Train stations in Europe offer more than trains

Many inexperienced travelers have two major fears when going abroad. The first is the language barrier; the second is getting lost.

Here's a surprising little tip. In Europe, there's one place in almost every city to get help for just about anything you need - the train station.

With limited passenger rail service in the United States, it's understandable travelers might be unaware that a terminal can be a valuable asset. However, when you consider that Europe has a vast rail network in every country, stations can readily alleviate fears and become a major refuge.

In major and medium-size cities throughout the continent, train stations are in the center of town. That means visitors can immediately get their bearings before attempting to conquer new worlds. But that's only the beginning.

Information is always available in English. Just look for a sign with a lower case letter "i" or one that says "tourist information." Here you can find out about hotels, local transportation, directions, restaurants or get answers for almost any question.

(Note that "tourist information" is not the same as "rail information," which only provides schedules and ticketing for the trains.)

Rail terminals also have currency exchange and/or ATMs, gift shops, newsstands, pharmacies and food services. In fact, Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon, in Paris, has served elegant cuisine to travelers and locals alike in belle epoque ("Gilded Age") surroundings for more than a century.

Lockers are also available, providing a place to store luggage for a few hours or a day while you immerse yourself in sightseeing, shopping or other activities. Some railway stations have hotel reservation services and, in a few, you can find showers.

In short, European railway terminals are an oasis for travelers making the transition from the familiarities of home to the uncertainties of a new environment.

And best of all, a European rail station is a great place to catch a train.