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Train travel, buying tickets in advance

Somewhere i read (I think in a Rick Steves book) about buying train tickets in advance. It mentioned some particular country or area where ticket prices varied wildly depending on whether they were purchased in advance or on a walk up basis at the train station. Does that sound familiar to anyone? I would love to know where that is, if anyone can tell me.

Posted by
8889 posts

Yes, it sounds very familiar, but it is also much too vague a question.
Different countries have different rail companies with different policies on tickets. It is a huge topic.
You need to specify which routes in which countries to get a specific answer.

  • Some countries and some trains you just buy a ticket and get on any train.
  • Sometimes you need to buy train-specific tickets, with the train ID, date, time and seat number on the ticket already, and that ticket is only valid for that seat on that train. These tickets are usually a lot cheaper if bought in advance (1-3 months in advance).
    • There are a lot of resellers out there on the internet. Many (but not all) charge more than buying direct from the rail company, and/or only offer some trains.
    • You need a little local knowledge. Where do the rail lines run? What is the name of the railway company?

Start reading here (and then read the rest of that website, "The Man in Seat 61"): https://www.seat61.com/Europe-train-travel.htm

Posted by
11434 posts

Italy’s high-speed trains on Trenitalia and Italo have discounts for advanced purchase and they are quite significant for the earliest purchases. Non-refundable, though.

The Eurostar has much lower prices 6 months out and those prices steadily rise as the departure date approaches.

Posted by
2487 posts

Discounts can be considerable on long-distance and international trains: a ticket from Amsterdam to Berlin, for example, can cost you EUR 130 when bought on the spot, while bought some weeks in advance it can be as cheap as EUR 40. Regional trains normally have a fixed price.
Read the above-mentioned Man in Seat 61, which gives trustworthy sound advice.

Posted by
19146 posts

It's true for long distance trains on German Rail, but the discounted tickets are for a specific (date and time) train. These tickets are not a good option for taking a train shortly after arriving in Europe on a trans-Atlantic flight.

Posted by
5900 posts

On every trip I've purchased SOME of the train tickets in advance. In general, depending on the country, it is beneficial for the longer trips to take the price advantage of prepurchasing. However, if I'm not absolutely positive of my itinerary or if it might be risky in terms of the preceding air or train ride I do not. For example, you save a fair chunk of change by purchasing AVE in advance for Madrid to Sevilla. But, these tickets are nonrefundable and can only be used at the specified time, airplanes can be delayed, cancelled or customs can be slow, etc. On that particular flight, we actually arrived quite early and breezed thru the airport, had I prepurchased, we would have had a long wait at the train station and instead had additional time that day in Sevilla. I am now planning a trip to Italy. I can save and take a faster train by prepurchasing a ticket Rome to Naples. I'm not purchasing the return ticket in advance, however, because we will be in Sorrento, a local train ride away from Naples, and it sounds like the local train can be a little erratic in terms of schedule and it might be risky in terms of getting to the Naples train on time.

There are also other situations in which you can still get inexpensive tickets without prepurchasing. in Austria, you save by purchasing longer distances from OeBB in advance. However, another train company, Westbahn sells tickets day of for some of the same routes at rates similar to OeBB saver rates. In Bavaria, there are the cheaper Bayern tickets that are purchased day of.

Also, I've just had an exhausting experience with DB Bahn (Germany) I purchased tickets at a great price, but because of the nature of the travel, they had to be mailed. DB mails the paper tickets, 1st class (so not trackable). I'm not sure I'll ever purchase tickets again that cannot be printed at home. The tickets are valid tickets anyone can use so they can't be reprinted.

So what I suggest is using Seat61, and read about the specific countries you will be visiting. I tend to use the country specific train website for booking, but if there is a language issue or the website is "surly" in terms of language, understanding or payment, I like Loco2 or trainline as an alternative website.

Posted by
16660 posts

We have achieved significant savings by buying train tickets well ahead of time (2-3 months) in the U.K., Germany, Italy, and cross-border tickets from Switzerland to Italy.

These were, in each case, tickets bought from the respective national rail companies, on their dedicated websites. Not RailEurope.

One example: in 2010 we saved 496 CHF ( about $500 at the time) by purchasing Special Offer tickets on SBB for 4 people, Zurich to Milan and then back to Zurich two weeks later.

Posted by
4 posts

Thank you all for the wealth of information, this will be very helpful. I do apologize for the vague question. I have tried to find the reference again myself, but the problem is that I have been looking at books, both Rick Steves and other authors, for Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Scotland, England and several other multi country books for Central Europe and Eastern Europe and I just have not been able to find the information again. My recollection was that the statement was about a country where rail fares were some of the cheapest anywhere BUT became some of the most expensive when bought at the train station on day of travel. I will take better notes next time I see some comment like that. In any case, I have gained some great advice as well as some excellent travel links. Thanks!

Posted by
27336 posts

There are many, many countries where you can save a substantial percentage of the ticket cost on express trains by buying early. The best thing to do is price your tickets for the current day or next day and then go as far out as the calendar lets you go (that varies). That will tell you how important it is, or isn't, to buy that particular ticket soon after it goes on sale for your date.

The most extreme situation I've found has been in the UK. The base prices of some routes are extremely high per mile.
By buying early you may pay only something like 1/4 of the base price.

Posted by
2545 posts

a country where rail fares were some of the cheapest anywhere BUT became some of the most expensive when bought at the train station on day of travel.

sounds like the UK!

It's not simply buying tickets in advance but a particular ticket type called Advance. London to Edinburgh from £34 -buy on the day of travel it could be £166.

Posted by
2460 posts

Jules - I have never had a problem with DB tickets and printing at home

Posted by
23412 posts

I guessing it was England. The English have the most expensive rail system mostly because of a high percentage of private railroad companies. Advance, discount ticket are important in England. However, I think all of the rail companies, regardless of country, has a discounted, advance purchase program. Details vary greatly from country to country.

Posted by
19146 posts

I have never had a problem with DB tickets and printing at home

Same here.

A lot of my travel is short distance, entirely in one Land, usually Bavaria, so I use a lot of regional passes, but it seems that at least once per trip I have a longer distance on a day that I can commit to a specific train and time, so I use Savings Fare tickets. Last trip I went the day I arrived at FRA to St Goar using a local ticket. Then, two days later I made a longer trip from St Goar to Pfronten (near Füssen), about €30 pP with a Savg Fare ticket. A couple time earlier I had worked my way to Bad Schandau (outside of Dresden) using local tickets and regional passes. Then I made a last, longer trip back to Freising with a very favorable fare using a Savgs Fare ticket, Bad Schandau to Dresden to Hof to Regensburg to Freising. That trip, was all regional trains from Dresden to Freising, and would have been fairly expensive had I taken the S-Bahn from Bad Schandau into Dresden, but by taking the EC (from Prague to Berlin) just a short hop into Dresden, I was able to make it a Savgs Fare ticket for a fraction of the price of other tickets.

Posted by
5900 posts

@Stephen and Lee. The tickets I purchased must be mailed. Because they cross 2 country borders, there isn't an option to print online. Nobody can print them out on line. The tickets go from Singen, Germany to Tirano, Italy. Not sure if its a rule of DB Bahn or SBB or EU, but a paper ticket issued by DB Bahn must be used. I knew that going in, it is described by Seat 61, though he does not let people know, that if you do not receive the ticket, you are in a bit of a bind because they cannot be reprinted.

Posted by
4817 posts

I have the same non printable ticket situation as described by jules m.

For my upcoming trip, I am able to either print or display within the DB Navigator app all of the DB tickets for travel within Germany.

The ticket I purchased on the DB site for cross border travel from Dresden to Wroclaw had to be mailed to me and cannot be reprinted or displayed in the app. I think it is a Polish train, which would explain the lack of online ticketing.

Posted by
19146 posts

If think the problem here is one of unrealistic expectations, not the Bahn's performance. They expect the Bahn to deliver online tickets for virtually every train in Europe; that is not realistic. What you can get, as far as I know, at a Bahn Reiseburo in Germany is printed tickets for almost any train in Europe. Online tickets from the Bahn are more limited.

The Bahn will send you, online, as a .pdf file, ticket for any Bahn train running entirely within Germany, and any single train connection with one terminus in Germany (and the other terminus outside Germany). What they don't usually sell online is a ticket for a train with both ends of it's run outside Germany, even if it is connected to a train with one terminus in German;y. Switzerland, however, seems to have an agreement with German Rail that allows the Bahn to sell tickets that include runs totally within Switzerland as long as they are part of a connection starting or ending in Germany. You can buy online, for instance, a train ticket from Munich to Mürren, CH, even though it includes trains entirely in Switzerland. However, you cannot get an online ticket for Munich to Venice including an Italian train from Verona to Venice.

I don't know of any country's national rail line that sells online tickets for literally anywhere in Europe. That's why Trainline and (groan) RailEurope exist. I would not recommend using those services for tickets that you can get online from the Bahn, but for tickets you can't, those services, and others, have a value.

Posted by
4817 posts

They expect the Bahn to deliver online tickets for virtually every train in Europe; that is not realistic.

I do have high expectations for DB because their system works so well. I purchased as many tickets as I could through DB for the convenience of their online system, and especially their app.

I did not have expectations that they would provide the same service level of online tickets beyond German borders, where they are subject to the systems of the connecting country.

In fact, DB exceeded my personal expectations by having the option to buy the cross-border ticket, mail it to me in the US (for a reasonable fee) and allow me to display the itinerary (though not the ticket) in their DB Navigator app. That saved me having to use less-convenient advance purchase options for Polish railways, which still involve delivery of a physical ticket.

Still, having the "one physical ticket" feels risky, but that is nothing to do with DB and would be no different than buying the ticket directly through Polish Rail services.

Posted by
16660 posts

I don't know what all the fuss is about, but assuming you mean Singen (Hohentwiel), you can buy a print-at-home ticket to Tirano on SBB for 23CHF ( special offer price). I am surprised the Man in Seat 61 does not mention this. Or does he?

Posted by
5900 posts

@Lola, interesting, does that include the Bernina express or could it? I followed the process that Seat 61 describes for the Bernina Express. Ticket options were discussed on this forum in June prior to my purchase of the ticket. Maybe this SBB ticket is new? All I can say is that quite experienced contributors responded to my post and this special offer price was not brought up at that time. I had priced out advance sale tickets of Bernina Express tickets on the SBB site at that time, as well. Also, I think I heard just recently that SBB is now offering some saver prices they hadn't in the past. I find both SBB and DB websites to be quite easy to use. It was just the piece of having the tickets mailed that was problematic, and I knew per Seat 61 that they would be mailed, that wasn't a surprise and a risk that maybe I should have given further consideration. It's all good! So excited for my train trip thru Switzerland.

Posted by
16660 posts

It is a train on the Bernina Pass route ( via Chur and St. Moritz), but I did not confirm that it was the special Bernina Express train.