Train travel has been the transportation method of choice in Europe for many years for good reason: Europe is dense enough that train travel is efficient, taking you from city center to city center much quicker than you can when flying.
Buying Train Tickets and Rail Passes
The easiest place to buy your train tickets in Europe is at Rail Europe. They also sell rail passes, which are convenient if you plan on making lots of journeys.
Top International High-Speed Train Routes
Europe has an extensive high-speed rail network, connecting cities such as Paris, Barcelona, and London quickly and easily.
The main two international services are the Eurostar (connecting London with mainland Europe) and the Thalys, which connects Paris to Belgium, Holland and north-west Germany, with Brussels as the main hub.
Within the Schengen Zone, Europe's border-free zone, you can board a train in one country and end up in the other without even realizing it. Though Britain isn't in the Schengen Zone, border controls for Eurostar routes to and from London are conducted by both countries before you depart, which means you can just jump off the train and walk out the station at the end of your journey without standing in any lines.
Check out some of the best international routes in Europe:
- London to Paris 2h30m
- London to Brussels 2h
- Paris to Brussels 1h20m
- Paris to Barcelona 6h30
- Frankfurt to Paris 3h50m
- Hamburg to Copenhagen 3h55m
- Frankfurt to Zurich 4h
Of course, you're actually more likely to be taking trains within a single country. Read on for country-specific advice for train travel in Europe.
Spain has more kilometers of high-speed rail tracks than anywhere else in Europe (and is second worldwide, after China). All the routes go via Madrid, which means you'll probably need to change there to get from north to south, although there are some continuous routes that cross the entire country.
High-speed trains in Spain are known as the AVE.
- Madrid to Barcelona 2h30m
- Madrid to Seville 2h30
- Barcelona to Seville 5h15m
- Madrid to Malaga 2h20
Germany started the high-speed train movement in Europe, but the roll-out stagnated for some years, which means that key routes (such as Berlin to Munich) don't yet exist. (You can still take the train from Berlin to Munich, but it's not really any quicker than the bus.
High-speed trains in Germany are called ICE.
- Berlin to Hamburg 1h55m
- Frankfurt to Cologne 1h20m
- Frankfurt to Munich 3h10m
The high-speed rail network in Italy is essentially one long line that connects Naples to Turin, via Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Milan.
- Rome to Florence 1h20m
- Rome to Milan 2h55m
- Rome to Bologna 1h55m
- Rome to Naples 1h45m
- Rome to Turin 4h05m
- Milan to Bologna 1h
- Milan to Turin 45m
There are not many high-speed rail routes in France, though the network is expected to roll out further in the next few years, eventually connecting Paris to Bordeaux.
- Paris to Lyon 1h55
- Paris to Marseille 31h15
- Paris to Strasbourg 1h45
- Paris to Lille 1h
Train Travel vs. Flying
How do these travel times compare to flying? Let's consider a one-hour flight. We'll add a half hour to get to the airport via taxi or rail connection (remember to add the costs!) They'll want you to be there well in advance of take-off, let's say an hour minimum. You've already doubled the travel time, and you're not even close to your destination.
Then consider that it takes a half hour to get your bags and get to the front of the airport to survey the options to get you into town. Choosing a taxi, you might be lucky to get to the city center and your hotel in a half hour. Add another hour in total to your travel time.
So now we're at 3.5 hours for a "one-hour" flight.
Another thing to consider is that budget airlines often operate out of Europe's smaller airports. You'll have to consider this when you want to take a budget flight to connect your international flight to your final destination. For example, most international flights arrive at London's Heathrow airport, but budget airlines tend to fly out of London Stansted, London Gatwick or London Luton airports.
Some airports are notoriously far from the city they claim to serve. Ryanair calls Girona in Spain 'Barcelona-Girona', even though it is 100km from Barcelona, while Frankfurt-Hahn Airport is 120km from Frankfurt itself!
Prices for budget airlines and high-speed rail connections are often similar, though flights are often cheaper when booked well in advance and more expensive at the last minute.
Train Travel vs. Driving
High-speed train travel is invariably quicker than driving. It will also usually be cheaper when traveling alone or in a pair. Remember that toll roads are very common in Europe, which will push up the price of your journey considerably. Only when you fill a car can you be more confident of savings.
Here are some other pros and cons of driving as compared to taking the train.
Train Pros: Why You Should Take the Train in Europe
- Trains allow you to move easily between cities and European capitals. Most train stations are located near the tourist centers and have hotels nearby.
- No parking worries.
- With an unrestricted Eurail Pass, you can get on and off when you wish, often without the hassle of dealing with ticketing agents. You can take the train on a rainy day just to see the scenery, without having to worry about the unscheduled expense.
- You can sleep on a night train, saving travel time and some of the cost of a hotel.
- You can pay full attention to the scenery at hand.
Car Pros: Why You Should Rent or Lease a Car on Your European Vacation
- It's easy to get to small, out-of-the-way towns and hidden romantic getaways.
- Go where you want, when you want. You don't have to go by the train timetable.
- Visit sights out in the countryside without having to sign up for an expensive tour.
- When you see something compelling in transit, you can leave your luggage in the car (albeit at some risk!) and explore your surroundings.
- Many people can travel at the same cost--if you choose a large enough car.
Train Cons: Why You Shouldn't Take the Train
- If you want to experience an event in the countryside, you'll most likely have to sign on to an expensive tour or figure out the local buses, which aren't on a tourist schedule.
- Usually, two people travel for double what one person can travel for. A large family traveling on a train is usually quite a bit more expensive than stuffing them into a rental car, especially in northern Europe, where train fares tend to be higher. This is changing as there are deals on train tickets that allow families to travel on a discount. On the other hand, keeping young children entertained may be easier on the train.
Car Cons: Why You Don't Want a Car
- In a major city, you'll have to deal with parking and related fees, if you can figure out how to get to your destination in the first place.
- You'll have to deal with the worries involved with driving in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar rules.
- Many cities in Europe have restricted traffic zones in the city centers, like the Zona Traffico Limitato in Italy, made to confound tourists. Ticketing is automatic via cameras and can be quite expensive.