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 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.

>>>Check raileurope.com 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


37 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.

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Whitfield,

    This is very interesting. You bought your ticket on sncf.com and you are now seeing a lower price for the exact same train on the same day also on sncf.com? 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 RailEurope.com and purchased the tickets with no problem with their extra charge. Do the Eurostar prevents purchase from other countries in advance like 3 months?

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Rolly,

    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:

Hello,

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?

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Jennifer,

    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?

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Barbara,

    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

     
Harry says:

Hi.

I will be travelling to Paris (via Orly Airport precisely) in a month’s time. I would then take a train to Bern, Switzerland. This is my very first trip to Europe. I want to know if it is strictly necessary that I book a train ticket in advance for the trip to Bern or I can get one at the station?

Also, can I get a direct train from Orly Airport to Bern or must I get to the Paris center?

Thanks.

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Harry,

    Domestic train tickets within Switzerland are the same price no matter when you buy, but the international trains, and most trains in all other countries, go on sale with cheap fares and the price goes up as more seats are bought. So you could buy a Paris to Bern ticket when you got there, but it would probably cost double or triple the price of if you bought it today. Go to sncf.com (the France rail site) and you’ll see that the fares are different for every train, and they go up as time goes on.

    From Orly you’ll take the RER into one of Paris’s main train stations, and from there you’ll get the express train to Bern. Unfortunately, neither of Paris’s airports have major train stations that are on the national grid on their own. -Roger

     
      Harry says:

      Roger,

      I know from your article that buying a ticket in advance would be cheaper but my only fear is that if I miss the scheduled departure time due to one reason or the other, I may lose the money.

       
        Roger Wade says:

        Harry,

        You should check the rules for the ticket you might buy, as many of them aren’t worthless if you miss the train. For example, I just bought train tickets from Berlin to a small city near Leipzig, and if I miss my train I just have to pay €15 to use my ticket value on another train later that day. That later train would be more expensive if I bought it on travel day, but at least I’m only risking €15. If you wait until you get there to buy your ticket, you’ll probably end up paying way more. But then again, not all tickets work that way. It’s best to check the conditions and then consider it. -Roger

         
Francisco says:

Hello Roger, I was wondering if you knew about the eurail pass off season discount, and if is going to take place this year? Maybe it was replaced by the “free days” offer that currently appears on their website?

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Francisco,

    They have done discounts for Eurail Passes used from December through February, and also extra days for the other slow months. Unfortunately, they never announce these discounts in advance. If you are planning on traveling in December through February, it might be worth waiting until November to see if they do offer a discount. Good luck with this. -Roger

     
kelly says:

hi roger,
i’m going to travel within switzerland for 12 days. zurich, lausanne & basel are the cities i’ll stay in. i’m wondering if it’s a good idea to buy a rail pass. please advise.

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Kelly,

    The Swiss Rail Pass is quite expensive and therefore it’s only really a good value for visitors who plan on doing at least a few of the main scenic railway journeys such as the Golden Pass. You can see in my Swiss Rail Pass review that it takes quite a few journeys to reach the price of the pass itself.

    The main Swiss cities aren’t far apart and the normal trains don’t really cost too much, but the cities themselves really do. You might have a look at my article about where to visit in Switzerland. In 12 days I hope you’ll have time for Interlaken and Lucerne at least. And the nicest city is Bern, so that’s another one to consider. Let me know if you have any questions. -Roger

     
Joaquim Coutinho says:

I am from India and along with my friends will be travelling to Europe next year. Our itinerary is flight to Barcelona then by train journey all over Europe is. From Barcelona to Paris to Amsterdam to Berlin to Prague to Vienna to Milan and then by flight from Milan to Barcelona in 25 days. What is the better option eurail pass or tickets

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Joaquim,

    Eurail Passes are best suited to people on long trips who want to be able to make plans as they go. Your itinerary looks like you’d pay less just by buying individual tickets about 2 months in advance. Buy them online from the official rail websites of the countries involved, and you’ll find that advance tickets are surprisingly cheap and cheaper than a rail pass that would cover those trips. Have a fantastic visit. -Roger

     
Michael says:

Hi Roger, I am looking at travelling to Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Austria in July and August 2016. A first class 4 country first class Eurorail pass for 10 days travel in 2 months is AUD $910. I don’t have any planned dates I will do 12-13 cities over the period staying as long as I am enjoying myself and then move on. I calculated if I pay the full fare for the 10 most expensive trips it totals around AUD $1,700. Reading your advice there would be almost no chance I would be able to get the cheaper prices advertised under Saver fares. Is that your opinion. Great article. Thanks

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Michael,

    It sounds like the Eurail Pass is the best option for you. As discussed, cheap train tickets in Europe are available way in advance, and fares go up as more seats are sold. Especially in Denmark and Sweden, non-Saver fares are insanely expensive. With a Eurail Pass you can lock in reasonable prices and then travel as you please, making plans as you go. That is a really nice way to travel even if it’s not the absolute cheapest way to go. I think you are on the right track with this, pardon the pun. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

     
Rebecca says:

Hello Roger, I’m planning a European vacation in the end of April . I want to visit London,Paris,and Rome but am unsure about transportation. Do you recommend euro pass or train tickets? Can you recommend which websites to order from please. This will be my first time in a Europe. Thank you.

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Rebecca,

    A Eurail Pass is really only wise for people taking trips of 3 or more weeks and who want to make plans as they go. For a trip like yours there is no good Eurail Pass at all. Also, to get between London and Paris you’ll want to take the Eurostar train, which takes only a bit over 2 hours. It’s not part of the Eurail system anyway.

    From Rome to either Paris or London it’s best to fly, as the train ride takes a LONG time and costs quite a bit more than flying anyway. So if you fly into London you can spend a few days there and take the Eurostar to Paris, and after a few days you can fly to Rome. Then either fly home from Rome or fly back to London for your flight home. If you do fly back to London just make sure that you are conscious of the different airports. Your long-haul flight will probably go in and out of Heathrow, and the cheaper flights to or from Rome mostly go out of Gatwick, Luton, and Stansted. Getting between them can take a couple hours.

    As for which websites to buy your European train tickets, they are all listed on the article above. Those are the official websites of each country, and they offer the best prices. The sooner you buy those train tickets and Rome flights, the cheaper they will be. Have a great trip. -Roger

     
Liz says:

Hi Roger,

I’m planning to take the train from London to Paris on 2/8/2017. I checked the price is already available for the given date at GBP56 for the time I selected. The cheapest is GBP44 but it’s for different time/date. Given my travel date is still 5-6mths away, do you recommend me to book it now or should I wait if will there be a price reduction? I think (by checking other dates) GBP44 is the lowest and I’m happy with it if I can get it. Do you know how the sale tickets work? Can the prices go up and down or do they stay the same until the limited seats for the price are sold out? Thanks for your time.
Liz

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Liz,

    Eurostar tickets go on sale 6 months in advance, so your train has only been available for a month or so. My understanding of how Eurostar fares work is that all tickets go on sale at the lowest price (£44 for one-way at this time) and the fares go up as more seats are sold for each train. It looks like the 10:24am departure is the most popular, and it has the highest fare. It looks like maybe only the first 10 or 20 seats are sold that that lowest fare, and then they start going up.

    In other words, the earlier you book, the lower the fare and I’ve never seen fares lower one day than they were the day before, although it is possible. So the sooner you buy, the better and the more departure times you’ll have to choose from. Bon voyage. -Roger

     
Ira says:

My itinerary: london-Paris-Brussels-Netherlands-cologne-Frankfurt-Lucerne-venice(other parts of Italy). Should I buy eurostar tickets in advance. Thank!!

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Ira,

    The Eurostar is the name of the train service between London and Paris or Brussels. You should definitely buy as far in advance as possible, as the fare goes up as more seats are sold on each train.

    You should also buy your normal train tickets in advance, as most of them are the same way in that the price starts low and goes up as more seats are sold. Have a great trip. -Roger

     
Linda says:

Hi, I would be traveling Paris in September this year and plan to go to London from Paris for a few days and return. Should I buy my train ticket now? Or is it ok to wait until later to buy? Will there be much price difference if I buy now than to buy it say a month before travel date?

 
    Roger Wade says:

    Linda,

    If you buy those train tickets now you’ll be able to choose any departure (they leave about once per hour) for around US$46 each way. The longer you wait, more and more of those departures will have gone up to US$60 each way or higher. If you wait until a month before you leave you will probably be looking at about US$120 each way for the cheapest tickets left for those days. With that in mind, it’s probably best that you book as soon as you are sure of the dates. Have a great trip. -Roger

     
Jóna says:

Hiya! Would you happen to know anything about booking reservations for sleepers in Eastern Europe? I have heard that it is often possible to reserve seats on the day of departure etc. My friend and I bought interrail tickets for our eastern Europe trip and we do not want to book through the interrail reservation service, as they charge much extra!! We have planned our days out thoroughly, as well as the train we need to take and the thought of not being able to reserve those particular trains is horrifying! You cannot reserve anything online for Croatia, Romania and Hungary, and they have responded that we would need to do it in person! Understandibly, we are a bit scared, haha.

 

    Jóna,

    It’s unfortunate that the rail systems in that part of Europe are still lagging so far behind the western systems of Europe. The only thing I would have suggested would be the two things you’ve already checked. The official rail sites for each country are usually the best and cheapest source for any tickets or reservations. But if they don’t offer them, the Interrail company is the only other source I know. I guess the good news is that if those countries don’t take advance reservations online, it means that no one else is getting them either. So if you reserve in person once you get into the country or even the country before, you should probably get reservations pretty easily. In my own experience, these night trains are becoming less popular every year, so hopefully you won’t have that much competition in the first place. Best of luck. -Roger

     
Mike says:

Anyone tried a recommendation from Seat61 to save money on Swiss rail. Buy the ticket on Bahn.de for the journey from a German town to Switzerland and then just get on the train in Switzerland?
A single from Freiburg via Basel to St Moritz is about 35 euros compared to over 100 Swiss francs from Basel to st Moritz.

 

    Mike,

    I’ve never tried it, but Seat61 is the best site for European trains out there. It sounds like it could be slightly risky, but I would think it would work. -Roger

     

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