5 Ways to Find the Cheapest Train Travel

Train travel is efficient, but high-speed trains often aren't covered on rail passes.

 Getty Images Europe/Getty Images News

When in search of the cheapest train travel, many frugal customers seek out rail passes. These purchases benefit people who plan extensive train travel. Many days riding the rails are necessary before the passes become a budget travel bargain.

Some travelers simply purchase the passes before the details of their itineraries are completed, and thus fail to compare the cost of the pass with the sum of point-to-point ticket prices. There are many trips for which the point-to-point totals come in are lower than the pass prices.

Be careful booking high-speed trains with rail passes in Europe. Many of the most efficient, time-saving trains are not completely covered on the pass, and you'll be expected to pay a premium for the better service. Travelers without this knowledge sometimes face embarrassing scenes with a conductor during the trip -- a scene made even more awkward at times by language barriers.

Another common problem is buying a pass that covers a wider geographic area or a longer time frame than is necessary. If a trip is limited to one or two countries, national passes can be a much better buy.

Rail passes in Europe often prove more extensive and valuable than in other travel destinations. But a budget traveler should expect to find rail passes around the world.

Using rail passes correctly -- or not at all -- can keep your travel budget on track. But there are a few other important considerations for finding the cheapest train travel that you should consider carefully.

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Reserving Seats in Second Class

On some trains, first-class seats only ensure your car will be less crowded.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

One of the most common train travel mistakes involves booking first-class seats when second-class tickets will do.

There are longer journeys that might merit a first-class ticket. A key question: will you get a significantly more comfortable seat or much better service in first-class? Don't assume the answer to this question is as obvious as it would be on an airplane.

On some European trains, seats in the two sections are identical in design and comfort-level. The only real difference is that second-class cars might be more crowded because it is more affordable. You'll find more peace and quiet with your higher-priced ticket, but it will be tougher to meet interesting people. There are times when neither section is crowded.

It's difficult to know how many seats around you will be occupied at time of booking. But the point is to find out about the differences before you buy first-class tickets.   

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Sleeping on the Train

You can save time and money sleeping overnight on a train.
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Have you considered sleeping on the train instead of booking a room for the night? 

True overnight routes are becoming less plentiful these days, but you can still find connections that will enable you to spend several hours on a single train. 

Light sleepers might find quality rest to be difficult. The trains continue to make stops throughout the night and early morning. The jolts and squeals that are common when entering or leaving a station can wake up even deep sleepers at times.

The benefits of an overnight aboard the train are worth considering. 

Accommodations aboard many trains are similar in price to one night in a budget-priced hotel room. If you can sleep in a seat, even more savings are possible. 

Unless you pick up a flight on a budget airline in Europe, this is among your best options for freeing up more daytime hours for exploring the next destination. Step off the train and into your next travel adventure. If an overnight train trip buys you additional quality vacation time, you have achieved the cheapest train travel.

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Paying Attention to Age Discounts

Seniors enjoy some significant discounts when traveling by train.
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Booking train tickets is not an activity for people who are sensitive about revealing their ages. There are train discounts based solely on age that become available on many lines.

Seniors enjoy some great price breaks. Beginning at age 60, you can save money on certain routes or rail passes in Europe at various times of year. You might have to purchase first-class tickets in order to book the discount.

Don't assume seniors get all the price breaks.

Rail Europe offers riders age 25 and younger discounts on various routes, and even their own age-specific pass. It is definitely worth researching as you consider ticket purchases.

Some special offers come without age requirements attached. Click the right-facing arrow and read about special offers for train passengers.

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Looking for Special Offers

Board trains seeking the lowest price possible for your journey.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

Many rail systems offer special fares for travel groups. These can become attractive when multiplied by a large number of people. Use a search term such as "group fares" when doing your research.

Other special offers stem from off-peak travel periods when seats are more likely to be empty. In 2016, Rail Europe offered 20 percent savings on France rail passes when booked before May 3.  Look for fare offers like that in late fall and late winter or early spring.

Via Rail in Canada offers Discount Tuesdays. The deals appear each Tuesday between 7 a.m. and midnight (ET).

Amtrak offers SmartFares. Riders can save 30 percent on one-way coach fares. There are new routes and deals available each week, but only from Tuesday through Friday.  

These fare promotions are likely to come and go in the course of a year or two. The marketing professionals will come up with new names and discount terms. Your goal should be to watch the special offers section of your favorite rail line and take advantage of the deals when your travel schedule is flexible enough to do so.

Don't forget about the possibility of coupons or promotional codes. For example, RetailMeNot offers Rail Europe coupon codes. These discounts are perishable and usually quite restricted, so take note of the fine print.

If you take all of these factors into account, chances are good you'll get one of the cheapest train travel itineraries possible. Just be certain you know the restrictions on each possible discount. Make the effort and you'll be rewarded.