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Train Travel in Europe

Each Country Offers Special Deals

By Rick Steves

Train Travel in Europe
Rick Steves on a train winding through the Swiss alps.

I’ll assume you’re 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 you’re 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 you’d 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—even 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. Discount fares on point-to-point tickets are available for youths, those over 60, married couples, families, and anyone traveling during off-peak hours. 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, you’ll 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. Germany offers deals on point-to-point tickets if you travel at off-peak hours. The “Schönes Wochenende” (Beautiful Weekend) ticket 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.

Great Britain: BritRail Passes come in every conceivable variation (consecutive day, flexipass, regional combinations, discounts if you’re under 26 or 60 plus, etc.). If you’re going all over Britain, get a standard class pass since many of the smaller train lines don’t even offer first class cars.

Regular point-to-point tickets on the country’s 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, you’ll 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 it’s 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 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. Italy has two major railpasses: the Italy Rail Pass. These are sold locally at train stations and travel agencies. But if you’re using either pass on a fast train, you’ll still need to pay for the reservation.

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). You’ll get it only if you ask for it.

If you’re young (under 26) or age 60 plus, consider buying cards that give you 20 percent off second class or first class tickets (Carta Verde for youth, Carta d’Argento for seniors, good for six months).

Newsstands sell up-to-date regional and all-Italy timetables (ask for the Orario Ferroviaro per Tutta Italia to get the schedule that covers all Italy). On the web, check www.trenitalia.com. You must validate virtually everything (ticket, reservation, supplement, or couchette) in the machines at the station.

Scandinavia: Scandinavia Rail Passes are expensive and selected Eurail passes, specifying just the countries you wish to visit, are often a better option.

Spain: Spain’s pricey Rail Pass, given the uneven quality of their trains and tracks, isn’t a great value. If you’re 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. To sidestep this expensive luxury, change trains at the Spanish border (at Irun on Paris runs, at Cerbere on the eastern side). You’ll connect to a normal night train with 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 RENFE’s number from anywhere in Spain (Tel. 90-224-0202).

Spain’s fastest train, the AVE (Alta Velocidad Espanola), whisks travelers between Madrid and Sevilla in less than three hours. AVE is 85 percent covered by the Eurailpass. 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 Switzerland—where many scenic rides are not covered by railpasses (see the Swiss Rail Pass), consider the various regional Alps passes sold at Swiss train stations. 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 at major Swiss train stations, or free upon request if you order certain Swiss Passes in the U.S.

Europe’s 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 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!