Train Tips for Tightwads

Seven scintillating suggestions to reduce rail rates—Railpasses, overnight trains, student/senior discounts, reservations, and more

Sleeping for free on the pullout seats of a European trainThe high-speed Thaly's, just one of Europe's super-modern, super-efficient trains that make criss-crossing the continent not only fast and easy, but terribly Romantic.

The shortest distance between any two points in Europe is usually laid with train tracks. Rail travel is the most popular way to get around, and with the exception of no-frills airlines is also the cheapest and most convenient means for long-distance travel.

One big hint I will point out before we delve into the specifics: always do a load of research before deciding on the method of travel that will best fit your travel plans and budget.

Use the "Fares and Schedules" feature of at Rail Europe ( to calculate the ticket cost for each and every one of your itinerary's planned train journeys. Then figure out whether some form of railpass will save you money, or if it would behoove you to use a no-frills airline, or consider whether you'll want to rent a car for exploring the back roads of Provence or Tuscany.

Weigh all these factors before deciding on which combination of train passes, plane tickets, point-to-point rail tickets, and other means will serve you best and save you the most money. Once you have figured out when you'll be taking the train, here are some tips to help you cut costs.

VIP on the RR

Railpasses are one of the original budget tools for European travel. It's like a ticket good for unlimited travel on the trains. Railpasses come in two main flavors: The regular, consecutive day railpass gives you, say, one month in which you can ride the rails as often as you darn well please.

The cheaper flexipass version grants you a certain number of unlimited-ride days you can use, one-by-one, at any time within a set time period, usually two months. Luckily, a "day" starts the evening before so you can take advantage of overnight trains (so if you board one after 7pm, you write the next day's date on the pass). 

The granddaddy of them all, of course, is the famed Eurailpass: 17 countries (NOT including Great Britain) for anywhere from 15 days to three months. The Eurail flexipass is good for 10 or 15 days of travel within two months.

Then there are flexi Selectpass, allowing you to choose of any three, four, or five adjoining Eurail countries; the European East Pass for exploring behind the old Iron Curtain; dual-country passes for more focused trips; and national railpasses. And still more varieties: rail 'n' drive passes; "Saver" passes that save money for two or more traveling together...the permutations seem endless.

For far more detail on each of these kinds of passes, head to the railpasses section of this site. You can buy any Eurail pass from most travel agents, or order it on-line from Rail Europe (

Again to see whether you a railpass will save you money on your trip, use the search engines for point-to-point tickets at Rail Europe (, which is reproduced below. Plug in the data for all the train trips you plan to take, jot down the prices for each, add them up, and if the total is close to or greater than the cost of the railpass that will do the same job, the choice is clear.

Pocket your railpass on short trips

If you're using a flexipass, calculate quickly how much per day it's costing you. Then, every time you go to get on a train, pop over to the automated ticket machine (or, if lacking, up to a ticket agent) and check out the price for the trip you're about to take. If it costs less than a day's use of the flexipass—and you plan to travel more days than the pass is going to cover—just buy the ticket and save the railpass day for a long-haul, more expensive trip where you're really going to need it.

Boxcar Willie—But with style

The money-saving benefits of using overnight trains—where a bunk in a couchette (train compartment) costs around $20 to $30, or you can take your chances and try to find an empty couchette to occupy for free—are covered in full on a seperate page.

The practical upshot: you get a cheap night's lodging plus you get where you're going whilst asleep, and are therefore not wasting a precious day of vacation time on sheer transportation. Pretty nifty!

Always travel second class

I almost forgot to include this tip because it seems so obvious. Some cars on a train are first class (with seats that are ever-so-slightly wider and cushier), some are second class. All cars in that train will get to the destination at the same time. Why pay 40% to 70% more for a bit more seat padding?

Unfortunately, adult railpasses are only offered in a first class version (though you can get youth passes in second class). Luckily, a first class ticket entitles you to sit anywhere on the train, so if you're taking an overnight run you can still use your first class ticket for the ride but book a couchette bunk in second class (much cheaper than a first class sleeping berth)—though the conductor will probably look at you funny.

Middle Age Sucks; Youth Rules

Those of us past our mid-twenties but not yet getting mail from AARP are almost always stuck paying the full, "adult" price on everything. Same goes for train tickets in Europe, where students and seniors can get discounts if they know where to look.

Most countries grant 10% to 20% off all train tickets for students (sometimes only under 18, sometimes under 26 with proof of student status) and 20% to 50% off for seniors (the cut-off age varies between 60, 65, and 67).

The catch is, in some countries these student and senior reductions are automatic with proof of age/student status—for example, in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France (though a $40 card gets you a higher discount-and Norway). However, in other countries (Austria, Great Britain, and Italy come to mind) you must purchase an annual card for a small fee of $20 to $30 before you will start getting the discounts.

That means you have to do (ugh) math again to ballpark whether the student/senior card would cost less than the collective discount it'd get you on the total amount of money you expect to spend on rail travel, and hence would be worth your while. If it is, you can buy such cards from the ticket agents at most major rail stations.

Buy before you board

Purchase all tickets—or, if you're using a railpass, any necessary supplements and seat reservations (usually $10 to $30)—before boarding the train. You can usually buy any of this from the conductor once on board, but you'll pay a stiff penalty, often of 50% to 100%.

If you're buying your tickets as you go, any high-speed or other supplemental charges will be included in the ticket cost. If, however, you're using some form of railpass, you will still need to purchase a reservation for any train marked with an "R" on the schedule (most stations display big schedule posters).

Also, read the pass's fine print carefully to find out whether certain trains require you to purchase a "high-speed supplement" on the faster trains, or whether a seat or couchette reservation is necessary.

The concept of high-speed supplement is a bit complicated; your pass's fine print should spell out any concerns or special procedures you need to take. In brief, such supplements are often needed to ride the fastest trains, as well as ones which stop infrequently. For more on this subject, read the section on the European train system.

(Don't) Hop on the bus, Gus

Explanative disclaimer: Buses do, indeed, have to do with train travel in that the trains are better. OK, that's a bit of specious reasoning, but this bit didn't fit well anywhere else and it is germane to the discussion of connecting the dots on a European itinerary.

With rare exceptions, an inter-city coach is not going to be any cheaper than the train or a no-frills airline. It will only (a) take longer, and (b) be less comfortable. These are not bonus factors when considering your options.

Coaches—in British English, a "bus" operates within a city, a "coach" between towns; use those terms to help avoid confusion in Europe as many Europeans learn a more British form of our lingo—are really only useful for getting to places where the trains don't go. Then again, these sorts of places—ones literally off the beaten (train) track—can make excellent destinations.

This article was last updated in January 2008 . All information was accurate at the time.
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