countries are constantly improving their intercity rail networks and high-speed
trains have slashed travel times around the continent. Spain alone has built
3,000km of track for trains travelling at speeds up to 300km/h.
rail travel will become even more convenient as the Spanish and French rail
networks integrate, allowing passengers in one country to travel by high-speed
rail to a major city in the other. In mid-April, France’s state-owned rail
company SNCF plans to start running high-speed
service between Paris and Barcelona, while Spain’s national train operator RENFE has already debuted high-speed service between
Barcelona and Madrid. Final details have yet to be announced, but it seems
reasonable to predict a travel time between Paris and Madrid of nine hours;
driving a similar route would take about 15.
other recent high-speed rail revolutions include the April 2012 debut of Italo, a privately-run service that connects Milan, Rome and Naples, and the December 2011 launch of Westbahn, a privately-run train service between
Vienna and Salzburg.
the massive popularity of touring Europe by rail, major online travel agencies such
and Hotwire don’t sell European rail tickets.
From a one-way trip to a complex multi-country journey, the broadest options
and best-priced tickets can usually only be found on a few regional sites.
Look for single-country discounts
If you’re visiting
a major European country and plan to see more than one city within it, you’ll
save significantly by booking a single-country pass, which offers foreign
travellers hop-on, hop-off use for a specified number of days and are sold by
most national railway companies.
don’t require reservations trains in advance, so the passes allow flexibility
for last minute planning. And the rail networks usually let you pay in your own
currency, helping you avoid foreign exchange fees. They’ll also mail the
tickets to major countries for free.
Say that you
and another adult are planning to visit Germany in May, stopping in Cologne,
Berlin, Munich, the famous Neuschwanstein
Castle (near Füssen) and Frankfurt Airport. According to the offers
page of Germany’s state-owned rail operator Deutsche
Bahn, non-Europeans can purchase “twin” passes – tickets good
for a pair of travellers – for a multi-city itinerary for $371, or about $185 a
person. In comparison, a German using the site to book point-to-point tickets would
pay 188 euro, or about $250 per adult – which would be about a third more than
the pass offered to non-Europeans.
Europeans can instead take advantage of Germany’s national
rail card, such as the BahnCard
25, which provides a 25% discount, justifying its 60
euro cost if you spend more than 200 euro a year on train trips. That said,
it's rare for a nation to offer such a card.
Europe’s national railways have similar English-language offer websites,
including SNCF’s special deals
page, RENFE’s Spain
Pass page, Italian railway company Trenitalia’s offers
page and the website of Britain’s Association of Train Operating Companies,
BritRail, in combination with Network Rail Enquiries.
itinerary involves travel through more than one country, you may also save by visiting
more than one website to buy your tickets. For instance, to travel on a
route from London to Nice, you could book a ticket on the Eurostar line between London
and Paris and then book your onward journey on the TGV, France’s high-speed rail.
Save by booking direct
advertised third-party agencies, such as RailEurope.com,
Railbookers and Raileasy, generally do not offer
the best value for travellers. Especially for simple trips, such as a
one-way ticket between cities, you’ll typically save by buying online directly
from a railway company. But if you’re short of time and don’t have
the patience for comparison-shopping, these third-party agencies are reliable
and easy to understand.
illustrate, let’s take a look at the same May itinerary for five German cities.
If you were to price the trip through RailEurope, you would easily find the
same Deutsche Bahn twin pass for only $466, or $233 a person — 25% more
expensive than booking directly. On the other hand, if you hadn’t known to
check Deutsche Bahn’s separate “offers” page, the discount would not have appeared as a result. Deutsche Bahn’s main
booking tool doesn’t automatically show non-residents the discounted rates they
Best sites for timetables
tickets, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn’s website (and
its free DB
Navigator app for iPhone, Android and Blackberry devices) has the most
comprehensive timetable database for nearly all of Europe. As a downside, the site
only lets you book Deutsche Bahn trains and a handful of international trips
that originate in Germany; the schedule information for other national lines is
for planning purposes only. For help, see author Rick Steves’ tips on using the
Deutsche Bahn site and the app.
good resource is The Man in Seat 61, the most comprehensive
site for helping travellers plan rail journeys worldwide. The site is so named
because its creator, Mark Smith, is a former manager in the rail industry who preferred
seat 61 on his Eurostar trips because of its superior first class window view.
To pass, or not to pass?
foreign visitors still think of Eurail – a
company that sells European rail passes to non-European residents at
dramatically discounted rates – as a 1980s
activity for young backpackers. But Eurail passes, which allow for nearly
unlimited travel between specified countries within a set time period, have
matured. Adult first-class options, for example, ensure that the other people
in your train car will be similarly grown up. That said, Eurail still offers
dramatic discounts on standard-class tickets for people under age 25.
continually broadening its coverage area, recently welcoming two more companies
to its long
roster of train lines. As of 1 January, some Eurail passes, such as the Eurail Select Pass
(for travel in up to five countries), are good on Westbahn’s high-speed service
between Salzburg and Vienna and on European routes to Istanbul that are
operated by TCDD, the
Turkish state railway.
aren't always the answer. If you're travelling in Europe for less than 10 days
consecutively and not crossing many borders, you're unlikely to get the most
value out of a Eurail pass. Instead, you’ll usually find a better bargain booking
point-to-point tickets directly with the nation’s railway company.
InterRail is like Eurail for Europeans, and
it works much the same way. InterRail passes come in two kinds: a global
pass, which covers 30 countries for various lengths of time (the briefest
being any five days of travel within a 10-day period), and single-country
passes for each of 27 countries (with Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg counting
as a single “country”). Reservations are only required for international and
long-distance trains, though these can often be booked a few hours prior
Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel