Should you buy European train tickets in advance: Yes, and here’s how to save

MunichTrainBoardMost things in the world of travel tend to change at a glacial pace if they ever change at all, but trains in Europe have totally changed their booking systems in the past handful of years, and a new strategy is critical. Only a few years ago I wrote a post on this topic and the advice was that you usually DON’T benefit from buying European train tickets in advance, and now the advice has reversed.

The short version of the story is that nearly all European countries now price their intercity train fares similar to how budget airlines operate. This means that the fare starts off very cheap when it first goes on sale (between 1 and 6 months in advance), and the fare keeps going up as more seats are sold. As a result, you’ll often pay a fortune if you try to buy just before the train leaves, while tickets can be amazingly cheap if you book very early.

European train fares are very cheap early, and expensive on travel day

GalwayTrainBritain has used a dynamic pricing system on its train lines ever since they privatized them, and the Eurostar from London to Paris or Brussels has long done the same. As of 2014 it seems that every country in Europe has train fares that keep getting more expensive as the travel day nears.

Most suburban/commuter trains continue to have fixed fares that are always pretty reasonable, but on the long distance trains between major cities, you now have to buy early.

Here’s a typical example of how European train fares now work:

Berlin to Munich

  • Duration: 6:05
  • Bought today: €130
  • Bought one-week early: €99
  • Bought one-month early: €89
  • Bought three months early: €69

That is from a recent article on how early you should buy European train tickets, which should be of interest to anyone shopping for them in the coming months.

Now, those fares above aren’t actually fixed to the dates mentioned, but rather they are related to how many seats on that train are already sold. During high season in summer the lower fares might be sold out earlier than they were in the example, and during the winter low season they might be available even closer to the travel date.

When to buy European train tickets to get the best fare

EurostarParisThe short answer to the question just above is, “as early as possible.” But that’s easier said than done. For one thing, very few of us are willing to lock in a specific non-refundable train ticket close to 6 months in advance. Most people who are putting together their European itinerary tend to only start the detailed planning a few months in advance at most.

The good news is that you can generally get a decent discount on the full fare if you buy at least a month in advance. And booking a week in advance is almost always cheaper than booking on travel day. You can buy most European train tickets online from anywhere, so it all comes down to how early you are able to commit to a non-refundable ticket in order to save money.

Bottom line: One month in advance will usually get a good fare

Is a Eurail Pass a better option now?

Only a few years ago, these same European rail companies (mostly run by the government of each country) started requiring a seat reservation when using a Eurail Pass on the popular city-to-city train routes. This means that instead of just hopping on any train about to leave the station, pass holders now had to pay about €5 for a seat reservation if a seat was even available. Suddenly, a Eurail Pass was less fun, or at least less spontaneous than before.

But the reason they started charging for these seat reservations is so they could also adjust the price of the seats and know how many are available. The net result is that paying as you go while trying to decide on trains at the last minute is now insanely expensive. A Eurail Pass will rarely seem “cheap” but it does provide you with much more flexibility and freedom at a reasonable price compared to paying as you go.

Your two cheap options: Buy at least a month early, or get a rail pass

Obviously it depends on exactly where in Europe you intend on taking the train, but for most people there are only two cheap options, each with its own advantages.

Option 1: Buy at least one month early

If you are willing and able to lock in all your rail travel at least a month early, you can still travel around the continent at a reasonable price. Waiting until just a day or two before you want to go can lead to astonishing prices in some case.

Option 2: Buy a rail pass and travel as you please

Again, a Eurail Pass usually doesn’t look cheap at first glance. You’ll often end up paying around US$60 per ride in addition to about US$7 for a seat reservation. But only rides of 3 hours or less will cost that little on travel day, and they can be as high as US$200 or even more in some countries. A US$67 ride on a rail pass becomes a pretty good deal in comparison.

>>>More information on Eurail Passes and if they are right for you

Where to buy advanced European train tickets

There are two basic options when it comes to purchasing advanced train tickets for European trains:

  1. Rail ticket sites that make it easy and charge extra for it
  2. Official rail company sites for each country

DublinStationOne complication with buying European train tickets online is that some countries have very confusing websites and generally make it difficult for tourists. They offer the best fares though, so for most of it it’s worth a try to see if we can pull it off on our own.

The easiest website to use is, which represents a company that has been in business for many decades and is primarily owned by the France and Switzerland rail companies. They usually charge about 20% more than the country sites, and sometimes it can be higher. But they are also easy to use and even include free shipping on larger orders.

>>>Check for train fares

Using the official country websites for advanced tickets

As mentioned, it’s worth trying the official rail websites to save money. Most of them can be switched to the English language for the whole transaction, although some of them turn back into their native language for the last few steps, which can be aggravating and confusing. You’ll usually be able to have the tickets shipped to your home for an extra fee, and some of them also offer printable e-tickets.

If you are going between countries you can buy the ticket from the rail company of either country, and they should be the same price. The German rail site also sells tickets on some trips that don’t involve Germany, and they are usually the best for checking fares and schedules for anywhere in Europe.

How early do European train tickets go on sale?

The last piece of the puzzle, which makes things even a bit more confusing, is that each country starts selling its train tickets a different amount of time in advance. It can be as little as 1 month ahead of time in Switzerland or Belgium, up to 6 months ahead of time in some other countries.

Here are the main ones that should cover most of us:

  • France: 4 months early for most, 6 months early for regional trains, 3 months early for trains to Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium
  • Italy: 4 months early
  • Germany: 3 months early
  • Spain: 2 months early
  • Switzerland: 1 month early
  • Austria: 6 months early
  • Belgium: 1 month early
  • Netherlands: 3 months early

12 Responses to “Should you buy European train tickets in advance: Yes, and here’s how to save”

Whitfield Palmer says:

This is not always the case. I purchased a train ticket from Narbonne, France to Barcelona six weeks ago and it was 86 Euro. It is not the day before departure and the ticket is now 30 Euro LESS. That is a significant difference in price.



    This is very interesting. You bought your ticket on and you are now seeing a lower price for the exact same train on the same day also on I just checked fares on that route for 6 to 7 weeks from today and I’m seeing fares ranging from €36 to €41 so I can’t imagine how you paid €86. There are other websites that charge a premium (sometimes a very high one) on European train tickets, which is why I recommend using the official site for everything except rail passes and the Eurostar. Sorry that happened to you, and I’d love to know more details. -Roger

Ellen says:

Please, if someone knows when does the low season for buying cheaper eurail pass starts. I will be traveling on Oct. 23

kavin says:

hi bought one month ticket in munich i used it for one week and now i am leaving here because of some personal work if anybody need my ticket i can sale it up with good low prices ..plz contact me soon

Rolly says:

I’m a Canadian and I tried to purchase Eurostar tickets in advance for June 2015 3 months in advance thru their website and it won’t let me continue the purchase after i selected the dates. I went to and purchased the tickets with no problem with their extra charge. Do the Eurostar prevents purchase from other countries in advance like 3 months?



    This is the first I’ve heard of a block from buying more than 3 months in advance. I just tried myself and it appears that it’s allowing me to buy a ticket about 5 months in advance. So I’m not sure if it was a mistake of some kind or not. Eurostar is owned by a mostly UK-based group, while RailEurope is owned by the France and Switzerland rail companies, so I don’t think they’d collude to get an extra fee out of foreign customers. But things change and I could be wrong. I’ll look more into this, so thanks for letting me know. -Roger

Jennifer says:


I am looking to buy tickets in France and Spain and it appears that they are definitely cheaper when you buy from the official country sites. It looks as if I can only get the cheaper price, however, if I’m picking up my France train tickets in France. The Spain Renfe site is a little confusing. Do I have to pick up the tickets when I arrive in these countries to get the better deal and where would I pick them up if this is the case?



    Yes, the individual train tickets come with crazy mark-ups if you buy from anyone other than the official sites, unfortunately. I haven’t bought a French train ticket in a while, but I’m surprised to hear that they aren’t available as downloadable by now. I took trains all over Europe just last year and I saw that many people in many countries had home-printed tickets that the conductors scanned. All conductors (at least in the richer countries) have scanners on their devices, so hopefully you can find that option, or just pick them up once in France.

    As for the Spain site, I know what you mean. It seems to switch from English back into Spanish just at the critical time. If that’s what’s happening you might try the auto-translate feature of the Google Chrome browser.

    Again, I’m pretty sure there is a downloadable tickets option, or even a smart-phone code option, although the instructions might be hard to find or not in English. But even if you do have to pick the tickets up once you arrive, I’m pretty sure it would be from normal ticket counters in train stations because it’s all part of the same company. You’d probably just have to show your passport and a confirmation number to a normal clerk, and then they’d print the tickets out and hand them over. If you are still struggling to do this, let me know the problem and I’ll try to help. I don’t know either language, but I have used those sites quite a bit. Best of luck. -Roger

pmb says:

likely to late for lady above but tickets bought on sncf website are emailed through and downloadable for print your own, it works well and had no problems for last three years

Barbara Schmiett says:

I am taking my daughter on a trip in advance of her study abroad month in Paris this summer. We are following the literary you played out in the other article – Paris CDG to Nice, Nice to Venice, Venice to Florence, Florence to Rome. Fly back from Rome to Paris. Since she is staying on and will have a couple of quick weekends to side trip (Switzerland is on their bucket list) I’m thinking a pass may make sense for her – I’d welcome your input – but I don’t think a pass is best for me. Do you have advice or recommendations? Is it feasible to place reservations with one pass and one without?



    If much of the travel will be within France and Italy, then a Eurail Pass is typically poor value. For France, they require a high seat reservation fee (€20 to €40 per person) on the most popular high-speed routes, so the pass doesn’t save much money unless you book at the last minute. And in Italy, the train tickets are heavily subsidized so they are reasonably priced to begin with, and quite cheap if you buy at least a couple weeks in advance.

    Generally speaking, Eurail Passes are best for longer trips visiting many countries where you really want to make plans up as you go. Otherwise, it’s usually cheaper to buy train tickets in advance. The tickets within Switzerland are the same price no matter when you buy them, and (like Italy) the distances between the popular cities are short, so rail passes usually don’t save money.

    If she does buy a pass then it would be possible to make adjacent seat reservations in person at train stations, and maybe online, but that might be tough. I’m not really sure, to be honest. I hope this helps and let me know if you have other questions. -Roger


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