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Seeing Europe by Rail: Reliving the past, discovering the future

Written By | Oct 20, 2019
seeing Europe by rail

Eurostar trains operate through the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris and Brussels (Courtesy: Rail Europe)

EUROPE — For today’s intrepid tourists, flying has become a increasingly tedious – and cramped – means of travel. And driving has gotten more and more expensive. So savvy American travelers are rapidly waking up to riding the rails and using trains as their primary mode of transportation in Europe. Seeing Europe by rail is often the perfect way to go once you’ve arrived at your primary destination.

Check out Rail Europe to plan seeing Europe by rail

To research your next European adventure, your first stop should be to get on your computer or portable device of choice and access Rail Europe. Thie is easily the best one-stop shop for information on seeing Europe by rail. The site is loaded with information on rail passes and just about anything else you’ll need to stay on track when traveling by rail across a single country or across the continent.

Advantages of train travel in Europe

Before we dive into the details of seeing Europe by rail, what what big advantages does this mode of travel have over others on a European tour? Here’s a short list:

seeing Europe by rail

European trains operate all the time (Courtesy: Rail Europe)

  • Frequency of service
  • Comfort
  • Speed (most trips of 3 1/2 hours or less are faster by rail)
  • Arrivals and departures are usually city-center to city-center
  • Food services on board
  • Wi-Fi access for your laptop or other portable electronic device
Rail service is expanding

Most of Europe’s larger countries continue to expand high speed rail services with trains that typically speed through the countryside at 186 miles per hour. France, Germany and Italy alone offer a combined total of nearly 55,000 miles of track.

seeing Europe by rail

French TGV on the Riviera (Courtesy: Rail Europe)

Some countries such as Italy, could not justify the expense of building dedicated high speed rail line. So instead, they cleverly adapted many of their best trains to tilt, a bit like our own Acela express trains here in the US. That has helped make Italy’s trains to use older, existing tracks to accommodate higher speeds.

A veritable plethora of rail pass choices and prices

If there is a drawback for inexperienced travelers, it could involve the seemingly overwhelming number of available rail pass choices. Each country has individual services which suit their specific needs. That can at times translate into confusion about which rail pass could prove best for your itinerary. Or, if individual point-to-point tickets are a better option to see your chosen slice of Europe by rail.

Choosing a pass can often seem overwhelming (Courtesy: Rail Europe)

Today, the Eurail network encompasses 31 countries. Thus, puzzling out how to get from Point A to Point B can be intimidating for many travelers. Just how does one navigate through a myriad of different passes to locate the proper ticket at the best price?

Drilling down on your travel pass selection

For starters, Rail Europe’s prices run from calendar year to calendar year. In other words, the price of a pass on January 1 remains the same until December 31.

seeing Europe by rail

Seniors and small groups of 2 to 5 can qualify for discounts (Courtesy: Rail Europe)

Next – and this is the single most important thing to know about rail passes – there really are ONLY two main types of pass.

  1. Consecutive Days; and
  2. Flexipasses.
Consecutive Day Pass

A Consecutive Day Pass is good for travel every day during a specified time period. For example, an eight-day pass validated on the first day of a month expires at the beginning of its ninth day. You don’t have to use the pass each day. But you do forfeit any days of rail time you don’t use during the eight day window of the pass.

seeing Europe by rail

Germany’s sleek ICE (Courtesy: Rail Europe)


On the other hand, a Flexipass lets passengers select when they want to travel during a given period of time. If you purchase three days of travel during a 15-day period, you can then choose which three days you will travel during the time period of two weeks plus one day.

That’s it! EVERY rail pass is a combination of one of those two types.

From that point on, you can purchase single country passes, combination passes, multiple country passes and so on. Consequently, if you will only be traveling in Switzerland, why buy a pass that also includes France and Germany? That makes no sense.

seeing Europe by rail

British Rail train in the countryside (Courtesy: Rail Europe)

Just keep in mind that generally, the more countries you add and the more days you buy will determine your final price.

With that said many passes have some excellent discounts. Be sure to check for senior or children’s discounts.

The Saverpass

A Saverpass is another way to reduce the fare when you’re seeing Europe by rail. Two to five people traveling together qualify as a group as long as they travel with each other.

Special high-speed train details

It’s important to note that some high speed trains like the French TGVs do require reservations. This requires an additional small fee. You should always check on this in advance.

Rail lines generally release their timetables six months in advance. In general, you can make necessary reservations three to six months before your travel dates. Finding savings of up to 80 per cent of regular ticket prices is not unusual when booking early fares.

Class Structure and saving money

Some people try to save money by going second class rather than first. That’s okay, and this option is less expensive. But, let’s face it. If you’re going to spend the money to go all the way to Europe, this is not the place to cut corners.

seeing Europe by rail

Panoramic train in Switzerland (Courtesy: Rail Europe)

The main difference between first and second class on European trains is comfort. Seating configurations in first class offer  fewer seats and more space. Conseuqently, there are fewer people in your car or compartment, so travel is quieter and less crowded.

Again, each country has its own way of doing things so services will vary. In fact, the time of day you travel can also determine which services are offered on similar types of trains within a single country.

More advantages of First Class travel options

Adding to the advantages of first class travel, some trains offer meals served at your seat, plus complimentary drinks. And even before departing some stations, a first class ticket offers you priority check-in and access to lounges.

Sitting area Le Train Bleu restaurant at Gare du Nord in Paris (Coutesy Rail Europe)

Of course, it’s always up to the individual traveler, but it is probably better to skimp on travel costs elsewhere. With the added benefits, it’s often advisable to choose first class to enjoy the perks.

Trains operate in the snow and other bad weather conditions (Courtesy: Rail Europe)

Another way to save, and our final comments

One of the most overlooked aspects of traveling with a rail pass involves available bonuses. Some passes can just about pay for themselves by letting you take advantage of free or reduced fares that come with pass. In Switzerland, for example, a Swiss Travel Pass offers free admission to over 500 museums throughout the country. That’s a great deal.

Night trains recapture the romance of the rails ( Courtesy: Rail Europe)

Ultimately, seeing Europe by rail is travel as it should be: clean, comfortable and positive. Don’t let the seemingly overwheming quantity of available passes overwhelm you. You will be richly rewarded if you simply relax, sit down, and take the time to “train yourself” for your next rewarding journey through Europe.

— Headline image: Eurostar trains operate through the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris and Brussels.
(Courtesy: Rail Europe)

About the Author:

Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Read more of Bob’s journeys with ALS and his travels around the world

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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club ( and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.