When thinking about travelling to European countries, booking a flight is probably the first thing that pops into many tourists’ minds. While it has many advantages, air travel is also notorious for its long security and check-in lines, luggage restrictions, and delays. And who wants to navigate motorways and risk being stuck in traffic in a car?
You may find it surprising that the European rail system is a great alternative to booking flights across Europe. Travelling by train is far more comfortable, prompt, and full of delightful surprises. And the best part? Trains can take you to almost every destination in Europe!
Ready to get started? Here’s your basic cheat sheet to train travel in Europe.
Your Basic Guide to Train Travel in Europe
Pros of Train Travel in Europe
Each type of travel has its own advantages and disadvantages—train travel is no exception. To determine whether it’s the right fit for you, here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of the European rail system.
- No Long Check-In Lines – Unlike air travel, you don’t need to line up for check-in procedures and security screening in train travel. You can simply show up 15 minutes before the train leaves (considering you already bought tickets online) and hop on!
- No Luggage Limits and Fees – You’ll also enjoy the fact that there are less strict luggage policies when it comes to travelling by train. Just make sure you’re able to lift your bags onto the train.
- On-Schedule – Traveling by train is far more punctual, with European trains arriving on-schedule 90% of the time. This is a great statistic as flights are only on schedule around 65%.
- Comfort – Compared to seats in airplanes, train seats are usually larger and more comfortable. You can also walk around the train whenever you feel like it. And unless it’s a holiday, you can score two seats for yourself as the train would be uncrowded.
- Beautiful Views – While going on a flight gives you breathtaking overhead views, you’ll most likely see clouds anyway. Travel by train so you can enjoy truly magnetic sights.
Cons of Train Travel in Europe
1. Expensive Cost – It’s a common misconception that train travel is far cheaper than booking a flight. And although you can get good deals when you book train passes in advance, travelling by train is still relatively expensive.
Did You Know? If you’re 26 years old and below, several European rail systems actually offer discounts.
2. Slow for Long-Distance Travel – While the majority of high-speed trains can travel up to 290 km/hr, choosing to board the train for very long distances can take a lot of time.
It’s best to book a flight if you’re traversing countries far from each other (e.g. France to the Czech Republic).
3. Fixed Schedules – Railways are not as flexible as planes (offering more time and travel alternatives) and cars (providing the most freedom). Since they run strictly on-schedule, they cannot be customized for a single individual.
4. Confusing Train Stations – Train travel can be confusing, especially for first-timers. There’s a high probability you’ll get lost as cities and towns have more than one train station. Fortunately, there are tons of apps (and maps!) to guide you.
5. Rail Strikes – During your train travel to Europe, your trip may be interrupted by rail strikes (an ongoing row about the role of guards). Luckily, officials usually announce strikes in advance and they can reimburse your unused ticket.
Train Travel vs Plane Travel: European Routes That are Faster By Train
Most people think that flying via plane is the fastest way to get across Europe. But when you calculate the long check-in lines at the airport and the fact that you have to be there for 2 hours prior, you’ll be surprised that train travel is faster.
- Amsterdam to London – 50 minutes faster by train
- London to Paris – 3 hours, 24 minutes faster by train
- Paris to Brussels – 2 hours, 39 minutes faster by train
- Barcelona to Madrid – 1 hour, 15 minutes faster by train
- Madrid to Valencia – 1 hour, 28 minutes faster by train
- Milan to Rome – 1 hour, 6 minutes faster by train
- Rome to Florence – 3 hours, 5 minutes faster by train
4 Different Types of Train You Can Ride Across Europe
Thanks to the abundance of trains across Europe, you can choose the ideal one fit for your travel preferences.
Want to cover large distances quickly? Travel via high-speed trains across Europe while enjoying a bite to eat or a book to read in the comforts of your own seat.
The Alfa Pendular can take you to the other side of Portugal in less than 6 hours. Coast through major cities in the country from Brago to Faro with stops at Porto, Coimbra, and Lisbon.
The Spanish Altaria high-speed train lets you travel from the country’s capital, Madrid, to southern Spain. Enjoy the train’s reclining seats along with the audio and video outlets.
Tip: Want to take a brief trip to Morocco? This train stops at Algeciras, where you can connect by ferry to the African country.
Running at speeds of up to 250 km/hr, the Alvia connects major cities across Spain. Whether you want to stop at Madrid, Gijón, Alicante, Castellón, Barcelona or Bilbao, this is the train to take!
Want to traverse the vast Spanish countryside? Travel in luxury aboard the AVE! You probably won’t notice that its the longest high-speed network in Europe, thanks to the reclining seats, the café/bar, and the great onboard service.
If you prefer to see the beautiful Mediterranean coast, hop on the Spanish Euromed! You can arrive in Barcelona from Alicante with stops at Tarragona, Castellon and Valencia, in under 5 hours.
Why traverse along the coast when you can travel underwater? The high-speed international Eurostar is your best pick for a trip to London from Amsterdam, Brussels, or Paris. This train will take you via the English Channel Tunnel so make sure to take in the breathtaking underwater sights.
Did You Know? The Eurostar also travels directly to Lille and Marne-la-Vallée, where you can find Disneyland Paris.
The ICE railway system connects you to all major cities in Germany and across neighbouring countries like Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. It’s truly the epitome of comfort travel with plenty of legroom, audio systems, and video screens.
Formerly known as Eurostar Italia, the Le Frecce can help you reach major cities in Italy in just a matter of hours. From Rome to Venice and many other small towns in the countryside, take this train to explore Italy.
RailJet (RJ) is an international high-speed train that operates between Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Switzerland. With reclining seats, excellent onboard facilities, and outstanding services, RJ surely takes train travel to these Central European destinations to the next level.
Take the Renfe-SNCF en Cooperación if you want to reach the heart of France from Spain. Don’t forget to stop by Barcelona, Madrid, Lyon, Marseille, and Paris while aboard this high-speed train.
Want to travel the Scandinavian terrain at a top speed of 200 km/hr? Then buy your train passes to the Swedish SJ. These trains can transport you to major cities in Sweden like Gothenburg, Malmö, and Stockholm.
Did You Know? The SJ can also travel to Copenhagen in Denmark by traversing through the longest rail bridge in Europe—the Öresund Bridge.
For those who want to explore the Czech Republic, take the SuperCity high-speed train and journey to Prague from Ostrava. You can also travel to Austria and Slovakia in the south.
The TGV is a high-speed international train that traverses Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. Feel free to visit famous cities such as Paris, Cannes, Brussels, Frankfurt, Zurich, and so much more!
Part of the TGV fleet, the Lyria can transport you to the heart of Switzerland from France. Take in some of the greatest scenery all over Europe when you ride this high-speed train!
Want to travel from Amsterdam to Antwerp? Or maybe go to Paris from Brussels? The Thalys high-speed train can take you to France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands with over 50 return trips per day.
Sometimes, high-speed trains are just too fast for your liking. To truly enjoy the dramatic mountain scenery, the sparkling blue lakes, and the striking coastline that Europe has to offer, hop on to these scenic trains.
If you want to see the stunning Austrian Alps, get your train passes and ride the Arlbergline. It’s considered one of the most spectacular railway lines in Austria.
For the best of the Norwegian landscape, take the Bergen Railway from Bergen to Oslo. Take in the sights of the breathtaking fjords, cascading waterfalls, towering mountains, and the frozen lakes!
The Bernina Express can take you on an unforgettable train journey through Switzerland. Alpine lakes, dynamic glaciers, and the rolling countryside are just a few of the many things you can see via this train line!
Black Forest Lines
The Black Forest Lines is a scenic train that passes through south-western Germany’s region of Baden-Württemberg. It can transport you to the world of Hansel and Gretel with its small villages and conifer-coated mountains.
For one of the most beautiful sights in Europe, take the Centovalli Railway through the magical “Hundred Valleys” in Switzerland. You can also travel to Italy’s Domodossola through this route.
Prefer something a little extreme? Ride the Flåm Railway in order to experience traversing via the longest and deepest fjord not only in Norway but also in Europe, the Sognefjorden.
Despite passing through 91 tunnels and 291 bridges, you won’t feel that at all when aboard the Glacier Express. You’ll be too busy marvelling at the Alpine heartland of Switzerland.
The Golden Pass connects central Switzerland to Lake Geneva. From Montreaux to Lucerne, this train route offers tall mountains, green valleys, and vast vineyards.
Gotthard Panorama Express
Want to see the most beautiful sights in Switzerland? Ride the Gotthard Panorama Express from Lucerne to either Locarno or Lugano and vice versa.
For the ultimate sightseeing experience in Sweden, take the Inlandsbanan railway and take in the vast sights at 1,300 km long.
The Rauma Line is a scenic train that transports you through picturesque mountains and winding tunnels in Norway.
Did You Know? The Rauma Line traverses the tallest-rock face in Europe—the Trollveggen.
Rhine Valley Line
Make the most out of the 100km stretch of the Rhine Valley Line by enjoying the view of Germany’s wine producing region. Aboard this scenic train, you’ll see ripe vineyards, beautiful castles, and picturesque towns.
Want to see some of Austria’s most beautiful nature sights? Let the Semmering Bahn take you to Gloggnitz from Semmering by crossing over 16 viaducts and passing through 15 tunnels.
Why book a flight at night when you can take the train and sleep through the way? From reclining seats to private sleeping cabins, save precious travel time by taking these night trains!
Berlin Night Express
If you want to get to Germany from Sweden or vice versa, take the Berlin Night Express as it’s the only train directly traversing the route. You can arrive in Berlin to Malmö in less than 10 hours!
The EuroNight is an international night train that connects many Western and Central European countries. Take this train if you’re going to the Czech Republic, Prague, Hungary, Romania, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria.
In less than 16 hours, you can reach Thessaloniki in Greece from Serbia’s Belgrade or vice versa by taking the Hellas Express. You can also drop by at Skopje in Macedonia if you wish.
Tip: The Hellas Express only operates from June to September. Keep this fact in mind when planning your travel to Europe.
Intercités de Nuit
For those who want to cross the vast French landscape at night, you can sleep your way in the Intercités de Nuit and arrive in major cities between Paris and Toulouse.
The ÖBB Nightjet trains can safely transport you to a new city by morning. Destinations include popular cities of Austria, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.
Santa Claus Express
This Finnish double-decker night train, called the Santa Claus Express, can take you to the Arctic Circle. Feel free to gaze in wonder at the Aurora borealis which shines over the snow-covered wonderland.
Did You Know? The Santa Claus Express line was named as such because it passes through Rovaniemi, the official hometown of Santa Claus.
If you want to traverse vast distances in Sweden, ride the SJ night train. You can experience all of the country, from the south’s rolling green pastures to the northern Arctic region.
You can also take the Snälltåget night train in Sweden if you want to arrive at the ski town of Åre. You can hop aboard at Malmö and wake up the next morning having travelled over 1,200 km.
Aside from day trips, the Thello train also operates at night to take you to Italy from the heart of France. You’ll arrive safely in the morning at historical cities like Milan, Venice, and Verona.
The Trenhotel night train can traverse both domestic (Spain) and international (France, Portugal, and Spain) routes. Travel in luxury in this train by getting a 1st class single-sleeper complete with your very own private bathroom.
For those who want to explore the heart and soul of Europe, take the regional trains! Almost every country has them and they stop at every railway station along its route. This ultimately ensures you can visit hundreds of destinations in your way, from the smallest villages to the largest cities.
And while they don’t have the luxury and speed of high-speed trains, they still offer a comfortable way to get around Europe.
Eurail Pass: The Best Way to Get Around Popular European Countries
With so many towns and cities to explore in Europe, you might be thinking about how you can visit all of them. Fortunately, with a Eurail Pass, you can freely travel across several European countries for a certain number of travel days. This gives you plenty of time to see as much as you can.
Here are the different types of passes you can purchase.
Eurail One Country Pass
The Eurail One Country Pass can take you to almost every corner of any single European country. This includes France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the Benelux.
Get One – Purchase the One Country Pass if you have no plans of traveling to other countries and prefer to move from one beautiful city center to the next.
Skip It – Want to stop by a neighbouring European country? Or are you only staying in the continent for less than a month? The Eurail One Country Pass is not for you.
Eurail Select Pass
The Eurail Select Pass allows you to travel across a select few European countries that border one another. It gives you the option to travel between 5-10 days within a two-month window.
Get One – If you’re only planning to visit a few specific European countries, get the Eurail Select Pass. You have the freedom to travel several long routes which would cost cheaper than the per-day tickets.
Skip It – For those who have scheduled day trips at a central location or plan to stay less than 3 days in Europe, you can save more money by buying train tickets one by one.
Eurail Global Pass
The Global Pass covers almost 40,000 destinations in 33 different countries. It comes in different versions from 5 travel days in a one-month period to an unlimited three-month pass.
Get One – For the ultimate backpacker who wants to travel anywhere within Europe on a whim, you should definitely get a Eurail Global Pass. Just make sure to research your dream route and book ahead of time for cheaper rates.
Skip It – If you’re not planning to travel enough countries in a short period, it’s best to skip this pass as it can be a waste of money. And if you want to only see a few countries, you’re better off with the Select Pass.
5 Basic Tips for Traveling by Train in Europe
Train travel can be very confusing for every beginner. Here are a few basic tips to remember in order to avoid accidentally paying a fine or ending up lost in a different city.
1. Book Reservations
In most high-speed trains and night trains, you have to book in advance to guarantee a seat on the trip. You can actually reserve a seat for most high-speeds trains up to 3 months in advance.
Did You Know? If you’re travelling via regional trains, advance reservations are not always necessary.
2. Weigh Both First-Class or Second-Class Travel
Like airplanes, trains also have first-class and second-class but the price differences are relatively smaller. Having said that, you should still consider if you really need first-class or opt for second-class instead.
First Class – Want to experience both comfort and luxury on your trip? Choose first-class for the reclining seats, bigger luggage space, quiet ambiance, and in some high-speed trains, meal inclusions.
Second Class – If you’re only traveling short distances, you can save a lot of money in second class train tickets. You tend to have a lot less space, though, as there are more seats per train car.
3. Pack Light
Luggage restrictions are far more lenient for rail travelers compared to air travel. However, there are still rules to be followed.
Make sure that you only carry a maximum of three items of luggage aboard. You should also check if the items’ dimensions are less than 85 cm.
4. Have a Map
While having travel apps are extremely useful, be sure to also carry a hard copy of the Rail Map of Europe as well as the European Timetable. These are usually available in every train station and can guide you to the proper routes.
5. Validate Your Ticket
Before you board the train, you need to validate your ticket first in order to avoid paying a heavy fine.
In most cases, you just need to insert your ticket on the machines at the platform so it can be stamped with the date and time. For those with a Eurail pass, you can get your ticket validated at the counter or booth.
When touring across Europe, train travel is a great alternative to flights and road trips. Travelling by train can take you to so many amazing places in Europe that you never knew existed. It’s also far more comfortable (with various seating options for every kind of traveler), punctual, and have relaxed policies. And while train travel can be quite confusing for the beginner, you’ll be a seasoned train traveler in no time with this handy guide!
Excited to hop on the train on your upcoming trip to Europe? If you’re planning to travel in 2021, make sure you have your ETIAS Visa Waiver ready.
The European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) was introduced to keep track of all visitors entering ETIAS countries, in order to ensure smooth and safe transit. Learn more about ETIAS by visiting our website.
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