Rail travel in Europe
- Planning your trip
- [+] Tickets
- Stay Safe
- [+] Routes/Lines
- Passenger rail companies
This article is a travel topic
Trains are a convenient mode of short, medium and long distance travel across Europe. Western and central Europe has a dense and widely used railway network spanning the entire continent.
For short distances, European trains are fast, reliable and frequent. For longer distances they can be preferable to flying for several reasons. Trains have more spacious and comfortable interiors, 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 city centre, requiring expensive and time-consuming connecting services. Ultimately, many people may choose the train over the plane for the feeling of romantic travel they provide.
Trains are flexible in modern day society, the opportunities for destination travel in Europe are endless. Virtually any town larger than about 50,000 inhabitants has a railway station with frequent connections. The towns that aren't served by trains have good bus connections that are normally integrated with the railway system - railway stations normally also serve as hubs for local buses. Transfers are fast and convenient all over Europe; you rarely need to wait longer than 2 hours for a connecting service.
The quality, speed and price of train travel depends on the country, Western European countries generally offering higher speed and more luxurious trains at higher prices than Eastern European countries. When bought on the spot, trains tickets can be more expensive than cheap flights over the same distance, but this difference may disappear when the tickets are booked in advance. Not to forget the costs to get to the airport. Train travel is getting faster every year through the construction of new high speed lines which travel up to 320km/h (200 mph), and upgrading of conventional lines to 200 km/h (125 mph). Especially Germany, France, Belgium and Italy have extensive high-speed networks.
The one problem with rail travel is security. Railway passengers need to be alert about pickpocketing and luggage theft, especially on crowded commuter trains. Since baggage isn't screened, there is also the remote danger of terrorism, though the rarity of such attacks in Europe should not cause worries to the occasional traveller. Another problem with rail is 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, and some travellers choose to stay there in such situations even though they have a 2nd class ticket. Although not strictly permitted, one often gets away with it because tickets are less frequently checked during periods of overcrowding. Overcrowding is especially common in urban agglomerations such as South-East England, Benelux, The Ruhr region, and the Po Valley.
All trains have coach seating or often labeled 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 "silent" compartments, where you're not allowed to make noise or use mobile phones.
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 a very convenient route planner  that 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 go through Germany only, however: for that information you still need the national websites. Locally, look for the departure timetables posted in the station. Staff at the ticket counter may be able to help you out with planning your trip.
An invaluable website for planning rail journeys is Seat61.com , 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.
When planning your trip, Mappy  is a good online tool for discovering if your hotel is near the train station. Mappy always indicates the location of the station with an engine icon. On other maps the station may be hard to find.
The cost of rail travel varies greatly by country. Eastern European countries tend to offer very cheap travel. Italy is comparatively cheap as well.Domestic
Some countries price tickets based only upon distance traveled, 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 and Great Britain) 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 up-side 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 identically to airlines, meaning a cross-country advance ticket might cost €19 and same-day you can expect to pay €200 or more.
In many countries with KM-tariffs there is a higher per-KM price for faster trains (e.g. Finland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania) while in a few countries tickets are valid for any train of your choice (e.g. Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria) offering the highest flexibility and easiest to understand.International
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). In recent years more and more trains have been introduced whose fares are not TCV-based e.g. Thalys, CNL, Cisalpino, 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. Most international tickets sold don't use TCV anymore either, instead railways have assorted partnerships and offer tickets and specials, 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 two cheap domestic tickets from Vienna to the Hungarian border and from the Turkish boarder to Istanbul, saving you as much as €200 off of a single ticket.Booking
Advance booking can normally be done online, through the websites of the national railway companies or 3rd parties. Be careful, plenty of 3rd parties will triple prices due to high commissions. It is best to use companies which don't charge any booking fees. 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 like RailEurope (which will charge an extra cost) or Capitaine Train (which is free and easy to use). Tickets can sometimes be printed at home, they may be mailed to you or made available for collection at a railway station. You will usually be offered the option to reserve seats or sleepers; seats may be free or cost €2-€5; sleepers are usually €20. Reserved seats are recommended especially on long trips.
Ticketing in most of Europe is based on a trust system: You simply buy the ticket at the station or online and hop on the train. Once you're on a train, a conductor will come around to check your tickets. Getting on a train without a valid ticket could land you with a fine, but purchasing a ticket on the train is often possible at a higher price, sometimes even without penalty (especially on lines where its not possible to buy tickets at all stations). The UK is an exception to this system, where tickets are often required to get on and off the platforms, particularly in major stations. Tickets either need to be inserted in the ticket barrier's slot or inspected by staff at the entrance to/exit from the platform. In the Netherlands if you're using an OB Chipkaart you need to tap it against the reader found before the platform area for it to be validated. Otherwise, the ticket/card/pass is not valid and you will be fined.
Group travel often incurs discounts, in some countries two people traveling 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.Return tickets
Some railway companies offer a discount for return ticket. 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 of Central and Eastern European countries. If you travel in a group of 2-5 people, the second and next passengers have additional 30-50% discount. Conditions of use are:
- the ticket must be 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.Discount Cards
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 or 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 12-25 youth card for 50€ which can be both purchased & renewed online and which guarantee at least a 25% discount on all trains whatever the time of your departure. But it can also gives up to 60% discount on some trains (TGV, Téoz, & Lunéa) and 50% discount on off-peak trains (Corail, Corail Intercités, & TER). It also includes RailPlus. For more information, refer to:  (in French)
- Hungarian Railways offers the Start Klub card  (50% discount)
- Germany offers the the Bahn card  in versions for 1st and 2nd class and for 25% and 50% discount.
- In the Netherlands it might be interesting to get yourself a Dal Voordeelabonnement, for €50 a year, which gives a 40% discount on saturday, sunday and fester days, on weekdays only before 6:30 am, after 9 a.m., but not between 16:00 and 18:30 (4 and 6:30 PM). The moment of checking in (not earlier than 30 minutes before travelling), consist you will get reduction, or not. The pass is a Ov-Chipkaart and you anly can travel with it by checking in an out, buying paper-tickets is with this abonnement no more allowed. The abonnement is at thismoment only valid on NS-trains, but from 2012 other Railcompanies (ARRIVA, Connexxion, Syntus, and Veolia) will give reduction with this card. Untill that time, you must buy their discount-cards to get reduction (only Veolia offers a free reductuiion-pass (to beloaded on every personal-chipkaart). 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' and 'disabled persons' Railcards, which entitle the holder to a 33% discount. These are available from train stations for £24.00.
RailPlus is a program offering a 25% 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.Advance Purchase
Both domestic and international advance purchase tickets are offered increasingly through a number of schemes. Some are unrefundable 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 can't 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 (1:28 PM), 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 (5 PM), 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 (4:30 PM) or 17:30 (5:30 PM)) 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.
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 often 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-resticted full-fare is £100. Check with the applicable railway or discount services like megatrain In many cases round-trip tickets may cost only £1 more than a one-way ticket for long journeys, or 10p more for short journeys. For more information see Rail travel in the United Kingdom.
- In France, you can make use of iDTGV  offers, which allow travel on selected high speed routes for as little as €19 one-way if booked in advance.
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.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.
For example: Amsterdam-Paris with the high speed Thalys costs 45 euros 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)
Rail passesSee also: European rail passes
If you plan a longer journey with many stops, but you don't like a fixed itinerary, a rail pass is the best choice. The rail pass allow you an unlimited travel on specified number of days. There are railway passes for almost every European country, as well as global passes for the whole Europe. See European rail passes for details.
When travelling, you need to watch your luggage and stay alert. A simple and cheap solution is to buy a bike type steel safety cable with lock (around £3.00). Then use this to secure your suitcase to the luggage rack. This will stop an opportunist thief grabbing your case just before the train pulls out of the station and the doors close. This is true when you're on a train as well. Theft can be comparatively common on metros or 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, travel in well lit areas of the train and if possible in the same car as the conductor.
Always, report suspicious characters to the conductor and move to a more populated and lit area.
- Eurostar  - Offers services to/from the following cities: London (UK), Ebbsfleet (UK), Ashford (UK), Calais (France), Lille (France), Paris (France), Avignon (France), and Brussels (Belgium)
- Enterprise - Connects Belfast, UK, to Dublin, Ireland
- CNL  -(CityNightLine) Night trains from Zürich to Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Rostock, Berlin and Dresden. Also from Dortmund to Vienna.
- EuroCity Standard term for international InterCity trains conforming to certain quality standards.
- 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).
- Many ordinary lines through the alps in Switzerland are stunning and cost nothing extra.
- 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 Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt in a mountain train, a day of travel
- The West Highland Railway from Glasgow to Mallaig operated by First 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 the Harry Potter films.
- Trans-Siberian Railway Travels from Moscow to Vladivostok via Ulan Ude and Irkutsk. For tickets and schedules check  (English)
- Circum-Baikal Railway a short, one-day only journey along the shore of Baikal lake, the deepest and the freshest one.
- 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.
- Trans-Manchurian See international routes section.
- Trans-Mongolian See international routes section.
- Venice Simplon Orient Express  Is a new take on the tradition of the famous Orient Express route that began operating in 1883 and with the last of the true Orient Express brand ceasing operation in 1962. 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 route from Paris to Istanbul for the 6 day/ 5 night journey are over £4,000.
- 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.
- The Belfast to (London)Derry Line, Northern Ireland- Once described by Michael Palin as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world
Passenger rail companies
Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges (SNCB) NMBS / SNCB Website
Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses (CFF)
Ferrovie Federale Svizzere (FFS) SBB / CFF / FFS Website