at’s a trip that lets you spend New Years in Paris. Trav
Welcome to my MEGA guide on the best way to travel Europe! By train and rail passes of course!
I personally don’t think there is a better way than to travel Europe by train. There is just something that’s so tranquil and relaxing once you’ve got yourself onto the train and you start moving. You suddenly have no more concerns while you just sit back, relax and enjoy the journey. Maybe I love it some much as I grew up in Australia where long distance train travel really does not exist in the same way it does in Europe. Who knows!
Europe has one of the most development train networks on the globe and this makes getting around the continent extremely easy to figure out. You’ll never really experience a language barrier and get on the wrong train as everything is plain as day when it comes to train travel in the EU. The train system in Europe is also very reliable. While it’s not perfect as you can be delayed at times it does come damn near close!
My MEGA guide on train travel in Europe is going to get you up to speed. Nothing is missed. If you’re planning your first trip to Europe or you’re just at the point that you’re just considering going to Europe for a holiday you will learn what you need here. Even if you’re a veteran whose traveled Europe many times over I can guarantee you that you’ll learn something new here today.
Be warned though…
There is a lot of information here for you. So if you are looking for something in particular then use the Table of Contents below to skip right to that section. If you are new to train travel in Europe then set some time aside as there is a lot of reading ahead of you. But once you’re done you’ll be an expert on train travel in Europe!
And before we jump into it. If there is something you were looking for and I didn’t cover it then leave a comment below and I’ll get right on to it and let you know once I’ve updated my guide on how to travel Europe by train!
Table of Contents
- Why Travel Europe by Train?
- First Class vs. Second Class
- Types of Trains
- Europe Train Pass vs Single Tickets
- One Month Train Trip in Europe Costs
- Last Minute vs. Advance Train Ticket Bookings
- Booking Cheap Train Tickets in Europe
- 12 Month Case Study on European One Ticket Prices
- Planning Out Your Journey
- During Your Trip
Why Travel Europe by Train?
One of the thoughts I had when I was planning my first trip to Europe was along the lines of why would I take the train when I can just fly instead? Isn’t Europe known for dollar flights and budget airlines?
If you are thinking the same. Or even if you’re not lets explore that for a moment. Why take the train? What’s the benefit? Why is it really the best way to travel Europe.
Lets start with my favorite! Where you arrive in the city…
When you get the train you’ll find that most of the time you arrive right in the center of town. You can then easily jump on the local metro, bus or tram and head to where you’re staying. Or if you prefer to use Uber or taxis then you’ll easily get your ride out the front of the train station. This is perfect as you’re not an hour away at the airport. You’ll get to where you’re staying quite fast.
I touched on this before but let me expand. For me travelling by train is almost a zen like state. You just sit back and relax. It’s peaceful to stare out the window and just watch life go by. Once you’ve had enough of that you normally have a small table in front of you so you can pull out your laptop, phone or tablet and catch up with friends on social sites like Facebook. Read a book, get some shut eye and nap for a while. Or do something else.
If you’re on a long distance train in Europe generally there is a dining cart. Now this doesn’t mean your particular particular is long distance. You might just be on the train for an hour or two but that train might be on a 1,000+ km journey through Europe that is does everyday. The food is generally quite decent. The prices are what you’d expect at a medium priced cafe or restaurant in that region and there is beer and wine!
You’ll also find that the staff on the train come around with a food cart selling drinks, chips and all sorts of other things you can buy. But you don’t have to wait for this. You can always head to the dining cart yourself to pick up some snacks if you don’t want a full sit down meal.
A lot of train stations in Europe are in old buildings that just look stunning. Sometimes when you’re in a train station you can’t help but look at the beauty that is around you. In the past when I’ve been exploring cities I’ve wandered into what looked like a cool building and ended up in the train station. This has happened many times.
If you are used to being crammed up on budget airlines then you’re really in for a treat. Most train seats are quite large even in 2nd class (basically economy). You can also move around freely. While you can do this on a plane you really only do it to stretch for a few minutes right. Some trains have viewing carriages where most of the side panels are replaced by glass so you can get an awesome view through some huge windows.
Europe has some of the best countryside on the planet. Imagine for a moment taking a train next to some picturesque mountains, along lakes or past some rivers. This is a normal view you’ll get in Europe and the best part is you don’t even have to book a ticket on some special scenic train. This is the norm. Go in winter and the view with make you speechless when you’re surrounded by winter wonderland.
Get Right On!
One of the things I really love about getting the train is that you just walk into the train station and get right on your train as long as you have your ticket booked in advance. There are no big lineups like in airports. You don’t have to go through what seem like endless security checkpoints. You don’t have to get there hours before hand and wait around doing nothing. Just show up and off you go!
When you use the train you don’t have to worry about being hit with extra cost for having to much luggage like you do when you fly. If you can carry it can come with you!
The European train network is massive! You can get almost anywhere. Even to those small towns off the beaten track. With about 250,000kms of railway tracks in Europe the train system has you covered.
First Class vs. Second Class
Most trains in Europe have two classes. First and second. It’s not the same as airlines. Where first class means the most luxurious travel experience and your own bed.
First of all I should mention that there is nothing wrong with second class. It’s perfectly acceptable and it’s how most people travel. It also costs substantially less than first class. Depending on various things you might pay half or even up to 70% less to travel in second class. Other times first class might only cost €10 more.
I remember once when I was on a train leaving Amsterdam and I simply walked on the train oblivious that I was I just entered the first class carriage. When the ticket inspector came around I had to leave as I only had a second class ticket. I actually questioned the inspector. I thought that they were having a laugh with me to see if I was a gullible tourist. They were actually being serious. When I went to second class there was not much difference to be honest.
So what is the point of first class?
Well first class is really meant for peace and quiet.
You’ll find that the seats can be a little winder sometimes. You’ll have a little more space to use your laptop. You’ll generally have a power outlet. The isles are a little winder. Air conditioning might only be in first class on that train. From my own observations you’ll find a lot of people getting work done in first class as their company is paying for them to be there.
For the most part the real difference between the two classes is how full the carriage gets. So if you ever go to first class and walked through second class to get there and see no real difference. Then that’s the difference you’re paying for. Not to be in a packed carriage. When peak season hits in Europe’s summer second class can get very full. Some people don’t like this. So if that’s you then it might be worth it to pay for first class to travel in a less crowded carriage.
My first trip around Europe was a four month extended backpacking trip during peak summer season and for the most part I was in second class. There was nothing wrong with second class. At times trains was quite full but I never remember it being so full that it was bad.
Types of Trains
Getting around Europe by train can be done in so many different ways and each way comes with different costs. Let’s explore those!
High Speed Fast Trains
Want to get somewhere fast?
Well how about travelling at 200km to 300km an hour or faster? That is what you can expect with the faster high speed fast trains in Europe. This is perfect if you want to get between two cities quite quickly.
There are about 15 high speed trains in Europe. It’s a cool experience to see the trains speed being displayed on a digital screen at the front of your carriage and then walking around the train while it pushes 300km/h.
Where can you get on these fast trains? Here are a few…
- Eurostar – London to Paris or London to Brussels
- ICE in Belgium – The Netherlands – Germany – Switzerland – Denmark – France
- Le Frecce in Italy
- TGV in Belgium – Italy – Germany – Spain – Switzerland – Luxembourg – France
- Thalys in Belgium – Netherlands – Germany – France
Each train is different but for the most part high speed trains will have a dining cart, air conditioning, WiFi, clean bathroom facilities. Basically what you’d expect on a modern train. A word of caution though. High speed train tickets can cost quite a lot. So it might be worth investing in a Europe train pass if you’re planning on use a lot of them. More on that later.
If you want to find out more about all the high speed trains in Europe head over to the Eurail website on high speed trains.
I recommend travelling by high speed train at least once. Now if you’re doing a mega trip like say London to Poland and you really don’t want to stop along a lot of cities on the way then flying might be better. Even high speed trains will make that trip last extremely long. However high speed trains are great for covering reasonably large distances that aren’t to long and will get you there faster than flying.
Another reason to use high speed trains is if are not the biggest fan of airports and flying. The best way to travel Europe fast is by high speed trains if you don’t need to go all that far.
The trains that don’t zip down the tracks at 300km/h are called regional trains. This covers most of the trains in Europe and they travel at around 100km/h to 150km/h depending on the train.
Just like high speed trains each regional train is different and the services on board totally depends on the country you’re in. Depending on the train you may or may not get things like WiFi, air conditioning dining carts or a snack trolleys. Regional trains will always be equipped with bathroom facilities. The good part about regional trains is that they run very often so if you even miss your train the next one will never be far off.
If you’re looking to explore off the beaten track then these trains are going to be your friend. High speed trains stick to major routes between cities. Regional trains will take you all the way trough to the most random destinations far into the countryside and most don’t need reservations. You can just pick up your ticket shortly before boarding.
Another plus about regional trains in Europe is that ticket prices never really fluctuate for domestic travel as they are regulated. So that €20 ticket you might see online today for two months down the track will cost the same on the day of travel even in the middle of peak tourist season in summer. You could potentially just travel Europe on cheap regional trains and never take a high speed train. More on this later and I’ll also be showing you have to get good deals on tickets even with high speed international trains.
Regional trains can be as cheap as a few Euros for short distances to about €50 for a longer six hours train ride like Amsterdam to Berlin.
Ever thought of taking a train at night? You can do that in Europe! I’ve done it many times myself and it’s a comfortable way to get to your next destination without loosing a day of travel.
So what’s actually on a night train?
It totally depends on the ticket you buy and the train you’re on. You could get a reclining seat if you’re the budget minded traveler who can fall asleep anywhere to shared bunks room or private cabins with a shower and personal butler. Personally I’ve always gone for the mid-range option and used shared cabins. You generally find four to six bunks in a small cabin.
I’m a tall guy whose 195cm (over 6ft) and I’ve never had a space issue when taking a night train. You always need to reserve tickets to get a bed on a sleeper train. Don’t expect to much on the train other than a power socket, bedside light, pillow and blanket in terms of in-room facilities if you have a shared cabin. Some trains will have a restaurant cart and some wont so do a little research about the train you’ll be on before hand.
Or you can always ask at the station. If you’re there an hour before departure and there is no restaurant cart you’ll still have enough time to get some food to take on board. There is always at least a convenience store selling snacks at even the smallest train station. Bigger train stations are full of cafes, restaurants and supermarkets.
Depending on the train a shared cabin could cost from €20 to €50 and private cabins can cost from €80 to €100+.
Some of the scenery in Europe is nothing short of amazing.
Just taking a high speed train or a region train will take you past some amazing views. But if you are chasing more then Europe offers special trains that take you through the most scenic terrain. There are about fifteen of these special train trips for you to explore. Most have a panoramic viewing carts. I recommend making a reservation before hand if you want to take a scenic trip so you 100% know you will lock down a seat in the panoramic cart.
The great part about these trains is that some are just normal regional trains that go on the same tracks as more expensive scenic train.
One example is the Bernina Express route. A train that runs from St. Mortiz, Chur or Davos in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy. If you have an Eurail pass then your trip is free. But the regional train has no panoramic cart. If you’re on a tight budget it’s still an excellent trip to take. But you can actually take the actual Bernina Express train for only $15. The train doesn’t stop as it’s a scenic sightseeing train and you get the panoramic cart for an excellent view!
You can find all the scenic routes on the Eurail website here.
The Eurostar is a high speed train that I mentioned above already but it deserves it’s own section here.
It’s a special train as it’s the only high speed connection between London and mainland Europe. If you were thinking the only way to get to mainland Europe was by driving or a slow bus then welcome to the Eurostar. It only takes you roughly 2.5 hours to get from London to Paris.
Depending on how far in advance you book you can get on the train for $60. But think $110 to be safe. If you have a euro rail pass you get on the for about €30 (second class) as long as part of that rail pass has England and France covered.
If you compare this to flying it’s going to be cheaper or about the same price even with a goof flight deal and you remove the hassle of having to deal with the airport. Plus you get much more leg room on the Eurostar and you’ll be a heck of a lot more comfortable! And you won’t have to get into town when you arrive as the station is central.
Europe Train Pass vs Single Tickets
What is a rail pass?
It’s simply an easy way to use the rail system within Europe that can potentially get you a good discount. Eurail is the pass that foreigners from outside of Europe use the Interrail pass is for EU citizens. When I talk about a rail pass or Eurail in this guide the same applies to Interrail. There is really is no difference with what the pass lets you do. There is some pricing difference between the two and the options available though. But a rail pass is still a rail pass.
Later in my guide I’ll cover how to actually use the euro rail pass. In this section I’m going to help you figure out if the rail pass is worth it for the price you will pay or if it’s better for you to buy single cheap train tickets in Europe. Or perhaps to combine the two.
In short you will buy a rail pass that will let you ride the train almost free. You pay a bulk upfront fee for the pass to let you do this. The cheapest Europe train pass price is a single country pass for €49 all the way up to the most expensive first class Eurail global pass that gives you unlimited travel on trains for three months costing €1,633.
You can also reserve your seat on a train. Almost all regional trains in Europe won’t need a reservation. High speed trains generally have mandatory reservation costing from €5 to €50 with the average being €20. Sleeper trains have mandatory reservation also. You may want to reserve your seat on every train you can reserve a seat on when travelling during the peak summer tourist season. This is what I did myself on my big European tour to guarantee a seat.
You can find out real reservation costs at this Rail Europe site. Select where you want to go, the date and time. Then select ‘Yes’ to using a rail pass. And then select ‘Global Pass’ for the type. The type really doesn’t matter but using Global will cover all your bases.
The biggest question you should ask yourself about getting around Europe for your trip is if a rail pass is going to be part of your trip.
You always have the option of buying single point to point tickets as well. Or you can do a mixture of both. From experience I can tell you that trains in Western Europe are more expensive than Eastern Europe. You could get a Eurorail pass to use in Western Europe and just buy tickets as needed in Eastern Europe.
But don’t just go and buy a rail pass thinking that it’s a sure thing to save money. 10 years ago that may have been case. It’s no longer guaranteed with how things have changed. Once you’ve read through this section you’ll know exactly how to come up with a plan of attack to figure out what is best for you and your trip.
I love what Mark Smith said. He is the owner of the famous train travel website The Main in Seat Sixty-One that has been featured in endless news outlets and massive travel websites:
If you’ll forgive me for saying so, overseas visitors sometimes seem brainwashed into thinking that taking a train in Europe always has to mean buying a Eurail pass. Of course it doesn’t! You can buy the same cheap point-to-point tickets that we Europeans buy, at the same prices with no added booking fees, direct from the same train operator websites that we use.
With that being said lets explore the rail pass. I’m going to break down the cost of the rail pass for you against buying cheap train tickets in Europe that are just point to point. This section comes from my real life travel experience and not just from looking at websites online and doing some maths. Sometimes a rail pass is worth it and sometimes it’s not. Lets jump right into is shall we!
How Do You Know If You Need A Europe Train Pass?
There are a few questions you can ask yourself if you really need a rail pass. Once you answer these you will know if you should get a pass. But there is a kicker you need to be aware of.
You can’t actually buy your rail pass once you’re in Europe. You need to plan ahead and figure this out. What you just read is false. I’ve read this a few times on other travel blog and years ago this used to be the case. These days if you’ve already started your trip you can still buy a rail pass. But just keep in mind that it does get physically mailed to you so you need somewhere reliable to have it sent to. A hostel or a hotel should work fine.
It would still be better to figure this out before hand though so you don’t have to worry about something like this on the road and you can simply enjoy your trip.
Lets get stuck right into the questions!
How Many Countries Will You Visit?
If you’re planning on covering a lot of group in Europe then a rail pass might be for you. It really depends on how often you’re going to use trains.
The other side of the story is that I can say with 100% confidence if you plan on getting only a few trains during your trip and covering one or two countries then go with single tickets. If you plan on using the train a lot and seeing lots of countries then a rail pass might be for you.
Figure out how many countries you will be going to and keep that number in mind.
How Many Days Will You Spend on the Train?
Figure out how many days you will actually be on the train. You might take two trains during a single day and that counts as one day on the train for the rail pass. A night train only counts as one day on the train as long as you board the train after 7pm and don’t finish your journey until after 4am without swapping trains. This seems odd but those are the rail pass rules.
This number will be important for later on. Figure it out and write it down.
How Much Would All Your One Way Tickets Cost?
This is easy to figure out. There are a lot of sites out there that will let you book train tickets online.
My recommendation is to simply to go with GoEuro.com as they consistently have the best pricing in my opinion. In my own experience from travelling and using countless booking sites online GoEuro.com will save you 25% to 30% on average for each train you book.
If you want to go more direct you can sometimes book right with the railway’s website for the country you’re in but this can get difficult with the language barrier. The markup that GoEuro.com adds is very small so it’s worth just using them for all your ticket bookings.
When I compare the markup from GoEuro.com to say booking a ticket direct with Bahn.de being the official German railways site then GoEuro.com is only a dollar or two more and their site is much easier to use than Bahn.de.
So my advice is to head over to GoEuro.com and use them to figure out train ticket prices. When I personally buy one way tickets 99% of the time I use GoEuro.com. Unless they don’t have the ticket. Then I use the local train website for that country or just buy a ticket at the ticket counter directly at the train station.
How Does Your Total One Way Ticket Cost Compare to a Eurorail pass?
Now go and look up the cost of your pass on the Eurail website.
To actually figure this out look at the number of days you’ll be on the train and how many countries you’ll be visiting.
There are a few different passes:
Global Pass: This pass lets you travel all the counties in the Eurail network except Britain. It comes with a heavy price tag so to be able to justify the cost of this pass you need to be covering a lot of ground. I had this pass when I did my massive four month trip in Europe.
But I did start in Spain and covered about 15 counties. Only think about getting a Eurail Global pass if you’re embarking on a massive trip for at least a month and will be covering thousands of kilometers of train travel.
Eurail Select Pass: This pass lets you travel 2, 3 or 4 adjoining countries. Be cautious though. Some countries that are next to each other can’t be selected. So actually look at all the options and make sure you can actually choose an allowed combination.
Also look at the multi-country passes that are pre-made such as the Benelux Pass (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) or the Scandinavia Pass (Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland). As these an work out cheaper than you just matching up those same countries together yourself into a pass.
Single Country Pass: This pass lets you travel just in the one country. It’s unlikely that you’ll buy this pass. Unless you plan to a lot of train travelling in an expensive Western European countries like Germany, France or Italy for an extended period of time. Then it can potentially save you money. For example if you got a Italy Rail Pass (also known as the Eurail Italy train pass) or the German rail pass and were extensively travelling those countries. But that’s seriously questionable. You have to do the maths.
And of course there are always exceptions. There is also a Swiss train pass and the British rail pass . More on these later as they are not actually part of the Eurail system.
You also need to decide if you want to get a continuous pass or a flexi-pass.
Flexi-Pass: Most of the time the Flexi-Pass makes sense. You only pay for the days you use the pass. For example you buy a pass for 3 countries and you’re allowed to use the pass for 5 days in a month. Most of the travelers I’ve bumped into on the road who have a rail pass have this kind. This pass gives you a lot of freedom. You get a certain amount days you can use the train and it’s as simple as that.
Remember when I asked you to figure out how many days you would spend on the train? This was why. If you are planning on spending more than a few days in a city and then moving on then the flexi pass is going to be a good option for you.
Continuous Pass: The continuous pass lets you use as many trains as you like for the time frame of the pass. Not all passes are available in this kind. It’s best to check the Eurail website to see what passes are available in this option as they do changes things now and again.
If you really want flexibility and are covering a lot of countries with trains then the global continuous Eurorail pass might be a good idea. It will give you more freedom and you won’t have to worry so much about only using a certain amount of days if you compare it to a flexi pass.
Now I’m going to cover a few tips to help you choose what rail pass would be good for your trip. There are so many things to consider when using a rail pass so I hope this helps.
Going to Eastern Europe or Southern Europe?
When you look up the one way tickets prices in these two regions you’ll be very surprised how cheap it actually is to travel by train. It basically make a pass in that region useless. I know for experience that I’ve never paid more than about €20 in Eastern Europe for a train. And that €20 takes you a long distance!
Is Croatia Part of Your Trip?
If you’re heading to the coast of Croatia for a beach break then a rail pass in almost useless. Most travelers use the ferry to hope down the coast. Even if you did use the train a little bit it’s nicer to just on ferries anyhow.
South of Spain is another region where it’s just not worth using the train. It’s much better to drive.
The world cheapest car hire is in Southern Spain. I hired a car for €5 a day there. You almost need a car to get around Southern Spain anyhow. Doing it with buses is quite possible but then getting around the towns in Southern Spain becomes a hassle. I hired a car at Malaga airport to travel Southern Spain. I can’t recommend doing it any other way!
Greece has trains but a rail pass is almost pointless. If you head to Athens and then the islands you don’t need to be on a rail pass. I took a train from Athens to Patras once. As Patras is where all the ferries leave to go to Italy. It was a regional train that was not even covered by the rail pass. So I had to pay out of pocket and it was very cheap.
Another time I was in Thessaloniki and took an overnight train all the way up to Belgrade. It was so cheap I honestly don’t remember the cost. About €20 for an overnight sleeper train with a bed in a dorm taking 14 hours or so. So cheap!
Ireland and Scotland
I’ve got no experience in the part of Europe getting trains but I’ve been told it’s quite pointless on a rail pass.
How Many High Speed Trains will you Take?
If you’re using lots of high speed trains for major routes make sure you factor in the reservation costs also. It can cost you €10 to €50 to reserve your seat. So it might make using a rail pass pointless as high speed train generally come with the condition that reservation is compulsory.
How Old Are You?
Are you over 28? Then some passes force you to buy a first class pass such as the global pass. If you work out all of your train ticket costs based on one way tickets for second class and you come up with the same price as a first class pass you might as well get the first class pass for the convenience.
Are you under 28? Well you might be in luck as the youth passes come at a discount and this might make a rail pass worth it.
When and where are you Travelling?
Speaking of convenience if you are going to travel in a region that has a lot of regional trains and know you won’t be there during peak season and don’t plan on taking high speed trains then you might want to pick up a pass just for the convenience of not having to book tickets. This way you can just check the train schedule online and show up when the train is departing. But this might end up costing you more than booking one way tickets so it’s best to check if it’s worth it first. Or you might do it just because it’s convenient if you don’t mind paying extra.
Combine a Rail Pass and One Way Tickets
Combine one way tickets and a flexi-pass. It’s quite easy to figure out the value of each train with your flexi pass. You just divide the price of the pass by the number of days it’s valid. For example if you paid €456 for the 7 days within 1 month global youth pass then each train costs you about €65. So only use a day on your pass if you’ve got a ticket that would cost more than €65. It would be a total waste of money if you used a day of your pass for a €15 regional train.
Don’t Buy Multiple Passes!
Don’t buy multiple single country passes. For example if you want cover a multi-country trip in Germany, France and Spain. It will cost you a lot more to buy individual country passes than just buying a select or global pass.
If you’re going on a long trip then be sure to plan things out based on where you’re going to be. Say you start your trip with a month in Germany and France and get a two country pass. Then you head to eastern Europe for six weeks. Then you come bank and travel Switzerland for two weeks.
It doesn’t makes sense to buy a three month global pass as the trains are already very cheap in Eastern Europe. So that global pass is a total waste of money. It would be better to get the France-Germany pass. Then pay for all your trains with one way tickets in Eastern Europe because they are so cheap and then have a Swiss Rail Pass for your time in Switzerland. This will save you money compared to buying a global pass for three months.
With everything you’ve learnt about the Eurorail pass you now should be able to figure if you should get a rail pass or buy one way tickets. But as a final favor to you I’m going to run through a few examples of exactly how I would do this to show you how I go about figuring this out for a trip.
One Month Tour of Western Europe
Lets look a Western Europe train travel tour that last one month. An extremely typical month in Europe that lots of people have done in the past.
I always tell people to ‘slow down’ when they travel. Spend more time in each place and see less. But the reality is most people only have a finite amount of time each year for a holiday so I understand why they try to cram up as much as they can.
Where will we go? We will fly into London and then fly home out of Zurich.
- London, UK
- Paris, France
- Brussels, Belgium
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Berlin, Germany
- Prague, Czech Republic
- Vienna, Austria
- Munich, Germany
- Zurich, Switzerland
So to break this down and follow the plan above we are covering 9 cities over 8 countries.
Below I’ve made a little table covering everything we need to know about our trip. I used GoEurope.com to find out one way ticket costs.
I used the Rail Europe search tool to get reservation prices. When you do a search you just click ‘Yes’ to travelling with a rail pass and select the Global Pass. It doesn’t matter what pass you actually select but Global will cover everything for us.
In reality once you have a rail pass paid for you will want to use the official Eurail reservations booking system to find out real reservation cots as Rail Europe marks up the prices. But if you don’t have a pass you’ve paid for then you can’t even access the booking page to see the prices in the Eurail booking system.
These prices are booking trains one month before hand. This is reasonable for someone planning a short holiday. To make sure this was 100% accurate I actually spent a lot of time on this for you.
I checked multiple websites for bookings. I also checked booking trains at the worst times of the year. During Christmas and during summer holidays.
All at GoEuro.com except for the EuroStar. That was at the official EuroStar.com website.
These are the prices I found booking about four weeks in advance that would make this trip cover Christmas and New Years dates.
One Month Train Trip in Europe Costs
|Where||Days on Train||1st Class Price||2nd Class Price||1st Class Reservation||2nd Class Reservation|
|London - Paris (Eurostar)||1||€129||€117||€42||€33|
|Paris - Brussels||1||€80||€76||€34||€24|
|Brussels - Amsterdam||1||€96||€69||€0||€0|
|Amsterdam - Berlin||1||€82||€73||€22||€22|
|Berlin - Prague||1||€82||€73||€11||€11|
|Prague - Vienna||1||€30||€16||€11||€11|
|Vienna - Munich||1||€76||€€58||€11||€11|
|Munich - Zurich||1||€63||€28||€26||€22|
So there you have it!
Now we know that if you paid for one way tickets first class you’re up for €638 or €510 if it’s second class. As I mentioned above the prices are during Christmas booked one month out. These are the same prices you could use during the summer holidays.
If you are not going to be travelling during a peak season like Christmas or summer holidays and can book at least two months in advance. You can safely discount these prices by 20%.
Now lets try to figure out what rail pass we would need.
First I need to mention the Eurostar. We get to book the Eurostar quite cheap compared to what it normally costs. So I wanted to be 100% sure I gave you the right answer. No passes have the UK as a country that is listed for train travel. To travel in the UK via a rail pass you need the BritRail Pass.
So I wasn’t 100% sure on whether using the Eurostar would take up a day on the rail pass or not. Here is the conversation I had with Eurail on Facebook to clarify things:
So we are just leaving the UK to Paris. As long as we have our rail pass bought and activated before we board the Eurostar train we get to use our discounted reservation rate for the Eurostar and it uses up one travel day.
The terms of the rail pass for the Eurostar also state we need to have a Global Pass or a pass that covers France to access the discounted reservation costs. So lets keep that in mind.
The rest is easy to figure out. We’ve learnt that a Eurail select pass is only good for up to four countries and a global pass is good for all the countries in the rail network. So it’s an obvious choice. We have to use the global pass as we have 8 countries to cover. Right?
Well we can remove the UK as we only need a rail pass that has France covered to get on the Eurostar. That leaves us with needing 7 countries.
It’s likely we will have to get the Eurail global pass but lets head over to the Eurail Passes website to see if we have any other options and brainstorm a little!
Looking at the drop-downs I see that ‘Benelux’ is listed as a country. I already know what this is but what if I didn’t. Well I did a quick google search and Benelux refers to Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. So I go ahead and select Benelux. This covers two of my countries so I basically got a free country by doing this! Woho!
I know I’m not going to get my 7 counties into a select pass. With Benelux counting for two I still have to remove two countries from my list.
So I’m going to look at my list of prices above for one way tickets and I realise I’ll be in Eastern Europe when I get tot Prague. So I’m going to remove the Czech Republic from the list as tickets are cheap in Eastern Europe. I also realise that I’m going to be in each country twice. One time to get there and then one to get out for a second trip. This happens each time except for Switzerland. So I’m going to remove Switzerland.
I know Switzerland is expensive. It’s common knowledge that it’s one of the most expensive places the world but it’s still better to remove it as if I remove another country form the list I’ll have to pay for two one way tickets in another Western European country. So best to just take off Switzerland.
So I select my four countries (France, Benelux, Germany and Austria) and remove Zurich and Prague from my list. I’m left with only 5 days I need to be on a train as three of my tickets will be paid for as one way full price tickets.
By chance a 5 day pass in 1 month is an option. The prices I’m getting for the the euro rail passes are:
1st Class Adult: €466
2nd Class Adult: Not Available
1st Class Youth: €374
2nd Class Youth: €305
If we add together the one way tickets we need to buy (Munich to Zurich, Berlin to Prague, Prague to Vienna) plus the reservations and the rail pass we get these numbers:
1st Class Adult: €466 (rail pass) + €175 (trains) + €110 (reservations) = €751 / $827
1st Class Youth: €374 (rail pass) + €175 (trains) = €110 (reservations) = €659 / $725
2nd Class Youth: €305 (rail pass) + €117 (trains) = €90 (reservations) = €512 / $564
1st Class Adult was €638 total without a rail pass for all one way tickets so a rail pass would cost us €113 more as the rail pass plus tickets is €751.
2nd Class was €510 total without a rail pass for all one way tickets so a rail pass would cost us more us €2 more as the rail pass plus tickets is €512. So in this case it is worth just getting the rail pass for convenience sake.
So there you have it. If you break it down like this a rail pass works out to cost you more money if you’re over 28 and if you’re a youth (under 28) it’s the same price and would be worth it. And if you take advantage of the extra bonuses that come with the rail pass (more on this later) it will actually save you money.
What about if you didn’t figure this out and just went for a global pass? Well if we used the global pass we don’t have to worry about talking out Switzerland and the Czech Republic. So we need eight days travel. There is only a 7 day global rail pass and a 10 day pass.
So lets look at if we did the 7 day global Europe train pass price:
1st Class Adult: €568
2nd Class Adult: Not Available
1st Class Youth: €456
2nd Class Youth: €371
Since we only have 7 days available on the pass we need to pick one train to remove. This is what the price would work out to be if we paid for a one way ticket with the Eurostar. The rates below are easy to get if you book a month before hand.
1st Class Adult: €568 (rail pass) + €168 (Eurostar) + €116 (reservations) = €852 / $938
1st Class Youth: €456 (rail pass) + €168 (Eurostar) + €116 (reservations) = €740 / $814
2nd Class Youth: €371 (rail pass) + €106 (Eurostar) + €101 (reservations) = €578 / $536
Comparing the prices above to the prices we got before they work out to be be more expensive for first class by about €100 and €60 for second class. So comparing just these two options the 7 day global pass is a worse choice for first class. And a better choice for second class. This option is still more expensive then just booking one way tickets for first and second class.
Lets look at a different approach for a moment. How about if we paid for a 10 day global pass. This way we don’t have to pay for the Eurostar one way ticket and we also get two extra days on the rail pass to use as we wish.
1st Class Adult: €699 (rail pass) + €158 (reservations) = €857 / $943
1st Class Youth: €561 (rail pass) + €158 (reservations) = €719 / $791
2nd Class Youth: €457 (rail pass) + €134 (reservations) = €591 / $651
Comparing this to what we got above we can see that the first call adult and youth are within $20 of each other. So for first class it’s worth it. Second class is about $120 more expensive so its not worth it unless you want more train rides and you know you’ll use them.
But once again comparing this to just buying single tickets is it really worth it?
For first class you’re paying an extra €300 to get access to two more trains. None of the trains we even booked cost €150 each anyhow plus you’ll need to pay reservation fees. The same pricing applies for the youth first class pass. About €300 more for the pass. For the second class pass it’s about €80 more so if you know you will take two more trains for €40 each then you’ll be about break even compared to buying single tickets.
After writing up so much about the rail pass I decided to back track my massive four month Europe train travel trip to Europe in 2008 to see if the rail pass I paid for saved me any money at all.
I’ve not going to break down every little detail but in the end we covered above 20 train rides. Most in Western Europe being long rides. Some in Eastern Europe. We took a ferry that the rail pass gave us for free deck seat as a bonus.
I had a second class youth pass back then. The pass costs €1,064 today and about €300 for reservations with my maths. We took a few trains that were free but also a lot that had very high reservation costs and a lot that had the cheap €10 reservation fees.
So €1,364 for the pass and reservations. The train tickets cost €948 if I bought them all 2 days out from travelling according to GoEuro.com. For about an extra €100 or so I could have taken first class for every train as the first class cost I figured out was €1,440 and I spend €1,364 all up back then.
So there you have it.
I wanted to run through all these options as a lot of websites out there talk about the rail pass and how it saves so much money and how it’s a great idea. Or they talk about how it’s possible it can save you money and it’s a good idea to get one just in case.
After breaking down the maths we know that this is not true at all. It’s always more expensive with a rail pass. There was only one tie that the 2nd class youth pass basically matched the price of buying one way tickets.
I think that what you read on other site also comes down to people who write their blog posts maybe not being aware of sites like GoEuro.com to book tickets. If you don’t know about sites like that and booking direct at train websites and then do a comparison with prices from a place that sells over priced tickets like Rail Europe then yes the rail pass will ‘appear’ to save you money.
Why is Rail Europe more expensive? Well Rail Europe is a giant! They have been around since the 1930’s and are that type of company whose name gets thrown around like ‘Coke’ does. Who says they want a ‘cola’ these days?
*tumble weed drifts by*
That’s right no one does. Everyone says they want a ‘Coke’. This is the same with Rail Europe. They have built that brand as the go to booking company for train tickets so everyone uses their name. Unless you dig into other options you won’t know what’s out there that’s actually cheaper.
Do Ticket Prices Fluctuate?
I stand by being a spontaneous traveler. Unless I’m travelling with friends who have time off work or I’m travelling on a business trip for example I’ll never be caught dead with some ridged itinerary that can’t be broken.
I like freedom. It lets me do as I please. For example when I did my first big trip to Europe I had a 3 month global Eurail pass. And about a month into the trip me and my buddy I was travelling with at the time met some cool people and then for the next six weeks we went the other way around Europe from what we planned.
Imagine if we had booked in all our trains before we started our trip. We would have either lost $1,000+ in pre-booked tickets if we tagged along with them. Or we just wouldn’t have gone that way. Odds are we wouldn’t have gone that way. But what if I knew better back then? Could I have just winged it and booked one way tickets on the fly?
I quite easily could have without any problems…
But Dom what about ticket prices going up like airlines? The longer out you book the cheaper the ticket is and last minute tickets are expensive? Right?
That does not happen with train tickets.
For the most part…
By that I mean in certain circumstances then yes it can cost you more like on the Eurostar as it’s a special train. Book last minute and you can be up for a heavy ticket cost. Here is an example of booking the Eurostar for tomorrow heading to Paris from London:
Realistically you’re not going to get the 5am or even 7am trains as that means you’ll be up so early and be so tired for the rest of the day and you won’t enjoy Paris at all. 9:30am is a reasonable hour for the train to get you to Paris for lunch. $209 for a last minute trains that cost $40 on a reservation is worth it for 2nd class. And the First class reservation fee is about $70. If you didn’t have the pass $341 is what you’re up for! Crazy!
Now this is the Eurostar. So I’m sure if you are planning a trip to Europe and you know you want to be in London at the start and then head to Paris you can at least put in the effort to book this one train a month in advance. That way you can get the cheap $60 second class tickets.
What about the rest of Europe?
Here are a few more examples that are last minute from GoEuro.com. When I say last minute I mean about a few days out.
I’ve done many trips that are ‘flexible’ and most of the time you’ll make a train booking a few days out. You arrive at a new city. When you’re still at the train station you book your ticket to the next city then and there. Or you do it online that day or the next day so you don’t have to worry about doing it last second as you’re checking out of your hostel or hotel.
At the very latest if you’re staying somewhere for say a week then a day or two before you go likely thought about where you’re headed next. So you have time to book tickets.
So how do the train prices look if I was booking in everything two days out or so on GoEuro.com? Well see for yourself?
Last Minute vs. Advance Train Ticket Bookings
|Where||Last Minute 1st Class Ticket Price||Last Minute 2nd Class Ticket Price||One Month Advance 1st Class Ticket Price||One Month Advance 2nd Class Ticket Price|
|Paris - Brussels||€143||€99||€80||€76|
|Brussels - Amsterdam||€114||€82||€96||€69|
|Amsterdam - Berlin||€105||€65||€82||€73|
|Berlin - Prague||€65||€40||€82||€73|
|Prague - Vienna||€42||€22||€30||€16|
|Vienna - Munich||€85||€60||€76||€58|
|Munich - Zurich||€105||€45||€63||€28|
Isn’t that somewhat interesting?
So regardless of what you may have ‘heard’ online from other websites the truth is that prices don’t fluctuate all that much for train tickets in Europe. Even in peak season.
When I was actually in Europe myself during peak season in winter I booked a train ticket on boxing day for travel on the 28th of December. Any time from mid December to after new years should be priced at a crazy high rate, right?
I paid €25 to take a bus from a small town called Freyung in Germany to Passau. Then we got on a train from Passau to Munich. Why a bus? Well Freyung is a random little town and the bus was the easiest option. And it was actually a bus run by the German rail company so we ended up right at the Passau train station. Super convenient!
€25, yes that’s right €25! Shouldn’t that ticket have been something like €100. Well logic would dictate that it would be around Christmas. But, no it was cheap. Here is my proof:
This is just one of many trips I’ve taken.
I could go through my email and pull out 10 trains I’ve booked in the middle of summer peak season between June to September in Europe that all cost about €20. Mind you they were second class trains and not high speed trains like in Germany or France. This was more east and here is an example.
Rail Europe’s pricing for Budapest, Hungary to Ljubljana, Slovenia:
This train cost me €19 to book a few days before I took the trip in the middle of summer. And I got a direct train.
I’ve been in Berlin in the middle of summer and bought a ticket a the train station to go to Amsterdam shorlty before the train was leaving. The price was quite normal.
I’ve bought a ticket in Lille, France to go to Bruges, Belgium at the start of summer.. What do you think the price was like? You guessed it… Normal. As short distance regional train ticket prices don’t fluctuate as you may have been lead to believe.
Even when looking at the prices back then on the ‘day’ for other cities I was consider visiting the fast trains were the same price as what I’ve talked about in the list above. On the high end if you play with your departure times you won’t even pay more than €100 for a train going between two main cities. Unless you want first class and it’s a very long trip like say the border of Spain all the way into Paris.
So to wrap this up…
You have always been able to buy cheap train tickets in Europe at the train station or directly and on websites for a long time. This has been going on for as long as you could use travel agents to book trains online. I checked when GoEuro.com registered their domain name and it was in 2003. So they have been in the game for a while.
It’s quite simple really…
Most train booking sites online are like real travel agents. They charge massive markups. Since train travel in Europe is tiny in comparison booking say flights online then not many sites are out there selling train tickets for the real prices they should be sold at. As there is not much competition to keep prices low.
In time as more player come into the market it will drive down online ticket prices sell at what they are really worth.
Another way to look at it is how would a local act?
They wouldn’t ever think about going to some travel agency. They know that they train company sells tickets so they would just go to the website of the train company to book. Or they would stop into the train station and just buy their ticket for their trip after work one evening. They wouldn’t think about a rail pass.
You really just don’t know what you don’t know. And a local knows the right way to travel in their country!
For example back when I did my first big backpacking trip to Europe from Australia I paid about $2,500AUD for my return flight. And the funny thing was that amazingly over priced ticket was sold at a ‘travel convention’ where good deals came out for the summer season in Europe. I ended up on a not so main stream airline for an inflated price and the travel agency made a killing off me. The convention was the ‘Flight Centre Travel Expo’. They run each year in Australia and you’d think that they offer good deals being a massive travel brand in Australia. Nope, the prices they offer are horrible. But they can do that as they have a big brand behind them with established trust.
Years later I’ve wised up and just like getting cheap train tickets I figured out how to get cheap flights. I can easily get that return flight for $1,000 or less now from Perth, Australia to London, England. Read my MEGA Guide on flight hacking if you need to drop your flights costs also.
So that finally wraps up this long section up and lets finally answer that question you first came here with.
When Should I get a Rail Pass?
At the end of the day this is going to be up to you. And by no means think I’m the anti-Christ who is against rail passes. If I’m going to be 100% honest I loved using the rail pass on my big Europe trip.
I sat down with my buddies and checked a website for train schedules at the hostel and then a day or two later when we were out and about in the city we stopped by the train station to make a rail pass reservation. Then we just boarded the train when it was time to go to the next city. No need to buy tickets individually. The convenience was awesome!
But the choice is yours.
Here are a few final thoughts to help you make the choice.
A few ideas on when not to get a rail pass:
Very Short Trips
This one is almost common sense. If you’re just on a short break for a few days to under two weeks then a rail pass will skyrocket your travel costs. Even compared to buying last minute tickets that cost more than booking them one month out.
Short to Medium Length Trips
If you’re on a short holiday (3 weeks) to a medium length holiday of say up to six weeks and are convinced you have you itinerary 100% down and won’t make changes. I still can’t recommend you get a rail pass. It’s going to cost you a lot more than booking single point tickets. You can book your train tickets a month before hand and save a lot of money at the end of the day. As lets be real here. If you go for a three to six week holiday do you decide to do that a day before? Or do you know quite a long time before hand?
You’ll know a long time before hand so you WILL have that time to book in the cheap one way train tickets.
You Cover Mainly Eastern Europe
If you trip is mainly covering Eastern Europe then train’s cost peanuts in that part of Europe. You’ll over pay on a rail pass by a long shot so don’t use one.
When to consider getting a rail pass:
What the rail pass does is sell peace of mind, safety and security. For that ‘peace of mind’ you’re going to pay for it. Depending what pass you get it’s going to be about 20% to 50% more than you should be paying after you factor in all reservation costs. But if that’s what you want then it’s worth it.
Long or Complicated Trips
If you’re heading to Europe for a massive trip. And you want the flexibility plus peace of mind to go anywhere and you know you’re going to cover massive ground in Europe and the trip won’t be short. Then a rail pass is going to be well worth it.
It doesn’t matter how much of Europe you cover. You might just do Western Europe and really cover a few countries in depth. Or you might do a trip that is more along the lines of covering a few cities per country but your trip spans across 10 or more countries. Either way the rail pass will be worth it.
The freedom and flexibility to change your plans and just not have to worry about booking anything during your trip and worrying about price changes is well worth the price even if the rail pass costs you more than one way tickets.
The same applies to short and medium length trips of say three to six weeks. It really doesn’t matter. If what you want is freedom and flexibility to just head to Europe. Look at a Europe train map and say I want to go there next then a rail pass is a good choice. That’s also a complicated trip as you have no idea where you’ll in a few days.
But I would stick to not having a rail pass if you trip is only a few weeks. Plan out your trip if you holiday is quite short.
Extra Rail Passes Benefits and Discounts
Each rail pass also comes with some added bonuses.
I took advantage of this when I was in Greece and taking a ferry to Italy. The global pass got my friends and I onto a ferry from Patras, Greece to Bari, Italy for free with a deck seat. Back then it was a ‘true’ frugal backpacking trip and we wanted the experience of doing it at least once also. So we slept on the deck under the stars. If we wanted to the pass also gave us a 30% discounted room on the ferry. If we had a first class pass we would have got a free dorm room bed on the ferry.
So when you’re figuring out if you want to get a rail pass make sure you factor in any benefits you will get from the rail pass that you would actually use.
What are the benefits and discounts will you get with the pass? There is a long laundry list so I can’t mention each one here. At time time I wrote this 24 of the countries that participate in the rail pass program have extra discounts. You can find the full list here.
In short the majority of the benefits are discounts for for ferries, local attractions, hostels, city cards, buses and extra train benefits.
- Discounted Ferry Travel: I mentioned this before. Over all you’re looking at an average of 30% off ferry tickets. Where can you go? The list is quite long and it’s basically anywhere water is. There are quite discounted ferry deals you can snap up all over Europe. Think of this benefit as being the same as booking a high speed train. The extra 70% you will have to pay is like paying the €50 reservation fee on an expensive train.
- Buses and Coaches from Germany: If you want to mix up your travel style a little and have Germany and the country the bus goes to on your pass you can take the bus for only a €4.50 reservation. So this applies for the German rail pass as a select pass with adjoining countries or the global pass.
- Hostels: Looking at a cheap Euro trip? There are a lot of hostel that get you a 10% discount.
- City Cards: If you are going to spend money on at least three of four attractions in a city and use the metro then a city card will save you money. A city card is a pass to get into attractions for free or on a discount. Lets you skip queues. Gets you free or discounts travel on local metros. And much more. Your rail pass gives you an average of 20% off a city card. There are 13 cities on the list with city pass discounts right now right now.
- Thello Train: One of the trains on your rail pass that is not included in the Thello train. It’s a train that travels between Paris and Venice at night and also has some day routes. The rail pass will get you a 25% discount.
Most of the time a single country pass is not going to be worth it at all but there are some special passes that do seem to save you money if you use them wisely.
The Swiss Rail Pass is one and the BritRail Pass is another. These two passes are not actually part of Eurail. They are run by separate companies. The reason they work out well is that Switzerland and Great Britain have very expensive trains. So if you are planning to travel these countries extensively then you can end up spending a lot.
England has expensive trains! If all the saver tickets are booked up for a train you want to take the price can easily sky rocket to over £100 and even to £200. Crazy! I once took a train from London to Bristol in England. The normal price is about £35 . When I wanted to go back to London there were not saver tickets left for day I needed to go. The price jumped to about £150. If I had a BritRail Pass it wouldn’t have mattered as I wouldn’t have just used a travel day on the pass.
You can find out more about the BritRail Pass at BritRail.com. There are actually several passes. Great Britain is made up of a few countries so you can get passes for each region, sub regions or a pass for everything that’s similar to the Eurail global pass. The pass is also know as the British rail pass or the UK rail pass.
Swiss Rail Pass
The Swiss Pass is somewhat unique. As it offers you not only train travel like the Eurail pass does but also gives you free entrance to museums in Switzerland (about 500) and you get some good discounts on fun excursions into the mountains. Plus you get free travel on local trams and buses in 75 different Swiss towns. Not only does it save you money but it makes your trip very convenient as you don’t have to buy tickets for all the typical things a tourist spends money on. Most long distance trains don’t need reservations either. If you put the Swiss Pass to use it’s well worth it.
Once again it comes down to flexibility for both passes. If you can book everything ahead of time and know your plan a rail pass is basically costing you more money. If you want flexibility and freedom to travel on the fly and cover a lot of Switzerland or Great Britain then a rail pass is a great idea. To be 100% sure do the maths.
Don’t confuse the Swiss Rail Pass with the Swisspass. The Swisspass is something totally different for citizens of Switzerland.
You can find out more about the Swiss Rail Pass at SwissRailways.com. Switzerland also has a few different option depending on what you’re planning to do.
Using Your Rail Pass European Rail Pass
So you’ve decided to actually get a European rail pass for the convenience and peace of mind.
So how do you use it? Well it’s actually quite easy!
As you already know there two types of rail passes. Now I’m not talking about a global, select or one country pass. I’m talking about the unlimited travel continuous pass within a certain time period and the flexi style pass that gives you a set number of days in a time period. Both are easy to use.
A rail pass does need to be activated before it’s used for the first time. You have 11 months to activate your rail pass from the date it’s issued. If you don’t activate it you will basically forfeit and waste the pass and the money you spent on it.
If you skip this step you can potentially be fined by the conductor when they come around to check everyone for train tickets. To activate a rail pass you have a few options.
The easiest option by far is to activate your European rail pass online when you buy it though Eurail.com. When you are buying online you will see a box that says “Yes, activate my Eurail Pass online” as part of the checkout process.
If you select this then later in the checkout process you will be able to select your start date. You just select the date that you will be taking your first train using your pass.
Your actual activation date will be printed on your pass and it will be automatically valid from that date.
This option is great for most travelers especially those who have booked and paid for their entire trip before hand. Even if you’re like me and are more spontaneous when you travel. It’s likely that you at least have your first city booked in and know where you going from there.
If you really want to be flexible and don’t know the first date you’ll be on the train then the next option is better for you.
Activation In Person at the Train Station
The second option is to activate you pass at a major train station in a participating Eurail country (basically every country) and this has to be done within 11 months of the pass being issued.
Now keep in mind I did say major stations so think Berlin, Munich or Frankfurt for Germany. Think Paris for France. Think Barcelona or Madrid for Spain and so on.
To activate your pass you just need to head to the ticket counter. Tell them you need to activate your pass and they will ask to see your passport to prove it’s your pass. They will then stamp the pass and its activated. At the same time why not book in your first reservation. More on that later.
The exception to the rule is if your first trip is the Eurostar. Then you will want to activate the pass at an Eurail aid office before getting on the Eurostar. You can’t just show up at the Eurostar station in London and expect the pass to be activated as they’re not allowed to do it. Here is a list of all the Eurail aid offices in Europe. I was curious about this so I asked Eurail and they said it’s best to use an aid office as they can’t guarantee the Eurostar train station will activate the pass.
You can also head to one of the Eurail aid offices in any country they are in to activate your pass and not deal with the potential crowds at the train station.
You’ll likely run into problems if you try to active your pass in some tiny little country town. They might not even know what a rail pass is.
Lets move on to actually using your rail pass so you can start your European train travel.
The continuous pass is the easier of the two passes to use.
There is actually nothing extra you need to do. If you want to reserve a seat on a train or are on a train that has mandatory reservation you book in your reservation and that’s it. If you are on a train that needs no reservation you just walk right on.
When the ticket inspector comes around you need to show them you rail pass and reservation if you have one. You will also need to show your passport. This is really just a double check for security reasons that you’re the owner of the rail pass.
The flexi-pass needs a little more work but it’s still quite simple.
Like the continuous pass you can still make reservations as you please and reservations for trains that make reserving a seat mandatory.
Then you fill out the day and month in the travel calendar on your pass. As you can see in the picture below there is a box to fill in the details. If you used the pass on say August 5th you would just put 05 in the day section and 08 in the month section.
It’s that simple!
Personally I’ve never used a Flexi-pass but I’ve traveled with lots of people who have. So I’ve got a tip for you on using this pass. Things happen. As you travel you can be delayed. You can miss your connections and so on. So what my friends always did was they waited until we were on the train and then they filled in the day and month before the ticket inspector came around.
This way when you miss a train you don’t waste a day.
How can you waste days? Well if you have a language barrier when speaking to the ticket inspector and he sees you crossed off one date and replaced it with another and you’re on your last day of the pass can you imagine how that’s going to look to them?
They already have to deal with people riding trains for free Europe. Yes, people do this everyday and everyday people get kicked off trains trying to not pay for tickets.
So just wait till you’re on the train to fill in your day to not run into problems.
That being said we never missed a train 🙂
A word of caution…
When you reserve your tickets in person at the train station your reservation ticket will look very similar to your rail pass. Be careful not to accidentally throw out your euro rail pass! The would be an expensive mistake.
When you get your Eurorail pass in the mail then you will also get a physical copy of a Europe train map. You can use this to help plan out your trip or you can use the interactive European train map online that Eurail provides.
As you now know you sometimes you need to reserve trains when using your rail pass. Sometimes your don’t have to. Sometimes it’s mandatory and sometimes it might be a good idea if you’re travelling during a busy period. And sometimes you simply can’t reserve a seat on a train.
What is the best way to do this? There are several actually…
At The Train Station
The cheapest option is to just head to the train station that the train you want to take actually departs from. This is how you’re going to have make most of your reservation if you want to travel on the go and not be locked down into trains you’ve reserved before your trip starts.
Find the ticket counters and tell the booking agent you want to make a rail pass reservation. Hand over your passport and rail pass. The ticket agent will book in your reservation. Take payment if it’s needed and you’ll all set!
It’s best to actually come prepared and tell them the train number. Have it written down on some paper or on your phone. From experience I can tell you that sometimes you’ll have language barriers if you’re trying to get on a particular train as the booking agent will just ask for the date and where you want to go so you might not get the train and time you want.
So come prepared with the information about the train you want to be on and it will be smooth sailing. This will also avoid you ending up on a long 8 hour regional train if you were planning on taking a high speed 3 hour train for example.
You can make a reservation anytime before the train departs as long as you have enough time to get on the train and there is availability.
Online or Eurail App
You’ll avoid any crowds at train stations by booking online. Then just print off your reservation that you can easily do at your hotel or hostel. But for the convenience your going to pay a booking fee.
There is a €8 booking fee. But it doesn’t matter how many people are making the reservation. If you’re a group of three friends travelling the fee is still only €8 plus the actual reservation cost for the seat (if any). So this can work out well if there is a group of you travelling.
Only domestic train travel in Italy and Spain, and international day trains between Italy and Switzerland can be booked with E-ticket reservations. These tickets will be emailed to you. You must book these tickets at least two business days before departure.
All other trains that you book will have your reservation ticket mailed out to you. So this is not a good option if your travelling on the fly.
Booking Cheap Train Tickets in Europe
As you might already know there are countless ways to book train tickets online. If you Google “book train tickets Europe” you come up with so many different sites. Many are over priced.
If you’ve been reading along this whole time you already know where I’m going to tell you to book your cheap tickets. If you’re just joining in let me introduce you to GoEuro.com. I’ve search long and far to come up with the best solution for you. I’ve got years or experience travelling and booking tickets in every way possible and it comes down to using GoEuro.com. Every other site online is marking up train ticket prices in Europe from 10% to 50%.
GoEuro.com is by far the easiest way to book tickets online for European train travel. Now if you want to save a few dollars a booking. And I do mean literally $1 or $2 then you can go right to the counties website you’re booking a train in. For example Bahn.de is Germany’s official rail network. Occasionally I’ve booked tickets there. But compared to the ease of using GoEuro.com I’d rather pay the extra dollar to book train tickets in Europe.
Also Bahn.de is a good example. Some sites for some countries are so difficult to navigate you’re going to have a very hard time and really frustrate yourself over saving $1. So give it a shot but if you value your time then just GoEuro.com 🙂
Lets run through how to use their booking engine to find cheap fares. When you load up GoEuro.com you’ll see something very similar to this with some destination already in the to and from section:
Enter your trip details, un-tick the box for Airbnb and click Search. In this example I’m going to try to find a good train fare from Paris, France to Munich, Germany. I’ve explored the city of love and romance and now it’s time to hit the beer gardens of Munich! These are the results we get.
As you can see the default setting GoEuro.com has selected is the ‘Departure Time’. What I like to do is filter the results by ‘Cheapest’ and then work from there. As you will see below doing something as simple as that has just saved about €54.
From here I can then scroll through the rest of the results.
Sometimes when you filter by cheapest you get a lot of trains with stop overs as GoEuro.com is trying to combine cheaper and slower trains. Luckily in our example this is not the case.
There are also a few filters on the side you can use as seen below. Such as filtering the station you depart and arrive at. Filtering in and out direct trains or trains with stopovers. Filters for the time and price of the journey. And finally if you know the train type you want if you’re getting more specific you can play with that setting also.
That is really it.
Booking cheap trains is as simple as going using GoEuro.com and doing a search. Then playing with the filters. It’s not like trying to find a cheap flight and the complexities that come with that.
When you actually want to book your train you just click on the train fare you want and a new section will show up with additional options. Normally this is just for first and second class. If you can select where you want to sit this also shows up. Sometimes you can also buy different tickets types that have better change and refund polices.
Once you’re ready to pay you just click on ‘Go to Payment’ or you might see some other text if GoEuro.com will send you to another site to complete the booking.
It’s as simple as that!
Soon after you pay online you’ll get an email with your ticket that you can either show the ticket inspector on your phone or if you like you can print it off. Normally the ticket has a barcode or a QR code that the inspect scans to check the ticket is real.
If you are certain about your trip you can generally book trains up to 90 days before you travel. Keep this in mind and you can snap up some good deals and get your tickets at the lowest possible prices!
One Way Train Ticket Price Tracking
This section is a little bonus I’ve added in. I’m doing this as a final confidence booster for you.
Over the next year I’m going to be tracking prices live in the table below for ten popular train routes in Europe with GoEuro.com pricing. I’ll be checking every 29th of the month for the price on the day and the price for one month out. And on the 25th of each month for the price of travel on the 29th of the month.
I’ll look at prices booked on the day. A few days out and a month out. This way you’ll be able to see in real time how much tickets ended up costing. If you are reading this at the end of 2018 all the ticket prices should be live as it started in November 2017.
November Price Notes: As you can see there are already some interesting prices coming up. Lot of prices are very similar today vs a month in advance. Some prices are half price today vs in a month like Milan to Paris for obvious reasons as that’s a trip that lets you spend New Years in Paris. Travel a few days earlier and book a month in advance and the price I got was only €20 more than booking on the day.
December Price Notes: So as we can see from checking the trains on December 25th (Christmas) for December 29th some trains have dropped in price. One is not available and some cost a little more. That’s to be expected at this time of the year. Some of these trains are very long distance also such as Milan to Paris. I’m still sticking to my guns. No need to go crazy and book up before hand. But at this time of the year common sense does prevail as things book out as we can see happened.
December 29th Update: So it seems like booking a month ahead for the January trains cuts the ticket prices a good amount. This is expected as you’re now out of the Christmas holiday season. With the four days in bookings vs on the day it seems like it’s leaning towards tickets being more expensive. And this is very expected as these are tickets being booked only 3 days before New Year’s Eve. Some tickets have their price very high. But some new tickets showed up that were not available before cutting costs like Brussels to Amsterdam costing only €46 booked on the day vs €121 if booked four days ahead.
12 Month Case Study on European One Ticket Prices
|Paris to Brussels||Brussels to Amsterdam||Amsterdam to Berlin||Berlin to Prague||Prague to Vienna||Vienna to Florence||Florence to Rome||Milan to Paris||Madrid to Barcelona||Paris to Munich
|November 29th 2017 Price on the Day||€99||€46||€60||€69||€22||€59||€22||€64||€42||€113|
|4 Days in Advance||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA|
|One Month in Advance||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA|
|December 29th 2017 Price on the Day||€99||€46||€148||€70||€15||Not Available||€22||€232||€90||€147|
|4 Days in Advance||€89||€121||€99||€45||€15||Not Available||€16||€139||€42||€89|
|One Month in Advance (Checked November 29th)||€75||€46||€60||€20||€15||€99||€18||€120||€42||€75|
|January 29th 2017 Price on the Day||€99||€46||€70||€70||€15||€39||€22||€74||€85||€147|
|4 Days in Advance||€75||€35||€60||€35||€15||€40||€10||€60||€42||€75|
|One Month in Advance (Checked December 29th)||€29||€46||€40||€20||€12||€35||€10||€49||€42||€60|
|February 28th 2017 Price on the Day||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA|
|4 Days in Advance||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA|
|One Month in Advance (Checked January 29th)||€43||€46||€40||€20||€15||Not Available||€10||€59||€42||€60|
Planning Out Your Journey
So you’ve learnt a lot if you’re at this point in the guide!
Now it’s time to figure out how to actually plan your journey. A lot has already been covered above but I figured I’d add in this section to make everything easy for you.
Where to Go
Personally I like looking at interactive maps. You can easily use Google maps as a Europe train map. As the network or train tracks in Europe is so vast that you can basically go anywhere. You don’t need a real train map. Just scroll around with Google maps. Zoom into cities you want to check out and plan you trip out with the section below.
The other option is the interactive European train map online that Eurail provides.
Looking Up Trains Schedules & Other Ways To Book Trains
You have a few options.
As mentioned a few times GoEuro.com is a the best method. It’s easy to check train schedules and to book tickets.
You can always trust the German’s and their efficiency to be on top of things so Bahn.de is a great place to look up train schedules also. If you are going to travel inside Germany or internationally as long as you start your trip in Germany then you can book and pay for your train on their site also.
You can also find a lot of information when you search out a particular train. For example see this search I did below. I’ve highlighted a few things. You get the platform numbers you arrive and depart at. This will be handy if you have a short transfer time and need to know exactly where to go. You can see the time you’ll have to transfer between trains. This example has a 35 minute layover.
The ‘R’ means there is a compulsory reservation and you can see this without even expanding the details like I have so this is handy when picking the train you want.
This train also has a restaurant carriage. Handy to know if you don’t want to pack snacks and want a real sit down meal on board!
Bahn.de also has an app if you prefer. I’ve used the Bahn.de app when I’ve been in Germany and you can load up the train and see where you are live so you don’t accidentaly miss your stop.
RailEurope.com is also a good site to use. Good for checking train schedules as it’s easy to use. Bad for buying tickets though as it’s heavily over priced and they charge expensive courier fees to mail out tickets.
The app has a few handy features. It will let you know what train stations are close by. You can look up train timetables in the app to plan your trip. You can also see what trains have mandatory reservations.
You also have a list of all your other benefits that the rail pass offers you. It’s easy to forget that passes come with other benefits so as you’ll have this list handy you’ll remember to check it for other discounts or free things you can get.
The other option you have is to actually check all the individual rail websites for each country for train schedules. Here are some of them:
- Austrian Federal Railway (Austria)
- National Railway Company of Belgium
- Croatian Railways (Croatia)
- CD (Czech Republic)
- Danish State Railways (Denmark)
- National Rail (England, Scotland, Wales)
- Finnish Railways (Finland)
- SNCF (France)
- Deutsche Bahn (Germany)
- OSE (Greece)
- Irish Rail (Ireland)
- Italian State Railway (Italy)
- NS (The Netherlands)
- Norwegian State Railways (Norway)
- Polish State Railways (Poland)
- CP (Portugal)
- SJ (Scandinavia)
- Renfe (Spain)
- Swedish Railways (Sweden)
- Swiss Federal Railway (Switzerland)
- Turkish Republic State Railways (Turkey)
You’ll have to check each site individually to see how they operate. If you’re on a real budget this can help. By going direct to the railway websites you’ll avoid paying all booking fees. So you end up buying the ticket for the true price.
Some might accept online bookings. Some might not accept online bookings and just be for schedules.
Some might be to hard to navigate. Some may not have a language option for English. But you can solve this by using Google Chrome and right clicking. Then select “Translate to English”.
Some might not allow international postage of tickets and force you to pickup tickets locally once you arrive (nothing wrong with that).
Some might be easy and flawless to use like Bahn.de and have an English version of the site. But in the end I personally think GoEuro.com is the easiest.
Now just a side note on Eastern Europe. It’s quite hard to book tickets online in Eastern Europe even with a great site like GoEuro.com. And some countries don’t have the best rail systems so you might not even want to get the train. For the countries you can’t find any information on don’t worry. These countries you’ll just be booking tickets at the local train station.
It’s how it works in that part of the world. Maybe in 5 years this will be different but for now that’s how it is. You won’t have any problems even in the middle of peak summer season in Europe. I’ve extensively traveled Eastern Europe on the fly in the middle of summer and know many others who have and trust me why I say you won’t have any problems.
During Your Trip
Now that you’ve actually planned everything out how about when you’re actually on the road. You really don’t need to know much. You get yourself to the train station and get on your train. It’s that simple, right?
Yes, it really is but are a few things you want to be aware of so you don’t end up on the wrong train going to the wrong country!
Before Getting to the Train Station
Where is the train station you need to go to?
If you are going to be departing from the same train station that you arrived at you’ll have a rough idea of how long the trip takes. But it’s still best to actually know how long you should give yourself to get to the train station. You’re a tourist in that city at the end of the day.
You might have had a fast 15 minute trip from the train station to your hotel when you got to town. But how do you know that wasn’t peak hour traffic and when you go back to the train station you will be heading there in peak hour traffic and that same trip could take one hour. It’s best to chat to the reception at where your staying and tell them when what time the train leaves and ask them what time you should make you way there. They are likely a local and know when traffic gets bad!
I clearly remember speaking to a friend about this. We were in Madrid. He had been there before. I looked at the map and realsied we were not far from the train station so I mentioned that we should split a cab instead of getting the metro. He looked at me and let out a hysterical laugh. And then went on to explain that it would take us around an hour in a cab with the horrible traffic that Madrid has in peak hour as the roads would take us half way across the city to get to the train station and that the metro will go direct.
Also don’t expect that the station you arrived at to be the same one you will leave from. I made this mistake once in Paris. We arrived at one station and we went back there to leave and it was the wrong station. So we ended up missing our train.
At The Train Station
Some train stations are so small with only two or four platforms it’s so obvious where you need to go. But some train stations are so big you can easily get lost. Here are some tips for when you’re at the train station.
Arrive With Plenty of Time to Spare
You don’t need to check in at a train station but that doesn’t mean you should be arriving last minute.
Some train stations can get quite chaotic with thousands of people scrambling to make their way to the platform their train is departing from. For smaller train stations this won’t be a problem but if you’re in a major city like Paris or Berlin you might miss your train. It can take you 15 minutes just to make your way to the right section if you know where you’re going.
Arriving early and waiting for a few extra minutes is better than the frustration of a missed train..
Getting to the Platform
For larger train stations you’ll generally find lots of people grouped around massive screens waiting for their train to show up. It’s very similar to an airport. With potentially hundred of trains leaving the station each day you’ll only find the trains departing shortly displayed on the screen. Normally you’ll have a good amount of time to find your train once the platform is displayed but sometimes you only have 10 minutes.
So make a move as soon as you see the platform for your train show up.
Get on the Right Train
Europe has their trains system down pat. And for a foreigner who just blindly shows up at a platform and sees a train arriving and expects it to be theirs could end up in trouble. It might not be the right train.
When your platform says 9A for example that doesn’t mean somewhere on platform 9 that means platform 9A. There could be platform 9 with sections A, B, C, D, E, F and so on.
Another things to keep in mind is that several trains can arrive at the platform you depart from in a short time period. Your ticket is going to have the train number. Even the carriage number if you have a reservation. This makes it quite easy to make sure you get on the right train. Most trains have the train number displayed next to the doors when you get on.
If you ever have problems locating your train or want to double check your about to get on the right train then just ask a local if you’re getting on the right train and show them your ticket. Be polite and even if they speak only a small amount of English or none at all just that nod and a smile will give you the reassurance you’re getting on the right train.
There are also staff that man the platforms who generally speak at least a little English that will help you. In bigger cities you’ll find that most of the staff on the platform and the locals actually speak great English.
Trains Leave on Time
Believe it or not most trains in Europe leave on time. If you’re used to delays when travelling set that mentality aside when it comes to trains. This can’t be said for all of Europe but for the most part and especially in Western Europe when a train is leaving at say 10:24am it means it’s doors are closing at 10:23am and 30 seconds later it’s moving.
This is especially true in Germany. Time for a short story. You’ll like this one…
I’m on a short trip around Europe with some friends. We are in Berlin and leave for the train station with plenty of time to spare. It’s early in the morning. We went out the night before. One friend is heading to the train station with a beer still in his hand. I know we have time to spare but I already see this going wrong.
We buy our tickets and then get some food. We still have a good half hour to spare. We know where the platform is so we should make it on time. We get down to five minutes till the trains is going to depart and we are still not on the train. It’s there waiting for us to get on. I’m telling my friends to hurry up as we will miss the train so I start moving more briskly. We are on the platform and I know exactly what’s going to happen as the train is leaving in less than two minutes. So I run for the train and I tell my friends to run also. My one buddy runs with me and is about 15 meters behind. The others just keep walking and don’t seem to care or think the train will leave without them.
I get on the train and then turn around and look at where the others are. My one buddy who was right behind me is being pushed away by the platform staff as the train doors are closing.
I went to Amsterdam myself that morning.
When a train departs at a certain time it means it’s departing at that exact time. Especially in a place like Germany where they are so accurate with many things. You’re not going to get on late as the train won’t be there as you just found out.
In the end my friends went back to the tickets counter and the staff were friendly enough to reissue their tickets free of charge and they got on the next train and we meet up in Amsterdam only a few hours apart.
Bring Your Own Food
This is really a personally choice. If a train has a dinning cart you might be happy to pay for food on board. It’s similar to being on a plane. The food is not the cheapest but it’s also not that expensive. Your other option is to bring food with you. No one is going to care if you don’t buy food on board. Most locals never eat the food on board and just pack their lunch.
I personally love the baguettes you always seems to find in train station cafes so I always grab two of them for a long train ride and that keeps me going for a while. You will find lots of cafes and small restaurants that will generally do take away at most major train stations in Europe.
To Validate or Not Validate Your Ticket?
For the most part you actually don’t have to validate your ticket for long distance trains. Ticket inspectors are on every train in Europe doing their rounds checking that that passengers have tickets. For Italy and France you will find machines to validate your ticket on the platform. So for those two countries make sure you do validate your ticket before you get on the train. As a general rule if you see locals doing something do the same. You will see lots of locals putting their ticket in a machine before boarding a train. So just follow along.
When you get short distance trains that only go an hour or two and you bought a ticket from a machine for a few Euros or the ticket counter it will depend if it needs validation or not. Look for ticket validation machines and watch what the locals do. Most of the time you don’t need to do anything as most tickets are just one way for that exact date you bought it on. Sometimes you do have to validate the ticket. You can always ask the ticket office staff or the staff on the platform if you need to validate your ticket.
Honestly you can just not worry about this. I’ve traveled on so many trains in Europe and the amount of times I’ve had to validate a ticket I can’t even count on one hand.
On Board the Train
Next up are a few different tips while you’re on the train.
Locating Your Seat
If you don’t have a reservation you can just take a seat anywhere.
But look for the notices that say a seat is reserved and don’t sit there. Sometimes there are slips of paper next to cabin doors or above seats in open carriages. Sometimes there are digital screens displaying this information. Sometimes you’ll even see names of the passengers who reserved the seat. Yes, that means your name will be assigned to your seat. It’s Kind of cool when that happens!
Keep in mind that if you didn’t pay for a seat then you might eventually have to stand or sit on the floor if he train gets full. If this happens just go to the dining cart. You’ll have to buy something to hang around but if it’s not busy then normally the staff don’t mind you sitting there for a long time.
If you have a reservation find your seat and sit in it. This way you can’t be given the boot as your sitting in the seat you paid for.
It’s best to enter the right carriage when entering the train but if you don’t the carriages flow in logical order. To a degree as most trains won’t have carriage 1, 2, 3 and so on. Say there is carriage 277, 278, 279 and 280 on a train and you’re in carriage 279. You can always get to carriage 279 by walking through the other carriages. When you get to the end of a carriage there is normally a button you press and it opens up the doors to the next carriage.
First class is normally at the front of the train so it’s easy to find. Sometimes it’s at the back. Regardless you’re never going to have to find you way to first class somewhere in the middle as that rarely happens.
Lookout For Your Connection
No one is going to tell you to get off the train when you have a connection you need to make.
In Western Europe you have digital screens on some trains with the stop coming up and might hear the stop get announced in English but don’t rely on this. In Eastern Europe you really don’t get any notice you have to wait to see what the station name is when the train is stopping. You can always ask the train staff walking around if it’s the right stop for you.
A good way to track where you are is to just use your phone. As long as you loaded up Google maps or normal maps on your phone when you had WiFi then your GPS should still be working and show you where you are.
Another option is to use the Eurail app or the DB Navigator app to track your location!
Also make sure you actually get off at the right stop. Generally there are several stops leading into a city. Just because you see the city name in a stop doesn’t mean it’s the right station your looking for. That station generally being the main station.
For example the Hauptbahnhof or Hbf for short is the main station in Germany cities. Nord is the main station in Paris with Paris Nord being the main train station. Check your ticket to see what the right stations is. If for some reason you only see ‘Berlin’ or ‘Paris’ on your ticket you can always use one of the websites that you used to plan our your trip to find out where your train is going such as Bahn.de or GoEuro.com. Make sure you know what your final stop is before you get on the train.
Laddies and gentlemen that is my guide finished. I’m so happy you read this far. I hope you now have what you need to plan your trip of a lifetime around Europe travelling by trains. Leave a comment below with any thoughts you have. Or if you have any questions!
Till next time!