I’ve always loved to travel by train, and an InterRail adventure across Europe from one corner to another has been on my travel wishlist for years. But I never seemed to manage to find a couple of spare months to make it happen. So rather than putting it off forever, I decided to start a bit smaller, picking a shorter route as a taster. Our ten-day trip – from Paris to Vienna – didn’t disappoint and I’m already planning my next (three or four) rail routes around Europe.
But what did I learn along the way that I wish I’d known before I started planning? Here are my top tips if you’re thinking of doing your own European rail trip on a budget and aren’t sure where to start – from route planning to rail passes, scenic trips to packing tips.
Tips for a budget European rail trip
Don’t try to see too much
One of the joys of European rail travel is how simple it can be – the huge network of train lines and relatively small distances make it easy to whizz between different 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’s tempting to try and see too much. Although it’s a rail trip, you want to see more than just 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 the one single-night stopover. That way we had enough time to explore each place and weren’t constantly packing and unpacking. It also helped keep costs down as we didn’t need to use a train ticket every day.
Make sure you check the train schedules carefully too – just because two destinations look close together on the map, it doesn’t mean it’ll be a quick train journey between them. On indirect routes with lots of changes you can end up spending the whole day travelling.
The Deutsche Bahn website has schedules for trains all across Europe with lots of different search options to include or exclude certain routes, and shows you all the stops along the way (though it only allows you to book tickets on trains through Germany so you’ll need to book with the relevant local train operator – Seat 61 has a helpful list of how to book for each country). The Rail.cc forum is also a good resource if you want to ask for advice on route planning.
Take the scenic rail route
When you’re planning a European rail trip route, the train company websites will usually show you the quickest way to get from A to B. But sometimes there’s another route that might take a bit longer, but the views along the way make it well worth the extra travel time.
Like the route from Zurich to Milan – the quickest way (and the way you’re usually offered when you search on 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 amount of time, but it’s one of the world’s most spectacular rail journeys, running through some stunning scenery in the mountains.
Europe has a whole range of scenic train journeys to choose from – like Germany’s Black Forest Railway, the Golden Pass Line in Switzerland, the West Highland Line in Scotland, the Douro Line in Portugal, the Bergen to Oslo line in Norway or Bar to Belgrade in the Balkans.
Think beyond the big city stops
The big cities – like Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Rome and Berlin – tend to be top of the list when people are planning a European rail trip route. But Europe’s network of regional trains means you don’t have to just stick to the famous (and most busy and expensive) stops. There are a whole host of smaller cities, towns and villages you can visit by train too.
You could stay up in the mountains in a ski resort like St Anton or Zermatt, visit the Cinque Terre cliffside towns in northern Italy, catch the Flamsbana scenic train to the Norwegian fjords or stop off in tiny Scottish villages with request stops along the West Highland Railway.
The wide train network 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 use the train to visit pricier 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 using commuter trains.
Look into rail passes…
If you want to make European 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 28. There are a lot of different pass options though and the scheme 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 InterRail pass, and if you’re outside the EU you need a Eurail pass.
You can choose between a Global Pass, which covers the whole region, and individual country 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 under 28, and smaller discounts for over 60s.
In addition to the pass, you have to make a reservation for many services and may need to pay an extra fee for high-speed or sleepr trains. Though you can often 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.
… 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 28 and under 60, or aren’t planning on moving about too much. If you’ve chosen your route and are happy to book tickets in advance you can often save over the cost of a rail pass.
Usually the earlier you book, the lower the prices are – with tickets generally going on sale 90 days in advance. For example my summer trip covered three countries, with four travel days out of seven. Buying individual tickets in advance cost €235 per person, but an adult InterRail Global Pass (for five travel days within 15 days) would’ve cost €269, not including reservation fees.
So booking the individual tickets saved me €32. But if I had been under 28 an InterRail pass would’ve been cheaper than the individual tickets at €208, so it would’ve been worth buying. It’s worth doing the maths to see which is the best option for the route you’re planning. And you can usually find the cheapest advance prices through the local train operator.
Pack a picnic kit
Long-distance European trains usually have a restaurant car or trolley on board. But what’s available varies hugely – it can range from restaurant-style dining to a packet of crisps and a bottle of water 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 having to buy food and to make sure we didn’t go hungry (or thirsty – there was usually a bottle of wine included in there too!).
Most train stations have a small shop, but there’s usually a bigger supermarket nearby where you can stock up on bread, cheese, ham and snacks. If you have space, 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 also took some small Tupperware containers so we could use up any leftovers and make things like pasta salad – the containers stacked up together when they were empty so didn’t take up much space. The cool bag also comes in useful if you want to transport foodie presents or souvenirs like cheese or chocolate home with you.
So those are my top European rail trip tips – have you done a train trip around Europe?
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