Ditch the plane, and travel Europe by rail. This guide to key international rail services in Europe will help you plan your trip with ease.

Many of us are looking to reduce the number of flights we take each year to help the environment. Thankfully, there are many ways to travel low-carbon. You can holiday at home or opt for camping trips. However, you don’t have to ditch trips to the continent. One great way sustainable way is to travel by train.

If you are looking to travel Europe by rail this summer then take note – Lonely Planet has recently published Lonely Planet’s Guide to Train Travel in Europe.

Whether you want to travel leisurely via the scenic route or head straight to your destination in the quickest possible time, Lonely Planet’s experts show you how to plan your journey. This covers everything from how to plan a long-distance trip, right through to the must-see stops and best ways to book value-for-money tickets.

And to help kickstart your trip, Lonely Planet has kindly let me publish this excerpt on the key rail services you need to know to help plan your trip. Get planning!


International trains are an unquestionably exciting part of the European travel scene. There’s no shortage of ways to cross borders on steel wheels to move between the patchwork of nations that makes up the
continent, from multi-day sleeper trains to glamorous high-speed expresses to regional curiosities. These services will be the backbone of any Europe-spanning rail itinerary.

Key International Services To Travel Europe By Rail

Image of a train crossing through a mountainous region, with a blue text box that says everything you need to know about travelling Europe by rail.

Several rail companies operate international routes across various European regions. These services often connect with other key international and domestic services at key hub stations and generally must be booked in advance. Services are well-used by leisure and business travellers so expect trains to
be busy during peak hours and at popular holiday times.

Thalys

Thalys is a high-speed service owned by SNCF and SNCB (respectively the French and Belgian state railways). It serves France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, connecting Paris, Brussels,
Amsterdam, Cologne, Dortmund, and points in between. It only stops at major cities, guaranteeing fast journey times, and connects conveniently (if tightly) with Eurostar services, meaning it’s heavily used
by business travellers and tourists. Thalys also offers a low-cost brand only operating between Paris and Brussels, IZY. Summer services extend to Avignon and Marseille.

The Thalys Neige ski train reaches French Alpine winter sports destinations including Chambéry and Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

Classes & reservations

There are three classes on Thalys trains: Standard; Comfort; Premium. All come with free wifi. Light meals are served at-seat in Premier class and are included in the ticket price. Reservations are required for all services.

Good to know

While there’s no specific security when boarding Thalys trains in Germany and the Netherlands, extra time should be factored in if travelling through Paris and Lille to put luggage through x-ray machines, and for
potential security checks in Brussels.

Resources

Thalys.com is the main booking site, though booking Thalys connections is possible through partners such as SNCF, Eurostar, Rail Europe, and Trainline.

Eurostar

Eurostar connects London’s St Pancras International with Lille, Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam. These distinctive blue and yellow trains use the HS1 high-speed line between London and the Channel Tunnel on the UK side. Once in continental Europe, they make use of the LGV Nord high-speed line (which also carries Thalys services) between Paris, Calais, Lille, and Brussels. A winter ski train follows the Thalys Neige path into the Alps, while summer services have in the past offered a direct connection to destinations in
the south of France including Lyon, Avignon, and Marseilles.

Classes & reservations

Eurostar offers Standard, Standard Premier, and Business Premier seating. Bookings generally open 180 days in advance of the date of travel – sooner than potential onward services, so consider waiting if you’re looking to connect onwards via Paris or Brussels.

Good to know

Eurostar recommends checking in 45-60 minutes before departure. Ticket inspection, luggage x-ray, and passport checks for both the UK and France are undertaken before departure.

Resources

Eurostar.com has bookings and destination info and also offers ticket-plus-hotel deals
that can offer good value for short breaks.

Nightjet

A train in Norway

The flagship sleeper train brand of ÖBB (Austrian Railways), Nightjet comprises the bulk of Europe’s night-train services. Radiating in all directions from Vienna and Salzburg, routes reach Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands. Sleeper services run by operators in neighbouring countries reach Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, and Ukraine from Austria. As they’re not run by Nightjet expect different, mostly older sleeping cars.

Classes & reservations

There are three classes of Nightjet services: a seat in a compartment; a 4-6 berth couchette; and economy or deluxe sleeper accommodation in single, double- or triple-occupancy cabins.

Deluxe berths come with a toilet and shower. Note that solo travellers will, in all cases apart from designated single cabins, share with other travellers of the same gender. Booking in advance is
highly recommended, and compulsory in Germany and Italy.

Good to know

It’s a good idea to build plenty of time for onward connections into an itinerary containing any night trains – 90 minutes is sensible. Nightjet tickets go on sale 180 days before departure.

Resources

Nightjet.com has bookings through ÖBB, which allows for combined Nightjet and day train connections to a wide range of destinations, plus more details of on-board services.

IC/EC

Many cross-border routes in Europe are denoted as IC (InterCity) or EC (EuroCity) trains, such as the Berlin–Warsaw, and Zürich–Bologna services. They offer comfortable and frequent, if slower, services than branded high-speed fast trains – think of these as express services that would have been the fastest trains
in operation before high-speed services became commonplace.

Classes & reservations

Generally, two classes (marked 1 and 2) are available throughout. Reservations are sensible for longer journeys and in some countries, such as Italy, are obligatory.

Good to know

If you’re hankering after an old-school European rail experience, compartment seating for six passengers with a sliding door on a corridor can still be found on many InterCity services.

Resources

Domestic websites for your starting point are the best place to start, though InterCity trains are often bookable via international ticket sites.

Regional Services

Few regional or local services run internationally, but many run right up to border stations, such as the scenic Jesenice to Nova Gorica line in Slovenia, which runs to the Italian frontier, and those terminating
at Latour-de-Carol from both the French and Spanish sides of the border. Regional services are differently named in various countries – see the national rail services section for details.

Classes & reservations

Many trains offer first (marked as 1 on the carriage or seating area) and standard class (2) seating, though smaller services may only have standard class. With few exceptions, regional trains are turn-up-and-go, so there are no reservations.

Good to know

On regional trains in many countries, you need to validate your ticket by stamping it in a machine on platforms before boarding.

Resources

As with InterCity services, domestic websites from your starting point are the best place to start for times and tickets, though buying at the station is the norm.

This excerpt has been reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet © 2022.

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