Train travel on the European continent is incredibly efficient, but it’s also quite mysterious to those who haven’t been brought up within the system. It’s also worth noting up front that long distance train journeys (as well as Eurail Passes) have been declining in popularity due to increased competition with low-cost airlines, so things have actually become even more confusing lately.
In addition the fact that you can often soak in a lot of scenery and culture on a European train journey, a strong point has been the fact that you can just turn up, buy a ticket, and hop on board moments later. However, there are actually times where you have to book in advance, and other times where it’s probably a good idea. We’ll discuss when you should and shouldn’t book in advance below.
Default answer: Don’t book in advance but do check online prices
For the longest time the trains in Europe had more or less fixed prices that were the same whether you bought 6 months in advance or just before the train was pulling out of the station. But now things have actually changed and early-bird discounts are becoming common. There are also various promotional deals where a few cities have sale prices at any given time so it’s worth checking prices.
If you don’t see any kind of special deal then it may or may not be wise to book in advance online anyway. Below you’ll see the different situations where it makes sense, and if you are a freestyle traveler who doesn’t mind having to change plans at the last second you might be better off just winging it.
You have to book in advance for the Eurostar
In theory, you could be in central London one morning, and decide you want to have lunch in Paris, so a few minutes later you are on the 3-hour journey under the English Channel. But it’s not quite that simple. In fact, Eurostar train tickets work exactly like airline tickets in that they are cheapest when you buy way in advance, and they get more expensive as the date nears.
On top of that, you have to check in for the train at least 30 minutes before departure, and go through airport-style security on the way, so it’s not quite as utopian as we’d like.
The good news is that there are sometimes promotional fares that bring a Eurostar round-trip between London and Paris down to £69 or sometimes even lower. The normal fares start at a jaw-dropping £140 each way if you buy at the last minute. In other words, buy as early as possible.
>>>Check for Eurail promotional fares
You should book in advance in the United Kingdom
Compared to continental Europe, the UK has an amazingly complicated system that is as frustrating as it is expensive in most cases. After privatization of the rails years ago, there are now many train companies from which to choose, including some that operate on the same routes.
So for longer train journeys in the UK, the train tickets work like airlines in that you can get some amazing promotional fares on certain routes, even sometimes at the last minute. But at the same time, the walk-up fares are generally very high, and best avoided.
If you are going to be taking a longer train journey, like London to Edinburgh for example, you should research in advance and probably buy in advance as well. Otherwise, not only won’t you know which London terminal you’ll be leaving from, but you might pay a fortune as well.
Eurail and other rail passes MUST be booked in advance
Dimming a bit in popularity lately, the Eurail Pass or the more concentrated multi-country passes cannot be purchased from within Europe at all, so you have no choice but to buy in advance. We’ll discuss whether these passes are good value for different kinds of travelers elsewhere, but for now it’s worth noting that you have to buy from while outside Europe.
>>>Check prices on Eurail Passes
Book promotional fares in advance
While most continental European train fares have fixed prices, there are some specials and promotional fares that are on sale in advance. Occasionally you can still buy those on the spot, but usually not, so if you are the type who likes to take advantage of Rail Europe: Specials & Promotions then look and book in advance.
Book in advance if you are the nervous type
Many travelers, especially younger ones with a lot of free time, have a permanent carefree attitude to where if the train is full today they’ll just get the one tomorrow or the day after. I think we’d all like to have that attitude, but most of us feel much better about things if we have a ticket in hand.
If you book online from home and have the ticket mailed to you, you’ll be paying about 10% more, and probably at least a small delivery fee as well. But for many people it’s easily worth it because buying a train ticket in a foreign city can be stressful and time consuming, in addition to giving you an uncertain feeling until you are actually aboard.
Book in advance for tight multi-city itineraries
For a backpacker with a month or more and no fixed itinerary, it’s a great feeling to buy as you go. But if you have, say, 2 weeks and you are flying into Paris before taking trains to Brussels, Amsterdam, and Hamburg on your way back to Paris, you might be best off buying those intercity tickets in advance.
For one thing, some popular trains do sell out, or at least fill up, so it’s usually best to buy your train tickets at least a day in advance anyway.
Another thing to consider is that there can sometimes be long waits to buy international train tickets, so you’d have to get there very early on the day if you went that route.
Usually with international train tickets you have to find the special international windows or separate international room, and then you take a number and wait. It might be 5 minutes but it might be an hour before you are called, and in some countries you’ll be served by clerks who speak little or no English as well.
Book in advance for summer trips where you already have hotels booked
From late May through Early September, most of Europe is packed with tourists, and those who wait to find hotels at the last minute are often stuck in the worst or most expensive places. During the busy season it makes sense to book hotels in advance, and as long as you are doing this you might as well pay a small premium to book train tickets as well.
It’s true that most European trains have empty seats on them at any given time, but it’s also true that sometimes Second Class is so full that some people are standing. On the higher-speed lines (Inter City Express etc) lines you have to have a reserved seat, so they can sell out as well. It’s common for European business people to fill up morning and late afternoon trains between business cities, especially during trade fairs and special events.
So if you already know you are leaving Berlin on a particular day and you’ll be sleeping in Prague that night, you might as well pay a bit more to reserve a seat on the most convenient train between the two. If you wait you’ll probably still get there, but it’s not worth the potential headaches to save US$5 in doing so.
Want to buy European train tickets in advance?
If you do decide that you want to buy rail tickets in advance you can at least save a bit of money by getting free shipping at Rail Europe .