Taking the train is the most environmentally friendly way to travel. In Europe, in 2014, CO2 emission per passenger on the railway network is about a quarter of that number on the road. If you take a high-speed electric train ride instead of flying, your carbon footprint reduces by 29 times.
Unfortunately, train travelling could be easily the most expensive option, in Europe in particular. It's like buying organic products all over again. You want to be green, but you can’t afford to be green.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to save on train tickets if you know how the systems work, when and where to buy. Sometimes, it’s about which route to choose so you can get from A to B.
I’ve put together a guide to cheaper rail travel across Europe so you can go to more places using the train.
Note: These tips come from my experience of travelling by train across Europe for years as well as one incredible resource - Seat61. Many thanks to Mark Smith 🙂
Let’s not wait any longer and start getting cheaper train tickets while reducing the carbon footprint of your travels.
Advance tickets vs. On-the-day tickets
The general rule is that advance tickets are less expensive than the ones you buy on the travel day at the station. There are some exceptions which I will explain a bit later.
Regarding advance tickets, the most common question is how early you need to book your seats.
You want to pay less, but you also want the flexibility, which the cheap, non-refundable and non-exchangeable advance tickets don’t offer! If you are like us and don’t start planning your weekend away until the Wednesday of the same week, booking in advance is a real luxury.
However, while you are busy procrastinating, don't forget that for cross-country journeys, an advance ticket would save you a lot of money.
With events that have a fixed date, like conferences or music festivals, you would often have to buy an entrance ticket a few months before, so why not booking the train in the same timely manner? Think about it as early-bird tickets for both.
In the best scenario, you make the booking as early as possible, on the day they start selling for that particular train. This period is different depending on a country’s rail system, so you need to check on their rail official websites. Here is a list of websites for most travelled countries in Europe:
Many countries in the list start selling two or three months in advance. Tickets for regional trains in France go on sale as early as six month before. However, if you put in an order one month in advance, you still can save a significant portion, and it’s more realistic regarding planning.
Here is what I’ve found today for the journey from Amsterdam to Zurich, which we want to take this summer:
- 1 day in advance: €180
- 1 week in advance: €139
- 1 month in advance: €119
- 3 month in advance: €79
Advance tickets = on the day tickets
The Netherlands and Switzerland happen to be two of a few countries where local trains cost the same whether you buy a ticket 5 minutes before departure or a month advance. The only difference of buying in advance is that you save time at the station.
In the Netherlands, there’s a day pass (trein dagkaart) that costs €16 and allows you to travel for the whole day. However, they are not always on sale, and they have a fixed period when you can use them. You need to live in the country to take advantage of this discount, and you don't save much as the country is so small that the longest train journey probably cost you around €20.
Comparing to a bigger country like the UK, you could save an extra £30 if you buy your ticket one day in advance, for a three-hour journey from Newcastle to Manchester, for example.
Belgium is another country whose local train price, or the slow option between Brussel and Amsterdam, is indiscriminating. No matter when you buy the ticket, it costs the same.
Two separate tickets instead of one ticket
From long local journeys in big countries like Germany or the UK, and inter-country trips, such as Amsterdam to Paris, you sometimes need to change at one or two stations. Sometimes, if you split up your journey at the right place and buy two separate tickets, you pay less money in total.
Take the Amsterdam to Paris route above as an example. There are fast and comfortable Thalys trains that run straight from one amazing city to the other. It’s 3 hours 20 minutes, with a quick stop in Brussels. However, if you have a bit more time, you can take the slow inter-city train from Amsterdam to Brussel, get off it and get on another train from Brussels to Paris. The combined journey take an extra 20 to 45 minutes depending on the connection, and changing in Brussels is easy-peasy. That was what I did last year, in the high season of August and save €15 per ticket both ways.
The tricky part of splitting tickets is that you need to know where to stop to get the best price. Seat61 is a brilliant resource for this. You can find on the website all the information about different routes and stops you can take to go from one city to another. He would advise you the best options regarding cost and sights.
I learned this trick when I lived in the UK where I had to travel a lot by train, and often on a last-minute notice. If I have a day or two to buy a ticket, I would look around, check if I could stop somewhere on the way back, after the job was done, and visit a new city. The more I did the research, the more obvious it was to me the price varied depending on the town I chose to hop out and hop back in a few hour later (as most tickets are valid for all day travel).
Digging deeper on travel blogs, I found out that it was a real thing. People split their trip in some locations to save on the fare. As the train in the UK is very expensive, it's good to save money here and there! So the next time you travel from London to Edinburgh, instead of booking a direct train, check tickets, for example, from London to Newcastle, then Newcastle to Edinburgh. Because there are frequently cheap trains from Newcastle to Edinburgh, the total could be more reasonable.
There are no fix rules about splitting, so you just need to do research about possible combinations. A decent website for looking up the train information would help, though. I wish there were be a kayak.com or skyscanner.com for trains, but while we are waiting for someone to take on the initiative, here are a few websites that I use when I do my research:
- The Train Line (.com and .eu)
- Rome2rio https://www.rome2rio.com/
- and, of course, seat61.com
Note: These websites are for route information. Some agencies sell tickets on such websites, but they charge a premium fee. Make sure you always buy your train tickets from the rail website of the country where you start or stop.
It’s often cheaper to purchase a return ticket than getting two singles. However, it’s not always the case, especially if you are to buy advanced, non-refundable and non-exchangeable tickets that are only available for a few slots during the day. So always check!
The same day return ticket in the UK is always cheaper than two single tickets, for that matter.
Two other saving myths for train tickets
For full disclosure, I have never bought a Eurorail pass. The first time I set foot in Europe, I was four months short of being 25 and narrowly missed the massive discount offered to young people. Any other times when I check the prices for destinations I intended to travel, I always found their options too expensive.
It seems to be the consensus among penny savers out there that the pass only offers a real discount for people under 25. All in all, it does give you more flexibility, so you can get off the train spontaneously and explore a random city for a day or a week, which is often not possible for people with advance tickets.
A night train journey costs you less if you factor in the accommodation. It is true, but you should be aware of the hidden cost.
Let me tell you the story of my worst ever train ride.
Born and raised in Vietnam, I have had a fair share of basic rail facilities. I’ve taken a few overnight trains on a hard chair in a packed carriage to rural northern towns of Vietnam. I’ve also sat on the floor of a super local train in Thailand to a small town bordered with Cambodia. They couldn’t be called comfortable, or even clean, yet they are not the worst.
To my surprise, my worst train experience happened here in Europe. It was a night train from Split to Zagreb, Croatia. Like I said, I did night train on chairs before, so I managed to persuade Ian to try it. I thought it couldn’t be worse than Vietnam, right? We would have saved some money as it was July and everything was expensive!
How little did I know!
As soon as we found our carriage on the train, I knew it was a mistake. The chair cover was leathery, giving out a heavy smell in the hot temperature. We happened to travel during the time of a heat wave, and the ill-fitted air conditioning system failed to keep up.
It was scorching. The heavy cover stuck to our bare legs and shoulders, making it extremely uncomfortable. When we shut the door to our compartment, as safety recommendation by the train operator, the room was very stuffy.
About an hour into the journey, we already suffered enough to be willing to take the offer of the ticket controller and paid some extra money to upgrade on the sleeping bench. There’s gone the cheap ticket! "But we are still saving on hotel-ling," we told each other.
We picked up our bags and followed the ticket controller to a compartment of 6 sleeping benches. A family occupied the other fours, so we got the two most upper seats.
The air conditioner didn’t work there either, but we could open the window to the outside while keeping the door shut to protect our belongings.
I settled in and started to drift into sleep until I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It was boiling, and somehow the only window was closed. I reached back to open it and went back to sleep only to find myself in the similar situation later, again and again.
Only near the morning had I realised one of the boys in the lower bench kept closing it. Until this day, I don’t know why he did that. It was 37 degree that night at the very least. He could not possibly be cold. I understand that heat rises and it might be less hot in his area. However, even with the wind blowing in at its max, you could barely call that the compartment cool. The similar thick cover of the bench didn't help, either.
I had such a rough night which ruined the whole next day in Zagreb. Ian had it even worst because he hardly had any sleep. Thus, we promised each other we will not do night trains again unless we research the train condition in advance.
The moral of my long story: try to save but don’t sacrifice your comfort as you might have to pay for it another way.
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