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European Train Travel: Some important considerations before booking tickets

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Buying train tickets in Venice. Photos by Tom Meyers
Buying train tickets in Venice. Photos by Tom Meyers

Two regular contributors to EuroCheapo respond to a good question posed on our blog.

Victor posted on March 11, 2010:

“Hi, three of us have planned a trip to Europe from 27th June 2010 to the 10th July 2010. Our itinerary will take us from London to Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Berlin and back to Paris and London.

We wish to travel extensively by rail. Please help us make a schedule that would enable us to touch all or most of the cities as planned above and at reasonably priced rates. We are all adults above 40 years of age and most likely do not qualify for any discounted fares. Please also inform us when and where rail bookings could be done in the UK. Thanks.”

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Reply from Susanne Kries and Nicky Gardner of hidden europe:

Hi Victor,

We cannot help you with all you ask, but we can venture a few comments that will perhaps inform your thinking, as you and your friends plan your journey. In responding to your question, we hope these thoughts will also be of broader interest to folk here on EuroCheapo.

The key thing here is to think very carefully quite what you and your two traveling companions want to get out of your upcoming journey. Is the journey the centrepiece or are your hearts set on getting to know the various cities you plan to visit? We rather sense the latter.

1. Too packed an itinerary

Europe is a lot larger than many outsiders imagine, and your itinerary touches only a small part of western Europe. You have fourteen days for your explorations (including your days of arrival in and departure from Europe). Let’s assume that you spend at least a couple of nights in London after flying in, and you want to be back in London on the eve of your departure. That brings the time available for the round trip through continental Europe down to ten nights.

Stamp your ticket!Taking the fastest trains, your itinerary from London to Rome and back (as specified) would take 75 hours. Are you really thinking of spending six or seven hours every single day on trains? If you use slower night trains, you can sleep from one city to the next, but your 75 hours travel becomes closer to 100 hours.

Our view is that this could so easily turn out to be the trip from hell. Of course, you could use night trains for some legs, but you are still spending much time travelling. At the pace you propose you have only one day to see some cities. Yes, that is do-able, but how much can you see in that time?

Let’s take an example. You could leave your hotel in Rome before 7 AM and be in the middle of Venice in time for lunch. You could sightsee in Venice for the afternoon, and catch a night train at 9 PM direct to Vienna. You would be in the middle of Vienna by 9 AM next morning – great if like us you sleep very well on night trains. But if you don’t sleep perfectly, you could arrive shattered and it’ll be too early to be able to check into a hotel.

The sequence in which you have ordered the cities is very sensible, but the entire itinerary is too condensed. Over a couple of months it could be fun. Packed into a few days, it might become an ordeal. You could possibly shift Amsterdam towards the end as it could easily be accommodated en route from Berlin to London, assuming you had no real wish or need to go back through Paris a second time. So the home stretch back to London would now look as follows:

Berlin to Amsterdam: 7 hrs by day (with one train change en route at Amersfoot)
Amsterdam to London: 5 hrs by day (with one change at Bruxelles Midi)

Moving Amsterdam to later in the sequence then frees you up to take the Palatino night train direct from Paris to Rome. Departure is around 6 PM each day. Lovely train – you can enjoy dinner on board as the countryside south of Paris slips by outside the window. It is a super way to spend a summer evening.

Bear in mind that our aggregate travel figure is time on the actual trains. Add in transfers in each city from hotel to train and vv, and your time for sightseeing is even more eaten up by travelling.

Our feeling is that each city on your list deserves a week – not just a few hours. At the very least, you need two full non-travel days in each city just to begin to scrape the surface. That implies three nights in each city. With the time you have you could perhaps pack in three cities on the continent (ie. apart from London) but surely not more.

2. What kind of Europe

Europe is a continent of countryside and small towns. The places you propose to visit are busy, cosmopolitan, and (dare we say) much favoured by international tourists. They are spots you can be sure of finding Starbucks, crushed ice and waiters who speak English.

But there is another Europe – the Europe favoured by many Europeans. If you could throw in a dose of small town Europe, you would find out so much more about our continent, our lives and our varied cultures. And if you are to travel so fast, then it is easier to get the flavour of a country in a smaller place. Better Bergamo than Rome; better Potsdam, Görlitz or Quedlinburg than Berlin; better Shaftesbury, Lavenham or Cambridge than London.

Why not drop some big cities in favour of smaller places? Relax. Take time and watch the sun set behind the mountains in the Alps. Less might be more.

All aboard!3. Advance booking is the way to deep discounts

You suggest that you may not qualify for any discounted fare. This is not the case. Anyone in Europe can qualify for a discounted fare.

Let us take Vienna to Berlin as an example, using the only direct trains that link the two cities. These all run via Prague and Dresden (yes… more temptations Victor, we know, for now you’ll surely want to pack in an afternoon in each of those two cities as well).

If you just pitch up in Vienna and buy the Berlin ticket on the day (and that is always possible), the regular one-way fare is €117. If you purchase the ticket well in advance (we always recommend 10 to 12 weeks), then you can ride the same route on the same trains for €29. Even with the cheapest fares, you can still break your journey (in Prague, Dresden or anywhere else on the way), but you have to specify that at the time of booking. With the full fare you do not need to pre-specify stopovers.

If you book slightly in advance, say just a week or two before travel, you will still get a ticket for way less than €117, but it will no longer be €29. For a midweek off-peak day, booked a week in advance, you might pay €49. For a peak summer travel day, you might pay €99. But chances are that you will still get a discount.

But it is not as if students or seniors can somehow get privileged access to the rock bottom €29 fare. You can secure the most heavily discounted fares if you book well in advance. Advance booking is the key to cheap travel – not age.

4. Night train fares and the Eurail pass

If you take our suggestion above of using the Palatino train from Paris to Rome, bear in mind the fares structure. We give this as just one further example of how much fares can vary. That run can cost as little as €76 per person if booked in advance (using the Artesia Depart+Go fare). Or as much as €265 each if you book at short notice and opt for the highest class of accommodation (ie. sole occupancy of a sleeper compartment).

Be wary of rail passes sold outside Europe. If you are doing a very packed itinerary, spending hours each day on trains, they may be great value. But check the small print. For many routes they may not offer entirely free travel.

Let’s go back to our Artesia example above, using the Palatino night train from Paris to Rome. Book now, and as we said you could get tickets for €76. If you have a rail pass that includes either France or Italy, you might imagine you would ride for free. But actually not – a Eurailpass valid in France or Italy will give you a €6 discount on the €76 Depart+Go fare. So you pay €70 in all.

5. More information and booking

Web sites are great for travel planning, and you can book most or even all these tickets online now – even before you leave the US. We would advise that, rather than waiting (as you imply in your question) until you arrive in the UK to book tickets.

And remember that the best deals will always be on the websites run by the rail operators – not those run by agents outside Europe. To get the best from those websites, use the native language versions of them.

Once your exact itinerary is clear we can advise you the best site to book each leg. You could end up using such a variety of services, that you might be looking to a mix of train companies for your bookings: Eurostar, DB, Thalys, Artesia, SNCF, Trenitalia, SBB, ÖBB and more besides.

With a packed itinerary like this, and so many trains, there will surely be a hitch or two along the way. In such cases, there is no substitute for a printed timetable – and it is good at the planning phase too. We suggest you purchase the current (ie. March 2010) issue of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. Details are available on the Thomas Cook website. That will be a great asset in planning.

You might also consider getting the June issue in due course too – just to ensure that the schedules you have with you on the actual journey are bang up-to-date.

6. Apologia

So, Victor, we fear we have not answered your questions quite as you would have wished. But we hope that in these words there is something that will assist you in your travel planning. We wish you and your two traveling companions a fun time as you journey through Europe.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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5 Responses to “European Train Travel: Some important considerations before booking tickets”

Jennifer says:

Hi,

Sorry to bother you but I’ve been using your site to plan part of my trip this summer and I seem to have hit a road block everywhere. Is there a website, or a book I can order that will tell me if it is even possible to take the train to and from several of my locations?

Any help would be most appreciated.

Jennifer
The book you absolutely need is that mentioned above, viz. the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, which lists all principal train services in Europe. A new edition is published each month. There are few parts of Europe to which the rail network does not extend. Why not just mention here the places you plan to visit, and someone here on EuroCheapo will surely be able quickly to confirm whether they are served by train.
Susanne and Nicky
editors / hidden europe magazine

Jennifer says:

Thank you so much for your response. I plan to travel from Paris to Nijmegen, Netherlands and from Berlin to Gydnia, Poland. Any idea if I can do it by rail?

Hi Jennifer

Berlin to Gydnia is a simple journey, although it does always involve at least one change of train. An example would be 0811 from Berlin Ost gets in Gydnia at 1449, with an easy change of train (35 minutes wait) at Szczecin. There are three later departures from Berlin each day. €49 one way. No price advantage in booking in advance.

Paris to Nijmegen is even simpler. Hourly trains from Paris Nord from dawn till dusk. The journey can be done with just one change of train (in Amsterdam) but you can clip 30 minutes off the journey time by changing twice (EITHER Rotterdam and Utrecht OR Bruxelles and Rosendaal). In all, it is a 4 to 5 hour journey. €45 to €100 one way, depending on how long you book in advance and which route you take.

Nicky

Wiwik says:

Very interesting article, thanks! Help me thinking of my train travel plan in central europe this fall. I plan on solo to travel from Prague – Bratislava – Budapest – Italy/Switzerland (22 days), and still thinking whether it’s cheaper using train or bus.

I am Asian girl plan to travel alone in Central Europe, do you think it is safe to travel alone to those countries. Can you recommend small country at those place, I’m interested in places that is not too touristy, so hidden places (and safe for girl traveling alone) will be very useful info.

Thanks!

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