ones from when I was little.

  • Paul Garbett says:

    Thank you – that was a good, honest appraisal of the situation and your conclusions reflect my thoughts almost exactly. The current Interrail ‘first class for the price of second’ offer (due to end soon) is very good and for a nominal price you can get Plus which allows you to get 100% refunds – even on discounted offers.

    • Edward says:

      Thank you for your comment, Paul! It is good to hear that my post resonates. The Interrail deal is very tempting. I could see myself blowing the reptile fund on it. I hope everything pans out. Please do check back and let us know.

  • John Gilham says:

    Had to dismantle my booked June 2020 trip from the UK to Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Turku by trains and ferries. Haven’t dared to rebook yet – 2022 possibly. But will head off to see friends in Southern Germany just as soon as it’s possible. I hope Eurostar survives its current worries

    • Edward says:

      Heartbreaking, having to dismantle a trip like that. I was lucky I only had one hotel booking to cancel. I do hope it works out for you soon. Stay safe.

  • Erika P. says:

    Hi Edward – great reading your insights on the topic. It’s interesting to hear how things are so different across the pond. Stay safe!

    • Edward says:

      Erika! Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. OMG…it is almost 10 years since you were on my trains on your Eurail trip. Best wishes and stay safe.

  • Tee says:

    Already have an interrail pass for 2021, the mobile digital pass is open ended (activate when ready to go) and is valid for 11 months from date of purchase.

    Vaccination passports should be vigorously challenged as they are a serious threat to (medical) privacy and freedom of movement, some government vaccine contracts with the pharma companies have clauses to allow them to harvest personal medical data, even in a pandemic for profit is the name of the game.

    By hook or by crook but preferably by train – destination Rome in August, 2021.

    • Edward says:

      Thank you for your comment.

      I agree that Covid passports would be a precedent about which we should think twice before not setting it.

      Please do report back here from Rome!

  • Wyn Jeffery says:

    Very interesting comment by you about vaccination passports. The UK government has moved swiftly from rejecting them out of hand to saying they are under consideration. What chance does anyone think I have of taking my (booked) trip to Venice via the Alps next December?

    • Edward says:

      Thank you for your comment! The IATA is already forging ahead and building an app for the vaccinated. It is all happening before the ethical discussion can even take off. I think your trip should be OK. Wouldn’t cancel it just yet.

  • Tedi S says:

    Hello We are avid inn to inn walkers and rely exclusively on public trans to get to beginning and end and on to next walk. At 81 yrs old every non walking day is a great loss. Stuck in Berkeley CA with nothing looking sure. So I pick up my Europe by Rail book, open at random, fantisize a journey, and wait for your good advice. We do have both our shots and have a trip to Hawaii planned for May. Not my favorite place but better than nothing.

    • Edward says:

      Thank you for your comment. Sorry to hear that you are cooped up at the moment. I hope very much that you can do something in Europe again soon. Every day it looks more likely that Covid passports will be a thing, so you should be in the clear. Stay safe.

  • Steve says:

    Hi Edward, great article, thanks for this and the great information on your site.

    I was so lucky to get away in July 2020, from London to Frankfurt via Cologne down the Rhine, then to Hamburg, and then the Nightjet sleeper to Zurich.

    Next on my wish list is Hamburg (again) then Vienna to Lviv sleeper and I’m banking on going in September.

    Please keep up the good work you do here on this site Edward and stay safe in these strange times!

    • Edward says:

      Hi Steve, thanks for commenting and for being so nice about my work. I do my best! Vienna-Lviv, that would be just what I need now. Stay safe, too.

  • Steve Star says:

    Hey, Edward, what’s the 411 on the Flixtrain Hamburg-Munich night train? I’m guessing no real chance at couchette service on that train.

    No updates must mean your busy with the Flixtrain expansion. That’s pretty exciting moving into the Munich market.

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