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Amsterdam Centraal StationTrain 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

UPDATE: Things have changed and now the best advice is to buy Europe rail tickets early when possible.

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.

>>>Check Rail Europe prices

You have to book in advance for the Eurostar

Eurostar LondonIn 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

London Kings CrossCompared 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.

>>>Check fares for British train tickets

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

Gare du Nord ParisMany 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

Full German TrainFor 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

Bruges SquareFrom 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 .



8 Responses to “Should you buy European train tickets in advance? Usually no, except in these cases”

Khalil says:

Venice mestre to Zurich . We are 4 adults, 3 youth and 1 pensioner. We want to experience the train trip. Need to travel by train on 30th December. Bookings are not open yet. We must travel during day. Preferably 2nd class or if price is great then 1st class. It is a once off trip so I don’t need the train again on this trip. Do I need to buy a rail pass? Is it 1 train or must we change somewhere? When is the earliest I can buy to guarantee reservation of seats and luggage?

 

    Khalil,

    From Venice to Zurich you’ll change in Milan after about 2 hours 20 minutes, then it’ll take another 3 hours 40 minutes to Zurich. But when you go to buy the tickets, just call it a trip from Venice to Zurich and they’ll work out the best change along the way. You can buy tickets 90 days out, so for this trip you can buy starting October 1, give or take a day. There is no pass that will be good value for a single trip like this, unfortunately. -Roger

     
Arianna says:

Hm, okay. We know when we are leaving Prague for Vienna and Vienna for Munich. I also know when I am taking a train to Dusseldorf. But we leave in less than a week. Is shipping the tickets the only option? Or should we have them shipped to where we are staying in Prague? Thanks for this post, though. Alas, we are going in high season. I hate travelling in high season but we had no choice. Sigh!

 

    Arianna,

    With only a week to go I’d just buy tickets once you arrive at the station. Very few trains are actually sold out, and those routes you mentioned will have trains leaving every hour or so. It would cost a lot to have them shipped so quickly and shipping to a hotel there comes with a small risk of them getting lost. You should be fine buying them once you arrive in Prague. -Roger

     
Jorge Gonzalez says:

Hi..thanks for the article…im leaving from Prague To Budapest…and im planning on taking the EN477, so il arrive early in the morning ans save on hotel…should i buy this on advance..they´re kind of expensive…thanks…

 

    Jorge,

    This is a tough one. I just searched a few websites and it looks like they all charge a premium for online booking. I think the fare should be around €60 on the night train, but you might be able to find it cheaper if you book in advance. However, these night trains rarely sell out, especially far in advance, so if you bought the ticket when you got to Prague you’d almost certainly be okay, and you won’t pay an online booking fee. So if you can find it for €60 or less online, it might be worth booking. Otherwise, just buy when you get there. -Roger

     
bepe de lux says:

As you correctly state, many operators of railway services in UK use dynamic pricing (i.e. they offer discounted tickets on services for advanced purchases). In practice, the way that this works is that a certain number of tickets are made available at a specific price point and, when they sell out, a batch of tickets at the next highest price point is released. This process is repeated until no discount is offered and only full price tickets are available. A consequence of this practice is that the further in advance you book, the more likely you are to get the cheapest tickets (because, unlike aeroplanes, prices never drop if a lot of seats remain unsold as departure time approaches). Note, however, that dynamic pricing is only used long distance (intercity) routes; for local services, you’ll only ever pay a set price. With advanced tickets, you’re also committed to travelling on a specific train – if you change your mind or miss the train, your ticket will go to waste.

The article neglected to mention, however, that French railways also use dynamic pricing strategies for their international (e.g. Thalys) intercity (TGV) and other long distance services too – so similar arguments about whether to book in advance apply there. I’m not too familiar with the railways in other European nations, but imagine that many of them will have similar ticket retailing practices (certainly in major northern European economies if not around the southern ones too).

Incidentally, price sensitive travellers might be interested to note that dynamic pricing has been adopted because the railways are capacity constrained and can be very busy at times of peak demand; by making less popular services cheaper, the operators seek to incentivise travellers who are able to do so to travel on less busy services. This has driven UK operators to offer differential pricing for travel at different times of the day: ‘standard’ (i.e. full) price tickets are required to travel during the rush hour(s), but ‘off peak’ (i.e. reduced) price tickets can be used during other times and, in some cases, ‘super off peak’ tickets can be used to travel at the least popular times. This is the case for both intercity and local services and applies irrespective of when you but the ticket (i.e. you can walk up to the station and buy a super off peak, or you can buy one the previous week). Importantly, the exact conditions depend on rules set by the operator (and regulated by the government); typically, off-peak applies to travel after 9h30 and super off-peak after about 10h00, but it’s important to check the conditions that apply to the specific journey that you’re interested in with the people (or machine) selling you the ticket … you might be fined if you’re found to be travelling on an invalid ticket.

It’s also worth noting that you can sometimes get discounts in the UK if you decide to return the same day. Further discounts can be obtained by buying specific cards (e.g. young persons’, senior citizens’…); these discounts can be so significant that it might be worth doing so even for a single journey.

In conclusion, the range of tickets sold in the UK can be very confusing to the uninitiated. Many websites will lay out the options for you, alongside clear explanations of any conditions or restrictions that apply – the most popular such website is http://www.thetrainline.com – but be aware that they charge a booking fee if you decide to purchase through the site (which can be avoided by booking using a different website, for example that of the train company operating the service).

 

    Bepe,

    Thanks for this, and it’s a great reminder that I need to update that article. I actually do have a different article on how the British train system works and how to save money, but this European one is out of date, just as you say. The dynamic pricing model is now the norm pretty much all over Europe, and I’ve been telling people how to take advantage of that in other recent articles.

    So I’m going to rewrite this one and replace it in the coming days. I really appreciate you taking the time to mention all of this, and it’s also nice to hear from someone who does extensive travel research in the way that you have. -Roger

     

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