Train tickets are quirky, there’s no getting away from it. Whether you’re taking the Eurostar from England to France, a sleeper train from London to Scotland or traversing Europe by rail, it can be complicated working out how to book cheap train tickets. The good news is that there are many ways, and there are also some seriously brilliant train experts out there who live and breathe timetables, train tips and tricks. To get some good bargains, however, you need to get a little bit geeky and learn about things like booking horizons and split tickets. It will be worth it, though, if you want to find the best value way to enjoy our many holidays that are accessible by rail. Just think of it as getting in train-ing.
This is the best tip if you want to book cheap train tickets. Get in quick. Train companies (also called train operators or carriers in the transport industry) ‘release’ tickets in phases, and their release day is the best time to grab the goodies. They don’t make it easy for you, sadly, by just letting you book a year in advance. Although Eurostar does generally let you book 330 days (random) ahead. Plus, they all have different policies on releasing their tickets. These advance booking periods are known, in the industry, as booking horizons. Still with us? Stay alert……
A few train companies let you sign up for a ‘booking alert’ email, which is very handy. This means that you can put in details of when and where you want to travel and, if tickets haven’t been released for these dates yet, they will email you as soon as they are. This works pretty well as a system, and we have added links to their booking alert pages in our list of train companies below. If they have them, that is. The same goes for international, English-language train booking platforms, which do a lot of the hard research for you. Scroll down for more details on these.
It’s important to note that if you want to book a return ticket that falls within another booking horizon, you will have to wait to book the return journey. But if this is the case, it’s usually worth buying the journey to get there early and make some seriously good savings.
Leading European train companies
Here are the leading train companies in mainland Europe with links that take you either to their main booking page or to the page that provides details on their ticket release dates.
France: SNCF Connect – tickets are released anywhere between two and nine months, depending on whether they are domestic or international, high-speed (TGV) trains or budget (OUIGO) trains. For more details on their booking alerts, click here – although you need their SNCF Connect app for that.
Germany: Deutsche Bahn (DB) – tickets are released six months in advance. They have two types of fares for their long-distance trains, as opposed to quick regional journeys. These are the more expensive Flexpreis because, the clue’s in the name, they are valid on any train on a certain day. Or their cheaper Sparpreis tickets which have no flexibility at all. You can get some amazing bargains though. In addition, DB often has a summer rail deal in place such as the Deutschlandticket launched in 2023.
Italy: Trenitalia and Italo. Trenitalia is the national operator and the main player, but the more recent privately-run company now offers competitive prices on intercity routes. They both generally release their tickets four months in advance, sometimes six.
The Netherlands: Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS). Tickets are generally released 120 days in advance. You can’t set up a booking alert for their domestic trains, but you can for their international trains if, for example, you wanted to travel from Amsterdam to Berlin. This is a separate website, NS International, and you can book train tickets between 4 to 11 months before the departure date. If the booking horizon hasn’t opened, it gives you the option to request a booking alert. You can also travel between the UK and the Netherlands with Eurostar.
Switzerland: Swiss Federal Railways (SBB in German, CFF in French, FFS in Italian). Look out for their cheap advance-purchase Supersaver fares, for travel on a specific day and time. Tickets for Swiss train tickets are only released 60 days ahead of travel. The international train service between Paris and Switzerland, TGV Lyria, releases tickets six months in advance.
Eurostar: Eurostar is the international service between London and Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, and Lille. You can book up to 330 days in advance and they have a lot of sporadic special offers, but you need to get in quick. The best way to do this is to register and sign up for their emails. Then book as soon as they come out as these seats are hot!
Booking platforms for UK and European tickets
In order to avoid this maze of train operators, you will save a lot of time if you book through one of the best-known international booking platforms, Rail Europe and Trainline. They have all the tickets and times, special offers and experience at joining the dots. Rail Europe allows you to book from anywhere in the UK to anywhere in the rest of Europe all on one booking, but Trainline only lets you book from London’s Kings Cross International, as this is where the international part of the journey begins. Rail Europe also lets you set up the all-important booking alerts, for when tickets are released. Both charge a booking fee, but they will save you a lot of time.
Rail passes and Interrail tickets in Europe
Many of the train companies above have their own country-wide train passes, such as Swiss Pass and the Deutschlandticket. Always check out their websites for latest passes. Another great value and adventurous option is to just buy an Interrail Pass (aka Eurail Pass if purchased in the USA) and combine a couple of walking tours over a set period of time. And Interrailing has gone multi-generational, with both Senior and Youth Passes available, so jump on board, whatever your age. For example, you could buy a Pass that allows you to travel seven days within one month, anywhere in Europe, meaning that you could do a week of walking in Germany, followed by another week of trekking in Switzerland, with time to spare.
Booking and getting cheap train tickets in the UK
If you thought Europe was tricky when it comes to booking train travel, then the UK is a whole other ballgame due to the number of different train companies. If you are new to train travel in the UK, the easiest way is to book through a booking platform such as Rail Europe or Trainline, as mentioned above. Trainline gives excellent details on the ticket release dates of each UK train operator here, and you can also request a booking alert for their Advance tickets on the same page.
For UK tickets, Trainline’s booking fee is a lot less than Rail Europe’s, the latter focusing mostly on international journeys. If in doubt, just go directly to the UK train company that you need. They often have the best prices and special offers anyway.
Fare types in the UK
There are three types of fares in the UK to get your head around: Anytime, Off-Peak and Advance. They are pretty self-explanatory really. Anytime fares are the most expensive, as they are fully flexible in terms of using them on any train, at any time or on any day and you can even choose a different train operator if there is more than one on your route. Off-Peak fares are valid on any train as long as you are travelling outside peak travel times. Advance fares are the no-frills version of train travel. They are for a specific train time, route and day, and refunds aren’t available. Most train companies lay out their ticket options very clearly when you go to buy, so that you can see which one is the cheapest.
Note that Anytime and Off-Peak fares go on sale 12 weeks before the date of travel but these do cost more. So it’s often worth holding out for the Advance fares which are usually released 8-10 weeks before travel.
Delay Repay refunds
British trains don’t have the best reputation for punctuality. However what they do have, and this can be a big money saver, is a Delay Repay system. If your train is delayed or cancelled you can claim a significant refund. You need to go to the Delay Repay webpage for your particular train company, and make sure that you note the time of arrival of your train, as they will want all those details. Refunds are quick and easy though. Pity it has to exist at all, but it’s better than nothing.
Split tickets in the UK
This is a British eccentricity of train travel really but a great way to get cheaper train tickets. It basically means that you pay for separate legs of a journey between A to B, instead of paying for the route the whole way through. It’s a bit of a loophole, but a totally legal one. The important thing to note with a split ticket is that you don’t have to physically split your journey. You stay on the train. You just have separate tickets. The best place to find these bargains is at the booking platform trainsplit.com, although Trainline will also find you split ticket prices. They mostly apply to long, cross-country journeys.
There is an impressive array of railcards (discount passes) available in the UK, which give up to 34% discount on Anytime, Off-Peak and Advance fares. You don’t have to be resident or a British citizen to apply for a railcard, and you can often save the price of buying it on one journey. For people travelling together in the UK, the Two Together railcard is a very popular one, for example. And there are plenty more available, depending on your age group or access needs. You can also buy a UK national railcard even if you live outside the UK, as long as you meet the criteria required for each railcard.
The train gurus
We take our inspiration from the true loco lovers out there, who live and breathe train travel in the UK and Europe. So, If you don’t know Mark Smith of Seat 61 fame then follow him here, and on his social media channels, as he is a genius at keeping you on track. For example, he has a great page on booking horizons for all European train companies. And for the bible of routes and rolling stock, treat yourself to the book Europe by Rail, as well as the magazine written by the same authors entitled Hidden Europe.
Rail and Sail tickets to Ireland
One of the cheapest ways to travel to Ireland without flying is with Rail and Sail tickets, a combined ferry and train connecting some of the UK’s leading mainline stations to Ireland via UK ferry ports of Holyhead, Fishguard or Cairnryan. Your ticket includes the train, ferry and, in some cases, your onward train journey within Ireland. If you want to book trains within Ireland, see Irish Rail and Translink in Northern Ireland.
The silver lining of train travel booking is that when you finally get to travel, you are in for a treat. As well as being very green, travelling by train is a fantastically laid-back start to your walking or cycling holiday, with no luggage restrictions, no airport hassle and one that takes you into the heart of your walking or cycling terrain. You can see all of our holidays that are reachable by train here, and do also check out our blogs on Walking holidays accessible by train, Best train journeys in Switzerland, French holidays by train and Train offers in Germany.