Europe has one of the most advanced systems of rail travel in the world. The train systems in Europe are interconnected, running from city center to city center. It is easy and inexpensive to travel Europe by rail, making trains the preferred method of transportation over cars, buses and airplanes.
Rail Passes vs. Point-to-Point Tickets
When you are purchasing tickets, you have the option of purchasing either rail passes or point-to-point tickets. Which you should choose depends entirely on your travel plans.
You can get point-to-point tickets from a travel agent, at a ticket counter in the train station or via automated machines in the train station. Many people see this as the ultimate option in flexibility since technically, you don't have to know in advance where you want to go next. You can just go to the station, buy a ticket and hop on a train.
Rail passes are a convenient way to travel throughout Europe. They include multiple destinations within a set time frame and are often a tourists' best bet for getting around. The Eurail Pass (sometimes referred to as Eurorail or Europass) comes in many forms:
- The Global Pass allows unlimited travel on the rail systems of over 20 countries for periods ranging from 15 days to three months.
- The Select Pass gives you the option of picking your rail days within a two-month period; travelers choose a combination of three, four or five bordering nations.
- The Regional Pass allows you to choose two bordering countries and is good for traveling if you have a short break as opposed to several weeks. There are dozens of regional passes.
- Single-Country Passes allow you to travel through a single country and are also a good option for short breaks.
How to Purchase Tickets
Before you begin your journey, you'll have to put some effort into researching itineraries in order to get the best deal.
Use Raileurope to compare the cost differences between buying a pass and point-to-point tickets. To do this, plan out your itinerary by choosing the countries you want to visit. Next, investigate the major train routes between your destinations. Plug each train trip into the Raileurope site to get an idea of the price.
When you add up the cost of the individual trips, you may be surprised. In some countries, such as Italy, point-to-point tickets are usually cheaper than purchasing a pass. Also, keep in mind that some versions of the Eurail pass (such as the Global Pass) require adults to purchase first class travel, which may be more than you'd spend on separate Second Class tickets.
Where to Purchase Tickets
For beginners, it is probably best to purchase passes through your travel agent as you're booking your vacation. However, you may also purchase rail tickets from:
- Raileurope, which offers the most comprehensive listings for rail passes and point-to-point tickets.
- Rick Steves' website which offers a fairly comprehensive resource for planning your trip, full of tips and practical helps as well as purchasing options
- Eurail, which only sells rail passes, but if you know that this is the way you want to go, the site is excellent for comparing prices and getting good deals.
When to Purchase Tickets
Passes must be purchased before leaving the U.S. and validated before your first day on the train.
Point-to-point tickets can be purchased at the train station either via an automated machine or via the ticket counter. To avoid confusion, consider writing down your itinerary with the time, date, destination and the type of ticket you want (first or second class) to present to the ticket agent.
Traveling Within Countries
Each European country has its own rail system. You will find schedules and prices vary greatly from place to place. Each rail company has its own website where you can find schedules as well as book tickets in advance.
Major countries in Europe with an official rail website include:
If you're traveling exclusively in one or two countries, the sites listed may be a more valuable resource than Raileurope; they will provide details on train connections between small towns, which may be hard to find elsewhere.
Traveling from One Country to Another
High-speed connections make it easy to travel between European cities. You can go from Paris to Brussels in one hour, 22 minutes, and from Frankfurt to Zurich in just under four hours. By comparison, the flight between Frankfurt and Zurich takes about one hour, but travelers need to get to and from both airports as well as allow time for check-in and security. Consequently, train travel is the preferred way to get around for most serious European travelers. Still, there are a variety of things to consider as you plan your itinerary.
First or Second Class
Unlike air travel, first class seats on European trains sell for a small premium over second class, but there isn't a huge difference between the two. First Class offers a more comfortable seat, and meals are sometimes included; there's usually more luggage space as well.
An overnight train may be your best option for longer trips. Famous routes include the Francisco de Goya train operated by RNFE SNCF, which runs back and forth between Paris and Madrid, and the Lusitania between Madrid and Lisbon. There is a wide range of accommodations on night trains, beginning with standard coach seats and including couchettes and sleeping cars. A couchette is a shared compartment with four or six bunks. Sleeping cars are available as singles or doubles, and the more elaborate versions even include private bathrooms and showers. This is one case where the differences between First and Second Class can be substantial, but so can the price. Note that if you have a pass, boarding after 7 p.m. will count as a single travel day.
Reservations are required for all international trains, as well as most night trains and high-speed inter-city routes. You can make reservations when buying a rail pass, if you know your itinerary. If not, you can always go back later and accomplish the task online. Most European trains will only take reservations 60 to 90 days in advance, so you have time to do this, but try to have all your reservations before leaving the U.S. You can theoretically book reservations after arriving in Europe, either at the train station or online, but there's no guarantee you'll be able to get a reservation for popular routes or during peak travel periods. In this case, sacrificing a bit of spontaneity for security is a wise idea.
Luxury Train Packages
If you really want to do something out of the ordinary, you can opt for traveling by luxury train. While these trains are expensive, they offer the finest in comfort, service and gourmet dining. The queen of the European luxury trains is the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which runs regularly from London to Paris and Venice. Other noteworthy train journeys include:
- Royal Scotsman in Scotland
- Danube Express in Eastern Europe
- British Pullman completes the British part of the Orient Express trip
- Northern Belle in the U.K., the train is noted especially for its gourmet food
You can book these trains by visiting their official websites or contacting your travel agent.
Planning Your Vacation
Few experiences are more exciting than traveling throughout Europe on a train. Experience ancient cities like Rome, romantic vistas from the Eiffel Tower or any other number of iconic cultural sites. To get the most value for your dollar, book through a travel agent before you leave. While you can upgrade or make changes online, it's not the easiest way to do things, and it may leave you frustrated planning your time in Europe rather than enjoying it while you're there.