How the heck do you train from Amsterdam to Paris? Or Venice to Rome? And more importantly, how do you travel cheap in Europe by train?
Learning to navigate Europe by train isn’t tricky, and it’s relatively easy once you know what you’re doing. But you probably have a dozen questions, and your nerves are killing you because you need to get this part right. Well, I’m here to help! I wrote this guide here to help give you an excellent explanation of what you need to know to successfully navigate Europe.
First, a few things…
Why explore Europe by train when you can bus or fly?
It’s a good question. Hear me out…
Bussing around Europe typically involves a very strict itinerary. They usually only go to the main cities, and it’s a one-way route. Also, the scenery on the highways naturally…. well, sucks.
Europe offers many budget airline options. They’re fantastic! They can (obviously) travel much faster than trains, helping you arrive at your destination faster. But, you must consider the cost of taking a cab/bus to the airport and your accommodation when you arrive. Also, going through airport security is annoying. Add extra time to arrive early and depart when you land; that 2.5-hour flight suddenly becomes 4 hours or so.
Europe by train?
Railing your way through Europe will typically be better in most cases. First, you are usually training from the city centre hub to the next city centre hub. You’re always close to the important stuff. Trains are super comfortable, and you can get up and walk around. In addition, you have leg room and freedom (you’ll never get asked to get back to your seat because of turbulence!) Trains these days can be super fast too. But I think the coolest thing about travelling in Europe by train is seeing the beautiful countryside. You’re not always in Europe; why not see as much of it as you can!
Europe Train Terminology
There are two types of train tickets you can buy:
Point To Point: It’s when you want to get from point A to point B. And that’s it. For example, if you are in Paris and need to get to Barcelona (and that is it), you would buy a one-way ticket from Paris to Barcelona. Straightforward stuff.
Rail Passes: Europe rail passes give you more flexibility. They allow you to travel for unlimited trips for a set period. There are two (2) types of rail passes:
1. Eurail Pass: Available only to NON-European residents.
2. Interrail Pass: Available only to European residents.
So, if you live outside of Europe and want a rail pass, you must purchase a Eurail Pass. You cannot buy an Interrail pass.
(note: when I refer to “rail pass”, I am referring to both Eurail Pass and Interrail Pass). So what’s the difference between the two passes? Basically, it’s cheaper to travel with an Interrail Pass.)
Europe by train: Details for the rail pass
Here’s how it works… First, suppose you are travelling from one destination to another, and that was it. In that case, a point-to-point is almost always cheaper. If you plan to travel to a few countries and take a train for at least a few days, you will likely benefit from a rail pass. Point-To-Point tickets are very straightforward. It’s like booking a flight from one city to another. Done. Rail passes are a different story, however. So to determine which type of train pass will benefit you more, I’ll go into more detail about rail passes.
Rail Passes (Eurail & Interrail)
You can get 3 types of Eurail passes:
1. Eurail Global Pass allows you to explore 24 European countries (all the ones that Eurail operate in). Global Euro passes are a great idea if you want to cover a lot of distance in your travels or if you plan to stay in Europe for a few months. Eurail Global Passes are also the most expensive.
2. Eurail Select Pass allows you to travel to 4 bordering countries. You can choose any 4, as long as they touch each other (or connect by ferry). This option allows you to concentrate your travels within a few countries. You might also see a Eurail Regional Pass which is the same as the Select Pass but only for 2 neighbouring countries.
3. Eurail One Country Pass is as it sounds. You get train travel within one country that you choose.
The type of rail pass you choose will depend on how long you plan to stay in Europe and how much of Europe you want to see.
Europe by train: how rail passes work
Rail passes give you an unlimited amount of travel during a “travel day.” That means you can take 1 train or 5 and travel 50 or 500 miles in one travel day, which will be considered 1 day. Here are a couple examples:
a) 5 days within 2 months – You get 5 travel days from one city to another. Your travel days must be used within 2 months. So, you could start your travel off with a week in Paris, then train to Barcelona, which would be 1 travel day. You now have 4 travel days left to use up in the next 7 weeks.
b) 1 month continuous – This means you can travel every day for as long as you want for an entire month. You’d want to choose a pass like this if you plan to spend a day or two in a city and then jump to the next one.
Europe by train: nitty gritty details of rail passes
I’ll start with the (sometimes) shocking news. Your rail pass gives you travel on most European trains, but you may need to pay an extra fee for specific trains and destinations. You also need to reserve your train ticket in some instances too.
In certain popular countries like France, Spain, and Italy, expect to have to reserve your seat AND pay a supplemental fee. Remember, this is ON TOP of your existing Eurail pass you’ve already purchased. Also, if you take a night or high-speed train, expect to reserve your seat and pay a supplemental fee.
How much are these supplemental fees?
It depends…what country are you in/visiting? Which train company are you using? Will you choose express or overnight trains? Supplemental fees range from a few Euros all the way up to 60 Euros. However, the cost is usually a small amount, around 3-10 Euros.
Europe by train: a sample itinerary
So let’s say I want to spend 2 weeks in Europe. I want to visit Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Florence, and end up in Munich. So I fly to Paris and will train to my next destinations. Will I be better off buying point-to-point tickets or buying a Eurail Pass? Hmm… let’s find out.
Point To Point:
I’m taking prices off the raileurope.com website, booking for late January, which is considered low season, and 1 month in advance.
- Paris to Barcelona – The best choice is the $151 high-speed train
- Barcelona to Rome – One train option for $145
- Rome to Florence – $14
- Florence to Venice – $14
- Venice to Munich $ 140
So my total cost to train through my 5 Europe destinations is $464. Not bad. Let’s check out the rail pass.
I bought the 4-country Select Eurail Pass, choosing adjacent countries: France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. I also get 5 travel days within 2 months. Cost = $589.
So already, you can see the Eurail pass is MORE expensive than booking 5 individual tickets one-way tickets.
The big takeaway is this: If you know what your itinerary will look like, booking your point-to-point tickets in advance (a month or so) can save you a lot of money.
Europe by train: booking your train ticket and rail pass
- Buying a Eurail pass
You MUST buy your Eurail Pass BEFORE you depart for Europe. Unfortunately, you can’t buy them in Europe. Instead, you can buy your Eurail pass online, reserve your train ticket, and pay any supplemental fees (if there are). RailEurope is a great place to do this.
- Booking point-to-point train tickets
You can buy them right at any train ticket office. Walk up and tell them where you want to go. You can also buy them in advance (recommended) online on a website like www.raileurope.com.
Suppose you are already in Europe and have a Eurail pass. In that case, you can make reservations and pay supplemental fees at the train station.
Europe by train: point-to-point ticket or rail pass?
We’re back to this question again! Okay, here’s my final thoughts on p2p vs rail passes. This is what I would do.
I would get point-to-point tickets if I knew exactly where I was going to be and where I would be going. So I’ve planned my itinerary thoroughly and will be sticking to it. I would also buy my point-to-point tickets in advance. At least a month if possible. Also, suppose I am only visiting a few countries and will be travelling for small distances. In that case, I will lean towards choosing point-to-point travel tickets.
However, I will heavily consider a Eurail pass if I have not planned much of my trip. The real advantage is the flexibility it affords you. You’ll get a set number of days to travel and choose whatever day to travel. So if you’re enjoying the beach and clubbing in Barcelona, you could stay a few more days before you move on. No problem. So I’d say Eurail passes aren’t necessarily cheaper. However, they are, without question, more convenient.
Sum up tips for travelling in Europe by train
- Night trains will always require a reservation and supplement. You get to choose what type of sleeping arrangement you’d like (2, 4, 6 people, etc.). I recommend taking night transportation for long-haul train rides. You save one night’s worth of hostel/hotel this way.
- I recommend flying if you are travelling a long way. Train rides can last 12-16 hours or more for long distances. I’d instead book a flight with one of the budget airlines in Europe and be done with it.
- Travelling longer distances and to many countries, you will likely benefit from a Eurail pass. The cost of training around Europe goes up when you travel longer distances. Since rail passes give you an unlimited amount of travel within one travel day, you may be better off with a rail pass.
- Rail passes don’t guarantee you a spot on a train. If a train requires a reservation, you need to reserve it!
- You are usually okay making reservations at the train station. Suppose you are travelling in popular European countries, during high season (summer), and taking a popular route. In that case, you MUST make your reservation as early as possible.
- Book your reservation ahead of time if possible. The sooner, the better.
- Most trains don’t require a reservation, and many don’t have supplemental fees either. With your Eurail pass, you can just hop on and find any available seat.
- With airlines, you pick your destination and viola, your connecting flights and everything is done for you. With booking European trains, you may likely need to book each leg (for example, city to city) separately, especially if you are booking an international train ride.
- Each country can have MANY train operators. Some aren’t available for Eurail passes, some require reservations, and some you can just hop on with your pass.
- You have to use your rail pass within 6 months of purchasing it and the first time you need to “activate it” at any train station in Europe.
Whew! If you made it this far, congrats is in order! I hope this post clarified trains in Europe and how to determine if a point-to-point or rail pass is better suited for your travel needs.