For someone who chooses to travel more spontaneously, day to day, point to point in Europe, I'm wondering if I will likely end up paying very high price as opposed to the advance planning discounts. ??? Also, when I was in France six years ago, I checked the web for train ticket but then bought in person at station instead right when I was leaving. The in-person price was about 1/3 or 1/4 the price of what was quoted on the train internet site. I don't know if this was a rarity or common. Are there known discount times for travel, like perhaps weekends or other?
"For someone who chooses to travel more spontaneously, day to day, point to point in Europe, I'm wondering if I will likely end up paying very high price as opposed to the advance planning discounts. ??? " The very general answer is yes, but it does depend on exactly what countries you are in and what trains you are taking. As Lee said, the Laender tickets in Germany are available the day of travel, so in that case, there's no advance purchase discount. But those tickets are only good for regional trains. Faster trains definitely are less expensive if you buy non-refundable and non-changeable tickets in advance. A similar distinction exists in Italy: regional trains are the same price whenever you buy the ticket, but faster trains are MUCH cheaper bought in advance.
A clerk at the train station in Salzburg told us that if we buy our next leg tickets seventy-two hours before using them there would be a one-third discount. That worked in every station we traveled through in western Europe. That will give you at least two nights in one place. We have never ordered tickets ahead from here.
Sally, what train website were you using to find prices? RailEurope? that would explain whey the tickets were cheaper at the train station. On our last trip to Italy, we just bought at the station right before travel, or maybe the day before. The price was exactly what was shown on Trenitalia for full fare. On our last trip to Spain, we bought way in advance on Renfe, and saved 60%.
That is for tickets which include at least one leg by a train of the Bahn (ICE/IC/EC). Sparpreis fares are not available for trips by regional trains only. However, there are regional fares (Länder-Tickets or day passes, actually) which could save you 80% or more. The Bayern-Ticket costs 22€ for the first person, 4€ for each additional person up to 5, total. For 38€, 7,60€ pP, 5 people can enjoy unlimited travel for a day on regional trains in Bavaria. Länder tickets do not require advance purchase. They never sell out and can be purchased right up to train time from ticket automats. Each German state (Länder) has a similar ticket, and there are others, Schönes Wochenende (weekends) and Quer durchs Land (weekdays), for unlimited travel all across German on regional trains.
I can't speak for ticket prices in France (or Austria), but the previous comments were over-generalized and inaccurate - at least with respect to Germany. I know of no 2/3 to 3/4 discounts for in-person purchase in Germany. In fact, many of the discounts are not available in-person or carry a surcharge for in-person purchase. Nor do I know of a strict 1/3 discount for 72 hour advance purchase in Germany. There is a Sparpreis fare for advance purchase of at least 3 days (72 hours), up to 92 days, in advance. This fare is available online or from ticket automats; in-person purchase adds a 5€ service charge. So in the case of Sparpreis fares, the best prices are online; in-person fares would be higher, although not as high as the full fare shown online. Sparpreis fares start at 29€ (19€ for trips less than 250 km). Versus a max fare of 139€ anywhere within Germany, that would be up to an 80% savings. However, that is only for the first tier of fares, which usually sell out before the 3 day limit. Purchase 72 hours in advance would have less discount. Sometime no more discount tickets are available 3 days in advance.
Sally, You do get a discount in France if you qualify for the "Decouverte" (sp ?) tickets. That's one of the reduced tickets you can buy at the station counter.
I too have been wrestling with this. I have decided to bite the bullet and go for the pass. I like the spontaneity the rail pass allows. I figure in France & Belgium we will either stick with regional routes or pay the res fee. I have priced out P to P tickets and I think for my itinerary I will just about break even - I will keep the flexibility & travel 1st class which I like. :)