Complete Guide To Train Travel In Europe

daydreaming on the train

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.

Advantages of Rail Travel :: Disadvantages of Rail Travel :: How To Buy Train Tickets & Get The Best Price :: How To Use Train Tickets

Eurail Passes are a whole different story. Click here to visit the Eurail Pass information page.

Advantages To Rail Travel In Europe

Arrive Right in the Center of Town:
Unlike airports, European train stations are located right in the middle of town. You don’t have to spend the time and money traveling into the city because you’re already there. Traveling from the airport into the city will usually take anywhere between 20-60 minutes and cost $10-$40.

No Long Check-In and Security Lines:
There are no lengthy check-in procedures for train travel and there is no need to go through any security screening. You can simply show up a few minutes before the train leaves, buy a ticket if you don’t have one (often from a ticket machine with English instructions), and hop on the train.

No Luggage Limits/Fees:
There are no luggage weight limits or extra fees for multiple pieces of luggage. Just make sure that you’re able to lift your bag onto the train.

Bring Some Wine (don’t forget the corkscrew):
You can pretty much bring whatever you want on a train, including alcohol. Bring a bottle of wine or a case of beer if you want. You’re sure to make a few friends if you give a few away to your fellow travelers. Stop by the local grocery store and pick up some cheap food for the journey.

A Vast Rail Network and Multiple Trains:
Europe’s rail network is extremely vast, and it is possible to travel to even the smallest of towns by train. Most destinations offer multiple trains a day. The most popular routes usually have a train each hour so this really increases your travel options.

Sleep on the Train and Extend Your Travel Time:
If you’re traveling a long distance consider taking an overnight train. These trains have special sleeper cars with bunks (usually 6 bunk rooms or two bunk rooms). A bunk in a sleeper car will cost about $25-$55 extra, (about the same as a night in a hostel) but you won’t lose out on a day of travel. Overnight trains also have normal seats if you don’t want to fork over the extra cash for a bunk.

Be Spontaneous:
Most trains don’t require a reservation, so there isn’t a need to book ahead. Simply show up at the train station before the train leaves and climb aboard.

Beautiful Views:
Europe has a lot of amazing countryside so traveling by train is a great way to see some fantastic views.

Peace and Quiet:
The train is the perfect place to sit-back and relax. There is something very peaceful about staring out the window as you ride silently at 150MPH through the European countryside (that cold beer doesn’t hurt either). The train is also a good time to write a postcard to your friends and family, read a book, write in your journal (you’ll be glad you did), or continue planning your future travels.

Comfort:
Train seats are usually a little larger than planes seats (especially when compared to many discount airlines). You’re also free to move about the train whenever you feel like it. Many trains also have seats that face each other and have a table between the seats. These are perfect for groups or if you just like table space. Unless it is a holiday or you’re on a very popular route, the train is often uncrowded so there is a good chance you’ll be able to get two seats to yourself.

Reliable and on Schedule:
European trains run on schedule well over 90% of the time, but flights are only on schedule around 65%. This is partially because the weather (snow, rain, fog, etc…) generally have no impact on train service.

Beautiful Train Stations:
Historically the train station was the central hub for commerce and transportation. Many European cities showed off their wealth and status by building grandiose train stations. While it isn’t a huge deal, it is one of those nice little perks.

The Train is Fun:
I always found riding the train to be fun. Maybe it is because there are no trains where I live, or maybe it congers up nostalgic images of riding the train through the wild west. Whatever the reason, I always found train travel special.

Disadvantages of Rail Travel in Europe

The Costs:
Train travel can be expensive. Although there are often discounts for people under 26 or if you purchase your tickets far in advance.

Slow for Long Distance Travel:
If you’re traveling long distances, it might be smarter to fly. For example, taking the train from Paris straight to Budapest would take around 18 hours by train so, unless you stop and spend a few days in cities on the way, it would make more sense to fly, especially if you’re short on time.

Confusion:
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.

Rail Strikes:
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 and where to buy train tickets (especially how to get the best price) can also be confusing. The next section will help clear up any confusion.

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.

Note: The above information is the same for Canada, Australia and New Zealand; www.raileurope.ca, www.raileurope.com.au or www.raileurope.co.nz.

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 –

Austrian Railways¹ – Belgian Railways¹ – Danish RailwaysFinnish RailwaysFrench RailwaysGerman RailwaysIrish RailwaysItalian RailwaysSpanish Railways Netherlands Railways¹ – Norwegian RailwaysPolish RailwaysSwedish RailwaysSwiss Railways¹ – United Kingdom Railways

¹ Domestic tickets (travel wholly within the country) are always the same price, regardless of when purchased, and never require an reservation. Therefore, it is easiest to buy at the station. ** 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).

Important Notes:

  • 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.

Night Trains:

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.

validate ticket

How To Use Train Tickets

Validate Ticket:
Many train tickets need to be validated (stamped with time/date) before entering the train. There are machines at the station and you simply stick your ticket in and the machine stamps it. You can receive a large fine if the ticket checker sees that your ticket isn’t validated (they’ll assume you were trying to ride for free). If you forgot, quickly seek out the checker, explain that you forgot to validate and everything should be fine. Or you can just play the “I’m a dumb tourist and these scary trains confuse me” card and hope they let it slide.

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.

Locate Your Train Car and Seat:
Some tickets will have assigned seats. First locate which train car to which you’re assigned and then find your seat. The car numbers are posted near the doors. If there are no assigned seats you simply need to find a car with the correct class (first or second – marked with a 1 or 2 on the car) and find any seat.

Ticket Checker Will Check Your Ticket:
After the train starts the ticket checker will come by and stamp/punch your ticket. While not extremely common in Western Europe, boarder patrol might board the train to check passports. They might ask you some questions. I usually only ran into this in Eastern Europe.

Picture by: Jonas Tegnerud

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  • Pingback: Independent Guide to Budget Backpacking in Europe | TheSavvyBackpacker » Eurail Pass Guide()

  • Traveler

    Hello! Loved the article. I’m trying to get from budapest to Venice on the 10th of this month, any advice???

  • https://spotted-sunshine.blogspot.com/ Jessica Emerson

    Awesome tips!! I love train travel! I grew up in Japan so trains were pretty much the main mode of transport for getting around. Also I have another tip I learned when I was traveling in Germany, Bavaria specifically, they have group discount tickets where you can put up to 5 people on one ticket and starting at 9am M-F you can pretty much travel anywhere around Bavaria (Munich, Garmisch, Oberammergau, etc) all day on one ticket. The “Bayern ticket.”

  • Andrea

    I’m not even exaggerating when I say that this post has inspired me to consider an epic trip around Europe via rail next year. Thanks for sharing so much great information – will definitely be referring to this in the coming months.

  • Luke Mitchell

    ohhhhh train travel. So few people do that anymore in terms of how they want to travel, perhaps because they haven’t thought to, perhaps because it’s not as far reaching in terms of destinations as it once was. But I have to say, the prestige of riding on a train and enjoying the trip as it rattles down the rails is something that everyone should do at LEAST once, and just pick any destination, because just getting there is most the fun.

  • Alice

    Why isn’t the interrail-card mentioned in this article? Why buy lots of tickets here and there when you can just use one card and travel for as much as you like within a month?

    • Gcosmic13

      Interail is only for Europeans. If you are visiting from another country you should get the eurail. But I was researching and I think if you book your trains with http://en.voyages-sncf.com/en/ it’s cheaper that the eurail pass, we are trying to plan our trip visiting 9 cities and so far it’s 50% cheaper and with a minutes of difference time wise.

  • AngieC

    Hi guys! So i am planning to go on a backpacking Europe experience some time in 2017 (i know i am doing this extremely early, but due to “Life” circumstances this is when i am able to do it) and i am a little confused when it comes to the trains, i was reading in the eurail website that i need a “pass” but then i also need a reservation if i am going to take an overnight train. So how exactly does this work? and also, if i get and eurail train will that connect me from major cities to other ones within the same country? or is it just for trips between countries? Thank you all! :)

    • savvybackpacker

      Your Eurail pass is basically your ticket to ride the train so you can just hop on the train and find an empty seat. However, some trains require that you make a reservation (so you get assigned a seat). You make the reservation at the train station and you have to pay an extra fee.

      Your pass will get you on any train — routes within the same country, between cities in different countries (assuming your pass covers both countries), etc.

      • fatimah

        There’s 6 of us traveling from California to Pamplona in July to run with the bulls. From Pamplona to Barcelona. From Barcelona, 3 of us are flying to Ibiza. From ibiza, fly to Madrid , and then fly back home. Would purchasing a Eurail pass to Barcelona the way to go? Do we need other train tickets to travel anywhere else?

        • savvybackpacker

          It sounds like you’re already flying everywhere. If you are only taking one train ride then you should just purchase a normal ticket.

  • megzzz24

    Just wondering if you could help me, my boyfriend and I are planning in going on a backpacking trip around Europe this year and we are looking at traveling by train! However we are a little confused as to which ticket we need to by, we are thinking the eurail is the best option for us but we both hold European passports and will be using these to travel within Europe so do we need to buy a interail ticket instead of a eurail?! Confused about it all really…. If we are looking at traveling for a month or so with a new place every three to four days do u think a eurail is best option or purchasing individual tickets for each journey!? Thanks!

    • savvybackpacker

      Interail is basically the European equivalent of Eurail (in fact, European citizens can’t use Eurail passes). But the two passes are basically the same thing. Deciding on which pass is a better option will depend on where you’re traveling. The nice thing about the pass is there convenience but sometimes you pay a little extra for it.

  • mediabrainwash

    Yes but always buy U.K. train tickets in advanced or it will cost an unethical amount of cash. Even the locals complain about the price. Also the train-line is a good site for planning in the U.K.. Also rail-passes are scams and often end up costing a lot more than just buying individual tickets. If you want to save money, take the bus. Plus train drivers go on strike too often over there. German train drivers were demanding 37 hour weeks and more money. It seems America is 100 years behind on basic worker’s rights.

    • Ambersol09 .

      Huh? Should America should have more train strikes?

  • http://www.passportcouture.com/ Passport Couture

    I’m glad I found this post to see all the info in one blog rather than trying to search through multiple sites. Thanks for sharing the great info!

  • Julia M

    Great article, thanks for sharing! I loved using the train when I traveled around Europe after college graduation. For American youth, you can also purchase discounted Eurail passes through STA Travel (either online or at a physical office located on the college campus). The STA associate was also very helpful to make sure we purchased the correct pass for our travels and understood all of the rules for use.

  • http://www.shutupandgo.travel Shut Up and Go

    Can we just take a quick second and THANK EUROPE for the Under 26 discount!

  • RailtheTrails

    Great
    overview of rail travel in Europe! I have a blog about train travel in the
    Netherlands in a little more detail ( I update every week or so) for those travelling
    in Holland it’s a good resource for learning how to buy tickets
    etc….www.railthetrails.blogspot.com