Unlike air travel, a train journey across Europe is an interesting experience in itself, not mere transportation. Here are routes worth doing for the scenery alone, but which won't break the bank. Take a bottle of wine along (you're free to do that by train!) and enjoy the ride:
U.K.: The most scenic route bar none is through the West Highlands of Scotland, passing from Glasgow to Fort William and beyond. The train twists and turns at about 40 m.p.h. through the glens and across the windswept Rannoch Moor, over the Glenfinnan Viaduct (where tales of Bonnie Prince Charlie abound), to the little fishing port of Mallaig, where the ferry sails to Skye. A flexible return ticket bought at the station costs about $95; nationalrail.co.uk will give train times.
Switzerland: In a land full of great train rides, the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St. Moritz is head and shoulders above the rest. Superb panoramic coaches with huge windows in the roof and along the sides mean that you won't miss a bit of the best Alpine scenery Switzerland has to offer, from the Mattertal Valley to the bleak 6,704-foot-high Oberalp Pass to the Rhine Gorge (Switzerland's Grand Canyon, in miniature). Around $140 covers both travel ticket and Glacier Express surcharge, see glacierexpress.ch.
France: When you travel the new high-speed line south from Paris, you zoom at 186 m.p.h. past picturesque French villages and ancient churches, crossing the Rhone River at several points on huge viaducts, including one with Avignon's famous Pope's Palace visible in the distance along the river. Once past Marseilles and St. Raphael, the line to Cannes, Nice, and Monte Carlo runs along the coast, past millionaires' villas, rocky inlets and yacht-filled harbors. Booked in advance online at www.voyages-sncf.com a Paris-Nice ticket can cost as little as €25.
Spain: Sometimes it seems as if very few Spanish train rides aren't scenic! A favorite is the run from Madrid over the high-speed line to Cordoba, Seville, or Malaga—the old slow line went around the mountains; the high-speed line cuts straight through them, via a dramatic succession of tunnels and high viaducts. Trains to Algeciras (for Gibraltar and for the ferry to Morocco) also take this route, later slowing right down across an arid plateau toward the end of the line. Booked in advance online at renfe.es (in Spanish), Madrid-Seville costs as little as €28.
Other routes: Berlin or Dresden to Prague takes you through the Elbe Valley, a majestic introduction to the Czech Republic, from €29 booked in advance at bahn.de; Bergen-Oslo is one of, if not the most, scenic routes in Norway, right along a fjord, see nsb.no. In Greece, Athens to Thessaloniki (Salonika) takes you through an incredible mountain range south of Larissa, then down a steep escarpment to the valley below. Later, the train passes by Mount Olympus, mythical home of the gods, before reaching Greece's second city. The regular fare is only around €20, bought at the station.
Mark Smith, blogging from England for our Affordable Europe series.