Planning a big rail trip is a cumbersome process, it all starts with finding inspiration about where to go.
In the past we have been inspired by Michael Portillo‘s BBC series ‘Great British Railway Journeys‘ for some of our trips to the United Kingdom and Ireland, his ‘Great European Railway Journeys‘ series (which was also broadcast on Flemish TV) and book for some of our pan European trips and last but not least his ‘Great American Railway Journeys‘ for our trip across the United States.
Further inspiration came from some vlogs on YouTube, as well as trip reports on Bahnreiseberichte, and forum posts on Nederlands Interrail Forum, Drehscheibe Online Foren, Rail UK forums and Amtrak Unlimited. Over the years we also read a number of books and magazine articles that put some seeds in our minds.
The next step after you have a gathered a basic idea of where you want to go and what you want to do is taking a look on the railway map of the countries you would like to travel to and through, as railway lines will often decide which places you can (and can’t) combine. For continental Europe we often make use of the maps on Bueker, unfortunately they are outdated and are not updated anymore but they still form one of the best resources of railway maps on the web.
The Open Railway Map is a nice interactive alternative that is being kept up to date and expanded all the time. For the UK you can best use Project Mapping as they have a big variety of UK railway maps, including some where the different operators are shown (which can be useful in knowing where it’s best to break your journey). When you travel to the USA you just have to go to the website of Amtrak and you can easily find all long distance train routes there are, as well as timetables and your ticket booking.
At this stage it is also important to take a look where there are still overnight trains in operation, like the Austrian Nightjet network, as overnight trains can help you gain a lot of time by covering a long distance while sleeping, so you can wake up at a new destination in the morning, ready to explore!
Usually looking at the maps to decide which route you would like to travel goes hand in hand with looking up the timetables, and seeing whether your optimal route also actually offers a train service that matches your plans. Often trains in more rural areas and especially international services only operate once a day, or in some cases only on a couple of days per week or even only providing a seasonal service, so please prepare your schedule in advance as you do not want to be stuck in some remote place.
Most European timetables can be found using the website of Deutsche Bahn, German Railways, whose HAFAS system is fed the data from the big national operators. Do take in account that often engineering works or adjusted timetables because of accidents are not always communicated through to DB, so try to double check using the local operator website as well.
Especially for some of the southern European countries it is important to check their operator, SNCF for France, RENFE for Spain, CP for Portugal, TrainOSE for Greece, TreNord for Lombardy in Northern Italy and Trenitalia for the remainder of Italy as not all of their trains are in the DB planner, often you will get much more options using their own planners.
When travelling to the UK you are now obliged to use the National Rail website, as they stopped sending their timetable information towards the continent, and of course for Ireland only the Irish Rail website has the correct information.
The last hurdle is of course deciding which tickets you will need. In some cases (especially with high speed trains in Southern Europe) it can be easier and cheaper to book a global priced ticket straight from the operator website.
However if you plan to travel in North, Central and Eastern Europe a rail pass like Interrail (for people in Europe) or Eurail (for people outside of Europe) might be worth checking out, in most trains you can just hop on and off without a problem.
If you can make reservations for a train it usually is worth it to be on the safe side, reservation costs are relatively low at €4 to €6 (or even for free in the UK) and can either be made locally at the ticket office, at some of the ticket machines and online at DB when travelling in or through Germany and CD if you are travelling in or through Czechia. If you buy your rail pass at a specialised rail travel agency like Treinreiswinkel, they also can provide you with most reservations and more tips and tricks.