How to save money and time both when travelling by train in Europe AND when planning your journeys by train.
Not all the topics below may be relevant to you, so simply select those that are to access a wealth of information to help you make the most of your trip at the cheapest possible price!
These facts are worth knowing when you're considering a trip by train in Europe
Our Top 10 Tips for taking the stress out of travelling by train in Europe
If you're confused by any aspect of European train travel and what we're talking about below our unique frequently answered question guide should tell you what you need to know.
Stating the obvious, but a rail tour of Europe needs a starting point, so that's where we're beginning our guide to making the most of getting there by train.
Europeans embarking on an InterRail trip don’t need to set off from their local stations, after all the pass isn’t valid in the home country. (though they can obtain discounted rail tickets to the national border)
The airports at the key European gateways of Amsterdam, Copenhagen/Kobenhavn , Frankfurt (Main), Manchester, Paris and Zurich have stations in the terminal from which you can take long distance trains to multiple destinations other than the cities that they serve directly.
If you fly into these cities, (or the likes of Barcelona, Brussels, Geneva, London, Milan/Milano, Munich/Munchen, Rome/Roma and Vienna/Wien that have local rail links), and want to spend your first night in the cities closest to the airports, start your rail pass from the day on which you make your first long distance trip – particularly if you’re purchasing a pass that is valid for a set number of days.
You don’t have to take a circular trip that concludes at the city where you commence your journey, fly back to your starting from your final destination that you visit by train, or purchase an ‘open-jaw’ ticket when flying to/from Europe.
If you’re planning a tour of Europe by train and London is a must see destination it can make sense to start/finish your trip in the UK. Neither Eurail or InterRail tickets can be used on Eurostar trains (though savings can be made on tickets, if you haven’t booked sufficiently early to secure the lowest discounted fares).
If you don’t start/finish your tour in London, the days on which you travel by Eurostar and spend in the UK will impact on the length of time that your rail pass is valid for - particularly if you're travelling on a pass valid for a consecutive number of days.
There are three key reasons why at least modicum of advance planning is fairly essential before you plan to take a trip by train in Europe.
1: Routes and destinations –
• Check whether you can actually reach your destination by train.
• Don’t assume that a train service will operate between two destinations.
• The trend in European rail services is towards an increase in express services that can reach destinations in five hours or less and fewer trains that snake across Europe linking multiple countries and cities.
• A very small percentage of services cross borders and on many international routes, trains operate only once or twice per day.
• The Thomas Cook Rail Map of Europe can be an invaluable investment, you can gauge distances between destinations at glance and it also shows the most scenic routes as well as the high speed lines.
• For longer international journeys travelling overnight is frequently the only option and if you want to have a good night’s sleep, all overnight European rail travel in any sort of flat bed, needs to be reserved in advance.
• Try to maintain a sensible pace, the majority of the destinations that you select will require at least 24 hours to absorb their highlights, so don’t plan on taking too many trains day after day.
2: Types of train
• High speed lines have shrunk Europe, but if you want to travel on a high speed train on a high speed line in Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Italy or Spain you have to reserve a seat before you board. (Germany is a useful exception to this rule)
• Reservations are also compulsory on the majority of other train services in Spain, many international services that cross borders and for all types of sleeping accommodation on overnight trains.
When they are not compulsory, ThereByTrain.com recommends that 2nd class travellers in particular, should make reservations for travel on many trains, including all long distance trains in Italy and international trains in Eastern Europe, particularly in the summer months.
• If you board a train that requires a compulsory reservation without one, you could be denied a seat or a bed for the night.
• If you want to avoid the need to make reservations then slower local trains can often provide an alternative for travel by day, but not always, so check in advance.
• Taking advantage of local trains can also involve more changes of train, so it’s useful to check when and where you’ll have to do this.
1. Trip planning can lead to substantial savings. In certain countries (including Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain and Eurostar/Thalys trains) long distance tickets purchased in advance will be cheaper the earlier that you book them because only the full fare, most expensive tickets will still be available by the date on which you want to travel.
Other countries including Italy and Sweden offer regular promotions that enable savings to be made when booking long distance tickets in advance.
2. Premium prices are normally charged for high speed express services (whether they run on dedicated high speed lines or not) and many high speed and international services require a supplement.
3. Check our ‘ Trains ’ guide to ascertain which services require a premium ticket/supplement and if you don’t want to pay the additional charges, you can plan your alternative options.
4. Try to price your trip before committing to a rail pass, fares can now be found online on the sites operated by the national rail operators.
5. In certain countries, particularly France, Germany, Italy and Spain when more than one type of train is available between two destinations, a sliding scale of prices applies to journeys depending on the type of train taken, with premium express trains being more expensive, while slower local and regional trains provide the cheapest tickets. Price differences can be quite substantial.
Try to include a mix of journeys, high speed, local and scenic in your trip and vary your destinations on your itinerary between those with fast and slow paces. Rushing around big cities can quickly become exhausting and resting on the trains between destinations often isn’t enough to recover energies.
Whether you want to make a couple of day trips by train, tour a country or travel across Europe there are numerous opportunities to avoid a set itinerary and take advantage of good weather or to meet up with new friends etc.
Advance planning before you reach your destination will let you know whether being spontaneous on arrival is an option.
Discover which destinations and services have tickets which cost the same on the day of travel, or target countries and regions in which hopping on and off trains that operate to a regular timetable is possible.
Countries where detailed advance planning of journeys isn’t particularly necessary include -
• Benelux (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg)
• Germany (though if you’re buying separate point to point train tickets for long distance journeys within Germany, you need to purchase them at last three days in advance of travel if you want to obtain a discount)
• Great Britain (though many long distance tickets should be purchased in advance of the day of travel)
• The Czech Republic
Countries where the majority of long distance trains require some form of supplement/reservation (except at times of very high demand, can be booked on the day of travel) and often have less frequent local trains to provide alternatives –
Countries where virtually ALL long distance trains require some form of supplement/reservation (except at times of very high demand, can be booked on the day of travel) and often have no local trains to provide alternatives –
Countries where long distance trains don’t run particularly frequently so checking departure times in advance is essential include -
If you’re planning a trip across the continent you don’t have to arrive in Europe with a ticket for every journey. Reservations and tickets for multiple journeys can often be booked in a single visit to a station booking office/travel desk, or reserve seats and pay supplements as you travel through Europe on a rail pass. Supplements (TGV on InterRail excepted) cost the same on the day of purchase as paying in advance.
However, it's a good idea to not leave reserving overnight or high speed trains until the last moment.
Rail passes are a great option to make significant savings and they also enable the traveller to be relatively spontaneous (on journeys on which you don’t have to make reservations).
• They can be used for a combination of touring and day trips .
• Passes are available for international travel and journeys within a specific country or region. The general rule is that they will only save you money if you’re planning on taking multiple rail trips.
• They are also more likely to save you money on a last minute trip, as the cheapest advance tickets are likely to have sold out. Certain rail passes don’t have to be booked in advance, they can be purchased on your first day of travel.
• Consider the additional costs of rail travel that aren’t included in the terms and conditions of the pass before committing to a purchase. Rail passes don’t include the reservation charges that are compulsory on all European overnight trains and pass holders have to pay the additional charges/supplements on day trains on which they’re mandatory.
There's more info that will guide you towards working out whether a Eurail Pass will save you money HERE
There's more info that will guide you towards working out whether a InterRail Pass will save you money HERE
• However, many passes also come with additional benefits including discounts/free travel on many Swiss Tourist Railways, free deck passage travel on certain ferry routes to Scandinavia and Greece and free Rhine Cruises.
It’s more than likely that the view from the train window will be of something that you’ve never seen before, so slowing down and taking it in, can help you get the most from your trip.
The majority of the most scenic destinations on Europe, particularly in mountainous areas, can only be reached on slower local trains.
High Speed lines generally don’t run through scenic areas and when they do you’ll often be travelling in a succession of tunnels. They are also frequently lined with sound isolation barriers, to protect residents near the track from excess of noise, and these don’t provide for scintillating views.
Including a high speed line in your trip can be a memorable way of getting from A to B. The comfort of the trains can be a revelation in 2nd class, while 1st class will give you a welcome chance to stretch out and relax. And travelling across the ground at 250km an hour is an experience that can give a wow factor to any landscape.
New high speed lines have recently opened between:
• Brussels and Amsterdam via Rotterdam
• Brussels and Cologne
• Milan and Florence via Bologna
• Turin and Milan
• Madrid and Barcelona
• Madrid and Malaga
• Madrid and Valladolid for north-west Spain
• Madrid and Valencia
• Munich and Nuremberg
• London and the Channel Tunnel
• Dijon and Mulhouse
• Across the France/Spanish border between Perpignan and Figures
They join the previous network of high speed lines between:
• Paris and Brussels
• Paris and the Channel Tunnel via Lille
• Lille and Brussels
• Hannover and Berlin
• Hannover and Frankfurt/Wurzburg
• Cologne and Frankfurt
• Mannheim and Stuttgart
• Paris and Marseilles/Montpelier via Lyon
• Paris and Strasbourg
• Paris and Le Mans/Poitiers
• Madrid and Seville
• Rome and Florence
• Rome and Naples
Seeing jaw dropping sights from a train window is often the best reason for travelling by train but not every journey in Europe will take you past mountains, forests, rivers or the sea.
To make the most of a trip try not to only consider your destinations but how you can make the most of the journey. Overnight trains can take the scenic routes which will be so much more memorable by day. If you’re not planning on stopping over in scenic areas, try to pass through at times when you can view them from the train.
A note of caution is that if you plan a trip solely because of the scenery through which you will pass, you may be disappointed if the weather is poor, or if you’re sitting on one side of the train and the river, coast etc is on the other. For this reason it can be a good idea to opt for local trains on scenic routes, as you won’t have to reserve seats on these trains, so can move from one side of the carriage to the other to make the most of the scenery.
Debates can rage on whether the difference in quality between first and standard (2nd) class is worth the additional costs involved, but a less obvious advantage of travelling first class is the opportunity for greater spontaneity.
On trains/routes which don’t require compulsory advance reservations, you can be virtually certain of obtaining a seat in 1st class and you also have a greater chance of choosing to sit on the side of the train with the best views.
One thing that can be guaranteed is the additional leg room which can be a big plus on a lengthy trip involving numerous trains. However, don’t forget to factor in supplements and the additional costs of overnight travel before committing to first class travel, they’re more expensive than second class charges, particularly those which include an airline style meal (inc Alleo, Thalys and Talgo 2000 trains)
Conversely many ‘local’ trains don’t have first class accommodation, so factor in how many of these trains will be included in your trip.
The reduction in the number of trains snaking their way on long trips across Europe has led to a rise in the number of times on which passengers have to change trains.
Allow enough time to make a connection, many of the journeys suggested on the fantastic Deutsche-Bahn journey planning site suggest a connection of ten minutes or less, which can be optimistic (particularly when connecting from one ICE train to another) . Navigating a large station against the clock can be a stressful experience despite the fact that many signs will be multi-lingual.
Trains can be delayed and when they are connections cannot be guaranteed, the second train you wish to catch won’t necessarily wait for you. This particularly applies to overnight trains which often arrive late at their terminating points, leading to missed onward connections to final destinations.
If you’re taking a through trip and your onward connection has compulsory seat reservations, you will have to re-book on to a later service if you have missed your connection. In certain instances you may have to pay again for any supplement that is charged.
If you’re only option involves making a tight connection, consider whether you want to take the gamble.
The notable exceptions to this include The Netherlands and Switzerland, where tight connections of two to three minutes are standard and highly reliable features of their respective timetables.
The necessarily broad advice from therebytrain.com is to allow the following amounts of time to change trains in the following scenarios.
• Connecting into Eurostar departures at Brussels Midi from ICE or Thalys – 45mins
• Changing between ICE trains in Germany – 30mins (but as reservations aren’t compulsory you can take an earlier train if tight connections are on time)
• Onward connections from ICE trains – 45min
• Connecting from long distance trains in Italy – 45mins
• Connecting to/from EC trains – 30mins
• Connecting from railjet services – 45mins
• When connecting into the only service of the night/day to your final destination – 2hrs
Certain multi-train journeys suggested on therebytrain.com have connections that are briefer than those suggested above, but we have made every effort to highlight instances when connections may be compromised and suggest alternatives where possible.
Sensible advice can be to take the train from your starting point prior to the service that has the advertised connection available (not generally necessary in Benelux or Switzerland)
Certain routes require a connection between overnight trains in the early hours of the morning when station facilities are likely to be closed.
Connections can be a frustrating experience if you’re attempting to cross borders without paying supplements on international trains, decide whether a couple of hours kicking your heels at a small border station is worth saving a few euros.
If you’re taking a train to the airport, allow more time than you’d think you’d need to make your flight, we recommend factoring in additional 30 minutes if you’re making a local trip and an hour or more if you’re taking a long distance train to the airport.
When planning a trip don’t be over concerned about following an itinerary in which you have to change trains. Smaller towns in scenic locations are served by fewer trains, but can be a highlight of any rail tour of Europe.
It’s worth making the effort to connect on to the scenic railways and in countries such as Switzerland, particularly where such connections are a feature of the timetable.
Changing trains can be as simple as crossing a platform from one train to another.
As an alternative from rushing from one train to another take a later train, make use of a left luggage office and explore the destinations that you’re passing through (see below).
Many of the stations on which you’ll be changing trains or passing through happen to be in Europe’s must see towns and cities.
The stations in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Cologne/Koln, Copenhagen/Kobenhavn, Florence/Firenze (S.M.N.), Lucerne, Venice/Venezia (St Lucia) and Zurich are amongst those where must-see sights and views are no more than a couple of minutes’ walk from their entrances, so even if you have no more than 15 minutes to wait between trains, take a walk outside.
If you’re taking a route that involves connecting into services that run at regular intervals throughout the day, leave your bags at the left luggage office and take a train that leaves later . On Therebytrain.com we’ve included info on the quickest routes to the city centres/key tourist sites in principle cities, so if you have at least a couple of hours to spare between trains, you don’t have to hang around the station.
Not wishing to offend any proud citizens, but towns including Brig, Mannheim, Metz and Villach aren’t particularly likely to be on the must see lists of many travellers. Don’t rush to discount them from your travel plans, as they’re among Europe’s key rail junctions where important routes cross. It’s why they’re included on our destination lists even though they are not necessarily on the tourist trail.
Certain services divide on route meaning that two trains are in effect joined together for part of a journey before separating to reach different destinations. Check whether you’re in the part of the train that’s heading in the direction you want to take.
There’s much more detail in on our Night Trains guide, but here are a few issues to consider before opting to travel through the night:
• The reservation cost of any bed/berth in a sleeping cabin won’t be included in a rail pass, so compare it to the costs of overnight accommodation at your destination. Rail passes will usually only allow you to occupy ordinary seats at no extra charge (not an option on all overnight trains, particularly in Western Europe) and pass holders will also have to pay additional reservation charges when travelling by couchettes or reclining seats;
• Unless you’re travelling in a group/as a couple and have booked every berth in a sleeping cabin or couchette you’re likely to be sharing it with others (for this reason make sure you can lock away valuables/secure your luggage);
• Sleeping cabins are more expensive than couchettes because travellers are provided with a full bed and the idea is that you get into it as you would in a hotel room. If you don’t want to do this when sharing your sleeping cabin or would prefer to remain in your daytime clothes carefully compare the costs of sleeping cabins and couchettes. If the sleeping cabin doesn’t have a WC/shower included in the cabin (and most don’t) you’re partially primarily paying a premium for the facility to get into bed (though sleeping cabin beds are generally more comfortable than those in couchettes);
• Sleeping cabins are not a cheap option, single berth cabins in particular can cost the equivalent of a quality hotel room;
• On certain overnight trains Eurail and InterRail pass holders can opt to pay any reservation fee irrespective of whether they hold a 1st or 2nd class pass (CNL ‘City Night Line’ trains are a notable exception to this rule)
• If you’re using a rail pass that restricts you to a set number of days travel in defined period, overnight trains that depart after 7pm and arrive the next morning count as one days travel and not two, so they can be a big help in travelling greater distances with your pass;
• Trains will often call at stations throughout the night which can disturb or prevent a good night’s sleep;
• Check whether your destination is the final stop of the train’s journey. If it’s not you’ll have to set the alarm and make sure you’re up in time to get off;
• We haven’t included overnight departures that leave later than 1am on our destination guides, as to us that negates any advantage of taking such a service;
• Also consider the arrival time at your destination, from many overnight services you’ll be disembarking at 7am or earlier, so factor in check in times for your next night’s accommodation and how many hours sleep you’ll actually have;
• Unless you can sleep anywhere and don’t mind early mornings don’t plan on taking too many consecutive overnight trips.
Before deciding not to pay additional charges for supplements/reservations consider the costs of NOT doing so.
The alternative trains that don't charge will often be considerably slower allowing you less time at your final destination, and long waits at fairly small stations, with relatively few facilities, can be unavoidable.
You can keep your planning to a minimum by choosing routes that pass through multiple must see destinations. Simply get off explore and then take the same train the next day or a following service a couple of hours later. Routes that lend themselves to such exploration include;
• Hamburg – Berlin – Dresden – Prague/Praha – Vienna/Wien;
• Brussels – Luxembourg - Strasbourg – Basel - Chur;
• Milan/Milano – Brescia - Desenzano – Verona – Vicenza – Padua - Venice/Venezia
• Milan/Milano - Piacenza – Parma – Modena - Bologna – Rimini – Pescara – Bari
• Milan/Milano - Piacenza – Parma – Modena - Bologna – Florence/Firenze – Rome/Roma - Naples
• Nice – Marseilles - Nimes – Beziers – Narbonne – Carcassonne – Toulouse - Bordeaux
• Basel – Lucerne - Lugano – Milan/Milano
• Mainz – Eisenach – Erfurt – Leipzig – Dresden
• Munich/Munchen – Innsbruck – Verona – Bologna or Venice/Venezia
• Cologne/Koln – Koblenz – Baden Baden – Basel – Chur
• Zurich – St Anton – Innsbruck – Salzburg – Vienna/Wien - Budapest
• Munich/Munchen – Salzburg – Ljubljana – Zagreb – Belgrade
• Montpelier – Barcelona – Tarragona – Valencia – Alicante
• Turin - Genoa – Pisa – Rome/Roma – Naples
Of course environmental considerations are a great reason for taking the train, but don’t dismiss air travel when planning your trip. If you want to explore just one particular country then an obvious option is to fly there.
Many destinations on the extremities of Europe such as Istanbul, southern Spain and Italy and Scandinavia lend themselves to taking the train there and flying home.
If a circular route doesn’t suit your wish list of destinations you don’t have to take the train back to your starting point.
The airports at Frankfurt, and Paris (CDG) are directly linked to high speed rail lines and express services to multiple destinations (other than the adjacent city centre) also run from the airports in Amsterdam, Birmingham, Copenhagen, Cologne/Bonn, Gatwick (London) Geneva, Manchester, Oslo, Stansted (London) and Zurich.
European trains don’t require dedicated lines to run at high speeds. Conventional trains often exceed 150kmh and on certain routes special trains tilt so that they can take bends in the track at higher speeds.
99.9% of passengers will appreciate the fact that smooth ride is enabling them to reach their destination faster, but a small percentage of passengers may experience feelings of nausea induced by the rolling motion. If you’re sensitive to travel motion it can be a good idea to take preventative medication. Tilting trains run on the following popular routes;
• London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow
• Stockholm to Copenhagen, Gothenburg and Malmo
• Copenhagen – to Odense, Aarhus
• Berlin to Hamburg- Leipzig - Nuremberg – Munich
• Mainz/Frankfurt to Leipzig - Dresden
• Frankfurt to Linz - Vienna
• Geneva/Basel to Brig - Milan
• Zurich to Milan
• Rome to Ancona - Rimini
• Rome to Bari
• Rome/Naples to Villa San Giovanni (ES trains only)
Being a railway enthusiast isn’t essential for making the most of train travel in Europe, but using our Trains guide to familiarise yourself with the type of train brand names that are used for many rail services will help with the planning of a trip.
Consider the train type names, such as Thalys and TGV, as the equivalent of the name of airlines. We have referred to them on therebytrain.com, whenever it’s appropriate to do so. They will help identify the premium services which you may wish to take advantage of, or avoid (because they can be more expensive).
Less important now are the names of individual train services, which for some people add to the romance of European train travel. They’re often now only referred to in printed timetables and may not be listed on departure boards or online.
Restaurant cars on daytime trains that resemble luxury restaurants can no longer be found on ordinary scheduled trains in Europe, but it’s still possible to appreciate the unique experience of enjoying good food while the scenery rushes by.
The only trains which serve hot food in a separate restaurant car in Europe are amongst the branded train types, though not all do so, so check the information on our Trains guide. Other services offer meals and drink that are served to your seat in first class only.
Many overnight trains also include restaurant cars, so that passengers can have an evening meal on board before retiring for the night and/or breakfast in the morning.
A surprise for many non -European residents is that passports do not have to be routinely shown prior to boarding or on board the majority of services that run between different countries.
However, they may be sporadically checked on board a train prior to a border crossing, so make sure your passport is to hand on all international rail journeys.
The key exceptions to the 'not showing your passport before you board rule' are services to/from Switzerland, the Eurostar service and trains to/from countries outside the
As a result express services no longer routinely call at stations on either side of the border (Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Turkey are exceptions) and the passengers are unaware that they been transported from one country to another.
While there are now more trains than ever running across Europe, many of the services that crossed the continent for much of the 20th century no longer operate or have been cut back.
International services no longer operate from the ports of Calais, Oostende or the Hook of Holland and there are also no longer any day time services that cross Switzerland between Germany/France and Italy.
Other services that have ceased operating include;
• ALL INTERNATIONAL TRAINS TO/FROM GREECE UNTIL AT LEAST 2013
• Amsterdam/Cologne to Geneva (passengers must now change at Basel)
• Cologne/Frankfurt to Milan (passengers must now change in Basel or Zurich)
• Geneva to Barcelona (passengers must now change in Montpelier)
• Paris to Milan via Lausanne (trains now run via Turin)
• Brussels/Strasbourg to Milan (passengers must now change in Basel or Zurich)
• Venice to Ljubljana(bus connections are available from Venice to Villach)
• Cologne to Copenhagen (passengers must change at Hamburg)
• Vienna to Rome - by day
• Munich to Rome - (by day; passengers must change at Bologna)
• Nice to Milan (passengers must now change in Ventimiglia)
• Prague/Vienna to Krakow - by day; passengers must now change at Katowice
• Munich to Belgrade; guaranteed connection at Villach.
In recent years the number of overnight trains operating in Europe has been reduced, partially because the opening of high speed lines has reduced journey times for daytime travel. The following overnight trains have been withdrawn in recent years:3
• All overnight trains to/from Belgium (including Brussels)
• All overnight trains to/from Spain
• Overnight trains between Italy and Switzerland
• Cologne to Milan (connections now have to made at Basel or Zurich)
• Paris and Vienna (overnight passengers must now connect in Munich)
• Lille to Nice
• Overnight trains from Munich to Copenhagen •
The overnight trains between Venice and Budapest/Beograd.
• The railway timetables in all countries on continental Europe are updated in mid-Dec, so travel times should be checked if you’re planning to travel shortly after this date.
• Approximately 90% of trains will still operate to their previous schedules and the majority of amendments will affect timings by a few minutes and not the withdrawal or complete revision of a rail service between two locations.
• Instances in which major revisions have been made to a rail service will be included on the therebytrain.com news page.
• France and Spain carry out more minor changes to their timetables in early, these normally involve the addition of summer only rail services.
• Italy is the only European country to introduce significant timetable changes in early Juneand we will strive to ensure that all information is updated at the earliest opportunity (Timetable information from Trenitalia, Italy’s national rail operator can be delayed.)
On trains/routes on which you can't reserve seats (or don't want to when you don't have to) try to avoid travelling by train:
- On trains that are due to arrive in major cities before 10:00
- Depart from major cities between 16:30 and 18:30 (between 15:30 and 19:30 in Britain)
- Depart after 15:00 on Fridays and Sundays
- Trains to coastal areas that depart before 13:00 on Saturdays in the summer.