Taking the Train on an Ecotourism Trip

As I prepared for my recent trip to Italy, it seemed to make sense to arrange to rent a car. I’d be traveling to different areas in the northern lakes region, and having a car would make the switch from one lake to another simple. I went so far as to get an international driver’s license at my local AAA office. Renting a car seemed simple, that is, until I started comparison shopping.  With fees piling up, I realized I would be spending over $500 for three weeks.  And that didn’t include quick jaunts to congested places where I wouldn’t want to drive or park a car. I also kept having visions of trying to maneuver on unfamiliar roads by following signage in a language I didn’t speak.  Moreover, I knew that renting a car was not a sustainable option for transportation.  


I needed to get brave and try the public transportation available to me.

Onto the Trains

Unlike where I live in New England, many parts of the world have intricate public transportation systems. The U.S. lags woefully behind in the 21st century rail revolution, much to the chagrin of people hoping for the development of greener modes of transportation. In many countries, you can hop one form or another of public transportation at least about every hour. The quest is to learn how to figure out the schedules, buy tickets in a different language, locate the transportation stop, and learn some basic cultural phrases and behaviors.

Let’s use the trains in Italy as an example.  I was in Italy at Milano Centrale, the main railway station in the north end of central Milan. I made lots of mistakes! We’ll learn from them together.

  • I assumed that Milano Centrale was the only railway station in Milan. The train schedules I pulled up initially online were not current to my location, as Milan had other railway terminals.
  • Different ticket machines sold different train tickets. Some were intercity, some were regional. Eurorail was also available.  I needed to know which it was I was seeking.
  • I thought that my destination of Bellano would spin across the electronic board high in the rail station so I’d be able to find departure time and track number.  What I didn’t realize was that I needed to know the final destination of the train — Tirano— and my destination would follow in a queue of other cities on the route to Tirano.  Who knew?
  • In Italy, you need to punch your ticket in a yellow machine before you board the train. If you don’t, you can incur a fine. I only learned this by reading a guide book then watching other travelers find the machines and punch their tickets.
  • I thought that, once I knew which train I needed to take, each stop would be announced by intercom. Nope. Instead, I needed to write down the series of stops before mine so I’d know when to start gathering my things for disembarking. Writing down the time that each stop was expected to occur really helped ultimately, too.
  • Transfers were a killer. I needed to be able to figure which track my connecting train would arrive on and how to get to that track. In Italy, that often meant walking through an underground tunnel to get to the other side of the station. Once, I had to walk through woods from one rail station to another– and neither was staffed to answer my questions.

So, what did I learn from this initial experience with trains in Italy?

  • It’s important to investigate all the public transportation options in your area before it’s time to move locations.  
  • If there’s an app, download it to your phone.  I discovered Wanderio and will definitely use it on upcoming trips. It mapped out the route I’d need to take to get where I wanted to go as well as the transfers. It also seeks subways and buses upon demand.
  • Although I haven’t tried it, a new Google Trips App allows you to work offline.  That would’ve been an enormous plus for me, as all too often my wireless was out of range.
  • Be ready to pay the fare at machines in either local currency or credit cards. Not every machine takes both.
  • Carry a map of the train systems that use your central location as the hub. If you’re a visual learner like me, it clarifies your routes immensely.
  • While it is true that you can almost always find somebody who speaks English, it is also a really nice gesture to learn some key words for transportation. Language barriers can make getting directions and reading signs a challenge. So memorize terms like “ticket,” “ “excuse me,” “thank you.” and “where does this train go?”  

Trains and Ecodestinations

Many ecotourism sites and sights around the world are easily accessed by train, as described by Lew on the Mother Nature Network.  Here are a few.

  • National Rail Enquiries: This Brit train travel portal is a lovely way to experience the beautiful countryside and explore off-the-beaten-trail places in the UK.
  • The Ghan takes rail riders between Australia’s southern and northern coasts, passing through the Finders Mountain Range, the stark deserts of central Australia, and the tropical lands of the far north.
  • The Canadian travels through the forests of the Great Lakes region, the plains, the Canadian Rockies, and British Colombia’s Pacific Northwest.
  • California Zephyr’s 2,438-mile-long route winds through the Mountain West, stopping in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno before moving to the Sierra Nevadas, Sacramento, and the Bay Area.
  • Qinghai-Tibet Railway travels through lush and mountainous areas of Southern and Central China, the stark but picturesque Tibetan plateau, and the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range. Part of the track is more than 16,000 feet above sea level, the highest section of rail in the world.

Curious about taking the train but still not sure? Then you might try Responsible Travel, which offers rail travel to Scotland, Vietnam, Machu Piccu, India, Budapest, and other locations. Their philosophy around responsible tourism is that it should deliver “better places to live in and to visit” – with the emphasis on creating better places for local people and for tourists.

Regardless of the type of trip you take, train travel is often the best way to go.  It’s affordable, stress-reducing, freeing of your time, comfortable, and scenic.  It’s time to take a train.

Photo credit: philstephenrichards via Foter.com / CC BY-SA





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