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. FEBRIANA says:

    Hi Roger, May I ask for your advice on my travel plan to Europe.

    My Itineraries:
    Day 1 : zurich – Lucern (Reach Zurich by flight at night at 6.30pm then move to Lucern by train)
    Day 2: Lucern – Engelberg (Mt Titlis), Engelberg – Lucern
    Day 3: Lucern – Grindelwald
    Day 4: Grindelwald – Strasbourg (Paris)
    Day 5: Explore around Strasbourg
    Day 6: Strasbourg – Paris
    Day 7: Explore around Paris – Take train
    Day 8: Explore around Paris – Take train
    Day 9: Paris – Ghent, Belgium
    Day 10: Ghent – Bruges, Bruges – Ghent
    Day 11: Ghent – Amsterdam
    Day 12: Explore around Amsterdam – Take train
    Day 13: Explore around Amsterdam – Take train
    Day 14: Amsterdam – Schipol Airport

    There is Eurail promotion now and I am considered YOUTH, so total price for 15 days continuous will be about EURO 300.
    Is it worth it? Or buying point to point ticket is much affordable?

    Thank you for your advice. Appreciate your kind reply on this 🙂

    Regards,

    Febriana

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Febriana,

      Your trip looks ideal for getting a lot of use and value out of a Eurail Pass. The prices of some of these journeys would be fairly low if you bought them well in advance, but even then it would add up to WAY more than €300 for all of them. In other words, get that Eurail promotion.

      You’ll probably need to buy seat reservations for the journeys within France, and some of those can be a bit pricey, but hopefully not more than €20 or so and only for one or two of them. Aside from that you’ll be in a part of Europe where you can mostly just get on any train and show the pass to the ticket person who comes by. In some cases you might have to wait until after 9:30am or you’d have to pay about €5 for a seat reservation, but others are free all day. I recommend getting the free Rail Europe smart phone app, which has all of the Europe train schedules in it and also shows you which ones require a seat reservation or not. This is going to be an amazing trip. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  2. Ignacio says:

    Roger,
    Could you recommend on how to buy a ticket from Florence to Zurich on 2017-11-26 after 13hs. I checked a week ago and it was around 25 EUR. And now that i was going to buy I get nothing below 92 EUR. I’m looking 2 months in advance. I’m shocked.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Ignacio,

      This is a tough one. I just checked the official Italy rail site and the official Swiss rail site and found the same thing you did. Then I checked for travel dates on the Wednesday before and they were about half the price. My only guess is that Sunday trains are very popular so they get booked well in advance. Generally speaking, the first handful of seats on each train are sold at low prices and then the price goes up as more seats are sold on that train. It looks like the cheap tickets are all gone for those departures and I don’t know a way of getting a cheap fare unless you choose another day. Sorry it’s not better news. -Roger

  3. 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.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      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

  4. 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.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      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

  5. 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?

    1. 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

  6. Ira says:

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

    1. 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

      1. Ira says:

        Thank God I found you!!’ Thanks!!!

  7. 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

    1. 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

  8. 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.

    1. 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

  9. 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

    1. 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

  10. 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

    1. 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