Opt for first class for a quieter, more work-friendly experience
Plus, in some cases, you'll have access to private station lounges
Plush first-class seats are designed for relaxation
While folks in Europe may consider efficient and far-reaching rail systems commonplace, many travelers who live elsewhere – such as in the United States – still get jazzed about climbing aboard a short- or long-distance train.
It’s true that affordable rail passes and second-class coaches make train travel accessible to more people. It also offers a great way to cover lots of ground while taking in different countries’ scenery and culture.
But when is it worth the splurge for first-class tickets in Europe and places far beyond?
Some travelers think of trains the same way they do airplanes: Who cares whether you’re flying up front in first or back in economy? Everyone is still arriving at the same destination at the same time. But when it comes to rail travel, you might be surprised; sometimes there’s little difference in what you’ll pay for that first-class seat and a second-class seat just one compartment away. Even when the upgraded ticket is much more expensive, some travelers will find the extras and perks worth the additional cost.
Here are eight reasons why trading up on trains with multiple classes of service can make sense:
Access to luxurious lounges. Jump-start your premiere class experience even before you step onto the train by taking advantage of in-station lounges to which you’re invited, thanks to your first-class ticket.
Virgin Trains’ lounge not only offers standard free beverages, snacks, newspapers and WiFi, but its Euston Station in London also features showers and a corporate area with desks, BBC News on the telly and a meeting room you can reserve.
Amtrak offers several types of lounges with varying amenities for upper-tier travelers, including Acela Express first-class passengers, sleeping car passengers and United Airlines Club members in cities across the United States. (You can’t otherwise buy entry to Amtrak’s lounges; they’re a perk solely for these folks.) So for example, a customer who paid $311 for a one-way Acela Express first-class ticket from New York to Washington gets to lounge, whereas one who paid $199 for a standard Acela Express ticket can’t get in.
Keep connected, usually for free. Although WiFi may be standard fare in most American coffee shops, that’s not always the case on even high-speed, long-distance trains around the world. Those who can’t afford to be without online access for several hours at a time will appreciate rail services like Virgin Trains and Italy’s sleek, high-speed Frecciarossa trains traveling between Turin and Salerno that offer complimentary WiFi access in first-class cars for passengers’ enabled laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Even if you’re a leisure traveler who just wants to upload vacation pics to Flickr or pin images to your Pinterest boards, having WiFi lets you put those railway hours to good use. If TV is your thing, Italy’s ultra-modern privately operated Italo trains feature 9-inch touch-screen monitors with live programming at each club (premiere first-class) seat.
Your devices stay charged. Free WiFi’s great, but if your laptop or phone is out of juice and shuts down, you’re stuck. Many trains, including to the 230 destinations in France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland served by TGV Europe, give folks in first-class cars individual access to electrical outlets for charging their laptops, tablets or phones. First-class passengers traveling through the U.S. Northeast on Amtrak’s Acela Express also get 120-volt electric outlets at their seats. While business travelers are most likely to love this important perk, vacationers who can’t stand being unplugged even for a few hours may consider the extra dollars money well-spent.
Get there in comfort. You know how some travelers refuse to splurge for hotel rooms, claiming, “All you do there is sleep”? The same ones probably also think spending more for a comfy first-class train seat is a waste. HARDLY. Being able to truly stretch out during the ride is a gift that will keep on giving when you arrive at your destination refreshed and ready to roll.
Whether you opt for reclining Frau leather seats in first-class “Prima” seats on Italo trains or wide, leather-upholstered ones with adjustable headrests and lumbar support on Amtrak’s Acela Express line, the extra legroom you’ll get by traveling first class in the Northeast United States is a treat. Depending on the time of day they travel, Amtrak passengers going from Boston to Baltimore, for example, might pay between $293 and $405 one-way for the privilege.
Change your plans for free. Stuff happens when you travel: connections get missed, people get sick. Just like with airfares, when you buy the least expensive ticket, changes usually mean more money. Before you know it, you’ve spent as much in change fees as you have for your original ticket. First-class train fares such as Italian Frecciarossa “executive” build in flexibility, so when your plans change, you’re able to make them for free, or get full refunds as long as you ask before your initial train departs.
Business travelers who book “TGV Pro Première” fares in Europe not only get meals delivered to their seats on certain routes but also can exchange their tickets free, and without visiting a ticket counter.
Silence is golden. Travel by its very nature is disruptive, but sometimes you need a little peace and quiet in the midst of the madness. Because business people frequent first-class train compartments, they’re more likely to be working during the trip and not terribly interested in chatting up seatmates they don’t know. Truth be told, fewer families with fussy babies and toddlers are likely to splurge for these pricier seats.
So, if the only noise you want is your own thoughts, first class is a good option. Italy’s Frecciarossa “business” carriages offer a dedicated “silence area” where cell phone conversations and music are off-limits. You’ll find the same in Italo’s “prima relax” cars, where phones are forbidden and travelers are asked not to disturb others. The Eurostar “business premier” and “standard premier” service between the UK and the continent allow you to pre-book a seat in “quiet coaches” eight and 11.
Meet on the go. Want to talk business strategy in private? Frecciarossa’s executive service lets travelers book an elegant, in-carriage meeting room complete with conference table and 32-inch high-definition monitor for video projections. The Italo train’s premiere club class includes two four-seat lounges, where colleagues or companions traveling together across Italy can book their seats in a block and use them for business or pleasure (mapping out a list of Roman ristoranti, anyone?).
First-class Acela Express travelers wanting to confab while traveling 150 mph can take advantage of conference tables with seating for two or four. If you need to meet before boarding your train, Amtrak’s ClubAcela locations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington allow guests to reserve conference rooms for two-hour blocks for free.
Sleep that much sweeter. While some transcontinental trains are designed to whisk you to your destination in a matter of hours, you can choose to get there in varying degrees of style. Australian routes like Great Southern Rail’s Indian Pacific (which travels from coast to coast between Sydney and Perth) offer everything from economical Red Service day/Nnghter reclining seats (recently about $815) to compact but private Red Service sleeper cabins to Platinum Service cabins (about $3,745) that feature premium furnishings and luxe en-suite bathrooms.
If you’re traveling on regular Amtrak trains, travelers wanting a first-class experience pay a regular rail fare (usually the lowest one available) and then purchase upgrades for sleeping compartments, with varying prices depending on when you book and the type of train.
Nothing like flying without leaving the ground.
Maureen Jenkins is a freelance travel, food and lifestyles writer who has visited nearly 35 countries and territories. She recently moved back to her native Chicago from France and blogs about international travel at UrbanTravelGirl.com.