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Tips and advice for holidays in Europe by train

An Introduction

Take much of the stress away from a holiday by train in Europe and enhance a trip of a lifetime, by following our suggestions.

Whether you'll relish the freedom of spontaneously* travelling around Europe by train, or need to plan exactly where you want to be and when, our tips will help you make the most of any multi-journey holiday 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.

Top 10 Tips for Spontaneous rail travel around Europe

Being spontaneous and travelling by train is a great way of exploring Europe, it proved to be great option for best-selling travel writer Bill Bryson when he explored the continent by train in his book Neither Here nor There.

If you have a generous budget, turning up at a station and booking a ticket to wherever you want to travel to next, is a great way of seeing Europe by train.
However, most of us don't have that luxury so the tips below advise you on how to save money both on your trip and before you head off from home, some minimum planning can you help you make big savings!

A core benefit of a rail pass is that it provides its users with the freedom to board the majority of European trains - so they can be a good option for spontaneous travel
However, certain trains are an exception - check our 'Can I Get On Any Train in Europe if I have a rail pass' info for Eurail or InterRail passes.

However, before heading to that first station on the start of a spontaneous rail based holiday, we recommend taking our advice below.
They'll help you to avoid the more stressful aspects of spontaneous European rail travel and help you have a trip you'll never forget, for all the right reasons!

1 - A RAIL PASS IS MORE LIKELY TO SAVE YOU MONEY

The most heavily discounted advance tickets are likely to have sold out before you board your first train
However, particularly good advance train ticket deals are available in France; Germany; Italy and Spain and these can tip the balance in favor of planning a trip before you set off on a trip.

2 - YOU NEED TO SPEND AN AVERAGE OF 4 HOURS PER DAY TRAVELLING BY TRAIN EACH DAY YOU USE A RAIL PASS

We admit that the 4 hours is a fairly broad estimate, but there is some logic applied.
We've based this 4 hour estimate on the daily price of using a rail pass that we've worked out on on our Will a Eurail Pass Save Me Money and our Will an InterRail Pass Save Me Money guides; PLUS factoring in typical non-discounted ticket prices for European long distance trains.

However, the longer the length of time that your pass is valid for the shorter the distance you need to travel each day on average, before the pass starts saving you money.
What we're trying to make clear is that that rail passes are designed to save you money, but only when travelling comparatively long distances.

3 - YOU'RE LESS LIKELY TO BE SAVING MONEY IF YOU TRAVEL MAINLY IN EASTERN EUROPE WITH A PAN-EUROPEAN 'GLOBAL' PASS

Train travel is cheaper in eastern Europe in comparison to western Europe.
It is why One country InterRail and Eurail passes and 'Regional' Eurail pass prices are cheaper for countries in eastern Europe.

If you're considering purchasing a multi-country InterRail 'Global Pass', or Eurail 'Select' or 'Global' Pass and are also planning to travel mainly through eastern Europe; it can be worth going the extra mile to work out how much separate tickets would cost, in comparison to the rail pass.

4 - IN WESTERN EUROPE ORDINARY SEATS ON OVERNIGHT TRAINS ARE RARELY AN OPTION

These days it usually isn't possible to turn up at a station in western Europe and spontaneously board an overnight train to anywhere.

The most common overnight trains in western Europe are Allegro (ALG), City Night Line (CNL), Elipsos (ELP) and EuroNight (EN).

On CNL and most EN trains sleeping cabins, couchettes and reclining seats (not all CNL and EN routes) are the only travel option, all of which have to be reserved prior to boarding (ideally not at the station at the last minute).
On ALG trains between Austria and Italy ordinary (daytime) seats are available, but again they have to be reserved before boarding.

All rail pass users need to pay these reservation fees

Rail passes aren't valid at all on the Thello overnight trains between France and Italy.

5 - AVOID LEAVING IT TO THE LAST MINUTE TO BOOK OVERNIGHT TRAINS (PARTICULARLY TO/FROM ITALY)

You need to reserve sleeping cabins, couchettes and reclining seats before boarding an overnight train, but try to avoid doing so at the station immediately before you board the train.

Beds, berths and seats on overnight trains can sell out days in advance (months in advance on summer overnight trains to/from Italy).
If the sleeping accommodation on the train is sold out and no ordinary seats are included in the train then it's highly likey that you won't be able to make the journey at all - on virtually all overnight train routes there is only one train per night!

At a minimum, try to work out whether you want to travel on an overnight train before you arrive at the destination that the train will be departing from.
When you first arrive at the station, check whether places are available on the overnight train that you're considering taking and if they are make the reservations then.

If you decide on the day that you want to take the overnight train allow time to get in the line to make the reservation. If you're still in the queue at the departure time, the train will leave without you and on virtually all overnight train routes there is now only one train per night.

6 - PLAN AHEAD IF YOU WANT TO TRAVEL TO/FROM PARIS

The majority of long distance trains to/from Paris require a compulsory reservation prior to boarding and a supplement to be paid by rail pass users, this includes TGV; Alleo and Thalys trains.

If you don't want to, or can't pay these supplements (because they have sold out), there are usually alternatives available, so you don't have to scratch Paris from your itinerary.
However, you'll need to allow more time for train travel as the supplement free alternatives are inevitably slower.
Working out your (multiple) connections on the alternative trains in advance will save you time hanging around at stations.

Our tips for avoiding the TGV trains are on our Eurail and InterRail guides click the 'Trains to/from Paris' header.

Our tips for avoiding the Thalys trains when travelling between Amsterdam and Paris are on our popular routes guide

Our tips for avoiding the Alleo trains when travelling from Paris to Germany by train are on this page in the 'To Germany by Train from France section.

Our tips for avoiding the Alleo trains when travelling to Germany from Paris by train are on this page in the 'To France by Train from Germany section.

The tips for avoiding the TGV trains include alternative schedules to the TGV trains when travelling between Paris and Strasbourg.

7 - AVOID THALYS, TGVFI, ALLEO AND LYRIA TRAINS (BY TAKING THE ALTERNATIVE ROUTES)

Thalys (THA), TGVFI, Alleo (AEO) and Lyria (TGVL) are all specific types of European international daytime trains

They are among the types of European that require a supplement (reservation fee) to be paid prior to boarding, so they're not particularly compatible with spontaneous rail travel.

They also have particularly expensive supplements so aren't compatible with budget travelling either.

Alleo, Lyria (and TGV trains for Eurail pass users) are also among the types of train that have limited quotas of seats available to rail pass users.
So yet more awkwardness for the spontaneous traveller, even if you do decide to pay the supplement. Leave doing so until being at the station immediately before the train leaves and there's a chance you may be told that all the supplements have sold out!

You can have an AMAZING trip around Europe by train without having to worry about any supplement/reservations.
ThereByTrain has come up with multiple itineraries that avoid any train on which supplements/reservations are compulsory.

8 - DON'T PLAN TO VENTURE INTO SPAIN BEYOND BARCELONA

Spanish trains aren't particularly compatible with spontaneous rail travel.
Reservations and supplements are required on all long distance trains and limited quotas of these supplements are available to rail pass users.

Travelling around Spain on a rail pass can be a great experience (and good value), but not if you want to take the 'turn up and go' approach.

However, travelling to/from Barcelona is an exception to this rule. There are non-high speed trains between Barcelona and the French border don't require supplements or reservations.
More information is available on ThereByTrain's popular routes guide (scroll down and click the 'France - Barcelona and Barcelona - France' by train header).

9 - INCLUDE GERMANY ON A HOLIDAY BY TRAIN

Two very good reasons for including Germany on a spontaneous rail trip around Europe
(1) You don't have to reserve seats on 99.9% of trains within Germany, including ICE trains on high speed lines;
(2) Major German stations (the hauptbahnhofs - hbf) have travel booking desks, separate from the main booking offices, at which you can pay supplements/make reservations on nearly all European day and night trains (subject to availability) without paying any fees.

So if you don't want to go to the bother of making reservations before embarking on your rail adventure, but decide while on route that you do want to take an overnight train etc, you can check your options and pay any fees at a major German station.
While you're at the desk you can make reservations for multiple journeys without incurring any additional charges.

Other countries that are particularly conducive to spontaneous rail travel, because they have frequent trains that don't require any compulsory reservations, are AustriaBelgium; DenmarkThe Netherlands and Switzerland.

10 - MAKE THE MOST OF THE DISCOUNTS/SPECIAL OFFERS THAT ARE AVAILABLE TO RAIL PASS USERS

Many rail pass users overlook the discounts/offers that are available to rail pass users.
We've listed out the core benefits on our Eurail and InterRail guides.

You don't need to plan in advance of the day you want to use these benefits. Simply turn up at the Swiss Tourist Railway station or river/lake boat dock where your pass entitles you to free travel and off you go!

Top 10 Tips When Planning a rail trip around Europe

The common perception of rail pass user is of a backpacker spontaneously travelling around Europe, and this can still be a great method of seeing Europe by train (hence our tips above).

However, before setting out a multi-journey rail trip around Europe, ThereByTrain prefers to know where will be on each day of our travels with all our accommodation booked in advance - and we suspect we're not the only ones.

Hence our tips of what to consider if you're one of life's planners.
Follow our advice and you may save money, avoid some of the more stressful aspects of travelling aspects of travelling around Europe by train and hopefully enhance that trip of a lifetime.

1 – A RAIL PASS MAY NOT SAVE YOU MONEY

If you're planning your rail pass trip three months ahead of your travel date it can be a good idea to check whether discounted advance tickets are available, particularly for the following trains;

  • Alleo AEO trains between Paris and Frankfurt/Munich/Stuttgart
  • German ICE and trains to/from Germany including ICE and EC trains
  • IC* and TGV trains within and to/from France
  • Italian express trains
  • Lyria TGVL trains
  • Spanish express trains
  • Thalys THA trains
  • International trains to/from Austria including Railjet RJ trains

A good idea is to use to plan a trip that involves taking one of these trains above at the start/finish of your itinerary, ie. grab a good deal on a Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam, them use a rail pass to travel through multiple countries until you're in Milan, because you've also grabbed the cheapest ticket on the TGVFI train from there to Paris.

Discounts can also be available on advance tickets for overnight trains particularly City Night Line trains and other night trains to/from Germany and Austria.

If your itinerary involves using several of these trains and the most heavily discounted advance tickets are available; they are likely to be cheaper in comparison to the daily cost of using a rail pass.

For more information see our ‘Will A Rail Pass Save You Money’ guides for Eurail or InterRail passes.

However, consider that the most heavily discounted tickets are unlikely to be refundable if you subequently change your travel plans.

2 - YOU NEED TO SPEND AN AVERAGE OF 4 HOURS PER DAY TRAVELLING BY TRAIN EACH DAY YOU USE A RAIL PASS

We admit that the 4 hours is a fairly broad estimate, but there is some logic applied.
We've based this 4 hour estimate on the daily cost of using a rail pass that we've worked out on on our Will a Eurail Pass Save Me Money and our Will an InterRail Pass Save Me Money guides; PLUS factoring in typical non-discounted ticket prices for European long distance trains.

However, the longer the length of time that your pass is valid for the shorter the distance you need to travel each day on average, before the pass starts saving you money.
What we're trying to make clear is that that rail passes are designed to save you money, but only when travelling comparatively long distances.

3 - YOU'RE LESS LIKELY TO BE SAVING MONEY IF YOU TRAVEL MAINLY IN EASTERN EUROPE WITH A PAN-EUROPEAN 'GLOBAL' PASS

Train travel is cheaper in eastern Europe in comparison to western Europe.
It is why One country InterRail and Eurail passes and 'Regional' Eurail pass prices are cheaper for countries in eastern Europe.

If you're considering purchasing a multi-country InterRail 'Global Pass', or Eurail 'Select' or 'Global' Pass and are also planning to mainly travel through eastern Europe it can be worth going the extra mile to work out how much separate tickets would cost in comparison to the rail pass.

4 – CONFIRM YOUR RAIL TRAVEL PLANS/RESERVATIONS BEFORE BOOKING YOUR OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATION

Want to have your overnight accommodation at your destination booked before you arrive?
Nothing wrong with that, but the need to have to reach the destination where you've paid in advance to spend the night, can be stressful on a rail pass trip.

If you’re using a rail pass you cannot guarantee a seat on certain types of European train.
This is is because limited numbers of reservations are made available to rail pass users on these trains and they can sell out in advance of the day on which you are planning to travel.

The types of trains that this applies to in both directions between destinations are:

  • Alleo AEO trains between Paris and Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich.
  • Certain, but not all IC trains in France including the Paris to Clemont-Ferrrand or Toulouse routes; and the Bordeaux – Toulouse – Montpellier – Marseilles – Nice trains
  • Lyria TGVL trains between Paris and Switzerland

  • applies to Eurail pass users only
  • TGV trains within France and to/from Spain
  • TGVFI trains between Paris and Italy

Reservations are ALSO compulsory for any form of bed or special reclining seat on overnight trains and these can sell out days in advance

Slower alternative routes can be available for the day trains, you can find our suggestions on the supplements guide.

However, if you want to be 100% certain that you can travel by these trains in time to arrive at a destination we suggest using a specialist rail travel agent to make these reservations ahead of setting out on an itinerary.
Book your accommodation only when your reservations are confirmed.

Or make reservations for your onward travel when you first get off a train at the station.
Do this before you head to where you'll be staying and:

  • 1 - you'll have peace of mind that your next journey is arranged and can relax and enjoy your explotation time
  • 2 - No seats/beds/reservations on the train that you were planning to take next? You can work out your alternatives - it's good to know if you need to be at the station on your departure day earlier than you'd prepared for
5 – DON’T AVOID HIGH SPEED TRAINS

The need to reserve seats on high speed (ICE trains excepted) is a positive for those that prefer to plan a multi-journey holiday by train in advance - though book ahead for those trains above.
Once your reservation is confirmed you can relax in the knowledge that you have a guaranteed seat on a train and you'll also know when you'll be departing and arriving! - Big pluses for those for those that need to know where they'll be and when!

Due to the high comparative costs of tickets for high speed trains, you’re also likely to save money, even when you have paid the supplement (reservation fee) - particularly if the most heavily discounted advance tickets have sold out (Thalys and TGVFI trains are an exception to this rule),

6 – ALLOW SUFFICIENT TIME TO BOARD A RESERVED TRAIN

You have a rail pass/ticket and a reservation confirmed so when you arrive at the station all you need to do is find your train and board it. You therefore don’t have to get in line to visit the travel desk or booking office, what could be simpler?!?

Allow more than you think you need to transfer to the station and find your train, particularly if you’ll be using public transport to travel to the station, unexpected delays can occur.

For example, ThereByTrain was once travelling to Hoselvice station in Prague/Praha by tram and we had reservations for the train to Vienna/Wien, but something disrupted the tram route and the tram didn’t move for 15 mins. With only 20 mins remaining until the train departed we rushed into the nearest metro station, the panic as we tried to work out how to get to Hoselvice station against the clock was a low light of that particular trip.

Also allow time to reach the platform your train will be departing from when you’re at the station. It’s likely that you won’t have taken a train from this station before, so will be relying on signs to guide you, therefore there’s a good chance that you’ll initially head in the wrong direction (or is that just us).

At a large station it can take a minimum of 10 mins to transfer from a metro to the train that you will be taking.
Avoid trying to work out how to find a train against the clock!.

7 – TRY TO AVOID HAVING TO MAKE RESERVATIONS FOR TOO MANY JOURNEYS

Setting out on a multi-journey holiday by train with every seat and bed reserved in advance can feel like following an agenda for a business trip.

The need to constantly be at the station in time for the specific train that you are booked on to can also actually multiply the stress on what is supposed to be a holiday.

Therefore try to include journeys that you don’t have to reserve. Many of our suggested itineraries include a mix of journeys on which reservations are required and on which they’re not.

8 – MAKE MULTIPLE JOURNEYS FROM ONE LOCATION

A negative aspect of a multi-journey holiday by train is the regular transfer between station and hotels/hostels.

It can therefore be a good idea when planning a holiday by train to include locations from which you can multiple journeys by train.

(Travel for more than two hours from your location or on a Swiss Tourist Railway and it’s likely a rail pass will be saving you money, though try not to be fixated on whether you will be saving money on every day that your rail pass is valid for).

Destinations that make particularly useful bases for seeing mutiple must see locations by train include:

  • Amsterdam
  • Basel
  • Brussels/Bruxelles
  • Florence/Firenze
  • Milan/Milano
  • Munich/Munchen
  • Paris
  • Zurich

    And less obvious destinations such as Amiens, Antwerp, Bologna, Innsbruck, Mainz, Malmo, Marseilles, Pisa, Verona and Vicenza that you'll find on my article for GotSaga

    9 - MAKE THE MOST OF THE DISCOUNTS/SPECIAL OFFERS THAT ARE AVAILABLE TO RAIL PASS USERS

    Many rail pass users overlook the discounts/offers that are available to rail pass users.
    We've listed out the core benefits on our Eurail and InterRail guides.

    You don't need to plan in advance of the day you want to use these benefits. Simply turn up at the Swiss Tourist Railway station or river/lake boat dock where your pass entitles you to free travel and off you go!

    10 – DON’T BE AFRAID OF SPAIN

    Apologies for that cryptic headline, but a common perception is that Spain should be avoided by rail pass users.
    True if you want to be spontaneous when travelling with a rail pass, but the fact that you have to reserve seats prior to all boarding all long distance Spanish trains shouldn’t be an obstacle to those that prefer to know in advance where and when they will be travelling and by what train.

    Yet more tips and helpful information

    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

    Yet more tips and useful information will tell you more about, train catering, overnight trains and tips that will enhance your journeys by train