How to travel Europe by train like an expert (2020 Edition)

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So, you want to go traveling in Europe by train?

Europe is a super interesting and attractive continent to travel through and conquering this vast region of land, as Paul Theroux would say it: by Riding the Iron Rooster… It’s just a dream for so many travelers!

Of course, planning the entire thing can be a daunting task. But don’t worry, we’re here to help you out. We got all the information you’re looking for right here, from start to finish!

We did our fair share of planning train trips in Europe and we discovered first hand how much planning there actually is to do.

Before we start planning, it all starts out with a dream. From there, we go and look for inspiration to make sure this tour of Europe by train will become everything we ever dreamed about!

That’s why we decided to update this train guide to Europe!

We updated it with all the valuable information we collected over the years and with this article, we want to offer you an actionable plan, right from the start!

Let’s get you all warmed up and excited to start your journey!

1. Get inspired to travel Europe by train

Inspiration is the start of all great stories, including yours!

You probably already know that Europe is a magnificent and diverse continent, but now you need to decide where exactly you want to go and which ultimate highlights you always dreamed about…

Unless you have loads and loads of time and money, you have to select highlights.

You can either choose to visit tons of cities throughout the continent, or you can decide to visit just one or two (or three) countries and stick with that.

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Is it maybe one of these scenic train rides that appear to have come straight out of a fairy tale (or maybe a Harry Potter movie)?

Or are you daydreaming about cities like Budapest, Vienna, Brussels, …. It could be anything really!

When we’re looking for inspiration for our own travels, we use Pinterest quite often. It’s a visual search engine where you can find some of the coolest ideas!

Here’s a link to our own Pinterest profile. Don’t forget to click ‘Follow’ before venturing off into the realm of visual travel inspiration!

And we got you some extra help:

Inspiration for train journeys in Europe

More inspiration for separate destinations

What to pack for train travel


Pin it!

How to travel Europe by train

2. Write up all the places you want to see

Write up 15 to 20 top places you want to visit when you travel Europe by train

In this round of brainstorming, you don’t have to think too much about where the locations are or if you’ll be able to tie them together.

Later, we’ll be scratching quite a few of these, though.

Now, you should be dreaming and write down everything you could hope for. This way, you can also find out which destinations have a top spot on your personal bucket list!

3. Take a minute to decide on this!

How do you like the itinerary planning so far?

I hope you like it and you can’t wait to continue the planning and defining your itinerary, with all the little details that come with the planning!

If that is the case, you can skip straight to step 4! Keep going 🙂

But of course, there’s a tiny little chance that you find all of this processing overwhelming and scary.

If it is, don’t worry! You’re not alone!

You can always reside to professionals who have done all of this planning before and who have made some amazing train tours through Europe, ready to be used by you!

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Have a look at these pre-made train itineraries in which everything is taken care of: train tickets, hotels, and a nice list of optional activities in each destination!

Otherwise, keep scrolling, savvy traveler!

Scenic Train Rides Europe

4. Define your own plan

Now it’s time to start defining your personal tour of Europe by train!

Let’s get some answers out of the way:

How much time do you have?

It all starts with a time span. How much time can you take off from work or how much free time do you actually have?

What are your travel dates?

When will you be hitting the European rails?

Depending on the season, you might need to reconsider destinations.

Winter is a fabulous time to go traveling in Europe by train, especially if you like the warm and charming Christmas vibe. Most European cities have cozy and fun Christmas markets to attend.

But of course, summer travel in Europe has tons of charms too.

Each season has its advantages and disadvantages and some destinations are better in a particular season.

What’s your budget?

Defining your budget is important, as it might allow you to travel longer, or just the opposite.

Depending on your budget, you can select destinations that are more expensive or cheaper. It’s always an option to travel a little cheaper by using these tricks to save money while traveling.

How many places do you think you can visit with your budget and time frame?

Now that you know how much time you have and what your budget looks like, you can start pushing certain destinations forward or scratch away other places.

5. Write up a raw itinerary

Open up Google maps and try to connect the dots

This is my favorite part! Open up a Google maps tab on your computer and see how far apart your dream destinations actually are.

See if it’s possible to visit all the places you wanted to visit

If you’re anything like us, you probably can’t visit all your desired places!

We’d want to visit Madrid and see the northern lights on a 2-week trip. That is actually possible, but your travel experience might feel a little rushed.

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These are a few tips to see which connections are possible and which are not:

  • keep your travel days short and sweet
  • add maximum 1 complete travel day a week (more than 7 hours of travel)
  • try to overlap large distances with night trains or high-speed trains
  • count at least 1 completely travel free day per destination

Scratch the ones that are less important and keep the ones you’re dying to see

Hopefully, you’ll have a few clusters of destinations that are close together. This way, you can work with a hub from where you visit a few places, then travel to the next hub to visit other places.

Or maybe you want to go city tripping in Europe. If that’s the case, you’re in luck, because all the major cities in Europe are connected by high-speed rail, so you’ll be able to connect the dots at high speed! Or catch a sleeper train and wake up in the next destination.

Any which way you go… chances are real that you have to scratch some difficult to reach or far away destinations.

Find out which city would be a good hub to start from

It’s best to select a hub city to start from. This city doesn’t have to be the same as the one you’re ending your journey.

Your start hub is the place where your airplane will land or a place you can reach easily by train on your own.

After selecting your starting point, you also want to establish your end destination. Will it be the same as your start destination? It’s up to you!

6. Find out what you need to get started

Before starting to book tickets, hotels, flights, … You need to have a quick look at the other requirements for your trip.

Are you allowed to travel to your destination country? Do you need a visa to do so?

Schengen visa

For travel to Europe, you need a Schengen visa. That is: if you’re not a resident of one of the Schengen countries. In order to get your Schengen visa, you need to set a few things straight. These are the requirements for applying for a Schengen visa:

  • Fill in the Schengen visa application form
  • 2 pictures according to the visa requirements
  • Valid travel passport (must be valid until 3 months after leaving the Schengen area)
  • Travel insurance (We’ll get back to that in a minute)
  • Itinerary or proof of exit
  • Booking reservation for your accommodation
  • Proof of financial means
  • Pay the Schengen visa fee
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It’s good to know that you need all of these, so we can take care of all the items in the next few steps.

Travel insurance

As you can read in the bullet list above, you need to get yourself insured before coming to Europe.

In some cases, your local insurance company can take care of your travel insurance.

Otherwise, we recommend the WorldNomads travel insurance, which is one of the best in the world. They have different plans for different types of travelers and you can extend your insurance on the go!

How to buy cheap train tickets in Europe

7. Finalize your exact itinerary with these questions

All right, we already have a pretty neat idea of what your trip is going to look like.

You know what you want. Now it’s time to finalize your plans.

Which hub city did you choose?

What’s your expected day of arrival?

Where will you go next?

How many days do you need for each stop?

Is your end location the same as your start location? It doesn’t have to be!

All right! You got yourself an itinerary!

8. Book your train tickets and flights

Time to start booking tickets!

First, you need to get to your start location, so you might need to book a flight to get there or maybe your start location is right by your house. I don’t know! 🙂

You need to get some tickets and proof of accommodation before you can finalize your Schengen visa. So let’s do it!

Book your flight

In order to find the cheapest flight tickets into Europe, we recommend searching for tickets on Skyscanner.

Book your accommodation for the first night

You probably don’t want to leave your start city right away, so you’ll need a place to sleep.

We recommend using a platform like booking for hotels, but if you want to stick to a tight budget, maybe you should check out Hostelworld or Airbnb.

You can even go Couchsurfing or Housesitting.

Book your train tickets for the first leg of the journey

The best website for booking train tickets in Europe is Omio. You can check it out immediately, or you can read up a bit about how to book train tickets inside Europe.

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Extra tip: some trip might not have an available train line, So there is a slight chance that you have to change your means of travel.

Have a look at the Flixbus website! They offer super cheap bus transportation in Europe.

Keep going

Book your next accommodation and your next train ticket and your next accommodation and so on.

We recommend doing it in this order, because that way, you won’t get surprised by the fact that there might not be an available train.

It might happen that there’s no train for the trip you want to make. Before you start changing the entire plan, have a quick look on the Flixbus website to see if there might be a bus covering the same distance.

Doing it one step at a time gives you a little security about the progress of your trip and it allows for changes along the way.

Us in Gdansk Glowny train station

9. Pack your bags and get ready to go

So!

That went pretty smooth!

If everything went according to plan, you got yourself an itinerary and a full set of wonderful destinations on your list, along with some hotel or hostel reservations, your travel insurance, and a valid Schengen visa!

Time to pack your bags and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime traveling Europe by train!

Make sure you pack the right things for this adventure!

We compiled a complete Interrail packing list along with some valuable tips for packing.

Conclusion – 9 actionable steps to plan your tour of Europe by train!

As you can see, there are quite a few steps to this process, but personally, I like each of these steps. Or maybe not the visa requirements part!

But the planning and investigating the map, …. and finding awesome destinations, and… I could start planning a trip right now 🙂

If the process looks intimidating to you, no worries! You can still have a look at these guided train tours of Europe!

We hope you have the best time when you travel Europe by train.

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What a great overview of the joys and practicalities of train travel in Europe. I love fast speed train travel in particular!

This is an incredibly useful post – I have bookmarked it and I will certainly be using it for my plans! ❤

Thanks for this great post, I wouldn’t know where to start if I was trying to it out on my own. I caught trains in Italy and got in trouble because I accidentally sat in the first class carriage (it looked exactly the same to me!).

Megan Rose

This is a great article, very informative. I live in Spain and we use the Renfe, with the AVE being the highspeed version. It has been such a time and money saver, as cheaper flights for us moving back and forth between Europe and North America always land in Madrid. With the train we can make it to the other cities in no time and way cheaper than the flights!

I think train journeys are simply the best way to travel. Lots of useful information in your post. Will surely check out ‘The man in Seat 61’

I love train travel in Europe and always take a bed for the night trains. Trains in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are interesting./…. best to get drunk on those and hope for the best 😀

Very useful post; I wouldn’t have expected a shower on a train, nor a 3 storey bunk bed! I’ve always liked the idea of inter railing in the summer and your tips are great. Agree that Man in Seat 61 is super useful too.

SherianneKay

I have thought about taking a night train but have not. Not loving the idea of getting out of the top bunk at 3 am for the restroom!

Great information to know. I’ve never done Europe by train, seems like an interesting way to travel. I did the overnight ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm, so this would be a great way to see Europe on a budget.

Train travel is still the best, much better than any other type. I wish for the days of long train voyages across the continent, with steamer trunks and inspector Poirot in the next compartment.

The rail pass looks like a great way to travel. We never did a night train but it looks like it is pretty fun. The top bed looks like ti is pretty high up.

Traveling with trains may be slow sometimes but it has that romantic touch and it is the best way to see the country scenery. Love your post, very informative, thanks!

I loved to travel by train when I was a kid, and it reminds me ever since on those family trips, sleeping on the train and waking up to some place at the seaside or to charming unknown cities. That is probably why I still enjoy traveling by train, even though I don’t do it that often any more. But when I see a post like yours… Oh well, it makes me want to book one first thing! 🙂

What a great rail-connectivity Europe has! I wish if the same would have been scene in the US! I took the AMTRAK few years back when I was traveling from Niagara to NYC!

Being originally from the Netherlands I did quite a few train trips through Europe, but one on our bucket list is definitely Euro Tripping by train. I think travelling by train is just a very relaxed way to travel.

We were thinking about a road trip through Europe, but maybe we should consider a rail trip instead. Europe is indeed known for its extensive rail network, so maybe it’s silly not to use it? We do travel regularly by train in Belgium: we used to travel to Leuven every week to study and now we’re often going to the airport by train, or maybe to Antwerp or the coast. We did travel to London by train once and are heading to Paris by train in a couple of weeks!

This post made me nostalgic! So many great tips and resources too! Thank you for sharing!

Inge and Lobke

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