What's the Best Way to Buy Train Tickets in Europe?

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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on July 19, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, bus and rail, Europe, Italia Rail, Rail Europe, senior travel, SNCF French Railways, student travel.

When you think about traveling Europe by train, you may automatically think "railpass." That's often the right thought—especially if you can plan your train travel to a few days of long-haul trips. But railpasses have become very expensive; you can often travel at a much lower cost by buying separate tickets for each train journey. And you can often get the lowest prices by buying the tickets in advance, online, through individual countries' rail sites.

The European railroads have taken a lesson on pricing from the world's airlines, so that you find the same degree of price variability:

  • On any given route, for example, even on the same day, you might find a dozen different fares for different trains throughout the day, as well as different fares from day to day.
  • The best prices for many tickets now require advance purchase, up to 60 days, but with many deals this means a shorter purchase deadline.
  • Seats on many express trains are now subject to capacity control, meaning that the railroad sets up a series of fare "buckets," selling the cheapest first, and as the train fills, remaining seats draw from ever higher buckets.
  • You sometimes find really big short-term discounts on a few trips.
  • Often the cheapest tickets are nonrefundable and unchangeable.

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I started by checking three trips through national railroad home websites as examples of some of the vagaries of pricing you encounter. I checked one sample trip each in France, Germany, and Italy, all one-way for travel on August 12 (a Thursday):

  • Berlin-Frankfurt, through DB Bahn's webpage: The lowest price on that day was a heavily discounted second class ticket with a poor connection at €29. A better choice for most would be discounted second class at €59 ($74) for several top express trains, but the lowest remaining available prices on a few trains that day were more than double that figure. Parenthetically, the DB site is also very good for international fares and schedules.
  • Paris-Avignon, through SNCF's webpage: Here, I found a wide range of options. The best was actually a first class seat on just one train that day ("last available seats") for €30. Depending on the time of day, second class seats were priced anywhere from €59 through €71 to €94.
  • Milan-Rome, through the Ferrovie website: Here I found fewer variations among fares. The best deals on any trains that day were either €46 on a slow six-hour train, or €89 ($112) for a three-hour nonstop or several one-stop itineraries on the new high-speed line.

Even though my capabilities in French, German, and Italian do not rise above the hotel-restaurant level, I found that checking fares and schedules on these local-language sites was relatively easy. And according to many travel writers, these local sites often offer access to special short-term promotions and other discounts that other sites do not.

English Language Websites

Almost all European railway websites offer English-language options. Since English has become de facto "Globish," per a recent New Yorker article, many sites list English as either one of several language choices, or as the only option other than the home language. For your convenience, here are links to English-language sites for the more important European visitor destinations:

I found a few challenges: For France and Italy, when you try to buy a ticket through the English-language site targeting U.S. travelers, you get connected to a separate US-based agency. And these U.S.-based sites displayed different fares than the local language sites:

  • ItaliaRail, the U.S. site for Italy, quoted uniform prices of $116 dollars as the "global ticket" price (whatever that means) for my sample trip, about the same as the Italian site. Given that the ItaliaRail site is much easier to navigate than the Italian site, I'd give it a nod, although the official site undoubtedly provides more options.
  • The French SNCF site turns American and Canadian customers over to its longstanding US-based affiliate Rail Europe, and there the deals aren't so good. The best price I could get for that sample Paris-Avignon trip was $177 most of the day, or $163 late at night. The Rail Europe site is extremely user-friendly, but, at least for my test trip, that ease came at a high price. The French SNCF site isn't difficult, even if you speak only restaurant French. But if you really need English, go to the affiliated site at TGV-Europe, enter your home country as Great Britain, and you'll get an English version of the French site with the same prices as I found in French. As far as I could tell, however, the only way to access the French senior card (travelers 60 or over get 25 to 50 percent discounts for a year, €56) is through the French site.

The U.K. has privatized its complete rail system, with the result that 29 companies operate trains over the national infrastructure. The National Rail Enquiries site mentioned above includes a fare-finder search engine that covers the entire network, and it also links to special deals, such as the Senior Railcard (travelers 60 or over get 33 percent discounts on most tickets for a year, £26), other Railcards, and the Oyster Card (stored value card for travel in the London area).

Railpasses

We've reported before about buying and using railpasses, both in general and for senior travelers. In any case, you need to buy them in advance and most of them before you leave the U.S. or Canada. I know of nobody who discounts railpasses, although a few agencies occasionally shave a bit off the cost by throwing in "free" shipping or some other modest extra.

Why Buy Ahead?

If you plan lots of train trips during your European visit, you can, of course, buy tickets after you arrive. But buying in advance has some advantages:

  • Some promotional fares impose advance-purchase restrictions.
  • Some capacity controlled low-fare seats sell out early.
  • During high season, a seat reservation for any long-haul trip is usually desirable.

As long as you get the same price as local purchase, you might as well buy in advance. The only minor glitch is that you may have to arrange for your tickets to be delivered to your hotel or picked up at a station after you arrive since some local sites do not mail tickets to the U.S.

I don't mean to come down on Rail Europe—its website is very user friendly, it's great for checking out the schedules, it's good for railpasses, and it often provides fares as low as anyone else's. But other writers, too, have found that Rail Europe often doesn't always post the lowest promotional fares. By all means, when you shop, check Rail Europe. But check the national sites, too, in case you can find fares that are a lot lower.

Your Turn

What do you think is the best way to purchase rail passes for travel in Europe? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

 
 
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