Even though intercity busses like Eurolines and Flixbus are now often the cheapest option for travelling in Europe, trains are still the first choice if you want to get around Europe comfortably and reliably and maybe even enjoy some scenery.
And if you know some ticket hacks, train travel can even be cheaper than those busses.
The black magic of train ticketing
Every European country has its own railway operator(s) and they have very different pricing strategies. Many operators just charge a fixed price per kilometre, while some charge prices depending on the type of train you want to use. Deutsche Bahn is probably the worst offender in this regard: getting the cheapest tickets in Germany actually involves years of study, months of advance planning, knowledge of some secret spells and waving
your wand a plastic BahnCard.
Tip 1: Book in advance
But the essence is: most operators will sell you tickets for train connections originating or ending in their home country and most operators will sell you cheap tickets if you book in advance. The first thing to do is to search for the train connection you want on the websites of the different national operators, mainly Deutsche Bahn (Germany), ÖBB (Austria), CD (Czech Republic).
Deutsche Bahn opens the sale for “Super Sparpreis Tickets” 6 month before the date of travel and the cheapest tickets tend to sell out quickly. National and international tickets start at 19,90 €.
ÖBB also starts selling “Sparschiene” tickets 6 months in advance. National connections can be had for 9 €, international connections for 19 €.
On the website of CD, you can get “First Minute” tickets 3 months in advance and they often have the best offers (more on that later).
Polish PKP only starts selling tickets one month in advance and does not allow for online booking of international trains – with the exception of trains to Berlin. Hungarian MAV-Start is similar in that regard.
Cheap train tickets booked in advance like this are generally bound to the specific train you booked, so if you miss that train, you need to a book a new ticket.
Tip 2: The best kept secret: Czech Railways
As I found out at one of my last trips to Prague, Czech Railways CD sells the cheapest international (and national) train tickets if you book online. 2nd class tickets to Poland and Slovakia can be had from 5 €, to Austria from 7 € and to Germany from 8 €.
Obviously, this also works the other way round: you can buy tickets from any of the bordering countries towards the Czech Republic and get the same low prices.
Just search for connections to cities in the Czech Republic: You can get a ticket from Salzburg to Vienna (and from there to Břeclav) for only 7€, whereas tickets by Austrian ÖBB for Salzburg to Vienna cost between 9€ and 50€, depending on the ticket you get.
This also works very well for trains from Hamburg to Berlin (both cities are worth a visit!) and Dresden (onwards to Děčín) or from Köln to Frankfurt or Nürnberg (onwards to Plzeň) – for as low as 14 € instead of the 120 € you would pay with Deutsche Bahn.
Tip 3: Bayern Ticket and other state tickets in Germany
Deutsche Bahn offers so called “Länder Tickets” (literally: state tickets) which allow you to take all local trains in one German Land for one day. They start at around 25 €, but they get cheaper if you travel as a group: for 5 people, the Bayern Ticket costs 49 €, which comes down to only 9,80 € per person.
So, find a few fellow travellers and you can go from Munich to Nürnberg and back for less than 10 €. If you travel alone: don’t hesitate to just talk up other people at the ticket machines and ask them to share a ticket. You might even find a few new friends that way.
The Länder Tickets can be used for international travel, because the usually include the first stop after the border, so you can go for example:
- from Munich to Salzburg or Kufstein (Austria) with the Bayern Ticket,
- from Stuttgart to Basel (Switzerland) with the Baden-Württemberg Ticket,
- from Berlin to Szczecin (Poland) with the Brandenburg-Berlin-Ticket or
- from Hamburg to Tønder (Denmark) with the Schleswig-Holstein-Ticket.
But make sure to take the right trains. Intercity (IC), Eurocity (EC), Intercity Express (ICE), Railjet (RJ) and TGV trains are off-limits for these tickets. Regional trains such as Rb, RE, ALEX, Meridian or NEG are fine.
Tip 4: Private rail operators
In the last few years, a few private intercity rail operators have entered the market and their trains are usually cheaper than the big national rail operators. On the other hand, the private operators only offer point-to-point connections and no expansive networks. The tickets of these private rail operators can only be used on their trains and tickets sold by other operators are not valid.
As of summer 2018, these operators are:
- Westbahn in Austria (Vienna <> Salzburg from 26,90 €)
- Flixtrain in Germany (Cologne <> Hamburg and Stuttgart <> Berlin from 9,90 €)
- Leo Express in the Czech Republic and Poland (Prague <> Olomouc, Kosice, Krakow) from 26 €)
- Student Agency Regiojet in the Czech Republic and Austria (Prague <> Brno, Vienna from 14,90 €)
Search a bit and combine them!
Want to go from Munich to Vienna for only 16,80 €? Get a Bayern Ticket together with a few other people from Munich to Salzburg (9,80 €) and a ticket from Czech Railways from Salzburg (7€). (Make sure to stop over in beautiful Salzburg though 😉 ).
Want to go from Berlin to Prague for only 14,30 €? Just book the ticket from Czech Railways.
Want to go to all the way through Germany… from Poland to Switzerland by night train for only 42 €? Get a Schleswig-Holstein Ticket with a few other people from Świnoujście at the Baltic Coast to Hamburg (7,80 €), a Flixtrain night train ticket from Hamburg to Lörrach (29,90 €) and a single train ticket from Lörrach to Basel (4,40 €).
Invest some time searching for good tickets. You will not always find these super cheap offers, but you might be lucky.
More helpful resources
The best starting point to search for train connections is the website of Deutsche Bahn because they have the most extensive database of itineraries. Want to find the best itinerary to go from Lisbon to Beijing by train? Deutsche Bahn has you covered (seriously, try it out!).
Some of the best railway travel tips can be had from The Man in Seat 61. It’s most helpful if you come from the UK but the website has good railway travel advice for most countries in the world. Check out also his complete guide to buying cheap European train tickets.
If you want to know what to expect from a train before you go, jot down the train category and train number and head over to vagonWEB. They list train compositions (with photos!) of most long-distance trains in Central and Eastern Europe.
This article is based on a text I first wrote in 2016 and updated in 2017 and 2018.
While you are here: View more of my photos