For journeys on which limited numbers of discounted tickets are placed on sale, the savings to be made make it worth persevering with booking train tickets online.
Aside from in Belgium and The Netherlands, you can make savings by booking European EXPRESS trains in advance; and the overwhelming majority of online train ticket bookings involve taking no more than seven steps!
And you don't always have to bother with registering with an online booking service
However, HOW you take those steps can vary hugely from one booking service to another, hence the step-by-step guides below to making your own bookings; more of these are coming soon.
These variances between each booking service include, but are not limited to:
(1) Check the terms and conditions of the specific type of tickets; the usual (but not consistent) rule is that the more heavily a ticket has been discounted, the less likely it is that you will be able to exchange it or claim a refund.
Many of the cheapest types of discounted tickets cannot be exchanged or refunded at all.
(2) Double check the details of the trains (departure dates and times) you are about to be charged for, before making the payment.
When hunting for a good deal it can be all too easy to forget that you have changed a travel date in one direction, but not another, OR have left a train in your ‘basket’, that you no longer want to take etc.
(3) Consider the delivery options carefully; if you’re booking from outside your home country the easiest and cheapest options can be to collect from a station, or to receive an e-ticket which you can print or download to your phone.
Check that your printer is working before you opt for ‘print at home’.
(4) Even if it’s optional, entering your mobile phone number can be a good idea; many ticket services will send you SMS/text messages if any subsequent changes are made to the train services that you have booked tickets for.
When trying to book for the cheapest possible price, try to:
(1) Book as soon as the discounted tickets are placed on sale:
This can vary from 1 month – 6 months ahead. The specific booking period is included with each journey on our guides.
On some booking sites, including most versions of Oui-SNCF, you can sign up for alert services that will let you know when tickets have been released for sale.
The usual* ticket booking windows are:
*= The ticket booking booking windows can be shorter when looking up journeys in September and November for travel after the second Sunday in December.
The reason being is that new pan-European train timetables commence on the second Sunday in December and tickets cannot be released for sale until timings are confirmed; and this timetable work is carried generally carried out between mid September and early November.
(2) Be flexible re: your departure and arrival times and even your travel dates:
Having looked up tickets for when you want to travel, it can be worth looking through the earlier and later departures to see if you can find tickets at a cheaper price either side of your optimum departure/arrival times.
On certain booking sites such as DB and Oui-SNCF 'cheapest fare finder' tools are available, so that you can hone in on the cheapest departures on a particular date.
(3) You will be less likely to find tickets at the cheapest possible price on:
(this is necessarily broad advice):
(4) Check 1st and 2nd class tickets:
If the most heavily discounted 2nd class tickets are sold out, the 1st class equivalent may still be available.
When that is the case the 1st class discounted price can be the cheapest fare available, or the price difference between 1st and 2nd class can be only a few €s.
(5) Take a slower train:
When the most heavily discounted tickets for the express trains have sold out, these alternative trains can be cheaper.
(6) Take a more basic train service:
On some long-distance routes in Austria, France, Germany, Spain and now Great Britain, operators of more basic, but lower-cost trains, compete with the standard express trains:
France - Ouigo
Germany = Flix
Austria = Westbahn
Spain = Ouigo and avlo
Great Britain = Lumo
In general these trains may lack features which have become the norm; bar counters, large luggage racks, Wi-fi, a choice of travel classes etc, but they usually match the speed of the conventional express services and can be more than 50% cheaper.
(7) Be open to using railcards:
When travelling by train in France, Britain, Germany or Switzerland you don't have to be French, British, German or in order to purchase railcards.
Then once purchased you can use them to obtain discounts, typically of 30-50%, on rail tickets, and usually you'll start to make an overall saving once you have booked 2 or 3 long-distance journeys.
(8) Check whether an InterRail or Eurail pass will be cheaper:
If you will be making an exceptionally long international journey and the price of an end-to-end booking, or a combination of separate tickets, is more than €250, it can be worth crunching some numbers to see if a Eurail or InterRail 'Global' pass, valid for 4 days of travel will be a money saver - you won't have to be travelling for 4 days to use the pass.
Though keep in mind that the ticket costs will include reservations, but for the rail passes, any mandatory passes will be an additional cost; in particular be aware that Eurail and InterRail passes only cover around 75% of the costs when travelling in a sleeper cabin on a night train.
We've produced detailed guides to how to book the optimum tickets for your journey in these countries:
We've also split these more GENERAL tips for booking the cheapest possible tickets, which you can find below, into two parts;
(1) On these train services, advance tickets are NOT discounted, so there's no need to hunt down the best possible deal online, you'll pay the same price if you book at the station.
(2) When making journeys by train within some Eastern European countries, including Hungary and The Czech Republic, you will more often than not only save the equivalent of a couple of euros by booking in advance online.
(3) On routes/journeys on which limited numbers of discounted tickets are placed on sale, you will normally have a choice of between two or three types of ticket:
These THREE types of ticket are summarised below:
(1)The cheapest types of ticket(s) are ONLY valid for the specific departure you have chosen; and they also cannot be refunded if YOU subsequently change your travel.
It's likely that you may not be able to even exchange these tickets to a different departure, if you subsequently change your travel plans; and even IF you can exchange them, you may have to pay an admin fee.
So booking the cheapest tickets months ahead, can be a false economy.
(2) Discounted tickets which can be refunded for an additional fee, and/or can be exchanged with or without paying an admin fee.
These tickets will be more expensive than the cheapest tickets, but can actually be a good option as they give you the freedom to alter your travel plans.
However, this type of ticket is less common and won't be available on routes on which those most heavily discounted tickets can be exchanged for a fee.
(3) Tickets that aren't discounted, but CAN be exchanged or refunded.
A plus of these tickets CAN be the freedom to choose your departures on your travel date, rather than being tied to specific trains to and from your destination.
Though on trains with compulsory reservations you'll still need to have booked a specific departure, the big advantage of this type of ticket is that if need be, you can transfer them to another departure at no extra cost.
The online price of these tickets that can be exchanged or refunded, is also usually the price you would pay if you booked tickets last minute at the station.
(4) A sliding scale of ticket prices can be applied to some/most/all departures; this can also be called airline style pricing.
How this works in practice:
Although in France the most heavily discounted tickets are automatically taken off sale 10 days ahead.
(5) Each specific departure per day is usually treated in isolation; so the very cheapest prices may not be available at all on certain departures.
The more popular a departure is likely to be, the less likely it is that the very cheapest prices usually found on a route, will be made available on that particular train.
(1) In common with booking direct journeys, you can save money by booking in advance for this type of multi-train journey - because you will be booking before the most heavily discounted tickets have sold out.
(2) Those terms for booking the cheapest tickets for the direct trains, such as:
(3) The fact that the trains you will be connecting INTO can be specified on your ticket, means that it's worth paying particular attention to the time, which the ticket agents are allowing for making the connection(s) between trains.
(4) Complications with using tickets in the event of a train delay, leading to a missed connection into a specified train departure are unlikely, but should be considered when booking; hence our guide to booking and using tickets for such journeys.
Now it's time to take the plunge and book your journey.
These country links below will take you to a page that includes the online ticket agents which sell tickets for journeys within and to/from these countries.
Or if you will be taking a journey on a popular route, you will find the specific booking links and ticket info for more than 1000 journey options on our JOURNEY GUIDES.
I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.
This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.