Surfing Europe by train and how my missteps can help you

Ride by train? Plan accordingly. Photo: Lusija Ros//Unsplash

“What do you mean we can’t continue with the board bag?” We’ve been on a dozen trains with him in the past month!“I asked frantically.

I grew more and more furious with the station employee. We had been arguing for ten minutes, switching from Spanish to English every time I needed a new adjective to describe the absurdity of the situation. After all, I stopped by yesterday to reserve my seat and asked in both languages ​​if surfboards were allowed on the train. I rushed to the ticket counter to express my utter disdain for the station clerk who forbade me from boarding the train I was supposed to take to catch my flight home.

Alas, the desk clerks were of no help. They sat behind their protective aquarium glass as I began to tear up my tickets in what I then thought was a cheeky act of defiance but most closely resembled a tantrum. It was barely 7 a.m. on a chilly January morning in San Sebastian, Spain. Rain was falling outside a melancholy winter sky, and the sun had not yet risen. The train from San Sebastian to Barcelona ran once a day at that time, and there was no getting around this apparent anti-surf policy. As I was in a near mental collapse, my girlfriend was calmly researching an alternate route to Barcelona and locating a car rental office that would open at eight. Surfing in Europe by train is totally possible (and amazing). But maybe let my follies inform your journey. It will be much smoother.

Pack intentionally

Months earlier, while planning my January trip to Europe with my girlfriend, I debated whether to bring a board. I’d reassured her, time and time again, that this wasn’t a surf trip, and I wasn’t commandeering our trip together. Instead, if we came across good surf in Biarritz or San Sebastián, I would be ready and not have to search for a quality rental among the soft-tops and longboards available along the beach.

I consulted friends in France and Portugal who assured me that traveling by train with a surfboard was doable. They informed me that I should consult the policies of each carrier and that I should bring only one chart. I picked out a 5’8” utility swallowtail as a one-board quiver and packed it neatly into a slim day bag. I padded the rails with pipe insulation, put a protective layer of cardboard around the swallowtail, protected the nose with my wetsuit, and wrapped everything in my day pack – the works. A few days before we left, I contacted my friend Sunny Fasslerwho lives in San Sebastian and works for Luex, a surf travel agency based in Europe. Sunny had just traveled to San Sebastián from Barcelona on the same train I was planning to take, so I reached out and his response got me thinking.

“I once traveled by train to San Sebastian from Barcelona, ​​and it was a fucking pain”

Surf Tripping Europe by Train and How My Missteps Can Help You

And with views like these….. Photo: Morgan Bernard

Do your research

After finding little evidence online to support either claim, I decided to take the risk. Each country in Europe has its own rail carriers and each carrier has its own surfboard policy. When choosing carriers, you can check their sports equipment policies on their website. If you are having trouble finding information, a good rule of thumb is to always choose the biggest carrier and the biggest train. In France, I had no problem when traveling Thalysbut on SNCF, I was obliged to pay a tax of 50 €. Larger trains have larger luggage compartments, so you can put your board bag on top of other suitcases in the luggage compartment. If your board is small enough, it can even fit in the overhead compartment. Small trains don’t have the same long baggage carts, so you’re unlikely to find a place for your board other than in the hallway.

Plan your route by carrier

If you are traveling between small towns and the only train option is a smaller carrier or smaller train, consider taking a bus. Buses will still allow surfboards. If you use a Interrail pass, you have access to a selection of bus carriers. As with booking a train with your pass, you must always make a reservation online or at the station before your departure. A Eurail pass isn’t always the most affordable way to travel, but if you travel primarily by train, you’ll save big. My pass allowed me to travel by train for 10 days in a 30 day window for less than $300. I only had to pay the small fee to reserve my ticket, not the full price.

Surf Tripping Europe by Train and How My Missteps Can Help You

Sweet rewards for moving from station to station. Photo: Morgan Bernard

And the surf…..Wish you were here….

The pain of lugging a board bag from station to station and up and down cobblestone hills was taken away by my first surf in Biarritz. A cruising straight point wrapped around the rocky coastline and sent runners head-high towards the shore. The water was fresh at 55 degrees, but the sun was shining high in the winter sky. All along the coast, locals were enjoying the rare respite from the typical gray winter day. Surfers hopped up and down at various breaks around town while swimmers braved the neoprene-less icy water. Along the shore, children played, dogs chased and tourists booed and hooted at the sight of waves lapping against a jagged coastline, all in front of a mix of Neo-Basque and Art Deco architecture.

If I had been more careful in my planning, I could have avoided the small San Sebastian train line by changing the order of my trip or flying straight there. Instead of traveling by train to Barcelona, ​​we took winding mountain roads to the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees before heading south to Barcelona. Although the trip was not the most enjoyable travel experience, it showed me that traveling by train with a surfboard is not only possible but enjoyable. As long as you stick with the big rails, do your research, and pack your bags carefully, you’re set for the trip of a lifetime.

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