19.05.2014
16:03

Europe by rail - an introduction

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Latest update: November 2014

See the updated trans-Europe services for 2015 »

If you are intending to travel by rail in Europe, Mark Dudgeon, Blue Guides’ resident rail expert, offers advice about where to start and suggests some of the most useful internet resources to help in your planning:

Eurostar at St Pancras, London ...

GENERAL PLANNING

Seat 61 is an ex-railway manager’s personal but comprehensive guide to travelling by train in Europe and the rest of the world. Once considered to be rather too anglo-centric (“How to get from London to….”), it has since expanded to include more detailed information about travelling by train within and between almost any country which has a rail network. Regularly updated, this site is a good starting point for organising a journey by rail in Europe.

Deutsche Bahn‘s website is, they claim, “Europe’s biggest online travel booking tool”. Certainly, it is generally considered to be the best timetable planner for train journeys throughout Europe. When planning journeys, exercise care, however – except for within Germany, this site does not show temporary or last minute timetable changes: national rail websites are better for this. Weekend journeys in Britain, for example, are frequently disrupted by engineering work on the line.

If you enjoy poring over maps when planning journeys, the Railways through Europe site has comprehensive rail maps for each country, although you may find the design of the maps more of interest to the rail fan rather than the independent traveller.

EUROSTAR

For many British citizens, at least, Eurostar has offered them their first experience of international train travel. Despite being 20 years old now, and looking rather jaded in parts – standard class seating is cramped and the bistro cars are particularly dismal – the Eurostar experience still can captivate the imagination in a way that short-haul flights cannot. London’s St Pancras station is a particularly impressive place to start a journey: until you get past check-in, that is - the Eurostar waiting lounge can get overcrowded very quickly. The experience should regain its glamour factor over the next few years, however, with Eurostar introducing new trains, and a new service from London to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, Deutsche Bahn, which had announced plans to introduce through trains between London, Cologne, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, has now put those plans on indefinite hold.

EUROPE-WIDE RAIL PASSES

One of the big decisions, when planning to do some serious train travel in Europe, is whether or not to buy a rail pass. The two principal types for extensive travel, which have a variety of geographic options (for one or more countries) and several validity periods, are Eurail and Inter-Rail. The basic rule is that Inter-Rail passes are available for anyone resident (for at least six months) in Europe, and Eurail passes are available for everyone else. The best sites for checking the details, including advice on planning trips, and buying passes, are the official sites operated by the Eurail.com company: Eurail and Inter-Rail.

It is important to note that – with some exceptions - Eurail and national passes can generally only be purchased before you arrive in Europe (or the specific country). Inter-Rail passes can be purchased in your country of residence, but they do not allow free travel in that country.

NATIONAL RAIL PASSES

Several countries also issue their own national passes independent of the Eurail/Inter-Rail scheme, and sometimes these offer a better deal. Most passes are available to anyone not resident in the country of travel.

The ever-popular Swiss Pass and Swiss Flexi-Pass cover most types of public transport in Switzerland without extra payment, or at a discount. There is also the useful Swiss Card, offering a visitor a round-trip transfer from the Swiss border (including airports) to any Swiss destination and back, plus unlimited tickets (including boats and some cable-cars) at 50% discount for one month.

The German Rail Pass is only available for non-European residents. Passes are available for a number of days-of-use (from 3 up to 10) within a period of one month - the days do not have to be consecutive.

Renfe’s Spain Pass operates in a different way: you can select passes offering from 4 to 12 long-distance journeys within one month. Connecting local train services at each end of your journey are included free of charge.

The range of BritRail passes is available in several variations, from the London-Plus Pass to the Britrail Pass itself - covering England, Scotland and Wales - with another version including all Ireland. BritRail also offers various discounts on the standard pass prices: for example for low-season travel (November to February), and – unusually – for a British resident travelling together with a visitor.

LOCAL RAIL PASSES

If you are visiting one country, and want to explore a smaller area by train, there is also a variety of local and regional train pass offers available to all travellers. Some countries are better than others for this: Germany, for example, has the excellent one-day Länder-Tickets valid on regional and local trains in each German state, for up to five people travelling together. These have the added advantage of being available on local transport in towns and cities – for example, the Bayern-Ticket is valid on Munich buses, trams and U-bahn (subway) as well as local trains.

Britain has a wide range of regional passes valid for one or several days, although you will need to dig around a bit on the Rangers and Rovers page to see if one would suit you.

BUYING TICKETS

While European train travel has become generally faster and more comfortable over the past couple of decades, it has also become more fragmented – rather than government-owned megaliths operating all the rail services within each country’s borders, privatisation has begun to make its mark in some countries (notably Britain), and several private operators run cross-border services (Eurostar from London to Paris and Brussels, and Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam and Cologne being prime examples).

Twenty years or so ago, you could roll up at the International Travel Centre on platform 1 at London’s Victoria station, and ask for a one-way ticket from London to Budapest. The clerk would dutifully consult a very large tome – the international ticketing manual - you would agree with him the route you intended to travel, and he would calculate a price – all worked out by the distance travelled in each country you passed through. The ticket would be issued, and you were all set – you could stop off anywhere en route, without formality, within the two-month validity of the ticket.

So nowadays, if you decide a rail pass is not for you, or you simply just want to purchase a one-way point-to-point ticket, where do you start?

If your journey is straightforward and involves only one operator, in most cases you can simply visit the operator’s website and book online, print your ticket off (or have it mailed to you).

However, things can get more complicated very quickly. It can be a challenge finding a travel agent able and willing to issue an international train ticket for a complicated routing. (It involves a lot of manual work). If you want to book online, some websites make a brave attempt at pan-European ticketing. Loco2, for example, might be able to help. For our London – Budapest journey, it will quote you a price - or rather two or more prices for separate tickets on specific trains – but the options it will offer you are limited. If you want to stopover in Cologne, say, on the way, you’re going to have to split the journey into two, and even then you will only be offered a small number of options.

Alternatively, in Britain, for example, Deutsche Bahn’s UK booking centre can be very helpful in pricing and ticketing more complicated journeys by phone.

Here are our tips for purchasing rail tickets:

1. Flexibility or specific trains? On most websites, you will be offered tickets for flexible travel (check the operator’s conditions) or cheaper tickets for travel on specific trains, which are often not refundable and not changeable (so if you don’t travel or you miss your train, you’ve lost your money). The choice is yours; you need to assess how important flexibility is to you. If your journey requires more than one non-flexible ticket, do ensure that you leave plenty of connecting time between trains, since it is not guaranteed that one operator will be understanding, and let you travel on a later train if you miss a connection because of another operator’s delay.

2. Journeys within one country: it is usually best to use the national operator’s website to book tickets, for example Deutsche Bahn for Germany or Trenitalia for Italy. You are likely to be offered the best range of tickets, and the booking experience should generally be smooth. However, do check if a smaller private operator runs trains on your planned route. For example, you might consider Westbahn if travelling between Vienna and Salzburg (instead of the Austrian national operator, OeBB); or Italo between Rome and Milan (instead of Trenitalia).

3. International journeys: many countries have bilateral or multilateral agreements with nearby countries for ticketing for specific rail journeys. In this case, check for the ticket you require on the website of the operator in either the departing or arriving country. (So, for example SNCF and DB for a Paris to Frankfurt ticket.) In some cases, you may find that the ticket is cheaper on one site rather than the other.

 

Here is our list of the principal national rail sites, useful both for up-to-date timetable information and booking tickets:

Germany: Deutsche Bahn (DB) for booking rail tickets within Germany, and for international journeys starting or ending in Germany. There is the odd additional quirk: for example, you can book a London to Salzburg ticket, since DB considers Salzburg to be within Germany for ticketing purposes; or the night train from Amsterdam to Prague (which is operated by City Night Line, a Deutsche Bahn subsidiary).

France: SNCF in its various guises can be a bit clunky. Try Capitaine Train instead – also useful for some international tickets.

Italy:  Trenitalia is quite user-friendly; usefully, train pass holders can also book and change reservations-only on high-speed trains.

Other national operators websites include Spain: Renfe; Austria: OeBB; Switzerland: SBB; and the Netherlands: NS.

In Great Britain: National Rail represents the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC). To find out the specific train operating company (TOC) for your journey, consult either the online timetable or the maps section. Refer to the individual operator’s website to buy tickets.

 

Other major operators on specific routes include:

City Night Line: the largest operator of night trains in Europe, mainly for journeys originating, ending or passing through Germany.

Eurostar – London to Paris and Brussels

Thalys - Paris to Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam

Thello - Night trains between France and Italy, and the new day service between Marseille and Milan

TGV Lyria - Trains between Paris and Switzerland

 

And the most beautiful rail journey in Europe? Perhaps this one:

 

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