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Resources for Train Travel in Europe
Old 03-19-2015, 10:27 AM   #1
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Resources for Train Travel in Europe

I'm just finishing up booking of train tickets for our upcoming trip in France, and a leg from Paris to Amsterdam. I thought I'd share some of the resources I have used over the past three years for train travel in various European countries.

I'm currently using the capitainetrain.com site - an excellent site. They've made the process super easy and the tickets can be printed at home or shown on an iPhone or tablet type device. You just need your photo IDs with you (and the names had better match your tickets). I also love that they will hold the seat reservation for you but you don't have to pay immediately, making some planning a little easier. The semi-flex tickets I have been buying hold my reservation for up 7 days before I have to complete the payment.

Deutsche Bahn (bahn.de), the Austrian Railway BB (oebb.at), and the Netherlands Railway NS (ns.nl) all have great English language websites and you can buy tickets directly. I have done it with Deutsche Bahn. I printed out the ticket and had to also have the credit card with me that was used to buy the ticket. So you have to be sure to take that credit card with you and not lose it!

France is a little trickier. The French Railway, SNCF, sends you over to their Rail Europe site if you are buying from the US. This site also doesn't show all the options or all the better prices. The easiest way to deal with this is to book through capitainetrain.com (which also handles Germany). They email you print-at-home tickets or give you a code to use when you arrive in France to print your tickets at a station or SNCF boutique there. They handle US credit cards just fine, another thing that is a problem when attempting to buy directly from SNCF.

Unlike most European countries, France requires reserved seating for all the high speed TGV trains that serve between major cities. The good new is, that if you book early enough you get considerable discounts on fares. This makes a rail pass particularly frustrating for France because reservation seating is limited for rail pass holders, plus you have to pay to make the reservation! In some countries certain high speed trains may have compulsory reservation.

Thalys is a high speed French (and Belgian) international line that has compulsory reservations. Like TGV, you can get good prices on tickets if you book ahead. Super deals on non-refundable tickets, but the semi-flex tickets are still a considerable (>50%) discount from the full fare you would have to pay if you waited until close to your travel date. You can get from Paris to Amsterdam in only 3 hours and 20 mins!! We reserved first class semi-flex tickets for two people for only €158 total. Full fare would have been almost €400.

Germany is really easy for train travel because many of the states have a special deal for unlimited all-day after 9am travel on regional trains within a given state, and you don't have to make a reservation. These tickets can be bought at the station the day of departure. There are also some great prices for cross Germany travel especially for 2 or more people, and no need to book ahead, but you are limited to the slower trains and after 9am journeys and 2nd class. Austria has a similar regional ticket system.

Given the online discounts for pre-booking tickets (even discounts for flexible tickets), and the low-cost options in some countries, especially for regional travel, a rail pass often does not pay off for Europe. Especially if reservations are required for a given train - those will be an extra charge on top of your rail pass cost, and they may be limited for rail pass customers. You don't pay reservation fees when you buy tickets without a pass. For regional/local trains in many countries (including the France TER line) you don't need a reservation and you get the same price even if you show up the day of the trip. It's good to check out the prices before buying a pass. And try to check it out from the rail company or a service like capitainetrain.com. Rail Europe doesn't necessarily show the best deals or all the available trips.

A great thorough reference for train travel in Europe and a bunch of other places too, is The Man in Seat 61 - The Man in Seat Sixty-One - the train travel guide.... He travels from the UK, but covers travel within Europe very completely. Lots of photos of different trains, lots of tips for how to get the best deals on tickets. You can get many of your "how to" questions answered here.

In general - train travel info becomes available around 90 days in advance. You can't see or book a train trip more than about 90 days ahead.

We're looking forward to the train trip east from Paris, because that area is rated up to 320km/hr, and we might break our prior landslide record of 300km/hr!
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Old 03-19-2015, 10:36 AM   #2
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I'm haunting the same websites Audrey is. In the past few weeks I've used seat61.com extensively - and from there learned best routes/paths.... I've booked tickets in Italy on the Trenitalia site (which now takes US credit cards - a HUGE improvement over a few years ago!!!). I've also booked tickets from Venice to Prague on the oebb.at site, booked tickets from Amsterdam to London on the nl.ns site, and booked eurostar tickets from London to Paris on the eurostar site.

I'm still waiting for the window to open on bahn.de to get my tickets from Prague to Berlin and Berlin to Amsterdam... and I'm haunting both capitaintrain.com and loco2.com to see when the booking window will open for my Paris-Nice, Nice to Aix, and Aix to Barcelona... but that travel is all in August - so no discounted fairs available yet.

Trenitalia has opened SOME summer fairs (super economy rates are what I'm after) for the first few weeks of June - but don't have the internotte (overnight) tickets I'm looking for, for my dates, yet...

The seat61.com website is super informative - even some ferry options are discussed. It tells you which sites are best for booking, which sites are best for figuring your route and schedule, what the cheapest prices are, etc... Very nice.
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Old 03-20-2015, 02:07 PM   #3
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I have bought tickets on the SNCF website several times. I think I specified a French address initially so it wouldn't try to send me to raileurope which charges higher prices for the same ticket, but now it doesn't try to send me there anymore. (perhaps because of "cookies"?) Since I use the site in French, I'm not certain if it will let you buy in English but while saying you're located in France. In recent years, I had to notify my credit card company before buying a ticket since it's a foreign transaction.

Funny story: Back in 2004 when buying train tickets online was new, I was buying a ticket on the SNCF website and printing it out. It was a great price. For 25 euros, you could go anywhere in France if you bought far in advance. When I was buying the ticket, the SNCF website specified I had to print out my ticket on "A4" size paper, which is a European standard size that is different from the non-metric US standard 8.5" x 11". I "made" some A4 paper with a paper cutter by reducing business size paper. I printed out my ticket.

When I was on the train, the ticket inspector came to my row and asked if someone in the row had bought their ticket online. I said that I had. I handed it to him and he walked away with it, saying he'd return. I wondered if he was measuring the size of my paper and was going to throw me off the train if it didn't "measure up". A couple of minutes later he thanked me and handed it back to me. I wasn't thrown off the train.
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Old 03-20-2015, 02:12 PM   #4
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As I'm contemplating a European train trip this summer, I wanted to extend my thanks to each of you.

Thanks!
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Old 03-20-2015, 02:17 PM   #5
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Thanks audreyh1.....we've added capitainetrain.com to our resource base.
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Old 03-20-2015, 03:02 PM   #6
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I've used SNCF, in fact I'm on the mailing list so I get their emails all the time.

They also have apps to let you book from mobile device, though I'm not sure I've used them.

I did have to book a ticket from Lyon to Paris last year because I missed a scheduled flight out of Lyon and opted to reschedule out of Paris back to the US, because there were more flights available out of Paris and I figured I could spend an extra day or two in Paris.

So I had to book the train tickets to Paris from either the Lyon airport or while on the airport train back to Lyon towards its regular train station.

So pretty sure I used my iPad mini to at least search and probably to book the train and Paris hotel.

Trains in Europe are great.
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Old 03-20-2015, 03:03 PM   #7
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I have bought tickets on the SNCF website several times. I think I specified a French address initially so it wouldn't try to send me to raileurope which charges higher prices for the same ticket, but now it doesn't try to send me there anymore. (perhaps because of "cookies"?) Since I use the site in French, I'm not certain if it will let you buy in English but while saying you're located in France. In recent years, I had to notify my credit card company before buying a ticket since it's a foreign transaction.

Funny story: Back in 2004 when buying train tickets online was new, I was buying a ticket on the SNCF website and printing it out. It was a great price. For 25 euros, you could go anywhere in France if you bought far in advance. When I was buying the ticket, the SNCF website specified I had to print out my ticket on "A4" size paper, which is a European standard size that is different from the non-metric US standard 8.5" x 11". I "made" some A4 paper with a paper cutter by reducing business size paper. I printed out my ticket.

When I was on the train, the ticket inspector came to my row and asked if someone in the row had bought their ticket online. I said that I had. I handed it to him and he walked away with it, saying he'd return. I wondered if he was measuring the size of my paper and was going to throw me off the train if it didn't "measure up". A couple of minutes later he thanked me and handed it back to me. I wasn't thrown off the train.
I think you can do OK in English on the site if you say you are accepting the tickets in France. The main issue left is the acceptance of US credit cards which sometimes doesn't go smoothly.

Captaine Train was super low hassle to use.

Loved your A4 story.

I actually have some A4 paper. But somewhere deep in the printer driver it's not printing on the paper full size even though A4 is selected. In fact it looks better printed at 100% on letter.

All that probably matters is that that the Aztec Code (the 2D barcode with square bullseye center) is large enough and square. The reader should be able to read it fine. I notice that the code displayed for the passbook on iPhone is slightly smaller than our printed tickets, so our printed ones must be fine.

Capitaine Train basically says the U.S. letter paper is close enough to A4.

I got by with my Deutsche Bahn e-ticket. Printed on A4 but not quite full size. This had a super complex Aztec code on it that obviously read just fine.
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Old 03-20-2015, 03:56 PM   #8
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We used to buy Eurail passes, and made the most out of it. Trains in Europe are great. We made day trips in Switzerland, and visited a couple of cities a day by hopping on/off, and even made a day trip from Geneva to Lyon. Eurail passes must be bought before you leave home, and must be presented with your American passports. The deal is supposedly "too good" for EU citizens.

When visiting Spain, we bought individual tickets for each leg because the Eurail pass did not offer the same bargain, as I recall. And then, in Italy, some regional trains did not honor the Eurail, as they belonged to local operators.

Ah, traveling by train in Europe is great. One time, when we needed to take the train from Naples to Sorrento, it was not running because of a strike. Lots of taxi drivers circled the station, offering a ride for 75 Euros for 25 miles perhaps. We asked around, and people advised to wait for the strike to end. Surely enough, at about afternoon rush hour, the strike ended, I was guessing because the strikers did not want to upset commuters too much. We managed to get on the crowded train with our baggages, along with all the commuters. It was one of the memorable experiences.

And the time we were wandering the empty streets of Kutna Hora in the rain, when it was pitch dark at 4:30PM, looking for the train station to get back to Prague...
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Old 03-20-2015, 04:32 PM   #9
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I priced out eurail passes and it was far more expensive for our specific trip. Since we are going to so many countries, and over a longer period of time....
Also - eurail passes for families forced you into first class - which definitely impacts the budget.
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Old 03-20-2015, 05:29 PM   #10
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Our trip was 2 week long, but we bought a 2 or 3-country pass for 4 or 5 days, I cannot remember. As the days do not have to be consecutive, we would use the pass judiciously for long trips, or for active days with a lot of sightseeing. For short intercity trips, we bought la carte to save our Eurail passes for some longer legs.

Even so, as I mentioned, the Eurail pass would not work out for us in Spain, although we traveled quite a bit in that trip: Barcelona, Montserrat, Valencia, Sevilla, Toledo, Madrid. It was just less expensive to buy la carte.
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Old 03-20-2015, 05:56 PM   #11
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Long time ago, I did the Eurail pass, 1st class. As my schedule was very open ended, it was definitely worth it. Freedom to go wherever whenever, spend more time in a place if I liked it instead of a prearranged schedule. But that's when I was very young and could handle doing overnighters on the train. Not sure I'd do it now.


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Old 03-20-2015, 05:57 PM   #12
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Back in the 90s Eurail passes were a great deal. It's not true anymore.

It's easy enough to reserve seats online, and you can get good prices on cancelable tickets. And there are lots of countries where regional travel is super cheap without booking ahead at all. That includes deals like cheap tickets for unlimited daytime travel after 9am.

International train trips can be expensive, and that is where a pass can pay off - but that's compared to full fare. You can usually still get a better deal with a flexible fare.
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Old 03-20-2015, 06:28 PM   #13
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Thanks for the tips, Audrey. I'm toying with a multi-month trip through Europe in 2016 with our 3 kids and cost-optimizing will be pretty important since our travel budget is limited. I like the idea of traveling by train between cities since we can get a feel for the land better than by air. Tentatively thinking of landing in Spain by cruise ship and slowly working our way north to Germany with stops in country(ies) along the way. I'm just trying to pull together a rough budget to see if ~4 months is anywhere close to our budget.

I remember reading about those German all U can ride tickets for families (up to 5, and very young don't count as passengers IIRC). Seemed like a smoking hot good deal.

That seat61 site looked really good from past perusing.
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Old 03-20-2015, 06:36 PM   #14
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Fuego - for most of the countries - under age 4 travels free - and 4-11 is heavily discounted... 12-14 (my kids) are getting discounts on about 2/3's of the train tickets - definitely a cost saver.

I'm sure you're already aware - with a family it is MUCH more cost effective and sanity saving to stay in rental apartments... You can put the younger ones to bed and not have to go to bed yourself... you can do breakfast and/or dinner at home, or pack picnics to take with you... just like at home... a huge cost saving over having to go to a restaurant for every meal. And the cost per night is less expensive than the hotel as well.

Since you're looking at the repositioning cruise - you're way ahead, budget wise.
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Old 03-20-2015, 06:37 PM   #15
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Yeah the German regional tickets for 2 to 5 people are an awesome deal. This site lets you get the details by region plus other deals in Germany: http://www.bahn.com/i/view/USA/en/pr...r-ticket.shtml

We LOVE traveling by train in Europe. We always look forward to it.
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Old 03-20-2015, 07:34 PM   #16
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Since you're looking at the repositioning cruise - you're way ahead, budget wise.
The trip we're contemplating on the 'Train travel across Europe' thread is intended to culminate in a repositioning cruise we're currently monitoring, going from Barcelona to Tampa...yes, they are good deals.
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Old 03-20-2015, 07:37 PM   #17
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Fuego - for most of the countries - under age 4 travels free - and 4-11 is heavily discounted... 12-14 (my kids) are getting discounts on about 2/3's of the train tickets - definitely a cost saver.

I'm sure you're already aware - with a family it is MUCH more cost effective and sanity saving to stay in rental apartments... You can put the younger ones to bed and not have to go to bed yourself... you can do breakfast and/or dinner at home, or pack picnics to take with you... just like at home... a huge cost saving over having to go to a restaurant for every meal. And the cost per night is less expensive than the hotel as well.

Since you're looking at the repositioning cruise - you're way ahead, budget wise.
Hmmm, the littlest will be 4 by then, and the oldest will be 11 so hopefully we'll still get heavy discounts. I remember the deals looking pretty good for trains around Berlin from earlier research.

Yes, definitely planning on apartment stays. Haven't looked north of Andalucia, Spain yet, but so far I'm liking what I'm seeing. City center 2 BR apartments are ~$500/wk or $1100/month. I think it's a little more expensive in Germany and France, but not too crazy if you're paying for a week or a month.

Airfare will be free-ish using frequent flyer points, and random hotels here and there for free using hotel points, so I think we can still do the trip on a budget as long as I figure out the big stuff like apartment rentals, train/air/public transit.

And the USD/Euro forex rate cooperates...
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Old 03-20-2015, 07:38 PM   #18
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Yeah the German regional tickets for 2 to 5 people are an awesome deal. This site lets you get the details by region plus other deals in Germany: Regional train tickets discover Germany and its federal states by train

We LOVE traveling by train in Europe. We always look forward to it.
Perfect size for our family of 5!
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Old 03-20-2015, 08:59 PM   #19
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Long time ago, I did the Eurail pass, 1st class. As my schedule was very open ended, it was definitely worth it. Freedom to go wherever whenever, spend more time in a place if I liked it instead of a prearranged schedule. But that's when I was very young and could handle doing overnighters on the train. Not sure I'd do it now.
Me too. Back in '77 a one month 1st class eurail pass was $210. We made to most of it, sleeping on night trains about evert third night. First class wasn't so crowded and you could actually lay down until they prodded us for passports at every border. I spent $1700 in 6 weeks including airfare. Not now.
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Old 03-20-2015, 09:04 PM   #20
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Perfect size for our family of 5!
Did you notice that for some things children under 15 travel free with parents?
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