Tips for rail-tripping around Europe on a budget

European rail trip tips

I’ve always loved to travel by train, and an InterRail adventure travelling from one corner or Europe to another has been on my travel wishlist for years. Unfortunately I never seemed to manage to find a couple of months to spare to actually make it happen. But rather than putting it off forever, I decided to start a bit smaller, picking a shorter route to give me a taster this summer. Our ten-day trip – from Paris to Vienna via Strasbourg and the Alps – didn’t disappoint and I’m already planning my next (three or four) rail routes around different parts of Europe. But what did I learn along the way that I wish I’d have known before I started planning? Here are my top tips if you’re thinking of doing your own budget European rail adventure and aren’t sure where to start – from route planning to rail passes, scenic trips to packing tips.

Trams in the centre of Vienna

Trams running through the centre of Vienna

Don’t try to see too much

One of the joys of Europe rail travel is how simple it can be – the huge network of train lines and relatively small distances make it easy to whizz between cities and countries. If you’re in Munich you could be in Zurich, Prague, Vienna or Verona within five hours. The only problem is that it makes it really tempting to try and see too much. Although it’s a rail trip, you do probably want to see more than the inside of a carriage!

When I was planning my trip, I allowed three nights for big cities, two for smaller ones and had just one single-night stopover. That way we had enough time to explore each place properly and didn’t feel like we were constantly packing and unpacking. It also helped keep costs down as we didn’t need a train ticket every day. Make sure you check the train schedules carefully too – just because two destinations look close on the map, it doesn’t mean it’ll be a quick train journey. On indirect routes with lots of changes you can end up spending the whole day travelling. Useful sites to help with route planning are Deutsche Bahn and Voyages SNCF, with schedules for trains running all across Europe, and the Raildude forum.

The Charles Bridge across the Vltava River in Pargue, Czech Republic

The Charles Bridge in Prague at sunset

Take the scenic route

When you’re planning a route, the train company websites will usually show you the quickest way to get from place to place. But sometimes there’s another route that might take a bit longer, but the view out of the window makes it well worth the extra travel time. Like the route from Zurich to Milan – the quickest way (and the way you’re offered when you search on the rail company websites) would be the four-hour direct EuroCity train. But you could also take the slower route via Chur and Tirano, which follows the route of the Bernina Express scenic train. It takes around double the time, but is one of the world’s most spectacular rail journeys, running through stunning mountain scenery.

Europe has a whole range of scenic train journeys to choose from – like the Black Forest Railway in Germany, the Golden Pass Line from Montreaux to Lucerne in Switzerland, or the Bergen to Oslo line in Norway. A good source of information on taking the scenic route is Seat 61, which shows different options for journeys between the major European cities.

Train from Bergen to Mydral, Norway

Views from the train between Bergen and Myrdal in Norway

Think beyond the big city stops

The big cities – like Paris, Rome or Berlin – tend to be top of the list when people are planning a European rail route. But the network of regional trains means that you don’t have to just stick to the famous (and most expensive) stops. There are a whole host of smaller cities, towns and even villages you can visit by train. You could stay up in the mountains like we did in a ski resort like St Anton or Zermatt, you could visit the Cinque Terre cliffside towns in northern Italy, or you could stop off in tiny Scottish villages with request stops along the West Highland Railway.

The wide network of train routes also means it’s easy to base yourself somewhere smaller and cheaper and take day trips out – like in the South of France where you can stay in Nice and travel by train to pricey places like St Tropez and Monte Carlo. You could even stay just outside the big cities to take advantage of lower-priced accommodation and travel in during the day.

The Landwasser Viaduct, Switzerland

Along the route of the Glacier and Bernina Express Swiss scenic trains

Look into rail passes…

If you want to make train travel as easy as possible, you can’t beat a rail pass. They’re especially good if you want to be flexible and choose your route as you go, and if you’re under 26. There are a lot of different pass options though and it can be a bit fiddly to get your head around. The first big distinction is based on where you live – if you’re an EU resident you need an Interail pass, and if you’re outside the EU you need a Eurail pass. The options vary slightly between the two but are basically divided between a Global Pass, which covers the whole region, and individual country passes (Eurail also offers regional passes).

Both are available for a set number of travel days within a month (good if you don’t plan to move on every day), and the Global Pass is also available for a continuous period. Prices vary a lot and there are big discounts if you are 25 or under, and smaller discounts for over 60s. In addition to the pass, you’ll also have to make a reservation and pay an extra fee if you travel on high-speed or night trains. Though you can get around this by travelling on slower, local services. As well as InterRail/Eurail there are also other passes or railcards offered in some countries or regions which give reduced cost rail travel, like the Swiss Pass.

The view of the Matterhorn from Gornergrat

Matterhorn views on the train between Zermatt and Gornergrat

… but don’t assume they’ll be cheapest

Although a rail pass can be a good deal, it’s not necessarily the cheapest option, especially if you’re over 25 or not planning on moving about too much. If you’ve decided on your route and are happy to book your train tickets in advance you can often save over the cost of a rail pass. Usually the earlier you book, the lower the price – with tickets normally on sale 90 days in advance.

For example my summer rail trip covered three countries, with four travel days out of seven. Buying individual tickets in advance cost €208 per person, whereas an InterRail Global Pass (for five travel days within 10 days) would have cost €239 for adults, not including reservation fees. So booking the individual tickets saved me €30. But if I was 26 or under then it would have been cheaper than the individual tickets at €184. You can usually find the cheapest advance prices through the relevant local train operator – see Seat 61 for details of which to use.

Carbis Bay in St Ives, Cornwall, UK

Looking out on Carbis Bay from the train near St Ives in Cornwall

Pack a picnic kit

Long-distance European trains usually have a restaurant car or trolley on board. But they vary hugely – from restaurant-style dining to a packet of crisps if you’re lucky – and on local trains there’s often nothing at all. So we usually packed a picnic to eat on board, to save buying food and to make sure we didn’t go hungry (or thirsty – there was usually a bottle of wine included too!).

Most train stations have a small shop, but there’s usually a bigger supermarket nearby, so you can easily stock up on bread, cheese, ham and snacks. It’s useful to pack a basic picnic kit with a small cool bag, cutlery, corkscrew and plastic glasses. As we were self-catering we took some small Tupperware containers so we could use up any leftovers and make things like pasta salad – the containers stacked up together when empty so didn’t take much space. The cool bag also comes in useful if you want to transport things like cheese or chocolate home with you.

So those are my top European rail trip tips – have you done a train trip around Europe and do you have any tips for trip-planning or money-saving?

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Tips for a European rail trip on a budget

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Comments

  1. says

    I love travelling by train! I’ve dipped into Europe a bit by rail but I’d love to do more. I have the dilemma that we have a camper van so we could drive a lot of Europe, but the lure of the railway is very strong.
    Seat 61 is such a godsend, I’ve planned so many rail journeys across the world with the help of this site, just going on it makes me want to catch the Eurostar to adventure!
    Great tips.

  2. daleangloitalian says

    Great tips, really want to put them to use now as it’s been months since we really took a nice scenic train trip.

  3. says

    Hey! Thank you for this!
    I will be going to Germany in November and just yesterday I was googling about the train tickets. I am currently in India and is there anyway I can book train tickets online for cheaper rates? The links you gave showed me the timetable but I couldn’t book anything.

    • says

      Hi, yes you can easily book online – though the procedure is different depending on which train company covers your route. If you are just travelling within Germany then Deutsche Bahn is the site you need (tickets normally available 90 days in advance so will depend on your dates whether they are available yet). If you’re travelling through other countries see this page from Seat 61 I linked to above (http://www.seat61.com/Europe-train-tickets.htm) tells you which train company to use, then you can search fares with them. Have a great trip!

  4. says

    Train trips are always a lovely experience, especially in the scenic trains (I did not even know that there are so many special routes, thanks for the hint!)

  5. says

    I prefer train travel whenever possible, and it probably is the most convenient way to get around Europe. I wish I could say the same for the United States. When I was a college student, I looked into rail passes. Back in 2006, there was a flex pass for students that worked out really well for traveling during spring break through Germany and after the semester abroad ended in Greece and Italy. My pass even got me a discount on ferry rides to the Greek islands and from Greece to Italy. Also, I’m totally pinning your tips to my Pinterest board “Europe” so I’ll have this handy reference for my next trip overseas … whenever that may be!

    • says

      That’s great – your trip around Greece and Italy sounds fantastic, both countries I’ve love to explore more. I’ve never travelled by train in the US but am going to be trying out train travel in Canada for the first time next month!

  6. says

    I enjoy rail travel too. Very good tips. It’s good to have two to three nights in a city because that way you do not get tired of travelilng. I use a lot the Deutsche Bahn website. There are very interesting passes within Germany covering a whole state than can be very cheap for more han 1 person.

    • says

      With each country having their own rail service it can be complicated! If you don’t want to go through all the hassle of working out which to use for which journey, companies like loco2 and Voyages SNCF are really handy as you can book journeys all across Europe with them.

    • says

      I think trying to see to much is the curse of the travel blogger – always trying to fit a bit more in! I’m glad we limited our number of stops though as it meant it still felt like a relaxing trip rather than an endurance test!

  7. says

    Eurail passes are wonderful if they match your itinerary — as they did for us on a few occasions. Passes or otherwise, rail travel in Europe is fantastic. You’re right that it’s easy to try to do too much. A recent itinerary took us by train from Munich to Prien-am-Chiemsee to Salzburg to Vienna during the Christmas markets — a trip to remember!

  8. says

    I’m exactly the same – for years I’ve been saying I’m going to do a train trip through Europe. Think I will have to follow your lead and start with a smaller trip, rather than wait for a free month! So will definitely be following your tips 🙂

  9. says

    Very informative. I love railway travel when in Europe, very relaxing. We have even travelled by rail throughout Italy with our son who was eight at the time and I can honestly say it was enjoyable and no stress. Beautiful pics!

    • Lucy says

      It’s so much more relaxing than flying or driving! I’ve not travelled much by train in Italy but sure there’s some beautiful routes there.

  10. Debbie Miller says

    Hi Lucy, I came to your site via a recommendation from another blog, but jumped on this post because I’ve been looking at train travel through Europe. Deciding where to see is definitely going to be the hardest bit of the planning – but thanks for the tips!

    • Lucy says

      Thanks Debbie, hope you have a great trip, the route planning can be really tough, there are so many possibilities to choose from!

  11. says

    I am currently exploring the wonders of Europe with a friend. We have a car for the next month or so, but soon we’ll be looking for other means of travel. This has some very useful and informative information all in one place, which gives me more time to work on my own writing endevours. Thank you 🙂

    • Lucy says

      Thanks, I’d definitely recommend incorporating some train travel into your trip too, I always find the long journeys a great time for thinking and writing.

  12. says

    Great tips! Living where we do, we almost always take trains when we want to go somewhere – last year I took trains to Vienna and Zurich. We only really fly when we have to cross oceans.

    • Lucy says

      You’re in the perfect position for European train trips! We have to add on the Eurostar and get from Paris which makes it a bit more expensive/slow but once you get into Europe it’s so easy.

  13. says

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and I think I’m going to do a quick few days trip in Europe in the next couple of months. This is both inspirational and informative, thanks so much for sharing! What was your favorite route, if you had to pick just one to repeat? xx

    • says

      Thanks, hope it comes in useful! I’ve been meaning to do a post about some recommended rail trip routes, but if you have a few days I would say try to do some of the Swiss trains, the scenery is just amazing. You can take a trip down through Paris – Zurich – Milan (via the Bernina Express route) then on down into Italy which would be great.

  14. says

    Really helpful to have this information! Great tips, thank you. My boyfriend and I are planning a rail trip around Europe in a few months and this is exactly the kind of stuff I was wondering about 🙂

  15. Regina says

    i’m goingo to travel to europe this semester and i find your tips very helpful, although i’m very nervous because i’m from Mexico and we aren’t used to train travels so any tips on that? and i’m kind of in a very stretch budget anywhere special i should go?. Thank you and it was very helpful

    • says

      Hi, rail passes are a good idea if you’re planning to travel a lot – and in larger cities you can usually find hostels and self-cater to keep costs down. Generally the southern and eastern European cities are the best value (Scandinavia and places like Switzerland can be very pricey). Have a great trip!

  16. Kristen says

    How were you able to take photos from the trains without a reflection from the windows? We had beautiful routes via train through Switzerland but most contained a glare or reflection. Thanks for the articles!

    • says

      In Switzerland we were on a local train attached to the Glacier Express, so our windows weren’t the huge panoramic ones but they did open so it was much better for taking photos! Otherwise I’ve found a lens hood (or even just getting someone to put their hands around the lens) and getting really close up to the window helps with some of the reflections.

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