How to See Europe by Rail
Booking train tickets online can be confusing and time-consuming. We’ll help put you on the right track.
Though rail travel isn’t as flexible as renting a car, it can be far less stressful — and far less of a hassle than flying, especially given the increased security measures at airports. The hardest part is navigating the booking sites, since there’s no one-stop shopping. The state-run systems all have different rules for fare classes, changes, and cancellations. Also, some require riders to have a paper ticket, which must be mailed to you, though many now offer e-tickets that can be presented to conductors via your smartphone. "Booking rail travel in Europe can be a complicated beast,” says Prashanth Kuchibhotla, director of strategy and business development for rail at Expedia. "It’s possible to navigate the websites and figure it out slowly, but it’s not very straightforward.” Eventually, Expedia aims to become the go-to source for train itineraries, but for now you’ll have to hop around to multiple sites. Here are a few tips to make sure your plans don’t go off the rails.
Book in Advance
"If you don’t book in advance, you’re not going to get the time and day you want,” warns travel agent Marc Kazlauskas, a member of T+L’s Travel Advisory Board. High-speed trains, such as the TGV, Eurostar, and Le Frecce, often sell out weeks ahead of time. Plus, many of the European rail operators use a dynamic pricing system, including early-bird fares.
Where to Buy
U.S.-based Rail Europe has a site with maps and schedules for more than 50 different train companies organized by type, such as premier high-speed and express trains. But the site charges steep fees to book. Often the cheapest option is to book directly with the rail operator in the country you plan to visit.
Each country sells its own passes, but the universal ones sold by Eurail are the easiest to buy online (take note of restrictions and rules). Global Passes for five or more countries start at $339, while Select Passes for travelers visiting two to four neigh- boring countries start at $145. There are also single-country passes from $67.
Use an Agent
If the thought of studying timetables on multiple web- sites overwhelms you, consider hiring a Europe-savvy travel specialist to handle the logistics. Kazlauskas says, "There are a ton of third-party websites that will gouge you with extra fees, but an agent will do the digging for you to get the best price.” Find agents at travelandleisure.com/a-list.