Europe by rail has its charms, but check the terms of your ticket booking, advises Rachel Parkin

He cut an intimidating figure cloaked in shadow at Bad Reichenhall train station.
Tall. Broad shoulders. Wide-brimmed hat.

An ensemble that — in my simple mind — immediately conjured up the Heisenberg character in cult American drama Breaking Bad.

But once our Austrian host was under the light, his beaming face proved quite the opposite.

Advertisement

"Guten Abend, Kuschzggz Weissch dem Chasschsz?" Martin Fuchs (snr) seemed to say, hand outstretched.

Cue panicked high school German that probably translated to: "Me Rachel, this Michael... hallo, sausage chicken?"

And we were off — as if it was all quite normal — Martin driving us from the outskirts of Bavaria across the Austrian border to the tiny village of Unken.

In our prior communication his English-speaking son Martin (jnr) — the professional speed skater-turned ski instructor — had promised "a relaxing stay in nature" and "to meet our culture".

And so it was. An Austrian home away from home (our room was upstairs next to Grandma's).

Stunning scenery.

Hearty, traditional food.

And bulk, local beer (thanks to Martin snr's long-time employment with Steigl brewery).
Our time at the Fuchs' was also a technicolour advertisement for exploring Western Europe by rail, as mature(ish) backpackers, in winter.

After all why would you fly — suffering through airport queues and lost baggage — when venturing off tourist-beaten paths into the regions, with fairytale views to boot, is so easy?

(Except in France — where it's fraught with frustration and exorbitant fees — but I'll get to that later).

In this case, we'd stumbled into an Austrian landscape befitting a luxury biscuit tin and we had it to our polyprop-swaddled selves.

It would have been rude not to.

So — borrowed Nordic poles in tow we set off — hiking the network of trails around Salzburger Saalachtal's multi-coloured chalets, immaculate gardens and pristine woodpiles ... until we lost light.

And we ate.

First, came the mouthwatering knodel (Bavarian dumplings) at the family-run Heutaler Hof down the road.

The next day we arrived home to coffee, biscuits and Christstollen (rich Austrian Christmas cake). And later that night (after tucking into local sausages, black bread and vegetables in our room) the invitation from downstairs extended to Steigls and a tour of the 16th century family farm to get fresh milk for breakfast.

It is true that all of this could have happened with a flight into Salzburg, but would it have? Would we have bothered with the 45-minute bus ride after the rigmarole of flying?

On the flip-side, train travel also deposits you right in the city centres.

Take Prague.

Five minutes on foot from its central station and you're in the medieval Old Town sipping gluhwein and eating sausage-infused street food.

Or Rome.

A 10-minute walk here and you're pushing through selfie pole hawkers (how does everyone get half-price?) to snap your own selfie at the Colosseum.

Or Amsterdam. Here, dump your bags, join the mad throng of bikers and quickly pedal past coffee shops and along canals ... to its trendy 9 Streets district.

And here's the curveball.

European winter travel needn't be freezing.

Though our ski week in the French Alps was magical, we also swam on the Cote d'Azur and sweated our way up hundreds of steps at Italy's Cinque Terre in short sleeves, passing just one other couple the entire day.

Which brings me to my second winter clincher.

No crowds.

And the third plus? Accommodation.

So much cheaper. In winter, a five-star luxury resort in Portugal's sun-kissed Algarve (owned by former international footballer Luis Figo no less) is easily within financial reach. Even for two journalists.

But as mentioned there is a major caveat.

La France. Les coqs rule their own rail roost.

As a couple in our 30s we were a tad miffed to discover we didn't qualify for the cheapest EuRail pass.

By age-default (that is, over 25) we were in fact ... first class travellers.

So, largely thanks to France, gone are the days of freewheeling around Europe.

You must plan to make the rail pass cost-effective.

But if you do (and that needn't mean weeks in advance, just days) it's well worth it.

In the grand scheme of our two-month rail rodeo the French resistance was but a blip ... and to be totally honest, the compulsory first class travel, a welcome treat.

We saw countryside, mountain ranges, villages, lakes and rivers we never would have by plane.

And there is still a romance about rail.

How could there not be with supermarket beer and a whole lot less navigational bickering?

TRAIN TIPS

• Over-25s must buy a first-class pass.
• Some countries require seat reservations.
• Reservations often incur additional fees.
• If extra travel time/train changes don't bother you reservations and/or fees can sometimes be avoided by using a string of provincial trains.
• To avoid a platform sprint, check the assigned position of your carriage on the composition board (these line up with A, B, C etc marked along the platform).
• Book accommodation near the central train station to avoid lugging bags.
• Use the bathrooms on board — they are clean and free — a blessing in Europe.
• Take food and drink with you and avoid the (often) expensive train menu.