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How to book the cheapest train tickets in Europe

Going to Disneyland
Going to Disneyland

Traveling by train is comfortable, exciting, convenient, and very often the cheapest way to get from A to B in Europe. Our Train Ticket Search Engine does a great job of finding the best deals, but there are a few extra tips that can help you save even more.

Rail pass or point to point tickets?

That is the big question. Should you get a rail pass or simply travel point to point? Apart from cost differences, several advantages apply to either.

Point to point tickets are usually suitable for passengers travelling one or two sectors and/or on shorter distances. Rail passes are a better choice for anyone doing several train trips within a one- or two-month period. HINT: Most rail passes are currently on sale. Check out our specials.

Certain countries are usually cheaper going point to point and others are almost always better on a pass.

Countries where point to point tickets are often cheaper:

  • Italy (with TI instant purchase Super Economy and Economy fares)
  • Germany (with DB Sparpreis fares)

Countries where rail passes are usually the way to go:

IMPORTANT: This applies to most cases, but we recommend that you always check to make sure you are choosing the cheapest option.

Helpful hint: If you are booking the point to point train tickets by yourself, keep an eye on the total. If the sum exceeds $200 or $300 for a single country, or $400-$500 for multiple countries, you should most likely do a comparison against the rail pass cost. Do not forget to count in the seat reservation fees, which average at around $16 to $20 per train, but can be more expensive on premium trains like Eurostar, Thalys, TGV Lyria and AVE services in Spain.

If your itinerary is complicated and involves several travel days, let us do the work for you. Simply send us your itinerary and we will make sure you get the biggest bang for your buck.

Don't forget about the round-trip fares, especially on Eurostar and UK trains

Eurostar
Eurostar Train

On certain services, round-trip fares are slightly cheaper, and that applies especially to Eurostar and most of the trains in the UK.

If you are travelling from London to Paris and back, do not book the train journeys separately as two one-way tickets. Make sure you select the "Return" option on our website to grab the cheaper "RT" fares.

Example: A one-way ticket from London to Paris or from Paris to London costs $133 in Standard class, so $266 in total, but if you book it as a round trip, the total cost would be $222, which is more than $40 cheaper. This is just an example, so make sure you check for your dates. The savings could be either bigger or smaller  depending on the availability.

A similar scenario applies to most UK tickets, so dont forget to click the Return button before you start your search.

IMPORTANT note about refunds and exchanges: If a round-trip ticket is booked, any changes have to be done to the entire journey, which can make exchange or cancellation fees much higher. If you think you might be changing one of the dates on the Eurostar service, book two one-way tickets.

Book UK rail 12 weeks or less before your trip

Most UK rail companies release the cheaper Advance fares 12 weeks prior to the travel dates, so we do not recommend you book any

Big Ben London
Big Ben in London

earlier than that. If you do, only Anytime fares will show up, which are usually significantly more expensive. They do offer more flexibility so it might be what you are looking for.

Let's do a rundown of the different fare types in the UK:

Anytime Fares

With these fares, you can travel on any train at any time of the day, any day of the week on your chosen date of travel. Seat reservations are not included in this fare.

Off-Peak Fares

These tickets are priced lower than Anytime fares but are only available for travel on Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak services on the chosen date(s) of travel. Remember, you can travel with all these tickets at any time on weekends and public holidays. However, time restrictions apply:

They are valid anytime on weekends, and after 10:00 am on Monday-Fridays. They are also not valid on trains leaving London (or Reading, Watford, Luton or Stevenage) between 16:00-19:00 Mondays-Fridays. Seat reservations are not included in this fare.

Advance Fares

These tickets are single (one-way) tickets for selected journeys available in First Class and Standard Class, offering the best available price for each journey, including discounts of between 15% and 60%. Tickets must be purchased in advance and are subject to availability. Advance tickets go on sale up to 12 weeks before travel. The tickets come with an automatic seat reservation.

Different countries, different pricing rules

Even outside the UK, the train operators dont always work with the same systems, so it's good to know that certain countries have specific ways to book their best fares. Here are a few tips to help you with that:

Train Italy
Trenitalia

Trains crossing Italian borders

All domestic trains in Italy can be issued on cheaper instant purchase fares, however, these don't get pushed through the system if the ticket is booked in conjunction with an international train connection, so we recommend you always check the domestic connections separately and compare the cost.

In addition, Italy has two main train carriers (Trenitalia and Italo), which compete with each other on major routes. In order to do a proper comparison, always split up domestic journeys as well if you are price sensitive. 

Sparpreis fare in Germany

Most routes in Germany (including international connections) offer a discounted Sparpreis fare. This fare is available even with transfers, so make sure you check the entire journey for the best price. If you search each segment individually, prices might add up to be more expensive.

EXTRA HINT: If the cheaper fare is showing without a seat reservation, give us a call and we can add it manually for free in first class or for $8 in second class but only if the reservation is booked at the same time. BEWARE: After the tickets are issued, seat reservations can only be added separately for $16 in either class (not compulsory).

Traveling between France and Switzerland on a pass

Passholder fares on the TGV Lyria train between France and Switzerland are ridiculously expensive (more than $100 per person), but there is a trick that might be useful to budget travellers.

If you are on a pass and travelling from France to Switzerland via Geneva or Basel, you can book the high-speed service to Bellegarde for Geneva and to Mulhouse for Basel, which costs only $18 per person. Then there are frequent local train connections to Geneva and Basel respectively that do not require seat reservations.

This saves you about $80 per person and it only takes half an hour more in most cases.

TGV Lyria map
TGV Lyria Network map

Save with European East Rail pass (Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia)

A regional pass that is often overlooked is the European East Rail pass. It's a very handy rail pass that is worth considering even if you are not visiting all the 4 countries listed. In certain cases, it might even be cheaper than the single country pass for Austria. Here are some key differences:

  • The pass is valid on all non-stop trains on the German leg of the section between Kufstein and Salzburg if you do not change or leave the train. Perfect if you are travelling from Vienna/Salzburg to Innsbruck and beyond. On contrary, the Austrian pass does not include the German part and a supplement of applies ($55 for second class, and $95 for first class - one way).
  • The regional pass comes in 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10-day option whereas the Austrian pass has only 3, 4, 5 and 8 days. The Austrian pass is useful for shorter periods, whereas you should compare it to the regional pass for longer durations.
  • Austrian pass is valid for 11 months after the issue whereas the European East Rail pass expires in 6 months.

Watch out for deals and promotions

Keep in mind that you can always save extra with our specials and promotions. You can currently get an Early Bird discount on the Eurostar train or up to 20% discount on European rail passes across the continent - consider this when you calculate your best options.

Save this site to keep an eye on all the current specials.

BONUS TIP: Use the search engine on our website

Our website has a ton of useful information about trains all around the globe, so we understand it's easy to get lost and not find what you are looking for. Don't forget the incredibly useful search engine in the top right corner of our website. You don't have to sift through every single menu - simply type in what you are looking for, and voila!

Rail Plus search bar
The location of the search bar

There you go! Plenty of tips that can help you make your next journey remarkable for the best possible price. Do you have any tips you would like to add? Simply comment below.

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