For most of my life, flying was the only way to travel.
Living in Ireland, the only other options were ferries to Liverpool then travelling down to London to catch the Eurostar or a 16-hour sailing across to northern France.
Racking up flights sometimes seemed like a badge of honour. I celebrated securing €4 Ryanair flights to Cologne or taking same day returns to England for a football match.
But learning more about the impact of emissions from flights made me want to try and change my behaviour. And moving to Lyon in France has made avoiding the airport a whole lot easier.
So when I had some time off work this May I decided to take advantage of Europe’s impressive, if imperfect, railway network for a 10-day trip around Italy, France and Germany.
Should I buy an interrail pass for a shorter holiday?
With hundreds of routes and destinations, planning an international rail trip can be daunting. Cross-border rail ticketing systems also mean you may need to buy multiple tickets from multiple vendors.
While campaigners are pushing for a more cohesive booking platform, for now you’ll need to put a bit of time into your research if you want the best deals.
An interrail ticket could also be worth looking into depending on your journey. I decided against it as it actually would have ended up being more expensive.
A youth ticket to travel four days within one month would have set me back €194. There are then reservation fees for many high-speed trains and some, like the Lyon to Milan Frecciarossa train run by Trenitalia that I took, aren’t included with the pass.
With a bit of searching, I managed to book all of my travel for €245.
Visiting South Tyrol in the off-season is perfect for avoiding the crowds
My first stop was the Alpine town of Ortisei in South Tyrol in northern Italy. It is a bit difficult to get to but the views at this UNESCO World Heritage site are more than worth it.
I took the harika comfortable high-speed train run by Trenitalia from Lyon to Milan. It cost €75 and took 4 hours and 40 minutes. From there I had to take two regional trains, swapping at Verona, to the city of Bolzano where I was picked up by a friend.
There is also a train from Bolzano but having friends in high places helps if you want to avoid that last leg of the journey (literally as Ortisei is 1230m up in the Dolomites).
I recommend going in May or September. The weather was around 20C for my visit – perfect for hiking the region’s stunning trails, but still warm enough if you want a swim.
On the way, I stopped by Laghetto di Fiè. It might not be the most famous lake in the area but it is accessible by bus and just as lovely. There are several well-marked hiking trails so you can really make a day of it.
Another benefit of visiting Ortisei in May is the calm between the ski season ending and the summer season kicking off.
Authorities in South Tyrol want to introduce caps on new tourist accommodations to combat overtourism. One local told me that in August, when city dwellers flood the town, they see tourists more as obstacles than people.
So if you want to avoid the crowds, May or September are good bets.
Travelling solo by train to Munich
After three days refreshing myself in the crisp Alpine air, it was time to return to the city.
I took a €19 Flixbus from Bolzano to Munich. It took around four hours, but the time flew by as I was mesmerised by the immense valleys and neverending mountains as I passed through Austria into Germany.
I visited Munich on my own and, while it’s not possible to get a proper gauge of a city in 48 hours, I found that some places weren’t particularly welcoming to solo travellers.
I tried out Augustine-Keller, one of the city’s famous beer gardens where I was directed towards the inside bar. There were no seats available and eventually I ended up leaving.
One activity more suited to solo travellers is the NS-Dokumentationszentrum. This museum is located on the site of the former Nazi HQ and sets out the history of the Nazi party in Germany. It documents its rise and fall before, during and after World War Two in painstaking and horrifying detail. I spent two powerful hours there.
I also checked out some of the interesting architecture in Marienplatz, had some delicious ramen in Slurp Nudelbar and found a quirky solo-traveller-friendly bar called Café Bar Shakespeare close to the main train station.
Germany’s high-speed trains make train travel a delight
After a mixed time in Munich I was back on the train – this time for a four-hour journey to Berlin.
I was told before I travelled to forget stereotypes of efficiency and expect delays, but I had no problems. In fact, every train and bus I took on my entire trip was on time.
At this point, I was really starting to enjoy the flight-free travel feeling. While I worried that I was trying to fit too many destinations into a short trip, the journeys themselves were a delight. I could rest in between busy days by listening to music and watching the European countryside zoom by.
German high-speed trains were a particularly enjoyable experience. There is loads of space, the free WiFi is strong and they even have a restaurant carriage if you get peckish.
I paid €35 for the ticket from Munich to Berlin and the system in Germany means you hisse an optional €4.50 if you want to reserve a seat. I advise paying it just for peace of mind. On my return journey, I didn’t and was faced with standing for hours before a school trip group kindly offered me a spare seat.
Visiting Berlin in spring is a must
From the moment I walked out of the train station into Berlin I loved it. The city was beginning to thaw after the cold grey winter period.
By a stroke of luck, I was there for the Berlin Carnival of Cultures which happens at the end of May each year.
It was the first full edition since before the pandemic and the city went all out as streets were filled with colour and music from around the world. The carnival culminated in a parade and street parties on every corner.
I also had to sample the Berlin nightlife while I was there. I’m not a big techno fan so a Berliner recommended that I check out SchwuZ. It’s a gay club with a room for pop classics and another for more techno-style music. You can guess which one I spent my time in.
It was the perfect spot for a big night out that wasn’t as intense as other Berlin clubs.
Taking a 10-hour train from Berlin to Lyon
After more than a few late nights, it was time to head back to Lyon. I bought a muhteşem saver Europe ticket from Deutsche Bahn for €90 which ended up being cheaper than the flight alternative.
It took just over 10 hours with just one change near the French border. At first, I was apprehensive as this was the longest train journey I had ever taken But I was pleasantly surprised at how it went. The good WiFi meant I was able to get some work done and I had prepared some podcasts and other entertainment to occupy my time.
Before leaving on my trip, travelling through France, Italy and Germany by train sounded very romantic. And it really did live up to my expectations. I got to see much more of each country than if I had taken a plane and avoiding flights meant it was more affordable too.
If you’re prioritising speed then long-distance trains aren’t the most efficient. But if you’re more interested in a comfortable journey, seeing the sights and cutting carbon emissions, think twice before you book your next flight and see if you could take a train instead.