A Guide to Buying Train Tickets in Europe

How to buy train tickets in Europe

My favourite way to travel around Europe is by train.  Trains are more comfortable than planes and buses, and best of all they usually depart from the city centre, meaning it can be as little as 15 minutes between checking out of your hotel and comfortably sitting back with the train pulling out of the platform.

Many people find it difficult to buy train tickets in Europe, with so many options available. I’ll explain to you about the cheapest options for buying train tickets in Europe, including whether you should buy a Eurail pass, plus steps to booking your train tickets.

🐾 Dog-friendly: Dogs (at least small dogs) are allowed on most trains in Europe, except for the Eurostar. Read more about travelling on trains in Europe with your dog.

Should I Buy a Eurail Pass?

For many overseas visitors, they think the only option, or the cheapest option, for catching trains in Europe is to buy a Eurail Pass or another pass for the countries you are visiting.  I did this on my first trip to Europe, then planned my trip using the booklet of train times that I received with my ticket.  

However, unless you are taking multiple long journeys by train, or you need the flexibility to buy tickets on the day or at short notice, usually this works out more expensive.  Plus, you still usually need to pay a reservation fee to reserve seats on many trains.

If you have mainly shorter journeys, are happy to take the slower regional trains, or can commit to buying tickets ahead of time, it is better to buy tickets individually, for the exact trips you are taking.  Read this comprehensive article at The Man in Seat Sixty-One for a longer explanation.

How to Cheaply Buy Train Tickets in Europe

Train Station in Berlin

A typical train station in Europe

Train tickets in Europe these days work similar to plane tickets: the cheapest tickets are usually the non-flexible ones available when tickets first go on sale. While if you need to buy tickets at the last minute, you get charged the full, expensive price.  

Thus, the cheapest way to buy train tickets in Europe is to commit in advance to where you are travelling and book your tickets as soon as possible. If you’re already committing in advance to booking flights, hotel rooms, and even sightseeing tours, you should also be booking your train tickets at the same time.

When Do Tickets Go on Sale?

European train tickets generally are available about 90 days in advance in Western Europe, or 120 days for the Eurostar. In Eastern Europe and Russia tickets are usually only available 60 or 45 days in advance.  Additionally, when the time table changes twice a year (in mid-June and mid-December), tickets shortly after the change-over may be only available 60 or 30 days in advance.  

If you are booking well in advance and can’t find tickets available, it is most likely that bookings haven’t opened yet. Make a note to come back and book tickets when they go on sale.

Buying Fixed Price Tickets

Additionally, it should be noted that many shorter train journeys in Europe, such as on local, regional and suburban trains, are fixed price. There is no different between buying the ticket at the station or in advance.  These train trips can usually be spotted by there being no option for reservation. This also applies to domestic trains wholly within the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Buying Special Regional Tickets

One other deal to look out for are train tickets that allow unlimited travel within a given region on one day.  For example, in southern Germany there are Bavaria tickets.  These tickets are a fixed price and can be bought at the train station or in advance.  The one catch is that you can’t start travelling before 9am on weekdays (no restrictions on weekends).  

Keep this option in mind when planning your travels, although it can be tricky to find these deals if you’re visiting many different destinations that you haven’t visited before.

Either 1st or 2nd Class?

A final word – tickets are usually available in both 1st and 2nd class.  I usually just buy 2nd class tickets: the main difference is that 1st class seats are larger, may provide you a free drink and allow you access to 1st class and business lounges.  I find 2nd class tickets perfectly comfortable, especially compared to economy class plane seats!

How to Book Tickets for European Trains

The grand train station in Antwerp

So, you’ve planned your European trip, worked out where and when you want to travel in Europe by train, and now want to buy tickets. How do you buy tickets for trains in Europe?

The Best Websites to Use to Buy European Train Tickets

The best way to book your tickets are on the website of the country where your train is departing.  Sometimes you can book your ticket at your destination country, or a country on the way. Plus sometimes there are restrictions, including tickets only being mailed to domestic addresses if you buy from the wrong website.

The websites that I’ve used the most and find the easiest to use are the Deutsche Bahn (German) and ÖBB (Austrian) train company websites.  These sites are both fully available in English and easy to use.  

In particular, the Deutsche Bahn site has the full European timetable, so can be used for planning your trains travelling anywhere, although you won’t see prices or be able to book tickets for train trips outside of Germany – head to the relevant train company website.  The most difficult train website in Europe I’ve come across is the Hungarian Trains website, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Search with Google to find the relevant train company website, or head to The Man in Seat Sixty-One for where to go to buy tickets between different destinations.

Follow These Steps to Book Your Train Ticket

Once you are on the relevant train company website, the steps to purchase your European train tickets are:

  1. Search for trains by entering your from and to destinations, date, time of day, how many passengers
  2. A timetable will be displayed, with the prices for each fare option for the different trains – such as saver vs flexi fare, 2nd vs 1st class
  3. Choose the time train you want and the fare option
  4. Enter your personal details (at least name)
  5. Optionally, select to reserve a ticket for a few euros extra (I usually do this on longer journeys for peace of mind – I don’t know whether the train will possibly be full!)
  6. Enter your payment details and finalise the purchase

Usually you can register on the site, which is worthwhile when you are purchasing multiple tickets are different times, so you don’t need to re-enter all of your details.

Tickets are often emailed, and generally you can show the electronic copy on your phone to the ticket inspector. If a paper copy is required, print them off at home or from your accommodation.  Alternatively, you may be given a code to print out the tickets at the station, my preferred option as then you can’t lose the tickets.  However, allow extra time to do this when arriving at the station.

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