Hey there. I’m Ben Harman, Rail Europe’s Expert on all things trains. Growing up in central Missouri, this would seem an unlikely destination. But I yearned to see more of the world, and took my first rail journey at the age of 23. Since then, I’ve been hooked on travel, and specifically, trains. It’s been a dream working at Rail Europe for the past six years.
Where do you want to go? I’ve been so many places, and would love to tell you I have a favorite, but I just can’t – too many! I will say that I prefer to see the smaller towns – those easily accessed by rail but often overlooked by the mainstream tourist – especially in France and Germany. When I’m not traveling, I live in Chicago, daydreaming about my next trip.
I’ve lived first hand how easy it is to blow money away on my travels, and after all these years, have finally pinpointed the best ways to save. So, here’s my TOP 8 list so you can travel more cheaply, without skimping on experience.
1. Plan your itinerary. If you are traveling with a Rail Pass, sticking to a set itinerary allows you to purchase the mandatory seat reservations and lock down the price of your travel.
Keep in mind: Last minute changes can result in change fees, cancellation penalties and limited availability of passholder reservations, which could result in much higher last minute ticket prices.
2. Book Early. Some routes offer significant discounts when purchased in advance. If you are traveling with a pass, reservations (also known as passholder fares) have a limited availability and may quickly become unavailable for your train if you wait too long.
Keep in mind: Discounted rates may be restrictive when it comes to refunds or changes allowing less flexibility than a full fare ticket.
3. Compare Pass vs. Point-to-Point Tickets. Depending on the itinerary and the price of seat reservations for each leg of your journey, point-to-point tickets may be a better option than traveling with a pass and reservations.
Keep in mind: If you are traveling with a pass, some routes such as Eurostar between London and Paris or Brussels and Thalys between Paris and Brussels or Amsterdam can charge more than the average $11 for seat reservations. When traveling with tickets, you don’t have to purchase a seat reservation as this cost is included in the price of your ticket.
4. Take an overnight train. Why waste money on a hotel stay when you can just chug along through the night, lulled by the sounds of the train? When you wake, you’ll have an entire day to see the sights. Save even more by booking a couchette, which is a shared compartment with six beds. Think of it as a hostel on the train. (There’s private cabins too if this isn’t your thing.)
Keep in mind: While overnight trains can save precious travel time, you’ll miss the gorgeous scenery outside the train window.
5. Travel with a friend. Many passes offer a Saver rate, which offers a discount for groups of two to five passengers traveling together – at all times.
Keep in mind: All names will be printed on a single pass. If one of traveler on the pass decides to take a trip on his own, the whole traveling party will lose a rail day. You’d better stick together. If you’re on a trip with someone to “save a relationship” – this may not be your best bet.
6. Using a rail pass? Take a day trip: leave in the morning and return in the evening, and you will only be using one travel day on your pass.. There are so many incredible towns right outside big cities. In anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours, you could be soaking in another travel experience when you’ve got a rail pass. Plus, day trips help you save days on your pass. A rail day is a 24-hour period from midnight to midnight. You could hop on and off all day if you wanted to! (And I have. It’s awesome.)
Keep in mind: Is one day enough time to spend in any European city? (The answer, both yes and no.)
7. Make a stopover. Most rail stations have lockers allowing travelers to stop for several hours on the way to their destination. If traveling a long distance – say between Berlin and Prague, why not stop in Dresden? Or Strasbourg if heading to Munich from Paris? Can’t do that from 30,000 feet up, can you? Just be sure to book reservations for both segments of the journey and check the closing time of the luggage consignment office while at the station. If using a rail pass this will only use one day of travel.
Keep in mind: This can make for a fast paced vacation and is not recommended for everyone. Larger cities such as Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin – you know – the cultural icons – require far more than a few hours to explore.
8. Take advantage of bonuses that come with rail passes. Most rail passes offer bonuses – include discounts on travel cards, museums, restaurants and shopping. Even river and lake excursions and ferry crossings.
Keep in mind: Using a free bonus will use up a day of travel and could even use two days if the bonus includes free travel on the ferry between Greece and Italy. I think it’s worth it – you’ve seen the pics – The Aegean and the Mediterranean are stunning, especially from the water.
Now you’ve got the insider scoop on how to use rail to your fiscal advantage. All that’s left is for you is to pick a destination and get traveling. It’s the perfect time of year to go – less crowds, a bit cooler – but no less cool, awe-inspiring and life fulfilling.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some research to do for my next vacation.