Almost every European country offers some sort of a discount card available for purchase for discounts on their train systems.
Unfortunately, these cards are often not really worth it unless you make particular trips repeatedly, say for work or visiting family. I’ve lived mainly in European countries over the last few years and ridden trains quite a lot. But I only got a train discount card once (for France), and even then, I’m not quite sure that the price was worth it for the travel I did over that year.
But the question is, what discounts are available for you and are they worth it? To find out, check out the general disclaimer section about the problems and then the info for your specific country of travel. Also note:
- If you are under 28 years old (or you have kids), you may be eligible for youth, child, and family train discount cards.
- If you are older (depending on the country, this kicks in when you are over 60, over 65, or over 70…) you may be eligible for senior discount cards on train travel.
The Problems with European Countries’ “Discount” Passes
The sad truth is that for the vast majority of our readership, the discount passes discussed here are probably not going to be worthwhile. To summarize, generally:
- These discount passes must be purchased and renewed annually.
- In some cases, you need to be a resident or at least have a mailing address in the country.
- To be worthwhile, you need to make a number of trips (at least 5-10, usually) over the course of the year.
- They are often only valid on certain full-priced (not budget or sale) routes. Sometimes the routes with your discounts are actually more expensive than routes that are on sale otherwise.
- They are only valid on the national carrier (not competing budget carriers) and sometimes only on trips within the borders.
- It can be kind of a headache to figure out which fares are and are not valid with the passes, and to ensure you get them. This can actually be a main sticking point.
The reverse is true, however. If you make more than a handful of trips annually in a single country on full-priced routes with the national carrier, read on and check out the options for the country in question.
Eurail / Interrail Passes
Back in the day, one way to hit a lot of destinations on a European tour was to get a Eurail Pass (for non-EU residents) and Interrail Pass (for EU residents). The problem is, now there are many competing budget train lines in Europe as well as other alternatives and sale tickets, so the pass savings don’t seem as great by comparison.
We calculated whether Eurail and Interrail passes are now worth it and found that even for an ideal test case—a whirlwind trip crossing seven countries and ten cities in 21 days—it was actually much cheaper to just purchase individual point-to-point train tickets on Trainline (or, of course, much cheaper still, buses via BusBud).
This held true even if you purchased last minute tickets on Trainline, so there’s no real argument to be made for Eurail or Interrail passes even for spontaneous travel. You’re paying a premium for the pass, and in most normal use cases, are unlikely to get a benefit. But our article showing our calculations provides more detail and instructions if you want to calculate and compare for your own itinerary. For most, though, I think it’s safe to forgo a lot of the complexities of the passes and just get point-to-point tickets.
Discount Passes in Individual European Countries
If you have an address in Austria you can order the Vorteilscard 66 for travel on the national operator ÖBB; it costs 66 euros. For one year, it gives you the right to 50% discounts on second class tickets on the ÖBB trains, excluding other discounts and select routes that are major connections. ÖBB provides a calculator to help you determine whether it is worthwhile. The senior version of the card for those over 65 costs €29, youth version for ages 15-26 costs €19, and the family card, which allows you to save 50% and take up to four kids with you for free, costs €19.
You need to order this card one month in advance and have it mailed to your address in Austria. At ÖBB ticket counters you can also immediately buy the Vorteilscard Classic for €99 per year and avoid the wait.
France’s national train operator SNCF offers the Carte Avantage Adulte for €49. Its principle advantage is 30% off on many types of train tickets on its network. You must be 27 to 59 years old for this card; otherwise see the SNCF’s full catalog with youth and senior options.
That 30% off sounds great, but there are a lot of exceptions. They seem to be mainly designed to discourage business travelers and make this card only worthwhile for people going on weekend jaunts over the SNCF’s main longer distance routes. Some of the key sticking points:
- The budget train service Ouigo is excluded, so already you’re missing out on all those cheap fares.
- The 30% discount only applies to round trips wherein you take exactly the same starting and ending points and travel on the weekend or stay over the weekend at your destination.
- One-way trip discounts are only possible, but only on Saturdays, Sundays, or when traveling with a child.
- Some international TGV trips are included in the 30% off.
- Some, but not all, regional TER trains are 25%, 30%, or 50% off, depending on the region.
- There are certain caps on the dynamic pricing, but pay attention to the limitations listed for the trip durations to get these. The round trip/one-way restrictions noted above also apply to these.
The fine print is incredibly annoying. To check whether you’d actually get a discount for a specific route you tend to take, go to Trainline and search for a journey without the card, noting the cheapest price. Then add the Carte Avantage in the top right under “add railcards” and run the search again. Be sure to delete the card from your profile when done with your test.
There are some other small extras, like 15% off on full price-fixed menus with trains’ on-board catering (but not for just purchasing individual items like a coffee or a sandwich).
There is a more flexible but also much more expensive business-traveler-oriented card called the Carte Liberté for €399.
And if you want to get a bit wild with a crazy amount of travel in a single month or more in France, consider a monthly subscription to the SNCF; pricing is not transparent but for me at least it shows a price of €890 per month.
Purchasing any of these cards will also get you on a mailing list with “exclusive offers” of whatever latest trips the SNCF needs to dump — sometimes there are good deals for those who are flexible, and willing to wander anywhere in the magnificent hexagon.
German operator Deutsche Bahn offers a range of yearly discount cards that can be purchased; they are sent to your address or available for download as a digital card in the DB Navigator app. These cards are available at a range of price levels and with discounts for youth, seniors, and business travelers. The BahnCard 25 offers 25% off of selected fare types in second or first class, the BahnCard 50 offers 50% off, and the BahnCard 100 gives you ticket-free travel for a year.
There are descriptions of the cards in English here and more detail on the German version of the website, which is readable enough with Google Translate.
Beginning May 1, 2023, there is a monthly subscription available for €49 for a Deutschland Ticket, which allows free rides on “all” public transport in Germany—but in the fine print there are a lot of exceptions. Not included are long distance trains from DB Frenverkehr AG: IC, EC, ICE, and RE, as well as of course private operator FlixTrain. So this is not a particularly good option at the moment for zipping around Germany but may prove useful for exploring specific small regions in detail.
Slovakia operator ZSSK offers a free card available in train stations for youth, EU-resident students, and seniors; check that first if you are eligible because it offers free or very cheap travel throughout the country.
Otherwise there are a range of discount cards available for purchase for €35 and up that may be worthwhile for frequent travelers; these are also available in major train stations. Bring an ID and a passport photo when applying.
There are discount cards available for youth and for seniors in Spain; those links go to our discussions and you can see Renfe’s explanations here. There is no card for adults aged 26 to 59.
Unfortunately, these cards do not offer discounts on a variety of competing train options in Spain.
These competitors often offer much cheaper fares. We have reviewed each high speed operator in Spain: private Iryo and French budget Ouigo, as well as Renfe’s Ave and budget option Avlo. But in a nutshell, they’re all great, fast, and comfy; we’d take whichever one is cheapest for a particular trip (often Avlo or Ouigo).
But if you want to ride only on Renfe trains (excluding their budget Avlo), and you do so frequently, you can get a subscription, which is a way of buying the trips in bulk. The long-distance subscriptions are here; pricing is different depending on whether you always take the same journey or take a series of different trips.
There is also the Renfe Spain Pass, which is designed for those living outside of Spain and planning a number of individual train trips on Renfe medium and long-distance trains, to be purchased as a package of 4, 6, 8, or 10. The info is in English but at last check, but the purchase page is half in Spanish. Prices range from €195-410.
It is free to sign up for the Renfe frequent traveler loyalty program: Más Renfe. In theory, you can use the points accumulated to eventually pay for travel, though watch out that these points expire every three years, and it’s hard to both get them and actually use them. At the basic level, for €50 spent on AVE trains, you get 15 points, and 10 points are worth €1. Once you have enough points to pay for an entire ticket (it’s not possible to pay for a portion of a ticket with these Renfe points), you can finally use your points.
As an example to see whether Más Renfe is worth the bother: If I were to travel next week from Barcelona to Madrid next week on Renfe Ave, I would pay €102.35, giving me 15 points. So after about 67 such trips between Barcelona and Madrid, I would have enough points to finally pay for that same trip with my points. This seems highly, highly unlikely and, though it’s a free program, not even worth signing up for.
I could also just forgo Renfe Ave and take the same trip on a budget high speed train that is just as fast for less than half the price: €45.
Our favorite booking platform for Spain is Trainline, which shows discounts with any Spanish discount card (a good way to test whether they’re worth it); more importantly it also compares the other, non-Renfe operators, so you can also see for a particular train trip what you would be saving with them.
We continuously update articles based on our lovely readers’ corrections, additions, hooey arguments over the true meaning of minimalism, fantastical travel wisdom, etc. We obviously publish only respectful, relevant commentary.
If you use a real email address it will be held in strict confidence and you can opt to receive automated notifications for replies to your post—or not. You may also opt in to receiving our very occasional, exclusive newsletter with juicy updates on our latest discoveries.