How to book international train travel

If the world is going to limit the worst effects of the climate crisis by drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then the aviation industry must play its part. The era of cheap flights has to end, and we all need to start flying less, and flying smarter.

Many European destinations can be easily reached from the UK by rail, but the process of booking the right, and the best-priced, rail tickets can appear just as complex as air fares. With this page we aim to guide you through the best websites to start your search, and when to book. If you want to slash your carbon footprint when traveling by going by rail instead of by plane, we want to do everything we can to make it easy for you.

Getting started

Every country has its own national rail operator, its own system of ticketing, and many also have private operators too. Route, date, time and ticket types all add another layer of complexity, as do multi-leg journeys where you may need to change operators and borders. But these hurdles can easily be crossed if you look in the right place, or travel with a train journey specialist like our partner Euroventure.
For detailed, step by step instructions as well as a wealth of information on everything from train descriptions to station amenities, the best place to start is definitely The Man in Seat 61. This amazingly comprehensive site, quite probably the world’s best resource for train travel, can sell you tickets, but also links out to the various train company websites that you can use. For European rail travel especially, it is an indispensable resource.
The new Berlin airport may give the lie to the cliché, but the Germans are rightly famed for their efficiency. The Deutsche Bahn website provides exceptionally accurate train time details not just for Germany, but for most of Europe. You can’t buy all the tickets you need here, but you can certainly get a good idea of what trains go where, and when.
For offline train times, reservations and route planning, the Railplanner app is another reliably efficient resource.

Help booking European train tickets

As of today, there is no single website that lets you find a ticket for any European train journey at the best price. However, there are several that come very close. Some will also let you purchase rail passes which can offer greater savings.

Omio (formerly GoEuro) Rail Europe HappyRail The Trainline
If you’re taking a long, multi-country journey, then it can be more cost-effective to break it into stages. By doing so you can also add greater flexibility into your schedule, allowing you to make the journey more relaxed.

When to book European train travel

It’s worth pointing out that, just as in the UK, in mainland Europe most train journeys are booked at quite short notice. For that reason, train tickets can be purchased between 60 and 180 days in advance, depending on your route and who you’re traveling with. And if you’re looking at schedules right at the start of an operator’s booking window, you may find that not all trains have actually been loaded yet.

Every operator has its own policy for releasing bookings, so timing is everything, but as with flights dynamic pricing tends to be in operation, so that the earlier you book, the lower the price – usually.
European train operators generally open bookings only 90 days ahead of travel, but there is a handful of companies that will take bookings up to 120, and sometimes 180 days ahead. The same is true of Eurostar, which allows bookings on some routes 180 days in advance but is usually 90 days. There are some central and eastern European countries where you can only book 60 days before travel.
In the UK seat reservations are usually included on specific tickets. Most European train journeys don’t require a seat reservation, but if it’s a long journey you’re planning, reservations are always recommended. An extra fee may be levied depending on the operator.

Choosing flight free vacations

As part of our commitment to low carbon travel, we recommend taking the train over flying wherever possible. We work with our partners to create a list of flight free vacations around Europe and the great advantage of these is that all of the reservations are taken care of on your behalf.
We also recommend that, when traveling long haul, that you discuss with your operator whether some internal journeys can be done overland rather than by air. Short haul flights are more polluting per km travelled than long haul, and by traveling by rail, bus or coach instead, you get to see many different sides to the country you’re visiting rather than just the tourism hotspots – always a bonus.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: JK] [Getting started: Erik Odiin] [When to book: Purple] [Choosing flight-free: Hang Do]