Strategies for Cheap Train Travel
By Luciano Di Gregorio
|Take a train in Europe.
A few years ago, following the surge of low cost carriers across Europe, train travel became almost redundant: prices were much higher than air fares on budget carriers and for the expat, the need to be frugal while traveling outweighed the opportunity to see the countryside roll by.
In recent times, however, rail operators have understood the need to compete directly with the likes of Ryanair and EasyJet and prices have not only been slashed, but train amenities and check-in procedures for international services have improved to match those offered at airports throughout the continent.
Some obvious questions arise here: what are the benefits of train travel? When do I take a train instead?
Time vs. Money
Train travel is not for everyone and you will need to assess your priorities carefully. Over longer distances, a flight will almost certainly be more convenient if time is of the utmost essence. This said and done, flying generally means time spent on commutes to airports and thumb twiddling at airport lounges. It is well worth sitting down with a pen, paper, train and airline schedules and working out an itinerary for both.
For instance, since the beginning of the 2-hour London to Paris Eurostar, airlines have struggled to make ends meet on this previously popular route. While the flight between the two cities is only around 45 minutes, time is wasted reaching any of London’s five airports, checking in, waiting to board your flight followed by customs and baggage pick-up at the other end. And even then, you’re still 30 kilometers out of Paris. The Eurostar check-in at London’s St. Pancras is quick and easy, followed by a train journey that ends smack in the middle of Paris (tickets are available from Eurostar.com).
The same can be said of the following routes
(among others): Rome to Milan (particularly since quite a few
budget carriers service Milan via Orio al Serio airport, a one
and a half hour bus journey from downtown Milan), Amsterdam to
Paris and Tallinn to Riga.
If you have the luxury of time, longer train journeys across Europe are extremely rewarding. A trip from Rome to Berlin crosses such diverse scenery! The most exciting part of such a trip is the ability to stop along the way (making sure you have asked for a flexible ticket at the time of purchase). Just think of the plethora of ancient towns, hills, and mountains that you’re missing by taking a direct flight between the two cities.
Train Ticket Types and Associated Costs
If you’re taking a longer trip across the continent and want greater flexibility, you won’t do better than the various rail passes available. It is worthwhile noting that some special rail passes are best purchased before leaving the US, Australia or Canada because of deals between travel agents and rail operators.
At first glance, these rail passes can seem expensive. The Eurail Select Pass, for example, might seem a jolt to the hip pocket at around $500. However, the pass allows for unlimited train travel between selected countries. For instance: a pass originating in Germany is valid for 15 days (consecutive or non-consecutive) of unrestricted travel in and around Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Monaco, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden! What’s more the pass offers considerably reduced rates for the likes of Danube River journeys and accommodation throughout Europe. $500 is well spent given the flexibility and inclusions compared to a possible $200 for a single flight across Europe.
For domestic tickets and shorter journeys, use the relevant country’s rail network website or call center. Often, domestic deals are not available to booking agencies such as Rail Europe (see below) or a travel agent. For instance, a train journey between Rome and Venice will cost you full price through an agency or agent (as much as US$150) but can be purchased from as little as US$25 during special off-peak periods. This also goes for shorter journeys such as from Amsterdam to Brussels (approximately one and a half hours), where tickets can cost as little as US$10.
It pays to be flexible. Many travelers are hesitant to arrive in a foreign country without tickets in hand and routes predetermined. However, approaching ticket counters for shorter journeys may well save you enough money for an expensive hotel. You are unlikely to ever pay more for a short journey at a train station than you would from a booking agency or travel agent (unless you’re planning to arrive on Christmas eve, for instance, expecting to get a cheap Eurostar ticket from Milan to Rome). It’s a win-win situation.
Which Time of the Year?
As with air travel, train travel works on “season” but not to the full extent of air travel. Due to the time involved, train travel is not popular for longer point-to-point journeys during short holiday periods such as Easter or Christmas.
Therefore, during these high seasons, longer train journeys can be quite rewarding. This is not so for shorter journeys for which even the budget carriers may have sold out of tickets. As a general rule, it is advisable to avoid London to Paris and Madrid to Barcelona at least during the peak travel times at the beginning and end of high season holiday periods. Furthermore, it is worth noting that train travel can be affected in the peak backpacking periods during December and August, and if you plan to make a journey on a popular route, it’s advisable to buy your ticket a few days in advance.
Luciano Di Gregorio has
written books for Bradt Travel Guides.