Should you buy European train tickets in advance: Yes, and here’s how to save
Most 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
Britain 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
The 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.
Where to buy advanced European train tickets
There are two basic options when it comes to purchasing advanced train tickets for European trains:
- Rail ticket sites that make it easy and charge extra for it
- Official rail company sites for each country
One 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 raileurope.com, 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.
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.
- France rail official site
- Italy rail official site
- German rail official site
- Netherlands rail official site
- Spain rail official site
- Sweden rail official site
- Denmark rail official site
- Austria rail official site
- Switzerland rail official site
- Czech Republic rail official site
- Poland rail official site
- Belgian rail official site
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