In the not-so-distant past, the only way to buy train tickets for Europe was through an expensive travel agent or at the train station ticket window. These days, most of Europe’s national rail services offer online booking and there are a handful of third-party booking sites that make buying tickets quick and easy — but there are still a few hiccups here and there.
In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about buying European train tickets — both online and at the train station.
If you’re looking for information about rail passes, check out our guide to European rail passes.
The Two Main Types of Train Tickets in Europe
Before we get into buying tickets we need to talk about the two general ways that train tickets in Europe are priced. This should help you better understand how train ticket fares are calculated:
Fixed-Price Train Tickets
This is the most straight forward way train tickets are priced. In short, the price is solely based on the distance of the journey. The price never changes.
Just about every local and regional train uses fixed-price ticketing — so there are no discounts for buying early. Just show up at the station a little early and buy the ticket there. It’s as easy as that.
Furthermore, all domestic trains within Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland operate on this same fixed-price ticketing scheme — therefore, there is no reason to book ahead. Just show up at the station, buy your ticket, and get on the train.
Variable Price Train Tickets
Most people who visit Europe end up traveling between major cities and these routes are almost always connected by high-speed trains.
Most high-speed trains and long/medium-distance trains use variable price ticketing. That means the price is determined by route popularity, distance traveled, and when the ticket is booked.
The greatest factor that affects the ticket price is how early you book your train ticket — i.e. booking early = cheaper tickets. The difference between booking a month early and same-day can be staggering in some cases.
For example, a train ticket between Paris and Amsterdam starts around €35 but can be €120+ if booked last-minute.
Note To Rail Pass Users
Variable price tickets (i.e. high-speed trains and long/medium-distance routes) often require a reservation. So, if you’re traveling with a Railpass, you’ll need to pay extra for the reservation (you can make this online or at the train station). However, Austria, Denmark, Germany, the UK, and most of Eastern Europe don’t require reservations on their trains (but you can still book one if you want a guaranteed seat).
Where To Buy Train Tickets In Europe
There are multiple ways to buy your train tickets and it’s actually become very easy over the past few years.
Buying Train Tickets Via Third-Party Retailers (My Preferred Method)
These services are much more user-friendly than booking directly through each country’s national rail service. Yes, they charge around €2-€3 service charge but they don’t mark-up the actual tickets — it’s well worth the nominal extra fee in my opinion.
Note: These services sell e-tickets that can be downloaded to their smartphone app or emailed to you (i.e. you don’t need to print them). If e-tickets aren’t available, you can pick the tickets up at the station.
Omio is a great train booking engine that lets you book tickets from just about every country’s rail service. They make the booking process very user-friendly (i.e. you can use your credit card, don’t have to worry about weird tech issues, etc.) and I like their smartphone app. Visit Omio
Trainline is a new startup that sells tickets for French, German, and Italian trains and they also make the ticket-buying process simple (i.e. you can use your credit card, don’t have to worry about weird tech issues, etc.). Visit Trainline
RailEurope is the official North American representative of 50 railroads throughout Europe. With RailEurope, you can have physical tickets mailed to you before your trip but you also have the option (in some, but not all, cases) to print your own tickets, print an e-ticket at the self-service kiosk in the train station, or have an e-ticket sent to your phone.
You also have the benefit of only dealing with English-speaking customer service.
However, Rail Europe has a few downsides:
- Tickets are sometimes more expensive than buying them from their European counterparts.
- RailEurope doesn’t always list all the available rail journeys.
Buying Tickets From European National Rail Service Websites
Each country in Europe has its own rail service, and most allow you to purchase tickets online (some Eastern European countries are still behind the times).
However, many of these websites are plagued with bugs, don’t always accept foreign credit cards, have weird translation issues, and can be very confusing.
This is usually the cheapest way to purchase train tickets because you can take advantage of current promotions and discounts — so you’re paying the same price as the Europeans (although Omio and Trainline have the same prices).
Theoretically, all you need to do is purchase the ticket via the website and then collect the tickets at the train station. You’re often required to use the same credit card you used to purchase the ticket in order to collect your tickets. You’ll also need a card with a chip if you want to pick up your ticket from a machine. If you have a standard “swipe” card, you’ll have to go to the service desk.
Most rail services now use electronic tickets that can be sent to your smartphone or emailed to you (so there’s no need to print tickets anymore).
The best national rail service sites are:
- Austria National Rail
- The United Kingdom National Rail also try Virgin Trains
- France National Rail (it may try to redirect you to RailEurope; choose voyages-sncf.com)
- Germany National Rail
- Ireland National Rail
- Italy National Rail
- Sweden National Rail
- Switzerland National Rail
Buying Train Tickets At The Station
You always have the option to buy tickets at the station. Don’t expect the person at the counter to speak English but they might. However, you can usually just write down where you want to go and the time you want to depart and they’ll sell you the ticket.
The main problem of buying train tickets at the station is the long lines at customer service windows — especially at busy train stations. Avoid the line by going at off-peak hours.
You can also use the ticket machines found throughout every European train station. Most do not accept American credit cards unless you have a chip-and-pin card, but you can sometimes use cash (if it’s accepted).
Should You Buy Train Tickets Early? If So, How Early?
As mentioned before, to get the best price on tickets, it’s advisable to book at least one month in advance. Most National Rail Services start selling train tickets 60-90 days before the date of departure.
Eurostar tickets are on sale 180 days in advance, and you should snatch those tickets up as soon as possible. For example, a Eurostar ticket purchased 3-4 months in advance will cost around $70 and a ticket purchased the day of departure can cost $300.
More Tips For Traveling Europe By Train
Here are a few more in-depth articles about traveling Europe by train:
- Complete Guide To Train Travel In Europe
- France Train Guide
- Germany Train Guide
- Italy Train Guide
- Spain Train Guide
- Switzerland Train Guide
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Thanks For Reading! — James