Train Travel in Europe
Each Country Offers Special Deals
By Rick Steves
|Rick Steves on a train winding through the Swiss alps.
Ill assume youre a seasoned train traveler who already knows about the Eurailpass (over 20 countries), and the new Eurail Selectpass (3 to 5 adjacent
countries). If this is news to you, get a free copy of my Guide to European Railpasses at www.ricksteves.com/rail or see train travel options online at ricksteves.raileurope.com/rail-tickets-passes/europe-rail-pass-list/.
Each European country offers its own railpass (such as BritRail), usually a good value if youre traveling solely within that country. Rail-and-drive versions give you the convenience
of a train for long hauls and the freedom of a car for exploring the countryside. Most railpasses are sold outside of Europe at U.S. travel agencies.
If youd rather buy tickets as you go (a.k.a. point-to-point tickets), note that in most countries you can often avoid a time-consuming trip to the station by getting tickets, reservations,
supplements, and couchettes (berths on overnight trains) at local travel agencies. Regardless of your age, you can save money and meet more people by traveling second class.
France: The France Rail Pass offers three days of travel anywhere in the country for $314 first class, or $266 second classeven cheaper for seniors (added days cost extra,
valid for a month). The super TGV trains, running at 170-220 miles per hour, put most of the country within day-tripping distance of Paris. But even with a France Railpass, reservations are required for these bullet trains (generally $3-$9).
Discount fares on point-to-point tickets are available for youths, those over 60, married couples, families, and anyone traveling during off-peak hours. Frances nationwide information line for train schedules and reservations is 08 36
35 35 35; ask for an English-speaking agent. Validate (composter) all train tickets and reservations in the orange machines located at the platforms.
Germany: If you have a Eurail, Euro, or German Rail Pass, youll get bonuses such as the Romantic Road bus tour (discounted 60 percent with pass) and free river cruises on
the Rhine, Mosel, and Danube rivers. Sample German Railpass price: $358 for a first class 4-day flexipass ($277 second class); a companion gets a discounted Twin Pass. Germany offers deals on point-to-point tickets if you travel at off-peak
hours. The Schönes Wochenende (Beautiful Weekend) ticket for $20 gives groups of up to five people unlimited travel on non-express trains all day Saturday or Sunday. The Guten-Abend (Good Evening) pass offers unlimited
travel on non-express trains any evening from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m. for $30 ($40 on weekends).
Great Britain: BritRail Passes come in every conceivable variation (consecutive day, flexipass, regional combinations, discounts if youre under 26 or 60 plus, etc.).
Sample price: $395 for a first class 4-day flexipass; $207 for standard (second) class. If youre going all over Britain, get a standard class pass since many of the smaller train lines dont even offer first class cars.
Regular point-to-point tickets on the countrys great train system (15,000 departures from 2,400 stations daily) are the most expensive per mile in all of Europe. If you go roundtrip
(leaving after 9:30 in the morning) or buy in advance, youll save big. A clerk at any local station (or the helpful folks at Tel. 08457-484-950, 24 hours daily) can figure out the cheapest fare for your trip. For the biggest savings on
longer journeys, book a Bargain Return ticket at least seven days in advance. You can order online at www.thetrainline.com; be sure you know what you want because its tough to reach a person
if you need to change a ticket. To pin down dates and times, visit www.networkrail.co.uk.
Families, seniors, and young people can get a 33 percent discount on most point-to-point tickets if they purchase a card for about $30 at the station (valid for a year). Ask for a Family Railcard,
a Senior Railcard, or Young Persons Railcard (photo required for this card only; available to youth ages 16-25 or older students with an ISIC).
Italy: Traveling with
point-to-point tickets in Italy is cheap, rewarding those who make an effort to communicate with local ticket agents. Spring for first class in summer for the better air conditioning. The high-speed TAV (Treno Alta Velocita) trains run frequently
between main cities and require reservations (up to $15 extra). Italy has two major railpasses: the Italy Rail Pass (e.g., $265 or a first class 3-day flexipass, $211 for second class) and the Kilometric Ticket. These are sold locally at train
stations and travel agencies. But if youre using either pass on a fast train, youll still need to pay for the reservation (plus the supplement, if you have a Kilometric Ticket). The Kilometric Ticket allows one to five people to
travel up to 3,000 kilometers for around $120 second class, $180 first class. Its a decent deal, saving you money but not time; you need to have your kilometer total filled in by a railway official or travel agency before each trip.
Groups can also consider the Tariffa Mini-Group, a 20 percent discount on point-to-point tickets for three to five people traveling together (except in July, August, and holiday
seasons). Youll get it only if you ask for it.
If youre young (under 26) or age 60 plus, consider buying cards for $20 that give you 20 percent off second class or first class tickets (Carta Verde for youth, Carta dArgento
for seniors, good for six months).
Newsstands sell up-to-date regional and all-Italy timetables ($4, ask for the Orario Ferroviaro per Tutta Italia to get the schedule that covers all Italy). On the web, check [www.fs-on-line.
com]. You must validate virtually everything (ticket, Kilometric Ticket, reservation, supplement, or couchette) in the machines at the station.
Scandinavia: The Scanrail Pass is one of the great Nordic bargains (e.g., $343 for a first class 4-day flexipass, $292 for second class, discounts for those under 26 or 60
plus). Its sold in the U.S. or, at higher prices, in Scandinavia at any major train station. The pass gives you free or discounted use of many boats (such as Stockholm to Finland50 percent off) and covers most trains in the region
(though youll need $3 reservations for long rides and express trains). Consider the efficiency and value of night travel. A bed in a compartment on a night train is cheaper than most hotel rooms in Scandinavia. Beyond the cost of your
first or second class ticket or pass, youll pay about $15 for a bed in a triple, $35 for a bed in a double, and $70 for a single. Night trains connect Copenhagen with Stockholm and with Oslo.
Spain: Spains pricey Rail Pass, given the uneven quality of their trains and tracks, isnt a great value ($277 for a 3-day flexipass, $216 for second class). If
youre on a tight budget, skip the overnight Hotel Trains that connect Barcelona or Madrid to Lisbon, Paris, Zurich, and Milan. Railpass holders (of Eurail, Euro, or Spain passes) get a half-price discount, but the prices are still high
(full price: $85 for a berth in quad, up to $235 for a single). To sidestep this expensive luxury, change trains at the Spanish border (at Irun on Paris runs, at Cerbere on the eastern side). Youll connect to a normal night train with
$20 couchettes on one leg of the trip. This plan takes more time, plus two days of a flexipass. To save time in Spain, consider buying tickets or making reservations at the national RENFE train offices located in over 100 city centers. Or for
info and reservations, dial RENFEs number from anywhere in Spain (Tel. 90-224-0202).
Spains fastest train, the AVE (Alta Velocidad Espaņola), whisks travelers between Madrid and Sevilla in less than three hours. AVE is 85 percent covered by the Eurailpass (Madrid
to Sevilla costs Eurailers about $9). Point-to-point tickets for long-distance trains are priced differently according to their time of departure. Peak hours (punta) are most expensive, followed by llano and valle (quietest and cheapest times).
Overnight trains (and buses) are usually less expensive than the daytime rides.
Switzerland: Those traveling in the Swiss Alps can use their Eurail-pass to get discounts (but not free passage) on some private trains and lifts in the mountains. If you
want to focus on Switzerlandwhere many scenic rides are not covered by railpasses (see the new Swiss Rail Pass), consider the various regional Alps passes sold at Swiss train stations (e.g., the shorter version of the Berner Oberland pass costs $115, giving you three
free travel days plus four days at a 50 percent discount, valid for a week). The Swiss Family Card (not Robinson) allows kids under 16 to travel free with their parents, even on the high mountain routes. This card is available for $10 at major
Swiss train stations, or free upon request if you order certain Swiss Passes in the U.S.
Europes most scenic train ride is the Glacier Express, crossing southern Switzerland from Martigny to Chur. Most of the route is covered by Eurail and Euro passes, except for the $30
Brig-Disentis segment (which is covered by most Swiss passes).
Whatever you choo-choose, whether a railpass or tickets, I wish you a smooth, affordable trip. Happy travels!