Complete Guide To Train Travel In Europe | How To Travel Europe By Train

getting around europe by train

Traveling by train in Europe is an experience like no other. It offers a sense of romance and inspiration that is hard to match. The efficiency and comfort of train travel make it an appealing option for exploring the continent. However, for those who are not familiar with train travel or don’t live in a country where it’s prominent, there may be some mysteries surrounding it.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about train travel in Europe. From finding the best prices on train tickets to understanding train schedules, navigating train stations, and dealing with various issues that may arise during your journey, we’ve got you covered. By the end of this guide, you will be an expert in European train travel.

The Pros and Cons of Europe Train Travel

Let’s start with an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of traveling by train in Europe.

Advantages Of Train Travel In Europe

There are numerous reasons to love riding trains in Europe. Here are some of the top advantages:

  • You Arrive/Depart From The City Center: Unlike airports, train stations in Europe are conveniently located in the center of cities. This saves you time and money compared to traveling from airports, which can be time-consuming and expensive.
  • No Long Check-In and Security Lines: Train travel does not involve lengthy check-in procedures or security screenings like air travel. You simply show up a few minutes before departure, buy a ticket if needed, and hop on the train.
  • No Luggage Limits/Fees: Trains do not have strict luggage weight limits or extra fees for multiple pieces of luggage. However, you should ensure that you can lift your bags onto the train.
  • E-Tickets: Most European trains now accept electronic tickets, making ticketing and planning your journey much easier. No more waiting in ticket lines!
  • Bring A Picnic (Don’t Forget The Wine and Beer): One of the joys of train travel in Europe is the ability to bring your own food and drinks on board. You can visit a local grocery store and pick up affordable snacks and beverages for your journey.
  • A Vast Rail Network and Multiple Trains: Europe’s rail network is extensive, allowing you to reach even small towns by train. Most destinations have multiple trains a day, making travel within Europe convenient and accessible.
  • Sleep On the Train and Extend Your Travel Time: For longer journeys, consider taking an overnight train. These trains offer special sleeper cars with bunks, allowing you to rest during your travel time. It’s an excellent option if you don’t want to miss a day of exploring.
  • Spontaneous Travel: Train travel allows for spontaneity. You can show up at any train station, buy a ticket, and be on your way to your next adventure.
  • Beautiful Views: Europe is known for its stunning landscapes, and train travel offers a unique opportunity to enjoy these breathtaking views from the comfort of your seat.
  • Peace and Quiet: The train provides a peaceful environment for relaxation and reflection. It’s the perfect time to write postcards, read a book, or plan your future travels. Some trains even have designated quiet cars for those seeking complete silence.
  • Comfort: Train seats are generally more spacious and comfortable compared to plane seats. The ability to move freely within the train and the availability of seats facing each other with tables make train travel enjoyable, especially for group travel.
  • Reliable and On Schedule: European trains are known for their punctuality, with most running on schedule over 90% of the time. This reliability ensures that you can plan your journey with confidence.
  • Beautiful Train Stations: Historically, train stations were grand structures representing cities’ prosperity and importance. Many European cities still have impressive train stations, adding a touch of charm to your travel experience.
  • Youth Discounts: Many countries offer significant discounts for travelers under 26 years old, making train travel in Europe more affordable for young people.
  • Environmentally Friendly: Train travel is the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation. In fact, France has even banned short-haul flights to encourage more train travel within the country.
  • The Train is Fun: Riding the train in Europe is a unique and enjoyable experience. There is a certain magic and relaxation that comes with traveling across the continent by train.

Disadvantages of Train Travel in Europe

While there are many advantages, it’s important to consider the disadvantages of train travel in Europe as well. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The Cost: Train travel can be expensive, especially on high-speed trains. In some cases, flying may be a cheaper option due to the availability of low-cost flights throughout Europe. However, booking high-speed train tickets in advance can result in significant savings.
  • Slow for Long-Distance Travel: Although high-speed trains can reach speeds of 150-180MPH, long-distance journeys can still take a considerable amount of time. For example, traveling from Paris to Budapest by train can take around 15 hours, while a flight takes only 2.5 hours and can be considerably cheaper. However, it’s worth considering the additional time required for airport transfers and security procedures when comparing travel times.
  • Slightly Confusing: Train schedules can be confusing, especially for beginners. Fortunately, there are many apps available to help simplify the process. It’s also important to note that some cities have multiple train stations, and it’s not uncommon to arrive at one station and depart from another. It’s essential to pay attention to your itinerary and plan accordingly.
  • Rail Strikes: Train strikes occur a few times a year in Europe, causing disruptions and inconvenience for travelers. While strikes are usually announced in advance, they can still affect travel plans and require flexibility in making alternative arrangements.

Pre-Trip Train Journey Planning

Before embarking on your train journey in Europe, it’s essential to plan ahead. Fortunately, there are several websites and resources available to help you with your travel preparations.

Rome2Rio is a popular website that provides comprehensive travel information, including train routes, flight options, bus schedules, and estimated travel times and costs.

Additionally, the German Railways Website ( offers detailed train schedules for all trains in Europe. While you can only book German train tickets on the website, it is a valuable resource for planning complex train journeys and finding important information about specific trains and routes.

For booking train tickets, two highly recommended third-party booking sites are Omio and Trainline. These platforms offer user-friendly interfaces and allow you to book tickets from various train services across Europe. They are especially useful for booking complex or multi-country routes and provide better smartphone apps compared to national rail service websites.

It’s also worth noting that I have written country-specific train guides for Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. These guides provide insights into each country’s rail network quirks and offer helpful tips for navigating train travel in these respective destinations.

How to Buy European Train Tickets

Buying European train tickets can sometimes be a complex process, especially when searching for the best deals. However, there are several online tools and tips to make the ticket-buying process easier:

How To Understand Train Ticket Pricing

Train tickets in Europe can be priced in two main ways: fixed price and variable price.

  • Variable-Price Train Fares: High-speed trains often operate on a variable pricing model, where ticket prices fluctuate based on demand, day of the week, time of year, and proximity to the departure date. It is generally best to book high-speed train tickets in advance to secure the best prices. Prices tend to increase as the departure date approaches, and last-minute bookings can be very expensive. However, it’s important to note that early bookings may come with restrictions, such as limited refund or change policies.
  • Fixed-Price Train Fares: Regional and slower trains usually have fixed prices based on the distance traveled. The price remains consistent regardless of when you purchase the ticket, offering more flexibility in terms of booking.

Where To Buy European Train Tickets

There are two main options for purchasing European train tickets: directly from each country’s National Rail Service or through third-party train booking search engines like Omio and Trainline.

Third-party booking sites offer several advantages, including the ability to book complex or multi-country routes, no credit card processing issues, no technical or translation problems often encountered on national rail service websites, and better smartphone apps for a seamless booking experience.

Omio and Trainline are two highly recommended third-party train booking websites, offering a wide range of ticket options from various railways. They make the booking process user-friendly and efficient.

However, it’s worth noting that national rail service websites can sometimes offer limited-time deals and discounts that may not be available through third-party booking sites. If you’re looking for the absolute best deals or have specific requirements, it’s worth checking both options to compare prices and availability.

Collecting Your Online Tickets

Once you have purchased your train tickets, you may need to collect them before boarding the train. There are several options for collecting your tickets:

  • Electronic Tickets: Many trains accept electronic tickets, which can be sent to your phone via email or through the booking app. Simply show the ticket on your phone to the conductor for scanning. Electronic tickets eliminate the need to wait in line for physical tickets and offer convenience and ease of use.
  • Print-at-Home Tickets: Some trains allow you to print tickets at home. Simply save the PDF file to your phone or tablet and present it to the conductor for scanning.
  • Pick Up At the Station: If electronic or print-at-home options are not available, you can collect your tickets at the train station using your credit card or a booking number. It’s important to note that some stations may require you to use the same credit card used for the purchase to collect the tickets.

Buying Tickets At The Station

If you prefer to purchase train tickets at the station, you can do so by either visiting the ticket window or using automated ticket machines. I recommend trying the automated machines as they are usually faster and more efficient, especially during peak travel times.

When To Buy Train Tickets To Get The Best Price

For regional and local trains, ticket prices remain fixed, regardless of when they are purchased. Therefore, there is no urgency to buy these tickets in advance.

However, for high-speed trains, it is generally best to purchase tickets early to secure the best prices. Tickets are typically available for purchase 60-90 days before the departure date. Buying a few weeks in advance usually offers significant savings. To illustrate, here are some examples:

  • Paris to Nice:
    • Purchased Two Days Before Departure: €69.00
    • Purchased Three Weeks Before Departure: €55
  • Paris to Amsterdam:
    • Purchased Two Days Before Departure: €135
    • Purchased Three Weeks Before Departure: €97
    • Purchased Six Weeks Before Departure: €54
  • London to Paris (Eurostar Train):
    • Purchased Two Days Before Departure: €234
    • Purchased Three Weeks Before Departure: €124
    • Purchased Six Weeks Before Departure: €55

As demonstrated, buying train tickets a few weeks in advance can lead to significant savings. However, it’s important to consider the trade-off between cost savings and flexibility, as discounted tickets are often non-refundable or non-changeable.

Other Train Ticket Discounts

Many rail services offer various discounts, including those based on age, region, day of the week, or other criteria. Some common discounts include:

  • Youth Discount: Most countries offer discounts for travelers under 26 years old, making train travel more affordable for young people.
  • Country-Specific Discounts: Certain countries offer specific discounts, such as Germany’s Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket) that allows groups of 2-5 people to travel on regional trains from Saturday to Sunday for a fixed price. Each country’s rail service website provides information about available discounts, so be sure to check before booking.

Eurail Passes

Instead of purchasing individual train tickets, many travelers opt for Eurail passes. Eurail passes offer flexibility and convenience, allowing you to travel on any train within the Eurail network without the need to book individual tickets.

Eurail passes come in different types, including Global Passes, Select Passes, and Single-Country Passes, each offering different durations and travel options.

Global Passes provide unlimited travel across participating countries for a specific period, while Select Passes offer a set number of travel days within a specific region. Single-Country Passes allow for travel within a single country.

Advantages of Eurail passes include flexibility, the convenience of not needing to plan individual tickets, and potential cost savings for those taking numerous long-distance trips.

However, there are some disadvantages to consider. Eurail passes can be more expensive than booking individual tickets in advance, especially for shorter journeys. Additionally, some high-speed trains may require additional seat reservations at an extra cost.

Before deciding on a Eurail pass, it is crucial to consider the specifics of your journey, including the length of travel, the number of countries you plan to visit, and the type of trains you intend to take. Conducting a cost analysis comparing individual tickets and rail passes can help determine the most cost-effective option for your needs.

Navigating The Train Station

Arriving at the train station can be overwhelming, especially if you are unfamiliar with the layout and processes. Here are some tips for navigating the train station:

  • Ensure You Are At The Correct Train Station: Many cities have multiple train stations, so it’s essential to double-check the station name before arriving. Paris, for example, has six stations. Small towns may also have multiple stations, so make sure you know the exact station you need to be at.
  • Follow Signage: Train stations usually have clear signage in English to guide travelers. Follow the signs to find your platform, ticketing areas, and other facilities.
  • Be Prepared For Walking: Train stations, especially larger ones, can involve a lot of walking. Be prepared to navigate stairs, escalators, and long corridors to reach your platform.
  • Facilities and Services: Train stations often have various amenities, including fast food outlets, cafes, shopping options, lounges, and restrooms. Some stations may have luggage lockers available for rent if needed. However, be aware that some stations charge for restroom use.
  • Beware of Scammers and Pickpockets: Train stations can be crowded places, making them a target for pickpockets and scammers. Stay vigilant and keep an eye on your belongings at all times. Be cautious of strangers offering unsolicited assistance with ticket machines or other matters.

Reading The Train Station’s Departure Board

Once inside the train station, you will need to locate the departure board to find information about your train. The departure board displays important details such as train numbers, departure times, and destinations. Some key points to remember:

  • Train Numbers: Your ticket will specify the train number, which you can match with the information on the departure board.
  • Departure Time: Check the departure board for the scheduled departure time of your train.
  • Platform: The departure board will display the platform number where your train will depart from. It’s important to note that platform information may not be available until a few minutes before departure, so keep an eye on the board for updates.

Find Your Train’s Platform

Once you have identified your train’s platform, make your way to the designated area. Larger stations may have multiple platforms, so be sure to follow signs and ask station staff if you need assistance. Remember to pay attention to any announcements or changes displayed on the departure board, as platforms can occasionally be modified.

On The Train

Congratulations, you’ve made it onto the train! Here are a few things to keep in mind during your journey:

  • Find Your Seat & Store Luggage: If you have an assigned seat, locate it and store your luggage accordingly. Smaller bags can usually be placed in overhead racks, while larger items can be stored in designated areas at the end of each train car.
  • Ticket Check: A conductor will check your ticket during the journey, typically within the first 10-20 minutes after departure. Keep your ticket easily accessible for inspection.
  • Enjoy The Ride: Take advantage of the comfort and amenities on board. Feel free to explore the train, visit the bar car, enjoy a picnic, or simply relax and enjoy the journey. Some trains may provide free Wi-Fi, although availability and reliability may vary.

Departing The Train

As your journey comes to an end, ensure that you disembark at the correct station. Pay attention to station names, as some cities may have multiple stations serving different areas.

More Europe Travel Tips From The Savvy Backpacker

If you’re looking for more travel tips and resources for exploring Europe on a budget, check out these articles:

  • Best Travel Backpacks: Discover our top picks for travel backpacks, essential for comfortable and organized journeys.
  • Europe Packing List: Get packing with our comprehensive packing list tailored to European travel.
  • Europe City Travel Guides: Explore our city travel guides, offering detailed insights and recommendations for various European destinations.
  • Guide To Traveling Europe On A Budget: Plan your European adventure with our step-by-step guide to budget travel in Europe.
  • High-Speed eSIM Data Plan for Europe: Stay connected with a high-speed eSIM data plan, and learn more about using your phone in Europe.

With these resources, you’ll be well-equipped to make the most of your train travel experience in Europe. Happy travels!

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