Purchasing tickets and seat reservations for European trains can be daunting. You may fear getting ripped off with expensive tourist tickets that are significantly more expensive than buying a normal day pass or a rail pass. It can be difficult to find the best deals if you cannot speak the language and have to use unreliable translation services like Google Translate to purchase train tickets. Below is a comprehensive guide to buying European train tickets so that you can travel confidently.
Trains and Booking systems
Eurail is a company that partners with public and private European trains to provide extensive access for travelers. Depending on your itinerary, you can buy a Eurail Pass for one country, multiple countries, or all 33 countries covered by the Eurail Pass. Eurail is only available to non-EU residents. EU residents must buy an Interrail Pass to receive a deal similar to Eurail. Both the Interrail and Eurail Pass do not cover the cost of seat reservations or reservation fees for overnight trains.
Eurail Global Pass: The Eurail Global Pass provides access to a large network of trains, busses, and ferries across 33 European countries. For adults the prices for the rail pass ranges from $276 to $1346 per person depending on the number of travel days you buy and whether you travel first or second class. Eurail has discounts for seniors and youth. Children under 4, accompanied by an adult with a rail pass, travel for free.
Each Eurail Global Pass includes a certain amount of travel days to be used within a certain amount of time. On your selected travel days, your rail pass gives you access to Eurail’s transportation network. Not every rail company partners with Eurail and some companies require you to pay for a seat reservation in addition to using your Eurail pass. Despite its limitations, you can access most cities throughout Europe using a Eurail Pass and Eurail provides its customers with a map of in-network transportation.
One Country Eurail Pass: For tourists planning to stay within a single country for most of their trip, Eurail offers a single-country rail pass. The price varies depending on the country you choose. The same terms that apply to Eurail Global Pass apply to a Eurail single country pass, meaning that there are discounts for youth and seniors.
You can also use a Eurail Select Pass if you only plan on visiting two to four countries. The price varies depending on which countries you choose, but it is more affordable than purchasing the Eurail Global Pass.
Where to Buy Cheap Train Tickets
A country pass typically do not include local railways or subways, so it important to make accommodations for travel within your destination as well as travel to your destination. Nonetheless, a country pass can save you a lot of money and time. A rail pass pay for themselves within a few trips.
If you want to discover more of Europe by train, read our full guide How to rail Europe.
Finding Cheap Train Tickets
- Advance-Purchase and Round-Trip: Buying your train tickets in advance can save you a lot of money and help add structure to your vacation. Similarly, round trip tickets are almost always less expensive than buying two single point-to-point tickets. Even if you are traveling spontaneously.
- Discounts for Children, Youths, and Seniors: European countries are very friendly to young travelers and many train companies have discounts for young people. The age limit for these discounts vary, so you should always check if you might qualify. Seniors and disabled people are similarly eligible for a variety of discounts. This may also apply if you are the caretaker for a disabled person. If you fall into any of the above categories, be sure to carry a valid ID with you, to verify your age and status.
- Oftentimes, children under a certain age will travel for free. Usually, this only applies to toddlers and infants, but these kinds of discounts can apply to children up to the age of 12. You should always check will your train company of choice before booking a ticket for a child. It may pay off to comparison shop different discount programs.
- Discount Cards: For frequent travelers in many countries, you have the option to purchase a discount card. The price of these cards may seem steep upfront, but they pay for themselves within one or two trips. This includes the RailCard in the UK. The RailCard costs between $25 to $40 for savings up to 50% on train tickets. Similarly, you can purchase a BahnCard for train travel to save either 25% or 50% on German train fare.
Train Travel by Country
Germany is very proud of its high-quality, extensive public transportation network. While public transportation is more extensive in the west of the country, you will have access to all of the major cities throughout the country using trains. Read more in our post: Discover Germany by rail.
The average price for a last-minute trip from Berlin to Munich is around $132. To bring the price down you can choose a slower connection and book far in advance. You can purchase a coach ticket for the same connection a few months ahead of time for under $20, but the journey takes more than 10 hours.
ICE trains are high-speed trains convenient for long-distance train travel, but you should consider regional connections for closer cities. Regional Express trains are a great option for train travel between two large cities, but they do not stop at every town. To access smaller towns or villages you will have to take the slower Regional Bahn.
When you buy a ticket from Deutsche Bahn, the largest railway company in Germany, you have three buying options: Flexible Price, Saver Fare, or Super Saver Fare. The flexible price is usually significantly more expensive than the alternative options but allows you to take any train on the day you book. Saver Fare will require you to take a train at a specific time but allows you to cancel for $11. Super Saver Fare is the least expensive option and allows no cancellations.
If you are planning to purchase more than one or two tickets for ICE trains, you should consider purchasing a BahnCard. For a 3-month trial card, the price starts at $20. More expensive cards will allow you cheaper travel. You can even purchase unlimited German travel for a year with the BahnCard 100 for $4,300. To buy a single country Eurail Pass it costs between $192 and $694. The German Eurail Pass also includes limited travel into neighboring countries.
Italy is well connected by train, but the train service in the North is faster than that in the South. Generally, the further south you travel, the slower the trains will be. Italy has discount cards for youth under 25 and seniors over 60. The senior card Carta d’Argento is $33 if you are under 70 and free if you are over 70. The card will save you 15% on fare. The youth card costs $44 and will save you 10% on fare. Many individual train companies have discounts for children 15 and under and on regional railways, children under 14 travel at half price. On all Italian trains, children 3 and under travel for free. Read more in our post: Train Travel in Italy.
The Italy Eurail Pass costs between $142 and $358. The Child Eurail Pass do not cost extra, but you will still have to order a free rail pass for them. Single train tickets for common routes such as Rome to Florence cost as low as $30 when you book in advance. Longer journeys will be more expensive; Rome to Venice costs $108 booked in advance.
Switzerland is known for its good infrastructure and this includes trains. The European Railway Performance Index ranked its national railways, Swiss Federal Railways, first in Europe. Switzerland’s rail service is notable for its density, timeliness, and frequency. Switzerland’s mountainous terrain allows for stunning train journeys, including the Glacier Express, which brings tourists through the most breathtaking views of the Alps. Read more in our post: Switzerland by Train.
The One-Country Eurail Pass is available in Switzerland, and it’s called Swiss Travel Pass. Swiss trains have a flat to buy seat reservations with your Global Eurail Pass dependent on your seat class. If you still want the benefits of flexible travel in Switzerland but do not want to buy a Global Pass for just one country, you can still buy a rail pass from SBB, the Swiss national railway company, which provides unlimited travel by train, bus or boat. The Swiss Travel Pass can be more expensive than a One-Country Eurail Pass with prices starting at $275 for 3 days of travel in a month. You can save money on the Swiss rail pass if you plan to travel on consecutive days. The rail pass includes admission to many Swiss museums, mountain excursions, and discounts on SBB offers.
For point-to-point tickets, you can buy them directly from SBB. A ticket from Zürich to Geneva costs $45 purchased in advance. Children under 6 travel for free on Swiss Rail, although you may have to purchase a ticket for your bike or dog if you bring one with you. For $195 you can purchase a half-fare card which will provide a 50% discount on all Swiss train tickets. If you are under 25 and travel at night, you can purchase SBB’s seven25 rail pass for $36, which allows a month of free or half-price travel from 7 P.M. until 5 A. M. This is convenient for young tourists willing to travel on an overnight train.
Most railway transport in France is controlled by the national railway company SNCF. The nation has been highly affected by railway strikes, so you may need to pay close attention to the news if you are relying on public transportation to get around. You should plan ahead and identify alternatives when you have important travel needs such as transportation to an airport. Keep in mind that taxi drivers have also recently been involved in strikes, so taxi service may not be a viable alternative. Read more in our post: France by train.
For train travel in the country, you have a few options depending on your journey: TGV, TER, Intercités, and OUIGO. TGV is a high-speed rail service covered further later in this guide. Intercités is the alternative to TGV that covers more cities but travels slower. TER is a system of regional trains which services over 5,000 stops in 20 French regions. OUIGO is a discount train service that provides greater access to French cities for people looking for cheap train tickets. A connection from Paris to Bordeaux costs $53 using OUIGO as opposed to $70 using TGV. A single-country Eurail Pass starts at $86 for one day of second class travel and goes up to $385 for 8 days of first class travel. The Eurail Pass is also valid on SNCF busses.
Spain has the largest railway network in Europe. The two kinds of trains in the country are Renfe and Renfe AVE. Both are run by the national railway company. In many cities, you receive complimentary travel to and from your Renfe station to surrounding suburban stations. Children under 4 travel for free as long as they do not occupy a seat, but their parents must purchase a free infant ticket before boarding the train. Read more in our post: Spain by train.
The One-Country Eurail Pass costs between $190 and $419. Some SNCF busses operate in the country and your Eurail Pass will give you access to those. Renfe also offers a rail pass called the Spain Pass that provides you with between 4 and 12 point-to-point tickets within one month, not including transfers. As opposed to the Eurail Pass, the cost of this rail pass includes reservation fees. To buy a single ticket for Spain’s most popular route, Madrid to Barcelona, it costs $128.
Eurostar connects London with the Netherlands, Belgium, and France through the Channel Tunnel. This is a convenient option if you are trying to avoid taking a flight from the UK to mainland Europe. The cost of Eurostar tickets from London to Amsterdam using this service costs $47. These trains run a maximum of three times a day and Eurostar instructs its passengers with standard train tickets to arrive at least 45 minutes before boarding. You can purchase cheap Eurostar train tickets directly from the railway’s website.
The TGV trains are a state-owned, inter-city, high-speed train service in France. In 2007, one of the services’ test trains set the world record for fastest wheeled train and the line held the record for fastest traveling scheduled train journey until it was surpassed in 2013 by a train service in China. Advance-purchase tickets for Paris to Marseille using this service costs around $97. The service has notably affordable first-class prices with upgrades starting at $7.
Thalys began as an express service between Belgium and Paris and now serves 13 locations throughout France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The majority of Thalys’s income still comes from the Brussels-Paris route, which is more heavily used than its other journeys. The popular route costs $31.50.
ICE or Intercity Express trains are primarily German, but also serve some of Germany’s bordering countries and plans to run a train to London. These plans make Deutsche Bahn on track to be the first competitor with Eurostar in rail travel between the UK and mainland Europe. ICE trains are the project of the state-run Deutsche Bahn. ICE’s most affordable journey is between Frankfort and Cologne and costs just $25; its most expensive journey is between Basel and Berlin for $243.
AVE is a Spanish high-speed rail service. AVE trains are operated by the Spanish state-owned transportation company Renfe. Besides a line that runs to Perpignan, AVE lines only serve Spain. Its popular Barcelona to Madrid route costs $30 one-way.
Italy’s national train operator, Trenitalia, operates these high-speed trains. Called Frecce for short, their name means red arrow in Italian. The trains operate exclusively in Italy. Using Frecciarossa trains, the journey from Rome to Milan costs around $60 and takes 3 hours 10 minutes, significantly faster than the 8-hour 30 minutes journey using regional railways.