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Cheaper to book a train tour or plan it myself?

Hi everyone,
I would like to plan a train trip in Europe for possibly next September 2016 (I am taking a RS tour in Feb 2016 so it will be after that). I was wondering if it would be cheaper to book my own train tickets, hotels etc or would it be easier to do an organized train tour through an agency. I wish RS had train tours but I didn't see any. I did see one that seems reasonable. It includes train tickets, transfers to hotels and hotels. It looks like limited sightseeing but not bad at all. Do you think that the organized tour is the better way to go financially? I would appreciate any advice...Thanks! Margaret
PS. The place I am looking at is called Vacations By Rail if anyone has used their service, I would love to hear how it worked out.

Posted by
544 posts

It's for sure cheaper to just buy tickets for trains. I feel like a group tour using trains would be kind of a nightmare to coordinate lots of people and their luggage in and out of train stations and off an on the various trains. The benefit of RS tours using buses is that are always only half full and go exactly where you want. Also your luggage is securely locked in the bus while you're out and about during stops along the way.

Posted by
19170 posts

If you can plan it yourself, it will definitely be cheaper, but a lot more work. When you take a tour, you are paying someone else to plan for you and make a profit.

If you know where to look (that's the tricky part), you should be able to get rail tickets as cheap, or cheaper, than any tour.

Same with hotels. They'll probably book you into expensive, 4 and 5 star hotels that insulate you from the experience you're paying so much for. On your own, you can find smaller and family run accommodations that give you a far richer experience.

You have on this site some of the most knowledgeable people for almost any area. I can certainly help you with Germany, both finding rail tickets and accommodations. There are others here that know Italian Rail and French Rail and places to stay in those countries.

I always travel by train and public buses in Germany. If you are not using advance online purchase, discounted rail tickets, you have a lot of flexibility. On most lines there is a regional train every hour, sometimes every two hours. That gives you a lot of flexibility compared to a chartered bus tour, where you have to be ready to board the bus at a certain time.

As for Vacations by Rail, I looked at there packages for Germany. Since Germany has the most extensive rail system in Europe, you might have expected a lot of rail tours there, but the first tour, Best of Germany and Austria, they call a "road trip". It includes only one high speed train, from Cologne to Berlin. "Their" 14 day trip consists of only 12 24 hour periods on the ground in Europe. They quoted almost $7000 for two people ($580/nt) and that only included about 25% of your lunches and dinners. Two years ago, I toured southern Germany on my own for 21 "days" (nts) for half that price (less than $3500 total, ~$160/day, for two) and that included all meals.

Posted by
16894 posts

How long do you plan to spend, seeing how many cities, and in which countries? Does one of their tour routes cover just what you're looking for? Maybe you want a guide and sightseeing included as well on a tour. But if not, trains and hotels are not particularly hard to book, especially if you're a web shopper, or if you're only thinking of adding a couple of cities. If the RS tour in February is your first time to Europe, you will feel more comfortable after that experience. For more information about train schedules, price ranges, and buying tickets, see http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/transportation/trains.

Posted by
87 posts

Thank you SO much everyone! I was looking at 2 train trips, one is a Best of Spain: Barcelona, Madrid, Seville or the other one is Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Paris. I have been to Paris twice before so I didn't really want to duplicate that part. But I would love the Amsterdam, Brussels part. My RS tour in Feb 2016 is to Rome and I haven't been there before. I am definitely going to look into doing the train trip on my own then. I had taken the train from London to Paris once and then a train trip from New York to Montreal in Canada also so I would love to do another train trip. Thank you again everyone, this is so wonderful to get this advice from real people that have traveled and not a brochure! Take care all! Margaret

Posted by
14263 posts

Margaret, not sure of your age group, but Road Scholar does do some train tours if you are interested. I have not done a train tour with them, but have done others, both international and some activity based ones in the US.

Posted by
2499 posts

Margaret,

Spain and Holland and Belgium are very easy to get around by train. And fun. I am a big fan of rail travel. You can research train routes and schedules online well in advance. My only caveat is to pack light as you will be hoisting that luggage onto the train yourself.

Posted by
87 posts

I am forming a travel plan in my head that seems pretty decent to me. I would like to ask those who have done train trips if you think it's feasible to take a train trip in one day from Madrid to Brussels. I looked it up and the dates will be different but it looks like Madrid to Barcelona, then Barcelona to Paris and then Paris to Brussels to be about 10.5 hours long. I have flown to Moscow from New York and that was pretty long but that was just one flight, this will be 3 trains. Although when I took the train to Montreal it took 13 hours due to some delay but that was also just one train, I didn't have to switch. The price seems great but again I can't get an exact price because I am aiming for Sept. 2016 and they don't have the schedule that far ahead yet but at least I have a rough estimate. I am thinking of doing the RS Best of Spain tour then I can get the train to Brussels for a few days and add Amsterdam for a few more days. Thank you again for all the advice mentioned so far, it's been great to get this plan in motion. Take care all! Margaret

Posted by
16894 posts

I would not want to make that long, three-part train ride in one day between Madrid and Brussels. Tickets for these fast trains are cheapest (and not refundable or changeable) when purchased about 2 months ahead for Spain, 3 months ahead for France, and 4 months or more for Eurostar trains to/from London. Even then, you'd probably never get tickets for all three legs for less than $150 and full fare is closer to $400 in 2nd class.
Flights from Madrid to Brussels can be booked earlier and cheaper on several competing airlines; see also www.skyscanner.com.

Posted by
87 posts

Thank you Laura, I will check it out. I was hoping to get a train ride in there but I need to be realistic too. I have to plan my trips around being able to get time off from work so that's why I want to try and squeeze in that extra side trip. Take care! Margaret

Posted by
11294 posts

To learn more about the European train system, including what's involved in some long routes like Madrid to Brussels, you can't beat The Man In Seat 61. Here's his London to Madrid page, which isn't exactly the same of course, but will give you some idea of what's involved: http://seat61.com/Spain.htm#London_to_Madrid

And here's his page on how to buy tickets. Some of the websites are wonkier than others (Renfe for Spanish rail is notoriously difficult, while Bahn for German rail is easy), but lots of people here (as well as Seat 61, TripAdvisor FAQ's, etc) stand ready to help.
http://seat61.com/Europe-train-tickets.htm

Posted by
87 posts

Thank you Harold, I am going to check that out in a few minutes. Recently I had a medical scare but it turned out just fine and so since then, I realize how very short life is and I am very thankful I got good news. So I want to do all the things I have been putting off because none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. So doing more travel is at the top of my list. The only thing I have to really consider is getting the time off from my job. I am a nurse in a hospital so scheduling time off isnt really easy but I figured I could probably get about two weeks off every 6 months. I have the trip to Rome scheduled for Feb 2016 so I think the next time I could plan a trip is September 2016 and I will try and work a schedule around that time. I am so glad to read everything that is posted here, it will help me fine tune my plans to make them happen. Thanks again! Margaret

Posted by
87 posts

Lee, Thank you for that info as well, I saw what a difference in what you paid for your trip and what that company offered so I won't use them. Take care, Margaret