There are cheap European train tickets out there, but there's a certain knack to finding them! It's just a matter of knowing where, and crucially when to look. We share our tips on how to find the best European train bargains.
In the battle of trains versus planes, cheap flights tend to steal the show with no frills deals and easy-to-use websites. But, with a few tricks of the trade, you can bag early bird rail fares to rival the budget airlines. Read on for our tips on how to find the best European train bargains or, if your planned trip isn't included, check out our advice for finding cheap train tickets.
IN THIS POST
- Deutsche Bahn Saver tickets
- Two ways to save money in France
- Cheap Eurostar tickets
- Eurostar French Connections
- Discount Thalys fares
Deutsche Bahn Saver tickets
Where: London to any city in Germany
How much: €59 one-way (around £50) in Standard Class or €109 one-way (around £85) in First Class
When to book: 180 days in advance
If you're looking for cheap trains to Germany, the 'London Spezial' is worth knowing about. Also known as a Saver Fares (Sparpreis London in German), London Spezial tickets are best known for offering London to Berlin trains for £50. What few people know is that the same deal also applies to trains from London to almost any city in Germany!
The trick to finding a London Spezial is selecting Eurostar trains which connect with specified departures from Brussels and across the border into Germany. Every day there are typically four high-speed Intercity-Express (ICE) trains which offer these bargain train tickets. Monday - Sunday they depart at 06:25, 10:25, 14:25 and 18.25. Bear in mind that Eurostar operates a different timetable at the weekend so you won't always be shown connections that are eligible for the Saver Fare on Saturdays and Sundays.
Regardless of your destination within Germany, you can maximise your chance of finding a London Spezial ticket by searching for trains as soon as booking opens, 91 days in advance. Search at 6am to include the first Eurostar of the day, which connects to the 10:25 Brussels departure.
- If it's too early to book on your preferred dates, you'll be given an opportunity to set up a booking alert for train tickets. We'll send you an email as soon as booking opens so you have the best chance of grabbing the best value ticket. Read Setting up or managing a booking alert for further information.
- A "First Class" London Spezial ticket offers Standard Premier seats (as opposed to Business Premier) on the Eurostar portion of your trip, with complimentary drinks and a light meal included. This is a great way to enjoy Standard Premier Class on Eurostar, which can be expensive when bought separately.
- If you're keen on getting a good view, these tickets aren't recommended. Travellers with these value tickets (including members of the Loco2 team) often report being seated alongside the pillar i.e. between two windows.
Two ways to save money in France
#1 Intercités de Nuit
Where: All over France, while you sleep
How much: £44 one-way for a bunk in a 6-berth couchette
When to book: 3 months minus one day
Travelling through the night is a great, albeit not luxurious, way of reaching your destination while saving on accommodation costs. With the popularity of high-speed TGVs and daytime trains (see 'Prems' below) it's easy to overlook the night train, but if you want to enjoy a real European rail experience then you can't beat the sleeper. Unfortunately, night trains are something of a dying breed, in Western Europe at least, so enjoy them while you can.
The Intercités de Nuit is the collective name given to night trains in France, formally known as Lunéa sleeper trains. Paris is the hub for sleeper train services travelling to Briancon, Rodez and Latour de Carol. Other routes, such as the overnight train to Nice, were withdrawn in July 2016.
It's possible to reserve a bunk in a 6-berth couchette from just £44, sometimes even less, which is excellent value when you consider that you're also saving on a night's accommodation. The trick is to search for trains 3 months in advance, less one day. That's because the entire journey must be within the 3 months booking horizon (which applies to most trains in France) including the night spent asleep.
French night trains usually depart quite late from Paris, around 10 or 11pm and don't typically have catering facilities. We recommend allowing additional time for a meal before you set off.
Popular destinations: Paris to Toulouse
#2 TGV Prems
Where: French domestic and international TGVs
How much: from £20.00 one-way
When to book: 3 months ahead for domestic tickets, 120 days for international TGV
The list of stations served by high-speed TGV in France (and beyond) is vast, and far too many to list here! Suffice to say that this high-speed veteran gets around.
With so many trains in operation, and the French rail operator keen to run trains at full occupancy, there are plenty of good deals on offer to tempt you onto their tracks. 'Prems' tickets are the cheapest train tickets for long distance trains in France, offering a discount when booking non-flexible tickets in advance. Just bear in mind that you get good value by agreeing to strict terms - they can't be refunded or exchanged after booking.
- Tickets typically come on sale 3 months ahead, but during summer months the booking horizon is extended making it possible to book further in advance. Sign up to our newsletter to be among the first to know about a summer extension, or set a booking alert to get a route-specific reminder when booking opens.
- Cheap tickets are also available on international TGV, so look out for these tickets on France-Italy TGV and TGV Lyria from France to Switzerland. These can be booked 120 days in advance.
Cheap Eurostar tickets
Eurostar, all rights reserved.
Where: London to Paris, Brussels or Lille
How much: £41 one-way in Standard Class or £110 in Standard Premier
When to book: 180 days in advance
If you're a seasoned international rail traveller then finding the cheapest ticket for the Eurostar might seem like child's play. But if you're new to booking European trains, it pays to start with the basics.
Each Eurostar train has a limited batch of their cheapest fares, with prices from £41 one-way or £71 return. To find these, simply search for trains 180 days (6 months) in advance, or set a booking alert for your preferred travel dates to get a reminder when booking opens. The sooner you book, the greater your chance of finding the cheapest Eurostar tickets.
- Eurostar currently offer a modest discount for return tickets, and the cheapest fares seldom sell out in the first week or two of sales opening. So if you're planning a two-week holiday, it is usually worth waiting until your outbound and return journeys are available to book.
- If you're flexible with the time and date of your travel, consider an early morning or mid-week departure which tend to sell out more slowly, making it easier to find cheap tickets.
- If you want to go further afield in France, it may be worth waiting until the French Connection fares come on sale a month later (see below). These tickets, that combine the Eurostar with an onward TGV, can be cheaper than booking tickets separately.
Cheap tickets to France - Eurostar French Connections
Where: London to more than 50 cities in France
How much: £49 - £69 one-way depending on distance
When to book: 3 months in advance
In addition to selling tickets for trains to Paris, Brussels and Lille, Eurostar also offers low-cost train tickets in collaboration with France's national rail operator, SNCF. These combine Eurostar and high-speed TGV into one fare and offer a discount for travellers from the UK heading to destinations in France.
These tickets, known as "French Connection" tickets come on sale 3 months in advance to be consistent with the booking horizon for the rest of France. Though not always cheaper than buying a Eurostar and TGV ticket separately, you're guaranteed a seamless itinerary and avoid the hassle of multiple purchases.
Take trains to Avignon for example - bought separately at their cheapest, tickets for a Eurostar (180 days ahead) and TGV to Avignon (3 months in advance) can be as little as £71.00 in total. However, you run the risk of being stuck with a non-refundable Eurostar ticket (changeable for a fee) if you don't find a suitable connection train in France when they come on sale a month later. If you wait until the French Connection fares come on sale 3 months ahead, you'll pay just £69.00 one-way and be guaranteed that your whole journey is in the bag.
- If your journey involves a double-decker "TGV Duplex" train, choosing a French Connection ticket won't allow you to set a seating preference. You can still review the seats that have been allocated in your basket before checkout or edit your search to set a preference, see Double-decker TGV Duplex trainsfor further information.
- The list of destinations to which French Connection tickets are valid is quite long, so check out the popular destinations below or read our Trains to France guide for more inspiration.
Thalys discount fares
Where: Between Paris, Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam
How much: from £17 - £32 one-way (depending on distance)
When to book: 3 months in advance
The instantly recognisable high-speed Thalys fleet has been in operation for almost 20 years. Thalys dominated the high-speed rail market for more than a decade, travelling at a cool 300kph between Paris, Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam, with only a few stops en route. Although there is now competition on some routes, ICE trains from Brussels to Cologne for instance, there are still excellent value tickets on Thalys trains.
- The cheapest tickets can usually be found by searching 3 months ahead, but since 2015 Thalys have been experimenting with opening ticket sales earlier so it is worth checking further in advance.
- If you're considering a train which begins or ends in Germany, you might like to consider waiting until 91 days before travel so you can see the whole range of fares - from all rail operators - on that route. Search 3 months in advance and you'll see the Thalys tickets only, but wait until 91 days before and you'll find Saver Fares (Sparpreis) on the German ICE train alongside Thalys tickets.
Summertime, and the bookin' is easy
Extended booking is now open for summer train travel all over France until 27 August 2017!
Train stations then and now
We look at some of Europe's finest train stations, and see how they've changed over the years.