Once upon a time, traveling by train was a given on any multi-city trip through Europe. From gap year backpacking adventures, to breaks during a study abroad semester, to annual two-week vacations—when in Europe, the assumption was you’d go by train.
With the proliferation of low-cost airlines all over the European continent, not to mention the number of travelers who rent cars, train travel is no longer the default for every European trip. There are still excellent reasons to ride the rails in Europe, and some trips for which it’s the best transportation option. We’ll cover some of the pros and cons of traveling by train, as well as tips to help you plan the perfect train trip.
The benefits of traveling Europe by train
You don’t have to look far to find the word “romance” associated with European train travel. Trains give us a nostalgic sense of an era we may barely know and certainly didn’t live through, but it’s a powerful feeling nonetheless. We can read historic accounts of famous travelers traversing the continent by train on their Grand Tour, and then we can step onto the modern equivalent from a similar platform and pretend we’re reliving that experience.
You’ll see more.
When you travel close to the ground, you see more of the country. And, unlike driving a rental car, trains don’t require you to navigate or pay attention to road signs. Train lines are sometimes near roads, but they’re often near nothing in particular at all, giving passengers an opportunity to see parts of the countryside they might not get to see otherwise.
Overnight trains save hotel money.
Budget-conscious travelers know that next to airfare, accommodation is often the biggest expenditure. So if you can combine transportation and accommodation, you’re saving a little money. On longer train journeys, a sleeper cabin on an overnight train can be a great way to get where you need to go and not pay for another night in a hotel. If you’re asleep anyway, you might as well multi-task by zipping across the country while you’re at it.
Rail passes offer travel flexibility.
While you’d need to book an airline ticket well ahead of a trip, train travel doesn’t typically require such advance planning. You can buy individual point-to-point tickets on the day of your trip or—to avoid waiting in line at the train station—travel with a rail pass that allows you to simply hop on the train and find an available seat. Unless the train you want dictates the purchase of a supplemental reservation, you can travel at a moment’s notice. (Yes, you must get a rail pass before you arrive in Europe, but when you buy it you won’t need to make decisions about when you’ll be traveling or on what trains.)
Dealing with luggage is easier.
Increased security at European train stations means that there are sometimes screening areas for luggage, but you don’t need to worry about three ounce bottles of liquids in plastic bags or removing your shoes. Not only that, you won’t pay extra if you’ve got two bags instead of the one free checked bag the airline allowed you on the way to Europe. You will need to carry the bags yourself and stow them on the train, either in the luggage racks at the end of each car or on the racks over the seats.
Train stations are in city centers.
Transportation between the city center and the airport can take an hour or more (not to mention how long you’re supposed to get to the airport before a flight), which is time you could have spent enjoying a little bit more of your vacation. Train stations, by contrast, are right in the middle of the city. In some cases, you can even walk to the main square from the train station—or, more commonly, access the city’s metro system from inside the train station. Less time spent in transit means more time on vacation.
The drawbacks of traveling Europe by train
It can be slow.
Even with the increasing number of high-speed trains criss-crossing the continent, it’s hard for a train to get from point A to point B as quickly as a jet. Trains that make frequent stops at smaller cities and routes that require transfers can also significantly slow your progress.
It can be expensive.
Because of the number of budget airlines in Europe, train tickets are no longer always the cheapest transportation option between cities. High-speed trains are getting more common, but those are also the more expensive train tickets. And when you’re traveling with a group, buying enough train tickets for everyone is sometimes more costly than renting a car that fits everyone in the group.
Rail strikes do happen.
You might have done all your research and you know that traveling by train for your particular itinerary is the most efficient or least expensive option, but all that research won’t mean anything if there’s an unexpected rail strike. In many cases, rail strikes are scheduled in advance and locals can plan around them—but travelers don’t usually know where to look for that information (or even that it’s information they should look for), so they’re the ones who often get left in the lurch.
>> Get tips on finding cheap flights to Europe or learn how to fly cheaply within Europe.
How to plan a rail journey in Europe
1. Find out if the train is really the right option.
Maybe you’re convinced that train travel in Europe sounds great and you’re ready to hop on board. First things first, however, you’ll need to determine what the best mode of transportation is for the particular trip you’re taking. As mentioned, while taking the train is often the best option, it’s not always the best option.
Using the handy Rome2rio site, you can plug in each leg of your itinerary to get a general idea of how long each type of transit would take as well as roughly how much each would cost. Even if you decide not to book tickets right away, you’ll at least know whether you should be taking the train, or if a bus, flight, or car rental makes more sense.
2. Look into whether you should get a rail pass.
Rail passes act as train tickets, and they’re sold in increments of “travel days.” With a pass, you check off a “travel day” when you take your first train trip in a 24-hour period—and you can take as many train journeys as you want within that 24-hour period and still only use one “travel day” on your pass. Some trains require an additional reservation, which costs extra, but if the trains you’re taking don’t mandate reservations you’d simply need to hop on a train carrying your pass.
The kind of rail pass you can get depends on where you live. Citizens of any country outside Europe are eligible to buy a Eurail Pass, whereas citizens of European countries are eligible for an Interrail Pass. They function in the same way and have roughly similar pros and cons, but they’re not interchangeable.
Underneath the general “rail pass” umbrella, there are also regional breakdowns of the types of passes available. The pass that covers the most countries is the Global Pass, while country-specific passes bear the country name (Eurail Italy Pass, Eurail France Pass, etc.). There are also a couple passes that cover more than one country (but not the whole continent) to reflect how travelers move through Europe—the Benelux Pass covers Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and the Scandinavia Pass covers Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden all on one pass.
The cost of rail passes varies depending on the traveler—there are discounted passes for seniors and youth (up to age 27), for instance—and the number of “travel days” needed within a month. Using a rail pass to travel by train in Europe is sometimes a great way to save money on train tickets, but you need to do a little bit of math to find out if your specific itinerary would be cheaper with a rail pass or with point-to-point tickets instead.
To figure this out, look up the cost of individual train tickets for each leg of your journey. Then, compare the total cost of those tickets to the cost of the rail passes that cover the countries you’ll be visiting and have the right number of “travel days.” It should be clear which one is less expensive.
Note that while most train trips you’re likely to take in Europe are included on a rail pass, some are not. Scenic trains are often either not covered at all or only discounted, and the same goes for private rail companies. You can consult Eurail’s list of participating railway companies for more information.
3. Book point-to-point tickets in advance if possible.
Should you decide that a rail pass is not the way to go for your trip, your next step is to see what train tickets you can buy in advance. Not only does this help you avoid waiting in a potentially long line at every train station, it can also help you save money and avoid train strikes.
Generally speaking, purchasing individual train tickets online through the official website gives you access to discounts that aren’t available at the station’s ticket counter—especially if you book in advance. Prices sometimes go up as the date of departure nears. Note that most tickets aren’t available for sale more than 90 days (give or take) before the travel date.
Booking train tickets ahead of time helps you avoid the hassle of rail strikes since, as mentioned, transportation strikes are often scheduled well in advance. It’s not unusual for a few trains to be running even on strike days, but of course those tickets sell out quickly. If you wait to buy your tickets until you get to the station, you’ll be stuck. If you bought them a couple months before the train trip, you’ll be one of only a handful of happy travelers on train strike day.
Keep in mind that a train ticket and a reservation are two different things. Some trains require both, other trains only require tickets (and you’ll just find a vacant seat and sit where you like). Pay close attention to what’s required for the train trips on your itinerary so you’re sure to have what you need.
It’s also worth noting that the different classes of train cars don’t coordinate precisely with different classes on airplanes. “First” or “business” class levels on trains are nice, yes, but they’re not exponentially nicer than “second” class on the train (like they are on planes). The seats are a little narrower in second class, and there are usually more seats per car, but second class trains are generally quite comfortable. If you’re on a budget, second class is definitely the way to go.
For overnight trains, there are also different classes of sleeper cabins, from private cabins to shared bunk rooms, with prices that reflect the level of privacy.
Here are a few of the major national train lines:
- Austria: ÖBB
- Belgium: NMBS/SNCB
- France: SNCF
- Germany: Deutsche Bahn
- Great Britain: National Rail
- Ireland: Irish Rail
- Italy: Trenitalia
- The Netherlands: NS
- Spain: RENFE
- Switzerland: SBB/CFF/FFS
Tips for European train travel
To prepare you for your first train trip in Europe and make sure it’s an enjoyable ride, here are a few important things to know.
Navigating the train station
Some large stations have 20 or more platforms inside a cavernous building, where trains come in and then depart again by going out the same way. Others are pass-through stations with only a few platforms. There will be at least one ticket sales window and, usually, at least one automated ticket machine. Depending on the size of the station, you may find a simple newsstand kiosk that also sells a few snacks or multiple eateries and shops.
If you already have everything you need to board your train (ticket or rail pass and reservation if needed), you’ll only need to find the right platform and get on the train. If you need to do anything—buy or print a ticket or reservation, for instance—you should allot plenty of time in case there’s a long line and/or you need help with an automated ticket machine. If you’re traveling across borders, like from Paris to London, you’ll need to arrive at least 40 minutes before departure to go through customs and immigration.
Security at train stations has increased in recent years, so you may also need to go through a security checkpoint in order to get onto the platform for your train. To do this, like at the airport, you’ll need to show your train ticket and put your bags on a conveyor belt to be scanned.
Validating your ticket
If you have only a ticket with no reservation, chances are good you’ll need to validate it—particularly if there’s no date associated with the ticket. (If you’re not sure whether you need to validate your ticket, find an information desk or ask a station official.) Validation machines are usually near the entrance to the platforms, and are often relatively small machines with a slot where you’ll insert the ticket so it can be stamped with the date and time.
Finding your train and carriage
You’ll see either large readerboards (just look for groups of people staring up at the wall and you’ll find the readerboard) or smaller TV-like screens that show the arrivals and departures of upcoming trains and the track numbers where they’ll be found. Once you see your train and the associated track number, you can make your way to that platform.
In some stations, platforms are marked with roughly where each train car number will stop, so you can wait at the appropriate point for your coach—but if you don’t see that, don’t worry. Each train car is labeled clearly so you’ll know which one is yours. (And if you don’t have a reservation, you won’t need to worry about getting on a specific numbered car—you’ll just need to get on a car in the class of the ticket or pass you have.)
If you have a reservation, once you get on board the right car you’ll stow your bags and find your reserved seat. If you don’t have a reservation, you’ll just need to find an unoccupied seat. And if someone boards the train later who has reserved that seat, you’ll need to move.
When you’re boarding a train at a mid-point on its journey (such as at one of the pass-through stations mentioned above), it may only be in the station for five minutes or less. The good news is that you can get on any train car and move through the train itself to find your car, so if you’re running late just get on board the train before it departs and sort out your seating later.
Storing your luggage
Each train car will typically have a luggage storage area at one end (a bathroom is usually at the other end) for larger bags, and there will also be racks over the seats for smaller items and carry-on sized bags. If you’re concerned about not letting your bags out of your sight, then you should try to use the overhead racks.
Amenities on board
Many trains have a cafe or restaurant car that every passenger can visit, regardless of ticket class. Quality and prices are what you’d expect from a cafe on a train car when travelers have no other options, so many passengers bring picnics on board instead. Stop at a market before you go to the station if you can; not every station has a wealth of good food options.
There are toilets on board, usually one per train car. It’s a very good idea to bring a packet of tissues into the stall with you, just in case the toilet paper has run out—especially on long-distance trains, since there’s not necessarily anyone coming through to check on supplies until the end of the line.
Exiting the train
If your destination is not the end of that train’s journey but a mid-point along the way, the train will only be in your station for a few minutes. You’ll need to pay attention to train announcements about the next station (and double-check the time against your ticket’s listed time of arrival) and be ready with your bags near the train door when the train arrives at the station so you can disembark quickly.
>> Check out our list of best apps for traveling in Europe.
Great rail routes in Europe
Every trip is different, and you will need to go through the steps outlined above to determine whether taking the train is really the best option for your trip. There are, however, some train journeys in Europe that are incredibly popular with travelers—sometimes because it’s nearly always the best way to get from place to place, and sometimes because it’s an iconic travel experience. Here are a few of them.
- London to Paris by Eurostar: Riding on a high-speed train underneath the English Channel is a rather unique travel experience. The 282-mile trip between London and Paris takes about 2.25 hours.
- Madrid to Barcelona: Spain’s high-speed AVE trains whisk travelers 378 miles through the countryside from Madrid to Barcelona in about 2.5 hours. Regional trains cover the same distance in nearly nine hours, so the high-speed train is usually your best bet.
- Paris to Bordeaux: Traveling the 335 miles from the French capital to the heart of one of the country’s most popular wine regions can take as little as two hours and five minutes on the high-speed TGV trains.
- London to Edinburgh by Caledonian Sleeper: It’s no Hogwarts Express, but the Caledonian Sleeper is arguably the most luxurious train connecting London with Scotland. The 392-mile trip from London to Edinburgh can be less than 4.5 hours by regular train, but with a roughly 7-hour overnight trip on the Caledonian Sleeper you’ll save the expense of one hotel night and be treated to a high-end train experience.
- Switzerland Golden Pass or Glacier Express: The scenery in Switzerland can be pretty epic, and there are a couple of train routes that take full advantage of that. The Glacier Express snakes through the Alps from Zermatt to St. Moritz, taking roughly eight leisurely hours to cover a little more than 180 miles (it’s not about speed, it’s about soaking in the views). The Golden Pass is three train journeys between Montreux, Zweisimmen, Interlaken, and Lucerne, with numerous mountain passes and lakes to see along the way. All three trips together cover less than 250 miles, but you can take them individually.
- Lisbon to Porto: Trains connect the Portuguese capital with Porto in about 2.75 hours, traveling 207 miles through some of the loveliest scenery in the country—including through historic Coimbra and over one of the longest bridges in Europe.
- Vienna to Budapest: High-speed RailJet trains can travel the 152 miles from Vienna to Budapest in under three hours, but if you want to see more along the way you might find the slower regional trains (total journey time of a little more than four hours, if you don’t get off the train to explore) to be the more scenic route.
- Amsterdam to Brussels: Combining the Netherlands and Belgium in one trip is popular, so the train trip between Amsterdam and Brussels is, too. The 130-mile journey takes less than two hours on high-speed Thalys trains or 2.75 hours on less expensive regional trains.
- Berlin to Munich: Travel between two of Germany’s most popular cities is easy with Deutsche Bahn’s high-speed ICE trains. The fastest trip takes less than five hours to cover 392 miles, while slower trains can take eight hours. There’s a direct train from Berlin to Munich and another route that stops in Nuremberg, if you’d like to visit during a stopover.
- Venice to Rome: Italy’s high-speed Frecce trains travel from the fabled canal city to the historic center of the Roman Empire, a journey of 327 miles, in less than four hours. Another high-speed rail service, Italo, also connects Venice and Rome in about the same time (just note that Italo isn’t covered by rail passes).