How to Save Money on European Train Travel

If you have ever been to Europe, chances are you have probably taken a train at some point. They are generally a quick and easy way to move between cities (or countries!). But when you are planning your train travel, how do you know you’re getting the best deal? It seems a lot of first-time travelers to Europe automatically assume that getting a rail pass or otherwise booking your train tickets through Rail Europe is the way to go. Sure, it’s easy – the web site is in English, the currency is in dollars and you can feel secure that you are all set ahead of time.

Vladivostok, Russia

If you have ever been to Europe, chances are you have probably taken a train at some point.  They are generally a quick and easy way to move between cities (or countries!).  But when you are planning your train travel, how do you know you’re getting the best deal?  It seems a lot of first-time travelers to Europe automatically assume that getting a rail pass or otherwise booking your train tickets through Rail Europe is the way to go.  Sure, it’s easy – the web site is in English, the currency is in dollars and you can feel secure that you are all set ahead of time.

However, it can be almost as easy to get a rail pass or book tickets through the rail companies of individual countries (or at the train station itself). And it can be cheaper.

To prove this point, I compared a recent itinerary to Italy and a recent itinerary to Germany and compared what each trip would have cost:

(1) purchasing individual tickets through Rail Europe;

(2) purchasing individual tickets on the national rail web sites;

(3) buying a rail pass through Rail Europe; and

(4) buying a rail pass on the national rail web sites.

Here’s what I found (all prices refer to 2nd class tickets for an adult over age 25 and do not include the additional cost of reservations):
 

Italy

 
My itinerary: Naples to Rome to Florence to Venice.

  • Individual ticket cost on Rail Europe:  $142 to $198
  • Individual ticket cost on Trenitalia, Italy’s national rail website:  $104-$175

As you can see, booking through Trenitalia could save at least $23, if not more.   Even better, you don’t have to book through Trenitalia that far ahead of time – you can wait until you’re in Europe.

Now, how does a rail pass compare?

Rail Europe offers an Italy Rail Pass for 3 days of travel in a 2 month period  for $227 – nearly $30 more than the most expensive tickets would cost to purchase individually and over $100 more than the cheapest!

Trenitalia offers the same rail pass for about $162 – a much better deal than the Rail Europe pass, but still possibly more expensive than booking individual tickets.

That being said, as you add extra days of travel to your itinerary, the value of a rail pass increases.   When I added a Venice to Rome leg onto my trip and compared the cost of individual tickets against the Trenitalia 4 day pass, it was still less expensive in some cases to buy individually, but in many cases the pass proved to be the better deal.

Let’s try another example.
 

Germany

 
My itinerary: Frankfurt to Trier to Cologne to Heidelberg to Stuttgart

  • Individual cost on Rail Europe: $297-$367
  • Individual cost on Bahn.de, Germany’s national rail website:  $196-$293

Again, there was a significant savings by booking through Bahn.de.

Rail Europe’s German Rail Pass costs $273 for 4 days of travel in one month, while the same pass from Bahn.de is about $265 – just slightly less expensive than Rail Europe and in the mid-range of what it might cost to book individually on Bahn.de.  And, like Italy, adding extra days to your pass increases its value.
 

So what should you think about when planning your train travel in Europe?

 

  • Don’t assume Rail Europe provides the best value – it usually doesn’t, particularly if you are traveling in just one country.
  • Check out the national rail sites for the country you are visiting. Many have sites in English that are straightforward to navigate.  You can often book online or, at the very least, check timetables and prices before purchasing at the station.  Here a few:

Italy: www.trenitalia.com

Germany: www.bahn.de

Spain: www.renfe.com

Czech Republic: www.cd.cz/eshop

Hungary: www. Elvira.mav-start.hu

Poland: www.polrail.com

Austria: www.oebb.at/en

  • You can save money if you’re willing to travel at unpopular times. The ticket prices I list above are all in ranges because prices vary throughout the day.
  • Keep in mind that rail passes are only good for a certain time period, often 1 month. Buying a pass for 7 days of travel may be a great deal, but do you want to feel pressed to keep moving in order to get your money’s worth?
  • Don’t forget to take into account the additional cost of seat reservations. These can be mandatory on some trains and, even if not required, are a good idea on popular routes.

 

Have you traveled in Europe by train?  What are your tips to save money?

 

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21 thoughts on “How to Save Money on European Train Travel”

    1. Thanks Sabrina! I checked out TGV-Europe as I was putting this together. Perhaps it’s just for US residents, but it automatically redirected me to the Rail Europe site for bookings, so the pricing was all the same as Rail Europe.

      1. Interesting! It gives me the option to choose the country you’re booking from. Just goes to show that you really always have to try more than one website when hunting for the best deals. I’ll keep your websites handy!

  1. I have purchased a Eurail Global pass through Rail Europe for all four of my trips to Europe. I have tried the last two trips to kind of keep an eye on prices and such to see if it truly is a deal. What I have found is this: If you are traveling at an Amazing Race frantic style, which I normally am, and need flexibility it will save you a few bucks and then the convenience of just jumping on the train puts it over the top. I have had to wait for 30 mins for a ticket at times for a traveling partner who didn’t have a pass, and I wasn’t happy about this.

    Now, this cost comparison was against just walking up and buying tickets which one of my travel partners did last year. I think the best way is to buy them far in advance through the National train system if you know exactly where you are going and I will be honest, that never crossed my mind until I read this post.

    Great info!

    1. You’re right, for those traveling at a fast pace and hitting a lot of places, having a rail pass definitely can make it easier and more cost effective (although you still might have to deal with making seat reservations depending on the train & country).

      I think the big thing I learned is how much of a mark-up there is when you buy through Rail Europe. If you’re staying in one country and aren’t planning on hitting more than 2 or 3 cities, a rail pass just isn’t worth it and you’re much better off buying individual tickets directly from the national website or at the station.

  2. Neat comparison. I love the bahn.de site. It switches to English pretty easily. The site, though for Germany, has schedules for the rest of Europe. So while you aren’t usually able to book much outside of Germany, it is nice to be able to see the schedules.

    1. Thanks Andrew! And yes, bahn.de rocks – it’s become my go-to site for checking out schedules in Europe.

      p.s. congrats on your upcoming wedding! 🙂

  3. Great advice and I love the comparing methods. A couple other methods for finding the best prices: 1) With a fast Internet connection and another browser window with Google Translator, checking out the ticket prices on the local language site instead of the English version. I did this for a train ticket from Malaga Spain to Madrid and found a 100 Euro difference ($60USD vs $160USD). 2) I found on Deutsche Bahn that there are up to %50 discounts if one books 90 days ahead. It takes a little stalking, but very worth it at this exchange rate. Thank you again for this very valuable advice!

  4. Hi Katie-
    Great info for my upcoming trip to Italy. I appreciate you doing my research for me! Trenitalia seems like the way to go. Do you recommend waiting until we get to Rome to book? Thanks so much!

  5. Hey there, that’s some good research! I agree that in my experience, it’s always cheaper to book in-country via the national rail company. However, when crossing international borders, the prices always skyrocket and some companies (like Czech Railways, for example), make it difficult and expensive to purchase international tickets. Any tips for that?

  6. @Katrina & @Kate – thanks so much, glad you found it helpful!

    @Julie – I’d say it depends on how much flexibility you want. When I went, I was on a very short time frame so we planned very precisely and booked in advance.

    @Megan – you’re right, the international routes are tougher. I know the Deutsche Bahn website lets you purchase international tickets if you’re going to or from Germany. I just tried Berlin to Prague and booking was available either direction and prices were cheaper than on Rail Europe. If you’re making several trips and crossing multiple countries, a rail pass may end up being worth it.

  7. Hey Katie, thanks for the post I think you hit on an important point that Railpasses are not necessarily the cheapest option and it pays to do your research. In country can be cheaper but of course you want to benefit from advance fares too which is harder if you a) book it on the day b) can’t speak the language of the national train site (though Google is a boon!) I look forward to the day when there is much more clarity on fares and the same prices regardless of where you are booking from (UK/US etc)!

  8. I found the same thing in France when I went there last year – cheaper if you buy through the French website. Even though it’s in French it’s not too hard to use – you can always copy and paste into google translator if you have a particular section you don’t understand (I did this to work out the terms and conditions of my fare).

  9. Even though these rail passes might save you quite a bit of money, European public transport is still really expensive. :S If you are travelling a long distance it’s cheaper to travel by plane (Ryanair). I try to avoid the train as much as possible in europe, while in asia I use the train every day.

    1. Thanks for the comment Alice. My point was actually that rail passes don’t necessarily always save money. And yes, budget airlines like Ryanair can be a good option if they fly to your desired destination and if you don’t have too much luggage (they can totally get you with fees!). Trains, though, can provide more flexibility in timing (generally no need to book much in advance) and destination (they reach far more destinations).

  10. Just wanted to let you know that I have this post bookmarked and refer people to it all the time. Thanks for all the info. 🙂

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