Okay so I thought it might be helpful if I took a break from writing about all the glorious destinations I've visited to provide you with a little info on train travel in Europe. It's the easiest way to travel within Europe and an essential part of getting around so you're likely to be taking one on your next trip and trips thereafter. Here are 5 tips I put together, from experience, that should make your planning process go a little smoother. AND will help you save some money. Knowledge is power, right?
- Do not use sites like Rail Europe or The Train Line. Please. They are 3rd party sites that sell you valid tickets, yes, but they often mark up the prices to make a profit. While they take care of the legwork for you and are easier to navigate, it's not that difficult to do it on your own through the National train company directly and you'll save some money. All you need is do a little research (which luckily I've done for you), have some patience and you're guaranteed to get the cheapest fare. I put together a list of train companies in Europe and which countries they are based in (see below). Once you arrive on the site, just look for a little British flag or "EN" in the top right corner to switch the language to English if it is not already the default language. NOTE: You will most likely have to pay in local currency, but even after the exchange rate you're still saving money.
- Rail passes (Eurail, Interrail) really only make sense if you plan on backpacking through Europe and moving around A LOT. Even so they aren't necessarily the best option. Personally, I've never found the need for a rail pass and they've always been more expensive than buying individual tickets. If you've had experience saving money on a rail pass, please comment below and let me know!
- High-speed trains, which bring you between major cities, should be booked as far in advance as possible. These trains have a tendency to sell out especially during peak season. Advance purchase will ensure you're getting the train/time you want for the best price. Tickets usually go on sale 3-6 months in advance, depending on the train. If the site says something along the lines of "no trains found for this date" it is likely because it is too early to book and they have not released the schedules yet. Just keep checking back and you'll get it.
- Commuter or local trains cannot be booked in advance. Most, if not all, go on sale the day of. These are the trains that usually bring you from major cities to smaller towns and do not have assigned seats. They are similar to what the Commuter Rail is to Bostonians, the LIRR is to New Yorkers, etc. If you try to book a ticket in advance for a train that utilizes the commuter train system, you will likely not be able to go through with the transaction. NOTE: Even if only part of your journey includes a commuter train, you will probably not be able to purchase the ticket in advance. In this case, you should purchase the high-speed leg only and then on the day of travel you can purchase the commuter leg.
- With several budget airlines operating in Europe sometimes you can find cheaper airfare than train fare, but before you jump on that plane think about a few things. While the flight is likely shorter in duration than your train journey, you should factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, check in, drop bags, go through security, etc. as well as what it costs to get to/from the airport on both ends. Also, airports tend to be quite a ways outside the city while train stations will bring you directly to the city center where you can connect to other modes of transportation if needed. Not to mention, trains are often times a nicer, more comfortable experience and you get to see some pretty scenery out your window. The only case flying would make more sense is if you're looking to cover a decent chunk of mileage or if you would need to hop on/off a bunch of trains to reach your destination (i.e. Naples, Italy to Nice, France).
LIST OF NATIONAL TRAIN COMPANIES
NOTE: these companies are based in the countries mentioned but some connect you to other countries. That should not affect your search or pricing. Also, when the site lists all the train options for your route, make sure to check the number of connections and duration, which are always stated, to make sure you're getting as direct and quick a route as possible. If you don't see your country listed, please let me know.
Renfe - Spain (the high speed train is referred to as the AVE)
SNCF - France (the high speed train is referred to as the TGV)
Trenitalia - Italy (the high speed train is referred to as Le Frecce)
CP - Portugal
SNCB - Belgium
CFL - Luxembourg
Thalys - The Netherlands
Eurostar - England to/from Paris and Brussels only
National Rail - within the UK
Irish Rail - Ireland
DB Bahn - Germany (the high speed train is referred to as the ICE)
OBB - Austria
SBB - Switzerland
CD - Czech Republic
MAV - Hungary
HZPP - Croatia
DSB - Denmark
SJ - Sweden
So there you have it and you should be good to go. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to comment below. Lastly, don't forget to validate/stamp your ticket in the machines on the train platform. High speed tickets purchased online in advance don't need it, but any ticket purchased the day of at the station or from a machine needs a stamp or you can face some harsh fines onboard. Happy traveling :)