Train Travel in Europe: The Ultimate Guide
We’ve already talked about the advantages of travelling Europe by train vs budget flights or coach in our ultimate guide to travelling Europe. We have to say it: the convenience, comfort and flexibility give train travel through Europe the edge for many routes.
But working out how to travel Europe by train – with tickets, Eurail/Interrail passes, seat reservations, supplements and more to consider – can be a minefield. As European rail travel experts, we spend our time working out the cheapest and most efficient ways to get travellers from A to B while they’re exploring. So trust us when we say we know our stuff.
In this guide, we’ll explain all the options for getting around. We’ll also talk about how you can use them to get the most out of your travels. We’ve split this ultimate Europe train travel guide into sections for easy reading:
- Travel Europe by Train: The Overview
- Interrail and Eurail Passes: how it works
- Seat reservations & supplements:
- Worth the extra? First class versus second class train travel in Europe
- Night Trains: Overnight train travel in Europe
- Advance tickets: how to book train travel in Europe
- Accessibility: Disabled Train travel in Europe
- Getting it all sorted
Let’s kick off…
Europe Train Travel: The Overview
If you haven’t read our Ultimate Guide to Travelling Europe, here’s the short version…
Travelling Europe by train is easy, comfortable, scenic and efficient. Compared to flights or budget busses, your journeys will be easier and more comfortable – plus there’s far less risk of being caught with extra charges for luggage or checking in! Most parts of Europe have excellent high-speed networks, and even on slower routes you’ll still get amazing views and more space to stretch your legs. Overland travel gives you a great chance to see the landscape change in front of your eyes – from mountains to coastal vistas and rolling countryside. Bring a picnic, or head to the buffet carriage to enjoy lunch with a view. If you fancy a touch of luxury, you can upgrade to first class to make the experience extra special.
Depending on the type of tickets that you decide on, you might have some flexibility. Or, save money by opting for fixed times – plus you’ll be guaranteed a seat. Once you arrive, you’ll generally find yourself right in the heart of the city, making it easy to get to your accommodation quickly. No messing about with baggage reclaim or taxis required!
There are loads of different way to sort out your travels in Europe, but if you’re interested in Europe train travel packages, check out ours here!
The Interrail or Eurail pass:
What is Interrail/Eurail?
Interrail and Eurail passes are two types of European rail pass, used for travelling Europe by train.
Both types of pass are very similar in usage – your nationality or residence decides which sort of pass you need.
Each pass allows you to travel within and between European countries by train. The passes are valid for a set number of travel days within a usage period.
Should I buy an Interrail or a Eurail pass?
You are eligible for an Interrail pass if you’re:
A. A European citizen (or if you have dual citizenship) and you hold a European passport.
B. A non-European citizen who has lived in a European country for at least 6 months.
You need a Eurail pass if neither of these rules applies to you.
What kind of Interrail/Eurail passes are there?
Both Interrail and Eurail passes come in different types, and are available for people of all ages (so not just students!).
There is a reduction in price for under 28s and for over 60s – so make sure you buy a pass for the correct age group, or it won’t be valid. Don’t think you can pay less by “looking young” – unfortunately, your passport number and date of birth will be printed on the ticket – so you probably won’t get away with it!
One country vs. global passes:
Interrail and Eurail passes come in a variety of different prices, and you can buy either a “single country” or a “global” pass. For the global pass, you’ll also need to choose how long you want to use the pass for:
- You can buy a single country pass which is always valid for 1 month, but only within one country (or a selection of countries in the case of the Benelux pass).
- Or, you can buy a “global” pass which is valid across the whole of Europe (or, at least most of it). You can choose how long you want to use them for: up to 15 days, 22 days or 1 month. Each option has a different price.
As well as choosing how long you want the pass to be valid for, there is an option to select how many “travel days” you want.
What is an Interrail travel day?
An Interrail “Travel day” is a day when you will be using your pass to travel by train from one of your destinations to the next. There is no limit on the number of trains you can get within the 24 hour period.
Within the usage period (of up to 30 days) you will be asked how many “travel days” you want to have.
For interrail the options (from cheapest to most expensive) are:
- 5 travel days within a period of 15 days
- 7 travel days within a period of 30 days
- 10 travel days within a period of 30 days
- 15 travel days within a period of 30 days
- Travel every day within a period of 22 days
- Travel every day within a period of 1 month
For Eurail the number of days are slightly different, but the principle is the same. Already got your Interrail or Eurail pass and not sure how to use it? Check out our step by step guide on how to use your Interrail/Eurail pass.
How do I know what kind of Interrail/Eurail pass I need?
For most people, the best way to work out what kind of pass you need is to first work out your route and then plan how long you’ll be travelling Europe by train. Next, work out how many travel days you will be taking. Then you need to work out which journeys will require additional seat reservations, and work out how much it will cost to buy those on top.
Unfortunately, the addition of Interrail reservations can make choosing your pass quite confusing. Sometimes the high cost of certain interrail reservations means that it makes more sense to choose a cheaper pass and buy a few extra tickets at full price, but then you’re into all sorts of comparisons and calculations… So where do you start!?! Luckily when you book with us, we work out exactly which tickets, passes and reservations you’ll need and which combination works out the cheapest.
Let’s talk more about these pesky reservations…
Interrail/Eurail seat reservations and supplements:
What is an Interrail/Eurail seat reservation?
Interrail or Eurail seat reservations are extra bookings required on certain trains when travelling Europe using an Interrail or Eurail pass. They are not tickets, but are used together with your rail pass to allow you onto certain services.
As well as being compulsory to board certain services, they also guarantee you a seat on the train that you’ve selected. That can be a bonus in peak season when trains get really busy!
Once you’ve purchased a reservation, you’ll need to stick to the train time you’ve selected, as the reservation is only valid for that departure.
Do I have to buy an Interrail reservation?
If you’re using a rail pass and the route you’re taking has a “reservation required” symbol on it, unfortunately, you must buy one. If you do not present a reservation with your pass when your ticket is checked, you’ll be asked to either leave the train at the next stop or pay a fine of up to 50 euros. Nobody wants that, so make sure you do your research before you go!
How do I know when I need one?
Good question, and unfortunately that can be tricky. The rules change regularly and the information is not always easy to find. As a general rule, you will need one on any high-speed train in Western Europe, and on any sleeper train.
On local and regional trains it’s usually not necessary to have a reservation. For our full guide on this, head to our Interrail reservations guide. When you book with us, we’ll buy you all the passes, tickets and reservations you need, tell you which ones to use and when, and let you know where you can travel without any. Easy!
If you want to check requirements, the best app for train travel in Europe is DB Navigator. This gives you pretty up to date information about all European services as far as possible.
How much does an Interrail/Eurail Reservation cost?
The cost varies depending on each country’s rail services but generally falls between 5 euros and 30 euros.
If you’re looking to save money and you aren’t short of time, it might be worth seeking out slower journeys so that you can avoid paying for reservations on certain routes – plus, you might get an awesome view!
When we book trips for our customers, we work out the most cost and time efficient way to do each journey. Using our comparison software, we find the best possible combination of full fare tickets, rail passes and reservations. This means we can work out the cheapest possible cost. That means we reduce the cost for you guys, while booking the journeys that make the most sense for your trip. Create your dream route here with our interactive map planner.
First class versus second class train travel in Europe:
Usually, trains in Europe have two class options – 1st and 2nd. On high-speed trains in Spain and Italy you may also find more options to suit various budgets and comfort levels. First class train travel in Europe usually costs significantly more than second class – first class tickets could be 3 or 4 times the price when bought on the day. You can also choose a first-class rail pass and first class reservations if you go for an Interrail or Eurail pass. These cost around twice the price of their second class siblings, but you also pay more for seat reservations.
The differences between first and second class trains are most noticeable in Western Europe – France, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy all have pretty luxurious first class options. For train travel through Eastern Europe, there’s less of a difference as services are slower and trains older as a general rule. Here it might well not make a lot of difference whether you upgrade or not.
If you’re not sure whether this is something you might want to splurge on, check out the major differences in service level below:
- Second class trains provide basic but comfortable facilities, with drinks and snacks available to purchase. Some high-speed trains will offer free entertainment or wifi.
- You can always reserve a seat, whether you’re in first or second class.
- First class trains will provide more spacious seats with more leg room than second class.
- First class carriages will generally be quieter with fewer passengers.
- On major high-speed routes, first class may well offer additional perks, such as free drinks/snacks, free WIFI and complimentary newspapers.
- On regional routes, there are unlikely to be any additional benefits beyond more space. For these trains, it may not be worth paying the extra.
Overnight train travel in Europe:
Overnight transport can be a great way to maximise your time when travelling Europe by train. All night trains will require an extra supplement to be paid, on top of your Interrail or Eurail pass.
As we’ve mentioned in our video guide, here are a range of different options for overnight travel. You can choose based on your preferred comfort level and budget between the following:
- Seat – the cheapest option, you’ll have a seat in a normal carriage, which reclines back a little bit.
- Couchette – you’ll share a cabin with other travellers. Couchettes are normally for 6 people and offer a small bed with sheet and blanket for you to use. A more comfortable option than a seat, but cheaper than a sleeper.
- Sleeper – depending on your group number, you’ll share your cabin with other travellers. Sleeper compartments are for up to 3 people, with a comfy bed, duvet, sink and space for hanging clothes. Often refreshments and breakfast are included.
- Private sleeper – the same as a sleeper, but you book out the whole cabin for yourself and/or your group. This is the most expensive option, offering the highest level of comfort.
How much does a night train supplement cost?
The costs vary a huge amount; a seat or couchette could start from as little as 10-30 euros. A private sleeper could set you back over 200 euros!
Some overnight trains – such as the night train from Venice to Paris – don’t offer Interrail reservations. Instead they just offer you a discount of around 25% off full price tickets with your pass. These might be best avoided if you’re looking to save money.
After all this talk of Interrail and Eurail passes, it’s easy to forget that these passes aren’t the only way to travel Europe by rail! In many cases rail passes provide great value, but not always. If your journey is short or will involve a lot of costly reservations, it might actually be cheaper to buy your tickets individually.
Advance tickets can be even cheaper than a pass – particularly if you check different booking sites for deals. The only down-side is that booking in advance means losing some flexibility. For the cheapest fares, you generally have to stick to the chosen service. If you miss it, you will be asked to buy a new ticket!
We’d advise booking as early as you can manage – at least 2 months is best in most cases. This will give you the greatest choice of times at the best prices. Different providers have different bookings horizons, so you’ll need to keep your eye on the ball to keep track of availability. You can use the handy DB Navigator app to reliably check which times are available across most providers.
It’s also worth noting that a large percentage of European train tickets are not available as E-tickets. Remember that you’ll need to factor in P&P processing time and costs – or use a local agent in your home country.
Disabled train travel in Europe:
If you or someone that you’re travelling with has a disability, rail travel is an awesome way to make your dream trip reality! Travelling by rail avoids a lot of the issues you might come across when flying or taking buses. In Western Europe, most trains have disabled access, station assistance and wheelchair spaces available. Depending on your needs, you may or may not need to contact your travel agent or directly contact the rail company to arrange your journey. Eastern European trains can be more difficult, due to older trains and stations – so if in doubt make sure you check!
If you/your companion is able to walk short distances or can get themselves in and out of your wheelchair unaccompanied, you may not need to do anything. Wheelchairs that fold can be stored in luggage racks, and you can book yourself a regular seat if you feel confident to do so. If you need to book a wheelchair space for your journey, this can usually be done over the phone or online. Wheelchair spaces are standard in all Western European trains, as are ramps for access if required. Station assistance can also be booked in advance should you need it.
If you or your companion uses a power-chair, or needs to be accompanied by a carer, it’s not a problem either. Carers can often travel for free/at a discounted rate, and assistance with ramps and station mobility can be arranged in advance. There may be some restrictions on the kinds of trains you can travel on, but as long as you know the dimensions of your chair, this is easy to check and accommodate. If you need to change trains during your journey, you can arrange for a station assistant to pick you up from one train and make sure you get onto your next one too.
Due to the variety of needs different travellers have, it’s best to contact the rail provider directly to explain your requirements. Alternatively, contact us to explain your dream trip, and we’ll do our best to make it happen!
Preparing to travel Europe by train is super exciting, but it can also be stressful. Unless you’ve got a lot of time to spend researching and comparing prices, getting the cheapest possible deal can be tricky! You’ll need to do your research. That means visiting different booking sites to check prices and book individual tickets.
If you’re smart, a combination of all the above ticket types can be the way to get maximum value from your trip. Remember to ensure you follow all the rules of travel too – to avoid any unnecessary costs. Obviously we think the best way to book train travel in Europe without the hassle is to do it through Euroventure… we might be a little biased, but we’re happy to help with any level of service – from buying your train tickets through us to embarking on one of our independent Europe trips or group tours! You can always contact us for more information on what we do.
Make sure you think about the type of experience you want too. For some people, a rail pass may still be the best option, even if it’s not the cheapest. That’ll certainly be the case if you want a bit of flexibility in your Europe trip. Making last minute changes to your advance tickets will cost you a fortune, and the trip is supposed to be fun at the end of the day!
If you already know where you want to go, but don’t know where to start with booking all the tickets, we have a variety of options to suit.
Euroventure are a Deutschebahn ticketing agency, as well as an ABTA accredited tour operator. If you’re already busy planning, we sell individual European rail tickets, Interrail & Eurail passes and reservations. Or, if you’d prefer a zero stress option, we offer self-guided European rail trips including transport & accommodation, as well as small group tours.
If you know you want to travel Europe, but don’t know where to start – that’s cool too! We have a range of tools to help you plan your trip. Plan your Europe trip with our custom route builder. Get inspired with our pre-set routes, or check out our help and advice section for more tips.
You can also contact us any time – no question is too big or too small.
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