Once upon a time, budget airlines were the cheapest and best way to shuttle around Europe.
Nowadays however, train companies are fighting back and rail travel across the continent is fast becoming better, quicker and cheaper than ever.
Without the invasive security measures and baggage restrictions of plane journeys, not to mention flight taxes and transport to get you to an airport, and it’s clear train travel is returning as the most exciting and relaxing way to get around Europe.
Plus who can forget the environmental side too, with Europe’s mainly electric train fleet providing some of the lowest carbon footprint travel going.
So if you’re keen to travel more sustainably, slowly and enjoy the journey as much as the destination, here’s my top tips for bagging your cheap train tickets in Europe.
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#1 Stick to Eastern Europe
Train travel in Western Europe is, like everything else, much more expensive than in the East.
If you want to travel more for less therefore I suggest heading East!
Trains in countries such as Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Romania are generally of an excellent standard and unbelievably affordable!
#2 Don’t Travel at Peak Holiday Times
Travelling at peak periods, which generally coincide with school holidays, are the most popular times to travel in Europe and, as such, train prices tend to skyrocket at these periods.
To get your hands on cheap train tickets in Europe therefore you’ll firstly want to avoid travelling around Christmas, New Year, Easter and the month of August.
With greater demand for tickets at all these times, prices spike and good fares are incredibly hard, if not impossible, to find.
#3 Avoid 1st Class
It sounds obvious, but many travellers don’t realise buying first-class train tickets really isn’t necessary in Europe.
Even in Eastern Europe, standard or 2nd class seats are perfectly clean and comfortable with wifi and power sockets often available.
If you’re looking to save money on your European train travels then, my advice is to avoid first class.
Even on sleeper night trains, I’ve found regular classes more than adequate.
#4 Don’t Accidentally Sit in 1st Class
Of course, linking on from the point above, if you haven’t got a 1st class ticket, make sure you don’t accidentally sit in the 1st class carriages!
If you do, you risk being landed with an expensive fine if caught!
As trains across Europe don’t have check-in processes (you simply board the train via the correct platform) ensure you check the carriage you’re getting into.
The class of the carriage is usually given on the outside of the train, as well as inside.
If you have a reserved ticket, it’s also worth ensuring you are sitting in the correct seat.
If you have an unreserved ticket (i.e. one without a specific seat booked) then ensure you sit in a seat that’s unreserved.
#5 Consider Rail Passes Carefully
If you’re likely to be travelling between different European countries over an extended period of time, then it is possible rail pass will be the most economical option for you.
However this isn’t a given.
Generally, rail passes can be bought through Rail Europe if you’re a resident outside of Europe, but are only really worthwhile if time, efficiency and organisation are of the utmost importance.
If, on the other hand, your budget is more important and you have some time to research and book trains, then buying individual tickets, rather than passes can actually work out as a more economical option.
As always, doing your research is a key way to find cheap train tickets for European travels.
Check out my options for getting from Paris to Barcelona as a starter.
#6 Book Overnight Trains if Travelling between Countries
Booking overnight trains is a great way to keep your budget low when travelling in Europe because you’ll save the price of a night’s accommodation too.
And this can soon mount up.
My advice however, is always to spend a little more on a sleeper or couchette seat, because you’ll actually sleep and therefore be able to enjoy your destination on the day you arrive.
Conversely, an upright seat will mean a bad night’s rest and you’ll likely waste the whole following day catching up – which is never fun when you’re travelling.
Overnight trains in Europe were becoming less frequent, but thanks to a resurgence in more sustainable methods of travel, they are making a comeback.
I travelled on a sleeper train from Madrid to Paris as part of my budget journey from Latin America back to Europe and loved it!
#7 Pack a Picnic
This is a classic tip for budget travellers everywhere, but a key way to save money on your European train tickets and adventures is to not order food onboard.
I’d also suggest skipping any extra drinking or dining offers companies might try to sell you when buying your pass or ticket.
Instead, stock up on treats at the supermarket before you board the train and you’ll save a fortune!
#8 Book in All Long Distance Trains in Advance
Booking European train tickets in advance is definitely the best way to ensure you got the cheapest fares.
Like planes, European trains (by and large) work in tiers – so the cheapest tickets go on sale first, and when these are all gone, prices shift up a tier and so on.
The best time to book is normally up to 90 days ahead of your departure date, although this varies between European countries.
For some countries, Trainline allows you to book up to 180 days ahead of your departure date which is the longest lead-in I’ve seen and is one of the ways this company can secure you a great deal.
Trainline also has a handy ticket alert tool, which lets you know when advanced, budget-friendly tickets become available.
#9 Be Flexible
Flexibility is always key to travelling cheap in Europe, and moving around by train is no different.
This will open you up to the best deals and options.
If you can bend your itinerary around tickets, availability and prices, you’re definitely going to score some of the cheapest fares.
#10 Grab Pass Deals if You See Them
Rail Europe are always running some great special offers, so it’s worth checking out their website and grabbing a deal on a pass if you can.
They also have group discounts and partner offers, which you should definitely take advantage of.
In fact, I’d try to avoid buying a Rail Pass at full price if you can help it!
#11 Bear in Mind that 2 Single Tickets May be Cheaper than a Return
Trainline utilises split fares and singles vs return tickets to find you the best deals.
This is an in-built deal-finding technology on their site, so you don’t have to do anything special except be aware of all prices available to you.
In addition, don’t limit yourself by only considering A-B tickets or a return fares – instead explore the site’s discount suggestions as they often offer a simple way to grab a deal.
#12 Make Sure You Leave Enough Time between Connections
If you’re independently booking train tickets and making connections as part of a European train journey, then always ensure you leave enough time to make your connections – bearing in mind platforms may be situated a decent walk apart and you may have luggage to carry.
Buying a slightly cheaper ticket that has a very tight connection won’t save you money if you miss your train!
Check www.bahn.de for a comprehensive list of train times and remember most European trains are very prompt and that their doors will close 30 secs before the scheduled departure.
#13 Avoid Buying Advanced Tickets on Shorter Journeys within Mainland Europe
I’m aware this kinda contradicts one of my earlier points, but that was the general rule and now we’re getting into the nuances!
After all, don’t forget that any article about European train travel covers over 30+ countries – each with their own system!
In general, prices will be higher nearer to departure dates, except if it’s a short journey you’re making.
And by this I mean under 1.5 hours – i.e. usually between cities in the same province.
In general, this applies to local and regional train travel tickets within mainland Europe
Normally you don’t need to book these in advance and can simply turn up at the station and pay for a ticket there for the same price.
This gives you more flexibility, which I’m always a fan of!
#14 Book Advanced Tickets on Shorter Journeys within the UK
And here’s the exception to the exception to the rule!
Yup the UK have always got to do things a bit differently, haven’t they?!
Confusing I know, but that’s life!
So yes, even though most short train journeys in mainland European are cheaper or the same price on the day, this isn’t the case in the UK.
Here, even short journeys are much more expensive on the day of travel.
To book all train travel within the UK, use Trainline, they generally offer great advanced fares, which can be found easily as they automatically employ split-fare finders and singles vs returns to get you the best deal.
#15 Don’t Forget to Enter your Age at the Time of Booking
If prompted, letting a company know how old you are might make you eligible for a youth, student or senior discount on your fare.
It’s always worth a shot if you’re looking to bag the cheapest European train tickets possible!
#16 Don’t Pay Extra for Reserved Seats
Unless this is already included in the fee of the booking i.e. on overnight trains, reserving seats won’t be necessary.
Most booking companies charge an additional fee for the luxury of reserving seats and it’s never worth paying in my opinion.
Sometimes seat reservations are included, which is great, but if it’s extra, don’t bother and save the euros or pounds for some snacks!
The one exception here is if you are travelling as a family or a big group.
Then you may want to ensure you can all sit together, especially if there’s young children involved.
#17 Check and Re-Check your Booking Details
Making a mistake in terms of date, time or destination might end up costing you a lot in expensive change or admin fees.
Most of the cheaper advanced fares will be non-refundable, so make sure you get the booking details right because they won’t give you any wiggle room if you don’t.
Plus, having to change tickets when you’re travelling is a mission you don’t want to have to deal with!
#18 Use Apps & eTickets
Back in the day, the only options used to be collecting tickets at stations or printing them at home.
However now handy eTickets, stored in apps, can be used if you book tickets through useful websites like Trainline.
Not having to print out tickets saves the trees and saves you money, and not having to collect at stations saves you time.
It can also save you a big headache – for example when travelling between Vienna and Budapest by train, booking a ticket through the Hungarian Railway website means you have to collect your ticket from a Hungarian train station.
If you’re starting your journey in Austria, this could be a problem!
Booking through international websites like Trainline is rarely more expensive and allows you to use eTickets, which are much handier and easier all round!
#19 Check out Seat61.com
Seat 61 is a great resource for saving money on train travel within Europe as the website includes country by country breakdowns of how to get the best deals.
There’s also money-saving tips on popular individual journeys, which makes life very easy!
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So there we are, my 19 top hacks for bagging cheap train tickets Europe-side.
What are your top money-saving tips for train travel on this continent?
Any advice you can impart to help other travellers out is always appreciated, so drop it into the comments box below…