Trains are a convenient mode of short, medium and long distance travel across Europe. Western and Central Europe in particular have a dense and widely used railway network. Trains are mostly a "greener" way to get around than aeroplanes, cars and – in some cases – buses, generating much lower CO2 levels per passenger over the same distance, and often the fastest option.
Many European cities also have extensive urban rail networks.
European trains are fast, reliable and frequent. Trains have more spacious and comfortable interiors than aeroplanes and buses, may offer scenic routes, and do not require long waits at security like at airports. They usually run more frequently as well, and take their travellers to railway stations located in or very close to city centres, whereas airports, especially the ones that budget airliners fly into, can be up to 100 km away from the centre of the city they claim to serve, requiring expensive and time-consuming connecting services. Some choose the train over the plane just for the feeling of romantic travel they provide.
Trains are flexible and the opportunities for train-travel in Europe are endless. Virtually any town larger than about 50,000 inhabitants has a railway station with frequent connections. Towns that aren't served by trains usually have good bus connections that are often integrated with the railway system – railway stations normally also serve as hubs for local buses, subways or tramways. Transfers are fast and convenient all over Europe; you rarely need to wait longer than two hours for a connecting service. On major routes even a one hour wait between connections is the exception rather than the rule.
The quality, speed and price of train travel depends on the country; Western European countries generally offer higher speed and more luxurious trains at higher prices than Eastern European countries. Like flights, virtually all train tickets are cheaper when bought in advance, and usually a train ticket bought well before departure is cheaper than a flight with that difference declining or even the trend reversing the closer you get to departure. If you compare prices, remember that you also have to get to the airport or train station and especially for out of the way airports the costs of doing so can be substantial. Train travel is getting faster every year through the construction of new high speed lines with speeds up to 320 km/h (200 mph), and upgrading of conventional lines to 200 km/h (125 mph) or more. Especially Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and Italy have extensive high-speed networks and there is construction or at least talks of construction in nearly every major European country. Some high speed lines have virtually eliminated competing air travel a short time after their opening and on lines where fast trains and flights still compete, bargains may be had for flights, as they cannot compete on speed (alone) any more. Some of the most drastic examples of this are the Frankfurt-Cologne line, which sees no direct flights any more, and the Paris-London and Madrid-Barcelona lines, where flights have become both rarer and cheaper since high speed rail arrived.
While railway passengers need to be alert about pickpocketing and luggage theft, especially on crowded commuter trains, overall the security situation on trains in Europe is the best for perhaps any mode of transport anywhere in the world. Accidents are very rare.
A problem with rail may be overcrowding. Increasing numbers of commuters in Europe are switching to rail travel to escape congestion on the roads, and it is often impossible to find a seat in 2nd class at rush hours. Still plenty of seats often remain in the 1st class. Overcrowding is especially common in urban agglomerations such as South-East England, Benelux, The Ruhr region, and the Po Valley. However, outside of rush hours and popular routes trains are often only half full. A good way to find out whether a route tends to be overcrowded is the price of early bird tickets. If there is still an early bird ticket of the cheapest category available a day or two prior to departure, chances are that this train won't be too full.
All trains have coach seating – usually labelled as 2nd class in the local language. Most long distance trains travelling from one large city to another large city will have first class seating too. In some countries, such as the UK, Netherlands, France and Germany, trains have so-called "quiet" compartments or coaches, where you're not allowed to make noise or use mobile phones. Some high-speed lines (such as Eurostar or the Spanish AVE and the Austrian railjet) have a different class-scheme with usually three named classes. They are often comparable to aeroplane-classes with the "third" class still offering more legroom than economy-class. Discussing the details of each service is beyond the scope of this article; the websites of the various railway companies will usually describe the differences between classes in their "flagship-product" and often also show pictures.
The only trains that have sleepers are trains that will take until the next morning to reach their final destination, like the Amsterdam to Warsaw or the Göteborg to Narvik route. While sleeper trains are still very much alive in Central and Eastern Europe, there is a tendency in much of Central and Western Europe to reduce or eliminate those services due to "economic" reasons.
Planning your trip
Most countries have timetables and travel planners available on the sites of their national railways. The website of the German national railways has the very convenient Reiseauskunft traveler router, the first of its kind, originating in the 1990s. It covers almost the entire European railway network (and beyond), as well as bus, metro, and ferry connections in Germany. Price information is available for train rides which originate or terminate in Germany, for prices on other routes you still need the national websites.
Locally, look for the departure timetables posted at some stations. Staff at the ticket counter may be able to help you out with planning your trip. Most ticket vending machines will also be able to give some information on timetables, though the specifics vary.
An invaluable website for planning rail journeys is Seat61.com. It is not a company or a travel agency, but a personal site. Still it has one of the most comprehensive guides to all aspects of rail travel. If you want a paper timetable to take with you consider buying a European Rail Timetable.
A good app for planning trips with public transport as well as long and short distance trains is Öffi, which has good coverage of most of Europe and is one of the leading public transport apps in Europe.
Take special care when planning a journey in December, as this is when many European countries make their major timetable change of the year. On the day of the change and for a few days after, networks can experience extra delays as systems and regular passengers adapt to the new regime. General fare increases also take place around this period.
If you have special needs, such as when travelling with disabilities, travelling with children or travelling with pets, you might want to check the individual rail companies for advice and services. Services can differ much between different types of trains and between countries. Some trains do have accessible toilets and play areas or some entertainment for children, and pets may be allowed only in some compartments. Also capacity for bikes and prams vary. On long-haul routes you may want sleepers, dining cars or snacks (either own or bought on board).
- See also: European rail passes
If you plan a longer journey with many stops, especially if you don't like a fixed itinerary, a rail pass may be the best choice. The rail pass allows you unlimited travel on a specified number of days or a specified number of "segments" within a certain period of time. There are railway passes for almost every European country, as well as global passes for all of Europe.
For discount cards, see below.
The cost of rail travel varies greatly by country. Eastern European countries tend to offer very cheap travel. Italy is comparatively cheap as well.
Some countries price tickets based only upon distance travelled, so called km-tariffs. These are still common in Eastern Europe, saving you worries of advance purchase and giving you more flexibility. Many countries still using this pricing have higher regular km-rates but have discounts for trains that are less in-demand available for advance purchase (e.g. Denmark, Switzerland, Spain). Increasingly railways are using rates based on a number of factors and selling tickets based on demand, speed of the connection, etc. in a similar fashion to most airline pricing. In countries where this is the case (especially France, Germany, Sweden, Great Britain and Finland) you should try booking in advance rather than walking up to the ticket desk on the day of travel, as that becomes akin (also in price) to buying a flight at check-in. The upside of countries with this scheme is that advance fares can be significantly cheaper, for instance tickets from Edinburgh to London are just £25 if booked in advance, saving 75% over common walk up fares of over £100. Germany and France sell tickets for their high-speed networks similar to airlines, meaning a cross-country advance ticket might cost €19 and same-day you can expect to pay€200 or more. However, unlike on airlines, the cheapest prices are available for early booking and prices trend upwards later on.
In many countries with km-tariffs there is a higher per-km price for faster trains (e.g. Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania) while in a few countries tickets are valid for any train of your choice (e.g. Czechia, Switzerland, Austria) offering the highest flexibility and easiest to understand.
For decades, basic international rail fares have been subject to the TCV (Tarif Commun pour Voyageurs - Common Fare for Passengers) which provided a common basis for calculating fares (normally based on distance) and conditions of carriage (how much luggage you can carry, what you're entitled to if your train is delayed or cancelled, etc.). Since roughly the 1990s more and more trains have been introduced whose fares are not TCV-based, many of which are "global priced" – you pay the same fare regardless of how far you travel on the train. Global-priced trains are often problematic when you try to use a pass like Eurail or InterRail on them, as they may require you to pay a "passholder" fare to get one of a limited number of seats made available for pass holders. International tickets sold don't use TCV anymore either, instead railways have assorted partnerships and offer tickets and specials for competitive prices, especially if booked in advance. It is still possible in some countries (especially in the East) just to buy a domestic ticket to the border station, and buy the onward ticket then onboard from the conductor in the next country, meaning you pay a cheaper domestic rate in both countries. It also helps to be creative, for instance a trip from Vienna to Istanbul can be made by purchasing a special discounted CityStar ticket from the Hungarian railways from the Austrian/Hungarian border to the Bulgarian/Turkish border and just buying cheap domestic tickets from Vienna to the border and Istanbul to the border, saving you as much as €200 off a single ticket.
Advance booking can normally be done online, through the websites of the national railway companies. For international tickets, use the railway website of either country you are travelling through. Compare the fares, as they may differ. In some parts of Europe you may not be able to book these online, you can try calling the railway's hotline or using a booking service. Many tickets can be printed at home, others may be mailed to you (postage payable) or made available for collection at a railway station. In some countries you just show the ticket on your smartphone or laptop screen.
Group travel often incurs discounts. In some countries two people travelling together get a discount, in others a group of six or more is required for discount. In Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic there are discounted one-day network tickets for groups up to 5 people. The bigger the group, the more sense it makes to ask the railway company ahead of time for any special offers they might have. Many railway companies and smaller more specialized operators also offer renting an entire train (or an own coach) for large groups or special events.
Some railway companies offer a discount for round trip tickets. On some routes, for example Budapest–Sarajevo and Budapest–Zagreb, a return ticket is even cheaper than a one-way ticket.
CityStar is an interesting discount (about 20–40 %) in international tariff, available in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe. If you travel in a group of 2–5 people, the second and next passengers have an additional 30–50 % discount. Conditions of use are:
- the ticket must be return
- sometimes you have to book it at least three days in advance
- sometimes you have to spend one night from Saturday to Sunday in the destination before return
Generally, City Star tickets are valid one month.
Most railways have a discount card, normally with versions for youth, adults, seniors and the disabled, offering a standard discount on domestic tickets. You may need local documents of residency to obtain it, but often all you need is a passport photo and ID. Discounts vary. Cards are valid for one year unless otherwise noted.
- Austria offers the Vorteilscard (€20 for youth under 26, €100 for adults) gets you 50 % off 1st and 2nd class and includes RailPlus.
- France offers a 12–27 youth card for €49, which can be both purchased and renewed online, and guarantees a discount of at least a 30 % on all TGV and Intercités with compulsory reservation trains whatever the time of your departure. Discount on regional trains varies according to the Région (see map here). For more information, refer to: SNCF: Carte Avantage Jeune (in French).
- Hungarian Railways offers the Start Klub card (50 % discount)
- Germany offers the BahnCard in versions for 1st and 2nd class and for 25 % and 50 % discount. Before buying, keep in mind that unless you cancel it in time (six weeks prior to the last day of validity) it is automatically renewed for another year and that the 50 % discount card is only applicable for the normal fare (while giving a 25 % discount on the early bird tickets). A trial version of each BahnCard, valid 3 months, is offered at a reduced price, and can very quickly repay itself (but don't forget to cancel the automatic renewal!). For youths under 19, the Youth BahnCard 25 costs only €10, and offers a 25 % discount in both 1st and 2nd class during 5 years, or until its owner turn 19.
- In the Netherlands it might be interesting to get yourself a Dal Voordeelabonnement (off-peak discount), for €50 a year, which gives a 40 % discount on Saturday, Sunday and fester days, and on weekdays before 06:30, from 09:00 to 16:00, and after 18:30. The moment of checking in (not earlier than 30 minutes before travelling), determines whether or not you will get the reduction. The pass is an OV-chipkaart and you can travel with it by checking in an out. The Dal Voordeel allows 3 other passengers travelling with you to benefit from the same discount, and also enables you to buy a Railplus card for €15. It can be bought online, but has to be paid for with a Dutch bank account.
- United Kingdom has 'young persons', 'family', 'senior', 'two together' and 'disabled persons' Railcards, which entitle the holder to a 33 % discount. These are available from train stations or online for £30.
- Switzerland's Travel System (STS) offers several travelcards addressed to citizen as well as tourists with profound discounts for otherwise rather expensive regular tickets. It intentionally honours regular users (and hurts single occasion users) in order to make public transport much more attractive over private ones. The whole public transport system in Switzerland is coherently integrated, whether it incorperates railways, buses, trams, boats, or mountain transport (funiculars, cable cars, mountain railways).
- Indeed, the Swiss are world leaders in kilometres travelled per train (per year and capita about 2500 km), despite the country's rather small size. And the Swiss railway network is also the world's most densely network despite the fact that two thirds of the country are covered by mountains (Alps and Jura).
- Not surprisingly, almost every inhabitant of Switzerland possesses a travel card, but most of them have a Half-Fare travel card (de: Halbtax-Abonnement; fr: abonnement demi-tarif; it: abbonamento metà-prezzo) which entitles the holder to a 50 % discount for all domestic public transport which includes all railway companies, all public buses, including the national Swiss PostBus, and all city-transit systems of the entire country, and most boat companies on the many lakes. Of course it is also accepted by all of the twenties coherently integrated regional fare network systems.
- Besides the very prominent yearly Half-Fare card for inhabitants and the Swiss Half-Fare Card for tourists (valid for one month) there are several other national or regional travelcards for both kind of customers, inhabitants or visitors. The most convenient one is the so-called GA (de: Generalabonnement, fr: abonnement général, it: abboamento generale) which entitles the holder to travel for free and without any other ticket on all public transport systems all over the entire country; the corresponding product for tourists is called Swiss Travel Pass.
- As a rule of thumb, all these travel cards are accepted by any public service provider as long as the corresponding stop serve an inhabited settlement. Nevertheless, most privately operated transport companies, for example mountain railways and cable car operators, accept them as well, though sometimes with a smaller discount.
- For a few years, SBB CFF FFS, the national and largest railway company by far, also provides so-called super saver tickets for particular train connections valid only for a particular departure time (regular tickets are valid for the entire calendar day). They only sell online, not for every connection, and not earlier than sixty days in advance, and they can get more expensive closer to the departure time. On which connection they are provided are based on internal, not public statistics.
- The Czech Republic has InKarta that is available in 25 %, 50 % and 100 % (unlimited free rides) variants, and in most cases includes the Rail Plus advantage for international travel beginning or ending in the Czech Republic
- Slovakia has KLASIK RAILPLUS that provides 25 % discount from the regular fare in the 1st and the 2nd class carriages, on all domestic trains. MAXI KLASIK ensures the unlimited travel on the trains operated by Železničná spoločnosť Slovensko all over Slovakia in the 2nd / 1st class.
- RailPlus is a program offering a 15 % discount on all border crossing train tickets in Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Great Britain, Italy, Croatia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Ukraine and Hungary. It is included in some national discount cards, but must be purchased separately in other countries. In France, Ireland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain and Norway the Railplus scheme is only for those under 26 years of age. The RailPlus card also provides a discount on some international ferries.
Both domestic and international advance purchase tickets are increasingly offered through a number of schemes. Some are not refundable or even set to a specific person's name, others can be changed for a fee. Consider carefully whether there is any possibility that you may need to travel earlier or later than you booked. If you're making a day trip somewhere, are connecting from a flight, have reason to fear local road traffic or otherwise cannot commit to an exact time, ask before booking what the penalties are for missing your train, and how much extra a more flexible ticket would be. If you have a restricted ticket, do take care to get the right train, as if you get the wrong one by mistake you may have to pay a full open single fare, a "penalty fare" or a fine, or you might even be prosecuted. So:
- if you're going from B to C and you have a ticket for the 13:30 train, and you see a train just arriving at about 13:28, make sure it's not in fact the 12:30 running an hour late, and
- if you're at A with a ticket to C on the 17:00, and you get there early and see two trains for your destination, make sure you get on the 17:00 (and not the 16:30 or 17:30) and ask someone in authority if you're in doubt.
Don't expect too much sympathy if you get it wrong or if you miss your train. The only exceptions are, of course, if your train is cancelled (then you can get the next one) or if you miss a connection because of a delay to or cancellation of some other train on the same ticket. When the train you're on is late, talk to a conductor, you may be entitled to a refund and the conductor may mark your ticket to show you're allowed to take a different train, sometimes even of a higher category. In the rare cases that you can't finish your trip you might also be entitled to a hotel stay, a taxi or a trip back to your initial departure point, depending on the exact situation.
Railway specific information:
- In the UK, Advance [purchase] tickets are a cheap way of travelling if you can get hold of them and can live with being locked into a specific departure time. They are however sold in very limited numbers and sometimes sell out months in advance. Advance fares are available at many different rates in different quantities on particular trains – the cheapest fare may be as low as £1, even if the non-restricted full-fare is £100. Check with the applicable railway or discount services like megatrain. Sometimes, the advance 1st class ticket may be less than, or only slightly more than the standard, and can include food and Wi-Fi. In many cases round-trip tickets may cost only a pound more than a one-way ticket for long journeys, or ten pence more for short journeys. The return is often 'open', and can be used on any day within a month of purchase (check time restrictions, which vary between stations and companies). For more information see Rail travel in the United Kingdom.
- In France, you can make use of Ouigo offers, which allow travel on selected high speed routes for as little as €15 one-way if booked in advance.
- In Germany booking a Sparpreis means you are bound to the precise long distance train(s) specified on your ticket. If you buy them from a machine, it will print an itinerary spelling it all out for you on a separate sheet of paper. Should the train arrive at the wrong platform or late, or you have any other questions or doubts, ask railway service staff. The same goes for missing connections due to late trains – just ask the conductor and they will tell you what to do, including freeing you from the obligation to take a specific train. Connections on local (non IC ICE or EC) trains are always suggestions and you can change them.
Normally these are not for set destinations, rather for a trip with in the country or from anywhere in the country to another country, but have other restrictions of how and when they can be used. It is possible to buy tickets from on-line auction and listing sites as many people end up with non-refundable tickets that they cannot use. Some railways, like Sweden's SJ sell left-over tickets via on-line auction themselves. Some countries offer specials on or around national holidays, others have special schemes offering train tickets combine with event tickets or incentives to foster tourism in a certain area. In Germany both (usually short-term) Bahn Cards and train tickets have been sold as a promotional gimmick by supermarkets, Tchibo and other similar stores. The way this usually works is that you buy a ticket for a certain fixed price and later fill it in with the date and train you are using (read the terms and conditions carefully as sometimes certain days are excluded and tickets with multiple trips on them may or may not be restricted to being used by one person only).
Buying 2nd-hand early bird tickets
Often, (international) train tickets are much cheaper in pre-booking then bought directly before departure. Often also, people pre-book a ticket two months in advance, finding out that the planned, non-reimbursable itinerary doesn't fit their actual travelling need at the time of departure.
Luckily, through the Internet, other travellers can buy these tickets, often much cheaper than the last-minute price at the official counter. In some countries such as Britain this is against the law, whether or not there is a name on the ticket, although prosecutions are rare.
For example: Amsterdam-Paris with the high speed Thalys costs €45 two months in advance, and €145 directly at departure. The tickets are often not on name.
For France, check out
- http://www.covoiturage.fr/lang/en (also displays train tickets on re-sell) (French)
For the Netherlands:
- http://kopen.marktplaats.nl/tickets-en-kaartjes/reizen-bus-trein-en-vliegtuig/c1998.html (or look for the category » Tickets en Kaartjes » Reizen | Bus, Trein en Vliegtuig) (Dutch)
Frequent traveller programs
Due to competition with airlines and in order to establish more loyal customers several railway operators have introduced frequent traveller programs that are somewhat similar to those offered by airlines. Although there are some efforts at cooperation between the major state owned railway companies of France, Germany and some other countries, bonuses and statuses from one country usually don't translate into benefits elsewhere. One exception is the Railteam lounge offered at some major stations that are accessible to customers of all partner railways.
Trains are the safest mode of travel on land and may be safer than aviation depending on definitions and European trains are among the safest trains in the world, so accidents are extremely rare and unlikely, which is why they make headline news and some accidents remain in the popular consciousness even decades after the fact. That said, there are some things to keep in mind to make your train trips safer and more enjoyable.
When travelling, you need to watch your luggage and stay alert, especially on metros and trains with a lot of stops in short succession, since this will allow a thief to get off the train quickly. Trains that cover longer distances are usually safer; on high speed trains passengers routinely take laptops on their journeys. Late in the evening and on nights in the weekends, you may choose to travel in well lit areas of the train and if possible in the same car as the conductor.
In the (unlikely) event of an accident there are usually more ways to exit than just the doors. For example, many trains have a 'soft spot' on the windows that you can hit with a small hammer in order to remove the window. Emergency brakes are usually present in every car and clearly marked and often in a "signal"-color. They are also equipped with a seal so if you pull the brake without justification a heavy fine (often exceeding €1000 for first offenders) will be leveled against you and it will be easy to prove that you are to blame. However if you can convincingly claim some reason why you believed there was a danger that justified you pulling the brake, even if it turns out to be a mistake, you are usually not charged.
Always, report suspicious characters to the conductor and move to a more populated and lit area.
Routes and lines
- Eurostar - Offers services to/from the following cities: London (UK), Ebbsfleet (UK), Ashford (UK), Calais (France), Lille (France), Paris (France), Avignon (France), Brussels (Belgium), Rotterdam (Netherlands), and Amsterdam ( Netherlands)
- Thalys – High speed services between Paris, Lille, Brussels, Cologne, Essen and Amsterdam.
- Nightjet – night trains through much of Central Europe, run by ÖBB
- EuroCity – Standard term for international InterCity trains conforming to certain quality standards.
- EuroNight – International night trains operated by various companies.
Historical and scenic
- The Caldervale Line in Northern England connecting the cities of Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Blackburn, Burnley, Blackpool, Preston and Blackpool. This route covers everything. Heavy Urban areas while also some of the most stunning scenery in the UK (The Pennines).
- The West Highland Railway from Glasgow to Mallaig operated by ScotRail through west Scotland is also very beautiful, twice a day in summer there is a steam locomotive the Jacobite going on this route, parts of it including the locomotive were used in Harry Potter films.
- The Heart of Wales Line, running between the medieval town of Shrewsbury and the sea-side city of Swansea, this railway passes through some of Wales' most spectacular scenic spots and picturesque towns during its three hour and forty minute journey.
- West Country, England. One of the most beautiful coastal railways in the world runs on the main line between Cornwall, Plymouth and West Devon.
- Rhine valley route Germany One of the most scenic routes in Europe, running from Cologne to Mainz. During your travel you will pass the middle Rhine valley which is part of the UNESCO world heritage.
- The Romsdal railway (Raumabanen) to Åndalsnes in West Norway is rightly famous for the beautiful scenery and engineering accomplishments.
- Oslo–Bergen railway (Bergensbanen) including its spectacular branch to Flåm (Flåmsbanen) gives a great panorama of Norway's landscapes from glaciers to fjords.
- The Sargan Eight (Serbian: Шарганска осмица/Šarganska osmica) is a narrow-gauge heritage railway in Serbia, running from the village of Mokra Gora to Šargan Vitasi station( between Zlatibor mountain and Tara mountain). The so-called Sargan Eight is part of the narrow gauge railway line between Uzice and Visegrad, and Morka Gore and Kremna, Sargan over the hill. This track has a large number of bridges and 20 tunnels (22 to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina) of which is the longest Šargan: 1660.80 m. According to the number of bridges and tunnels, and the rise of 18 per thousand, Sargan Eight is unique in Europe.
- Many ordinary lines through the alps in Switzerland are stunning and cost nothing extra.
- The Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt in a mountain train, a day of travel
- Venice Simplon Orient Express is a new take on the tradition of the famous Orient Express route that began operating in 1883 with the last of the true Orient Express brand ceasing operation in 1962 (with all services to Istanbul ended by 1977). The operation runs from March to November and stops at eight major destinations: London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Istanbul. Prices for the main route from Paris to Istanbul, a 6 day/5 night luxury journey which is only run once annually in each direction, are over €4000.
Please see the following articles for rail travel guides for specific European countries:
- Rail travel in the Czech Republic
- Rail travel in France
- Rail travel in Germany
- Rail travel in Great Britain
- Rail travel in Ireland (including Northern Ireland)
- Rail travel in Italy
- Rail travel in the Netherlands
- Rail and bus travel in Sweden
- Rail travel in Switzerland
For other countries see their respective "by train" section in the "get in" and "get around" sections of the articles.