Europe on the Cheap: Take the Train

By Thursday Bram on 23 June 2009 (Updated 17 March 2010) 10 comments

When it comes to traveling through Europe, there's a lot to be said for taking the train. With just a little planning, you can see five or six countries in just a week — and for a price that doesn't break the bank. And if you are interested in extended travel — or live the digital nomad lifestyle — you can travel around the whole of Europe for a fraction of the cost of plane tickets or car rentals. These tips can get you started in the right direction to do just that.

1. Buy a rail pass.

There are more than a few different rail passes that offer you inexpensive access to European railways. Even if you look only at the Eurail passes, you'll find options for unlimited travel, regional travel and more. Some of these passes, such as the Eurail Global Pass, which starts at $475, can seem fairly expensive. But you can get a phenomenal amount of traveling done with such a pass — and there are routinely discounts available for the passes.

2. Travel at night.

If you're willing to ride a train at night, you can save quite a bit of money. First of all, you can skip the expense of a hostel or a hotel. Second, the way the Eurail pass and other European rail passes tend to work is that if you stay on the train overnight and into the next day, your time on the train all counts as one day's travel — which can help you travel even more on your pass. If you were to get off the train for the night and then reboard in the morning, you'd use up two days worth of travel on your rail pass.

3. Find a local supermarket.

Many modes of transportation have specific rules against bringing food on board. But you can pack along a few sandwiches or other food while you're traveling, making your food far less expensive than whatever expensive snack you can grab in an airport or bus station.

4. Use your pass to get other discounts.

In addition to savng you money on train rides, the Eurail pass in particular can get you into some museums, discounted ferry rides and far more.

5. Exercise your flexibility

One of the greatest parts about traveling by train is that you can be very flexible. I've found in the past that there were local fairs and other events that I'd really like to attend, but couldn't because I was with a tour group or had an airplane to catch. In some cases, I've been interested to the point of changing my plans — and paying fees to do so.

While these tips focus on traveling by train in Europe, there are options for taking a train on just about every other continent. However, you may find that you have to adapt to the local railway system a little more. In the U.S, for instance, travel by train can be a little less assured, especially in the Midwest. The distances involved can make for very long train rides and all of my experiences with train travel in the States have involved delays.

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Guest's picture
Cody

If you do buy a Eurail pass, be sure to read the fine print before filling it out EVERY SINGLE TIME. I was fined 50 Euro twice over the span of a trip through Europe because I had neglected to have the pass validated after first use, and because I had filled in the wrong date of travel when traveling overnight (you must put the date of arrival when traveling overnight, instead of the date of departure). Minor infractions, but it cost me dearly...

Guest's picture
Katy

Pretty cool post. I just came across your site and wanted to say
that I've really liked reading your posts. In any case
I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

Guest's picture
Chris

One advantage about rail, especially if you have a reserved seat, no need to get their two hours in advance like at the airport. I know alot of people are taking advantage of the train, which ends up taking the same time as a flight except:

No need to get to the station 2 hours in advance.
No need to be in your seat for the first 30 minutes of flight or in turbulence
No need to check luggage (many times)
Infinately more comfortable seats
2 words: BAR CAR

If only the US had more rail service like Europe...

Guest's picture
Makahui

I did a very intense trip two years ago between Germany and Austria, and I used the train to travel between two countries.
I took all sorts of trains : IC, ICE, local , during the day and night trains and it was a wonderful experience.

I bought first class tickets, but that is not really neccesary, second class will do it.

Guest's picture
Rachel

I'm going to study in Europe in a few months and I've definitely been thinking of getting some kind of pass so that I can see everything, so this is great confirmation. There are a ton of advantages to traveling by train over flying, for sure.

Guest's picture

I have taken many train trips through Europe and have found them to be well priced, clean, safe and great for seeing a country and mingling with the locals. Buying and using a Eurail pass effectively is a one of the best ways to save money traveling in Europe.

Guest's picture

In addition to the points by Chris I'd add most train stations are in the city centers, close to the sights and places you probably want to be. This saves time and money transporting yourself to and from the airport when traveling within Europe.

Guest's picture
Owen

Rideshare is also pretty strong in Europe (especially Germany) - it can be cheaper than the train and you get to meet locals :-)

- http://www.cooreea.com
- http://www.mitfahrzentrale.de

Guest's picture
Ellen

I spent last summer backpacking around Europe on my Eurail pass and it was great for many of the reasons that you mentioned above. Though there were a couple of downsides to the whole train thing that I discovered once there.

First, if you plan on going to Eastern Europe at all, the trains are very slow. Just getting around the tiny country of the Czech Republic will take at least a few hours because of their crawling speeds. Also, from speaking with other travelers that I met, the bus can be exceptionally cheaper and faster in some cases. So, check into that option before you book your trip.

I was able to bring most of my meals (and drinks) on trains. Also, many of them have seats that fold out into beds (but not all!). The big plus was that I got to see a lot of beautiful views, which you just won't get on airplanes.

Guest's picture
Ann

I have always wanted to take a trip around the world but, your options by airlines are limited - without changing planes a zillion times (and doing a lot of backtracking) which is WAY TOO expensive. Would you please give some optional routes and names of passes to use, as I have never traveled by train before when in Europe - always with a tour group, except in 2 countries in Africa with friends who lived there. Looking forward to your posts - I thoroughly enjoy them as they are very informative, no matter the subject. I love to travel but am too old to backpack. Also, would be interested in your knowledge as to whether bus travel in some countries after you debark the train for a few days (as in Eastern Europe)would be safe, say for 2 or 3 women, and what about car rental while there?