Your Ultimate Guide to easy European train travel in 2023

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There’s a lot to love about European train travel, from relaxing in comfortable seats to drinking in the breathtaking views along the way. 

I’m a huge fan of European train travel, especially in places like Switzerland and Italy. But I know that the idea of traveling around multiple countries by train can also be a little scary, especially if you aren’t used to rail travel. The fact that each European country has its own railway system with its own particular quirks means organising a European rail vacation can feel pretty intimidating.

So I’ve put together this guide to help you plan a rail journey with confidence. It contains everything you need to know before you travel by train across Europe, from the different ways to book European rail tickets to the best routes for European rail travel. 

I’ve also added some Europe train travel tips to help your journey run as smoothly as a Swiss train!

Our ultimate guide to European train travel shares what you need to know about tickets, routes & how to sustainably ride the rails in Europe.

The Advantages of European Train Travel

Let’s start off with some of the reasons why traveling around Europe by train is such a great idea.

Easy and convenient

Rail travel in Europe is just so simple. No need to turn up early to check in or worry if you have too many bottles in your bag; just step on board, sit back and relax. You can even take your own food and drinks on most European rail journeys. 

Travel in comfort

On a train, you don’t need to pay for extra legroom to guarantee a pleasant journey. European trains have comfortable seats, temperature-controlled cars, room for stowing your luggage, power outlets for charging your phone and even complimentary WiFi. 

No limits on luggage

It’s not a problem if you need to take specialist sports equipment, musical instruments or even your dog on board a train. And forget worrying about whether that last souvenir took your suitcase over the weight limit because there is no weight limit!

Soak in the views

Looking down from an airplane is fantastic, but you don’t really get to see much, do you? One of the great advantages of rail travel is seeing all the towns and villages, lakes and mountains as you travel through Europe.

Or do something different

Rail travel is much more relaxing than traveling by car or plane. It also gives you more freedom to get up and stretch your legs, read a book, take a nap or do anything else you like, within reason.

A greener way to travel

According to a study by the European Environment Agency, rail travel is much more eco-friendly than driving or flying. So if you want to limit the carbon footprint of your journey, the train is the way to go.

No need for transfers

Most major rail stations are built right in the centre of the city they serve. So when you arrive at your destination, you can start exploring immediately without the need for long, expensive transfers. 

colorful interior of antwerp train station

5 of the Best Routes for European Rail Travel

Whichever European countries you plan to visit, you’re sure to find a thrilling rail route along the way. Here are just a few of the best European rail journeys to inspire your travels.

Venice Simplon Orient-Express – France and Italy

Paris to Venice in 24 hours

Unfortunately, the original Orient Express no longer exists, but this version of the legendary train route in Western Europe is just as glamorous. In fact, many of the train cars date back to the halcyon days of rail travel in the 1920s and 30s. 

So get swept away by the elegance of the Orient Express as it whisks you from Paris to Venice overnight. 

Sit back and relax as you sip cocktails in the piano bar or dine in the luxurious Étoile du Nord restaurant car. The pianist will entertain you through the evening, and then you can indulge in a midnight brunch of lobster rolls, or breakfast in bed in your luxurious cabin or suite.

This is rail travel at its most opulent!

Tip: The northbound trip doesn’t get booked as quickly as the southbound journey, which makes booking your luxury rail trip through Europe easier.

Glacier Express – Switzerland 

Zermatt to St Moritz in 7.5 hours

Linking the popular ski resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz, Switzerland’s Glacier Express takes you through nearly 300km of spectacular scenery. The train’s panoramic windows will give you the best possible views as the train glides past snow-covered peaks and through 91 tunnels. 

The Glacier Express is known as the world’s slowest express train, traveling at a less-than-express 38kph. But when the views are this good, you probably won’t be in any hurry to reach the end of your journey. You can use a Swiss rail travel card on the Glacier Express, but an additional supplement may apply.

Tip: First Class upgrades are available on this route, but with such clean and comfy trains, you can save money by traveling in Second Class.

swiss train going over stone bridge

The West Highland Line – Scotland

Glasgow to Mallaig in 5.5 hours

This line takes you through the beautiful Highlands of Scotland along one of Europe’s most scenic rail journeys. And Scotrail’s affordable prices make this journey one of the best budget rail journeys in Europe. 

You’ll leave the city lights of Glasgow behind and travel over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct from the Harry Potter movies as you head northwards towards Fort William and Mallaig. Keep your eyes open for red deer and ruined castles as you pass by heather-covered moorland, rugged mountains and the romantic shores of Loch Lomond. 

Tip: For a more luxurious experience, book a ticket for the Belmond Royal Scotsman. It’s basically a five-star hotel on rails!

Linha do Douro – Portugal 

Porto to Pocinho in 3.5 hours

If you’re visiting Europe’s westernmost country, the Linha do Douro is a fantastic way to explore the scenic Douro valley. Your journey starts in the coastal city of Porto, and then travels westwards towards Pochinho, a short distance from the border with Spain.

Traveling with Comboios de Portugal, you’ll see the sprawling wine estates (quintas) of the Porto region and pass by Régua’s dramatic gorge and the prehistoric rock art site in the Côa valley. The train travels on both sides of the river valley, so there are no bad seats on this rail journey.

Tip: If time allows, break your journey at Pinhao to admire the pretty station with its traditional Portuguese tile decoration. You can also pick up some great souvenirs here, like decorative tins of sardines and bottles of the local Port wine. 

The Danube Express – Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary 

Istanbul, Turkey to Budapest, Hungary, in 7 days

Over on the other side of Europe, the Danube Express takes you through Eastern Europe in opulent surroundings. Your week-long adventure will whisk you from the Islamic architecture of Istanbul to the fascinating baroque city of Budapest. You’ll pass through medieval towns and historic castles in several countries along the way, including Bulgaria, Romania and Czech Republic.  

You can’t help imagining that this is what the Grand Tours of Europe were like, traveling on board a luxurious international train with sumptuous cabins, plush furnishings, and fine dining. And the informal atmosphere onboard the Danube Express means you can relax and enjoy the experience.

Tip: Head to the cocktail lounge for pre-dinner drinks. It’s the perfect way to get to know your fellow adventurers. 

train in scotland

Booking your Train Route in Europe

If you want to travel Europe by train, you’ll obviously need to buy tickets for your journey. There isn’t a single European rail network system, so depending on your route, you may need to buy European rail tickets from different operators. 

Here are the main ways to buy train tickets in Europe:

Online through a booking website or app

If you’re traveling between European countries, the most straightforward option is usually to go through a third-party rail ticket booking site. Using a European rail planner avoids any problems with translating foreign websites, and you can pay for your tickets with a credit or debit card.

Omio or The Trainline Europe are some of the best apps for European travel.They allow you to compare European rail schedules and ticket prices, find the cheapest or quickest route between destinations, and book European trains with multiple rail operators.

Online through the rail operator website

Booking directly through the rail operator’s website can be your best option to find the cheapest prices for European rail tickets. 

Going directly to the rail operator can open up some great value rail fares, but navigating the website might be trickier than using an aggregate booking site. Some national train companies like ScotRail in Scotland and SBB in Switzerland have great rail planner apps. Download them before you depart and use the App to buy tickets, research routes and where trains operate, reserve a sleeper on overnight trains, and plan your route.

At the train station

If you need to buy a ticket for a short railway journey, you might find it more convenient to buy it directly at the railway station. This is particularly useful if you’re planning a day trip using a local train, or need to visit a local town on a regional line. 

Many stations have electronic kiosks with language options, making the process quicker and easier than waiting at the customer service desk. 

With a Europe Rail Pass

The Eurail pass (for non-European residents) and Interrail pass (European residents) will allow you to explore thousands of destinations in 33 countries. They’re ideal if you want to plan a rail journey around multiple countries. There is variable pricing available based on the length of your holiday in Europe.

National rail operators also offer train passes allowing you to travel on a certain number of days within that particular country. These may be better value if you’re only visiting one or two countries.

A European rail pass can be a great way to save money on train travel in Europe. But check the terms carefully, as some routes and regional trains may require reservations or charge a supplement. 

train traveling over river on sunny day

Tips for European Rail Travel

If you’re ready to book your first Europe train adventure, this step-by-step guide will help to make your journey go smoothly:

Get your ticket

Once you’ve bought your ticket using one of the methods above, ensure you have it with you for your journey. 

This might mean downloading the ticket onto an app, printing it at home, or picking up tickets from the station kiosk. When you buy European train tickets, check with the rail operator before you travel to see what forms they accept. 

Check you have the right train station

Most large cities in Europe have more than one train station, so check which one you need before you book, and then make sure you head to the right one!

Find the right platform

If the station you’re leaving from has multiple platforms, check the departure board to find the right one for your train. Running after one if you’re delayed can be tricky. It can often be easier to search by the departure time or the final stop on the route rather than your destination.

Don’t forget that in Europe, train schedules generally use the 24-hour clock, so you will need to look for 14:00 rather than 2PM.

Validate your ticket

Some rail operators will require you to validate your paper ticket before you board the train. You’ll generally find the validation kiosk near the platforms, but it can be easy to miss them.

Forgetting to validate your ticket can lead to an expensive fine, which is an excellent reason to use e-tickets if available.

man punching train ticket

Find your seat

If you have a seat reservation, you’ll need to find the right car and seat. Otherwise, you simply need to locate the first- or second-class car, depending on your ticket.

You’ll generally find the class and car number displayed near the door, and seat numbers will be displayed on or above the individual seats. 

Stow your luggage

There will usually be overhead storage above the seats and luggage racks at the end of each train car. You may also find that some cars have additional space to store your bags between the seats.

If you’re traveling on a long-distance train, there may also be a dedicated luggage car where you can check in oversized suitcases or bikes. It doesn’t really matter which option you use as long as your luggage is out of the way of your fellow passengers. 

Once you’ve stowed your luggage, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the journey.

Keep your ticket handy

A conductor will probably want to check your ticket during the journey, and you may also need it to exit the station at your destination. So be sure to keep your ticket safe so that you have it ready when you need it.

Listen carefully to the announcements

Generally, people will start to queue up a few minutes before their stop, so listen carefully to the announcements as your destination gets closer. Some trains also have an electronic display showing the next destination stop.

It’s a good idea to make note of a station two or three stops before the one you need. That way, you’ll know when it’s time to start packing away your belongings and getting ready to disembark.

When the train reaches your stop, be ready with your luggage so that you can exit the car quickly. If you take too long to get your things together, the train could start moving before you have a chance to get off. This is particularly true with high speed trains.

Now you have all the information you’ll need to book and enjoy European rail travel. It can feel like there’s a lot to take in and there can be a lot of planning involved. 

But if you follow these steps, you’ll soon be climbing on board the first train in your European rail trip. All you have to do is decide which station that train will be departing from!

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Photo credits: Pixabay

Claudia Laroye
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