If you’re planning a big Eurotrip soon, you’ll be happy to hear that there’s no need to fly within Europe. The train system in Western Europe is so advanced, you can travel the entire continent without taking a single flight. If this sounds interesting, keep reading; this ultimate guide will tell you everything you need to know about train travel in Europe.
Why should you choose train travel
The best reason why should you travel by train in Europe is that you always arrive in the city center. Most airports are located very far away from the city and you have to waste more time and money to get to the city center. That’s not the case with train stations.
Another advantage is that you don’t have to go through long airport lines and security checks. You just arrive at the train station (in the city center), get your ticket, and board the train. A lot of rail services nowadays even issue e-tickets that are sent directly to your phone. This means that even if there is a queue at the train station, you can always avoid it.
Unlike traveling by plane, there are no luggage limitations and fees. And, there are no limitations on what you can carry and what you can’t. This means you can even get a few beers to make the trip even better.
If you want to visit a small town, you don’t have to Google for the nearest airport. Most European countries have well-connected railway networks in which every small town is included and there are multiple trains traveling every relation in a day.
Statistically, train travel in Europe is a lot more reliable than taking a flight. On average, trains in Europe are on-time more than 90% of the time. Flights, on the other hand, depart/arrive on time only 65% of the time.
Finally, trains are more comfortable compared to flights. Additionally, you can enjoy the natural beauty of the surroundings and even save some money on accommodation by taking overnight trains.
Disadvantages of train travel in Europe
Unlike the advantages, the disadvantages aren’t many. The first one that comes to mind is the cost. Tickets for high-speed trains can get expensive but if you book in advance, you can always get a good deal.
Another obvious disadvantage is that trains are slow when it comes to long-distance travel. If you’re planning to go from Southern Italy to Scotland, your time is limited, and your scheduled is already booked with a few different tours in Europe, this is clearly not a good option.
Finally, a lot of travelers are confused by the railway system and find it too complex at times. However, that’s what this article is about; to clear all of your doubts regarding train travel in Europe and teach you everything you need to know.
Ticket pricing 101
There are two ways of train ticket pricing- fixed and variable. Variable fares change based on multiple different factors but mostly, supply and demand for a particular date. All high-speed trains use this pricing model. If you want to get the best price on trains that use this pricing model, it’s best to book in advance. However, if you decide to do this, you lose flexibility because the cheapest tickets are usually the ones that are non-refundable.
Fixed fares, on the other hand, are determined only by the distance the train covers. This pricing model is more common for older and slower, regional trains. With this pricing model, it doesn’t matter when you buy the ticket because the price never changes.
Types of Rail Passes
Many travelers visiting Europe choose to buy a pass because it can save you some money if you plan to use the train a lot. Additionally, rail passes give you the flexibility of being able to use the pass in different countries without struggling to book tickets for every train journey you take. In general, there are two different passes- Interrail for people who live in Europe and Eurail for people who live outside of Europe.
However, keep in mind that if you really want to save on train travel in Europe, you’d probably save a lot more if you book every individual journey a month in advance. It might be more time consuming but it will certainly save you more money than getting a pass.
With that being said, let’s see what types of passes can you choose from. If you’re planning to travel by train to more than three different countries in Europe, consider the global pass. This pass allows you unlimited travel to every Eurail participant country for as many days, weeks or months as you choose. There are two different global passes; a continuous pass and a select pass.
The continuous pass gets you unlimited travel in all of the above-mentioned countries for a duration between 15 days and 3 months. The select pass gives you 5-15 individual travel days (that don’t have to be consecutive) within the next two months. However, keep in mind that the select pass is limited to only 3, 4 or 5 bordering countries.
Alternatively, if you’re planning to stay in one country longer, you can get a single-country pass. This pass gives you eight travel days in one country but you have to use it within a month.
Tips for booking your tickets online
- If you know which destination you’re planning to cover, see which specific operators travel there and book your ticket directly through their website. If you’re looking for trains from and to London, check out Eurostar; for trains from and to Paris, check out Thalys or B-Europe, for trains between Italy and France, check out Thello or Loco2, for trains anywhere in Germany, check out Bahn.De, etc.
- Sometimes, it’s better to break the journey down. You might have to visit several different websites and book multiple tickets, but it’s worth it. For example, if you’re traveling from Brussels to Vienna, you won’t be able to find a direct train on Bahn.de. However, if you search for a train from Brussels to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Vienna on the same website, you’ll find tickets that often cost even less than the initial booking.
- Don’t go for first-class. With most train operators, 2nd-class is almost as comfortable even in Eastern Europe, especially when riding in some of the modern trains. Sure, first-class passengers get wider seats, more room, table for two (and/or solo seats), and on some trains, seat-service and food & drink (even though the last one is more of an exception than it is a fact) and that’s pretty much it.
- If you’re taking a sleeper train, the class is irrelevant. On sleeper trains, your comfort will depend on the type of sleeping accommodation you chose. There are three options- an ordinary seat, a couchette, and a sleeper. The 2nd-class couchette is always more comfortable than a first-class seat.
- Online booking for international trains to countries like Turkey and Ukraine isn’t available (at the time of writing this article). If you’re planning to visit these countries, you have to book by phone or at the station.
Does it matter which website you use to book your pass/ticket?
Every country in Europe has its national train operator and needless to say, all operators have different ticketing systems. Most operators offer cheap tickets if you book in advance but you can only book on their website or through an agency that’s cooperating with them directly. However, these agencies will always charge an extra for their commission. That’s why the national train operators are always the best place to book your train tickets in Europe and you should be careful which websites do you buy your tickets from.
Links to Some National Railway Websites:
There’s no such thing as a website with universal cheap tickets
There’s not one website that can get you the cheapest prices to all destinations around the continent but some agencies will try to convince you that they can. Don’t take their word for it. If you want to visit more European countries while traveling by train, the cheapest way to book your tickets is through the websites of the national train operator of that particular country. This leads us to one of the most common questions travelers ask…
Book in advance or buy it at the station?
In this section, I’ll try to answer this answer in the most simple way possible. For starters, you need to distinguish between three concepts of train ticketing; local and regional trains anywhere, long-distance trains in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Sweden, and long-distance trains in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and Central & Eastern Europe.
When it comes to local and regional trains, the ticket price is fixed most of the time so you don’t get anything by booking in advance. Reservation is not only not compulsory but also not even possible on most train operators. Additionally, it’s almost impossible that all of these trains to be completely booked, so there’s really no use in booking in advance anyway.
Booking your ticket for long-distance trains in Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden isn’t very different than booking a flight ticket. The ticket prices vary just like airfare and the earlier you book your ticket, the cheaper the price will be. Another similarity to flight tickets is that if you want your ticket to be fully-flexible and refundable, you have to pay extra. Every ticket comes with an automatically-reserved seat and if you miss your train, you usually can’t hop on the next one.
On the other hand, some European countries like Austria, Germany, Denmark, and the UK still have the old-school way of train tickets booking. The train tickets have full flexibility, the price is fixed on that particular day (if you’re buying your ticket right before departure) and if you miss your train you can always hop on the next one. However, keep in mind that these tickets are more expensive but you can still save if you book in advance. If you want to reserve a specific seat, you have to pay a small fee.
How far in advance can you book?
If you live in Europe, this section probably won’t be of any interest to you. However, if you live outside of Europe and want to plan your once-in-a-lifetime Eurotrip in advance, keep reading. As mentioned above, there are different train operators in different countries and they open their bookings at different times. For the sake of practicality, we grouped operators in groups according to when they open their bookings.
60 days ahead
Most countries in Central and Eastern Europe allow train booking as early as 60 days before the trip. This list includes Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia. Additionally, domestic trains in Spain and Switzerland are also available only 60 days before the trip and in some regions, 45-50 days before the trip.
90-120 days ahead
Most of the French domestic and international TGV can be booked three months in advance. But if you are traveling during the busy summer months, some operators offer to book up to 4 months in advance. Additionally, the Paris-Turin-Milan TGV, Paris-Barcelona TGV, and Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam are also available for booking 120 days in advance.
180+ days ahead
Eurostar allows booking up to 6 months in advance. Most IDGV trains in France can also be booked up to 180 days before the trip. This is also valid for all tickets bought from the German Railways and the Austrian Railways.
How to check train schedules?
The best way to check the schedule for most trains in different European countries is the Bahn.De website. Since this is the official website of the German Railways, you can’t find the prices for train rides outside of Germany but you can see the train times from all train operators in Europe, except for a few private railways.
Don’t forget to check your ticket delivery options
This is very important. If you’re not sure or unfamiliar with a ticket-selling website, always check the ticket delivery options. For example, you can buy a ticket for a train from Vienna to Venice from the Italian Railway website but unfortunately, tickets for this journey can only be sent to an Italian address or picked up at a train station in Italy, both of which will be of no use to you, unless, of course, you’re in Italy before the trip.
One solution would be to book the same route through the Austrian Railways which allows e-tickets for this route in both directions. It sounds easy when I explain it like this but if you don’t know this before your trip, you can make some costly mistakes.
Senior and youth discounts
Unlike what you might hear, senior and youth discounts are oftentimes irrelevant. Yes, they do exist but oftentimes, they’re more expensive than the regular tickets. Additionally, you don’t have to search far and wide for these discounts; most booking websites ask for your age before booking your ticket and if a discount is applicable, it will be presented to you as an option.
If you’re planning to buy a railcard for seniors/under 26, know that it is useful for frequent travelers but not very useful for most tourists. These cards can be bought for a fixed fee and valid for a year on all domestic trains but are rarely applicable to international journeys. Railcards can usually only be bought on the spot and there aren’t many ways in which you can get it online.
So, if you’re a student traveling to college with a train every day, this is great for you. However, if you’re a tourist that will spend a couple of weeks in that country, this might not be a good option for you. Additionally, this card can get you up to 25% off on a train when you pay for the ticket but you can save much more if you book your ticket online a couple of months in advance.
Train travel in Europe with children
If you’re traveling with a toddler, you should know that generally, infants under a certain age don’t need a ticket for trains but there are some exceptions. For a complete list of all age limitations in different countries, check out this page. Moreover, the fact that you don’t need to pay a ticket for your toddler doesn’t mean that they will get a seat for themselves. If you want this, you’ll have to pay a child fare. Child fare is always cheaper than adult fare but you might come across a couple of pitfalls while trying to book your ticket online.
If the child fare is more expensive than the adult fare, it’s probably a system mistake. This happens when the train operator didn’t make an advance-purchase fare for children or when the website isn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish child fare from the adult fare. You should also be aware that some websites apply the wrong age limits when booking child fare tickets, mostly because of technical limitations, making you pay extra when you actually don’t have to.
For example, there are several websites that blindly follow the French Railways age limits but the limits in France are more restrictive than some other countries in Europe. Just another good reason to always book your tickets through the national railway operators’ websites.
What about splitting a trip and stopovers?
Unlike booking a flight, you won’t find the cheapest deal on getting from point A to point B just by searching for it on a website. If you’re planning to travel Europe by train, you need to get creative to save some money. For example, if you’re traveling from Berlin to Florence, you’ll find a train on the German Railways website but this isn’t necessarily the cheapest option. Oftentimes, you can actually save a lot if you split up your journey, especially when traveling long distances. The obvious best solution is to break-down the journey and book your tickets with different train operators for different parts of the journey.
On the other hand, if you want to make a stopover at point B before reaching point C from point A, there are a couple of things you need to be aware of. First, if your ticket is train-specific, you can’t use it to make a stopover. What does this mean? If you bought a ticket from Paris to Amsterdam, you can’t get off in Brussels and catch the next train to Amsterdam. In other words, the unused portion of your ticket goes to waste. The same thing applies to trains with compulsory reservations. Regional and local trains, on the other hand, are perfect for stopovers because the tickets are not limited on one specific train.
Hack: If you want to, you can actually pre-program your stopover and save a lot of money! Just go to the German Railways website and use the “add intermediate stop” feature. Enter your stopover destination and the number of hours you want to spend in that destination and the system will generate the cheapest possible option. In order for this to work, at least one of your stopover destinations need to be in Germany.
What about booking by phone?
If by any chance, the website you’re trying to book through is experiencing technical difficulties, you should always try to contact that train operator by phone. Moreover, you should also always reach out by phone if you have any specific requirements that can’t be arranged when booking through the website (ex. A specific seat or specific carriage). In some countries (mostly in Eastern Europe) booking online simply isn’t an option. And finally, if you have a more complex journey in mind and despite everything you read online, you’re still not sure how to complete that booking online, you should always call and ask for help.
Useful apps for train travel in Europe
Railplanner is a free train timetable app that works offline. You can download it in your phone and check train times without using the internet. The app is super-quick and gets updated almost in real-time and covers almost all trains in Europe.
DB Navigator works in a similar way as Railplanner and basically shows you all the train timetables from the German Railway website. The app needs Wi-Fi or mobile data to operate but it also has its own very useful journey planner to help you plan your upcoming trip.
How does checking in work?
Generally, there’s no check-in on most trains in Europe. You just find your train on the departure board, head to the platform, and hop on your train. And for most trains, you don’t have to be there x minutes before departure. If a train is leaving at 10 AM, the doors close at 09:59. It’s that simple. Additionally, most railway stations in Europe don’t have any barrier between the entrance door and the platforms where the trains leave from and this makes things even easier.
Regarding the ticket checking, this generally occurs on the train during the journey and not at the station itself. However, this doesn’t mean that you can just get on the train. I mean, technically, you can, but if you get caught, in most countries, you’ll have to pay a fine that surpasses the price of the ticket. Also, don’t forget that this isn’t a flight. Don’t expect the train to start boarding an hour before departure. This usually happens 10-20 minutes before the train leaves the railway station. So, if your train still isn’t on the departure table 40 minutes before the scheduled departure, don’t panic.
With that being said, there are a couple of exceptions that you should know about. For example, if you use Eurostar, you have to check-in at least 30 minutes before departure because you have to go through passport control and X-ray security checks. You can find more information about their check-in process on the Eurostar page. Another exception that you should know of is high-speed trains in Spain. Usually, there’s always a brief X-ray luggage scan before boarding. This doesn’t take a lot of time but you shouldn’t arrive at the train station one minute before departure either.
Is there passport control on international trains?
As you may or may not know, most countries in Europe are a part of the Schengen zone and technically, there aren’t any borders between them. However, when entering countries that aren’t a part of the EU (ex. Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, etc.), there will be a passport control at the border station along the way. But if you’re traveling only in countries that are a part of the Schengen Zone and the EU, you don’t have to worry about international borders and passport controls.
How long do connections take?
Physically, it takes roughly a minute or two to step off the train, cross the platform and board your next train. As stated previously, there is no check-in procedures or any other barriers that separate two different platforms on a train station (except maybe an escalator). Hence, switching trains is usually quick and easy but there are a few things you should be aware of.
If you’re taking a frequent local train, you won’t need more than a few minutes to make a connection. If you booked a train-specific ticket, though, and especially if it’s a long journey, I would try to leave at least 30 minutes between the two train journeys. Even though trains in Europe are extremely reliable and rarely late, you never know what might happen. With that being said, the length of the connection isn’t about how much time you’ll need to switch trains. It’s about risk management and the potential consequences of missing your connection.
Statistically, 85-90% of high-speed trains arrive on time and 95% of them arrive within 15 minutes of the scheduled departure. This means that the probability of your train running late is very low. Unless you’re traveling in the Balkan countries or taking a long-distance sleeper train. In these cases, always leave some buffer time between two connections.
Furthermore, we’ll take a look at several different scenarios to help you plan your connection.
When the connection is a local unreserved train
In countries like Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, if you miss your unreserved train, you can always board the next train going to the same destination. In this case, allowing only a couple of minutes to make your connection is completely fine because even if you miss your train, the consequences aren’t big. Unless that’s the last train for the day and you have to wait until tomorrow for the next one.
When the connection is a reserved train
Needless to say, if you have a ticket on an all-reserved train, you don’t want to miss it because your ticket is only valid for this train. You can’t take the next train and, hence, you should leave enough time to make your connection and leave 10-15 minutes of buffer time in case your journey is slightly delayed.
When the connection is an overnight sleeper train
If your connection is an overnight sleeper train, you just can’t afford to miss it. So, even though there isn’t a rule of thumb for this, in my opinion, it’s best to plan to reach the train station at least one hour before the departure of your overnight train. If you reach too early, you can always grab something to eat or enjoy a cup of coffee before the departure. In theory, 10-15 minutes is more than enough for you to get off your train and board the overnight train. After all, 95% of trains arrive on time or within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival. But what if your train is a part of the other 5%?
So, even if the website you’re booking your ticket suggests you an alternative that leaves only 10-15 minutes between your first train and your overnight train, I strongly suggest you look for other options.
A few tips regarding train connections
First and foremost, always be realistic when planning your connections. As I said, changing trains doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes but you never know when things might go wrong. Always think about the consequences. If you’re arriving on a long-distance train and are supposed to catch a local train that runs every 30 minutes, you don’t have to leave a lot of time in between, especially if you can save some money by booking this itinerary.
Even if you miss your local train, you can always catch the next one. However, if your onward connection is a reserved long-distance train or a sleeper train, I’d suggest you always leave some buffer time because if you miss one of these two trains, there’s no coming back and the money you spent for your ticket go to waste.
Know your rights. Before you travel by train anywhere in Europe, read the international conditions of carriage to know in which cases you missing a connection gives you the right to board the next train. Generally, if both of your journeys are on one ticket, you can board the next reserved train, even if you missed the one you were supposed to take before. However, today, most tickets come separately. Fortunately, in most railway stations, the staff are very kind and always try to help you out.
Finally, if you think travel insurance will help you with your missed connections, you’re wrong. Most travel insurance providers don’t quite understand the complexity of multi-leg train travel in Europe and hence, don’t provide a lot of packages to cater to people who travel by train around Europe. One exception of this is World Nomads. I’ve been using them for years and I just can’t recommend them enough.
What if you miss a connection?
For starters, check out the Agreement for Journey Continuation to learn what happens when you miss a connection.
But if you actually miss your connection, the first thing to do is get your ticket endorsed by the staff of the train operator at the interchange station. If your ticket is with Eurostar, their staff always helps people who missed their connection re-book a ticket for the next train going to their destination. But whether your ticket is with Eurostar or another train operator, don’t book a new ticket if you missed your connection. Consult with the staff first because if they have some available sits on their next train, they might give you a seat on the next train. Just don’t expect that this will happen every time.
Alternatively, if you have a through ticket (one ticket for both train journeys), you don’t have to worry if you miss your connection due to a delay. Even if you can’t board the next train, you’ll at least get a partial refund.
Train booking websites
RailEurope is the official foreign distributor of train tickets in Europe. Their website is very easy to use and you can find almost all train rides on their website but booking through them is more expensive than some other websites and certainly more expensive than booking through the national railway operators of every country.
Omio is one great train booking search engine that allows users to book tickets from different countries’ railway operators. They always charge a small commission on every booking but their platform makes the booking process a lot easier.
Trainline is an online booking platform that allows users to book train journeys in Europe in a similar way as Omio. The only difference is Trainline works only in some countries.
Klook is another great alternative that you can use for booking train tickets throughout western Europe. They even have notifications on their website warning users about potential delays or cancellations in certain regions.
HappyRail is also an interesting option, especially for frequent travelers. They provide the same services as the other website mentioned in this section of the article but they also have a reward program. This program works similarly to the reward programs of airlines; the more tickets you book with them, the more points you get. In the end, you can exchange these points for free rides or get a discount.
Helpful resources for traveling Europe on a budget
If you’re looking for cheap flights to Europe, Qatar Airways has some special deals that can save you a lot. Yes, this is an affiliate link, but even I use it when booking my flights because it really saves a lot.
As I mentioned above, the best travel insurance company for your trip to Europe is, without a doubt, World Nomads.
And last but not least, if you want to save on all booking.com rentals in Europe, use this discount code to get up to 15% off on your booking.
Did you ever consider train travel in Europe? Would you do it if you have the chance? Did this guide give you some useful tips? Let us know in the comments!
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