A beginner’s guide to booking train tickets in Europe

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booking train tickets in Europe

Planning train travel in Europe can be confusing when you don't know how. But doing your homework will pay off, saving you money and stress. Read our insider tips before you get started.

We’ve pooled our insider knowledge about booking train tickets in Europe to bring you the ultimate beginner’s guide. From advance booking and night trains to split ticketing, we’ve penned ten tips to get you on the right track…

1. Book your tickets in advance

To maximise your chances of finding cheap fares, you should plan and book well in advance. But knowing how far in advance to book is a bit of a nightmare. Most trains in Europe are available 3 calendar months in advance (this usually equates to 90 days, but this varies month on month). However, there are exceptions, like Eurostar (120 days), Spanish trains (62 days) and seasonal services like the ski train to France or direct train to Avignon which get released all at once, months in advance.

Depending on where in Europe you’re traveling, you’ll need to be aware of one or more booking horizons to get the cheapest prices. The booking horizons for popular journeys are included in our Destinations booking guides, and if you’re planning really far ahead you can use the tool on those pages to set an email reminder for when booking opens. We’ve also created a quick-look country guide in the Q&A section: How far in advance can I book trains in Europe?

2. Life on the slow train

In the rail industry, time is money, with high-speed and peak trains often coming in at the top end of the price bracket. If you’re not pushed for time, you may find slower trains, travelling during off-peak hours or outside of weekends, cheaper than their high-speed equivalent. However, because high-speed trains sometimes offer cheap promotional fares, it’s worth checking how advance fares compare with tickets for slower, regional trains. Sometimes you’ll find that the high-speed promo fares undercut the slower services when booked in advance. But nearer the date of travel, regional trains come into their own as the yield managed fares of the high-speed trains shoot up. Loco2 pre-selects the cheapest fare in search results, but it’s up to you to check the duration of the journey and make a decision that suits you.

3. Changing trains

Always check the duration of interchanges if you’re changing trains, and whether you’re changing platforms, or travelling between two stations. We provide information about changing trains in Paris, or changing platforms in Brussels but you should always check that you’re happy with the time allotted between trains before you book. If you need more time (if you’ve got lots of luggage, or children!) we recommend building more time into your journey by splitting your tickets. Even if you don’t need the extra time, an extra hour or two in Paris never hurt anyone – stop off for a coffee or a glass of wine and savour the journey.

Sometimes, it’s also possible to amend your journey details to avoid a station change. For example, lots of TGVs to the south of France and elsewhere, depart from Lille as well as Paris. Although journey times may be longer via Lille you may prefer the stress-free option of a simple same-station change. Search results on Loco2 often don’t show these options by default, but you can build your own journey manually if you want to travel via another route.

changing train clock

4. Rail pass vs point-to-point tickets

A frequently asked question in travel forums is “should I buy a rail pass or individual tickets?”. The answer, and this probably explains why it’s asked so often, is that it depends.

Time was when rail passes (Interrail Pass, Eurail Pass etc) were exceedingly good value, with the majority of trains included and reservations not required. But over the last decade, the cost-effectiveness of a rail pass has plummeted, as advance fares bring the price of point-to-point tickets down and more train companies add a supplement to peak services. These days, with more high-speed services, and compulsory reservations for overnight and peak-time trains, pass holders often pay a premium or are required to book a separate ticket altogether. For these reasons, in our opinion, it seldom makes good financial sense to book a rail pass. If you’re only planning on making 3 or 4 journeys during your trip, you’ll usually save more money by planning ahead and booking point-to-point tickets in advance.

So when is a railpass worthwhile? Well if you plan on doing a lot of train travel and are flexible with dates then a pass could be the answer. Basically they’re ideal if you want to go “interrailing” without a fixed itinerary. There are a dizzying array of options, from Global passes for the whole of Europe to country-specific passes. You can also choose between a Continuous pass, for travel on consecutive days, or Flexi passes, for a specified number of days within the duration of your pass (e.g. 10 days in a month). If you don’t have firm dates or don’t want to be tied down by a fixed itinerary, then rail passes can save you money when you waltz up the station on the day (compared to a ‘walk-on’ fare for non-pass holders).

5. Check the delivery options for your ticket

Depending on your route and trains, delivery options may include postal, print-at-home or collect-at-station for your tickets. We only deliver postal tickets to UK addresses, so although we accept international credit cards, we can’t guarantee that we can sell every ticket to every person. An increasing number of tickets are available to print-at-home, but some services, including the majority of night trains, aren’t available yet. Loco2 shows the delivery options available for your tickets on the basket page, and if you have several journeys in your basket will will show you the delivery options common to them all. If you’re outside of the UK and can’t find a suitable print-at-home or collect at station ticket on Loco2 then head over to our Q&As and we’ll see if we can help.

6. Split-ticketing

Many rail booking systems can’t handle multi-leg trips i.e. those with more than 2 or 3 changes, so you may see no search results. In order to bypass this kind of rail fail, you sometimes need to play the system to find the tickets you want. Splitting your trip into parts and booking individual parts separately means you can build more complex journeys, and sometimes save money too. Splitting your search at the capital city of your destination country is often a good place to start. Loco2 has a shopping basket to make this process a bit easier – you can add several journeys to your basket (reservations will be held for 30mins) – and pay them in one go instead of making multiple transactions. If you need advice on a route to a particular place, consult our Destinations booking guides, or just ask!

7. Flexibility costs more but it might pay off

Whether you invest in a railpass or book point-to-point tickets, flexibility comes at a price. Tickets which permit refunds and exchanges cost more, while the cheapest tickets are non-exchangeable, non-refundable and usually fixed to a specific time and date. Consider your options carefully before you buy, and remember that fare conditions are binding. Even if we wanted to, Loco2 cannot alter fare conditions after sale, so if you choose a cheap non-flexible ticket you’re stuck with it. If you’re in any doubt about your journey, consider paying more to buy some flexibility.

Read the small print

8. Actually read the fare conditions

At some point, everyone has been guilty of ticking the ‘I have read the terms and conditions’ without reading them. We’ve all done it, but with train tickets, the information in your fare conditions could impact your precious holiday. So reading them is vital. Often, the cheapest train tickets are advance purchase discount fares, sold on a no-refund, no-exchange basis. Treat your international train ticket purchases as you would a flight bookings – research, choose your train, read the fare conditions and then book. Loco2 always adheres the carrier’s terms and conditions, and we can only offer refunds when they are explicitly permitted. Read the small print and know what you’re buying to avoid any nasty surprises. Only place your booking when you’re certain of your itinerary.

9. Consider making longer connections by overnight train

An excellent way to save time and money when travelling by train is to travel overnight. There are lots of sleeper trains between major cities in Europe, and they’re comfortable and convenient. Because they don’t all run every day of the week, we advise in our booking guides when we think taking the night train is the best way to reach your destination. It’s also a good way to travel if you want to spend your precious daylight hours exploring the sights!

10. Know your rights (CIV)

When booking train tickets in Europe, it’s important to know your rights if you experience cancellations, delays or miss a connecting train due to problems on your trip. Although the conditions of carriage will vary, international train trips (those which cross a border) are protected under conditions of carriage for international rail passengers (CIV). Among other things, the CIV state that if you miss a connection due to a delay, you will be entitled to onward passage on the next available train, even if the fare conditions of your tickets don’t permit it. The important thing with CIV is that you ask the guard on the delayed service to validate your ticket/s in order that they can they be used to travel on the next available train.

A good tip for passengers starting their journey in the UK, but outside London, is to buy a CIV ticket for the first part of your trip. This means that if your train from Oxford to London, for example, is delayed while on your way to catch a Eurostar, you’ll have the same protection as though you were on an international train. To buy a CIV ticket, search for trains to ‘London International’ on a few UK train booking sites (Raileasy and Quno to name a few). They’re a bit more expensive but well worth it for your peace of mind.

Images: woodleywonderworks, edited by Loco2
Christian.Senger reproduced with thanks under a CC Licence
  • Diane Robbins

    Thanks for your nice comment on Travel Snippets and More. Looks like you’ve got a lot of helpful information here. European train travel CAN be confusing.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Diane, we’re working on many of the things you mentioned in your post so that you can find timetables and tickets in one place and not pay over the odds for train travel. we’re lucky to have this amazing network, it just needs to be better tapped into! We could tell you were a seasoned pro when it came to train travel with all the insider tips you gave :)

  • http://twitter.com/TheCatholicTrav The Catholic Travel

    Great advice. Train travel is definitely the way to go if you want to see the country– or countries–at ground level rather than from 30,000 feet. I suspect intimidation plays a part in people not choosing rail and articles like this are a great help.