How to buy cheap European train tickets
Find the cheapest Eurostar tickets
For the best deals, book one to four months ahead, avoiding Fridays and Sundays. Keep an eye on Eurostar's , where promotional returns can be a steal, even for one-way trips – just throw away the second portion of your ticket. Eurostar’s ‘any Belgian station’ (ABS) ticket allows you to continue your journey from Brussels for an extra £6 – as long as you get to your final destination within 24 hours.
Train expert Mark Smith, aka the , told us: ‘European long-distance rail fares now work like airfares – cheap in advance, expensive on the day.’ To bag the best deals, find out when tickets are released and set a reminder on your phone. Tickets for Thalys, which operates trains between France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, go on sale three months in advance, while for Thello, for travel between France and Italy, it’s four months. Spain varies between 60 and 90 days, while Deutsche Bahn tickets are available six months before travel.
Cut out agency sites
You’ll save a bundle if you know which website to use. The popular agency sites can’t always access the best fares. Germany’s best deals can be found at , while TGV (France’s high-speed rail network) offers discounts for groups of four or more on its . Find the cheapest booking site for your journey at Seat 61. Most have an English version.
Avoid Interail passes
An Interrail Pass will give you unlimited travel on most European trains. But, unless you’re under 28, you’ll have to cover a lot of ground just to break even. The cheapest ‘Global’ pass is £253 (£228 for over-60s) for five days of travel within 15 days – so £50 a day. But, provided your itinerary is fixed, this will rarely beat the value of booking point-to-point tickets in advance online. The same goes for Single Country Interrail passes. Just be mindful that the cheapest tickets are non-refundable, so don’t offer the same freedom. Countries often have their own passes, such as the Swiss Travel Pass. While it’s £32 pricier than Interrail’s equivalent, it covers journeys on local trains and buses, as well as free entry to 500 museums. Similarly, Spain’s Renfe Pass includes high-speed trains, which require a hefty reservation fee with Interrail.
Is a rail pass really cheaper?
|Country||Cost of pass||Cost of example itinerary*||Saving|
|France||£160 (£53 per day)||£124 (Paris - Bordeaux - Nice - Lyon)||£36|
|Spain||£160 (£53 per day)||£99 (Barcelona - Madrid - Valencia - Seville)||£61|
|Italy||£114 (£38 per day)||£40 (Milan - Venice - Florence - Rome)||£74|
|Switzerland||£138 (£46 per day)||£50 (Zurich - Interlaken - Geneva)||£88|
|Germany||£181 (£60 per day)||£79 (Frankfurt - Cologne - Berlin - Munich)||£102|
|Using the table
Cost: Based on the cheapest One Country Interrail pass, valid for second-class travel for three days in a period of a month, for passengers aged 28 -59. *Calculated by adding up the cheapest advance point-to-point tickets for three typical journeys in March 2018. Prices gathered in January 2018.
Take the sleeper train
There’s something impossibly romantic about the idea of falling asleep in one country and waking up in another. Some rail routes are actually less hassle by night, such as Madrid to Lisbon with Renfe. The same route by day involves two changes, at Badajoz and Elvas. When we checked, tickets started at a very reasonable €34 for a bunk in a four-bed sleeper, rising to €148 for a two-bed (single or double occupancy). And you’ll save on a night’s accommodation too.