Traveling by train is one of the great joys of traveling through Europe, but it can quickly become costly. The French TGV, especially, is notoriously pricey, driving many people to railpasses, which offer some respite from the airline-level fares.
Railpasses are great, but there's another way to save big bucks on European trains: by booking individual tickets well in advance, directly through European rail operators' websites. That's right -- you don't have to buy your tickets from a US travel agent like Rail Europe or get them once you've arrived in Europe. With trains in some countries, you can go directly to the national rail operator's website to buy tickets from your home in the US and save big bucks.
You can buy tickets for trains in many countries online, but we'd like to focus on three where you can get especially big discounts: France, Germany and the UK.
All three countries have advance-purchase programs where, if you buy your tickets through the Internet several weeks before traveling, you can get huge discounts and pick your tickets up at a major train station when you arrive in the country in question. For many French and German tickets, you can print them out on your home printer (in the USA) instead of going to the train station to pick them up.
These fares don't require that you live in the country in question, or buy a special rail card. They're available to everyone who wants to book online.
Of course, the super-low fares are usually available only on selected trains, so you'll have to be a bit flexible to get the lowest rates. They generally require advance purchases of at least two weeks -- we suggest buying a month to two months in advance if possible. Like with low airline fares, these super-cheap tickets are usually non-refundable and non-transferrable, and sometimes they're non-changeable too. Keep that in mind when you're checking out the savings -- if your plans change, you might be out the price of your ticket.
How much can you save? We found a first-class, one-way ticket from Paris to Avignon on the TGV, a month in advance of travel, for as little as €55 ($66.56) on voyages-sncf.com. That same ticket cost $155 from Rail Europe.
A second-class, one-way ticket from London to Edinburgh, bought a month in advance, was $185 through Rail Europe, but only £67 ($121.14) through the Great North Eastern Railway website.
And a second-class, one-way ticket from Koln to Berlin, $127 on Rail Europe's site, was €39 ($47.19) directly from Deutsche Bahn's website.
Don't count Rail Europe out entirely -- always compare their fares with the local websites. We found that for many tickets in Spain, for instance, Rail Europe can match or beat Spanish prices. A ticket from Madrid to Seville we checked, for instance, was $84 on both Rail Europe's website and the Spanish railway RENFE's site. And unlike local country websites, they offer helpful, English-speaking agents in the US.
For France, go to www.voyages-sncf.com and click on the little British flag in the lower left hand corner to get their English-language site.
For Germany, go to www.bahn.de and click on "Int. Guests" for the English-language website.
England's a bit more complicated, because there are a slew of private, competing railway companies. First, go to www.rail.co.uk and click on "Timetables on the Net." Enter the details of your journey, and click "Get train times." Then click on the magnifying glass icon over one of the train times. Look who's listed as "Operator" of the train, and write it down.
Now go back to www.rail.co.uk. Click on "Train Operating Companies" and click the logo belonging to your train operator. You'll be shunted to the operator's own website, where you'll be able to buy tickets.