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Tips for planning a European rail trip on a budget

Tips for planning a European rail trip on a budget

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.

Read more: Europe by train: Five great one-week rail trip routes

Tips for a budget European rail trip

Trams in Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon’s trams

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.

Historic buildings in Munich, Germany, on a European rail trip

Exploring Munich

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.

Glacier Express scenic train in Switzerland

Switzerland’s scenic Glacier Express

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.

The Jacobite steam train crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland

The Glenfinnan Viaduct on Scotland’s West Highland Line

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.

A European rail trip on the Flamsbana scenic train in Norway

On the Bergen to Flam railway line in Norway

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.

The Jungfraubahn scenic train in Switzerland

The Jungfraubahn in Switzerland

… 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.

Read more: Does an InterRail pass save you time and money?

Train views in Cornwall, England

Carbis Bay from the train to St Ives in Cornwall

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.

A rail trip on the Cinque Terre's coastal train line

The Cinque Terre’s coastal train line

So those are my top European rail trip tips – have you done a train trip around Europe?

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Tips for planning a train trip across Europe on a budget – from route planning to European rail passes, scenic trips to money-saving and packing tips #traintravel #Interrail #rail #budgetTips for planning a European rail trip on a budget – from route planning to InterRail/Eurail passes, scenic trips to money-saving and packing tips #traintravel #Interrail #rail #budget

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Kristen

Sunday 22nd of May 2016

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!

Lucy

Sunday 22nd of May 2016

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.

Regina

Tuesday 19th of January 2016

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

Lucy

Monday 25th of January 2016

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!

TrainTravel

Tuesday 6th of October 2015

I’m glad I found this post to see all the info in one blog rather than trying to search through multiple sites. Thanks for sharing the great info!

Melissa

Thursday 11th of June 2015

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 :)

Lucy

Monday 15th of June 2015

That's great – really glad to hear it was useful, and have a great trip!

Sarah Elizabeth (@SEDivaAbroad)

Wednesday 28th of January 2015

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

Lucy

Wednesday 28th of January 2015

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.