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Maxims for traveling by train:
Never travel on a Friday. Everyone is traveling on a Friday, and you will experience large delays, be unable to change plans, etc.
Never travel on a holiday weekend. Same reasons apply.
For TGV and other premium trains, you should treat making reservations exactly like you would if you were traveling by air. The longer you wait to make a reservation, the less likely you are to get a seat and the more you will pay.
Eurrail passes can be worth it if you're traveling for a large number of days. But you must get them well in advance of leaving for Europe.
Traveling by Train in France:
Pas de problem.
In many cities, Paris especially, there are more than one train station. For some cities, trains may pass through each train station in turn. For others, like Paris, the train stations are geographically dispersed and a given train may go to only one of the stations. So if you must make a connection, be sure that you know which station each train will go to.
For Paris, the train stations are named according to the region of France they serve. So the Gare de Lyon, goes towards Lyon. The Gare du Nord serves the region in the north of France. You get l'idee!
There is also a station you can get to from the Charles De Gualle airport, Paris' main airport. The pictures in the margin show you where to wait to catch the shuttle bus to the train and what the station looks like.
To get from Terminal 1 in CDG to the Gare TGV in Terminal 2, you simply walk across the street and it's clearly marked where to go. At each bus stop there is a map showing you where you are in relation to the map and where the train station is, so it's quite easy to navigate.
Once in the train station you can find an ATM to get money, you can find places to get snacks, and just about anything else you want.
Boarding the train:
Each train station (in every country, really) has a diagramme for the composition of each train. This diagram may be static according to train number (as it is in many stations in Italy) or it may show on a monitor, as you can see in the three pictures on the left. Each car is numbered; for high speed trains, your reservation will have car and seat numbers, so you must take care to get on the correct car. The Composition des Train also shows you where the train will stop at the platform. So you will know where to wait.
When you are ready to board your car, there is a small destination on the side of the car. This will allow you to be double sure that everything is correct and you're not heading off to somewhere you don't want to go.
Be sure and validate your ticket before getting on. If you have a railpass, you must validate it at the ticket counter on the first day you use the pass. Henceforth, you just write in the date on your ticket on each day you use the pass. Reservations, which are required for the TGV, are separate, and you must validate your reservation in the machine prior to coming on board the train (or you risk being subject to a large fine).
While on the train, stops are clearly announced. The seats are very comfortable, and the train is really quiet.
Traveling by Train in Italy:
Get ready for an adventure! Be sure to check for any planned strikes during the days you're planning to travel. By law, they must be announced in advance. (Of course that doesn't stop them from striking unexpectedly...)
In my experience, Italy is not a place where the trains run on time. So again, be prepared to wait. Bring a good book and something to eat. Bring something (like your luggage) to sit on.