Trans Europe Express: some advice for overland travel in Europe

trans europe express
#flyingless early adopters Kraftwerk

Since taking the decision to avoid flying where possible, quite a few people have asked me for advice on how to plan overland travel in Europe, so I thought I’d write up a few tips to share.

The first thing I’d say is: yes, in most cases it is more complicated to figure out overland travel than it is to buy a plane ticket. It can be time-consuming to figure out routes and timings if you’ve never done it before, and it’s sometimes hard to find the cheapest and most convenient way of doing things. But like everything, it gets easier with experience.

Plane travel is often cheaper than overland travel but that’s in large part down to the ridiculous subsidies given to airlines – for example, they don’t pay tax on their fuel. If this annoys you, write to a politician and tell them that it annoys you. On the other hand, sometimes train fares are surprisingly cheap – e.g. Brussels to Prague for €29, or London to Dublin for £50 or less. In many cases I’ve found that it costs less or about the same to go overland as it does to fly, especially if I need to bring luggage.

The overland transport system in Europe is far from perfect – in some places the train network needs a lot of investment, we need better ticketing services for international travel, and delays and cancellations do happen. I’ve had a few stressful days while travelling over the last year. But I’ve also had some very good times – drinking tea and watching the dawn over Lake Zürich, catching up with faraway friends in between journey sections, the pure oddness of getting on a Russian train in Paris. The shape of Europe has changed for me since I’ve been travelling more this way – it feels bigger, but also a lot more interesting. If you are able to travel overland, I recommend it mightily.

 

Alright, if you want to expand your European overland travel range, and you’re not sure where to start, here are my main tips:

  1. Plan your trip as far in advance as possible. Train fares, unlike airplane tickets, almost always get more expensive the closer you get to your travel date. However, it’s not usually possible to book train fares very far in advance – in Europe, it varies between countries and can be anywhere between two months and six months. If you know you need to take a trip somewhere but you haven’t hammered out the exact details yet, it’s worth checking the booking horizons so that you know when you should make firm plans. Check individual train company websites or see here for a guide. If you’ve planned your trip but the tickets aren’t yet on sale, then mark the date to buy tickets in your diary or set a booking alert – RailEurope offers this for trains within France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK, and individual train company websites often do too.
  2. How to find the best route, and how to buy tickets? For train travel, I always start with seat61.com – it’s an amazing resource, with general advice as well as highly detailed information on individual routes. If you’re travelling internationally, RailEurope, SNCF, ÖBB, Deutsche Bahn, Polrail, etc can all be used to find and buy tickets for journeys through neighbouring countries: you don’t have to buy separate tickets for every country you travel through. However, there are limits to each of these – it’s unfortunately not possible to buy a through ticket from one end of Europe to the other, so if you’re doing a very long journey you will have to buy multiple tickets.
  3. Consider Interrail passes. These can be very good value, especially if you’re travelling to more than one location – in 2020, a pass for four days’ travel in one month costs €185/€246 depending on whether you’re under or over 28 years old. However, you also need to factor in reservation fees for night trains and for some high-speed trains. Depending on your plans, it can be cheaper on paper to buy individual tickets rather than getting an Interrail pass. However, if you need to book tickets separately for different sections of your journey (e.g. one ticket through SNCF, another through ÖBB) then you should remember that you’re not officially covered if you miss a connection on the second part of your journey because of a delay in the first part of your journey: they’re separate tickets. This can get expensive. Here, an Interrail pass can be invaluable, because it gives you flexibility if things go wrong.
  4. Night trains are great. The most extensive network is ÖBB’s Nightjet, which uses Vienna as a hub, although there are lots of other routes too. There are different types of compartment available (including women-only compartments): here is a good guide. Couchettes are fine, especially if you get a four-person rather than six-person one, but sleeper compartments are more comfortable. There is a bit of a knack to sleeping in trains – personally, I need good earplugs and an eyemask – but we’re all different, so you’ll need to figure it out for yourself. To be honest, I don’t always sleep super well in trains so I would try to avoid going directly from a night train to e.g. chairing a conference session. I got a single compartment once when I knew I had to be in good form the day after, and that did help a lot. All that said, I always look forward to getting on a night train – there’s nothing quite like them.

 

And a few more bits of advice that might help:

  1. As well as looking for tickets directly on train company websites, there are a few search engines that may help you find interesting possibilities. Rome2Rio doesn’t find the best routes 100% of the time, but it’s so easy to use that it’s usually worth a look (and is especially useful if you’re looking for coach options too). Google Maps can also be useful for figuring out potential routes.
  2. Join train company newsletters. For example, Eurostar often send out emails advertising deals starting from £29 one-way: if these kinds of deals might interest you in the future, it’s worth signing up to their list.
  3. See these tips for finding cheaper German rail tickets.
  4. Don’t overlook coaches. These can be enormously cheaper than trains and are often nicer than you might expect. In some parts of Europe the train network is also very limited and coaches may in fact be faster than trains. Flixbus has a huge network in Europe and often very cheap fares – there’s also Eurolines and lots of other regional operators. I’ve used Flixbus a few times – in my experience they’re comfortable but not always punctual, so allow some extra time when planning.
  5. Border crossings on trains travelling within the Schengen area are generally extremely simple, although I’ve sometimes experienced passport controls due to recent suspensions of Schengen rules in some countries. Every time that I’ve seen this, the officials have come through the train and checked passports as they went. Border crossings on coaches beyond the Schengen area, however, can be a nightmare – we waited for four hours at the Serbia-Hungary road border last summer, which is not something I want to repeat in a hurry.
  6. Night buses are not my favourite thing in the world but are worth considering, especially in regions where train services are patchy or non-existent. In areas where they’re a major form of transport, they’re often a lot nicer than they are in western Europe. In Turkey, for example, night buses often only have three seats per row rather than four, and the seats recline a lot more than what I’ve seen elsewhere. They’re also generally cheap as chips.

 

That’s it for now! If you have questions or comments you can try asking me on Twitter, and I’ll update this post if I think of anything more to add. Good luck!