Our Test Results: The Best Train Booking Platform for Europe

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-07-18
PUBLISHED ON  2018-08-21
Me: A stingy-ass connoisseur of train booking websites. I’m on an Iryo train in Spain—an alternative, cheap, high speed train option you’d never see if you only checked the official Renfe site.

We performed hundreds of searches for train tickets on the websites of national European train companies as well as private portals. The goal: determine the cheapest and best way to buy tickets for riding the rails in Europe.

We’ve been riding around Europe ourselves for a few combined decades and plan to continue to do so in those to come, so for us this was about much more than research for this p(r)etty project.

We really wanted to know how we can save money and time with train tickets. The winner wasn’t a shocker — I’ve already been using it myself for quite some time — but we were surprised by how far ahead it came out in the results.

Results: The Best Train Ticket Platform for Mainland Europe

If you understand the quirks of each national and private rail operator, you can book directly with each—provided their website works in your country. Otherwise, the best way to compare the many options for traveling Europe by train is Trainline. In our tests it was much easier to use and it produced the best and cheapest routes overall, especially for complex trips.

The next-best competitor is Rail Europe, another very easy to use site and with a smart booking engine, but with less complete coverage, so it misses out on some deals.

For trains tickets in Portugal, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe, it can be best to book on the national websites for each country or in the station.

These recommendations are for traveling point-to-point in Europe. We don’t recommend Interrail and Eurail passes as they no longer actually save money or hassle in train travel.

Table Of Contents
  1. Results: The Best Train Ticket Platform for Mainland Europe
  2. Our Extensive Studies of the Screwy, Annoying World of Train Ticketing Websites
  3. Our Top Pick for Mainland Europe Train Travel Booking: Trainline
  4. Our Test Results for the Other Ways to Book Train Tickets for Europe
  5. The Advantage of Modern Train Booking Platforms for Europe
  6. Eurail and Interrail passes
  7. Wrap-Up: The Best Ways to Book Train Tickets for Mainland Europe
  8. Euro Choo-Choo Booking

Our Extensive Studies of the Screwy, Annoying World of Train Ticketing Websites

Between my researchers and I, we read nine European languages (and tackle the rest with the Google Translate extension), so we were well ready for Europe’s poorly translated and partially translated train company websites — we wanted to be able to go anywhere for the best train tickets.

We searched for hundreds of tickets for the most popular train routes taken by visitors across Western Europe, plus some of our own favorite routes, some fun small-town trips, and some pretty random destinations as well.

We looked at booking tickets for the very same day as well as in several days, a week, several weeks, and several months down the road. (The cheapest tickets are often available about 90 days in advance.)

We tried searching for our ideal European trips on each website from the national and private rail companies in each country. We also searched on a variety of the private train ticketing platforms, both new and well-established, as detailed below.

We went several screens into the purchasing process because certain sites (especially you, SNCF Connect and sister sites!) often pretended to offer cheap fares, but then only delivered error messages making the tickets not actually available once you clicked through.

Note while we did include Paris-London Eurostar tickets, we did not test for train tickets in the UK. Our favorite platforms below do cover the UK, but that’s another set of tests and another article for another day.

Our Top Pick for Mainland Europe Train Travel Booking: Trainline

Trainline’s robust, smart routing engine offered overall the best deals overall in our comparison against other platforms and against the private and national train companies’ websites themselves. It’s also so much easier to use.

Our second-place pick is Rail Europe, which was formerly known as Loco2.

Let’s get into the weeds of our test results.

The Greatest Coverage of European Train Operators’ Routes

One key to finding the cheapest train tickets is being able to compare all operators. For example, you might think you’d get the cheapest French train tickets by just going to the official French national rail site, SNCF Connect, and booking there. But by doing that you may very well miss out on tickets for certain routes from Trenitalia and Renfe, which also cover parts of France. Only Trainline will point you to those, as well as to the budget train option Ouigo, when available for your route.

While Trainline claims that it wants to expand to cover rail travel around the globe, it’s not there yet. But it does offer in our tests the widest and deepest coverage of rail networks in Western Europe, and a bit of coverage of Eastern Europe.

Actually testing the platforms like we did is important, because the various train booking platforms are a bit cagey about explaining which rail operators they actually sell tickets for. They love to list all sorts of operators on their pages, but when you actually search, a lot of these operators’ tickets don’t really come up, or are only available in a limited way. For example, Omio claims to offer for Ouigo budget trains in France, Catalonia, and Spain, but when we search for routes that should have Ouigo options in France, they don’t come up in Omio.

Rail Europe also has rather wide coverage of European national train operators, but has less of the private operators compared to Trainline. Omio, for its part, while it falls down in some areas as just discussed, does offer tickets for Portugal and Sweden, which even Trainline lacks. Unfortunately, since it doesn’t do intelligent cross-border routing, there’s no real advantage to booking on Omio rather than the national operators for those countries.

Finding the Best Pricing for Complex and International Trips

Each of Europe’s national and private train operators determines their own prices, and mostly these are dynamic, varying according to demand and how far in advance you buy. These tickets are of course available on each train company’s website.

Trainline, Rail Europe, and other platforms access these prices dynamically, so they can give you the same prices at any particular point in time.

Where they can potentially find real and significant savings is in complex and international mainland Europe trips, combining operators in a way that is better, smarter, and cheaper than what the operators do themselves (and often they can’t do so at all).

It is in these complex trips where Trainline really stands above the rest.

On trips that we tried that involved crossing a border and at least one change of trains, Trainline’s smarter routing engine was able to come up with cheaper fares than other platforms or than national train company’s sites.

Here are examples of our trip searches on Trainline versus the relevant train companies’ attempts to offer the same routes, with the cheapest options in italics:

  • Paris to Venice: €58.90 on Trainline, €119 on SNCF Connect (but unavailable for actual purchase due to website error), €201.90 on Trenitalia
  • Rome to Paris: €81.90 on Trainline, €119 on SNCF Connect (but unavailable for actual purchase due to website error), €267.90 on Trenitalia.
  • Madrid to Berlin: €406.05 on Trainline; unavailable on Renfe.com (Spain), SNCF Connect, and bahn.de
  • Paris to Warsaw: €158.80 on Trainline, €181.60 on SNCF Connect, unavailable on bahn.de, unavailable on Polrail.com

Trainline was cheaper and generally the savings were quite large, from 20 to 50%. Rail Europe also came in close on some of these tests (see below). But RailEurope was ridiculously overpriced for complex trips. Omio was not able to find tickets for such routes.

Quite often each national operator fails to actually offer international routes between other countries for sale, but when they do so they’re overpriced. SNCF Connect sometimes shows international routes for reasonable prices but then generally produces website errors when you actually try to click through to buy them.

Booking Fees on Platforms

Private and national train operators in Europe generally do not charge a booking fee for booking on their websites.

Booking platforms that have honest dynamic pricing often do charge such a fee. This is because they often don’t receive much or any kickback from the operators whose tickets they sell, and they need to make money in some way.

For Trainline, the booking fee is not straightforward, which is the chief thing that annoys me about the platform. The booking fee may vary according to the route and even the country you’re in while booking. Sometimes there is no fee, and in our tests it can go up to about 3%. It was always less than Omio’s fee in our tests, and is usually cheaper than Rail Europe’s small straightforward flat per-basket booking fee, although the later can be a bit less if you’re making a very large booking all at once.

We’re annoyed about these fees, but Trainline does save a lot of overall travel money due to the other factors mentioned above, and so it’s still generally well worth it. Also, if booking with non-European credit cards, national sites like the SNCF Connect often don’t work at all, and so booking platforms like Trainline end up being the only option.

Smarter Routes with Fewer Changes

Trainline has been in this business for a while (the company used to be Captain Train) and has developed both deep links with the rail systems as well as excellent AI for determining the “best” trip.

It thus, compared to the other search engines we tried, invariably found as short or shorter routes (and sometimes with fewer stops too).

This can end up saving significant time as well as keep you from having long waits in stations.

Trainline is also much smarter than Rail Europe, Omio, SaveATrain, and the national companies in terms of pushing up the best route option of the many it suggests, so that it’s immediately visible and you don’t have to wade through a lot of unreasonably long or overpriced options.

Other Features Making Trainline a Top Platform

A Cleaner, More Functional Interface

Trainline’s design is much simpler compared to the clutter in the national train booking websites (or in the case of the Austrian website, being so simple that it’s hard to know at first where to start). And unlike so many private train booking portals, it doesn’t have pop-ups or pop-unders for hotels and the like. Unfortunately, in the last years Trainline has started to show some advertising, but it’s much more limited than the likes of Omio or Rome to Rio.

Also, in our hundreds of searches, we didn’t encounter a single website error or hiccup on Trainline, whereas there were lots of them on the national train operator (Renfe, Trenitalia, and SNCF Connect) sites that made it difficult or impossible to shop there for some tickets. These sites are infamous in their home countries for their poor design and dysfunction.

All of the national companies’ websites had English versions. But they were so poorly translated that it was impossible at times to understand what was really meant. And in many cases the sites abruptly reverted back to the national language in chunks, especially for fare options, error messages, and the names of cities (you have to type “Den Haag” instead of “the Hague”, and so on).

As far as we found, Trainline was perfectly translated and showed the places we wanted whether we typed in the English or local version of the place name.

Trainline is also available in 16 languages — far more than most operator sites and booking platforms.

Incorporation of Bus Options

Trainline incorporates bus options into its search results. This can mean that for example if you search for London to Paris you’ll see the lovely and superfast Eurostar train, but you’ll also see the option to save money (sometimes more than €100) by taking a bus instead as a Eurostar alternative.

Omio, Rome to Rio, SNCF Connect, and others also integrate various bus companies to some extent, but Trainline’s search is more useful in that it incorporates the smart routing discussed above and, where relevant, provides you with combinations of bus and train tickets to get you quickly and cheaply to destinations (particularly those places less-served by trains).

An Opportunity to Get Add-On Services For Your Ride: WiFi, Bikes, Etc…

Access to the Italo line for first class

Trainline offers, where available and necessary, the option to add on WiFi access for your ride or a ticket for pet or your bike. For Germany, it provides the optional seat reservations.

And unlike Rail Europe, Trainline shows first-class options right in the first page of your search results. On occasion these can be as cheap or even (rarely) cheaper than second class, so it’s good to see this even if it’s not your usual choice. (I find second class generally quite comfortable in European trains, and not much different from first.)

Unlike some other private booking platforms, Trainline asks for your age in order to be able to steer you towards any age-related (senior discounts, youth discounts) pricing that various train companies may offer. As outlined in our linked articles, generally speaking, youth over 13 and seniors will not get any discounts on European trains unless they’ve purchased a specific discount card for a certain country (and these are rarely worth it overall), but it’s good that Trainline provides this option.

Functional Payment Systems for Non-Europeans

Trainline accepts Visa, Mastercard, Maestro, Diners Club, Paypal, American Express, Google Pay, and Apple Pay. This might seem basic, but it’s important because the (French, Swiss, Dutch, etc.) national train companies’ failure to accept Australian, American, and other foreign credit cards can be a major frustration for travellers attempting to buy tickets. This is even in some cases a problem with ticket machines or at ticket windows in some countries.

Like pretty much every train ticketing website now, Trainline delivers e-tickets that you may print out or display from your mobile device (I recommend having both on hand if possible to be safe).

Customer Service

Trainline’s email support is well reputed. But they’re not a travel agency and not available by phone to chat with you about where you might like to go, for example. And while they do endeavor to provide info when needed during the booking process about French train strikes and such, for customer service on the road you’re ultimately stuck with the national operator whose ticket you’ve purchased.

Cancellations and exchanges can be handled directly in Trainline through its much easier and more comprehensible website (compared to the national operators). I haven’t had to do this yet, but after the monstrous mistreatment I and others I know have experienced at the hands of the SNCF’s process, I know I’ll be much happier in the future to have purchased the tickets through Trainline if a cancellation or change is necessary.

Areas for Improvement

So yes, we’ve become fans of Trainline and it’s what we use. But it’s still not perfect and there are areas where we hope it will get better.

The main problem is that Trainline charges a booking fee and only tells you what that fee will be on the last screen of the booking process. It appears to often be influenced by IP addresses (where your computer is located). Trainline refuses to release the exact scheme, but in our tests booking from various IPs, it’s always a small charge, usually at most about 3%.

You can, I suppose, attempt to avoid this if you have a good VPN service by setting your location to the country you are starting your trip from. It is in any case useful to have a VPN while traveling to protect your data accessing WiFi on fast trains or in hotels or to log into services only available back home in your home country. I personally use Nord VPN, which is fast and reliable and allows you to set your location from quite a number of countries.

Aside from that, there are a few other areas where we’d love to see Trainline improve:

  • Some ultra-local regional trains and Eastern European train options are still poorly covered on Trainline. Often such tickets are still best purchased directly at the station wherever you’re at. Seat 61 covers places like Serbia, and can help you understand when and how to get tickets. (But also, for parts of Eastern Europe, the trains can be so unreliable that we’d recommend just getting on a bus, van, or car sharing, if you really want to get where you’re going in any reasonable time frame. Serbian trains are delightful (and a great place to drink rakija and learn the Serbian language), but not very good if you want to get somewhere.)
  • I’d like to see a wider flexible dates option so that I can find out what month or week is best to travel on for cheap train fares.

Our Test Results for the Other Ways to Book Train Tickets for Europe

Trainline is well ahead of the competition as the one-stop place to book European train tickets, but it’s far from the only game in town.

There are a number of competing platforms, and some national train companies have also less-successfully been in the game of attempting to provide cross-continental train bookings.

Independent Train Ticketing Websites

Rail Europe: Our Second-Choice Train Ticketing Website for Smart Routing and Good Prices

Rail Europe is an independent European train ticketing platform (it is no longer part of the French train company SNCF). It has integrated what was formerly the great Loco2 website. Note that in its current form Rail Europe is nothing like the previous Rail Europe incarnation, which sold French train tickets to Americans, Brits, and other non-French foreigners at inflated prices. The pricing with the current Rail Europe is dynamic based on actual current prices.

We have recommended Rail Europe/Loco2 at times in the past, and in current checks it was able to offer nearly all of the same destinations as found on Trainline, but at prices for complex trips that were generally slightly worse. The route options were sometimes longer too.

That said, in a very few cases Rail Europe did come out on top in our comparisons, so if you’re going to take the time to check a second ticketing platform, this would be the one to check.

But since its coverage is not as wide (for example, it doesn’t show the very cheap FlixTrain options in Germany) and its booking engine is not quite as smart about finding good routes, I’d definitely only consider Rail Europe a secondary option to check alongside Trainline.

Also, Rail Europe’s booking fees are £6.45, €7.45, CA$9.95, AU$9.95, or US$8.45 per order, which for a single trip usually works out a bit higher than Trainline’s small-percent fee. But if you’re booking a larger order for a family, an expensive private compartment on a night train, or several trips at once, Rail Europe’s booking fee may work out a bit cheaper than Trainline’s.

Omio: Not a Smart Booking Engine—Just Very Basic Searches for Trains, as Well as Buses and Flights

The appeal of Omio is that you can search for your bus, train and flight options all at once. These options show as separate tabs in search results.

Unfortunately, Omio has incomplete coverage of European train operators (in spite of seeming to claim in its site literature that it covers them) and doesn’t really have a smart booking engine at all that would enable it to create complex combinations of operators’ tickets.

Omio also tacks on fees that are larger than Trainline’s, though it doesn’t specify how these booking fees are calculated. So in all our tests, when Omio was able to deliver anything at all, the total trips were always more expensive than on Trainline.

Omio has a super simple and distraction-free interface, and I like it that the cheapest and fastest options are labeled as such. But in many cases there are too many options and they are displayed in a very long list, with the best options far, far down in that list. Trainline tends to push the best options to the top of your search results, as you would expect from a smart search engine.

Omio is poorer at offering the add-on features (age-related discount cards, bicycles, WiFi, etc.) than our main pick Trainline.

Omio accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Paypal.

Incidentally, the search site Rome2Rio just redirects to Omio for European train searches so if you’re considering that one, you may as well start with Omio. Rome2Rio can be interesting to consider for other forms of travel elsewhere, however.

Save A Train: No Booking Fee, but Tricky to Use and Incomplete Coverage

Save A Train is odd and not-quite-functional, but it’s the international train booking website that we’re watching as with some improvements it could be quite good. Its chief advantage right now is that it charges no booking fee (we’ll see if that lasts).

This means that it could come out on top of Trainline or Rail Europe in certain specific cases. But its coverage of different rail operators is not as complete, so it misses out on a lot of options, and it also has quirks where it doesn’t show trips certain times or places (it didn’t recognize the existence of “Madrid” in one of my searches).

National Companies’ Websites

Renfe: Spain’s National Operator’s Website Is Full of Errors, Badly Translated, and Doesn’t Show All Options for Spain

My dear Catalan and Spanish friends regularly use, suffer from, and curse (with poop expressions) the Spanish train booking site Renfe.com. They’re suffering needlessly—Trainline is an easier way—and it often actually costs them money, because Renfe doesn’t always offer the cheapest options.

For English users, the Renfe site is badly translated (or untranslated: you still need to know Spanish place names and will see error messages in Spanish). For everyone, it’s ugly and full of usability problems and error messages. The site often rejects credit cards, especially foreign credit cards. Here’s our full coverage of the problems with Renfe’s website.

Renfe’s site is particularly full of errors when you attempt to buy tickets starting or ending outside of Spain.

The main problem nowadays with booking your Spanish train tickets directly with Renfe is that you miss out on the many competing train operators in Spain; Renfe is not going to show you the pricing and ticket options for Iryo and Ouigo. These fast trains may be cheaper or more convenient in many cases. The way to compare all of the offers at once is with our main-pick booking platform Trainline—or else Omio also works for this.

SNCF Connect: The French Train Company’s Website Keeps Getting Worse, Somehow

SNCF Connect (formerly known as Voyages-SNCF as well as OUI SNCF) is France’s national train operator’s website. If you are booking simple trips in France, it can get you the same results as Trainline but without the booking fee—if you can get the website to work properly. It’s a bit hit and miss.

That said, with SNCF Connect you may miss out on better prices for certain routes that are covered in France by Trenitalia and Renfe, which are shown on Trainline but not readily apparent on SNCF Connect searches.

And the pricing gets much worse if you’re taking a trip that involves changes or crossing the French border. The SNCF website does sell tickets for neighboring countries’ national rail systems. But, in more than three-quarters of the complex cases we tested, Trainline found better fares than SNCF Connect, often costing about half as much (for savings of as much as €91.90 on one trip).

Also, for the majority of these complex international trips it was impossible to actually book the ticket; once the trip was selected the SNCF website produced errors and forced us to start over.

The SNCF site used to have one useful feature for train travellers; it could show a calendar for a particular French trip with the cheapest prices for different days, so that you can get an idea of the best day to travel on. This functionality was lost in the latest re-design and the SNCF has been promising to bring it back for years, but has not done so. There is a flexible date feature in Trainline that does the job.

Trenitalia: OK for Trips in Italy, but Better If You Speak Italian

I’ve booked train trips within Italy on Trenitalia without issue, but I do speak Italian. There is an English version of the site but when you use it the city names, ticket conditions, and (many) website error messages still generally come up in Italian. Some of the website’s attempts at English are hilarious — though I suppose they become less so when you’re trying to decipher details of a trip. Using Google Translate on the Italian version may actually serve some people better than the website’s own English version.

In our tests like Bari to Rome and Naples to Bari, Trenitalia, Rail Europe, and Trainline were all able to offer the same routes and for the same prices (though Trainline did also propose much cheaper bus options for us).

Trenitalia was much more expensive than Rail Europe or Trainline for booking international trips like Rome to Paris, Bologna to Salzburg, or Rome to Nice. And the routing options that it came up with were longer than those of Trainline.

When booking Italian trips on Trenitalia you also miss out on potential savings by not considering the competing Italo, which Trainline includes in its searches.

Bahn.de: A Good, Functional Booking Site for German Trips—But Only with the National Operator

Bahn.de used to be a common favorite for international searches in Europe. At the time of our most recent tests, however, the site showed as “unavailable” any trip that wasn’t either starting or ending in Germany. And most international trips we searched for were impossible to actually book on the site.

For simple train trips within Germany via the national operator Bahn, the site offered tickets for sale at the same prices as Trainline, and without the booking fee.

The chief problem is of course that Bahn.de does not show you your options with the competing operator FlixTrain, which for certain routes often cost a fraction of what you’d pay for Bahn trips. For example, a ride on a search from Hamburg to Stuttgart would cost us €14.99 on Trainline, which suggests FlixTrain alongside the Bahn options cost €37.90.

Bahn.de was the best national train website during our testing in terms of being free from useability issues, errors, or translations that hindered understanding. And I’ve previously purchased tickets on this site with a non-German credit card without issue.

If you do use Bahn.de we recommend printing your tickets or keeping the email handy instead of relying on the app, as one of our writer-vagabonds has had issues importing tickets purchased on a computer into the app.

Oebb.at: The Austrian Train Website

Oebb.at offers tickets for trips starting or ending in Austria on the national operator. When searching for anything at all outside of Austria we got errors like “ticket not available” and “ticket for section only” — meaning that only one segment of the trip was available. The site only offers tickets through its connection to Austria’s OBB system.

The website was fine but so simple that at first it was difficult to understand what to do. This is nevertheless a fine way to book tickets for Austrian trains.

Sbb.ch: The Swiss Train Operator’s Website

Sbb.ch offers tickets for trains within and entering and leaving Switzerland, but the search function is not so useful as you have to click through several screens on any one trip before you can see the price of that option.

The price offered in Swiss Francs for a Zurich to Lyon trip was close to the equivalent price in euros offered by Trainline.

CD.cz: The Czech Train Operator’s Website

Since no other operator or private portal connects directly to the Czech Railways system, CD.cz is the only place to go for train tickets like Prague to Budapest (six and a half hours). In our tests the site was easy to use and straightforward; the only inconvenience is that it shows ticket prices only in Czech Koruna so you’ll need a currency converter site open in another tab to know what you’re paying. It accepts Mastercard, Visa, MasterPass, and American Express.

Ns.nl: The Dutch Train Operator

The Ns.nl website is the better way to book local trains in the Netherlands; for complex trips crossing borders we head back to Trainline to find the best prices.

The Advantage of Modern Train Booking Platforms for Europe

Thomas Cook’s Continental Timetables — an 1888 take on Trainline

Buying train tickets in Europe used to be a complex nightmare in which you’d have to look up your route in the Thomas Cook European Timetable.

Its successor, the European Rail Timetable, is still available for the stubbornly old-fashioned; current editions are still released. But this sort of thing is exactly what modern ticketing platforms have supplanted.

Even when tickets began to be sold on the internet this involved a lot of knowledge, clicking, and time to navigate then-convoluted (and still-, see below) national companies’ train websites. Seat 61 is also quite helpful in understanding the quirks of each country’s train system and what is on offer.

Trainline and Rail Europe both manage to incorporate this vast amount of multi-nation complex train route offerings into really simple interfaces that give you just what you need — the tickets, add-ons, and info — to get around by train.

Eurail and Interrail passes

All of the websites discussed on this page offer point-to-point tickets. Some of them will also sell you the famous pan-European or country-specific rail passes, but if you’re interested in those you may as well buy them directly on their websites:

But note: I have run calculations of whether Eurail or Interrail could actually save you money in all sorts of different scenarios. As far as I can tell, they never do, and it’s always better to get point-to-point tickets. See that article for more if you’re curious or for a guide to making the real calculations for what you’d pay overall for your trip.

Wrap-Up: The Best Ways to Book Train Tickets for Mainland Europe

Euro Choo-Choo Booking

Trainline worked the best of any platform we tested:

  • The same pricing on routes as if bought directly
  • Much better fares and smarter routing on complex international trips than any other platform, and better than the operators themselves
  • Simple booking process with functional website, a small booking fee of 1-3% on each ticket
  • Broad coverage of both national and competing private train operators across Europe
  • Smartly written, understandable English website and a functional payment system

We found that Rail Europe came in second and can sometimes be cheaper on large orders due to its flat booking fee. However, its booking engine is not quite as smart and its coverage is not as broad, so we’d leave it as a secondary option to check against Trainline in some cases.

Bahn.de was the most functional of the national operators’ websites and works just fine for Germany — but even then we’d still check Trainline to compare Bahn alongside the competing FlixTrain options.

We monitor comments on this site and update our articles with insights from readers periodically; feel free to drop your questions or experiences with booking sites there.

Wondering what to take for your trip? We’ve got a full guide to what to pack for European train travel as well.

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