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Why you might want to tour Europe by train, not plane

Sept. 20, 2019
19 min read
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Sure, you can fly on many routes within Europe for relatively little money on one of Europe's low-cost carriers or for relatively few miles using British Airways Avios. But, since European airports are often located well outside the city center and tight pitch is the norm on intra-Europe flights, train service is able to compete with flights on many routes.

Indeed, for many travelers train travel is simply better than flying in Europe. So, this guide will help you determine whether trains may be better than planes for your next European trip -- and help you plan your trip if you decide to travel by train. Let's get started!

Related: The best credit cards for train travel

When to use trains

Depending on the details of your trip and your personal travel style, trains can be a great method of transportation. They're fast, comfortable and — if you have a fear of flying — they never leave the ground.

To depart and arrive in the city center

In most European cities, the main train station is located in a central, downtown neighborhood. This means you'll likely disembark close to your hotel as well as popular attractions and restaurants. Centrally located train stations also make it easier to take day trips to nearby cities.

To sit comfortably

Most intra-Europe flights — even in business class — aren't comfortable for tall or larger passengers. Alternatively, most European trains have decent seat pitch and a variety of seating configurations: seats facing each other, seats in compartments, seats in rows and single seats. Whether you're traveling solo or with the entire family in tow, trains are able to accommodate an impressive range of needs.

Even the worst seats on Trenitalia's Frecciarossa 1000 have decent pitch. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

If you're traveling with children

Many trains have special family areas, some of which are stocked with toys and games. Travelers may even be able to snag a regular six-seat compartment for just their family. Children (and grown-ups, too) will likely enjoy looking out the windows and paying visits to the dining car. Most trains also have storage areas for strollers.

Once a child is over the age of two, flying as a family can become very expensive. Some train operators, however, offer family tickets, while others offer discounted fares for children.

Related: 6 tips for a family’s first European vacation

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If you're traveling with pets

Traveling with a pet is certainly easier and cheaper by train than by plane. Small pets in carriers usually ride free, while larger pets on a leash can typically ride for a child's fare — but always check the policies of the specific train company and train type before booking a trip. One major European rail service that doesn't allow pets is, unfortunately, Eurostar.

My cat, Grace, in her carrier on a train in Europe. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Train travel is less stressful than plane travel for most pets (and their owners). Animals won't have to endure a security check, altitude acclimatization or be kept squeezed under a seat. Although pets should remain on their leash or in their carrier, it's acceptable to hold the pet in your lap or set the carrier on the table.

Related: How to prepare your pet for European travel

If you're traveling with extra luggage

Baggage fees can add up quickly on most European carriers, but there's effectively no luggage limit on most European trains. This being said, travelers must find acceptable places to store their belongings on the train such as luggage racks, under or behind seats and in designated luggage areas.

Larger items — including bikes, skis and fishing rods — can usually be transported with few or no fees. And unlike air travel, it's totally fine to keep that bottle of wine you picked up in France in your carry-on during a train ride.

You'd rather not fly

Although air travel is safer than ever, some people are simply afraid of flying. If you're uneasy on airplanes (or traveling with someone who is) trains are a perfect alternative.

Trains can also be a good option if you're trying to reduce your carbon footprint from flights. According to Eurostar, their high-speed London to Amsterdam train ride emits 80% less carbon per passenger than the equivalent flight.

To travel during the night

Sleeper trains run between many of Europe's largest cities. Tickets can be reasonably priced, especially if bought well in advance. Plus, you won't need a hotel for the night you spend on the train, which can be especially helpful for travelers on tight schedules or looking to save money.

European sleeper trains usually have three options:

  • Seat: You'll spend the night sitting upright in a seat. This is the cheapest option and is similar to sleeping in economy class on an aircraft. Although the seats may recline, this isn't guaranteed.
  • Couchette: Couchette cars have four to six bunks in each compartment. These compartments are usually mixed gender, although there are reports that women-only compartments can sometimes be arranged at the station. A sheet, blanket and pillow are typically provided for each bunk. The price difference is often minimal between four- and six-berth couchettes, so you'll usually want to pay a little more for a four-berth compartment to reduce noise and have more room for luggage.
  • Sleeper: Sleeper cars usually have one to three bunks in each compartment. Sometimes sleeper car passengers have access to a shower, and some sleeper compartments may have a private ensuite toilet or sink. Sleeper compartments are generally gender-segregated unless an entire compartment is booked by a group. A sheet, blanket and pillow are provided for each bunk.

You want to enjoy the scenery

Europe has many scenic rail routes. With a good podcast or audiobook, even long train journeys can go quickly while admiring the passing landscapes.

You want to have a picnic

One final benefit of traveling by train instead of plane is that you can bring a picnic on board. There's often a dining or snack car attached to long distance trains, but since you rarely have to pass through security you can, more or less, bring whatever you want. Most train operators even allow passengers to bring on their own wine and beer.

The four seat tables on Trenitalia's Frecciarossa 1000 are perfect for family picnics or for couples that each want a window seat. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

How to determine the best route

If you want to take a train between two cities, you have to determine the best route. Especially when planning train travel in an unfamiliar part of Europe, start by considering the options provided by Google Maps, Deutsche Bahn (DB) and Rome2Rio.

Google Maps

Google Maps has a surprising amount of European train schedule data, especially for connections between larger cities. Its results are great for determining how frequently trains run, and how long of a journey you might face.

There's also a handy "Tickets and information" section at the bottom of the left-hand panel once you select an option. Sometimes there's a "Buy tickets" option, while other times the operator's website is linked or the operator's name is given.

Deutsche Bahn

Deutsche Bahn (DB) is a German railway company that also happens to be the largest railway operator and infrastructure owner in Europe. The DB website and app are easy to use for routing and schedules. DB provides train schedules not just for the trains they operate and but also for most European trains.

Search results on DB's website.
Search results on DB's website.


Rome2Rio is particularly useful for finding transport options when visiting more "off the beaten path" or rural destinations.

For example, if you want to travel between Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Google Maps only shows buses and DB doesn't have data for either city. But, Rome2Rio shows twice-daily trains -- and these trains are modern and affordable.

Rome2Rio also intelligently combines train, bus, shuttle, ferry, air and taxi options. This was particularly useful when I stayed at the Holiday Inn Nola - Naples Vulcano Buono when it was on the Spring 2018 IHG Points Breaks list. Although Google claimed -- and still claims -- that no route could be found, Rome2Rio combined public transport options with taxis to provide a feasible option.

How to buy tickets

Once you've found the route you want to take, you need to determine how much the tickets will cost and how best to purchase them.

I recommend finding the official channel for buying the tickets you want. This can be difficult, as there are often many travel agencies and official-sounding services that will gladly sell you tickets at marked-up prices. And sometimes, there will be multiple official, direct channels for buying — yet may each charge a different price.

One example of this is the EuroCity train between Munich and Bologna. The train is operated by both Austrian Federal Railways (OBB) and Germany's DB, so tickets can be bought from either company. When I checked dates about a month out for the exact same train and product, I found DB was selling tickets from 39.90 euros (about $44) while OBB was selling tickets from 59.90 euros (about $66).

If you're having trouble booking a ticket or finding information about a route, head over to The Man in Seat 61. This website provides useful information for most passenger train routes worldwide.

Prices are dynamic for many European train tickets, so don't be surprised if you notice the fares increase over time as the train becomes more full. But dynamic pricing can sometimes yield first class tickets priced similarly to — or even less than — a second class ticket, especially if you book last minute.

I traveled in first class on a EuroCity train between Munich and Bologna once because the buy-up from second class was small. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

On the other hand, some fares may require purchase a set number of days before your journey, which can leave only expensive fares for last-minute purchases.

You'll also need to consider seat reservations. Some trains include seat reservations in the price of the ticket and some trains don't offer seat reservations at all.

But there is a third option when it comes to seat reservations: trains that offer, but don't require, the purchase of a seat reservation. I'm most familiar with this concept on Germany's InterCity Express (ICE) trains. Seat reservations in second class cost 4.50 euros (roughly $5) on these trains, so I usually make a reservation to ensure I get a seat.

If you decide to travel without a seat reservation, there's often a panel above each seat noting if it's reserved for any particular segments -- although these panels aren't always kept up to date. Luckily, some modern trains use electronic signs, which are often more accurate.

A sheet of paper is slid into this slot with reservation information.
A sheet of paper is slid into this slot with reservation information on some trains. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Finally, some operators offer passengers the opportunity to buy a discount card or join a frequent traveler program. One such example is DB's BahnCard subscription, which can occasionally save you money even in one booking.

Purchasing a BahnCard can make sense even if you only use it for a couple trips -- but pay close attention to cancellation policies.

When to buy a rail pass

Rail passes can also hold great value. Although a rail pass won't make sense for all travelers, it can be the best choice if you either plan to visit multiple cities by train and these routes are usually expensive, or you want to be flexible on your travel dates and destinations.

If you plan to visit many cities by train — and have, or are willing to have, a set schedule — price out how much it would cost to buy each ticket individually. If it's similar or more than the cost of the pass, buy the pass. If you want to travel flexibly, a rail pass can certainly make sense but it's more difficult to calculate the break-even point.

There are two main types of Europe rail passes available to U.S. residents: the Eurail Pass and passes from individual rail companies. Remember that these passes aren't necessarily accepted by all operators, so be sure to consider this when comparing options. It's also important to note that passes usually need to be bought and shipped to your home in advance of your departure.

For either type of rail pass, you'll still need to pay for seat reservations — which are sometimes mandatory — and surcharges for couchette or sleeper bunks on night trains.

Eurail Pass

There are two types of Eurail passes: Global and One Country. The Global pass allows access to up to 31 countries in Europe, while the One Country pass allows access to a single country.

The Eurail website has a handy tool that allows you to find the best Eurail pass for your trip based on the length of your time in Europe, the number of travelers, which countries you'll visit, how long you'll spend in each country and how many travel days you'll need in each country. Using this tool can help you decide whether a Eurail pass is right for your trip -- and if so, which pass is the best choice.

Passes from individual operators

If you're planning on spending most of your time in one country, but planning to travel by train on at least a few days within that country, do a quick search to see if any of the train operators in that country offer train passes.

As an example, DB offers Flexi passes where you travel three to 15 days within one month. If you buy the right number of days and use the pass on days where tickets would otherwise be expensive, you can come out ahead — especially if you're traveling in high season or as a pair. By way of example, for seven days of travel within a month, one second class adult would pay 280 euros (about $307) while two adults traveling on a "twin pass" would pay only 425 euros (about $466).

DB's ICE high speed train is a comfortable way to travel. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

How to decide between trains and planes on specific routes

On many European routes, trains are competitive with flights. To put this to the test, TPG U.K. recently raced from London to Paris:

Below are five major European routes where planes and trains directly compete for travelers. For each of these routes, train and flight prices listed are the cheapest I could find on a date about one month away. "Trip Time" is the duration of flight or train ride, while "Total Time" accounts for required check-in time and average transit time on either end of the flight or train to reach the city center. We've also taken into consideration the seat pitch.

The first route is from London, England to Amsterdam, Netherlands:

London to AmsterdamPlaneTrain
Lowest Cost$43 for flight
(before train and
baggage costs)
Trip Time1 hour, 15 minutes3 hours, 55 minutes
Extra1 hour, 30-minute check in,
7-minute train from AMS
45 minutes check in
Total Time2 hours, 53 minutes4 hours, 40 minutes
Pitch (inches)3037

The second route is from Brussels, Belgium to Paris, France:

Brussels to ParisPlaneTrain
OperatorBrussels AirlinesThalys
Lowest Cost$316 for flight
(before taxi and
baggage costs)
Trip Time55 minutes1 hour, 22 minutes
Extra21-minute  taxi to BRU
1-hour, 30-minute check in
27-minute taxi from CDG
Total Time3 hours, 13 minutes1 hour, 22 minutes
Pitch (inches)3036

Related: How to do Paris on points

The third route is from Madrid, Spain to Valencia, Spain:

Madrid to ValenciaPlaneTrain
Lowest Cost$33 for flight
(before taxi and
baggage costs)
Trip Time1 hour1 hour, 40 minutes
Extra15-minute taxi to MAD
1 hour, 30-minute check in
16-minute taxi from VLC
Total Time3 hours, 1 minute1 hour, 40 minutes
Pitch (inches)3141

The fourth route is from Rome, Italy to Bologna, Italy:

Rome to BolognaPlaneTrain
Lowest Cost$84 for flight
(before taxi and
baggage costs)
Trip Time1 hour2 hours, 5 minutes
Extra1-hour taxi or train to FCO
1 hour, 30-minute check in
30-minute taxi from BLQ
Total Time4 hours2 hours, 5 minutes
Pitch (inches)3035

Related: Best Ways to Get to Italy Using Points and Miles

The final route is from Berlin, Germany to Munich, Germany:

Berlin to MunichPlaneTrain
OperatorEurowingsDeutsche Bahn
Lowest Cost$39 for flight
(before transportation
and baggage costs)
Trip Time1 hour, 10 minutes3 hours, 56 minutes
Extra24 minute bus to TXL
1 hour, 30-minute check in
40-minute taxi or train from MUC
Total Time3 hours, 34 minutes3 hours, 56 minutes
Pitch (inches)3040

On some of these routes, taking the train is quicker, cheaper and more comfortable. On other routes, however, the decision comes down to whether convenience, legroom, cost or other factors (including your pet, luggage, and interest in watching the passing scenery) are more important.

Bottom line

Certain travelers — including those that are exceptionally tall, have lots of luggage, are traveling with children or are traveling with pets — may find trains simply make more sense than planes when exploring Europe, even if the train costs more or takes a bit longer.

Even for travelers that simply care about getting to their destination as quickly as possible, rail services can often win over airlines due to high speed trains reaching up to 360 kilometers (224 miles) per hour and centrally-located train stations.

Related: The best cards for travel purchases

Featured image by JT Genter