#rail travel europe
Complete Guide To Train Travel In Europe
Traveling by train is the quintessential method for touring Europe and rightfully so. It s romantic. It s inspiring. Some might say it s almost magical. And to those of you who don t live in a country where train travel is prominent, it s a little mysterious. The rail network is extremely developed and train service is very reliable (unless there are strikes). Trains in Europe are not perfect, but many people consider it the best way to travel. This Train Travel 101 guide will explain everything you ll need to know about train travel and you ll learn some helpful tips.
Sections Of This Guide
Advantages To Rail Travel In Europe
Disadvantages of Rail Travel in Europe
The train schedules can be a little confusing, especially for beginners, but it is easy to learn. Also, a lot of large cities, and a few small towns, have more than one train stations (Paris has six!). It s not uncommon to arrive in one station and leave from another. I ve shown up at the wrong station a number of times, so be sure you read your tickets carefully.
It is also possible to change stations during a single journey. For example, traveling from London to Lyon, France via the Eurostar. The Eurostar stops at the Paris North station but then you have to travel to the Paris East station to catch the train from Paris to Lyon, because there are no direct trains from London to Lyon. This transfer would require a cheap metro (subway) ride.
Striking is a national pastime in Europe. It happens a few times a year (or more if the people aren t happy), and you ll usually know about them a few days in advance. You ll just have to deal with them if they happen.
How To Buy Train Tickets Get The Best Price
Buying train tickets can be a little complicated. Finding the best price is even more complicated. Unfortunately there is no single website that can find the best ticket prices for all of Europe. It does take a little work and planning, but this guide will walk you through the process for getting the best deal possible. If you re interested in information about Eurail passes click here.
Buy Your Tickets Online:
You ll get the best deals on tickets if you buy online. BUT . you need to buy them directly from each country s site. For example, if you re traveling in France you should buy the tickets from the French Rail website www.voyages-sncf.com. This way you won t have to pay all the extra fees that you would if you booked through a travel agent. Generally, these tickets can t be mailed outside of Europe, so they have to be picked up at a train station.
You can also buy tickets from the North American distributor, RailEurope. Rail Europe is a joint venture between the French National Railways and the Swiss Federal Railways, and they were created to sell rail tickets to non-Europeans. Unlike most European rail systems, Rail Europe will mail tickets outside Europe. Unfortunately, there is a good chance you ll have to pay a lot more for a ticket. These sites often don t display any current specials and sometimes they only show the more expensive tickets. It s not unheard of for tickets to be 2x-3x more expensive when purchased through Rail Europe. Although. sometimes the ticket prices are nearly identical to European prices, so it might be easier to buy them through Rail Europe in these cases. Make sure to check both Rail Europe and the country s website and compare prices.
But (see why this can get confusing), the Rail Europe UK site will usually find the best deals, but tickets have to be picked up in the UK.
Individual Country s National Rail Websites
¹ Domestic tickets (i.e. trips that are wholly within the country) are always the same price, regardless of when purchased, and never require a reservation. Therefore, it is easiest to buy at the station. However, these countries often have a separate international high-speed train system (e.g. Belgium has slower regional trains and high-speed Thalys trains that link major Belgian cities to other international cities).
- Booking tickets online in Eastern Europe is tougher/not possible. It is usually best to purchase them at the station or at a local travel agent. Ask your hostel or hotel and they ll tell you where to locate an agent.
- Double check the rules about ticket how you can retrieve your tickets. If the rail company won t mail you the tickets then you ll have to pick them up at a station in that country. This presents a problem if you bought your Paris to Barcelona ticket from the Spanish Rail site because you can only pick the ticket up in Spain. Some countries are starting to allow you to print your own tickets but many don t.
- When you pick up your tickets at the station you usually need to use the same credit card you used to book/purchase online. There are many automated ticket machines in train stations and it is possible to get your pre-purchased tickets there. Although, some only take the chip-and-pin cards (not used in the US) so swipe cards might not work. You can always give it a try first, but you might have to go up to the window to get your ticket.
Plan Your Rail Journey:
The Germans are known for being extremely precise and orderly, so it is no surprise that they produce the most in-depth train schedule for all of Europe. Visit www.bahn.de and input your desired journey. You won t be able to buy tickets (unless you re buying tickets for German train travel) but you ll be able to see the schedule of just about every train in Europe. This is great for complex journeys that other websites can t process. Once you know all the train schedules you can break the trip down by country. If you re traveling from Paris to Budapest for example, book a train from Paris to Munich using the French Rail site. Then use the German site to book a train from Munich to Budapest (this is a simple hypothetical situation it maybe be possible to book this journey from the French rail site).
bahn.de is also great because it gives you all the extra, and often very important, information about each train (if a reservation is required, if there are sleeping/food/bar cars, etc ).
Book Tickets in Advance:
Tickets are able to be purchased 90 days (sometimes 60) before departure, although Eurostar tickets are available 120 days in advance. There is a limited amount of cheap tickets and they obviously sell-out the quickest.
There will usually be a huge price difference when you buy in advance. The Eurostar offers a one-way ticket from London to Paris for about $60 if you book well in advance. That same ticket will cost $140 if booked only a few days in advance and $225 if booked the day before/day of.
It is important to remember that most regional trains (non-high speed trains) don t change in price based on when you purchase them (i.e. they are the same price no-matter when you purchase them). Just purchase a ticket at the ticket window or ticket machine.
Youth Discount (under 26):
All you young whippersnappers under 26 will probably get a discount on most train travel. Although, the discount you receive by booking well in advance is usually cheaper than the youth discount. It does come in handy when you re traveling spur-of-the-moment.
If you re traveling a long distance it could be wise to take a night train. Almost every major city has daily connection to other major cities. Night trains require a reservation. You also have the option to reserve a small bed in a sleeping car. The most common configurations are 6 bed rooms and 2 bed rooms. The rooms are comfy (small) and you ll most likely be sharing the room with strangers. A bed will cost about the same as a hostel bed and should be reserved ahead of time. You save a day of sight-seeing by taking the night train, and you arrive at your destination rested and ready for a new city.
Final Words About Point-to-Point Tickets:
As stated above, buying tickets in advance is the best way to save, but this also limits your ability to be flexible/spontaneous. This is especially true since many of the truly cheap train tickets are non-refundable. For optimum flexibility it might be best to buy a rail pass. For example, when I was in Krakow a lot of the hostelers were talking about Budapest and it sounded really interesting. It wasn t part of my schedule but luckily I had the flexibility to change my plans Budapest turned out to be one of my favorite cities.
Each person s travel plans are different. Someone traveling for 9 months is going to have a totally different strategy than someone who is on a strict 2 week time limit. This is where solid planning comes into play.
How To Use Train Tickets
Note: You can sometimes buy your ticket on the train (although you ll pay extra) but you must seek out an employee quickly. You ll receive a large fine if they come around checking tickets and find that you don t have one.