A Guide to Taking Trains in Europe

by Malin Schibler, posted 31 March 2014 | One comment


Read Capitaine Train’s insider guide to taking trains in Europe. Not only will it save you time, money and stress, but you will also be able to enjoy trains for what they really are. We combined all of our train expertise with our most frequently asked questions to provide you with a comprehensive guide to European train travel. Enjoy!

1. Book in advance! We mean really, really in advance!

At first, train travel can seem like an easy thing. Buy a ticket, go to the station and hop on the train. Whilst in theory it should work like this, it doesn’t quite. The getting to the station part is usually easy (don’t worry, we cover this later in the article) and hopping on the train isn’t so hard either. The trouble lies in booking your ticket. Booking train tickets in Europe can be like trying to buy tickets for the last ever Rolling Stones concert on earth… well okay, maybe not that hard but it’s pretty tricky. Why? Because of fare release dates. It’s all about timing! If you want the cheapest fares and best choice of seats then you have to book in advance. The complicated matter is that not all carriers release their tickets at the same time. This makes it especially complicated if you are combining the tickets of two different carriers. Some combined tickets are released early, such as the London to Avignon direct line which is operative during summer months. As another example, you might want to book a train from London to Amsterdam. In this case we recommend booking your Eurostar tickets 6 months ahead and then waiting to book the rest of your trip (e.g. Lille – Amsterdam tickets) 3 months in advance. This will give you the best possible prices. These are the following booking windows for rail operators:

  • SNCF, Lyria, Renfe, Thalys, Deutsche Bahn, iDBUS: 90 days
  • Eurostar and iDTGV: 6 months****
  • OUIGO: up to 9 months

To clarify …

SNCF is the national French rail operator, who also works in combination with Switzerland to provide TGV Lyria (trains which run from France to Switzerland). Thalys is also a cooperative line between the French, Dutch and Belgian operators. Thalys trains run from France to Belgium and the Netherlands. Renfe is the Spanish national rail carrier which runs a cooperative line between France and Spain with SNCF. Deutsche Bahn is the national German operator. It also has a cooperative line between France, the DB-SNCF line. iDTGV is a subsidiary of SNCF (the French carrier) and so is iDBUS which are budget coach buses. OUIGO is a low-cost subsidiary of SNCF in France. Eurostar is the train line which runs on the English Channel, between France and the UK.

**** Eurostar release timeframes are subject to change. At current all tickets are released 6 months in advance, however after the 1st of September this may be amended to 4 months in advance. There are currently no trains available to book after the 31st of August. Once we have confirmation, we will update this accordingly.

2. Changing trains

It is really important to always check duration of your transfer time if you’re changing trains, platforms or stations. We have plenty of information about changing trains/stations in Paris, however it is always wise to check the length of your transfer time before booking. If you are travelling with heavy luggage or children and you aren’t entirely comfortable with your transfer time, then we suggest that you split your journey by booking two separate tickets. It may mean that you will have some extra time to spend at the station, but you can always grab a cup of coffee or glass of wine and relax!

Sometimes it is also possible to change your journey to avoid a station change. For instance, plenty of trains travelling to the south of France depart from Lille as well as Paris. So if you feel more comfortable changing trains instead of stations, you can always manually amend your journey. Capitaine Train’s booking engine doesn’t display routes which are more time consuming and or more expensive. However if this isn’t an issue for you, you can just split your journey and book two separate tickets: e.g. London – Lille, Lille – Avignon.

train tickets London

3. From plane to train

Capitaine Train is frequently asked how much time someone needs to board their train after arriving at a major airport (such as Charles de Gaulle in Paris). The common rule is that you need between 2 – 3 hours. It may seem excessive, but customs lines can go on for days and it’s never unwise to expect delays. If you are transferring into a city, such as Paris, to take your train then this will take at least another hour. If your plane lands at 6am at Charles de Gaulle, expect to be on your way to Paris at 8:30 and ready to board your train by 10:00. Flying can be a fairly unpredictable sport. So for that reason we recommend that you purchase Flexible tickets. They can always be cancelled or exchanged before departure. If you have a Flexible ticket, you will have at least one less hassle to take care of if you miss your train. You can select Flexible tickets when booking your train on Capitaine Train. In your search, just click on the Flexible ticket filter and you will automatically receive a Flexible ticket.

4. Know your ticket

Another frequent question Capitaine Train is asked, is whether you can take a different train to the one you booked for the same destination. Or whether it is possible to board the train from a different station. This may be the case in some countries, however in the majority of big European countries the railways are like flight paths on the ground. A train is scheduled like a plane and a station is like a mini-airport (minus the security). If you have booked a TGV train, and your ticket states a departure and arrival time, then you cannot board a later or earlier train. Your seat reservations are bound to a specific train so there is no room for flexibility. If you take a train for which you do not have a valid ticket for, expect a hefty fine. This rule also applies to departure or arrival stations. We are often asked if it’s possible to get on the train at Paris Gare du Nord when it departs at Gare du Lyon. Just like you cannot board a plane at London Gatwick Airport when it departs from London Heathrow Airport, you cannot do the same for trains.

For instance, all train stations in Paris have designated trains which arrive and depart from there, so there is no opportunity to board the train elsewhere. Of course there are always exceptions to every rule. If you have a French TER ticket (regional train) then depending on your ticket type, you might not have a seat reservation and you won’t have to take a specific train. The trains are divided into two segments depending on date and travel time: Période bleue or Période blanche. For more information on which ticket type you have, just read this article. The day of the week and time you are travelling will determine if you are bound to a certain train.

Most Deutsche Bahn trains also do not require seat reservations, however they can be purchased for an additional €4.50 for certain trains. If you do not have a seat reservation, then the first in, best dressed rule applies. You will be able to choose any seat in your booked class. So the earlier you arrive at the platform, the better your chances are of finding a seat. If you don’t find a seat, then you are allowed to stand in the luggage area of the train. There are also some fold-down seats there. If you have a seat reservation for these trains, yet you find someone sitting in your seat then no dramas. Just tell them politely that they are in your seat and they will certainly move for you.

train tickets germany

5. Know how to get your ticket

Capitaine Train offers two ticketing methods: E-ticket (print-at-home) or collect-at-station. As much as we would like to offer everyone E-tickets, we cannot always do so. However, no matter what ticket method is allocated to you, both options are super simple. You will know your ticket type as soon as you have purchased your tickets. Either you will receive an email with a PDF attachment of your tickets or an email with instructions on how to collect your tickets. By the way, you also do not have to get your ticket validated before boarding the train If you have an E-ticket (this rule applies for both France and Germany). These tickets are checked and validated onboard. If you have a collect-at-station ticket, it must be validated using a yellow or orange SNCF machine (pictured below). If you are travelling in Germany then you do not have to get your ticket validated before boarding the train, no matter what ticket type you have.


Ticket validation machine

6. Splitting your tickets

Most ticket reservation systems (including ours) will automatically create the most cost effective and time efficient trip. So if you want to book a more specific journey which isn’t appearing in our search results, then you will have to book separate tickets. In many cases our customers would like to take a more scenic route and don’t mind taking a slow train instead. If you know where you want to go, then it is super easy to book a few separate tickets on Capitaine Train.

If you need any help, suggestions or rail maps then please get in touch and we will help straight away. train ticket france

7. Flexibility never hurts

Flexibility may come with a price, but it can really pay off. The cheapest tickets are generally always non-refundable and not exchangeable, whilst Flexible (or Semi-Flexible) tickets do cost more. This can be really beneficial in some circumstances. Booking a train 10 minutes before departure because your missed your original one is never going to be cheap. However, always remember to read the fare conditions carefully before booking. They are actually important. Plus, they are also binding. So even if we wanted to do something about it, Capitaine Train unfortunately cannot refund you a non-refundable ticket. So if you are unsure about your itinerary, it’s always wise to pay a premium for flexibility. Flexible tickets can be exchanged for free the day before departure, for a small fee (sometimes free) on the day of departure. However they cannot be exchanged or refunded after departure.

train ticket conditions

8. Read the fine print

Just as with flight tickets, the conditions of train tickets actually need to be read. It can have a really big impact on your holiday if something goes wrong. Plus, it can also give you some nasty financial surprises. Book-ahead tickets are often non-refundable and not exchangeable. This really means they cannot be refunded or exchanged. The conditions are set by the carriers and not by Capitaine Train, so we actually cannot do anything about exchanges or refunds. Even if you have booked the wrong ticket or the wrong time, it cannot be refunded or exchanged if the conditions do not allow it. This means you really have to be careful when reserving your tickets. Treat them like flight tickets, be 100% sure of what you are buying. If you aren’t, you can always keep your tickets waiting for you in your shopping cart. Capitaine Train automatically reserves your seat and price, and places your ticket on hold.

Another important thing to remember is that your name and date of birth must be correct on your ticket, especially if it is an E-ticket. E-tickets are non-transferable, therefore we cannot change anything about them (even if you missed out a single letter in your name). Many fares are also age based, so for this reason your date of birth must be correct. If you are caught travelling on a ‘Youth’ fare when you are actually 45 years old, then the ticket inspector may decide to give you a heavy fine.

train tickets

9. Be on time because your train always will be

European trains run like clockwork. So it is really important to be at the station on time. Train doors close 2 minutes before departure for SNCF, Thalys, Lyria, Deutsche Bahn and iDTGV trains, and iDBUS buses. This means you should be on the train at least 5 minutes before departure. Eurostar and OUIGO trains require check-in 30 minutes before departure. If your train is just passing through the station, rather than originating from there, then it is not uncommon for the train to approach the platform only 1 to 2 minutes before the scheduled departure. For that reason it is really important to be on time. If you find yourself running late, and you have a seat reservation in a certain carriage, then don’t panic and don’t try to find the carriage from the platform. As long as you are physically on the train then you are safe. There is no point in running up and down the platform trying to find your carriage number when you can do the same safely inside of the train.

The key poiny to being on time is to know where you are going. Most European train stations are designed like airports (remember what we said earlier about stations being like mini-airports? We weren’t kidding!). You will usually find a very large, digitised screen in the middle of the station displaying train departures. Sometimes the platform will not be noted, so it’s always good to stick around and check the board regularly until it is updated. In France platforms are displayed 20 minutes before departure. Another important thing to remember is your train might have a differing final destination to yours. So check these screens/boards carefully. Sometimes your arrival station will be in the middle of a list of station names and the terminus station is not where you are getting off (depending on the country you’re in, it can be really hard to read). So if you are completely lost you can always ask station staff. They are used to these questions and will be glad to help (as long as you ask nicely). If you have plenty of time and patience (plus a good sense of humour never hurt anyone), then there is no need to stress.

10. Bring some food on the train

This is more of a personal tip, but Capitaine Train still considers it to be important. If you are travelling on a budget it can be wise to bring your own food for the train.. So if you have a spare moment, pick up some food before hand. The food on trains is quite enjoyable these days so it is always worth a try (or a glass of wine). Plus, if you have a lengthy stop over in Paris’ Gare de Lyon, treat yourself to a meal at one of the city’s most beautiful restaurants, Le Train Bleu. They also sell to-go picnics for your train ride. It should not be missed!

One comment

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