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Why is Planning a European Rail Trip So Difficult?

You can’t beat rail for fast, frequent, and comfortable travel within Europe—especially with the recent expansions of high-speed systems. But unless your trip is very simple, or confined to local jaunts, you may have some trouble figuring out all the details. A reader in North Carolina recently reported difficulty working out a complicated trip for this coming March:

“I know where I want to go, but I can’t find the schedules for my trip or make reservations. What’s the problem?”

The short answer is, “You’re too early: Arranging specific trip details more than 90 days in advance is often impossible. But you can get a pretty good idea beforehand, and 90 days should allow you adequate time to finalize your arrangements.” Here’s my take on the best resources for mapping out a trip.

The Cook Timetable

Say what you want about the Internet—and even call me a Luddite—but I still believe the most useful planning tool for a rail trip in Europe is the printed Thomas Cook
European Timetable
. Although the version for travel agents is published monthly, the “independent traveler’s” edition comes out twice a year. I rely on it for two reasons:

  • It shows timetables for all major international and intercity routes for all European countries, from Portugal through European Turkey, in one compact booklet.
  • It shows rail maps for individual European countries, including designation of high-speed lines. As a very map-oriented person, I find this feature essential for trip planning.

The first-half of 2010 is supposed to be available starting January 1, and it’s available now for advance purchase from Amazon for about $18. Also, once it’s out, most good travel bookstores will sell it.

For Online Schedules

For online schedules, I usually start with RailEurope, affiliated with the French National Railway and the official North American sales representative for several European railroads. Its schedules are very user-friendly. The Deutschebahn site is also very good for Europe, not just Germany.

For more schedule detail, you can check into the individual sites for national railway systems. The website Railfaneurope posts direct links to the rail systems of 43 European and near-European countries. Among the more important tourist countries, websites for Austria, Belgium, Demark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland post English versions. France is a special case: If you ask for an English version, the site defaults to the RailEurope site.

In general, you won’t find final schedules beyond 90 days in advance, but you can use these resources even when you plan more than 90 days in advance. Typically, trains on many main routes are now scheduled in a regular pattern—every hour, every half hour, every two hours, or such—at the same minutes after each hour for most of the day. These patterns are not likely to change month-to-month, so just look up the most distant day of the week you want to travel and figure that the schedule for future dates will be about the same.

Buying Rail Passes

We’ve covered the question of choosing between rail pass and individual-ticket travel. If you’ve decided that a pass is your best bet, several U.S. and Canadian agencies specialize in selling them. These websites do an excellent job of guiding you through the selection and buying process. Among them: RailEurope, Eurail, and Rail Connection, plus BritRail for the U.K. Also, the website Raileasy provides an online calculator designed to show you the best rail pass for a given itinerary. As far as I can tell, selling prices are standard, although some agencies may offer such incentives as “free” delivery, ticket insurance, and such.

As you probably know, you generally have to buy Eurail passes and before you leave North America, though some require that you buy them outside the country where they’re valid.

Buying Individual Tickets

You can buy individual tickets—and seat reservations, mandatory on many of the best trains—through RailEurope’s North American sites. However, most European travel mavens have found that individual national rail sites often offer discounted and other special tickets that you can’t easily locate through North American agencies. Although some of those special tickets are highly discounted, they may also be heavily restricted and nonrefundable.

For most countries, you just link to the national railway system through the Railfaneurope site mentioned above. However, two countries pose some challenges:

  • As noted, if you ask for an English version of the French railways site, you get RailEurope. If you want to use the real French site, you have to view it in French, German, or Spanish. And the French site is the only way I know to get at the “carte senior” senior card (€56, about $80, see for current exchange rates) that offers 25 percent to 50 percent discounts on all French and some cross-border tickets for a year. Your browser’s online translation program may help, but the result I got for the senior card page was pretty cryptic.
  • Trains in the U.K. are operated by more than a dozen independent private companies, but several sites allow multi-company searches and ticket purchase. Among them: National Rail Enquiries, The Trainline, and RailEasy. An independent site—The Man in Seat Sixty-One—shows many helpful links, as well lots of “how to” information on European rail travel, generally. And as far as I know, the only way to arrange the British railways’ various special discount cards in advance—senior, youth, family, and such—is through the Railcard site.

However you arrange them, apparently most European online railway selling sites do not ship paper tickets to North America. Depending on the country, you may be able to print your own ticket, you can have it delivered to a European address, or you can arrange for a pickup after you arrive.

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