My favourite way to travel around Europe is by train. Whilst many plane tickets can be cheap, airports can be far out of the city centre, requiring extra transport costs to get to and from (often more than the plane ticket). Plus you need to arrive early to go through security and check in your luggage. With trains, they usually depart from in the city centre. This means that it can take as little as 15 minutes between checking out of your hotel and comfortably sitting back with the train pulling out of the platform. Many people find it difficult to plan travelling by train, but I’ll show you how it can be simple and cheap to see Europe by train.
🐾 Dog-friendly: Dogs (at least small dogs) are allowed on most trains in Europe, except for the Eurostar. Check for the individual country websites, as conditions vary, such as whether they need to be in a container and whether a ticket is required.
Should I Buy a Eurail Pass?
For most overseas visitors, they think the only option, or the cheapest option, to see Europe by train, is by buying a Eurail Pass or another pass applicable for the countries they are visiting. I did this on my first trip to Europe, and planned my trip using the booklet of train times that I received with my ticket. However, unless you have multiple trips by train that you are travelling a long distance and need the flexibility to buy tickets on the day or at short notice, usually this works out more expensive. Plus, you still usually need to pay a reservation fee to reserve seats on many trains.
If you have mainly shorter journeys, say just 2 hours, or can commit to buying tickets ahead of time, it is better to buy tickets individually, for the exact trips you are taking. Read this article at The Man in Seat Sixty-One for a longer explanation.
How to Buy the Cheapest Tickets in Europe?
Train tickets in Europe these days work similar to plane tickets: the cheapest tickets are usually the non-flexible ones available when tickets first go on sale. While if you need to buy tickets at the last minute, you get charged the full, expensive price. Thus the best way to buy the cheapest tickets when seeing Europe by train, is to commit in advance to where you are travelling (the same as when you book hotel rooms), and book your tickets as soon as possible.
When Do Tickets Go on Sale?
European train tickets generally are available about 90 days in advance in Western Europe, or 120 days for the Eurostar. In Eastern Europe and Russia tickets are only available 60 or 45 days in advance. Additionally, when the time table changes twice a year (in mid-June and mid-December), tickets shortly after the change-over may be only available 60 or 30 days in advance. If you are booking well in advance and can’t find tickets available, it is likely that bookings haven’t opened yet.
Fixed Price Tickets
Additionally, it should be noted that many shorter train journeys, such as on local, regional and suburban trains, are fixed price. There is no different between buying the ticket at the station or in advance. These train trips can usually be spotted by there being no option for reservation. This also extends to domestic trains wholly within Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Special Regional Tickets
One other deal to look out for are tickets that allow unlimited train travel within a given region on one day. For example, in southern Germany there are Bavaria tickets. These tickets are a fixed price and can be bought at the train station or in advance. The one catch is that you can’t start travelling before 9am on weekdays (no restrictions on weekends). Keep this in mind when planning your travels.
1st or 2nd Class?
A final word – tickets are usually available in both 1st and 2nd class. I usually just buy 2nd class tickets: the main difference is that 1st class seats are larger, may provide you a free drink and allow you access to 1st class and business lounges. I find 2nd class tickets perfectly comfortable.
How to Book Tickets?
So, you’ve planned your trip, worked out where you want to travel in Europe by train and when, and now want to buy tickets?
The Best Websites to Use
The best way to book your tickets are on the website of the country where your train is departing. Sometimes you can book your ticket at your destination country, or a country on the way. Plus sometimes there are restrictions, including tickets only being mailed to domestic addresses if you buy from the wrong website.
The websites that I’ve used the most and find the easiest are the Deutsche Bahn (German) and ÖBB (Austrian) train company websites. These sites are both fully available in English and easy to use. In particular, the Deutsche Bahn site has the full European timetable, so can be used for planning your trains travelling anywhere, although you won’t see prices or be able to book tickets. The most difficult website I found was the Hungarian Trains website, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Search with Google to find the relevant train company website, or head to The Man in Seat Sixty-One for where to go to buy tickets between different destinations.
Follow These Steps
Once you are on the website, the steps to purchase a ticket are:
- Search for trains by entering your from and to destinations, date, time of day, how many passengers
- A timetable will be displayed, with the prices for each fare option for the different trains – such as saver vs flexi fare, 2nd vs 1st class
- Choose the time train you want and the fare option
- Enter your personal details (at least name)
- Optionally, select to reserve a ticket for a few euros extra (I usually do this on longer journeys for peace of mind – I don’t know whether the train will possibly be full!)
- Enter your payment details and finalise the purchase
Usually you can register on the site, which is worthwhile when you are purchasing multiple tickets are different times, so you don’t need to re-enter all of your details.
Tickets are either emailed, so print them at home or from your accommodation. Alternatively, you may be given a code to print out the tickets at the station. Allow extra time to do this when arriving at the station.
Have a great time on your trip to see Europe by train!
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