Taking the train throughout Europe isn’t just affordable, it is also a rite of passage for backpackers. Trains are part of the European experience and give you the chance to see landscape throughout the countries that you might otherwise miss.  What are the best methods to booking train tickets? You’ve heard about the Eurail train card, and are wondering if that is the best purchase – or should you just buy a ticket when you arrive? We will list the best tips that we’ve mastered when traveling by train across Europe, and will highlight which tips can also be used to maximize you bus experience as well.

Taking the train in europe alt text Taking the train throughout Europe isn’t just affordable, it is also a rite of passage for backpackers. Trains are part of the European experience and give you the chance to see landscape throughout the countries that you might otherwise miss.  What are the best methods to booking train tickets? You’ve heard about the Eurail train card, and are wondering if that is the best purchase – or should you just buy a ticket when you arrive? We will list the best tips that we’ve mastered when traveling by train across Europe, and will highlight which tips can also be used to maximize you bus experience as well.

1. A Eurail pass may be a waste in some cases

We have never used a Eurail pass. After planning our first trip to Europe, we did a ton of reading of the small print on how the Eurail pass works. First, the pass can only be used for so many seats per train. Thus, if the train fills up on Eurail pass tickets, you may have to buy a ticket anyway – this to us seems to defeat the entire purpose of the Eurail. Second, the pass itself may cost more than the actual tickets.  For example, raileurope.com is a great place to start to figure out the times of trains, which days, how long, etc. but the price on this website is a lot more expensive than if you went to the countries website or visited a ticketing booth in that country. So in summary, you may not get the tickets you want and it may be more expensive – seems like a waste to us.

2. If possible, use the countries specific website versus a general train ticketing website

As mentioned, the countries train website is, in most cases, cheaper than raileurope.com. But using the countries train website might be challenging.
For example:

-       Some websites might not be available in English, or your given language, or maybe the general text is, but the cities and train stations are in Italian, Polish, or German. In light of this, you may need to do some extra research. Specifically, which train station are you getting off at? Do you know its name in the countries’ native language? Do you know what the city is called in the countries’ native language? This might seem a little obvious but if someone had given us this tip, it would have saved us a lot of back tracking and a lot of confusion.

-       The page that tells you “tickets confirmed” might not be in English, or your language, so make sure to have Google translate open so you don’t keep booking the same ticket. This happened for us with the Italian train ticket website, so if you get directed to a new page, don’t assume it means the transaction didn’t work.

-       Finally, some websites, including raileurope.com, don’t let you book your tickets months in advance, or only allow you to receive your tickets by mail. This becomes problematic if you’re already in Europe, and are booking your tickets last minute, or are not in a position to have the tickets mailed to you.

3. You will need to use some kind of website to at least map out which train you are taking and at what time, ie. BE PREPARED!

Whether it is raileurope.com, or the given countries website, you will need to know which train you want to take for a specific day, so if you are booking train tickets at a ticketing booth you know which train you want. Like we mentioned, some trains are on specific days, so if you are planning your whole trip before you leave, or going with the flow, if the train you want only leaves Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you will need to take a break from your travels to figure this out and book your stay accordingly. One of the easiest ways to check the train schedule is through one of the train websites instead of just going to a train station and trying to read the schedule. There are almost always an English option for the train sites (and bus sites) allowing you to see specifically the date, time, and train number of the train that best fits in with your travel plans. Once you have this information, record it somehow, either by writing it down or taking a screen shot on your smart phone, and then bring this to the train station in case you have to speak to an agent who doesn’t speak much English.

This tip also goes for taking buses. We have found in some cases, buses are cheaper and have direct transportation, instead of taking connecting trains, so be sure to check out the bus schedule and cost before hand. This really saved us when we went from Krakow to Prague. Instead of taking a 13 hour night train with several connections, we took the Polski bus and saved about $300 each, and with just one connection.

Polski Bus!

Polski Bus!

We highly recommend the Polski Bus for Poland if the train schedule doesn’t work out for you.

4. Booking train tickets in a European city is often easier than you may think

If you show up prepared, then booking a train ticket at the station can be really easy. If you know – I want this train, on this day, at this time, the following tips will help you book your next train.  Your ticket will most likely not be in English unless you are traveling in the UK, so make sure you know exactly what your ticket says, and give Google translate a visit.

5. Using ticketing machines at the train station

Some major cities such as Warsaw, Berlin, and Vienna, have ticketing machines at the train station, in English or other languages, for you to book at your convenience. However, in some cases, these machines only let you book within the country and will not let you book a trip leaving the country. It totally depends on the city and the country where you are booking your ticket. Often, however, these machines will be of great service and when we see a ticketing machine we always try to use it before going to the counter. Again, you may need to know the name of the city and train station in the countries’ native language even if the machine lets you select “English” on the screen – make sure you know the exact name of wherever you are going.

6. Booking with a ticketing agent can go more smoothly if you arrive with some type of written information about which train you want.

Knowing what train you want to take, on which day, at a specific time is helpful obviously when booking a train. But what if you’re in Gdansk Poland, trying to get to Warsaw, and there are no ticketing machines and none of the agents speak English? This is where an electronic device can be helpful.  When we would find the train we wanted we would take a “screenshot” on our iPad so we could actually point on the screen which train we wanted. For example, in Gdansk, the agent only knew the English word “yes,” so she would point to a date on a calendar and just say “YES?” and we would say “yes”. Then, she would point to the train time on her screen and say “YES?” and again, we would say “yes” or point to the time we wanted if she had it wrong.  Because we showed up knowing exactly which day, and which time we wanted, it saved us a lot of stress because in some cases you cannot just go up to a ticketing agent and say “so when is your next train to Warsaw?” they might just go “Warsaw?” and then you get to try to get a ticket from there.  Having some kind of paper or image of the train information you want goes a long way when booking with an agent, so show up prepared!

This is the exact same thing we do when booking buses. Show up with the information so you can actually show the agent which bus you want and it will go a lot smoother.

7. Reserving seats can save you a massive amount of stress

For us, we are always paranoid of the moment when we are in a train station, trying to get to our next destination, and we miss some kind of important information spoken in another language over the PA system, or we cannot read the train schedule (again, because it is in a different language). In the majority of cases, when you purchase a train ticket, all you will receive is a general ticket that is valid for a certain amount of days. This general ticket will not have any details involving time, train number or platform number, nor will it tell you where to sit, or which seats in a cabin are reserved. This is not helpful in remedying the above-noted concerns.

However, if you pay more and reserve your seat, you will get a much more specific ticket. The specific ticket will tell you the train number, the platform number, which train car you’re in and your seat numbers. Not only does this spell out where you are supposed to be for the majority of the trip, but it will also lay out the bigger stops along the way. This prevents you from accidentally sitting in someone else’s reserved seats, as well as getting off at the wrong stop.  

8. In the case where you cannot reserve a seat

Unfortunately, there will be places and situations where you just cannot reserve seats, and all you get is a general ticket that does not state the date or time of your train – you are literally allowed to get on any train that will take you to your destination. As such, you will need to read the timetable that says which platform and time your train will arrive on. Again, knowing the name of your destination in the native language of the country will help you read the schedule – and then you go from there for reading the rest of the schedule: platform, time, etc. Some train stations will have the schedule posted to the specific station platform, ie. a specific schedule for each platform, so you may have to read more than one schedule. Another thing to point out about trains is often on the front or side of the train the final destination will be posted, however, maybe the destination is not the listed final destination. If you are going to Salzburg for example, you will need to read the schedule to make sure the train going to Vienna, leaving platform 9, lists the Salzburg train station as a stop. There may be several trains going to Vienna so be sure to check that your city and station is one of the destinations.

Same goes for buses, as you often cannot reserve seats, but we have found you get more information on bus tickets without reserving seats than you would on a general train ticket.

All of this sounds more difficult than it is. It’s about being prepared so you’re not wasting your trip waiting for the next train for hours (which we have done). Even if you are given a general train ticket without specific information, you can still find the schedule online to prepare to arrive at the train station for a specific train. For example, say you are going to Malbork Castle for the day, and you check before hand that train no. 123 will leave at 4:00pm back to Gdansk, where as train no. 456 is at 7:00pm, then you can prepare to leave the Castle by 3:30pm, or 6:30pm, instead of wasting time sitting in a train station at 4:10pm, not realizing you just missed your train, and now have a long wait.

Oh, and only on trains, can you get views like this:

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   View of Malbork Castle from the train back to Gdansk Poland

View of Malbork Castle from the train back to Gdansk Poland

Final things to be aware of:

What if you book the train tickets for the wrong day by accident? Yes, we’ve done this. On our legendary Nice to Florence trip, with 2 connections, on 3 trains, we had tickets for the wrong day.  In this case, we lucked out when the people with reserved seats kicked us out of the seats we were in (yes, we reserved our seats… but for the wrong day remember…) and the train worker told us we had the wrong tickets and really should have kicked us off at the next stop. But our tickets hadn’t been used yet, which a ticket that had been used would have been hole punched by the worker, so instead we sat in the isle bucket seats which fold out of the wall which is incredibly uncomfortable – again, another reason to reserve seats, so you don’t get stuck with these.  On the next train, we waited until everyone was seated and the train was moving before we took our seats and were lucky to just have our tickets hole punched and the worker move on. In other cases, people have been kicked off the train. Just stay calm, be thankful you have all your stuff and pray you can buy tickets for a later time and still make it within the same day if you are asked to get off the train. 

We are usually stressed about whether or not we are on the right train until we actually arrive at our destination – laughing as we write this sentence, but it is true. We aren’t sure when this paranoid perspective started but for some reason, we always think “is this the right train?” Reserving seats significantly decreases this feeling, but even then we still feel it. The bigger cities have better train systems with digital screens that say stuff like “this train’s next stop is,” and have the train schedule for that specific platform laid out, but many connecting cities or smaller cities do not and you have to attempt at reading the schedule in another language. Again, knowing the names of the cities and train stations in the native language goes a long way. Write it down somewhere, it will help.

You might also have to pay for your ticket with cash. For example, trying to get from Krakow to Prague ended up being a bit of a nightmare for us. Not only would the machines not let us book an out of the country trip when we finally saw a ticketing person who spoke English, their machines were down and were only accepting cash. Ouch. We ended up giving up and were amazingly thankful that a hostel worker told us about the Polski bus.  Some other small train stations may also only accept cash. Again, this is why being prepared and booking a train ticket a couple days beforehand can be incredibly helpful.  The same goes for buses. If you are taking a bus, say in Plitvice Croatia, there isn’t a bus station, just bus stops, and you will need cash.

Finally, be prepared. Yes, we’ve said this already, but we will say it again. For our first trip to Europe, we booked everything before we left – including the tickets with the wrong date. Our second trip to Europe we had only booked the first week out of 8 weeks, and thus were booking tickets on the fly. While this allowed us to have a much more flexible schedule and stay in certain cities for longer, it did mean we had to dedicate some time out of our trip to trying to figure out the train or bus schedule where we were. Just be prepared for taking the time to get prepared if you are booking things as you go.  There are pros and cons to both types of backpacking, the “plan as you go” versus the “everything booked before you leave” approach. If you are going for longer periods of time, say over 2 months, then you may only have the option to plan as you go, so be sure to fit in your schedule the time to research the websites, and time to go to the train station to buy your tickets.  Tickets may sell out during the high season, so going a day or two before might also be helpful.

Have any train experiences to share? We’d love to hear from you! Comment below, contact us, or tweet us!

Thanks for reading!

Kristen & Trevor



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