(Prices quoted in this article are subject to frequent change)

Let's this out of the way up front: riding European trains is about as pleasant a transport experience as can be had. We say that because in the early and mid ‘90s we refereed a running battle in these pages among Europe-by-rail advocates and those who prefer to drive. Gemütlichkeit’s leanings were a bit toward the automobile, a stance that upset a few rail worshipers.

That’s a stale controversy, however, and we long ago decided there is no single “right way” to get around Europe and thus won’t take up space today reviewing the various arguments; it’s probably enough to say that trains are for “big” travel and cars are better suited for smaller travel appetites. At the “big travel” end of the spectrum might be an itinerary like Vienna-Prague-Berlin-Hamburg-Geneva. At the opposite end is the traveler who wants to spend two weeks poking around small wine villages of Bavaria or the Black Forest.

Beside the romantic and spiritual virtues of rail travel, there are some practical ones as well. Driving in the congested traffic of major European cities is not for everyone. Parking is difficult and expensive. Finding your way, even with accurate, properly scaled maps, a GPS, and a good navigator, can be a challenge. Large portions of many European cities are off limits to cars and others are entered by permit only. Violators caught on cameras are liable for substantial fines.

Though rail travelers avoid all that, North Americans contemplating train travel in Europe this year should be aware of some recent developments:

  • Green conscious Europeans are riding the rails in record numbers. It used to be a rail pass holder could jump aboard just about any train and not worry about a seat reservation. To some extent, that’s still true but there are notable exceptions we’ll discuss later.
  • North Americans’ travel habits have changed. The plethora of regional passes now available for purchase reflects a trend toward a desire to limit travel to smaller geographic areas. The consecutive-day Global Eurail Pass that allows the traveler to visit an almost unlimited number of European cities in a short period of time, has been pushed aside by passes that offer fewer, but non-consecutive, days travel in from one to five countries. A Rail Europe executive told Gemütlichkeit this cover-less-territory movement is so strong that his company now sells more point-to-point tickets than rail passes.
  • The Internet has broadened purchase choices. North Americans can now buy city-to-city tickets at the websites of several European railroads and have them delivered to their home or print them on their home or office printer. Often these fares are cheaper than Rail Europe’s.
  • European railroads are now in a low-fare competition with the dozens of short-haul, discount European airlines. Fares in the €19 to €49 range are frequently available for advance, nonrefundable, purchase on long-distance trains. On May 30, Rail Europe’s website quoted second-class Berlin to Munich fares ranging from $166 to $240. Deutsche Bahn’s website offered the same route on the same day for €49 second-class, and €69 first-class.

Rail Passes vs. Individual Tickets

Once you know rail will be part of your European vacation, the next decision is whether to purchase a rail pass (or passes) or point-to-point tickets or both—not an easy choice. The buyer must weigh the price of tickets against the cost of the appropriate pass. And, as can be seen from the forgoing Berlin-Munich example, the key is to find the lowest point-to-point fares. Depending on who sells the tickets, and when they are purchased, prices can vary widely. For example, it makes a huge difference in deciding on the purchase of a $239, three-day, second-class, Germany Twin Pass, whether a single Berlin-Munich ticket can cost as low as €59 (bahn.de) or $182.

This comparison of individual ticket fares versus rail passes is the very core of the problem. Finding prices for city-to-city rail tickets in Europe is not easy. While fares within a single country are relatively simple to determine, it’s a different story with international fares. You may need to check a variety of rail websites, some of which, like the French Rail site, are not so user-friendly. Rick Steves’ website has a map with the approximate fares between Europe’s major cities, but in my experience the prices are based on Rail Europe fares, not on discounted fares available for purchase online from overseas rail websites.

Remember, too, in your decision-making, that some rail passes, such as three, four and five-country Eurail passes, are first-class only; a factor to take into account when the lowest priced point-to-point tickets are for second-class travel. Also, just because you see a low fare on a European rail website such as bahn.de, it doesn’t mean that fare will be available over the counter in Europe.

Even if individual tickets are a little less expensive, rail passes have certain advantages:

  • The pass offers greater flexibility as it gets you aboard virtually any train, whereas the lowest priced ticket is likely good only on a specific train and may be non-transferable or refundable.
  • Buying tickets as needed in Europe almost always involves standing in line. Since most trains, especially in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, don’t require seat reservations, pass holders simply walk aboard the train; no standing in line.
  • Most rail passes provide extra benefits: discounts on riverboats, ferries, private trains, cable cars and other bonuses. The best perk is provided by the Swiss Pass which allows holders free admission to 400 museums, including nearly all of Switzerland’s most important ones.

The Right Rail Pass

There are literally dozens of rail passes for sale, and it is not always immediately apparent which is right for you. If you’re sticking to one country then the rail pass for that country is an obvious choice. But if you’d like to venture into one or more neighboring countries your choices may be less obvious. Let’s say you and a companion plan to travel four days by train in Germany, but want to go to Bern, Switzerland, for a weekend. The six-day Switzerland-Germany Saver Pass ($814 for two persons) seems the obvious choice. But there are other options: the German Twin Pass coupled with the Swiss Transfer Ticket; or the same Twin Pass but with regular roundtrip tickets from the Swiss border to Bern. Does either of these options beat the $814 Germany-Switzerland Saver? Let’s see. The first-class, four-day Twin Pass for two is $528 and a pair of first-class Swiss Transfer Tickets (each good for one roundtrip between any border town or airport and any single Swiss destination) is $392, a total outlay of $920. Scratch that. However, since your Twin Pass is good as far as Basel, you can save $86 by purchasing roundtrip second-class tickets to Bern— about $64 per person—and your total drops to $658.

Seat Reservations

Though a seat reservation is not necessary on more than about 95-percent of trains in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, North American travelers seem to have trouble accepting the idea of boarding a train without having reserved a specific seat, even though they have a rail pass that allows them to ride. Switzerland, in fact, discourages reservations except on special trains like the Glacier Express.

To determine which trains require reservations, check the online timetable of the country in which travel will originate. Trains requiring a seat reservation are typically marked with an ‘R’ or the words ‘seat reservation compulsory,’ in online and printed schedules. Generally speaking, however, reserved seats are required on France’s TGV trains, Thalys trains that run between France and Benelux countries, long distance trains in Spain, Norway and Italy, scenic Swiss trains, night trains, Eurostar, and a few ICE trains in Germany.

In Germany and Austria, no more than 70-percent of the total number of seats are available for reservation. Therefore, if your trip begins at the train’s origination point, simply arrive at the station 15-20 minutes before departure and choose from among the 30-percent (or more) seats not marked by a reservation card. Seats are reserved for 15 minutes after the train departs the station.

When you see an empty seat with a reservation tag, check to see for what portion of the journey the seat is reserved. On a Frankfurt-Hamburg train, for example, the tag may hold the seat for only the Hanover-Hamburg portion of the trip. Anyone can occupy that seat between Frankfurt and Hanover.

While it’s cheaper to wait until you get to Europe, there are times when it’s prudent to book a seat before leaving the U.S. A prime example is if you plan to go by rail to Avignon upon arrival in Paris.

Even when a reservation is not required, you may want one on trips longer than an hour or two, especially during heavy travel times such as Friday and Sunday afternoons and on holidays. Reservations cost as little as €3 in Europe and $11 to about $40.

Reservations in France

Rail pass travelers in France should be aware that, though reservations are required on all TGV trains, they may not always be easy to get. France Rail controls seats with yield management software that establishes a pecking order that gives rail passes a very low priority. Fewer seats are made available to North American rail pass holders than just about any other ticket category.

First-Class or Second-Class?

First-class train travel in Europe is quieter, roomier and about 40 to 50-percent more expensive than second-class. Second-class cars have a center aisle and two seats on both sides. First-class cars usually have two seats on one side of the aisle, and a single seat on the other side. First-class seats are wider and there are usually fewer of them per car, as well as more luggage space. On some premier trains, a meal is included in the price of a first-class ticket. The difference between the two classes on some trains is not great. For example, the air-conditioned second class cars on Germany’s fast ICE trains, are sleek and comfortable. We recommend first-class travel in Italy and eastern European countries.

Other Rail Options

• BahnCard: Those who plan to stay in Germany for several months may want to purchase a BahnCard, sold at German rail stations or online at bahn.de. For €57 you’ll get a 25-percent discount on first or second-class travel for a year. The 50-percent BahnCard is €230 and the 100-percent discount—free travel for one year—is a hefty €3,800. These prices are discounted for students under 27, kids under 15, and adults over 60.

• Schönes-Wochenende Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket): For €37 when purchased online or from a station ticket machine (€39 otherwise), this ultra-budget option allows unlimited second-class travel on local trains for up to five persons traveling together on a Saturday or Sunday. Not valid on intercity (ICE, EC, IC) trains.

• Germany’s Länder tickets allow travel in any of 10 German federal states: Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, etc. They cost €26 to €34 and are good for unlimited second-class travel for one day for five persons traveling together on local trains. For an additional €13 travel is allowed on certain regional trains.

• Switzerland’s SuperSaver tickets are sold at sbb.ch/en/home.html. Though limited to certain routes, trains, and days, the discounts can be substantial. On the Basel-Bern route mentioned earlier, the fare on a recent departure was about $25 instead of $64.

Key Rail Web Sites

From among the sites listed below be sure to bookmark bahn.de. It’s Europe’s top rail website, with an extensive set of tools for planning rail travel: timetables for the entire European rail system, station information, maps and much, much more. The depth of information is amazing. Many tickets can be purchased online and printed at home.

When accessing the France rail website, if you identify yourself as a North American resident the site will re-direct you to Rail Europe where point-to-point tickets are likely to be more expensive. The site will be in English if you log in as, say, a Norwegian.

The Switzerland website also has all the European timetables but it seems not quite as easy to use bahn.de.

It is apparently virtually impossible for North Americans to purchase tickets from the Italy rail site.

Seat61.com is the work of a single U.K. train buff and the information provided is both useful and extensive.

Austria: oebb.at/en/

Germany: bahn.de

Switzerland: sbb.ch/en/home.html

France: sncf.com/sncv1/en/trains/tgv

Italy: trentalia.com

Eurostar: eurostar.com

Thalys: thalys.com/de/en/

Independent: seat61.com/

Cautions

Remember that 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 and your choice of luggage.

Some travelers also consider the busy train routes that connect major European cities to be very much on the beaten track. As a rail rider in the summer you’ll find that many of your travel companions are fellow Americans. Depending on your point of view, that’s either a plus or a minus.