Tips for rail-tripping around Europe on a budget
I’ve always loved to travel by train, and an InterRail adventure travelling from one corner or Europe to another has been on my travel wishlist for years. Unfortunately I never seemed to manage to find a couple of months to spare to actually make it happen. But rather than putting it off forever, I decided to start a bit smaller, picking a shorter route to give me a taster this summer. Our ten-day trip – from Paris to Vienna via Strasbourg and the Alps – didn’t disappoint and I’m already planning my next (three or four) rail routes around different parts of Europe. But what did I learn along the way that I wish I’d have known before I started planning? Here are my top tips if you’re thinking of doing your own budget European rail adventure and aren’t sure where to start – from route planning to rail passes, scenic trips to packing tips.
Don’t try to see too much
One of the joys of Europe rail travel is how simple it can be – the huge network of train lines and relatively small distances make it easy to whizz between cities and countries. If you’re in Munich you could be in Zurich, Prague, Vienna or Verona within five hours. The only problem is that it makes it really tempting to try and see too much. Although it’s a rail trip, you do probably want to see more than the inside of a train carriage! When I was planning my trip, I allowed three nights for big cities, two for smaller ones and had just one single-night stopover. That way we had enough time to explore each place properly and didn’t feel like we were constantly packing and unpacking. It also helped keep costs down as we didn’t need a train ticket every day. Make sure you check the train schedules carefully too – just because two destinations look close on the map, it doesn’t mean it’ll be a quick train journey. On indirect routes with lots of changes you can end up spending the whole day travelling. Useful sites to help with route planning are the Deutsche Bahn website, with schedules for trains running all across Europe, and the Raildude forum.
Take the scenic route
When you’re planning a route, the train company websites will usually show you the quickest way to get from place to place. But sometimes there’s another route that might take a bit longer, but the view out of the window makes it well worth the extra travel time. Like the route from Zurich to Milan – the quickest way (and the way you’re offered when you search on the rail company websites) would be the four-hour direct EuroCity train. But you could also take the slower route via Chur and Tirano, which follows the route of the Bernina Express scenic train. It takes around double the time, but is one of the world’s most spectacular rail journeys, running through stunning mountain scenery. Europe has a whole range of scenic train journeys to choose from – like the Black Forest Railway in Germany, the Golden Pass Line from Montreaux to Lucerne in Switzerland, or the Bergen to Oslo line in Norway. A good source of information on taking the scenic route is Seat 61, which shows different options for journeys between the major European cities.
Think beyond the big city stops
The big cities – Paris, Rome, Berlin – tend to be top of the list when people are planning a European rail route. But the network of regional trains means that you don’t have to stick to the famous (and most expensive) stops. There are a whole host of smaller cities, towns and even villages you can visit by train. You could stay up in the mountains like we did in ski resorts like St Anton or Zermatt, you could visit the Cinque Terre cliffside towns in Italy, or you could stop off in tiny Scottish villages with request stops along the West Highland Railway. The wide network of train routes also means it’s easy to base yourself somewhere smaller and cheaper and take day trips out – like in the South of France where you can stay in Nice and travel by train to pricey places like St Tropez and Monte Carlo. You could even stay just outside the big cities to take advantage of lower-priced accommodation and travel in during the day.
Look into rail passes…
If you want to make train travel as easy as possible, you can’t beat a rail pass. They’re especially good if you want to be flexible and choose your route as you go, and if you’re under 26. There are a lot of different pass options though and it can be a bit fiddly to get your head around. The first big distinction is based on where you live – if you’re an EU resident you need an InterRail pass, and if you’re outside the EU you need a Eurail pass. The options vary slightly between the two but are basically divided between a Global Pass, which covers the whole region, and individual country passes (Eurail also offers regional passes). Both are available for a set number of travel days within a month (good if you don’t plan to move on every day), and the Global Pass is also available for a continuous period. Prices vary a lot and there are big discounts if you are 25 or under, and smaller discounts for over 60s. In addition to the pass, you’ll also have to make a reservation and pay an extra fee if you travel on high-speed or night trains. Though you can get around this by travelling on slower, local services. As well as InterRail/Eurail there are also other passes or railcards offered in some countries or regions which give reduced cost rail travel, like the Swiss Pass.
… but don’t assume they’ll be cheapest
Although a rail pass can be a good deal, it’s not necessarily the cheapest option, especially if you’re over 25 or not planning on moving about too much. If you’ve decided on your route and are happy to book your train tickets in advance you can often save over the cost of a rail pass. Usually the earlier you book, the lower the price – with tickets normally on sale 90 days in advance. For example my summer rail trip covered three countries, with four travel days out of seven. Buying individual tickets in advance cost €208 per person, whereas an InterRail Global Pass (for five travel days within 10 days) would have cost €239 for adults, not including reservation fees. So booking the individual tickets saved me €30. But if I was 26 or under then it would have been cheaper than the individual tickets at €184. You can usually find the cheapest advance prices through the relevant local train operator – see Seat 61 for details of which to use.
Pack a picnic kit
Long-distance European trains usually have a restaurant car or trolley on board. But they vary hugely – from restaurant-style dining to a packet of crisps if you’re lucky – and on local trains there’s often nothing at all. So we usually packed a picnic to eat on board, to save buying food and to make sure we didn’t go hungry (or thirsty – there was usually a bottle of wine included too!). Most train stations have a small shop, but there’s usually a bigger supermarket nearby, so you can easily stock up on bread, cheese, ham and snacks. It’s useful to pack a basic picnic kit with a small cool bag, cutlery, corkscrew and plastic glasses. As we were self-catering we took some small Tupperware containers so we could use up any leftovers and make things like pasta salad – the containers stacked up together when empty so didn’t take much space. The cool bag also comes in useful if you want to transport things like cheese or chocolate home with you.
So those are my top European rail trip tips – have you done a train trip around Europe and do you have any tips for trip-planning or money-saving?
Very informative! I love train travel and always choose it over planes in Europe.
Me too – a lot of the time when you factor in getting to and from the airport and waiting around the time difference isn’t all that much from flying!
I find it more relaxing too, especially when you need some down time from playing the tourist! 🙂
I’m also planning a budget trip alone to Europe! But i never really have time to spare. You’re tips are very helpful. Thanks!
Thanks – hope they come in useful and have a great trip!
Thanks so much!
I love travelling by train! I’ve dipped into Europe a bit by rail but I’d love to do more. I have the dilemma that we have a camper van so we could drive a lot of Europe, but the lure of the railway is very strong.
Seat 61 is such a godsend, I’ve planned so many rail journeys across the world with the help of this site, just going on it makes me want to catch the Eurostar to adventure!
I can lose hours looking at routes on Seat 61 – it’s such a great resource for rail trips, and a bit of armchair travelling if you can’t get away for a bit!
Isn’t it just! I’ve used it since 2007 to rail it to France and Switzerland, Turkey to Egypt, around India, bits of SE Asia, Japan, then the ultimate: London to Vietnam!
Mark is my absolute hero!
Great tips, really want to put them to use now as it’s been months since we really took a nice scenic train trip.
Thanks Dale, it’s such a great way to travel – and so many different routes you’re never likely to run out of options!
Hey! Thank you for this!
I will be going to Germany in November and just yesterday I was googling about the train tickets. I am currently in India and is there anyway I can book train tickets online for cheaper rates? The links you gave showed me the timetable but I couldn’t book anything.
Hi, yes you can easily book online – though the procedure is different depending on which train company covers your route. If you are just travelling within Germany then Deutsche Bahn is the site you need (tickets normally available 90 days in advance so will depend on your dates whether they are available yet). If you’re travelling through other countries see this page from Seat 61 I linked to above (http://www.seat61.com/Europe-train-tickets.htm) tells you which train company to use, then you can search fares with them. Have a great trip!
very useful blog, thank you! I love taking trains across countries, and need to do even more of that…=)
Train trips are always a lovely experience, especially in the scenic trains (I did not even know that there are so many special routes, thanks for the hint!)
The more research I’ve been doing the more different routes I’ve found to add to my wish-list – should keep me going for a while!
Thanks for the tips! Last time I was in Europe I used the really cheap airlines to fly everywhere, but the train seems so much more scenic. I’ll have to look into this next time I’m there!
The views are definitely better! Often when you factor in the transfer time and cost it’s not much different from flying either.
I prefer train travel whenever possible, and it probably is the most convenient way to get around Europe. I wish I could say the same for the United States. When I was a college student, I looked into rail passes. Back in 2006, there was a flex pass for students that worked out really well for traveling during spring break through Germany and after the semester abroad ended in Greece and Italy. My pass even got me a discount on ferry rides to the Greek islands and from Greece to Italy. Also, I’m totally pinning your tips to my Pinterest board “Europe” so I’ll have this handy reference for my next trip overseas … whenever that may be!
That’s great – your trip around Greece and Italy sounds fantastic, both countries I’ve love to explore more. I’ve never travelled by train in the US but am going to be trying out train travel in Canada for the first time next month!
Excellent tips and Seat 61 sounds like a good resource which I’ve not heard of before.
Seat 61 is brilliant – it has pretty much everything you could want to know about rail travel anywhere in the world!
I enjoy rail travel too. Very good tips. It’s good to have two to three nights in a city because that way you do not get tired of travelilng. I use a lot the Deutsche Bahn website. There are very interesting passes within Germany covering a whole state than can be very cheap for more han 1 person.
Thanks for the tip about the passes in Germany, I’ll look into that for my next trip!
I dream of seeing Europe by rail. This is such helpful information! Lovely photos, too, especially of the Charles Bridge. Makes me miss Prague!
Thanks, that was one of my favourite shots from Prague – we were there mid-summer and it was so busy, I would love to go back in winter and see it covered in snow sometime!
Very helpful tips! I am bookmarking this for my next trip to Europe. The rail system there has always perplexed me – too many lines between various companies!
With each country having their own rail service it can be complicated! If you don’t want to go through all the hassle of working out which to use for which journey, companies like loco2 and Voyages SNCF are really handy as you can book journeys all across Europe with them.
I grew up in Europe, I go there every year, I’ve taken trains, but have never really planned a train-centric trip. I’ll have to incorporate that into one of my next Europe stays. Great tips Lucy, especially about not trying to see too much.
I think trying to see to much is the curse of the travel blogger – always trying to fit a bit more in! I’m glad we limited our number of stops though as it meant it still felt like a relaxing trip rather than an endurance test!
Eurail passes are wonderful if they match your itinerary — as they did for us on a few occasions. Passes or otherwise, rail travel in Europe is fantastic. You’re right that it’s easy to try to do too much. A recent itinerary took us by train from Munich to Prien-am-Chiemsee to Salzburg to Vienna during the Christmas markets — a trip to remember!
That sounds like a great winter itinerary! Having passed through Salzburg this time it’s high on the list for my next rail trip route.
Reblogged this on Be Adventurous and commented:
I thought this was interesting and would be useful in 2yrs when my friend and I plan on visiting Europe on out own. Woo
Thanks for reblogging – hope it comes in useful when you get to your trip!
I’m exactly the same – for years I’ve been saying I’m going to do a train trip through Europe. Think I will have to follow your lead and start with a smaller trip, rather than wait for a free month! So will definitely be following your tips 🙂
I think the problem was there were just too many places I wanted to see, but I’ll have to make it four different short trips rather than one long one!
These tips are really helpful! I’d love to do a trip like this on Interrail and this advice is great, thank you!
Thanks – it’s a great way to travel, the only had bit is deciding which destinations you want to visit!
Very fun to read! Thanks for posting. Your pictures are beautiful too!
Thanks so much!
Great tips! I love the trains in Europe – so relaxing! By the way – gorgeous shot of the Charles Bridge in Prague!
It’s definitely the most relaxing way to travel around Europe!