Difference between revisions of "Rail travel in Europe"
Revision as of 16:03, 21 October 2011
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 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 comperhansive 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.
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. Czechia, Austria) offering the highest flexibility and easiest to understand.
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. International tickets sold don't use TCV anymore either, instead railways have assorted partnerships and offer tickets and specials for competitive prices, 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 to cheap domestic tickets from Vienna to the border and Istanbul to the border, saving you as much as €200 off of a single ticket.
Advance booking can normally be done online, through the websites of the national railway companies. 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 incur extra cost). 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. In some countries (e.g. France, Italy) you need to date stamp your train ticket before boarding. Otherwise, the ticket is not valid and you will be fined (e.g. a €108 fine in France).
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 Czechia there are discounted one-day network tickets for groups up to 5 people.
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:
Generally, City Star tickets are valid one month.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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
For the Netherlands:
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. 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.
Passenger rail companies