How to Travel Europe by Train

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-11-29
PUBLISHED ON  2018-05-28
Our full guide to the charms of taking trains, including how best to buy tickets and what to pack; photo copyright Charley Aimée.

Your Guide

Mose Hayward

Train Geek

We’ve been travelling all around Europe by train for two decades now, and we’ve got more than a few dos and don’ts to have a cheap, comfortable, and lovely time rolling across the continent.

We’ll go through how to best book train tickets from outside (or inside) Europe, what to take on board, and how best to enjoy it all.

How Do I Book European Train Tickets?

Our Favorite Train Booking Platform

The most convenient way to book train tickets in Europe is Trainline, as it directly accesses and offers the prices that the competing European train operators themselves sell. And it can even, in certain cross-border trips, be cheaper, as it finds smarter routes than they do and compares private operators that the national train websites won’t show you.

We’ve thoroughly analyzed the various booking portals, and to date Trainline remains the most hassle-free way to book European train tickets for most of the Western half of the continent. And the big savings comes for complex and international trips, when its clever routing engine often finds us even find better and cheaper routes than the official channels. The downside is that it charges a small booking fee of a couple of percent in the last stage of the booking process.

That said you certainly can book directly with national operators and you’ll sometimes save slightly on the booking fee. For example France’s SNCF Connect website allows you to buy directly from the national operator, SNCF. However that site will not show you potentially cheaper routes for some cities from competing services in France run by Trenitalia and Renfe. Also, just generally, the SNCF site can give you all sorts of problems, especially in the payment process.

For travelling between countries in Eastern Europe, Trainline usually doesn’t work. You’re often better off just purchasing at the last minute in the train station directly (or in the case of truly terrible train systems like in Serbia, just go for a bus ticket).

For the Western and Central European countries it does cover, we prefer Trainline over national train operator websites because, on top of the smarter routing, it has a smoother and more functional website with comprehensible English that is built to accept non-European credit card numbers and addresses. There are a few other so-so to good portals that are decent (like Rail Europe and Omio) but they tack on larger fees or have less complete coverage. Trainline is also better at ensuring that you get any age-related (senior, youth) discounts.

Trainline tickets are e-tickets and you’ll show them from a printout or your phone to ticket inspectors.

Are European Rail Passes Worth It?

We’ve run the numbers most common situations, and no, nowadays Eurail and Interrail passes are not at all a good deal. They don’t let you ride on competing budget trains, involve lots of supplements, and cause you to miss out on lots of other sales and deals. It’s nearly impossible to get them to actually save you money, even if you’re planning at the last minute and stopping in lots of places. Points to consider:

  • Which pass is for whom? If you live outside of Europe, you must buy a Eurail pass. If you live in Europe, you buy the InterRail Pass. Make sure you are looking at the right one when running your comparisons.
  • Like to improvise? It used to be that rail passes were best for improvising, but you can now easily buy train tickets online at the moment via Trainline as discussed in the previous section. While the prices on the go often aren’t as good as booking ahead (especially for longer routes), you should consider that with a rail pass reservations ahead of time are necessary anyway for popular routes.
  • What about planes? Buying point-to-point train tickets also lets you mix transport options; budget airlines can be useful for crossing longer distances cheaply (though they’re less environmentally friendly and hardly as comfortable as trains).
  • Considered tack-on fees for passes? Reservation fees get tacked on to rail pass costs, especially for popular international routes and fast trains. Sometimes these are substantial.
  • What’s easiest? Generally purchasing point-to-point tickets via Trainline or national operators is much easier than dealing with the complex rules and exceptions of the European train pass systems.

How Do I Get the Cheapest Train Tickets for Europe?

Booking in advance isn’t necessary but can get you the cheapest possible tickets. For most countries, tickets are made available for purchase about 90 days in advance.

As discussed above, each national train company’s website offers lower prices than travel agents or website portals, with the exception of the top private portals we recommended.

If you want to travel even more cheaply than by train (especially when buying at the very last minute), you can also cross Europe by bus. It’s generally slower and definitely not as comfortable, but very affordable. A great way to search all of the super-cheap pan-European bus and ride-sharing options at the same time is Omio. It’s not as good as Trainline for train tickets, however, as its routing options are much more limited.

Air travel does a nightmare on your carbon footprint, but there are plenty of budget airlines criss-crossing the continent quite cheaply. When calculating costs and times versus trains, take into account the sometimes heavy financial and time costs of getting to and from the airports, waiting in lines, security, etc. In general, a one-hour flight has enough of these built in to make a five-hour high speed train connection from city center to city center advantageous in terms of time and hassle. But if you’re going further, skipping from say Lisbon to Naples, it’s worth flying.

We have tons of specific suggestions for saving money on French train tickets.

What to Pack for Train Travel in Europe

Non-Europeans tend to pack way too much when traveling the European rails. It’s true that nobody on trains weighs your bags or forces you to stuff them into size-testers like at airports, but that doesn’t mean you should pack a lot. Your travel will be much more pleasant if you have less to lug around and worry about.

We highly recommend combo backpacks/wheeled luggage for Europe travel. Most of the time you will want to roll through your trip, but comfortable backpack straps are great for when you want to stay in the gothic center of a European city, like Barcelona.

The most experienced travellers know how to pare down to the essentials and travel light. For them, we recommend a carry-on-sized wheeled backpack. It’s what I personally use and has held up incredibly well over the years. It has smart features like the detachable daypack and useful pockets, making it my go-to travel piece.

After that see our general recommendations for minimalist travel packing, which are all quite relevant to train travel.

Trains+City Bikes in Europe: An Ultra-Efficient Travel Combo

An advantage of travelling light in many European cities is that you can hop onto the city bike-sharing program’s bikes that are generally in front of the train station, and for just a euro or two bike to your final destination. I’ve very much enjoyed doing this in a number of French cities. And at many train stations (in Amsterdam, for instance) it is also possible to rent bikes for the full length of your stay.

To do this you really must have a pack with straps, as mentioned above, and it helps if it’s not too big.

European city bike-sharing systems are intended for transport, not for joy-riding, and so are generally priced very cheaply for the first half hour or hour, but with a sharp increase in rates that makes it infeasible to use them for longer periods. But they’re great for simply getting from the train station to your hotel, hostel, or apartment. And you often pay for a day or week pass that allows you to continue to use the bikes for 30 minute periods throughout your stay to get around. Simply leave the bike locked into any bike station when you’ve finished your ride. It’s wise to download an app for each city’s bike program beforehand showing where the stations are, but generally they’re pretty ubiquitous.

Note that some cities (Barcelona comes to mind) do not allow tourists to use their city bike-share systems and to enforce this require residents to go through a sign-up process by mail.

Are European Trains Safe?

Yes. While there are some headline-grabbing train accidents each year, your chances of being hurt on on your train trips in Europe are exceedingly small. Europe has exceedingly low rates of fatalities (0.10 per billion passenger-kilometers) and 92% of injuries are of people outside of the train (suicides, graffiti artists horsing around in the train yard for example). It is far more dangerous to travel by car or bus.

One does have to take reasonable precautions to keep valuables always in sight and at hand, especially at train stations. But the odds of you as an individual encountering pickpocketing, theft, or serious problems are low.

Should You Book Your Hotel/Hostel/Apartment Near Train Stations?

It definitely depends on the city, but the areas immediately next to many European city’s train stations tend to contain a lot of dodgy but overpriced lodging, poor food, and not much of interest.

So unless you’re just staying for a night to sleep and then moving on, you’ll likely be happier doing some research (Frommer’s has good neighborhood descriptions of European cities) and staying in a neighborhood that contains things of interest for you. This is another argument for staying in each city for at least a few days when on a European train tour.

European Train Travel — Languages and Phrases to Know

English is likely to be spoken to varying degrees by train and station staff in most countries, but your experience will always be more fun if you at least attempt to pick up some of the pleasantries, toasts, and jokes of the lands that you pass through.

I use italki to train in languages via Skype lessons both before travelling and while on the road; it’s possible to find people teaching even Europe’s most recherché languages like Neapolitan. Speaking just a bit of the more out-of-the-way languages goes a long way to making your train trip more fun and making fast friends of your fellow passengers.

European train travel is by far my favorite transport experience anywhere and anyhow in the world. There are gorgeous towns, mountains, cities and beaches; the rides are smooth and the people are varied and amusing. Congrats on choosing this part of the world and manner of getting around it — you won’t be disappointed.

Bon voyage!

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