Finally booking that summer getaway to Spain? Don’t want to use up half of your carbon footprint for the year with one flight? Luckily, there’s a far greener and more romantic alternative: rail travel. Here’s where to buy European train tickets online.
The negatives of European train travel…
Of course, there’s are two major downsides to hopping on a sleeper. First, it can take a very long time. For example, while it takes two and a half hours to fly from London Gatwick to Rome, the equivalent rail journey takes – brace yourself – over 15 hours. That’s not very practical if you’re off to see a Six Nations tie or are just desperate for proper cacio e pepe.
Second, the price. It no secret that, thanks to a competitive marketplace and the rampant cost-cutting of Michael O’Leary, flights have become ludicrously cheap. For instance, at the time of writing, I could jet off from London Southend Airport to the Basque capital Bilbao for £3.99 one way. That will just about get you a pint in London.
Rail travel, on the other hand, is often seen as a luxury. The figures certainly can support that stereotype: a single trip to Madrid from London will set you back around £160 and will last nearly 22 hours. In contrast, you can hop on a flight to Sydney and be down under in 22 hours and five minutes from London Heathrow (albeit with a layover on the way).
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Let’s move onto the advantages of the riding the rails…
Reasons to travel Europe by train
Aside from, as previously mentioned, saving the planet, there are very good reasons to travel by train.
First, beginning the journey: you’ll be able to simply stroll onto a train and find your seat, avoiding the cattle-pen rigmarole that dominates the airport experience. Related bonuses include: no running for a last-minute gate change, no having to buy overpriced airport food and no sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off for three hours.
Second, the view: without going all John Betjeman, rail is the best method of transport for enjoying the view and, let’s face it, being nosy. You’ll be able to gaze adoringly at alpine pastures in Austria, peep into Belgian backyards and zip through the lagoon to Venice. It beats clouds any day.
Third, a bed is affordable. While most of us would have to remortgage the house to upgrade to business or first class on a flight, you can buy a berth on a sleeper train for little more than the ticket price.
Fourth, luggage. If your bag has ever taken a trip to Singapore without you, you’ll love having it with you at all times on the train. In fact, you can even change outfits and, hallelujah, take bottles of liquid larger than 100ml.
Fifth, meeting people. Okay, this one may bring most Brits out in a cold sweat, but there’s nothing like striking up a conversation with complete strangers on a train. Even if you don’t speak the same language. I’m still indebted to someone who gave me life-saving biscuits on a night train through a snowy Czech Republic.
There are many other benefits, but this is The Big Tech Question and not The Big Let’s Get Dewy-Eyed About Trains Question (unfortunately), so let’s move onto Trainline.
Buying European train tickets online: Trainline
The best single place to buy European train tickets online is the Trainline website – but there are a few caveats.
According to the company, it brings “together routes, fares and journey times from more than 200 train and coach companies in 45 countries so our customers can easily buy tickets and save time, hassle or money”. And, in my experience, that’s the case.
Booking a ticket is straightforward: enter the destination, date and time and you’ll be taken to a list of options. Trainline even helpfully highlights the cheapest fare…
For Brits, Trainline also rolls the Eurostar into the booking, meaning you don’t have to scrabble around with multiple websites and logins. In fact, one of the site’s best features is a clear breakdown of each leg of the journey.
Once you’ve chosen a train, select your seating preference (free of charge), enter your personal details and pay the fare. You’ll then receive the tickets via email and you’re ready to go.
But it’s not a perfect tool. Perhaps the biggest issue with Trainline is that there are gaping holes on the map. So, to reach more obscure or far-flung destinations, you’ll have to book as far as you can and then do a deep-dive into local train providers’ websites.
And, while we’re on that subject, I can imagine the rail diehards shaking their heads and saying “it’s far cheaper to go directly through the Deutsche Bahn website”. But that’s not the case anymore. As an example, here are DB’s prices to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof…
And here are they are on Trainline…
So, at the time of writing, the difference was a whopping £3. That sounds about right for Trainline’s simplicity and ease of use.
Of course, whether I’ve convinced you not to put that £3 towards a £5.99 mini-break in Copenhagen with Ryanair is another matter…
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