Let me just state this right off the hop: Europe is the best destination in the world for train travel. Then again, maybe I’m biased.
I’ve had a never-ending love affair with Europe from the moment I first arrived in Scotland for grad school. At every available moment, I’d zip around Europe on trains, whether exploring the UK or, after finding some cheap flights, continental Europe.
It’s not as if train travel wasn’t a new experience for me. As a kid, I’d spent enough time on trains, travelling 8 hours or more nearly every year into the Northern Ontario oblivion for hardcore outdoor hijinks. Up until I first hopped on a European train, I thought train travel was simply a trade-off between comfort and speed. It had no idea it could be both fast AND comfortable.
Whether you want to stare onto perfectly-preserved medieval towns from romantic castles or hike among impossibly-crystalline lakes, mastering how to travel around Europe by train opens the entire continent for exploration. Here are a few tips to help you plan your European train travel…
Table of Contents
- How to travel around Europe by train (Or; Why is European train travel so awesome?)
- How to save money on European train travel
- How to travel around Europe by train in two weeks or less
How to travel around Europe by train (Or; Why is European train travel so awesome?)
Whether you’re on your first solo backpacking adventure or celebrating your anniversary in high-style, Europe is the perfect destination for overlanding. Unlike the grand steppes of Asia or expansive plains of North America, distances between major European tourist destinations are relatively small. And made even smaller with its well-developed rail system.
The time to zip between cities in Europe is counted in mere hours rather than days. At one moment you’re ordering a coffee in Slovak in a Bratislava Old Town café, and the next exploring the art nouveau architecture of Vienna. In no other place on earth can you alter your travel experience so radically in such a short time span. (And with such little hassle!)
One of the biggest advantages to buzzing around Europe on train is not having to deal with nightmare airports. As much as discount airlines in Europe save you, the hassle (and expense!) of finding your way to airports, often in the middle of nowhere, is far surpassed by the convenience of the train.
Imagine not having to queue up in airport security line-ups or glue yourself into a small seat with little leg room and fresh air. On European trains, you can wander around, meet new people, and stare at the epic scenery outside your window. It’s an easy choice, isn’t it?
Isn’t European train travel expensive?
The short answer is: it can be.
Depending on where you decide to go in Europe, train travel can escalate your trip costs significantly.
Western Europe tends to be more expensive than Eastern Europe. The rapid intercity trains between cities here will eat up a good chunk of change if you’re not careful.
On a longer trip, hitting up several cities spread far apart, you may even find your train tickets trumping your intercontinental flight.
That is if you don’t plan a little ahead…
How to save money on European train travel
As much as I hate planning every moment of my travels, buying your European train tickets at the station is rarely the most budget-friendly approach. Booking your European train trips ahead of time can open up a good number of deals.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
To save big on European trains, you’ll usually need to book directly through national railways, not through your travel agent. Not all national railway sites and booking systems are created equal.
You’ll often find yourself trying to navigate through language barriers, complicated schedules, and unusually named stations to find the best point-to-point ticket deals.
Yes, it’s getting easier all the time. For the casual tourist, though, it’s hardly ideal.
The other option, if you have time for it, is to latch onto regional trains rather than the express intercity ones.
Once again, this is hardly ideal.
Regional trains not only stop at every little station, but often involve one (or several!) train changes to get to your final destination. Unless you love lugging your backpack around unfamiliar stations, running between platforms with seconds to spare to catch your next train, you’d do best to avoid this approach.
(At least most of the time.)
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution for all of this: buy a European rail pass.
Who should buy a European rail pass?
Although most travellers will save money, not every European itinerary will be well-suited for a European rail pass.
The general rule I would offer is that if your trip includes more than a couple long-distance train trips (especially European night trains) within Western Europe—or even Central Europe—you should probably consider buying a rail pass.
For example, if you’re planning to travel between Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam or between Zurich, Munich and Berlin, a rail pass will probably save you money.
From my own travel experiences, using a rail pass in Eastern Europe isn’t as cost-effective as in Western Europe. There are two reasons for this:
- The cost of train travel in Eastern Europe is much lower than in Western Europe.
- The availability, speed, and efficiency of trains in Eastern Europe is nowhere near Western Europe.
When travelling in Eastern Europe, generally east of Germany and Austria, trains between many cities are slower and more infrequent than buses.
For every convenient train route like Prague to Krakow, Bratislava to Budapest or Krakow to Warsaw, there’s another city pairing that involves numerous train changes and dozens of stops in the middle of nowhere. In these cases, you’ll find that buses are not only cheaper and more convenient, but faster.
What type of European rail pass should you get?
There are three main types of Eurail passes: Eurail Global Pass, Eurail Select Pass, Eurail Single Country Passes, and Eurail Multi-Country/Regional Passes.
Eurail Global Pass
If you’re banking on a longer itinerary stretching over great distances and several countries, the Eurail Global Pass is your best option.
With the Eurail Global Pass, you get unlimited travel on the national railways in these 28 European countries:
- Bosnia & Herzegovina
- Czech Republic
- Slovak Republic
The Eurail Global Pass allows you to choose either a continuous pass or flexipass. With the continuous pass, you have the option of unlimited travel for 15 days, 22 days, 1 month, 2 months or 3 months. The flexipass, on the other hand, offers two options: 5 or 7 days of unlimited travel within one month and 10 or 15 days of unlimited travel within two months.
Rail Europe even offers discounts on its Eurail Global Pass for travellers under 26, seniors over 60, and groups of 2-5 people. Young children don’t have to pay extra: up to 2 children (4-11 years old) per adult can ride for free. Travelling with your young family around Europe has never been easier!
The one glaring omission in the Eurail Global Pass is the United Kingdom, requiring a separate BritRail Pass. If you’re planning on travelling around the UK (besides Northern Ireland), it would be smart to pick up this pass, in addition to the Eurail pass, as train costs in Great Britain can bust your travel budget quickly.
Eurail Select Pass, Single Country and Multi-Country/Regional Passes
Every country covered by the Eurail Global Pass offers either a national rail pass or select country pass (for travel between 2-4 bordering countries). Both can help bring down your train travel costs massively. Even if you only have a two or three trips between major cities, these passes will often quickly pay for themselves, especially in Western Europe.
Most of the Eurail single country passes offer the choice between 3, 4, 5, or 8 days of first- or second-class train travel within a 1-month period. The Eurail Select Pass and regional Eurail passes most often offer 4, 5, 6, 8 or 10 days of train travel within a two-month window.
Just like the Eurail Global Passes, you can stratch a couple bucks off your Eurail Select Pass if you’re under 26 years old, over 60, or travelling in a small group of 2-5 people.
One last thing to note with Eurail passes. There’s sometimes an extra cost for mandatory seat reservations. These generally occur only on certain trains, particularly the popular high-speed intercity trains. Whichever pass you’re interested, be sure to check the reservation requirements to avoid unexpected hits to your travel budget.
How to travel around Europe by train in two weeks or less
Planning a two week trip around Europe is both insanely simple and hard. And not for the usual reasons.
Logistics are the easy part. What’s hard is grounding yourself once you arrive.
Everything is so close that’s its hard to focus your trip on travelling deeper rather than wider. Let it loop out of control, and soon you’ll be visiting a new city every day or a new country every two days without digging past the surface in any one of them. This is a sure-fire recipe for travel burnout, and the blurring the lines between your experiences.
Better than a rapid-fire country-hopping itinerary is to focus your European itinerary on a couple select destinations. That way, you’ll be able to stay longer and experience each at a deeper level.
Not only will this add a layer of relaxation to your trip (you do want to return home refreshed, no?), but sticking to a tighter area will help you save on your transportation costs. Even if budget isn’t much of a concern, spending less time in transit and more time on the ground exploring can hardly be a bad thing, eh?
Need ideas on how to travel around Europe by train in two weeks or less? Here are three recommended European train itineraries based on my own continental jaunts…
Germany and Czech Republic
I’ve travelled extensively in Germany, and every time I visit, it never ceases to feel like home. While Deutschland is a perfect two-week destination on its own, Germany and Czech Republic are like peanut butter and jelly, a classic combo.
Train travel in Germany isn’t cheap. Grabbing a rail pass will almost certainly save you money in just a couple train rides.
If you’re planning to stick mostly to Germany, it may be cheaper to buy a short-duration German Rail Pass and pay out of pocket for your transportation in the Czech Republic since it’s a little cheaper over there. Otherwise, the Eurail Czech Republic and Germany Pass covers both countries.
Berlin (3 Days) » Prague (3 Days) » Karlovy Vary / Kutna Hora (Day Trips from Prague) » Cesky Krumlov (2 Days) » Salzburg (2 Days) » Munich (3 Days) » Dachau / Nuremberg (Day Trip from Munich)
Netherlands and Belgium
Travelling in the Netherlands and Belgium is the quintessential European train experience. These two petite countries offer some of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, all within travel durations that challenge the daily commute in many North American cities.
The biggest challenge with jetting around the Netherlands and Belgium is sticking to your budget. The fastest intercity trains can get expensive, and quickly drain your funds. Picking up a Eurail Benelux Pass, a pass offering unlimited train travel in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, will surely save you some coin.
Amsterdam (4 Days) » Haarlem / The Hague / Delft / Leiden (Half-Day or Day Trips from Amsterdam) » Antwerp (1 Day) » Bruges (2 Days) » Ghent (1 Day) » Brussels (2 Days)
Central European City-Hopper
Of all the areas in Europe I’ve travelled, Central Europe’s my go-to. Although my favourite European country, Germany, is missing from this itinerary, these Central European cities are some of the most interesting you’ll find on the continent.
The best pass for the Central Europe city-hopper is the 4-country Eurail Select Pass. There’s also a cheaper Central Europe Triangle Pass that gives you 3 one-way journeys between Prague, Vienna, and Budapest in one month. If you wanted to whittle your itinerary down to these three cities and focus on hammering out day trips from each, it’ll be the cheaper of the two options.
Prague (3 Days) » Karlovy Vary / Kutna Hora (Day Trips from Prague) » Brno (2 Days) » Vienna (3 Days) » Bratislava (2 Days) » Trencin (Day Trip from Bratislava) » Budapest (3 Days) » Szentendre (Day Trip from Budapest)