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Travelling in Europe by train? Here’s what you need to know

If you’re worried about the carbon impact of flying, why not try travel in Europe by train instead? With help from The Man in Seat 61, we’ve got all the tips you need to get going.

Travelling in Europe by train might conjure up images of fresh-faced backpackers slumming it on a gap year, but in recent years rail travel on the continent has become the most comfortable, scenic and stress-free way to get around. 

From luxurious sleeper services to air-conditioned high speed rail complete with high-quality WiFi, many train companies in Europe are improving existing lines and even opening up exciting new connections between popular cities. 

This revival of rail travel in Europe has largely been driven by a desire to offer more options to travellers who want to avoid flying.

Aside from the stress of the airport experience, flying is one of the most carbon-intensive activities any individual can take part in, and as concern grows for the climate, many are seeking alternative modes of travel. 

Luckily, there are plenty of options for travelling Europe by train, although knowing how to get started isn’t always easy. So for those looking to catch the last of the summer sun, we’ve rounded up all you need to know for booking and enjoying train travel for your next trip to Europe. 

Is an Interrail pass cheaper? 

When you’re travelling across Europe by train, you can choose to buy individual tickets to get you to the destination you want. However, depending on the number of days you’re planning to travel on, and the number of destinations you’re passing through, it may be more cost-effective to buy an Interrail pass to cover the cost of all your journeys. 

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Interrail passes cover a huge range of trains and other transportation methods like ferries across almost every country in Europe. 

They also allow kids under 12 years old to go free where they’re being accompanied by an adult. 

The easiest way to work out which option is cheaper is by adding up the cost of all the individual train tickets you would be buying and comparing it to the Interrail pass options. 

Be warned that using an Interrail pass usually means you have to pay extra to reserve a seat on your chosen train, which can cost around 10 euros per seat, or more for long-distance, high-speed routes.

Interrail passes are usually best if you’re planning to be more flexible on your trip, as it gives you the choice of choosing which times and days to travel at a shorter notice than buying an advance ticket. 

You can find out more about purchasing and using Interrail passes on the Interrail website.

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Is travelling by train cheaper than flying?

When considering whether to fly or take the train across Europe, you may automatically assume that taking a flight is far cheaper and quicker than the train. However, when you account for extra costs and time delays at airports, you may find that taking the train is actually cheaper and quicker than the plane.

For example, many airports are currently asking passengers to arrive three hours prior to their flight, adding an extra three hours to what may already be a two hour flight with a wait on the other side to pass through passport control.

Many airports are also some distance away from the centre of the city you’re travelling to, adding even more time to the journey. Train stations, meanwhile, tend to be more central.

Once you account for this extra time, there are several routes that are quicker by train. This includes Madrid to Barcelona, Munich to Berlin, Paris to Toulouse and Berlin to Cologne.

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Research from Greenpeace, meanwhile, has shown that a third of the busiest short-haul flight routes in Europe have a train alternative that takes less than six hours. 

Once you account for extra costs associated with flying, you may also find that the train journey is competitively priced. 

When you fly, for instance, you’ll usually have to pay for travel to and from airports, for baggage and often for food and drink once you pass through security. 

In contrast, you won’t usually have to pay extra for baggage on a train, and you can often bring any food and drink you want into the carriage. The train will usually arrive in or nearby the centre of a city, saving money on taxis. 

According to Mark Smith, creator of train travel website The Man in Seat 61, those who book ahead can access very cheap train fares to get across Europe, even on sleeper trains, which also save you money on a night in a hotel.

Fares for a six-bed sleeper carriage can start from €34 in western Europe and are even cheaper in eastern Europe, according to Smith’s website. 

Standard day travel tickets between major European cities may also be cheaper than you think. According to Smith’s website, Berlin to Prague can cost as little as €20 booked in advance, while you could get between Prague and Vienna for €14.

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Use centralised booking sites to make things easier – but be wary of countries not covered

According to Smith, there are a few centralised ticketing websites that allow you to book multiple journeys from one place.

He recommends Rail Europe and Trainline for this. However, Smith also warns that there are several countries which are not included on these sites, while booking sleeper services through them can be complex. 

This is where things get a bit more complicated if you’re planning to book individual trains. 

Your best port of call for the cheapest fares is to check Smith’s ticketing web page, where you can find information about booking trains for every country you plan to travel to.

Alternatively, you may want to consider using a flight-free travel agent. These are becoming more common as the appetite for flight-free travel increases, and will do the booking legwork on your behalf.

Byway is one such travel agent, and offers flight-free holidays of varying lengths across several different countries, including Italy, France and the Netherlands. 

Allow time for sleeping and stopovers 

One of the problems with booking train travel in Europe, especially when using centralised ticketing sites, is that these sites may not leave you enough time to change trains or to get some shut-eye.

Anna Hughes, director of Flight Free UK, gave up flying a decade ago. She recommends “leaving longer than you think between connections, just in case there’s a delay, and to give you time to enjoy your interchange city”. 

If your journey takes place overnight, make sure to do yourself a favour and book a sleeping carriage rather than a seating carriage. You’ll only wake up feeling groggy the next morning if you don’t get a proper night of sleep. 

What essentials do I need for travelling by train?

Of course, if you’re travelling overnight, you’ll need a few essentials.

“An eye mask and ear plugs make a huge difference on overnight journeys”, says Hughes. 

Smith, meanwhile, recommends always bringing “a corkscrew and a good book”. One of the great things about rail travel is that you are usually able to enjoy your own provisions on board, so make the most of it. 

You may also want to consider bringing a padlock if travelling overnight to keep your belongings safe. 

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