Last Updated on May 9, 2023
When I decided to take trains around Europe whenever possible last month, I was curious to see how they’d compare to buses, which I had used during my travels in August. What I discovered? Just how much I love train travel in Europe. I’ve always enjoyed train travel, but a month of using trains almost exclusively reminded me how pleasant train rides are. Read on to find out why you should take the train in Europe (at least once!) and how to buy train tickets in Europe.
Why you should travel by train around Europe
Trains are super comfy, fast and on time
After spending a lot of time on buses in August, I truly appreciated the comfort of train travel – there is more leg space, there is room for your luggage right above your seat, the seats are more comfortable. Most importantly though: trains are so much faster than buses! No traffic jams, no delays (for the most part, at least) and traveling at high speed makes train travel much faster than buses. No bus travels at 200 kilometers per hour like the high speed trains I took in Italy. In Germany, the trains even went as fast as 250 kilometers per hour!Depending on the route, train travel can be as fast flying, from Venice to Munich for example: getting to the airport takes about an hour, calculate two hours for check-in and security checks, the flight time (1hr) itself and the travel time from the airport into the city (another hour), and you could be traveling comfortably on a direct train instead, which takes you from city center to city center and takes about the same time.
There are tables to sit at
One aspect where trains beat planes and buses are the tables that you find in each cart. Not every seat comes with a table, but when I reserve a seat in a train, I usually ask for a seat at a table. That way I can work on my laptop, have space to put food or a cup of coffee or place my camera (which on some train rides I could hardly put down).
There are power outlets
For me it is amazing to be able to charge my devices, and since we are using our smartphones for pretty much anything, which means we drain our batteries fast, these plugs are getting a lot of use these days.
Tip: You’ll need an adapter for a 220-volt outlet, otherwise you won’t be able to charge any of your devices on trains in Europe. You can buy this American to European Outlet Plug Adapter, which serves most of Europe and comes with two USB plugs, on Amazon for only $7.99.
The bathrooms are much nicer than those on buses
I don’t even want to talk about bathrooms on buses… But I was surprised that every time I had to use a bathroom on a train, it was much cleaner than one might expect.. or maybe that’s because I still had the images of bathrooms on Indian trains in my head? There was always toilet paper, hand towels and soap and they seemed to be cleaned regularly.
You can bring as much stuff as you want
Planes have carry-on restrictions and even transnational bus companies in Europe have started to set up luggage restrictions. On a train, however, you can bring all the stuff you want, including things like pocket knives or corkscrews which you can’t bring on a plane (unless you check them in). Also: on buses, large items will be out of your sight in the belly of the bus, whereas on a train, all your stuff will be in the cart with you.
Centrally located stations
Train stations are right in the city center whereas bus stations are often a bit further away. I hate arriving in Berlin by bus for example, where the train station is way out west, and it takes me another 40 minutes to get to the city center. But when you get off a train, you are usually right in the center of town.
Train stations are amazing
Most cities have giant, modern, clean train stations with great food and coffee shops so that you can fuel up for the journey. Try to find good food in a bus station!
There are no traffic jams
Travel on a bus in Europe in the summer and I guarantee you that you’ll find yourself in summer holiday traffic sooner or later. And remember that most buses in Europe don’t have AC!
Most trains have food service
When you travel on Deutsche Bahn for example, a waiter will come around with coffee and snacks for purchase. In Italy, TrenItalia even had a special offer for a sandwich, a pastry and a coffee for €3.50, which is an amazing deal!
You can bring a bicycle for free
Now this isn’t important for most travelers but if you’re bringing your bike on your Euro trip, it’s much easier to take it on trains than on buses, and most importantly: it’s free! I once paid €9 to bring my bike on a bus – and I had paid €8 for my own ticket, less than for the bike!
Train trips are easy
How many times have I been to really confusing bus stations! Or even worse: My connecting bus was leaving from a different station! But it is easy to find connecting trains at a station, signage is clear and announcements are made in English (not always the case in buses!).
Train tickets in Europe are cheap!
Now, this is only true if you don’t decide to show up at a train station and buy your ticket on the spot, but generally, train tickets in Europe are so much cheaper than in the U.S. If you book in advance, you can get train tickets from Berlin to Amsterdam for US$40, a train from Rome to Florence for under $25, a ticket from Hamburg to Copenhagen for $37!
Buying train tickets in Europe
The easy Option: Interrail / RailEurope
I was using the free Interrail / RailEurope app (download here for iOS / download here for Android) throughout my trip, and I highly recommend it – no matter if you are traveling with a rail pass or without one. Not only does the app show timetables and all available connections to your destination, but it also has interesting country facts and city maps of all major European cities. A rail pass is the easiest way to get around Europe, because it buys you a certain number of trips in a specific time period – this can be anything between 3 travel days in a month within one country or an entire continuous month of train travel across 30 European countries – there’s a big range of options which you can check out here. One country passed start at €57 Euros, global passes start at €192 for people under 25, and €413 for people older than 25. If you plan to cover a lot of ground, the global pass is certainly worth it – it saves you the hassle to book all your train rides individually with each country’s train line. You can simply show up and hop on a train (sometimes you have to reserve a seat and pay a small fee for the seat reservation though).
How to find cheap train tickets in Europe
If you decide to travel around Europe by train without a rail pass, make sure not to just show up at a train station. In Europe it is always cheaper to book your train ticket in advance – sometimes you can save up to 70%! Book your ticket online as soon as you know where you’re going and when.
There are also a couple of apps / websites that allows you to search for train connections throughout Europe: Omio.com and TheTrainline.com. Using them saves you the trouble of having to use all the different train operators in Europe: Deutsche Bahn in Germany, TrenItalia in Italy, Renfe in Spain, and so forth.. Instead, the apps find the cheapest and best connections for you. And for your convenience, you can also book train tickets directly through the app. As mentioned above, train tickets can be expensive when bought on the spot, so I recommend booking your trains as soon as you know your travel dates. Yes, that means less flexibility, but it’ll save you a lot of money on our Europe trip.
Book inter-country train trips: You can book popular train rides within a country, such as Rome to Venice or Barcelona to Madrid, but you can also book connections between different countries via Omio and TheTrainline, for example a train from Vienna to Prague, or a train from Paris to Amsterdam. If you use the app, your tickets will be stored right within the app for you. It doesn’t get easier than that.
Tip: I am sharing other cheap modes of transportation in Europe in this article: How to travel Europe on the cheap