An in-depth look at touring Europe by train. Provides information on which type of ticket or pass to buy, how to make reservations, overnight train accommodations, discounts, prices, perks, and more.
By Bob Bestor
Trains in Europe are more than a means of transport, they are a tourist attraction in themselves. Welcome to the first issue of Gemütlichkeit devoted to rail travel.
There is nothing quite like the experience of riding a European train.
First, there are the ever-changing views through the wide windows: stunning postcard vistas of the Alps and gentle pastoral outlooks over meticulously maintained pastures and fields. Even those sometimes not-so-savory peeks into the backyards of city dwellers are at least interesting, if not inspiring. And you never have to be alert for road signs or other drivers. It's just you and the view.
Then there is the restaurant car. Maybe the food isn't one-star Michelin, but around sunset with a glass of wine or a cool beer vom fass, a meal on rails can be a memorable one.
The best part, though, is the total absence of stress. Your only decisions are whether to read, sleep or watch. You have no control. The train will get there when it gets there - on time, of course. In the meantime, the phone won't ring.
Though rail travel seems to have cornered the market on romance, there are drawbacks, minor to some, major to others.
For two or more persons, renting a car is almost always less expensive than touring by train, and the gap is widening. Car rental rates in Germany are lower than they were 10 years ago while the price of the standard, 15-day Eurail pass has risen dramatically in that time.
Luggage is another rail headache...er, backache. Everything you bring to Europe, everything you acquire while in Europe, you'll carry on and off every train. The combination of a long walk and a short time between trains in a large station like Munich will cause you to reevaluate your packing priorities. Blessings on the inventor of rolling suitcases.
Finally, some travelers feel the busy train routes that connect major European cities are very much on the beaten track. As a rail rider you'll find that many of your travel companions are fellow Americans.
In fairness, however, we must report that in numerous long train trips over the past four winters - Berlin-Frankfurt, Zürich-Munich, Zürich-Prague, Prague-Frankfurt, Vienna-Munich, and several others - more often than not we have had a six-seat compartment all to ourselves. It's a sweet way to go.
Pass or Point-to-Point Tickets?
Once you choose rail over car rental your next decision is whether to buy a rail pass or simply purchase point-to-point tickets. Europe travel guru, Rick Steves, who probably knows as much about rail travel on the Continent as any American, estimates that as many as 10% of rail pass buyers would be better off buying tickets as they go.
While Steves notes that point-to-point tickets can be purchased in the U.S., he recommends waiting until you get to Europe to buy them and, where possible, avoiding the faster, "supplement-required" trains.
For example, the normal 1st class fare from Frankfurt to Munich is 224 DM ($123). However, if you're willing to ride 2nd class - perfectly comfortable and the views are just as good - aboard EC 62, departing Munich at 20:46 and arriving Frankfurt at 44 minutes after midnight, the weekday price is 59 DM ($32). There is a restaurant car and you don't change trains.
But even at these low rates, if you plan to see a lot of country, rail passes are almost always are the better way to go.
So it's decision time again. Which pass? To make this call you have to do some advance trip planning. If you're sticking to one country then the rail pass for that country is the obvious choice. But if you'd like to venture into one or more neighboring countries the picture gets a little murkier.
Let's say you're planning to stay mostly in Germany, but want to spend a day in Bern, Switzerland. Do you buy a German Rail Pass and a Swiss Card which is good for one roundtrip anywhere in Switzerland (total of $418 1st class or $302 2nd class for four days in Germany and the one Switzerland trip)? Or do you go for the Europass (1st class only, five days, five countries: Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain for $348)? As you can see, the Europass is the better deal but the cheapest way is to buy a 2nd class German Rail pass ($174) and a roundtrip ticket from the Swiss border to Bern, about $42, for a total of $216.
Obviously, the kicker in this planning process is determining the cost of point-to-point tickets. Not so easy. The websites noted on this page will provide most fares within the countries they represent, but to find a price from a city in one country to a city in another, is more difficult. For small cities, almost impossible.
Rail Europe, however, can help. Call 800-438-7245 to access their 24-hour automated travel information service. By following the recorded directions, and using your telephone key pad to punch in the names of departure and arrival cities, you can get rail fares between most key cities.
Another Rail Europe resource is its web page. Go to the rail section and click on "Fares and Schedules" for a simple search procedure that provides fares and schedules for about 450 European cities. The German and Swiss rail websites databases are much more comprehensive but, as previously mentioned, usually do not provide fare information if the cities are in different countries.
With your rail pass you can board the train but you are not guaranteed a seat. Practically speaking, finding an open seat is seldom a problem, but we always feel more comfortable with a reservation. They are compulsory on certain InterCity and EuroCity trains and any train with an "R" in the schedule.
Where and when to make the reservation is another matter. For a garden variety reservation between, say, Berlin and Hamburg, Rail Europe charges $11 per person. Some high-speed and special trains charge even more, up to $25. However, it is much cheaper to book seats in Europe and you can do so easily at any train station and at most travel agencies. Last winter, we paid from 3 DM ($1.65) to 5 Sfr. ($3.33) per person for our made-in-Europe reservations.
Bookings for some trains can be made only a few hours before departure, others require at least 24 hours in advance.
Steves says that in 24 years of European train travel he has never made or needed a reservation before arriving in Europe.
Bookings in the U.S. can be made through Rail Europe (800-438-7245) or DER Tours (800-549-3737).
With your Eurailpass you can reserve a sleeper, couchette or sleeperette by paying a supplement.
Sleepers are 1st class bedrooms for one or two passengers, or bedrooms for two or three persons in 2nd class. All have a washbasin. Toilets are located at either end of the car. Couchettes are open bunks with a pillow and blanket, which, for a charge usually of $28 (about $8 less if booked in Europe), allow you to lie down during the night, but afford little privacy. In 1st class there are four couchettes per compartment; in 2nd class, four or six couchettes per compartment. In all cases couchettes are shared by both sexes. Available on some trains, sleeperettes are reclining seats in 2nd class.
You may be asked to give up your rail pass and passport for the night to the train staff. In this way you can sleep through the night and be undisturbed during border crossings and ticket checks.
Be aware that some overnight trains do not carry normal seating cars, only sleeping cars. When they do it is often 2nd class only.
In the Station
In most European rail stations posted timetables show departure and arrival times and track numbers. These are recognized by the color of the background. Departure timetables usually have a yellow background, while arrival timetables are in white. Trains are listed chronologically from 00 to 24 hours. Fast trains are often shown in red. Next to the time, or at the top, you will find the names of important intermediate stops, as well as the track number from which the train departs. Major train stations also provide this information on computerized indicator boards.
Youth, Senior Discounts
Travelers under 26 can obtain rail tickets at a 30% discount at travel agencies throughout Europe. The Let's Go guidebooks carry a list of budget travel offices which are usually located in or near major train stations.
Senior discounts are available in a few countries. Persons over 60 get a 30% discount aboard most trains in the UK. There is a 50% discount for males 65 and over and for women 60 and over in Austria. Travelers over 65 get 50% off in Scandinavia, except in Norway where the age is 67. Seniors may be required to purchase an ID card.
Cheaper Rail Tickets in Germany
Rail passes don't fit everyone's needs. You may wish to buy your tickets as you go. It such cases, you'll be looking for the best deals. If you do so, there is at least one advantage: rail tickets purchased in Europe are refundable and changeable. Tickets bought in the U.S. carry restrictions.
Here are a few discount tips (by the way don't expect the German Tourist Office in the U.S to have information on these programs. They referred us to an information number at Deutsche Bahn (German Rail, +49/01805/996633.)
Those who plan to stay in Germany for a long time will want to consider the purchase of a BahnCard, sold at German rail stations. For 240 DM ($132) you'll get a 50% discount on 2nd class tickets for a year. Buy a second card for your spouse and pay 120 DM ($66). The price for children under 18 is 18.6 DM ($11)
Travelers over 59, under 23, or students under 27 can purchase the BahnCard for 120 DM ($66).
Guten Abend tickets (Good Evening tickets) purchased at rail stations allow 2nd class travel anywhere in Germany between 7pm (2pm Saturdays) and 2pm the next day for discounted rates. For travel on Fridays and Sundays a supplement of 15 DM ($8) applies.
Prices: 2nd cl 1st cl.
Non ICE: 59 DM ($32) 99 DM ($54)
ICE: 69 DM ($38) 109 DM ($60)
For example, if you're headed for Frankfurt from Munich on a weekend, the normal 1st class fare is 224 DM ($123) or 147 DM ($81).
However, if you're willing to ride 2nd class aboard EC 62, departing Munich at 20:46 and arriving Frankfurt at 44 minutes after midnight, the price is 74 DM ($41). There is a restaurant car and you don't change trains.
• Schönes-Wochenende tickets (Happy Weekend tickets) are good for up to 5 persons - at least 3 of them under 18 - traveling together on the weekend, anywhere in Germany, from midnight Saturday until Monday 2am, for a total of only DM 35 ($19) for all travelers. Valid on all local trains, 2nd class only. Can be purchased in Germany and from Deutsche Bahn offices in the UK and in Paris.
• Sparpreis (Saver Ticket) and Supersparpreis (ICE Super Saver Ticket) offer savings on long-distance roundtrip 1st or 2nd class trips. The Sparpreis allows travel on any day but must include a Friday night stay.
The Supersparpreis offers travel on any day except Friday and Sunday plus Friday night stay-over.
Per Person Prices:
1 Pers 2-4 Pers.
Saver S-Saver Saver S-Saver
2nd cl. (no ICE) 219 DM 109 DM
2nd cl. (ICE ok) 299 DM 249 DM 149 DM 125 DM
1st cl (no ICE) 329 DM 164 DM
1st cl. (ICE ok) 449 DM 374 DM 225 DM 187 DM
Key Rail Web Sites
Mercurio European Timetables
Deutsche Bahn European Timetables
SSB (Swiss Rail) Timetables