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

About a million years ago, buying train tickets for your European trip was very easy and straightforward because they all had fixed prices that were reasonable so you could buy your ticket just before the train departed. Then in the early 2000s, that all changed as countries started introducing “dynamic pricing” similar to airlines and suddenly tickets generally started out cheap and went up in price as the departure date drew near.

Now as of 2022, nearly all international train tickets and most domestic European train tickets are sold this way and buying tickets on departure day is usually insanely expensive. Below we will go over what you need to know to save the most on buying train tickets for your Europe trip, and where to buy them as well. One very nice thing is that you can usually download them instantly these days and not have to pay a delivery charge, but there’s more to the story below.

This article was updated in August, 2022.

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 2022 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: 3 hours 55 minutes
  • Bought today: €142
  • Bought one-week early: €126
  • Bought one-month early: €54
  • Bought three months early: €18

International train fares within Europe all seem to have this dynamic pricing where the fare goes up as the date approaches and more tickets are sold. However, some countries including Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries have fixed domestic fares that can be reasonable if bought on travel day. However, they also have “super saver” fares on some routes where they offer very cheap tickets if you buy far enough in advance.

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

You’ll also usually notice advance fares can be drastically different from one departure to another the longer in advance you look. For example, to the right you’ll see all of the 9 AM to 3 PM departures from Berlin to Munich on a day a little over three months from now. Of the six departures, the two fastest ones (just under 4 hours) are currently priced at €47.90 in 2nd class, while the four slightly slower (around 4.5 hours) departures are still priced at €17.90.

This sort of things is very common as each departure only has a certain number of ultra-cheap tickets on offer and then the price jumps up quite a bit. On this day the two faster trains are sold out of the ultra-cheap tickets, while they are still available for the slightly slower trains. It’s easy to save quite a bit of money when you see situations like this far enough in advance.

Is a Eurail Pass a better option now?

About 10 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 to €10 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 cases.

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.

The 2022 Eurail Passes seem to be quite a bit lower than they had been in 2020, which is probably due to lower ridership during the pandemic. Hopefully these same prices hold up in 2023 because they can be much cheaper than even buying tickets in advance at these prices.

>>>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

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 now in 2022 you buy download tickets instantly for no delivery charge. This used to be a headache but now it couldn’t be easier.
>>>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

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All Comments

  1. 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.

    1. 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

  2. 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?

    1. 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

  3. 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.

    1. 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

      1. 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.

        1. 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

  4. 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?

    1. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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?

    1. 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

  7. 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?

    1. 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

  8. 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

  9. Ellen says:

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

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Ellen,

      Last year they announced in early November that Global Passes were on sale through the end of March, so I think you are a bit too early. Here is the announcement from last year. -Roger

  10. 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.

    1. 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